Favorite Books of 2014

This list is going to be presented in 2 parts. The first part is the books I read for the first time in 2014, but which were not released that year. The second is 2014 releases that I read and really enjoyed. I didn’t put any rereads on this list, to prevent it from being 100% Sanderson. Neither list has a strict number of books on it, they’re just however many books I really enjoyed. I’m hoping this list will be longer next year, as I want to get more reading done. (Goals/resolutions post coming… Tomorrow?)

2014 Most enjoyed backlist books.

3. The Last Unicorn

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This is something of a classic that a lot of people couldn’t believe that I’d never read–and I see why. It’s not an epic tale, but it’s a touching one. It’s a beautiful story that just resonates in some way that is timeless and is difficult to describe. Really good read, and quick too. Definitely recommended.

2. The Android’s Dream

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I think one of my problems with many sci-fi novels is that they try to dig into the technology to make it “hard” sci-fi, and they do it wrong. Often, it’s obvious that the author has no idea what they are talking about, and it just makes me cringe. This happens particularly often in the realm of computers… Or perhaps I just notice it more because I’m a computer science major in college and spend an unhealthy amount of time working with the things every day. That’s why The Android’s Dream was so incredibly refreshing. It’s computer technology, hackers, aliens, and all the stuff that makes sci-fi cool. Done right. It’s very accurate, but it’s also riotously funny, completely self-contained, and never gets distracted from the hugely entertaining plot. This one really exceeded my expectations and I’m surprised there isn’t more hype about it. You can find my review here.

1. A Storm of Swords

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Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is a modern classic, and it’s hard to believe that I only started reading this series in 2013 and finished in 2014. (Up to A Dance with Dragons, the last book that is actually out.) GRRM is an absolute master of characterization and satisfying, interesting grey characters. I’m constantly left in awe of his work, and the second half A Storm of Swords, with The Red and Purple Weddings, the trial and combat, and the appearance of a certain someone in the epilogue, is one of the most gut wrenching and amazing things I’ve ever read. You can get away with not reading the books after this, but everyone should at least read up through here. It would be criminal not to.

2014 Most enjoyed releases.

6. What If?

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This is a non-fiction book, which is why I’ve stuck it at the end of the list. It’s quite a departure from my usual fare–I typically only read books like this when I have to for a class. This one, based on the popular What If? columns that xkcd writer Randall Munroe offers up on his website, is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and educational books I’ve ever read. You don’t need to be an uber nerd to understand what’s going on here–Munroe does a great job of explaining the results of his questions without going into the unnecessary details of the formulas he had to use. You will enjoy this one regardless. I promise. My review is here.

5. The Mirror Empire.

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I really enjoyed this one a lot. It had some of the most creative worldbuilding that I’ve ever seen. More inventive, honestly, than even some of Sanderson’s worlds. It really blew my mind, and the plot is utterly brilliant as well. I wish I could have said I completely loved it, but it left me confused in places and I felt it could have used a little smoothing out. Still, I did enjoy it, and I have high hopes for the next book in the series, Empire Ascendant. My review can be found here.

4. Ghost Train to New Orleans.

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This was a fun little read that I wasn’t quite expecting to be this good. I’m not a huge urban fantasy fan (Though a few of my friends are trying to convert me.), but I enjoyed the first book in the series enough to get this one on release day. If we’re going purely by enjoyment versus expectations, this one exceeded my expectations more than any other book on the list. My review resides here.

3. The Crimson Campaign.

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Brian McClellan in one of those guys who just won’t stop writing good stuff. In-between producing an amazing novel every year, he’s written several short stories and novellas in his powder mage world, which explores what happens when magic meets (and comes from) gunpowder. It’s a fascinating blend that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and his ability to ramp up the tension is superb. His first book, Promise of Blood, was an excellent, solid, four-star book that even earned him a well deserved cover-quote from Sanderson himself. The Crimson Campaign was even better in every way, and I tore through it as soon as I had the chance. Highly recommended. My review can be found here.

2. The Emperor’s Blades.

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This book was getting a lot of hype, so I figured that, when I received an ARC, I should probably read it. I did. I’m glad that I did. It was utterly incredible. I have never read a book with such incredibly tense pacing, certainly not of this length. What Staveley has managed here is nothing short of magical, especially in his debut. This isn’t just a book that I highly recommend, this is a book that I very nearly demand that you read. My drooling review is here.

1. WORDS OF RADIANCE.

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(I know that’s not the cover, but it’s one of the amazing end-pages and it’s just too beautiful to not use.)

I do not have enough superlatives to describe this book. Sanderson’s early books, Elantris and Warbreaker, are good, with very powerful surprise endings. He outdid himself with the Mistborn trilogy, which is still one of the most feels-inducing, beautiful things I have ever read. There are, perhaps, only a handful of books in all of fantasy literature that I would compare to the Mistborn trilogy, and most of those would be to describe how Mistborn is better. Then Sanderson wrote The Way of Kings. It is incredible. Simply put, when I read it, my initial thoughts (When I could think again) went something like, “This is the best book I have ever read. There will not be a better book. I’m sorry to all of the other books I ever read.” I felt the same way when I reread it last year. And then Words of Radiance came out. My mind has never, ever, been blown so much. World of Radiance is as big of an improvement on The Way of Kings as the Way of Kings is over every other book written. I was not able to write a review that did this book justice. I’ll try when I reread it, but I’m not making any promises.

