11 for 2011: Best reads of the year

2011 is coming to a close. It’s time to pause and reflect on the year that is ending.

There’s a lovely quote from Garrison Keillor, “A book is a present that you can open again and again.” There’s a corollary in this house about “not if the cat is sitting on it” but the principle still applies. The good stories from this year will still be good next year. Some of them may even have sequels!

These were my favorites of the year. At least when I narrow the list down to 11 and only 11. And even then I fudged a bit. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (reviewed 12/1/11). This book had everything it could possibly need. There’s a quest. There’s a love story. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s an homage to videogaming. There are pop-culture references to every cult classic of science fiction and fantasy literature imaginable. There’s an evil empire to be conquered. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Omnitopia: Dawn by Diane Duane (reviewed 4/22/11). On the surface, Omnitopia and Ready Player One have a lot in common. Thankfully, there is more than meets the eye. Omnitopia takes place in the here and now, or very close to it. The world has not yet gone down the dystopian road that Wade and his friends are looking back at in Ready Player One. On the other hand, any resemblance the reader might see between Worlds of Warcraft mixed with Facebook and Omnitopia, or between Omnitopia Corp and Apple, may not entirely be the reader’s imagination. Howsomever, Omnitopia Dawn also has some very neat things to say about artificial intelligence in science fiction. If you liked Ready Player One, just read Omnitopia: Dawn. Now!

The Iron Knight (reviewed 10/26/11) was the book that Julie Kagawa did not intend to write. She was done with Meghan, her story was over. Meghan is the Iron Queen, but what she has achieved is not a traditional happily-ever-after. Victory came at a price. Real victories always do. Meghan’s acceptance of her responsibility means that she must rule alone. Ash is a Winter Prince, and Meghan’s Iron Realm is fatal to his kind. The Iron Knight is Ash’s journey to become human, or at least to obtain a soul, so that he can join his love in her Iron Realm. It is an amazing journey of mythic proportions.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (reviewed 10/18/11) is a story that absolutely shouldn’t work. The fact that it not only works, but works incredibly well, still leaves me gasping in delight. Dearly, Departed is the first, best, and so far only YA post-apocalypse steampunk zombie romance I’ve ever read. I never thought a zombie romance could possible work, period. This one not only works, it’s fun. There’s a sequel coming, Dearly, Beloved. I just wish I knew when.

Debris by Jo Anderton (reviewed 09/29/11) is the first book of The Veiled World Trilogy. It’s also Anderton’s first novel, a fact that absolutely amazed me when I read the book. Debris is science fiction with a fantasy “feel” to it, a book where things that are scientifically based seem magical to most of the population. But the story is about one woman’s fall from grace, and her discovery that her new place in society is where she was meant to be all along.

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (reviewed 09/19/11). If you love mysteries, and you are not familiar with Louise Penny’s work, get thee to a bookstore, or download her first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, Still Life, to your ereader this instant. Louise Penny has been nominated for (and frequently won) just about every mystery award for the books in this series since she started in 2005. Find out why.

I love Sherlock Holmes pastiches. (This is not a digression, I will reach the point). I have read all Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books, some more than once. I almost listed Pirate King (reviewed 9/9/11), this year’s Holmes/Russell book instead of Trick. But Pirate King was froth, and Penny never is. A regular contributor to Letters of Mary, the mailing list for fans of the Holmes/Russell books, recommended the Louise Penny books. I am forever grateful.

The Elantra Series by Michelle Sagara (review forthcoming). I confess I’m 2/3rds of the way through Cast in Ruin right now. I’ve tried describing this series, and the best I can come up with is an urban fantasy series set in a high fantasy world. I absolutely love it. It’s the characters that make this series. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is clearly drawn and their personality is delineated in a way that makes them interesting. There are people you wouldn’t want to meet, but they definitely are distinctive. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in spots, even when it’s very much gallows humor. I’m driving my husband crazy because I keep laughing at the dialog, and I can’t explain what’s so funny. I would love to have drinks with Kaylin. I’d even buy. But the Elantra series is not humor. Like most urban fantasy, it’s very snarky. But the stories themselves have a crime, or now, a very big problem that needs solving, and Kaylin is at the center of it. Whether she wants to be or not.

If you are keeping score somewhere, or just want the reading order, it’s Cast in Moonlight (part of Harvest Moon), Cast in Shadow, Cast in Courtlight, Cast in Secret, Cast in Fury, Cast in Silence, Cast in Chaos, and Cast in Ruin.

The Ancient Blades Trilogy by David Chandler consists of Den of Thieves (reviewed 7/27/11), A Thief in the Night (reviewed 10/7/11) and Honor Among Thieves (reviewed 12/21/11). This was good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery. Which means the so-called hero is the thief and not the knight-errant. And every character you meet has a hidden agenda and that no one, absolutely no one, is any better than they ought to be. But the ending, oh the ending will absolutely leave you stunned.

