SFFWorld Favourite Books Review 2008 (Part 1)

It’s that time of year again. Last year’s review seemed to have been fun, so we thought we would do it again!

So, joining us this year, around the SFFWorld Christmas tree, are Aidan (known as Al’Kael from A Dribble of Ink), Graeme (known as Deornoth from Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review), Ken (known as kcf from Neth Space) and Pat (from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist) as well as Rob Bedford and myself.

This first part looks at Fantasy books. Part 2 will look at SF books. Part 3 will be Films, Games and our usual look forward to 2009.

Mark / Hobbit

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  1. Fantasy/Horror

We thought it would be last year (see 2007 review), but has it really been another strong year for Fantasy?

Rob: Fantasy isn’t going away any time soon, the epics keep rolling, the vampire hunters keep hunting, the elves keep cropping up in cities, and swords continue to swing. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy came to a conclusion, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series came to conclusion (and hit the NY Times Bestseller list), Richard Morgan’s fantasy hit UK shelves (and will make a huge splash in the States in 2009), Jim Butcher keeps churning out two books a year, Matthew Stover published a new Caine novel, Neil Gaiman published a long-gestating novel that has been universally embraced in The Graveyard Game, and a terrific new voice debuted at the end of the year, Brent Weeks.  So yes, I’ve just barely touched the surface and it’s pretty clear that 2008 was another strong year for fantasy.

Aidan: While I’d be hard pressed to say that this year has been as impactful as last year, especially in regards to debut authors, I think it’s still seen its fair share of readable novels and controversial message board bantering.

Where last year was all about the debuts, this year saw a lot of edgy, highly anticipated works from well known authors. Whether it was The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson, Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover, Escapement by Jay Lake or The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, there’s been a little bit of something for everyone.

And hell, even if there wasn’t a single novel released this year, I’d be hard pressed not to find my “to read” pile growing ever larger by all the great books written in the past.

Ken: I’d say that it has been an average year, though to be completely honest, I haven’t followed things closely enough for long enough to be an authority on what makes for a strong vs. weak year in Fantasy.

Graeme:  I think so. We’ve had great series coming to an end (“The First Law”), great series getting their groove back/adding new elements to the mix (“Malazan Book of the Fallen”) and some pretty strong looking debuts as well (Peter V. Brett and Brent Weeks amongst others). You can’t ask for a lot more than that, really.    :o)

Pat: It hasn’t been a particularly strong year for the fantasy genre, if you ask me. And that’s mainly due to the fact that a number of heavyweights saw their pub date postponed and then pushed back to 2009. Doubtless, it would have been a much stronger year had George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch delivered their manuscripts on time.

Still, there were some very good releases, such as Joe Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings, Brian Ruckley’s Bloodheir, Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand, Steven Erikson’s Toll the Hounds, and more.

On the upside, if everything goes according to plan, 2009 could well be the very best year in the history of the genre. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be the case!

Mark/Hobbit: Certainly in the number of books available. I think I’ve read more Fantasy this year than I thought I would. In the current publishing schedules there is more Fantasy anyway, but even so my reading has been probably 75% Fantasy this year. (Normally I think it’s about 60-40 %.)

There was a lot of vampire/werewolf/urban fantasy this year, which have continued their popularity. I continued to love Mike Carey’s Felix Castor’s books, quite liked what I read of Jennifer Rardin, carried on with Jim Butcher’s Dresden’s and even got round to reading some Stephenie Meyer.

Have the expected best-sellers lived up to expectations?

Rob: The book I was most looking forward to reading was Caine Black Knife by Stover and it exceeded my expectations.  Two trilogies concluded very successfully this year as well: Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and both ended terrifically.

Aidan: I dunno about the sales numbers, but Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie was stellar. Easily one of the best concluding volumes to a trilogy I’ve read in years.

The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks, also the final volume in a trilogy, was less successful at wrapping its story up in a satisfying manner.

Other than those, I haven’t read many of the “bestsellers” to come out this year. It’s hard to keep up with all the releases!

Ken: More or less. It seems that the real expectation is that many will praise these books, and many will (loudly) decry them.

Graeme: You know what? I don’t think I could tell you what this year’s best sellers were… *hides head in shame* I do know that the really obvious ones like Terry Pratchett just didn’t appeal to me so I never picked them up… (I’m assuming Toll the Hounds would have been a big hitter as far as sales go, I haven’t read it yet but I will.)

Pat: Well, considering that the three bestselling SFF novels of the year are titles by Meyer, Paolini and Rowling, I can’t really say since I haven’t read any of them.

Urban fantasy/paranormal romance novels have continued to rank rather high on the NYT list, so I reckon those subgenres are in good health.

