SFFWorld Review of the Year, 2013 Part 1: Fantasy and Horror Books

SFFWorld logoSFFWorld Review of the Year, 2013

So here we are again: our SFFWorld review of the year. (This is something like our eleventh!)

For the uninitiated, this is usually where Rob Bedford and I try to pull together what we see as key genre books from the previous twelve months. I should really point out before we start that there is always some slippage here, as books get published in different places around the world at different times.

Putting it simply, some books may reappear even though they were mentioned previously. At the moment this seems to be a ‘UK first, US later’ thing, but by no means always.

At the end, Rob and I usually try and mention our year’s favourites. We try and limit it to five each, but it doesn’t always happen that way. (In fact, it never does, but the intention is always there….!)
Right: with that over, let’s get started.

Part 1: Fantasy and Horror

Mark: OK, let’s start with the most popular section of our year review. There were over 250 books published in these genres this year, according to Locus Magazine. Even with a global recession, it seems that Fantasy and Horror books are doing pretty well.

Think I’d better start with a personal surprise, in that last year at this time I was bemoaning the lack of any enjoyable new Epic Fantasy. I ended last year and began this year with a couple of clunkers, in my opinion (although one of those has since won the Gemmell Award for Best Novel, so what do I know?)

Anyway, my pleasant surprise is that I have read some surprisingly good new Epic Fantasy this year, and some good debut novels. I’m much happier at this point than I was at this time last year.

Rob: It was a strong year for debuts, but for me, I’ve found at least 2 or 3 debut epics to my liking in recent years.

For me, Luke Scull’s debut, The Grim Company, had a bit of a wobbly start for me, but improved enormously as it went along, to the point where I’m really looking forward to its sequel, Sword of the North, in March 2014.  In a similar way, AJ Smith’s debut The Black Guard I really enjoyed and was a very strong debut for me. Similarly, Stella Gemmell’s The City was a pleasantly solid Fantasy novel, which we both enjoyed, I think.

It may be a cheat, but my favourite debut in epic fantasy this year was Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song.  I realize he self-published it in 2012, but it received a wide global release this year.  The simple description is think Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, but focusing on a knight/warrior rather than a practitioner of magic.  A terrific, polished novel.

I was late to this one (I’ve only just read it!), but wholeheartedly agree. The second novel is due in April next year. Another one to look forward to!

2013 may just be the year of the self-published writers. To add with Anthony on the roster, David Dalglish, whose Dance series was published in quick succession after being re-edited by Orbit, seems to have made many readers happy this year. Like Anthony’s, this one was self-published before being picked up by Orbit. And we have Michael Sullivan’s series, ongoing in 2013 with the first couple of a prequel trilogy, The Riyria Chronicles. Are we seeing the arrival of self-published authors in some force now? We have a few authors who have been previously self-published but have been picked up by genre publishers this year. Suspect this trend may continue into 2014.

Another solid debut was Brian T. McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powder Mage Trilogy and part of a growing movement of Flintlock Fantasy.  The story has the feel of Revolutionary/Colonial America and mixes magic with gunpowder. The second novel is already scheduled for 2014.

Nila also rated Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, which is due here in January 2014. It sounds similar. It also sounds like Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, another well-received debut this year.

I also really rated Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (Review HERE) at the beginning of the year, which was a Hugo-nominated novel. (It was out in 2012 in the States, but appeared here in Britain in Jan 2013.)  It was short, though great fun, to me very reminiscent of Arabian Nights type tales, but with a Weird Tales twist. I’m looking forward to more from this author.  I’ve also heard that Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni touches similar ground, though I haven’t read it myself. Seems to be well liked, though.  Rob, I know you liked The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones, published this year, which can be placed in this group too.

Being a Fantasy set in old Empires was not strictly Arabian or Medieval this year. Mark Charan Newton’s Roman-esque locked room mystery/fantasy, Drakenfeld, was a great read. I look forward to more in this series.

Most recently, I have been impressed with Antoine Rouaud’s The Path of Anger, a French novelist also published for the first time in English this year. It reminded me of older Fantasy novels in that it was grim in places, but not really ‘Grimdark’.