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher (reviewed 7/29/11) is 2011’s entry in one of my absolute all time favorite series, The Dresden Files. And I saw Jim Butcher in person at one of the Atlanta Barnes & Noble stores. Ghost Story represents a very big change in the Dresden Files universe, where Harry Dresden starts growing into those extremely large boots he’s been stomping around in all these years. If you love urban fantasy, read Dresden.

Turn It Up by Inez Kelley (reviewed 8/10/11 and listed here) is one of the best takes on the “friends into lovers” trope that I have ever read. Period. Also, I’m an absolute sucker for smart people and witty dialogue, and this book is a gem. “Dr. Hot and the Honeypot” pretty much talk each other into a relationship, and into bed, while they give out sassy advice over the airwaves on their very suggestive and extremely successful sexual advice radio show.

My last book is a two-fer. Break Out (reviewed 8/4/11) and Deadly Pursuit (reviewed 12/6/11) by Nina Croft are the first two books in her Blood Hunter series, and I sincerely hope there are more. This is paranormal science fiction romance. Like Dearly, Departed, this concept should not work. But it absolutely does. And it gets better the longer it goes on. If you have an urban fantasy world in the 20th century, what would happen if that alternate history continued into space? Where do the vamps and the werewolves go? They go into space with everyone else, of course. And you end up with Ms. Croft’s Blood Hunter universe, which I loved. But you have to read both books. The first book just isn’t long enough for the world building. The second one rocks.

I stopped at 11 (well 11-ish) because this is the 2011 list. I could have gone on. And on. And on. My best ebook romances list was published on Library Journal earlier in the month. LJ has a ton of other “best” lists for your reading pleasure. Or for the detriment of your TBR pile.

Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves by David Chandler did not have a happy ending. It shouldn’t have. It had the absolutely correct ending. I sat stunned for several minutes after I finished, just gathering myself. Ness was a little more real to me than my own kitchen. Or wherever-the-hell-I-was when I finished. I was emotionally scraped raw by that point. I didn’t want to leave, but it was time for the book to end, for me to leave Ness, and well, anything else would be spoilers.

There is no honor among thieves. That’s what people say. That’s why that phrase has become such a truism, because such honor does not exist. Except that occasionally it does. There is another cliché that may apply here, the one about the exception proving the rule.

Honor Among Thieves is the final book in the Ancient Blades trilogy. In the first book, Den of Thieves, our thief and hero, Malden, snuck into the Free City of Ness like, well, like a thief in the night. In the second book, appropriately titled A Thief in the Night, Malden and his companions, the Knight-Errant Sir Croy, the witch Cythera, the dwarf Slag and the Barbarian Mörget, investigated the demon-lair under the mountains that protected the country of Skrae from the barbarians of the East. Unfortunately, in order to defeat the demon, they blew up the mountain. The whole mountain. Leaving civilized Skrae, including Malden’s home city, ripe for a good old barbarian scourging.

The companions believe that Mörget was trapped and killed in the explosion. He’s actually leading the barbarian horde. Sir Croy is serving the crown, because that’s what Knights always do, whether they think the crown is stupid or crazy or ill-advised or whatever. That leaves Malden and Cythera.

The thief and the witch return to Ness to discover that the rats have deserted the sinking ship. The rich have all left the city. The reasonably well-off or reasonably healthy and idealistic form an “Army of Free Men” under the Burgess, the leading noble. And that leaves the dregs of society. The only healthy people left are the thieves and the prostitutes. Malden’s people. And Cutbill, the head of the underground but extremely influential Thieves’ Guild has left town and left it all to Malden.  As presents go, Malden would rather find the Nessian equivalent of coal in his stocking. He doesn’t want to be in charge. But he knows he has to be.

And when it comes to the choice between saving their city or letting the barbarians run them over and kill them, the supposed dregs of society will band together, and there is honor to be found among thieves.

Escape Rating A: If you love sword and sorcery fantasy, run, don’t walk, to get yourself a copy of Den of Thieves and start reading the Ancient Blades. This is a series where you need to read the whole thing, and you won’t be sorry you did.  This is new-school type sword and sorcery, so the gods don’t intervene the way they used to in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser‘s day. These gods are made in the images of men. I think that just makes their worship more powerful, but also much darker. There are no good choices here, just shades of grey. Anyone who likes Steven Brust’s Jhereg series but wishes it had an actual ending will love Ancient Blades. I know I did.

A Thief in the Night

Sword and sorcery may be the lowest form of fantasy. When it’s a book like A Thief in the Night, by David Chandler, that’s a really, really great thing. Bad boys doing bad things for all the wrong reasons. Sounds like fun because it IS fun!

A Thief in the Night is the second book of The Ancient Blades. If you’re curious about book one, Den of Thieves, read this first. Book three, Honor Among Thieves, will be published in late November, 2011, and I’m very grateful to the publisher and Net Galley for letting me have a review copy. I’d hate to be waiting until after Thanksgiving to see how it all turns out. I dislike “middle-book syndrome” on general principles. Enough said.

