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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Best Fantasy of 2014: Historical, Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic, Alternate Realm, Futuristic, Superhero, and Romantic

Listed below are the best adult fantasy novels (NOT YA) that I read and reviewed in 2014 in the sub-genres listed above. Within each sub-genre, the books are listed in random order. All but three are either stand-alone novels or first novels in new series. One entry includes all three books in the seriesfrom first to final, all published in 2014.

NOTE: This post does NOT include my choices for the best urban fantasy (UF) of 2014. In order to maintain a manageable list, I decided to place my UF choices in a separate post. You may categorize some of the novels on this list as UF, depending on how you define UF, but I can only go by my own definitions, so we may have to agree to disagree on that topic. In any case, they are all top-notch novels. For my definitions of dystopianhistoricalpost-apocalypticsteampunk, and urban fantasy fiction, click HERE to go to my DEFINITIONS page. Click HERE to go to the post that lists my choices for the best UF for 2014.

Click on the pink-link title/author line for any book to go directly to my full review of the novel and series, which always includes an overview of the world-building and a link to the author's web site.  

               HISTORICAL FANTASY               

Juliet Marillier: Dreamer’s Poolfirst novel in BLACKTHORN & GRIM SERIES
The series is set in early medieval Ireland. Marillier's two main characters are exceptionally well drawn, each one having a distinctive voice. Refreshingly, they are not blushing, whiny naifs, but mature adults who have weathered some serious storms. We soon know Blackthorn and Grim so well that we empathize deeply with the tragic past events that still drive their emotions and keep them from developing friendships with anyone but each other. This is a strong beginning to a new series that will continue on with the two tragic lead characters solving more magical mysteries while dealing with ghosts from their pasts.

Carol Berg: Dust and Lightfirst novel in THE SANCTUARY DUET
The series is set in the medieval city of Palinur in the kingdom of Navronne, which is in the midst of a bloody war of succession between a pair of princely brothers: This is a terrific book with a well-constructed plot that masterfully combines a fascinating mythology, intense drama, well-defined characters, and touches of low, dark humor. In this book, Lucian (the series hero, a mage) comes into close contact with non-magical people for the very first time, and his perception of them—and their perceptions of him—make for some entertaining scenes. Although Lucian is heavily weighed down by bad luck and adversity in this novel, Berg always allows a ray of light to break through just when it seems that nothing will save him. She seamlessly weaves these moments into the complex and gripping plot, keeping the reader engrossed throughout.

Meljean Brook: The Kraken Kingfourth novel in THE IRON SEAS SERIES
This is a terrific novel, one that kept me feverishly turning the pages well into the wee hours of the night. The author has created two fascinating lead characters with great depth. Zenobia has always been an interesting character in this series—a clever, witty woman who has made herself a fortune by turning her brother's adventures into novels that are read all over the world. On the downside, she is crippled emotionally by fear and distrust and longs for an adventurous life of her own, one in which she can walk down a street unmolested by kidnappers seeking huge ransom payments. Along with being a supernaturally strong macho-man with loads of simmering sensuality, Ariq (the hero) is completely committed to truth and justice in all aspects of his life. This is a complex world filled with inventive alternate historical events and fantastical biological constructs. It mixes steampunk with historical fantasy in such a masterful manner that the reader gets pulled into the mythology immediately and effortlessly. The characters are all true individuals, demonstrating various faults and idiosyncrasies, giving in to bad temper, making foolish choices, and trusting the wrong people. The great thing is that we relate to them because of their human frailties, and we root for them because of their good hearts. I highly recommend this steampunk/historical fantasy series, and I suggest that you read it in the order listed at the beginning of this post, which is the author's recommended reading order.  


M. D. Waters: Archetype, “Antitype,” and Prototypefirst, second, and third (FINAL) books in the ARCHETYPE SERIES (all published in 2014) 
This is a top-notch series with a fresh and inventive mythology, interesting characters who must overcome all sorts of emotional and physical hardships, and an overall series story arc that defies description. For me, this was a can't-put-it-down reading experience. I couldn't stop turning the pages because I couldn't stop trying to figure out what was really going on. Waters has succeeded in creating a fully developed female character who begins as a spineless, pliable void with no possessions, no family, and no memories. But then—right before our very eyes—she grows, gradually and arduously, into a decisive, courageous woman. Waters carefully constructs this dystopian world in a manner that makes it as believable as it is horrific. I am always searching for a series that is new, different, and well written, and this one meets all of those criteria. If you are looking for an engrossing read, pick up Archetype, "Antitype," and Prototype. NOTE: Be sure to read Archetype first. Reading order matters in this series.

