Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Fantasy

So 2015 is officially over. Overall it was a fairly good bag for me. Matt and I got engaged, got a place together, none of my family members died this year compared to the onslaught of funerals I had to attend in 2014, and I feel like I’m in a better place as to where I want to go in my career than I was in the beginning 0f 2015. I don’t really intend to ever make this blog super personal but overall 2015 was pretty good. It had its downs most definitely but the good outweighed the bad in my opinion. And, of course, I read a whole lot of great books this year!

I keep an obnoxiously detailed google spreadsheet on all the books I read in the year and will be compiling the data in a fancy looking infographic later this month (hopefully. I’m not very good with keeping self-imposed deadlines it seems). That being said, I thought I’d take some time to go over what some of my favorite books I read this year were. As opposed to making a single top ten list, I decided to break everything up by top three books of genre, since I’m such a heavy genre fiction reader. And so, I give you my favorite fantasy books I read in 2015!


Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Wizard lawyer necromancers try to sort out the cause behind a dead fire God and partake in magical courtroom battles to defend the church from the prosecutor wizards.

There’s more nuance to the book but that’s been my salespitch to my friends and family when trying to get them to read this book. Three Parts Dead was great. Modern wizard lawyer description aside, do not believe that this book is an urban or otherwise modern fantasy. No, this is still a fantasy world of mythos and magic, where technology doesn’t exist and powerful Gods rule and people can harness magical energy to bring back the dead. The worldbuilding particularly impressed me, staying fairly centralized in the fire and steam powered city of Alt Coulumb, but showing enough of the surrounding world to hint at fascinating adventures in new places in the future. The characters were wonderful and diverse, with our main protagonist being young lawyer associate Tara (a black woman), with side characters ranging from a chain-smoking and nervous priest of the dead God to a smarmy vampire pirate to a drug addicted young woman who allows the consciousness of a former moon goddess to possess her in pursuit of justice to gargoyles. If you like fantasy, I highly recommend checking this book out. I am sure you’ll have an entertaining time.

Poison Study by Maria Synder

Ok, can someone please explain to me why so many people marked this book as YA? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be YA, it just doesn’t strike me as a YA book. Our main character is in her 20s, the other primary characters are also in their 20s or 30s, and we cover fairly dark topics such as abuse both physical and mental (not saying that YA books can’t cover those topics, it just doesn’t mesh here as a YA).

Regardless of the question on whether or not this is YA, Poison Study is a remarkably well written book. Yelena is imprisoned and awaiting her execution for the crime of murdering the son of one of the kingdom’s highest Generals. However, right before her scheduled execution she is given a choice: the commander’s chief poison taster has recently died (3 guesses what the cause was) and the law of the land states that whomever the next person scheduled for execution will be offered the position in replacement of death by hanging. The choice is a complicated one. Her execution will (most likely) be quick and expected. There is no way out of being a poison taster other than a slow, most likely painful, death by poison at an unknown time. Fortunately for the contents of this book, Yelena chooses the poison option. As Yelena begins her dangerous training as a poison taster, learning the different ways to distinguish the telltale signs of oncoming death, she learns more and more about the political struggles of the kingdom, and reveals slowly to the reader a cruel sequence of events that lead to the murder she was imprisoned for.

Yelena was a very well written character. Her relationships with potential allies and enemies evolve and change throughout the course of the book, and the reader is often second guessing along with Yelena on whether or not someone is truly trustworthy. There’s hints of magic here and buildup for future world exploration along with engaging and interesting political intrigue. Definitely a great read for me this year.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch



Now that that’s out of the way, I can get onto the actual contents of this book.

So if you read any of my other two reviews of the earlier Gentlemen Bastard books, you’ll recall that a recurring theme was a near constant flow of praise interjected with a constant refrain of “BUT WHO IS SABETHA????” If you too felt the way I did and was getting slightly fed up about the Sabetha references with no concrete information about her or her existence, you’re in luck! The Republic of Thieves could essentially be re-titled as Everything You Wanted to Know About Sabetha, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Republic of Thieves opens where we left off in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and pretty much immediately fixes all the criticisms I had with the previous book. Bondsmagi threat? You got it. Locke and Jean back in an environment where we can swindle and con and do what the bastards do best? We have swindling out the butt. More elaboration on Locke’s past and true name? Here! Have the aforementioned name along with an entire backstory (although I side with Jean on this one and am not fully buying it as truth). Plus you get pre-Lies backstory with the whole team including Sabetha?? Yes please, count me in!

