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The Best Fantasy Books of 2016 – The Year in Review

By / January 11, 2017 / no comments

2016 has come and gone and the 2017 year is upon us. This list is a few weeks late, but better late than never.

Overall, 2016 has been a decent year of good fantasy releases, though by no means exceptional compared to some of the previous years.

There were a few highlights and a few lowlights, but the vast majority of the fantasy I read over the 2016 period were squarely in the middle range of good – not bad, but not that good either.

Many of the books I read this year were sequels. It seems to me that most fantasy being released is a series, not a stand-alone. This means there’s an ever-expanding number of series. Which means that with each year, much of the fantasy books released are going to be sequels. 

What Else?

It was another year with Martin still not releasing Winds of Winter, which I think most fantasy fans will agree, is no big surprise. Rothfuss’ sequel never did come out and Scott Lynch’s promised Thorn of Emberlain was never published. Perhaps the most surprising was the no show from Robin Hobb who has been pretty good about publishing a new Fitz book every year.

Sanderson, typical form, released about a thousand new books. And we saw the rise of some talented debut fantasy authors to keep an eye on

In other news, indie fantasy is a real ‘thing’ now (it has been so for several years by now) and I believe overtaking the traditional publishing market. I’ve even gotten with the program and cooked up a best indie fantasy books list over the 2016 year.

Some of the indie fantasy authors are earning far more than their traditionally published counterparts. It also means we are getting a lot more SFF books released with the floodgates now open wide for just about anyone who fancies feels they have a book in them.

Most indie fantasy (and I’ve read a fair bit by now), is pretty bad, some mediocre. But if you dig down deep, there are more than a few diamonds in the rough, and even a few polished diamonds.

It’s Hard to Give a List of the Best Fantasy in Such a Broad Genre

Now whenever I cough up a list, there’s always a number of people leaving some negative comments. Mainly that I’ve left out X author and my opinion is crap.

But the problem here is that ‘fantasy’ is such an inclusive genre that it’s hard to say where it begins and where it ends. You can include practically anything and everything into it, even some exotic non-standard fantasy stories.

A post-apocalyptic world where science allows magic-like abilities? Fantasy! A story set in the modern world with a hint of magic possibility? Fantasy! A story where the characters travel to another dimension in which magic works? Fantasy!

So practically any story where there’s something beyond the normal happening can be a fantasy book.

This means that it’s impossible to cover every subgenre in a list of the best ‘fantasy’ books.

The fantasy genre is so broad these days that you could arguably divide it up into completely different genres at this point, with each subgenre having it’s own set of readers who rarely read outside of it.

For example, there’s a lot of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance out there with many readers who never cross over into the other subgenres. I myself rarely read books from these subgenres.

Then of course there’s the vast ocean of Indie Fantasy, so vast in fact that it’s impossible to navigate those waters on your own. I’ve read a decent amount (most of it crap) but there’s probably thousands of indie fantasy books I’ve not yet read.

And finally, there are the critic-friendly fantasy books, usually slipstream or magic realism books. Books that try to highlight ideas or themes in some exploratory way. You’ll find these books on many of the common critic lists (NPR, New York Times, Editor’s Picks, etc) but many of the genre readers probably won’t have read them as they usually are marketed to the more mainstream reader.

The hardcore fantasy readers usually stick to epic fantasy, grimdark, urban fantasy or some variation of these genres. My list has drawn mainly from these subgenres, though I do try and include some non-standard fantasy.

But as such, this is a very subjective list here.

It’s MY opinion (with the help of my faithful sidekick, Jon Snow and some of our forum members).

If you want a more scientifically justifiable version, you can check out the main site’s Best Fantasy Books of 2016 version which has a crowd version of my own picks and ranked as such.

Top 34 Best Fantasy Reads of 2016

Below, I list my top picks for the best 34 fantasy reads of 2016. I’ve also listed at the very end of the list, a handful of the fantasy books that, for me at least, were disappointing reads.

#1 Morning Star by Pierce Brown

Solidly in the science fiction sphere yet nevertheless this ‘science fantasy’ can still be tacked onto a fantasy list. And you’ll probably find it somewhere on most 2016 best-of lists on the web.

Mars is all the rage these days and it’s somewhat fitting that this mars-revolutionary series starts on Mars and ultimately ends on mars.

Brown’s remarkable Red Rising trilogy comes to a glorious end in the final book, Morning Star that delivers on all promises and manages to satisfy both hard-core genre fans and a wider, non-genre audience. I expect it’s a given that the series will be picked up by Spielberg or another big-name producer and turned into the next Hunger Games movie franchise or Game of Thrones TV series.

It’s not hard to see why this series has all the makings of a billion dollar blockbuster series. It’s practically made-for-TV with deeply human (and TV-friendly) themes packed between every chapter: friendship, loyalty, love, and betrayal.

And the final book takes everything from the two books and builds on them. It’s a remarkable book that manages to tie up all loose ends while delivering a non-stop spectacle of action, angst, and adventure, also interspersed with moments of poignant sadness. The series as a whole is one of my favorite works and the final book stands as one of the best and certainly most exciting SFF reads of 2016.

Of course, if you’ve already read the previous two books, you’ve probably churned through the final book months ago. But if you haven’t yet, or you have not started Red Rising series, something special waits you.

Apparently, Brown will be continuing on in his fascinating universe with more books in the future.

J –

Morning Star is full of action just like Golden Son is engrossing. The book ends well but the most exciting thing is how the end is set up. I can easily understand why you might want to throw the book away around the 70% mark, but keep reading and you will be surprised. And although this series as a whole is definitely Science Fiction, this series should be read by all fantasy fans as well.