This is a zombie apocalypse novel that never uses the “z” word. If you think you've read every type of zombie novel possible, think again, because this novel is as thrilling and inventive as any I've read. Although the story does contain its share of violent and gory encounters, its primary focus is on the relationships among a small group of survivors. Carey tells a gripping and powerful story, showing us this world mostly through her young heroine's eyes as she deals with an overload of new information and experiences. This isn't a straightforward horror novel, although it has some horror-filled moments. It's a coming-of-age story in a horrific post-apocalyptic world. The old world is long gone, and it's time for Pandora to open a new box. I recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for a fresh approach to undead fiction. Melanie, the heroine, is a terrific character, as are her companions.      

Instead of taking us through the early days of this post-apocalyptic world, Mandel drops us into that world twenty years after a flu pandemic ravaged the globe and then provides flashbacks to the pre-flu world—the good old days. The novel sweeps back and forth in time, portraying the main characters in various stages of their lives and connecting them in ways that are incredibly intricate and mostly unpredictable to the reader. These connections flow naturally as the story line weaves its way between past and present and moves toward a hopeful, but still unresolved, future. I highly recommend this novel for its inventive take on post-apocalyptic fantasyits multi-layered characters, the smooth ebb and flow between past and present, and Mandel's eloquent use of language. This is a book that looks past the gore and the violence to the everyday lives of people who have coped with death and survived the worst. Although their futures are uncertain, they maintain their respect for the past and dare to hope for peace and calm in the coming years.
Richelle Mead:  The Immortal Crown—second novel in AGE OF X SERIES 
The series takes place 100 years into the future. Both the action plot and the romance plot are fast-paced, suspenseful, and dramatic. Particularly fascinating is the reaction of the fiercely independent RUNA women warriors to the treatment of the Arcadian women, especially when they find themselves being forced into submissive roles that include food preparation and floor scrubbing. I found myself much more absorbed in this book than I was in the first—mostly because in the first book I was slowed down by the process of learning the mythology. Luckily for readers, this book has the glossary that the first one lacked, so you can quickly flip to the back and refresh your memory when Mead uses unfamiliar world-building terminology. Although I realize that Mae and Justin have a long, difficult romantic road ahead, I plan to be with them every frustrating and fascinating step of the way. 

Greg van Eekhout: California Bones—first novel in CALIFORNIA BONES TRILOGY

The novel is set in an alternate Los Angeles, the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California, which seceded from the U.S.A. eighty years ago. This is a terrific novel, the first in what looks to be a top-notch series. Daniel (the hero) is a fascinating character: a highly intelligent wizard who accumulates more and more power as the story moves along. His childhood tragedy has pushed him into a strange life in which he has managed to tamp down his anger and push back his emotions while learning and applying the skills that allow him to survive. Daniel's friends have their own distinctive personalities that come out in their bickering dialogue and seamless teamwork. Eekhout adds noir humor to the story with brushstrokes of ironic fancy, and he uses cultural references in fresh and inventive ways. I highly recommend this engaging novel for its creative mythology, complicated hero, fast-paced plotting, and masterful use of irony and black humor.

Devon Monk: House Immortal—first novel in HOUSE IMMORTAL TRILOGY 
Two hundred years in the future, the world is ruled by eleven powerful Houses that have controlled all of the world's resources and authority for the past 100 years. Two hundred years ago, a scientist triggered a disastrous comet-related experiment that killed hundreds of people, leaving only twelve known survivors of the blast who are called the galvanized. The galvanized are extremely strong and immortal men and women who eventually had to give up their freedom in order to prevent the Houses from warring over who would possess them. This series has a fresh and inventive mythology and interesting lead characters. Tilly, the heroine, lives on an isolated, off-the-grid farm and doesn’t realize that she has some of the same powers that the galvanized have. When some of the Houses learn of her existence and come after her, a hero emerges to rescue her—if she can allow herself to trust him. Tilly bravely faces deceit, danger, and double-crosses as she tries to keep herself safe in the big city. Even the villains in this series are layered, complex characters. This is going to be a great series.