Away from the ‘new’ Epic, Fantasy generally, no doubt buoyed by the continuing success of the Game of Thrones TV series, was quite popular this year. Of the year’s big releases, Neil Gaiman’s return to adult fiction in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was liked by many. Again, Neil’s work I often enjoy but was left fairly unmoved by this one personally. Others have been much more impressed.

I liked The Ocean at the End of the Lane initially, but it isn’t staying with me as strongly as most of Gaiman’s work often does.

Of the Fantasy writers who are in the midst of a multi-volume series, Daniel Abraham with The Tyrant’s Law seems to have impressed both of us.

The Tyrant’s Law was a great epic fantasy novel, for my reading time and money, Daniel Abraham is writing the best Epic Fantasy series with The Dagger and The Coin.

Scott Lynch made a welcome return with The Republic of Thieves, which you reviewed, Rob.

The Republic of Thieves was a welcome return, yes, but it felt a bit longish to me.  But the ending was fantastic and reveals hints of the long game Scott is playing which was quite pleasing.

There’s also Tad Williams’ latest Bobby Dollar novel, Happy Hour in Hell, which you liked Rob, too. Don’t think that one has had the recognition it deserves, at least here in the UK, anyway.

Calling Myke Cole an “older author” isn’t quite accurate, but Fortress Frontier is his second novel and is even better than his terrific debut.  Myke takes all the elements of epic fantasy/sword and sorcery and thrusts them into the modern world where magic becomes a weaponized thing for the world’s military powers.

Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle continued with The Daylight War, the first of his novels to crack the extended New York Times Bestseller list. I’ve enjoyed each instalment and think of this series as blend of Terry Brooks’s Shannara post-apocalyptic fantasy and Stephen King’s Dark Tower.

Sword and sorcery continues to be strongly represented in the fantasy genre. Paul S. Kemp is biding his time between his popular Forgotten Realms characters, with The Godborn, the second instalment of a company-wide crossover The Sundering and his original creations Egil & Nix with A Discourse in Steel. Paizo, the company Pathfinder role-playing game, has been publishing many well-received novels set in Golarion, the shared world of the game, including new novels from T.A. Pratt (aka Tim Pratt), Howard Andrew Jones, Dave Gross, and Ed Greenwood.

It’s been a year of completion for many authors. Mark Lawrence finished his Broken Empire trilogy with Emperor of Thorns, which many readers at SFFWorld were pleased with. Brandon Sanderson managed to complete what many thought wouldn’t happen – the Wheel of Time series. Stephen Donaldson finished the Thomas Covenant series with The Last Dark.  And Raymond Feist finished his time (at least for now) in Midkemia with Magician’s End. Just as impressively, Sir Terry Pratchett published his 40th Discworld novel with Raising Steam.

A Memory of Light did indeed start the year with a bang, I thought Sanderson did an admirable job of taking the torch from Mr. Jordan.  I was lucky enough to participate as a “Memory Keeper” at one of the Brandon Sanderson signings here in the US, helping to corral the crowds and meeting both him and Harriet (Jordan’s widow). That was a special night.

I’m pleased, though perhaps not quite as much as you, Rob, that Joe Hill has finally managed to produce a novel as good as his short stories in NOS4R2/NOS4A2.

I’m just as pleased, actually, though I think I know what you mean; I’ve enjoyed Joe’s prior novels a bit more than you have. That said, NOS4A2 is my favourite book published in 2013.  His old man published a helluva novel, too. Doctor Sleep is the first King novel I’ve read in maybe a decade and it felt like vintage King to me. It was a bit risky tackling characters from his most famous novel (The Shining), but it did not disappoint in the least.

I’ve added that one to my list. I actually think King Senior may be on an upward swing again. When I read it in 2011, his 11 22 63 was one of the best King novels I’ve read for a long while, much better than the very disappointing Under the Dome. Joyland, his coming-of-age novel with a touch of The Twilight Zone, was a nice surprise this year too, as it was much shorter and leaner than King novels of late, and all the better for it (review HERE.) It can be said that he’s not been missed in film and TV this year, what with the new Carrie film remake and the Under the Dome TV series. (We’ll talk more about that when we sort TV & Film later in our Year reviews.)