Sneaky –

I’m not into this series for profound insights into the human condition.  I just like the pace and the action and think of it primarily as escapism and entertainment, and Pierce Brown delivered here.  Although the good guys were due to catch a break after the end of Golden Son, I thought they encountered enough serious obstacles to make the plot work, overall.  I also appreciated that we got an actual ending and most loose ends were tied up, but that enough was up in the air to provide the groundwork for another series set in this universe.

 

#2. The Last Mortal Bond

A strong, if bittersweet, conclusion to Brian Staveley’s remarkable trilogy. All threads are wrapped up by the end, all story threads tied off in this startling conclusion.

It’s an ending where everyone pays a price for victory and by final pages, winning and losing are merely two sides of the same coin.

Staveley has managed to do what few fantasy authors have done so far: start and end a trilogy where each book improves on the other. Truth be told, I did like Book 2 a bit better, the concluding novel was nevertheless a strong read in its own right, taking everything from the first two books and building on them and providing the readers with an epic conclusion.

One of the best reads to come out this year and a book that’s not afraid to provide a realistic ending, and not some cheesy everyone walks into the sunset.

People win, but everyone loses.

If you haven’t started this series yet, pick up the first book and know you have two even better books waiting in the wings. And if you’ve read the last volume, make sure you get your hands on the concluding book. You might be disappointed with how the story threads are wrapped up, but you will surely be entertained along the way. Epic fantasy done very right.

Jon Snow –

Staveley’s series The Unhewn Throne is one of the best Epic Fantasy books out there period. It has so many aspects that come together so well. Everything is explained without treating you like an idiot and the characters are all so different and flawed, that it makes for a gripping read. The Last Mortal Bond just keeps doing what Staveley does so well except he ends it well too! One of the favourite parts of this series is that communication isn’t instant, that it does take time and that within that time, things can go wrong and skew what the original character initially set off to do. A must read series.

TomTB –

A disappointing end to what transpired to be a disappointing series.

 

#3 The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

The concluding book in the Red Queen’s War trilogy, Lawrence’s new series set in the same world as his Broken Empire books.

This time around, Jorg and Snorrie are in hell, literally.

While the Red Queen’s War series never struck the same chord in me as the original Broken Empire books, the books are still top-shelf reads. While each series features a protagonist prince, Lawrence goes to great length to make each a completely different character. While Prince Jorg is brooding and melancholy and a bit spiteful, Prince Jarl (protagonist of Red Queen’s War) is foolish and cowardly. Both princes evolve into different characters by the end of it.

Perhaps the Red Queen’s War books have a more stark transformation of character with Prince Jarl, whose surface qualities are proven just that: a veneer hiding the hero beneath.

While the cowardly prince conceit is quite humorous at the beginning of the series, the schtick gets old after the prince repeats the same old routine from encounter to encounter: run like hell at first, regret his initial reaction, then reluctantly return to kick ass, proving he’s ultimately a secret hero.

One area I was impressed with was Lawrence’s ability to seamlessly weave together science fiction and fantasy, providing a very compelling explanation for the fantasy elements through a scientific perspective. It was well done and completely ties together the two genres in a believable and quite thought provoking manner.

Overall, a strong conclusion to a strong series. Like all of Lawrence’s’ work, this is more than merely a fantasy tale. It explores, through a future post apocalyptic setting the relationship between myth and humanity, specifically how people define myths and how myths also, in turn, come to define the people who have created them.  One the human level, it explores how actions, not words, define what it really means to be a hero. 

A strong book and, despite the slow first book, one of the better fantasy stories out there.

 

#4 The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The sequel to the Grace of Kings, one of our favorite books of 2015. And it’s even better in every way: more complex, more action, more character-driven, and just as big clocking in at over 800 pages.

If you enjoyed Grace of Kings, this is more of the same, but with the dial turned up to 11. Those who had some complaints with the first book (the characters and pacing mainly) will find this novel fixes just about everything.

Ken Liu is having something of a moment right now. His translation of The Three-Body Problem won the great SF Nebula Award. The Grace of Kings won the Locus award for Best First Novel and was named NPR’s best book of 2015. I won’t go on to list Liu’s other great accomplishments both as a writer and translator, but the man is supremely talented, one of the most talented writers, I daresay in the fantasy genre right now.

Wall of Storms, book two of the Dandelion Dynasty, delivers.This Chinese-influenced steampunk meets epic fantasy tells something wonderfully distinct from anything else you might have read.

This Chinese-influenced steampunk meets epic fantasy tells something wonderfully distinct from anything else you might have read before — a fresh take on epic fantasy, as seen through the lens of a Chinese-inspired worldview. If you are used to the strictly western-influenced epic fantasy that makes up about 99.9 percent of the genre, you are in for a treat.

Those of you are used to the strictly western-influenced epic fantasy that makes up about 99.9 percent of the genre, you are in for a real treat here.

It’s a book packed to the brim with complex characters, challenging situations, betrayals, loyalty, plot twists, carefully drawn antagonists, world-shaking events, set in an opaque and majestic Chinese-inspired milieu and told through Liu’s wonderfully written prose.

Definitely one of the best books to come out this year by one of the most talented fantasy writers of our generation.

Don’t ignore this series — start the first book and know the second book is even better.

 

#5. Chains of the Heretic by Jeff Salyards

Salyards, still relatively unknown in the fantasy world, concludes one of the best military fantasy trilogies in Chains of the Heretic.

This series has everything you want: humor, strong characters, relentless action, and epic plot, loyalty, treachery, love, loss, and everything in between.

