The New Year is a time for both reflection and revelry- a moment within our life in which we pause and take stock of what has come before and consider what the future may hold, which leads this bookworm to books. This year I read a whopping 103 books (including manga), and I enjoyed most of them, as reflected by my Goodreads 3.7 average rating. With all those excellent reads out there, it was tough to choose a manageable list of favorites, but after a lot of internal debates and whispered assurances to the books that being chosen didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading them, the following titles rose to the top. There are eight books, the first seven have my rating, a link to the synopsis on Goodreads, and a brief summary of what I loved about them. The last book, which is my favorite of the year, has a longer review. I hope you are inspired to visit your local library or bookstore and read a good book!
8. The Bear & the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I loved the way Arden uses Russian folklore to create a beautiful coming-of-age story. Vasilisa’s struggle to balance what she knows to be real (the world of nature spirits that her people think are old wives tales and myth) with the rigid expectations placed upon her by her devout Christian stepmother, who wants nothing more than to see her ‘wild’ stepdaughter married or in a convent, felt surprisingly relatable. I also enjoyed the character of Frost, and the way his interactions with Vasilisa challenge his current way of existence. Ah! I don’t know what else to say without revealing too much about the story, but read this book! Especially if you love plots with twists on folklore, magic, a dash of mystery, and a tish of romance!
7. Home by Nnedi Okorafor
I was incredibly impressed by Binti, the first book in this series, and was delighted that the second book was almost as strong. I really enjoyed exploring Binti’s friendship with Okwu, and the way they both have been dealing with their post-traumatic stress caused by the events of the first book. I also appreciated the way that Binti continues to struggle with balancing the expectations of the academy (outside universe) and the traditions of her people upon her return home. If you haven’t picked up this novel, and are looking for a short sci-fi series, give the Binti series a try! I mean, come on, it features strong POC female lead who is a mathematical wizard and accidentally saves the universe- what isn’t to love? <3
6. The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy
Following the trials and tribulations of a neighborhood of wild cats in Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi. When a house kitten with the extraordinary ability to mind-speak to all manner of birds and beasts moves into the neighborhood and starts randomly projecting her emotional state to the neighborhood anytime she has a nightmare or is startled, the Wildings move forward to try and train or contain the situation.
I picked up this book on a whim and was immediately charmed by Roy’s beautiful prose and colorful cast of characters. This book was unexpectedly moving- I had tears in my eyes at the end. The variety of animal protagonists are surprisingly relatable, and I was pulled into the quietly by quickly developing plot. The second book, The Hundred Names of Darkness, was equally charming, making “The Wildings” series my favorite surprise find of 2017.
I would recommend this book to all animal lovers or those seeking animal main characters. I would, and have, recommended this book to both modern fiction and fantasy lovers, and will likely continue to do so. Also, since this is a two book series (and neither book is very long), I would recommend this to both YA and adult readers who are seeking a shorter series/have series fatigue.
5. City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
I absolutely loved this book, which was one of the last ones I read in 2017! The story follows Nahri, a practical street urchin heroine who happens to have healing magic, who is thrown into the world of djinn after accidentally summoning some ifrits. (Raise your hand if you think Nahri is the most Slytherin heroine ever and loved it! *raises hand*) I enjoyed how Nahri forges her own path in the novel, constantly seeking to find truth behind old prejudices and stories in the djinn world and seeking multiple perspectives in order to create a life that will benefit her. This book is an adventure/political intrigue-ish type story with a side-order of romance that constantly subverted my expectations. On that note, I really enjoyed that the ‘love triangle’ (which often feels played out in stories like this) wasn’t the center of the plot, and tbh was something that Nahri spent relatively little time considering. I also thought her friendship with Prince Ali was wonderful- I liked that it was built on the combined desire for learning and the pursuit of truth, and honestly I would have preferred if Ali’s feelings toward Nahri had stayed platonic (though the second book may change my mind on that depending on where the plot goes).
Overall I thought this book did a wonderful job balancing pacing and story development with character development. Chakraborty uses multiple POV and gives each character their own distinct prejudices, flaws, strengths, and more quandaries that they must overcome without slowing down the plot or including unnecessary elements. I also loved that the humans and djinn in this novel were based on a variety of non-european cultures (woohoo white people not being centered!). I also found the twist on the Islamic mythology surround King Solomon and his ability to rule djinn, and the struggle between religious ideologies that was explored in the novel. Would recommend for readers who love magic, are seeking POC main characters, and/or have an interest in re-imaginings of myths, folklore, and legends.
4. The Speaker by Traci Chee
I loved the way Chee communicates a complex story in a fragmented and beautiful way while also balancing character, world, and plot development. I devoured The Reader (first in the series) and gave it a 4/5 stars due to the variety of diverse characters (including a POC female lead), and the beautiful writing, plot, and character development. However, the book’s multiple POV slowed down the story development, esp. at the beginning.
Fortunately, I found The Speaker to be even stronger than its predecessor, with Chee diving right back into the world that she had slowly built in the first novel. The characters continue to struggle with questions of right and wrong, post-traumatic stress, and how to navigate a world full of unknowns, and I loved the way Chee showed a variety of characters opening up and telling others about the traumas they have experienced.