When last we left our heroes (I’ve always wanted to write that), they had just removed an evil sorcerer and his corrupted knight from the Free City of Ness. Permanently and with extreme prejudice. Malden, the thief of the title, had also learned more than was good for him about the way the city really works. In Malden’s case, if a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge is downright life-threatening.

Sir Croy, the Ancient Blade, won the freedom of his lady-love, Cythera the witch’s daughter. At the beginning of Thief in the Night, Croy believes they will finally be married. There are a few problems with his plan. Their betrothal signing is interrupted by a bar-room brawl. Started by a Northern Barbarian. One who holds yet another Ancient Blade. Said Barbarian wants Croy to help him hunt down a demon. Croy loves demon hunting even more than he loves Cythera, so Croy leaves the betrothal unsigned to start outfitting the demon hunt. Cythera is just fine with the interruption, because that’s the other problem. Croy thinks she’ll be a good little knight’s wife once their married, and she’s not so sure about that. And anyway, she’s in love with Malden. Oops.

About that demon. The demon is holed up in the Vincularium. For those who read Tolkien, think of it as the Mines of Moria, only with a worse backstory. The dwarves  buried a secret in the Vincularium, one they’ll do anything to keep buried. The humans buried one there too. History is written by the victors, or so it is said. In Malden’s world, where we say, “dead as a doornail”, they say, “dead as an elf”. The Vincularium is where the elves died. All the elves. Betrayed by their dwarven allies and killed by the humans.

But the Ancient Blades are sworn to kill demons. So Croy is going. His new friend Morget the barbarian is going. Cythera says she’s going. No one has signed those betrothal papers yet, so she’s still a free woman. And Malden, our thief–he wasn’t going. No profit in it. But…about those secrets. Someone in Ness wants him dead. Painfully. Sacrificed to the Bloodgod.  Going to the Vincularium suddenly looks like the less painful option. Or at least a delay of the painful option. Delaying death is always good.

Escape Rating A: One of the things I love about sword and sorcery is the way that it turns high fantasy tropes upside down. The central character here is Malden, the thief. He is not a hero, and he doesn’t want to be. He’s a survivor. Croy is a typical hero, and he’s naive to a fault. Malden’s voice is much more fun to listen to, he’s sharper and smarter. Also more of a smart-ass.

Cythera is also a survivor. She was a virtual prisoner for many years. Croy represents safety and security, marrying him is the safe option. He will protect her. But he is incapable of understanding her.  And yes, Malden loves her too.

I enjoyed watching every one of the starting assumptions get knocked down. The demon isn’t exactly a demon. The dwarves aren’t just clever artificers and merchants–they are prevented from being warriors by treaty, and only as long as it suits them.  The elves weren’t the villains that humans have always been taught. “Dead as an elf” isn’t actually correct, either. Dealing with the fallout from that is going to be fun in the next book.



Den of Thieves

Den of Thieves by David Chandler is the first title in The Ancient Blades trilogy. It is also a thoroughly delicious tale in the old school known as sword and sorcery.

As in all the best sword and sorcery stories, our hero is not exactly a hero. To be specific, Malden is a thief. He’s the bastard son of a whore, and thieving was the only profession open to him that allowed him to make a living. But Malden is good at it. And, important for any sword and sorcery hero, or should I say anti-hero, Malden is a survivor.

Malden finds himself on the wrong side of the head of the Thieves’ Guild of Ness. How does he do that? By being a little too good at being a thief, and burgling a house under the Guild’s protection…successfully. But entry into the Guild’s membership costs more than Malden will earn in a lifetime. So, he looks for a way to earn a lifetime’s worth of gold, fast.

In the best, or is that worst, sword and sorcery tradition, Malden gets in over his head. He gets involved in a scheme to steal the crown of the head of state, the Burgrave. His commission comes from a sorceress and a knight carrying an “Ancient Blade” that is called Acidtongue for very good reasons.

But the crown is not just a crown. And the knight is no longer truly a knight. And the sorceress, well she really is a witch, but witches aren’t exactly witches as we know them.

But there is a sorcerer involved, and he wants to bring down the city. And there is another knight involved, an idealistic knight who still believes in his vows, and he wants to rescue the witch. And Malden, he discovers that the hard part isn’t stealing the crown. The really hard part is stealing it back–while playing “keep away” from demons.

Escape Rating A: Sword and sorcery is fun if you like your laughter with a side of gallows humor. Den of Thieves is no exception. Malden is always one step ahead of his doom. Sometimes only a half step, but still ahead. His best hope is win another day. To survive. And he does. Or, at least so far.

Malden’s story continues in A Thief in the Night, which is due out in September. Malden is so good at getting himself into trouble, I can’t wait to see what he does next!