Sabetha herself was a delight. After so much build up and pedestal throwing that Locke established earlier, I was worried she’d be a manic pixie dream bastard and only exist for Locke. But she’s a strong character in every sense of that word. She has her own aspirations, own set of morals, own wants and fears. Lynch wrote her with flaws and they’re actual flaws that counter Locke’s own flaws nicely. The two of them are near equally skilled but are both their own people, allowing themselves to exist with and without each other, and never have I seen a more competent foe for Locke to take on, both in conwork and emotionally. Sabetha shone in every scene that she was in and was well worth the wait. Fans of the Bastards, even if you were discouraged by Seas, you really need to read this one. It’s everything I wanted out of a sequel to Lies and THAT EPILOGUE. I eagerly await the next book in the sequence.


The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, classic collection of Middle Eastern folktales from days of old. Sadly, I never read A Thousand and One Nights, although I’m much more inclined to after reading this book. But even without having read the original work this book is inspired by, the premise was one that was familiar to me due to the ever-constant presence of stories within our world.

The land of Khorasan is under the rule of the mad boy-king Khalid, who strikes a blow at the hearts of his people every sunrise. For months now, the cruel caliph has taken for himself a new bride, a new young girl to wed, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord come the dawn. When her best friend becomes Khalid’s newest victim, 16 year old Sharazad vows vengeance on the boy-king, making herself his next bride and using her skill at weaving stories to entice him and keep herself alive for one more day, hoping to find a way to destroy Khalid’s grip of fear on her people once and for all.

I remember when I was little and first heard the premise of A Thousand and One Nights and being amazed that a young girl telling stories could soften the heart of such a cruel man. How could only words and the promise of hearing what happens next in the story be enough to prevent her death? Thinking about it now, isn’t that what all good stories do? They weave a magical world that doesn’t tangibly exist and yet keep the reader entranced and enthralled and wanting more even when the story is finished. The Wrath and the Dawn did precisely that for me. The word I best can use to describe it is “magical” even though actual magic are only hinted at at best. But the book entranced me, pulled me in and caught me in its spell until it was over. And just like Scheherazade in the original tale, it left me before the story was finished, but with the promise that more will come.

The characters of The Wrath and the Dawn are far more complex than their folklore counterparts. Sharazad is not simply a weaver a words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own in a world that wants to chain and silence her. She refuses to be a quiet little pet of a seemingly mad king and demands to be heard and valued equally. Khalid is not just a single-minded cruel boy, caring so little for the wives he’s killed. There’s suffering behind his callous exterior, reasons for the deaths, pain and sadness and remorse even while he continues to destroy lives. There’s layers to him to understand, even while his tendency for violence horrifies and disgusts. Similarly, the advisors and servants within the palace each have their own stories, their own wants and needs outside of our main characters which add a richness to the story. Even the family Sharazad leaves behind is not a forgotten sidenote in her life. As her understanding of Khalid grows, her family rears their heads, reminding her of what she has sacrificed to be in this position, scorning her for feeling any sympathy for the king who murdered so many.

I will say not everything worked perfectly in this book. Although I appreciated Sharazad’s journey of emotions as her time with Khalid grew, I found the jumps back to Tariq and her family a bit confusing to follow. Once the storylines converged more, things fell more into place but whenever we’d cut back to them, I’d find myself growing restless as I cared much more about Sharazad and her journey than I did anything Tariq was planning. Although I understand and appreciate the importance he serves in Sharazad’s backstory, I found him more annoying than anything else, a smaller player in a much larger story that he didn’t fully understand.

I loved this book, although I didn’t realize how much until it was over and the story was not yet done. I wouldn’t use the word cliffhanger to describe the ending, for there wasn’t any singular event cut short. The story of Sharazad simply wasn’t done yet. But the spell had already been cast and there was nothing I could do but wait until the Renee Ahdieh came back to me with more magical words to weave and a promise of a conclusion to the story.