I think my favourite new Horror for the year has been another debut novel, The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring (reviewed HERE.) An interesting mix of ‘fact’ and fiction, based on a real haunting in the UK in the 1920’s and 30’s. If anyone has seen the film The Awakening, it covers similar ground.

Three other authors who really impressed me with tales that can be seen as veering into the Horror & Dark Fantasy side of the genre: Robert Jackson Bennett, Chuck Wendig, and Joseph D’Lacey.  Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers was a bit of a surprise, the first in an apocalyptic duology titled Black Dawn. This powerful tale focuses on a storyline at the time the apocalypse occurs and decades after when the world is transformed.

Bennett’s novel, American Elsewhere, was a tour-de-force that has elements of Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction and Cthulhu mythos.  Think the best qualities of a Stephen King story, a Neil Gaiman story, and an H.P. Lovecraft story and you’ll have a good idea of where this thing is going. After The Troupe, which was great, I really don’t see why American Elsewhere didn’t get a UK release (although you can get it for that e-reader thingy.) If you want a tree-copy, you can get hold of the US edition, but it’s not easy. I do have a copy, because you recommended it so strongly, Rob, and am looking forward to getting to it soon.

Chuck Wendig, I’d been following on Twitter for the past couple of years and this year I finally read one (well, two) of his novels.  The Blue Blazes is one of those novels that has so much going on in it that it shouldn’t work, but it is pure awesomeness. Gangsters, monsters beneath Manhattan, colourful magic, colourful language and a protagonist named Mookie Pearl.  Think I’m in the minority here, as my experience (to date) of Chuck’s work I’ve not enjoyed. Angry Robot kindly gave me a copy of Blackbirds to look at, but I really didn’t like it.

Collections: I daresay George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois’s Dangerous Women will be on many lists for Christmas. Still working on it (it’s a big volume!), but so far there are more strong hits than misses.

I only read one collection this year, and it falls in the SF category so I’ll hold off until then. I’ve got a copy of Dangerous Women and, by Odin’s beard, is this thing enormous! I’ll at least dip into the Martin and Abercrombie stories in it.

This year may just be the year of the self-published writers. Two names to add to the roster this year seem to have impressed: David Dalglish, whose ShadowDance series was published in monthly quick succession after being re-edited by Orbit, and especially Anthony Ryan, whose Blood Song seems to have made many readers happy this year. As you’ve said, Rob, this one was self-published before being picked up by Orbit. Are we seeing the arrival of self-published authors in some force now?

I think so and I think in genre it goes back to Michael Sullivan, who released two additional novels set in the same world of his Riyria Revelations. I’m noticing on some other best of year summaries more self-published novels cracking the lists.

This increase in self-published novels may be due in part to the increased presence of the e-book, which has increased its influence this year. I must admit, after replacing my cranky old S**y Reader with a Kindle Paperwhite, that I am using one myself more than ever. I’m sure I’m not the only person. I do like my books to hold, if I’m honest, but I can see the attractions of the e-reader more now.  This year, reading six-hundred-plus page slabs of text on the Kindle has been easier rather than carry the physical tome about. It has definitely been a plus.

Of course, as busy readers, we’ve also had the chance to catch up on some re-reads or missed reads this year. My personal favourites have been A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson and lots of short stories in the Wildside Press e-book series. I’m also very pleased to see the return in digital format of Matthew Stover’s Kane.

For me, the “catch-up” reads included David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy, a superb completed Epic Fantasy trilogy and a couple more in The Dresden Files. I’m still two books behind, but I’ll catch up before the new book, Skin Game, publishes in the Spring of 2014.