In closing, this was a wonderful novel and I would recommend it for fantasy and book lovers who are looking to be swept away into a world held together by the power of words. If you like(d) the first novel, you will probably to enjoy the second as well. If you disliked the first novel due to the multiplicity of POV and storylines, you should give the second a try, but may still end up unsatisfied as those elements continue to be used in the second book.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This book became an instant hit when it was released, and I was delighted that it lived up to the hype. Thomas’ novel is an approachable but unflinching look at the complicated way in which institutional racism and the elevation of whiteness impacts the non-white Americans, in particular African-Americans. Told through the eyes of 16 year old Starr, who witnesses the unjust execution killing of her best friend, the story is relatable and incredibly poignant. Starr lives in a predominately poor Black neighborhood, but attends a prestigious school that is predominately white, and the way in which her two communities approach the news of her friend’s death forces Starr to examine her own assumptions. When the police publish misleading statements and try to twist her testimony in order to justify their shooting, Starr (and through her, the reader) debate the risks and rewards of speaking up and using her voice to correct the errors. With parallels to the events in Ferguson, this book is at times hilarious, at others tear-worthy, this book is a welcome look at the all-too-often ignored experiences of POC in America.
Would recommend this book to: basically everyone, but especially young-adults or those seeking an entry-point into understanding more about struggle for voice and identity faced by non-white members of American society.
2. The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Tiger and the Wolf is a sprawling adventure fantasy the follows shape-shifter Maniye, the daughter of the Wolf clan’s chieftain. Despite her father’s powerful role in the clan, Maniye is an outcast. Her mother was the Queen of the Wolf’s ancient enemy, the Tiger tribe, which leaves Maniye an outsider who can shift into both Wolf and Tiger form. When pressured to claim one form and forsake the other, Maniye escapes and is pursued into the Wilds of her northern home by a deadly hunter from the Wolf Clan. From there she meets friends from the Southern part of the country, as well as other tribes from the North, and unwittingly sets events into motion that will either lead to the salvation or destruction of all tribes.
I loved the story, the detailed world building, and the rich character development. The reader feels like they get to know Maniye and her world so well, and that we see her thought process grow and change as she learns more about herself and about the motivations of others. You truly experience Maniye moving from childhood to adulthood, and I really appreciated that Tchaikovsky was able to bring the reader so intimately into the story while also creating a complex plot. This attention and care is also apparent in the realistic characterizations and relationships that fill this novel. I would NOT recommend this book if you are looking for a quick read or fast-paced adventure that never lets you pause for breathe- this is a hefty tome and the plot does take time developing. I would recommend this book to those who love fantasy, shape-shifting, rich character development, and/or complex plots. If you fall into this second category and have some time to invest in this novel, I encourage you to pick it up ASAP!
P.S. The second volume, The Bear and the Serpent, has also been released, and it is as good as the first book!
1. The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood
Summary (via Goodreads)
The debut novel from the acclaimed illustrator—a high fantasy adventure featuring dragons and deadly politics.
Maia and her family raise dragons for the political war machine. As she comes of age, she anticipates a dragon of her own to add to the stable of breeding parents. Her peaceful life is shattered when the Summer Dragon—one of the rare and mythical High Dragons—makes an appearance in her quiet valley. Political factions vie for control of the implied message, threatening her aspirations, her aerie, her entire way of life.
The bond between dragons and their riders is deep and life-long, and Maia’s desire for a dragon of her own to train, ride, fly, and love drives her to take a risk that puts her life at stake. She is swept into an adventure that pits her against the deathless Horrors, thralls of the enemy, and a faceless creature drawn from her fear. In her fight to preserve everything she knows and loves, she exposes a conspiracy, unearths an ancient civilization, and challenges her understanding of her world—and of herself.
STRONG FEMALE LEAD WHO DON’T NEED NO MAN! Now, I love a good romance, but it was incredibly refreshing to read a book in which the story revolved around the female’s journy and development instead of on how the female can help the male lead grow. Maia, the female lead, is more interested in learning about and training dragons than she is in finding a boyfriend, and her inner dialogue and outer actions/reactions reflect that. As a result, this novel revolves around and centers Maia’s struggles, interests, and character growth. There is little talk of romance in this first instalment of the series, and the one time Maia does develop a small crush on a male character who shows romantic interest in here, Maia ends up deciding to (politely) turn the man down because she realizes she has a crush and no deeper feelings and would rather focus on dragon training and her family. Refreshingly, the male character accepts her rejection with grace and he and Maia continue to interact in a friendly manner, and the story moves quickly past it and continues to focus on Maia as a growing and changing human being. :)
FULLY FLESHED OUT CHARACTERS!!! *happy dance* I’m a sucker for well-developed characters who feel like they could step out of the pages and into the real world, and this story is full of richly layered and explored character relationships. Maia’s life revolves around her family’s dragon rearing business, and her relationships with her family and the people in her village take center stage in this novel. This leads to exceptionally well done character development and realistic characters throughout the novel. The challenges faced by main and secondary characters feel relatable, as do their struggles to make right decisions in situations with no “good” answer while also balancing competing loyalties to family, community, and the state.
The world itself (AKA THE DRAGONS). Folks, the dragons in this book are absolutely amazing! Lockwood clearly poured a lot of time and energy into crafting a believable textured world. Plus, there are 21 illustrations within the book that were drawn by Lockwood himself (he’s an illustrator as well as an author- he illustrated the covers for Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series)!
Imperfections & Concluding Thoughts:
Honestly I thought this book was basically perfect for a reader who loves balanced plot, character, and world development. The plot does take some time to develop, so readers who are seeking a fast-paced plot that develops quickly may struggle to stay engaged with the novel (though I urge you to give it a good try anyways).
Would Recommend to:
Fantasy lovers, anyone (fantasy fan or not) looking for coming-of-age tales featuring believable, strong female leads, D&D fans (Lockwood’s illustrated for D&D), and any readers seeking detailed world building.
That's all I have for you this time folks!