Two NYT bestsellers that failed to live to my expectations were Raymond E. Feist’s Wrath of a Mad God (I’m wondering if the time has come to throw in the towel with Feist) and Brandon Sanderson’s The Hero of Ages (could have been great, but ended up being just okay). Another author who seems to be losing a little steam is Naomi Novik, NYT bestselling author of Victory of Eagles.

Mark/Hobbit: Well, if you look at what we were most looking forward to last year, quite a few of them have held up. Of course, there’s been a few that have been delayed (I’m sure you know which I mean!) but there’s still been an awful lot out there to keep my attention. What makes things more interesting, of course, is the surprises that have appeared through the year, the ones that came out of seemingly nowhere. More of which later.

What has surprised you this year in the genre?

Rob: Brent Weeks, probably.  There wasn’t as much internet buzz about his books in the months leading up to release (as there was with Lynch and Rothfuss in the recent past), but with Orbit pushing three books out in consecutive months, he’s made a big splash. Just take a look in our forum and he’s generating mostly positive buzz.

Aidan: This might sound a little gratuitous, but the thing that’s surprised me the most about the speculative fiction genre is actually the blogosphere.

While I’m impressed by the growth the rest of my blogging brothers and sisters have shown, the ones really impressing me are the authors themselves. Never before have we as readers had such a close connection to the people behind the novels. Being able to see how the gears turn has been fascinating and, by trade, most authors seem to know how to weave a damn fine tale even when they’re writing a simple blog post.

Through places like Twitter or just their personal blogs, authors like John Scalzi, Tobias Buckell, Peter V. Brett and Mark Chadbourn have continued to make the publishing industry one of the most down to earth and relatable creative industries out there. If being able to converse directly with some of your favourite authors doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will!

Ken: I think that the biggest surprise for me is how in terms of sales (which is what really matters to publishers), my tastes are very different from the best sellers. The new urban fantasy/paranormal romance trend doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much as other forms of fantasy. And it’s simply mind-boggling how well YA sells, and it’s equally mind-boggling to see how readers (and reviewers) react to the definition and perception of YA.

Graeme: When I received a copy of Peter V. Brett’s “The Painted Man” I thought that it was going to be yet another “rites of passage” tale of teenagers in “medieval fantasy land”. It is another “rites of passage” tale, but it’s also a lot more and now I’m eagerly awaiting “The Desert Spear” which is due out next summer I think…

Mark/Hobbit: Well, there’s been an awful lot of new (or fairly new) writers which have impressed, and some that have impressed me a lot less than I thought they would.

What would you recommend as your “favourite new five Fantasy” that you’ve read this year?

Rob: Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

Before They are Hanged Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Mistborn: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zaf’n (I know this might be a cheat, but I just finished an ARC for a new edition of this book coming out in December from Subterranean Press and some might not even consider it fantasy)

For nit-pickers out there, if you don’t want to consider The Shadow of the Wind as a 2008 book, then Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows may replace it.

Aidan: I’m just gonna combine these two categories, if that’s okay.

Most of my “favourite new five Fantasy” have been novels released in prior years. The biggest of these was easily Carlos Ruiz Zafan’s The Shadow of the Wind. I expected big things from this novel, based on all the buzz, and Zafon just stomped all over those expectations and delivered a novel more beautiful and terrifyingly eloquent than I could ever have asked for.

People should also check out Greg Keyes’ excellent The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series which saw its final volume, The Born Queen, released this year. Keyes has crafted one of the finest (finished) fantasy series of the past ten years and managed to do it in only four novels. Highly recommended.

Ken: The top 5 2008 releases for me are strange and varied bunch.

1. A Magic of Twilight by S. L. Farrell. This beginning of a new trilogy is wonderfully political exploration of a renaissance age. Farrell is too often overlooked around these parts.

2. Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory. Gregory produces an interesting journey through Americana peppered with references to comics, classic SF, and some interesting aspects of pop culture.

3. Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost. The concluding volume of the Shadowbridge Duology, Lord Tophet is the second half of a beautifully written story about stories.

4. Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson. Toll the Hounds is Book 8 in Erikson’s massive series The Malazan Book of the Fallen and perhaps the best one so far. With the strong thematic presence, this entry isn’t for the faint of heart, and I stand by my minority opinion about just how good this book is.

5. The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick. The Dragons of Babel stands as my favorite 2008 fantasy read. Swanwick beautifully subverts and satires epic fantasy as it tackles both light and weighty themes. Swanwick is an author I need to read more of.