We’ve had some sad losses in the Fantasy world this year. It was depressing to hear of the passing of Richard Matheson and Jack Vance, amongst others. In particular for me was Jack Vance, though perhaps more for his SF than his Fantasy. Nevertheless, I’d recommend I Am Legend and Lyonesse as good books to pick up and remember the writers by. My most recent ‘find’, in the year that he died, sadly, is Basil Copper, a great Horror writer who I *thought* was a new discovery to me in my Hallowe’en read of 2013, Shadows Over Innsmouth.  I’ve since found I’ve read a lot of his stories without realising they were his! I’ve enjoyed them so much (and about 60 years later than I should!) that my Christmas Horror read of 2013 is the three volume collection of his Collected Tales, Darkness, Mist & Shadow, edited by Stephen Jones and out this year. Can thoroughly recommend that one, for M R James and Lovecraft fans.

So: your five suggestions for this year, Rob:

1. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill;

2. American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett;

3. The Tyrant’s Law (review at by Daniel Abraham;

4. Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole;

5.TIE: Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.


And mine will be (in no order):

1. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan;

2. The Black Guard by AJ Smith;

3. The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring;

4. NOS4R2 by Joe Hill;

5. The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham.



Next: SF.


  1. A great year’s wrap up. Thanks for the mention of my books – and I do hope we’ll see more self-published authors like David and Anthony breaking in…I do think hybrid authorship (those that both self-publish and traditionally publish) is the way of the future.

    • Hobbit says:

      Thanks Michael.
      I think what you’ve highlighted there (and, to a degree, what you’re part of yourself!) is an interesting development. Certainly the barriers that used to be there seem to be less these days, and I’ve got at least two in my ‘to be read’ pile for 2014 that seem to confirm what you and I/we are suggesting, by following exactly that route.


    • AmethystOrator says:

      It does seem to me like more authors who are published in print have been self-publishing as well.

      Ilona Andrews has been self-publishing ebooks for awhile, in addition to their contracts with more than one traditional publisher, but just had their first print-on-demand book this month.

      Michelle Sagara West was nice enough to compile six short stories that are long out of print from their various anthologies into a print on demand book that she self-published last year.

      Then there are other authors such as Brian McClellan or Brandon Sanderson who have short stories in eformat available, though I’m unsure if they’re self-published or not?

  2. AmethystOrator says:

    I enjoyed reading the review, thanks. I personally don’t at all mind that there were a lot more than five books apiece being discussed, when the goal is to review a year then I say the more the merrier, especially if it involved the area of Urban Fantasy (sorry for suggesting more work). There were some instances where I had different reactions on a couple of things, but that’s bound to occur.

    I do wish that one or both of you might have had a chance to try Django Wexler’s ‘The Thousand Names’, but maybe some time later. Speaking of which, have you ever considered a thread where various forum members vote or try to persuade one or both of you to make time in your schedules for a book you weren’t otherwise planning to read? I don’t know how well it might work, but it seems like it might be an interesting experiment (my apologies for again trying to find ways to increase your workload).

  3. Hobbit says:

    Hi Amethyst: thanks for your comments.

    Urban Fantasy: ah, yes. As you can tell it’s one of the areas we haven’t read and enjoyed much of, though we do try. Rob’s on catch up with Jim Butcher, I’ve read a couple this year but none have really grabbed my attention. That and Young Adult are areas that Kat and others are always saying (and quite rightly so) we should do more on. So many books, so little time…

    We always try and emphasise that what is here is personal opinion – such is the nature of our reviews, too. I actually hope that people have a different reaction: wouldn’t it be boring if we all thought the same? (Not even Rob and I do, always!). But that’s what can make the forums fun.

    I quite like the idea of persuading us to read something – but the pile of to be read is enormous, and is always calling, which is why I was so late reading Blood Song, and haven’t read The Thousand Names yet (although its in the pile!). I forever live in hope. One day, one day… but with over 500 published in SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2013 it is quite daunting. We don’t always get chance to read what we want at the time we want, but I’m not complaining! Still I’m thinking about that idea… thanks for suggesting it.

  4. Rob B says:

    I could be inclined to read what members vote on something we otherwise may not read. As Mark suggests, we both receive quite a few books for review from publishers, and of those books, there are a few I wouldn’t read if the publisher didn’t send them to me.

    Yeah, UF isn’t always in our wheelhouse of reading.

    Thanks for the comments AE!

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