               ALTERNATE REALM FANTASY               

A. M. Dellamonica: Child of a Hidden Sea—first novel in HIDDEN SEA TALES
The series is set in Stormwrack, an alternate realm that is parallel to Earth. Dellamonica handles the world-building well because she makes her main character a smart and curious young woman and then almost immediately pops her into this strange new world—a world so different that Sophie spends a lot of time just asking questions. The author also does a great job with Sophie's first-person narration, always a plus, because writing in the first-person voice can sometimes be awkward. Sophie’s brother, Bram, has a dry sense of humor that livens up every scene in which he appears, always using his genius-level abilities to work out problems in a geeky kind of way and never losing his cool. Dellamonica has plenty of room for story development in this rich world.

Jane Lindskold: Artemis Awakening—first novel in ARTEMIS AWAKENING SERIES
I'm labeling this series as science fantasy because it combines the advanced technology of science fiction with the supernatural elements of fantasy. As Rod Serling described it, "Science fiction makes the implausible possible, while science fantasy makes the impossible plausible." Artemis is a pleasure planet created out of bare rock by a technologically advanced human empire that provided its richest citizens with a veritable Eden to play in. All tech was concealed and the animals (and the humans brought to live there) were bioengineered to help the guests enjoy their stay. After a global war in the distant human world, Artemis was cut off from its creators and became a fable told to children until young archaeologist Griffin Dane finds intriguing hints that send him on a quest to find the lost world. Stranded on Artemis after crashing his spaceship, he encounters the Huntress Adara and her psych-linked companion, the puma Sand Shadow. Their journey will lead Dane to discover the planet's secrets and perhaps provide a key to give unimagined power back to mankind. This is a terrific opening novel in which the author has done a brilliant job of weaving her complex and creative mythology into a well-constructed, fast-paced plot. She also does a great job with her character development. Even the supporting characters are well-defined and multi-dimensional. I'm not usually a big fan of either science fiction or pure fantasy, but this book really kept my interest from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it.

               SUPERHERO FANTASY               

Carrie Vaughn: Dreams of the Golden Age—second novel in THE GOLDEN AGE SERIES
Once again, Carrie Vaughn proves that she is a great storyteller. What a great idea to look in on the next generation of superheroes—checking out what the future will hold for Commerce City while also visiting with old friends from the previous generation. The humor comes right alongside the drama, particularly as the teens come up with their superhero disguises and nicknames and then keep forgetting to use them when they are in public places. Particularly entertaining is a new-guy superhero from out of town whose talent is to make huge leaps through the air. As he and Anna become friends, she teases him constantly with guesses at comedic nicknames he might get stuck with. This character's true identity is signaled early on, but we don't learn whether he is a good guy or a bad guy until the requisite final showdown.

               ROMANTIC FANTASY                

If you are a reader of paranormal romances, you know that the two lead characters are always soul mates—driven together for eternity by fated forces beyond their control. But what if two human mothers decided to take fate into their own hands and engineer their children’s soul-mated futures even before they were born? And what would be the consequences if that plan went awry? That’s the premise of this inventive and darkly humorous story that wrestles with the conflicts of fatalism and free will; faith and reason; dreams and reality. The dreamy cosmologist George Dermont mines the stars to prove the existence of God while Irene Sparks, an unsentimental scientist, creates black holes in her laboratory. The novel is set in an alternate Toledo, Ohio, in the present, with flashbacks to the 1980s. In this world, Toledo is an important scientific center, the location of the world-famous Toledo Institute of Astronomy, a beacon of scientific learning for astronomers all over the world. Toledo is also a major center of astrology. So…astronomy and astrology: black holes and crystal balls, scientists and psychics, super colliders and tea leaves, stars of the firmament and signs of the zodiac—all coexisting in absurd asymmetry. Netzer writes with a wonderful impressionism that gives depth and eloquence to her story. Although this book is a romantic fantasy, it is definitely not constructed according to the usual formula. Tragic events, zany antics, snarky dialogue, and singular characters all add absurdity and surrealism to what is essentially a fantastical love story. There are no stereotypes among these characters. Each is a deeply developed individual with kinks and quirks, and they combine to form the frame on which the plot is hung.

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