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!

Fantasy2

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

I didn’t get around to writing a full review for this one but I’d like to formally start by saying this: SCOTT LYNCH YOU WONDERFUL BASTARD YOU. YOU KNEW EXACTLY WHAT WAS GOING TO MAKE ME REACT THE MOST IN THAT ENDING AAARRRGHHH IT WAS SO GOOD BUT GODDAMMIT WHY DID THAT HAVE TO HAPPEN I MEAN I GET WHY BUT I DIDN’T WANT THIS.

::ahem::

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.

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.