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, book two in the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence

Nearly a year ago, in October of 2014, I read the Lies of Locke Lamora and immediately fell in love. The characters of the Gentlemen Bastards took hold of my heart and put me on an emotional roller coaster of a journey. I cheered as they schemed and swindled their way through the city of Camorr, raged at The Grey King and Falconer as they took away characters I loved and cheered on Jean and Locke in their final attempts to overcome the villains and avenge their friends. By the time the book was over, I had a new favorite book to put in my top ten list. But more importantly, I felt satisfied with the journey I just went on. We had a real sense of loss and achievement and the ending, while certainly leaving room for further adventures with the Bastards, wrapped nearly every loose thread up. I was left wondering, “where do we go from here?”

This is what Red Seas Under Red Skies faced from the beginning. As a follow up to Lies of Locke Lamora, it needed to keep enough of the same tone and structure that made us love its predecessor so much, but also craft its own identity as a sequel. For the most part, the book succeeds. Jean and Locke continue to grow as characters in a logical and dynamic way, we introduce new locations and change up the plot so it’s not simply a rehash of Lies, and we introduce new characters whom I love to interact with our two main protagonists. But at the same time, there’s a lot Red Seas Under Red Skies does that structurally is very similar to Lies but doesn’t do as successfully.

This is a non-spoilery review so I won’t get too much in depth as to what I feel didn’t work that well in Seas, but I am writing a spoiler filled in depth comparison of the two books in case anyone cares to read that.

I love most of the secondary characters in Seas. Pirate Captain Zamira is a force to be reckoned with, resolving any qualms I had regarding Lies and its sparse offering of important female characters. Requin and Selendri are much more competent of marks than the Don and Donia were in the previous books, keeping Locke on his toes throughout his primary scheme involving them. Zamira’s pirate crew is a colorful and entertaining lot, standout being the most badass first mate ever, Ezri.

The villains leave something to be desired. Similarly to Lies, about a third of the way into the book, we introduce a roadblock in Jean and Locke’s conmen scheming ways and put them in a situation where they have to deal with this new villainous force. Only he’s not the most threatening. Unlike the Grey King and Falconer, I never particularly felt afraid of this villain and the power he supposedly wields over the Bastard’s head. The bondsmagi in theory show up now and then but don’t play nearly as pivotal a role as I hoped given how Lies ended with the fate of the Falconer. If they had played a more active role in the challenges Jean and Locke face, I feel this new threat would have elevated the book in my mind.

There’s one last part I want to mention which unfortunately doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else because it’s an extraneous plot thread that has nothing to do with the main story. Sabatha. I said it in my review of Lies and I’ll say it again here, but what is the point of Sabatha? In Lies she was mentioned as clearly an important part of Locke’s past that caused him a lot of pain and regret. We didn’t learn anything about her so I assumed it was set up for later books but then we did literally the exact same thing in Seas. We occasionally mentioned Sabatha, Locke got all angsty and upset and then we stopped talking about her. What is the deal with Sabatha? Is she dead? Thought to be dead so we can bring her back later? If that’s the case, how am I supposed to emotionally react to this “reveal” when I don’t know anything concrete about her to begin with? Is she just… I don’t know, off somewhere else being a swindler? What is her history with Locke? Why is he so hurt and upset whenever her name is mentioned? We’ve gone two books now with offhand mentions of this mythical person but nothing for me to care about regarding her alive/dead/lost/ran away status.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is most definitely not the same book as The Lies of Locke Lamora, and that’s okay. People going into this expecting something as good as the first book will be disappointed. It’s not as good, but I don’t think it ever could be. That doesn’t mean the book is bad. Red Seas Under Red Skies is an entertaining adventure all on its own, and a different kind of adventure than Lies was. The kind of adventure that involves pirates and plunder rather than conmen style schemes. The side characters are vibrant and fun to be around and I grew attached and concerned about the safety of a good number of them. The tension is not as high as it was in Lies, but that’s alright. The story of Jean and Locke continues on and left me excited to read book three.

