I debated whether or not to post this, but decided to do so just in case it ever gets lost from the LJ archives. This is my original text for my Best E-Originals 2016 column for Library Journal. Up until this year, it has been posted as a separate column, but this year my picks were gathered in with all the other picks from LJ’s genre fiction reviewers, and split between the top 5 and the rest of the list. So here’s the original, in its unedited entirety, for my own archives. And hopefully for your reading pleasure, or for additional books added to your own towering TBR pile.
Best Books 2016: E-Originals
It’s that time again. Time for the best books of the year lists. For the fifth year in a row, I am pleased to add my Best E-Originals to the throng. In the early days of this list, back in 2012, it was all romance. And while romance is still a big part of ebook-only and ebook-mostly publishing, every genre now has its share of excellent books published in e first or only. As more publishers create ebook-specific imprints and more established authors take advantage of the possibility of being hybrid authors, this trend can only continue. I’m looking forward to more great books and more expanded possibilities every year.
Cato, Beth. Final Flight. Harper Voyager Impulse (Clockwork Dagger #2.6) ebk. ISBN 9780062411280. $0.99 FANTASY
Set in the world of the author’s award winning Clockwork Dagger series, this steampunk adventure is a tightly packed little story with a surprising emotional punch. It is a story about the costs and horrors of war, set in an insular and isolated setting. A ship’s captain is commandeered by his government to conduct a dangerous mission. As the journey continues, he comes to the realization that the cause he has sworn his life to is not just, and that his government is using nefarious means to produce unspeakable ends. Instead of blindly following orders to the ultimate death of his ship and crew, he discovers that if they band together, they can strike a blow for what is good and right, and possibly snatch a sliver of hope for freedom. In a well-drawn fantasy setting, this story strikes a surprising and poignant parallel to the journey of United Flight 93 on September 11.
Draven, Grace and Kennedy, Jeffe. For Crown and Kingdom. Self-published. Ebk. ISBN 9781533742049 $3.99 FANTASY ROMANCE
This duology contains fantasy novellas by Draven and Kennedy, both centered around the theme of the high cost of being a ruler, and accepting that no gift comes without a terrible cost. In Kennedy’s story, The Crown of the Queen, we have a story that serves as a bridge between the fight for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms that has covered her previous three books, and the story of the world that will be built because of that victory. So here we have the story of a young woman who must rule because she is needed, and must accept that the cost of her victory was the death of the mad king who came before her, a man who was also her father. It is also the story of the librarian who comes out of the shadows to force the queen she has spent her life making to do what must be done for the good of the kingdom. Draven’s story, The Undying King, feels like a myth of a time long gone. An immortal king has exiled himself to a ghost city. He is discovered by a cursed woman who needs his powers as much as he needs someone to rescue him from his loneliness. A man cursed to eternal life falls in love with a woman who has been cursed with death. Everyone that Imogen touches dies, except Cededa who cannot die. They are perfect for each other – until the world intervenes and tries to tear them apart.
Ford, Rhys. Mad Lizard Mambo (Kai Gracen #2). DSP Publications. Ebk. ISBN 9781634777445 $5.99 M/M URBAN FANTASY
In my second Best Ebook column, all the way back in 2013, I included the first book in the Kai Gracen series, hoping against hope that the author would return to this world. At the time, Kai was a labor of self-published love on the part of the author, so the future was uncertain. Here we finally have the second book of Kai’s adventures, and it is every bit as good as the first. Kai is an elf and a licensed bounty hunter in the very dystopian future that has resulted when the secret worlds of the fae and the sidhe, the Underworld of Celtic mythology, crashed into 21st century Earth with disastrous results. Kai, an outcast who is not part of either the fae world he was born to or the human world, hunts and kills the strange and deadly creatures that now roam the wild spaces of this new world, like the dragons flying over the Mojave Desert. But Kai has also spent his life as a pawn on both sides of the divide, and he finds himself forced on a dangerous quest to uncharted lands to protect his friends and perhaps find out a bit more of who he really is and why he was created. The danger is deadly and the worldbuilding here is utterly absorbing.
This contemporary western romance is also a military romance, as the hero has come home at the end of his second deployment under orders to deal with his emotional baggage before he even thinks of signing up for a third hitch. Although there’s some mention of PTSD, most of what Colt Ewing is carrying around in his emotional duffle bag goes back to his childhood with his abusive, alcoholic uncle. The story is all Colt’s, as he learns that he isn’t defined by his past, and that he has a future if only he’s willing to reach for it – along with the woman and her son who make him realize that he deserves his own happily ever after.