Chains of the Heretic definitely concludes the trilogy, showing that you don’t need to kill too many unnecessary trees to tell a strong-as-steel fantasy tale.

Salyards packs a LOT of goodness into three books without every dragging you along with unnecessary detail or plot threads. The writing is tight, polished, and at times, quite sarcastic.

If you start ONE new series this year, give Salyards’ remarkable Blood Sounder’s Arc a read — you won’t regret it.

Is there a perfect military fantasy series? There are certainly some very strong entries to choose from: The Black Company, Mazalan Book of the Fallen, The Broken Empire. However, Salyards work stands just as tall as these other greats.

Make sure you read it.

 

#6. Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay is one of those masterful writers whose average book are better than most ‘good’ fantasy novels.

However, Kay has been on a roll the past couple years with his outstanding Alternative-Chinese fantasy duology, now followed be a return to an alternate-European renaissance era — a period that Kay has written some of his best books in.

Kay takes a different approach than his usual, opting for a scattershot coverage of different characters who’s lives, inexplicably intertwine throughout the book. And while the narrative focus does rest on a few core characters, Kay is an author who can make even his secondary characters shine.

This is a work that requires an initial bit of patience (which is expected with virtually every Kay work) when starting as Kay does not rush things. But stick with things and a remarkable, poignant story will unfold.

Children of Earth and Sky is, arguably one of his best works ever further proving Kay is at the top of his game — better even.

Children of Earth and Sky, while a different sort of tale than previous works, has faint echoes of the Sarantine Mosaic and I daresay, it’s probably his strongest work the past decade or more, rivaling his best. 

To NOT read this masterpiece would be a tragedy indeed.

 

#7. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett impresses every time with his magnificent tales. His last year’s City of Stairs was one of the most impressive fantasy books of 2015 and Bennett continues in the same vein with his more subdued, yet just-as-strong sequel, City of Blades.

While the book is not quite as exciting as the first book, that’s hardly a negative as the first book was so good. Bennett’s work is thoughtful, poignant and a book you can certainly go back and re-read just to squeeze out more meaning the second time around.

This is a loose sequel and you don’t necessary need to read the first to start the second book. I’m not even sure what order to suggest, though chronologically, the events in the first book do happen first.

This is a strong entry for one of the best fantasy novels of 2016 and for those who love deep, thoughtful, wonderfully written fantasy that puts just as much emphasis on the characters as it does on its unique worldbuilding, City of Blades of a real win.

 

 

#8 The Malice  by Peter Newman

The Vagrant was my favorite book in 2015. The Malice, while going down a slightly different path than the first book, also lives up the to promise of the first.

No other book channels the feeling of the utter desolation of a dilapidated post-apocalyptic world…while also channeling the stirrings of hope as a few band of heroes make their way across the wasteland on a doomed mission.

And Newmans’ minimalistic style of writing adds to the mysterious atmosphere, leading you into the tale gently. It might be a bit off-putting at first, as most writers are verbose, opting to world build by dumping in chunks of exposition, but Newman reveals the world to you as the characters move through the world, rather than telling you. Classic ‘show, don’t tell’ and a style that works beautifully here, especially given the mysterious, desolate landscape the tale is set in.

The Vagrant, and to a lesser degree, The Malice, are a sort of dark fantasy version of Cormac Mccarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road.

It’s dark journey you don’t want to miss — don’t ignore this remarkable work.

 

#9 Dead Man’s Steel by Luke Sculls

Dead Man’s Steel is one of the best fantasy books this year. Sculls has consistently been proving himself one of the reigning masters of grimdark fantasy with his last two books, and the final book pulls out all stops, taking you along for one hell of a rollercoaster of a ride.

Vicious, brutal, wonderfully written and packed full of compelling characters — this is what grimdark is suppose to be.

Dead Man’s Steel is one of my favorite reads this year and a standout example of what makes good grimdark so appealing.

Luke Sculls, which his fantasy series, has just about matched Abercrombie’s best works, but with a unique spin on it.

Don’t miss it, and if you have not started the series yet, you are missing out in a big way: it’s some of the best fantasy this decade. Book 3 does not disappoint.

J –

As a series goes, this one is a fantastic gory ride all the way until the end. Think of this series as a roller coaster ride. As the ride progresses you get more twists and turns, sometimes it comes up and heads back down, but always thrilling. The first book The Grim Company is more in your traditional mold of heroic fantasy, right up there with Gemmell but with a grimdark twist. The Sword of the North starts bringing in a lot more high fantasy elements which was a prelude to Dead Man’s Steel which embodied more epic fantasy elements. You could say that this trilogy has everything that fantasy is. If you have read enough fantasy, you will also notice that Luke Sculls takes parts of other fantasy writers and includes them in his characters. I really felt in certain paragraphs that I was reading Abercrombie (which I love).

 

#10 Down Station by Simon Modern

London, perennially the favorite setting for Urban Fantasy, brings us another tale set in a strange London that’s not London.

Down Station is an interesting alternate world, portal fantasy about a station in London that doesn’t exist, unless you find your way to it. Fleeing a destructive force find their way into Down Station from London Underground. However, by finding their way into Down Station, the survivors find themselves in a strange magical world, a London that’s not, one powered by your very emotions and desires.

It’s a fascinating urban fantasy that pulls you into it from start to finish. Those who want a good adventure yarn full of magic and mystery will love this one. And if portal fantasy (characters finding their way into another world from their own) is your itch, Down Station will surely scratch it for you.

This one gets my vote for the best Urban fantasy of 2016.