Holy, Noelle Stevenson! A review of Lumberjanes vol. 1 by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

You know, it’s a good thing I’m not a booktuber otherwise my review of Lumberjanes vol. 1 would mainly consist of something like this: [HIGH PITCHED SQUEALING NOISE AS AN ALL CONSUMING GRIN ENVELOPS HER ENTIRE FACE]

Lumberjanes is the first volume of the comic series by Noelle Stevenson, formerly best known for her tumblr fan comics, and Grace Ellis, revolving all around a group of five girls and their Scooby-Doo esque adventures in a pseudo Girl Scout pro-ladies summer camp. Imagine the antics of The Magic School Bus with more ladies and less education. Oh, and Ms. Frizzle is this buff tattooed lumberjane who is super into hearing all about the three eyed wolves you just had to fight.

It’s delightfully weird.

I’ve already made two references to 90s serialized cartoon shows but that’s really what Lumberjanes best resembles. There isn’t an overarching plot in the first volume as much as there are separate issues bound together, each telling a different fun adventure with the girls. Yes, there’s some set up in the first issue where the five girls encounter a pack of three eyed wolves who, in the midst of fighting, suddenly all stop to proclaim BEWARE THE KITTEN HOLY but that payoff for that isn’t particularly momentous. Some promises are made late in the book of more conflicts with this world’s version of the Boy Scouts (called the Scouting Lads whose Scout leader is such a parody of obsessive masculinity that I had a huge grin on my face for the 2 or so pages that he showed up. I’M GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR ::door slam::) but what this volume sets out to do is get the reader used to the world we’re adventuring in and loving our cast of characters.

The characters and humor are really where this book shines for me. With such a shallow plot, we need to be following characters who we want to be around regardless of the situation. Luckily, the girls in Lumberjanes are great. There’s April, the shortest and most outwardly feminine of the group who loves puns and is also physically strong, Jo the semi-androgynous pseudo leader who loves math and tends to be the only one concerned about the danger the group gets into, Molly, the some quiet one who is great at archery and also potentially has a crush on Mal but might not who knows sexuality is weird amirite?, Mal the outwardly punk looking girl who is terrified of the show River Monsters and what dangers lie beneath the water (spoilers, lots of danger), and Ripely, the youngest and most chaotic of the group who will cannonball headfirst into danger because why not? They all play off of each other wonderfully and it’s great seeing such a diverse representation of ladies being friends and not going after each other for petty reasons.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the artwork in some way. Surprising me, given the cover, Noelle Stevenson did not illustrate the comic herself, although she did provide character designs for our leading ladies and supporting cast. Instead, Brooke Allen did the illustration work with Maarta Laiho coloring and Aubrey Aiese lettering. They all did a fantastic job. Allen has a much stronger line weight than Stevenson which works really well as contrast to how saturated the color work is. Everyone is expressive in both their facial features and also body movement. I love it.

If you’re a person who enjoys reading comics about ladies being awesome in a fun and weird setting, then I highly recommend checking out Lumberjanes. I initially got this out of the library but as soon as my budget allows it, I will be buying this volume. The second volume cannot come out fast enough.

cover design by Noelle Stevenson

You Get a “You Tried” Sticker: a review of In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

In Real Life is a graphic novel that sincerely tries. In the introduction before the book properly starts, Cory Doctorow talks at length about his intentions: how he wanted to write something that would appeal to gamers and educate them on the basics of in game economies and how they affect the offline world. He advocates for the global social connection the internet and gaming can bring, and how it can be a force for good against injustices, both social and economical. These are clearly issues he cares deeply about and has researched thoroughly. Unfortunately, the format and length of the novel undermines all the good intentions put into the book, resulting in a lackluster final product at best and a book that reenforces problematic tropes at worst.

Our heroine is Anda, an overweight and somewhat shy girl who starts playing Coarsegold Online, an MMO RPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). In it, she starts gaining self-esteem and some online friends through a girls-only guild in the game. This brings us to the first issue Doctorow and Wang wish to address: the place of women and girls in the video game industry. In Real Life came out in an…. interesting time in gaming history, to say the least. The book was published in the middle of October of last year and smack dab in the middle of an online debate about women in video games of massive proportions, the fallout of which made several major news networks. The discussion about potential sexism in video games had turned violent, with several game developers and critics being forced to leave their homes.