Kennedy, Jeffe. Lonen’s War (Sorcerous Moons, Bk. 1)
Kennedy, Jeffe. Oria’s Gambit (Sorcerous Moons, Bk. 2)
Kennedy, Jeffe. The Tides of Bara (Sorcerous Moons, Bk. 3)
Ea. vol: Brightlynx Publishing. $2.99. FANTASY ROMANCE
The first three books of this projected four-book series wrap an epic fantasy around a romance that feels like it will be one for the ages. Lonen and Oria first meet across a bloody battlefield, as Lonen has just conquered Oria’s kingdom. But Oria is merely a princess, and as soon as Lonen leaves her country, the powers that be overturn the peace that Oria brokered. Lonen returns to avenge the betrayal, only to discover that Oria is not the author of it, but is the hope of salvation for his people. And possibly hers. This fantasy story points out that just as handsome is as handsome does, barbarism is as barbarism does, and Oria’s supposedly civilized people are much more barbarous than his in all the ways that count. Their willingness to grab power at any cost to maintain their corrupt hegemony has made them an enemy that must be conquered at all costs if the world is to survive. Lonen and Oria’s marriage of convenience turns into a marriage of passion as she breaks out of the chains her people bound her in to become the queen and savior that she was meant to be.
Just like the other LJ Starred Review in this list, this book is memorable because it is just a bit different. The heroine is about to become a single mother, pregnant and perfectly content to raise her child on her own. The hero has just gotten divorced, and needs to spend every waking hour saving his failing business. Neither of them trusts that other people will be there for them, and with good reason. But the heart wants what the heart wants. Neither of these people are looking for a happily ever after – more like the reverse. They both expect to be alone and prefer it that way. This is a story about love as a compromise, where they each get just enough of what they need to cobble a relationship together.
What makes this lovely contemporary romance stand out is the way that it realistically explores a theme that is more often tittered at than done well. Jillian Grant is a 42-year-old widow and romance novelist. She is dealing with the grief and guilt of her past by fictionalizing it into her romance writing. When she first meets 24-year-old Raine MacDonald, she is struck by his strong resemblance to the hero of her work-in-progress, who is himself a stand-in for her first love. Their age difference keeps Jillian from believing that Raine could possibly be interested in her, but tragedy in his past has made him grow up earlier than is usual. She is just what he never realized he was looking for, if they can both figure out whether the man Jillian has fallen for is the man that Raine is, or the one he looks like. For readers who enjoy older woman/younger man romances, this is one of the few that deals realistically with both the joys and the issues that inevitably arise..
This is a story that works well on multiple levels. It is both a romance between two contemporary characters who identify as genderqueer, and an exploration into the past, through a photograph that seems to portray long-lost family members who were just like the contemporary couple, and whose existence has been, not merely shrouded in mystery, but deliberately locked away. So when Wyatt brings the old photo to the local historical society, it presents Grayson with a puzzle he can’t wait to solve. And as these two trans characters being to explore a relationship, they also explore the buried past. And deal with the difficult present, as both are estranged from their families as a result of their gender identities. Well-crafted stories with transgender characters are a bit scarce, but this one seems to have hit that difficult mark.
This is a fantasy where political skullduggery plays an important role both in getting the hero and heroine together and in showing the number of ways that the heroine subverts stereotypes, both among her own people and for the reader. The Emperor holds a contest that seems to be not dissimilar to the reality TV show The Bachelor, where every noble family in the empire is expected to send a daughter to compete to become Empress. They are hostages for their family’s good behavior, but don’t realize that. Except for the warrior Evony of Aureline, whose people are considered barely civilized, but are unquestionably loyal to the throne. The Amazon Evony is looking for a man to sire a child, as all the women in her tribe have done. The Emperor discovers that Evony is the only one standing between him and certain death. That they discover that they love each other is a problem that neither of them ever expected. This is Smith’s debut novel. She won the Grand Prize in Harlequin’s 2015 So You Think You Can Write Contest, and they were absolutely right. She can.
Pets in Space by S.E. Smith, Susan Grant, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Alexis Glynn Latner, Lea Kirk, Carysa Locke. Cats, Dogs and Other Worldly Creatures Books. Oct. 2016. 566p. Ebk. ISBN 9781942583400. $3.99. SCIENCE FICTION ROMANCE
This is a tremendously fun collection of novellas that all feature pets who travel the galaxies, along with their humans. The settings range from an intergalactic cruise liner to a canine cyborg from outer space looking for a pack of his own here on Earth. While some of the stories feature the earth-typical cats and dogs, admittedly with some extra-terrestrial powers, not all the pets are familiar. Or even biological. One story features a komodo dragon, who is hiding his identity as a real dragon. One young engineer on a generation ship has turned his miniaturized robot drones into a family of pets. And one young explorer has adopted a bunch of electrical sparks called a telfer. But in each story, the humans and their otherworldly pets save the day, generate more than a few laughs, and find their happily ever after among the stars.
A Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson
Ea. story: William Morrow. $0.99 HISTORICAL FICTION
E-book publishing makes many things possible, or at least reasonable, than was true in the days of print-only publishing. So it is with A Fall of Poppies, a beautiful and heartbreaking collection of stories set on November 11, 1918, the day that formally ended the Great War, World War I. The stories in this collection focus on that singular moment when the war ended and the survivors had to face the wreckage left behind and figure out how to pick up the pieces, or even what pieces to pick up. As a collection, different stories will speak to different readers, although they all serve their theme well. The collection as a whole is available in both paperback and ebook. But one of the lovely things that ebook publishing has made possible is the commercial viability of publishing short stories and novellas as single titles. All of the stories in this collection are available individually as ebooks. So readers can choose to purchase their favorite authors, or the stories that have been most recommended to them, without having to purchase, or feel obligated to read, the entire collection.