 

#11 All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Print

One of those critical favorites that’s made all the critics happy. You’ll probably find this one mentioned on NPR, The Guardian, and other big news publications.

My lists tend to be a bit more everyman, drilling deep into the genre rather than looking at the high brow lit labeled as ‘fantasy’.

However, All the Birds in the Sky is one of the books that touches on many themes while still throwing in both science fiction, fantasy, and science, angst, romance, and friendship into the mix.

It’s a redrawing of the classing boy meets girl tale with the girl a witch and the boy a computer nerd; a fairytale-meets-adventure tale that’s a refreshing and utterly captivating read.

And yes, it’s a great fantasy read, which is why it’s on my list of the best fantasy books of 2016.

 

#12 Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

A fantasy of vast scope and imagination, Everfair is a novel that is sure to be the darling of book critics around the world.

It’s a blend of alternate history and steampunk, set in a neo-victorian world and poses the question: what would have happened had Africa invented steam technology before the West and colonialism never happened.

This one touches on a lot of issues: race, gender, class, colonialism and much more. But beyond exploring these topics, it’s also a grand tale that pulls you in, never losing track of its reader, never trading the story for ideas.

It’s by far the best steampunk (or steampunk of manners) I’ve read this year and a standout debut novel. Shawl has serious talent and I can’t wait to see what else she cooks up.

In a genre packed with trilogies, sagas, and series, Everfair proudly shows it’s possible to begin and end a compelling tale in a single volume.

 

 

#13 A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

I’m a bit late coming to the V.E. Schwab party, having only started the first book A Darker Shade of Magic early 2016.

However, I was impressed with Schwab’s interesting world building, compelling characters, and magic-driven story of parallel worlds.

While I did have some complaints in the first book and the author’s Mary Sue style heroine, the overall world building was fascinating. The interconnection between the different magical kingdoms was quite compelling.

Some strong world building in this one — in fact, one of the more interesting fantasy worlds I’ve encountered in a long while.

The sequel, A Darker Shade of Magic, was a better book and greatly fleshes out the world (and some of the characters).

One of the top new epic fantasy series in my opinion.

Schwab is the real deal and her series is one of my favorite new darlings.

This one definitely has more a YA, romancy feel to it, so those looking for some real down-and-dirty grimdark in the style of Martin, Lawrence, Cook, or Abercrombie might want to look elsewhere for their gritty fix.

Sneaky –

This one was also a bit of a disappointment for me.  I thought A Darker Shade of Magic was great so I jumped immediately into this.  And I was just not so enthusiastic about the magic tournament that takes up the bulk of the book (not in the least because of Lila’s — an inexperienced new magic practitioner’s — role.  All the buildup was like rereading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  I was more interested in Kell’s strained relationship with the royal family and Lila’s mysterious past, and I’m really hoping we’ll get back to those storylines in book 3.

 

#14 Hex by Thomas Olde

I enjoyed this campy horror-fantasy. The premise was compelling.

It had a slightly Stephen King feel to it, at least initially, in the sinister evil masquerading behind the normality of a small town. Overall, the book delivers on its promise keeping you peeled from page to page. Even better, it’s a stand-alone tale that can be easily enjoyed over a few days.

Fans of Stephen King, horror fantasy, or just a campy supernatural thriller will enjoy this one.

J –

While it feels like a horror, the book is more of a  fantasy thriller. A town is cursed with a “witch” and those who live in the town are compelled to stay there forever. The locals do their best to make sure that the ‘world’ don’t know about her and keep folks from staying there permanently or they will be beset by the same curse.

The ending of the book wasn’t the best but right up until then, everything was gripping. I liken it to some Japanese anime, where everything is fine until the villain suddenly turns into a psychopathic blob monster.

Thomas Olde is able to dangle the proverbial carrot in front of your face and keep you turning pages.

 

#15 The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler

Wexler has consistently been able to deliver a captivating and well-told military fantasy tale in his Shadow  Campaigns series, melding military tactics, grand battle, savage sorcery with a multi-book spanning epic fantasy plot.

So far, Wexler’s ‘Guns & Sorcery’ series is one of the best in the genre. Every book keeps pulling you along. With strong writing, an exciting plot, an interesting cast of characters, there’s very little to complain about with this series.

The newest in the series Guns of Empire is one of the stronger books in the series.

Guns of Empire puts the focus back on an underdog marching military campaign, bringing to mind echoes of the first book, though in a winter setting rather than the desert. It’s clear the Wexler tells his strongest tale when focusing on the military life of the march.

As such, this is probably the best book in the series so far with events wrapping up nicely, resolving some of the main plot threads while setting up even bigger things to come in the next book.

If you’ve read the least book, know this book is one of the strongest in the series. And if you haven’t started to series, consider it a must read if you love military fantasy or sword & sorcery (this series is a hybrid of military fantasy, sword & sorcery, and epic fantasy).  

 

#16 Saint’s Blood by Sebastien De Castell

The third book in Sebastien De Castell’s fantastic The Greatcoats series. This is one of the best action-adventure fantasy series out there and this book does not disappoint in any way.

These books are interesting because they perfectly combine different elements: sarcastic humor, unrestrained action, fierce loyalty, and poignant characterization. And of course, the engaging first person voice of Falico keeps you glue to the story, pulling you through the narrative as it happens.

While there are many ‘action’ fantasy books in the genre, few are as character-driven as Sebastien De Castell’s books. The tale is always moving forward at a relentless pace, but at the core, the characters, their deep motivations, are never sacrificed.