I bring this up not to fan the flames on a still ongoing conflict, but to give some insight into what the climate was for gamers when In Real Life came out. Because compared to what was happening in real real life, In Real Life seems to operate in this weird gaming utopia where problems exist but aren’t that big a deal and are easily solved. While at school, a speaker comes to talk to Anda’s class about joining this world’s equivalent of WoW.

“I’m a gamer and I kick arse. No, seriously. I organize a guild and I’m looking for a few of you chickens to join me. This is Corasegold Online, the fastest growing massive multiplayer role playing game with over 10 million subscribers world-wide–you might have heard of it.
….How many of you girls game?”
[a raising of hands]
“And how many of your girls play girls?”
[hands go down and the schoolgirls looked confused.]
“See, that’s a tragedy. Practically makes me weep. When I started gaming online there were no women gamers—I was one of the best gamers in the world and I couldn’t even be proud of who I was. It’s different now, but it’s still not perfect. We’re going to change that, chickens, you lot and me. Here’s my offer to the ladies: if you will play as a girl in Coarsegold Online, you will be given probationary status in [my clan]. If you measure up, in 3 months you’ll be full-fledged members. Who’s in ladies? Who wants to be a girl in-game and out?”

Now there are legitimate reasons why women and girls would decide to pick avatars that don’t match their gender. But most of those reasons have to do with studies that show female avatars receive exponentially more hateful messages online than their male counterparts. But in the world of In Real Life, the problem seems to be that girls didn’t think to play as a female avatar and if you just talk to girls and let them know that the option exists, suddenly there will be more women in games! I see what Doctorow and Wang were trying to do, but I felt the overly optimistic and simple message cheapened the reality that female gamers often face.

But women in gaming is not the hill Doctorow wishes to die upon. Instead, the focus is on that of the complex economics of gold farming. For the non-gamer readers, gold farming is where players in a game with a built in economy (normally MMOs) will complete fights or quests over and over again to try to collect as much gold and/or in game items as they can. They then sell said items for actual real life currency to people who don’t want to work in game to get them. This effectively hurts the in game economy and throws everything out of whack. Sounds bad, right? Well, there’s another layer to it. Gold farmers are usually people from third world countries or countries with a large wealth gap like China. Gold farming is literally their job and often times the working conditions are abysmal. This leads to a general distrust of non-english speaking gamers. Again, it’s a very complex issue worthy of exploration.

Back in the book, Anda teams up with fellow guild member Lucy and they start killing gold farmers for out of game money. After a couple slaughters, she starts talking with one of the gold farmers, who happens to be a 16 year old boy named Raymond from China. Through the magic of Google translate they are able to talk and she starts to learn more about his horrible working conditions and is appalled. And unfortunately this is where things start to get problematic. The book is less than 200 pages long and is a graphic novel, meaning that many of those pages are devoted to visually showing what is happening. We do not have time to adequately explore this complex issue and the book suffers for it.

The book, for all its good intentions, starts to wandering into “white savior” territory, with Anda trying to help Raymond by giving him advice about unions in the U.S. This comes across as very condescending to me. “Oh, you silly non-white people. Let me, an educated white person, teach you the ways to be civilized.” It’s not that extreme but it’s coming right up to the line. It plays back into the tone of the women in gaming issues earlier. The issue no longer is this complex problem spanning across multiple real life economies and countries labor laws, it is just that the poor people trapped by the evil gold farming owners didn’t’ think to start a union! It’s uncomfortable.

I respect what Doctorow and Wang were trying to do. They created a work that gamers will be drawn towards (or at least gamers that don’t mind the pro-women aspects of the book). The art style is light-hearted and reminds me of the work Studio Ghibli produces. I’ll definitely be looking for more art from her in the future. The authors both clearly care about this issue and want the general gaming public to be educated on its complexity. But the entirely too short length resulted in a rushed ending which when combined with the overly optimistic world leads to a problematic end message.