Graeme: As far as “new” goes, I’m going to pick either writers who I’m “new to” or writers who are “new to fantasy” and go for…

The Steel Remains  Richard Morgan (he’s been around for a while but this is his first foray into fantasy)

 Caine Black Knife Matthew Stover (this books shows exactly why everyone has been saying how great the Caine books are)

Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet  Gregory Frost (I’m counting these as one book because that’s how they read as far as I’m concerned, a beautifully realised world of stories…)

The House of the Stag  Kage Baker (there are plenty of stories out there that give a twist to the character of the Dark Lord but this is the only one that has made me laugh!)

Empire in Black and Gold  Adrian Tchaikovsky (because it’s got everything I love about fantasy in it and I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished)

 

Pat: If by “new” you mean debut authors, then in my opinion 2008 was a major disappointment. Of course, we can’t expect a repeat of 2006 (Abercrombie, Novik, Ruckley, Lynch, etc) every year. Though not great, 2007 saw the emergence of a bona fide superstar in Patrick Rothfuss.

In 2008, no author truly got ahead of the pack, and no debut novel really stands out. My favourite new title would have to be Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow. One that did not live up to my expectations was Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains.

But if I were to recommend five new fantasy authors I’ve “discovered” in 2008, I would have to go with Ekaterina Sedia (The Secret History of Moscow), Melinda Snodgrass (The Edge of Reason), S. L. Farrell (A Magic of Twilight), and… Crap, that’s it.  :-(

Unless I’m allowed to include writers such as Glen Cook, Jim Butcher, or Jeffrey Ford…

Mark/Hobbit: OK: In no order

1. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan (review HERE.)

Controversial? Designed to shock? SF more than Fantasy? Whatever the reasons, I thought this was a lot of fun. It reminded me of those old Moorcocks and Fritz Lieber, fast, plot driven, edgy. In places it tried a tad too hard to be over-the-top, but for inventiveness and sheer nerve, I loved it.

2. The Company by KJ Parker (review HERE.)

Another surprise. This one really drew me in. Dark, cynical, even bitter: but very clever and inexorably magnetic.

3. Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan (review HERE.)

What surprised me here was the worldbuilding and the otherworldness that the best alternate fantasy can bring. It’s not easy to mix historical fantasy and faerie well, but this one does it for me.

4. The Painted Man / Warded Man by Peter Brett

A recent read for me, and a debut author to boot.  I enjoyed this one a lot, bringing up memories of various computer games, and, very strangely,Forbidden Planet. Took a little while for this one to get going for me, and there were some cliches near the beginning I could have done without, but once it did it was great. Very confident debut.

5. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie. (review HERE)

Bit of a no-brainer this one. Really, really enjoyed this. I was quite worried that Joe wouldn’t have been able to keep all those balls in the air that had been set in motion in the previous two books, but I’m pleased to say he did. And though many didn’t like the ending, I really thought it worked.

And a note: I haven’t included Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, as it was one of my favourites last year, though I think many will have come across it properly this year.

Any old classics you’ve caught up with?

Rob: Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle though they aren’t necessarily that old, but I reread them this year and liked both even more this time around. As the year winds its way towards Christmas, I’ll be popping my Lord of the Rings DVDs in since this has become something of a holiday tradition for me.

Ken: I finally got around to reading Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. It’s been 10 years since Heroes Die was originally published and it stands that time well, in fact this is one of the first of what has now become the common, gritty fantasy. And it can kick the ass of all those Johnny-come-latelies.

Graeme: I’ve been reading Del Rey’s collection of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories which is well worth picking up for anyone who just thinks that Howard began and ended with Conan. I’ve also been reading the latest Elric collections from Del Rey, I wasn’t too sure that the world needed another “definitive” Elric series but you can’t deny that the power and energy of Moorcock’s stories is still going strong!

Pat: Well, reading Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company was a joy, while going through Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth made me want to open my veins at times.

Mark/Hobbit: Yup: rereading Lovecraft in the lovely Gollancz reprint of HP Lovecraft’s work in one volume, a leather bound copy of his stories called The Necronomicon, has been a treat this year. But not one to tackle all at once, in my opinion.

I have tried to reread more classics this year (though it still hasn’t happened as much as I hoped.) I’ve been eyeing up those new Del Rey editions of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, even though I have those collected hardback volumes from a few years back.

I must also mention some great reprints from Wordsworth Press, whose tales of old Horror in the Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series have brought to light lots of old, and often sadly forgotten, pulp writers. I’ve discovered Edith Nesbit, J H Riddell, Andrew Caldecott and Elizabeth Gaskell this year and revisited others such as M R James, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and Robert E Howard through these very cheap reprints. They deserve credit. I’ve been dipping into those throughout 2008. Made up a lot of my Halloween reading this year.

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