This is what makes this series so remarkable. I say they are a bit of a cross between Robin Hobb’s characters, David Gemmell’s heroic action and Scott Lynch’s sarcastic tones.

My only complaint is these books have not yet been released as Audiobooks.

 

#17 Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron

Miles Cameron is writing some of the best epic military fantasy books in the genre right now, having taken up Erikson’s torch and trying to prove he can push into new ground.

What makes Cameron’s work unique is his utter attention to every minutia of medieval life, from the way armor is worn by knights and an army decamps, to the layout of an inn — it’s all there in glorious detail.

Cameron seamlessly combines the macro with the micro, detailing gob-stoppingly massive battles as opposing armies clash while also capturing the intensity of one-on-one combat. I feel Cameron’s best work is when he places a small band of soldiers against inimical forces.

The problem with Plague of Swords is that for most of the book, Cameron is weighed down with endlessness politicking. Mostly, not much happens to push the plot forward until the very end of the book. However, the rather slow pacing is interspersed with some breathtaking battles.

Plague of Sword’s wasn’t the best in the series but it pushes things forwards and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book.

Sneaky –

I’m kind of ambivalent about this book.  Book 1 in the series was so-so for me (I’m not all that into military detail) but books 2 and 3 were better.  This volume, book 4, was a departure from the rest of the series.  There was no chapters-long battle scene to round it out (mostly there were just small skirmishes in the wilderness).  It allowed us to see a side of the main characters that we don’t always see (especially Gabriel, The Red Knight himself) but I honestly found some of the minor characters’ (like Kronmir) chapters more engaging.  I fully believe Cameron will come back strong for book 5, though.

 

#18 The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

Alucard –

Last year I’ve read The Nightwise by R. S. Belcher and that was one of my favorite books of 2015. Really dark urban fantasy that came out of nowhere and totally surpassed my expectations.

This year R. S. Belcher did it again and his new book is every bit of dark urban fantasy goodness as The Nightwise was. I had never heard of this author before, but two books in and I’m a big fan of what he does.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel takes place in the same universe as The Nightwise, featuring a Jimmy Aussapile, a knight templar, who briefly appeared in The Nightwise.

Knights templars are alive and kicking in the form of truckers, bikers and people who generally live on US roads. They deal with supernatural forces trying to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

The plot is linked with the myth of horned god and triple goddesses and Belcher draws expertly on this while making it his own. The writing style is superb and the story draws the reader in. Paying attention to details will make you notice that every POV character has specific sound linked with them, like their own leitmotif. Belcher expertly inserts a song playing in the background as the scenes switch from one character to another. It’s very atmospheric if you play these songs while reading the book.

This is probably the only book that I know of that comes with a “soundtrack”. Brilliant idea on Belcher’s part.

Needless to say, I can’t wait for 2017 sequels or anything by Belcher that comes out.

Sneaky –

R.S. Belcher is a master bullsh*t artist, which I love about his work.  He will be going on about something and have you half-convinced it’s true.  He also does a wonderful job of combining disparate elements into a unified piece of writing (this time, Celtic mythology and creepypasta stories from the internet).  This book is something of a spin-off from Nightwise although I don’t think you have to read Nightwise to read this one.  It’s urban fantasy without all the vampires and fairies and werewolves, it’s bleak and violent, but it’s a lot of fun, the characters are sympathetic, and I hope Belcher turns this into a series.

 

#19 Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

After the disappointing last entry in the series, Sanderson returns to form with a rousing conclusion to the trilogy. Everything you love about Sanderson is present: impressive magical battles, powerful heroes, a well-developed magic system full of new mysteries, and a high-speed plot.

Sanderson tends to be a bit hamfisted with his characters and his romance plots really just need to stop (Sanderson can’t write a decent romance between characters, even with a gun pointed to a head), but if you ignore this, everything else impresses.

The book wraps up the trilogy and sets things up for more books with some interesting hints of where things can and will go in future books.

J-

I love the Mistborn series and I’ve really enjoyed the Wax and Wayne series. I love the fun nature of the books, where Mistborn was much darker and everything seemed like a grind. Sanderson has begun to improve on his characterization, especially when it comes to romance. We can all agree that romance in his books were just atrocious but it is improving!

I know that Sanderson is setting up something big, just like how Mistborn tied up everything. I’m not a person to analyze everything as I go, so it should be a surprise.

Those of you that want something deep and epic, I would steer you towards The Stormlight Archives, but if you want something fun and entertaining while still having that mystery, then I would definitely recommend this series even if you don’t read the Mistborn Trilogy. Start with The Alloy of Law.

Sneaky –

I will admit, I got a little tired of Mistborn by the end of the third volume in that series, and I probably wouldn’t have read this if I didn’t have an ARC.  (I did read the first two Wax and Wayne books immediately prior to picking this up.)  This was fast-paced and fun, if not particularly deep, plus I enjoyed the action scenes and found the end somewhat surprising (in a good way).  I also started to actually quite like Steris as a character by the end of this.

 

#20 A Conspiracy of Ravens, by Lila Bowen

I was a big fan of the first one, which was a sort of more condensed, less epic, YA version of Lies of Locke Lamora. The characters were interesting, the world building was compelling, the setting gritty, and the plot to do the impossible — to rob a magically guarded vault — dragged you along from start to finish.

The sequels takes more of what the first book does and continues on in the same vein. It’s a great read and shows Bowen has hit a winning streak with her novel.

This gets my vote for one of the more entertaining YA fantasy novels this year.

 

#21 Dancer’s Lament by Ian C. Esslemont

This is the second ‘Mazalan’ book to make this list. Most people know Erikson who penned the original Mazalan Book of the Fallen. But the

universe was created (and owned) by two writers: Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erickson.