Review: Ariel by Steven R Boyett

The elevator pitch I’ve been giving for this book is “it’s a tale about a boy and his unicorn taking place in post-apocalyptic America” which, upon hearing that summary, hits major interest buttons for me. So I can get the setting of Fallout but there’s also magical creatures and more importantly a unicorn?? Yes please, sign me up, I am so ready for this.

So I’m rather at a loss as to how “a tale about a boy and his unicorn in post-apocalyptic America” can end up so generic and boring. By the time I reached the climatic battle that we had spent so much of the book building up, the book felt more like a standard campaign conclusion in Dungeons and Dragons rather than the unique merging of genres that got me interested in the book. How did we get here?

It is the early to mid 80s and the world or at least America has undergone “The Change.” Technology ceases to work. Cars stop in the middle of the road, refusing to ever turn on again. Firearms will not discharge. Phone don’t work. Lighting must be relegated to that of candles. But with the change also comes magic. The environment returns to its once non polluted state. All fresh water is safe for drinking, regardless of what toxins and chemicals were previously dumped in it. And most importantly, magical creatures now roam the American landscape.

Our hero is Pete Garey, a 20 something year old boy who several years ago stumbled across an injured unicorn. Nursing her back to health the two bond in a way beyond friendship, eventually having her become his magical familiar. Her name is Ariel. But the more they travel together, the more danger Ariel brings, as people ranging from jealous thugs to an all powerful Necromancer covet her horn and the power it brings.

Regardless of my lackluster emotions towards the latter half of the book, the book does a lot of things well. The world building is quite well done, somehow combining the concept of post-apocalyptic salvaging for goods and trying to live without technology with the magical wonderment of a fantasy setting, along with all the dangers it brings. Dragons are now roaming the hills of Tennessee, there is a Gryphon rider reeking havoc on settlements outside Washington DC, and of course, the aforementioned necromancer living atop the Empire State building.

However, as the story progresses and the threats to Ariel and Pete become more fleshed out, the book starts taking on a very familiar literary landscape. We might be in post-apocalyptic America, but Ariel is first and foremost a standard fantasy novel where there is one powerful wizard that is the nemesis with sword fights and slaying of dragons happening along the way. There’s even a damsel in distress narrative later on. And all of this gets very boring.

The book certainly isn’t bad, but the ending feels haphazard at best. The climatic conclusion to the necromancer plot (which is the main driving force throughout the latter half of the book) ends so abruptly, I didn’t realize that there wasn’t anything else to it. It wasn’t until later that I realized, “no, that was literally all there was to the necromancer main plot.” Villains that appear throughout the book and were once menacing threats are now reduced to snappy one liners, saying things like “But I wasn’t playing your game… I was playing MINE!! AND IN MY GAME THERE AREN’T ANY RULES.” and “My sword hasn’t had fresh blood in some time…” It’s tedious and I stopped caring about any of the stakes we had built. And to make matters worse, the main plot between Pete and Ariel gets wrapped up with zero explanation or understanding of WHY.

Without going into spoilers, throughout the book there is a subplot of Pete’s internal struggles with his relationship with Ariel. Because you see, as per most of unicorn mythology, only virgins can touch a unicorn. Pete, being in his early 20s is finding that his virginity status is becoming a struggle for him, being constantly distracted and aroused by female counterparts. Now, I actually find this exploration of virginity in the eyes of men to be very interesting. But after spending large portions of the book dealing with this, we resolve the conflict without any explanation to Pete’s feelings about his decision or why he chose to make the decision that he did.

Ariel is apparently a cult classic, getting a reprint in 2009, over 25 years after the initial print run in 1983. And while I in the end was let down and not impressed by the book, I can understand why it gained a following, certainly if you were in high school upon first reading it. If the fantasy genre is new to you and you haven’t grown accustomed to the tropes frequented by the genre, maybe the plot would be more engaging and new to experience. But as it stands, I went into this book hoping for a beautiful merging of a dystopian apocalypse story with the magic of unicorns and was left with a 20 something year old boy whining a lot about how he wants to have sex and running into the same fantasy tropes I’ve been reading throughout my life.