While the Mazalan has made Erikson a household name in the fantasy genre, Esselmont has mostly been relegated to publishing far-less popular side-novels that flesh out a few of the characters.

With Dancer’s Lament though (first book in a trilogy), Esslemount finally has a worthy epic fantasy you can sink your teeth into. It’s by far his best work, and truth be told, a more entertaining, easier-to-enjoy story than Erikson’s new Kharkanas trilogy.

While Erikson may be the visionary, his plots can become nearly so complex that it’s a chore to read. And his recent series (Kharkanas) squanders a great deal of narrative energy on pointless pontifications unrelated to the actual plot. Esselmont’s new book on the other hand, tells a more approachable story that I feel all but the most hard core fans will find easier to enjoy. Many of your favorite characters from the Mazalan world appear in this book, but in prequel form.

Overall, a strong entry into the Mazalan universe and, I daresay, better than Erikson’s newest work, or at least easier to enjoy without having to pay attention to every single detail.

#22 Those Below by Daniel Polansky

Polansky is one of the finest (and woefully underappreciated) writers in the genre. His Low Town books are something truly special (some of the best gritty underworld fantasy out there) and highly underrated.

Polansky opts to tell a more traditional epic fantasy tale with his The Empty Throne duology. It hits somewhere between an epic fantasy, a military fantasy, a romance, and a tragedy.

Polansky has proven that he writes fiction that blends many genres, refusing to be easily categorized. This is less so with his new series though it’s still difficult to exactly label what these books are. Regardless, they are wonderfully written with some very interesting world building. The characters are strong, though hard to identify with, which is my main complaint.

The closest comparison in scope and feeling this series gives off is something along the lines of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy or Malazan Book of the Fallen by Erikson — both standout military fantasy meets epic fantasy reads.

The Empty Throne books are somewhat in that direction in scope and feeling. A very good read, though quite different than his Low Town books.

 

#23 A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

A YA series that hit a nerve with readers around the world, the An Ember in the Ashes is so far, after book 2, a promising fantasy series.

I enjoyed the first book, though felt it was a good, but not great, book. The sequel is more of the same, though as sequels go, it’s a good one in that it doesn’t drop the ball and bore you.

On a whole, A Torch Against the Night develops the world, and character more fully, opting to flesh out the tale through the antagonists. It’s an adventure yarn, a fantasy tale, a coming of age YA tale, while also posing some interesting philosophical qualities that, through the plot and characters, investigate the damming effects caused by grief and the violence it can perpetuate.

Those looking for a well-written adventure fantasy full of action, romance, and suspense will find this series quite appealing.

 

#24 The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

This book is Jemisin doing what Jemisin does best: crafting a rich, character-driven fantasy set in a grand world of conflict, politicking, and immortal manipulations. If you like Jemisin’s style, there’s nothing you won’t dislike here.

Jemisin really is one of the top female fantasy authors this generation and has managed to brand her own vision of fantasy on the genre: a strong compelling female lead, a cast of odd, mysterious, yet powerful side characters, a mysterious bad boy love interest, and a vividly-realised world. In lesser hands, you could get a typical YA romantic fantasy, yet somehow Jemisin takes these typical elements and weaves them into a story where the sum is greater than any single part.

 

#25 Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

Alucard –

Rating is 8/10.

Abercrombie has proven with this book that he can write short stories as well as full-length novels.

Really great if you get along with Abercrombie’s books. With the exception of few new characters, it’s basically all backstories about the characters you know and love.

Terrible place to start if you’re new to Abercrombie (these are not the short stories where you can dip your toes in to test the water-type of deal). Also if you don’t like Abercrombie, this book will not make you like him better.

Read it if you’re a fan of First Law books. Definitely save it for last if you haven’t read the original trilogy and three stand-alone. Otherwise I’m afraid you won’t get what’s going on 90% of the time.

For readers who have read 6 mentioned books and like Abercrombie, get ready for another enjoyable read.

After this book, I need whole standalone book on Whirrun. Javre can come too.

TomTB –

Abercrombie at his usual high standard – a must for fans of his First Law world

 

#26 The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham

Sneaky –

A few months after finishing this, I kind of can’t decide what I think.  Too many characters survived who probably shouldn’t have, but almost no one had a truly happy ending.  There were some logical inconsistencies in the end with respect to gathering all the spider priests in one place.  I’m wondering if my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the ending is clouding my overall opinion of the book, because I certainly wasn’t tempted to put it down at any point while reading.

 

 

#27 Hope and Red, by Jon Skovron

It’s throwback Thursday with this book which feels like it was either written in the 80’s or is trying to recreate that 80’s fantasy feel. There’s no grittiness to this story, which may or may not be something you like.

Overall, it’s an entertaining read — not fantastic, but not bad. It’s solidly above average. Those looking for a fast-paced adventure yarn spiced up with big battles, an entertaining plot, and some fun characters won’t find this story wanting.

The strong point of this novel is definitely the characters: they are engaging and make you want to keep reading if only to see where the stories goes. The magic system is decent, and the world building strong.

The story (both books) follow the lives of two children whose lives are thrown into chaos by events. Each story thread is followed through their formative years with one child becoming a sort of warrior monk while the other (the boy) learns to be a thief. As such, you have two different stories (and fantasy genres) which keep spicing up the story and you from getting bored.

Good fantasy worth reading.

 

#28 League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

Way, way back when Novik released her first couple books, I knew there was something special about her writing. The story was, up until that point, something quite new.

However, Novik completely dropped the ball after a few books and her writing stalled to the point of mediocrity.

But she seems to have redeemed herself. Her novel Uprooted, proved her critics wrong and was one of the best fantasy books of 2015. And she’s been on something of a roll since then. Her final book in the Temeraire series proves to be one of the strongest ones since the early series. It’s a fitting end and a strong book in a mostly uneven series.

I’m of mind that Novik is best when writing NEW fiction outside of her Dragon fiction (truth be told, the mediocrity of most of the Temeraire books still leave a bad taste in my mouth) as she proved with Uprooted. However, if you have been following the Tereraire series faithful from the start, then you’ll enjoy this strong book and good conclusion to the story.

 

#29 Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

I enjoyed this novel up until about halfway. There was a sense of grand adventure, good world building, and interesting magic. The books starts off feeling like some epic “voyage extraordinaire”  jaunt into the unknown, hearkening back to those old school Lost World books popularized by Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle where a hero sets off into a world forgotten by time.

However, a bit too much is packed into the book and that feeling of mystery and wonder soon dies off about half-way through. However, the book is a good read (if feeling a bit rushed) and style of writing and the world building is quite compelling. As this is the start of a new series, I’m interested to see what the author does next.

However, the book is a good read (if feeling a bit rushed) and style of writing and the world building is quite compelling. As this is the start of a new series, I’m interested to see what the author does next.

Overall, it’s a much better book than the author’s last two book catastrophes. While it’s not anything near his debut brilliance in The Blood Song, it’s better than the two disappointing sequels that failed to reach anywhere close to the author’s first work.

Definitely worth reading, though not as good as it could have been. Book 2 looks promising, but we’ll see if Ryan can deliver — so far, he has a terrible track record for sequels.

 

#30 The Mortal Tally by Sam Sykes

A good sequel to the first book, for those who like intense stories with a lot of darkness to them. It’s packed with plot twists and non-stop action from start to finish. The book raises the stakes established in the first book, and like a high-stakes poker game, the tension drips from every page.

My complaint was the characters tend to make bad decisions and do implacably stupid things to the point where it feels the author is intentionally writing this in if only to ramp up the resulting misery for effect.

So far though both the first and second book have been great reads and this was one of the more entertaining action-orientated fantasy books this year.

 

#31 The Queen of Blood

This one surprised me. I was expecting another angsty YA that carves its own path, distancing itself from the typical destiny of the chosen one fantasy tale. The characters are strong and the author takes the normal gender expectations in the genre and given them a good shakeup.

The Queen of Blood was one of the most refreshing and intriguing fantasy reads of 2016, even more so because I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed. Definitely one of the better books this year.

 

#32 Stranger of Tempest by Tom Lloyd

This one has a distinctly Black Company feel to it, detailing the antics of a mercenary band and the mysterious soldier who is unwittingly forced to join its ranks. Lloyd has been writing fantasy for many years now, but is consistently under-the-radar for most fantasy readers.

I felt his newest series was his strongest work so far. The series is definitely inspired by The Black Company and rings some of the same bells. Those looking for some gritty morally ambiguous military fantasy about gritty mercenary life (from the perspective of as squad), dark magic, mysterious gods will definitely enjoy this one.

 

#33 Fall of Light by Steven Erikson

Those who can’t get enough of Mazalan absolutely need to start on Erikson’s new series, one that’s a prequel to the events.

There’s not much to say here other than if you love the Mazalan books, these are a most read. You get much of the same that you are used too. This is good and bad — good in that the books are packed with huge world-spanning events, powerful characters, and complex plots, but bad in that they are challenging books to read, unfriendly to casual fantasy readers.

But then again, Mazalan was never a series that catered to the fantasy neophyte in the first place.

Fall of Light is the second volume in the series and continues with the story. It’s great reading if you loved the first book though the story becomes derailed at times as Erikson meanders off plot into philosophical, musings that completely break the flow of events.

However, this series (and Mazalan as a whole) are a work that requires your full attention the whole way through. This can be exhausting for some readers.

Recommended, but only for fans of the first series.

 

#34 A Shattered Empire by Mitchell Hogan

I stumbled on this series rather late, having actually started the first book in the series several months ago. The fact that I made it to the third book, released this year, says something.

First the good: the Sorcery Ascendant series is an action-packed epic fantasy that harkens back to some good 90’s style epic fantasy. However, the novel tries to be more gritty than the usual fantasy, throwing in some vicious deaths and a few unexpected plot twists. I wouldn’t define it as gritty fantasy, though.

The magic system is quite strong with the protagonist continually learning how to use his magic. It’s quite detailed with internally consistent rules, bring to mind something similar to The Name of the Wind, or Master of Five Magics.

The plot in all three books continually moves forward at a blistering pace. And there are magical battles aplenty as the protagonist is continually put up against more experienced and powerful foes. As such, the series reads a bit like a power fantasy with a young, inexperienced youth comes into his power from apprentice to master. This brings to mind Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Rayman Fiest’s Magician series.

However, the world building is less developed and the lands and peoples less expansive. The book tries to bring a multi-continent spanning conflict, but mostly centers on only a couple small areas, subverting any grand conflict. Those hoping for a large, multicultural conflict in the vein of The Stormlight Archive or The Wheel of Time will be disappointed; the conflict is much smaller in scale.

Where the novel really suffers though is the characters. They are one-dimensional constructs. The women are inspired ( window dressing,  as a romantic interest, or as evil antagonists). The hero of the tale is a Gary Stu, easily overcoming every problem he faces (usually through some instant magical epiphany).

If you ignore the weak characterization though and just want an action epic fantasy tale with a powerful hero and a coming of age story, the novel is remarkably entertaining.

The final book in the series does a good job at wrapping things. It’s one of the better epic fantasy series I’ve read the past couple years. While the characters are weak and writing is mediocre at best, the plot, the action, and the magic system do compensate. At the end of the day, it’s a good story and well worth the read if you want an entertaining epic fantasy that doesn’t’ try to break new ground.

 

2016 Fantasy Disappointments

There were a few books that disappointed. Overall, 2016 was a bit on the mediocre side when it came to outstanding fantasy releases. There were a few books, however, that were particularly disappointing.

Here’s the books we were expecting more from.

Burned by Benedict Jacka

J –

I’m putting this here because although the story and the writing is fine, I’m disappointed that the story hasn’t moved forward any more. Jacka has developed the universe enough to actually start getting into the nitty gritty of things while still because a fun read. Step it up mate.

 

Ben

A good continuation to the series, but one that does not move the plot forward in anyway significantly. I’m still waiting for real events to finally unfold — it seems all the other books are just building up momentum. It’s still an enjoyable entry to the series, but I’m hoping the author moves things along with the plot in the next book.

Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks

Weeks has created an interesting world and one of the more unique magic systems. In terms of sheer worldbuilding, The Lightbringer series ranks very high. However, Weeks disappoints in his latest novel. Virtually nothing happens the entire book (the same complaint I leveled about the last book in the series too). You could probably skip hundreds of pages and you won’t miss anything significant. It’s only by the very end, to set up the events in the next book, significant things actually happen. The rest of the book, is mostly just characters moving from A to B, or in the case of one of the main characters, sitting around in a dungeon the entire book.

I had a lot of hope for this series, but this four book series has so far disappointed in the last two books, with only the second book really impressing. On the basis of this, I would recommend skipping this series for now. Maybe Weeks can impress with his next in the series, but this book did not.

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

J –

One of the most disappointing books in 2016. With each book the series got worse and the last book, is literally a calamity.

Ben

A horrible book and a sign that Sanderson is just trying to churn out as many books as possible without regards to quality. I generally like Sanderson’s work, but there’s a dip in quality I’m not liking.

The series started out with potential but ended in serious disappointment. Let’s hope the dip in Sanderson’s quality  is because he’s putting everything into his new Stormlight Archive book

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

There’s three things you can expect in this world: death, taxes, a new Rivers of London novel every year.

Aaronovitch has found his niche in the fantasy genre with his River of London stories and has up until this book, consistently puts out quality with each new release. He typically writes the top Police Procedural Urban Fantasy and they are just so damn charming that you can’t put each book down once you start.

However, this book is a bit of a mixed blessing — it’s great to have another Peter novel, but some of the magic that the other books have is just missing in this book. For me, this is the first mark against the author so far. The story is entertaining and the plot moves you forward, but some of the sparkle previous novels had is gone.

If you liked his previous books, this one carries the torch forward, but just barely.

Snakewood by Adrian Selby

The premise was good but the implementation was not. I had high hopes for this one, but after the mess the book becomes halfway through, I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan

Sullivan writes a simple style of fantasy that’s found a home with some readers. Age of Myth returns to the same world popularized in his Riyira in a prequel series (set 3000 years before).

The first new book is decent old school epic fantasy that some might appreciate. However, I found it a bit too simplistic and compared to some of the other fantasy works released, inferior.

Still, if you want old school epic fantasy that’s not stain with grit and one that doesn’t have you thinking too hard, this new series might be for you.

Alucard

Rating is 6/10.

Disclaimer: I’ve only ever read one other book by MJS, and that is The Crown Conspiracy. As a result I am neither a fan or a critic of MJS’s books. But reading Age of Myth as well as The Crown Conspiracy I concluded that he writes lighthearted fantasy, that’s neither original nor groundbreaking. Everything is all very safe.

Age of Myth is a cookie cutter fantasy. Major problems I had with it were sluggish plot and derivative worldbuilding. For example, elves feature as main characters, and there’s nothing that could distinguish them from basic concept of elves. There’s nothing original about them that Sullivan added. He didn’t try to put his spin on this.

There is an overall “The End is Nigh” plot and “evil overlord wants everyone dead”, who actually at one point shouts ‘KILL THEM ALL’. I don’t know how you could be more cliché than that.

On the upside Sullivan managed to include exploration of mother-daughter relationship in more than one instance and with different characters which is something I don’t see in many fantasy novels, so it’s refreshing.

Overall, the book is basically an intro to a five-book series, so it doesn’t go far in terms of plot. Sullivan’s writing style is simplistic and the story is derivative and unoriginal. But if you want something safe and well known, this might not be a bad choice.

The Final Word

So that’s it, our comprehensive summary of 2016’s fantasy. There’s plenty more out there that we might have missed, but given how broad the genre has become, you’ll find most ‘best lists’ tend to reflect a certain segment of the fantasy readership. Our selections cover fantasy books in the popular subgenres (epic fantasy, grimdark, urban fantasy, military fantasy) — if you don’t see your ‘favorite’ read on the book, it’s probably because it’s in one of the genres we haven’t been reading too much from (Paranormal Romance say).

If you feel we’ve missed a book or you have a recommendation, please leave a comment with it!

About the author

Jon Snow

Believe it or not, Jon Snow really got into reading only after reading A Game of Thrones back in 2002. Previously the only fantasy he had read were Lord of the Rings and many Magic: The Gathering books.While juggling teaching life, he tries to keep up with recently published books.

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