That’s it for me. I read a total of 42 books, plus numerous novellas and short stories in 2014, and these were the ones I most enjoyed. I hope everyone else had a great year and found many books that they enjoyed as well! I’m looking forward to 2015 and the books it will bring. 🙂

Discussion Post: Some Thoughts on Reading

I’m currently participating in Faye’s Cosmere Readalong, and I absolutely love it. As you should know, Sanderson is my favorite author, ever. One of my favorite works of his is actually one of his shorter pieces, The Emperor’s Soul. It comes in at around 164 pages, and it’s firmly in the Novella category. It actually won the Hugo last year (2013) for best novella, a prize I think it deserved.

But I’m not here to talk about The Emperor’s Soul, though I will have a review up when I have a bit more time. [I have a handful of books I need to review. Hopefully I’ll catch up really soon.] I’m here to talk about how I read it–and how I enjoy reading books.

I have read the Emperor’s Soul three times now, and every time, I have read it in a single sitting, a single unbroken reading period, with only the briefest of breaks. It’s easy enough to do this with The Emperor’s Soul–it takes me under 2 hours. I read this way whenever I can. Last summer, I was suffering from a nasty fit of depression and I wanted a way out of this world. My way out was to read books, immersing myself in the lives of fictional characters and their worlds, living and breathing their air. I read a ridiculous number of books–I’m not even sure how many. But I had a few weeks where I was stuck at home with nothing I wanted to do, and I read. I made it through The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear combined in three days. I think I made it through Sanderson’s Alcatraz series in 2 days. (4 books, about 50,000 words each.) I re-read The Way of Kings in a little over a day. This wasn’t just over that one summer, either. Several years back, at the release of the last Harry Potter book, I was at the store at midnight, picked up my copy, went come, and read it cover to cover, pulling one of my first all-nighters. I did something similar with the releases of A Memory of Light and Steelheart. This is how I read, whenever I have the choice.

And I was not skimming these books, either. I was reading every word, absorbing and immersing myself as fully as I could. Last summer was, while still the worst I have ever felt in my life, at the same time an incredible experience. I loved being able to read books for hours on end, without caring about anything else, without having to ever get up and spend a few hours doing schoolwork, or deal with other distractions.

Not everyone reads this way. Some people will speed-read. I’ve never understood that idea, honestly. They’re not getting the full enjoyment of the book, the full content. They aren’t savoring all of the words and the intricacies that can pop up, even on a re-read. I caught a gyorn in my Emperor’s Soul reread that I didn’t see the first two times, and it was a neat easter-egg. [I spotted the main Elantris one on my first read–it’s much more obvious. If you don’t understand what I just said, go read Sanderson’s work. It’s amazing.] I don’t want to miss a single detail. Authors spend time painstakingly deciding exactly what to show us and what to avoid, cutting and trimming. Every word they publish is meant to be there, and I’ve never understood those who would skip over words just to finish more quickly.

Unfortunately, recently, I’ve not even been able to read any books in a single–or even small handful–of sittings recently. I’ve almost exclusively been restricted to reading a handful of pages every night, a chapter or two, and then getting back to the book the next day. I’ve found that this really does lessen my enjoyment–my sense of immersion–in the books I’ve been reading. I know that I’ve been reading some absolutely incredible books, and a handful of not so good ones, but I really feel as if I’ve lacked that sense of immersion. I’m still reading what feels like a book a week, though I may be going a little bit slower than that–or faster, on the best books, the ones where I’m willing to literally lose that precious hour of sleep to find out what happens next.

I’m not sure what to do about it, honestly. I will not resort to speed-reading in order to read the books more quickly, and there’s no way I’m going to just wait until I have time to read an entire book in 2-3 days. I know that a lot of my blogger friends are also busy people–how do you deal with this problem? Do you just get used to reading the books in smaller chunks, or do you have strategies for making more time to read them? Do any of you have a time turner or some bendalloy I can borrow? I want to know!

Book Review: The Android’s Dream

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From the back cover:

A human diplomat kills his alien counterpart. Earth is on the verge of war with a vastly superior alien race. A lone man races against time and a host of enemies to find the one object that can save our planet and our people from alien enslavement…

A sheep.

That’s right, a sheep. And if you think that’s the most surprising thing about this book, wait until you read Chapter One. Welcome to The Android’s Dream.

For Harry Creek, it’s quickly becoming a nightmare. All he wants is to do his uncomplicated mid-level diplomatic job with Earth’s State Department. But his past training and skills get him tapped to save the planet–and to protect pet store owner Robin Baker, whose own past holds the key to the whereabouts of that lost sheep. Doing both will take him from lava-strewn battlefields to alien halls of power. All in a day’s work. Maybe it’s time for a raise.

I managed to read this one in four days, something of a miracle considering my current reading load and how the rest of my life is going (School, mostly.).

The book starts off talking about farts, something that almost put me off immediately. I enjoy funny books, and I know that humor sometimes gets crude, but potty humor is, for some reason, something I nearly always find disgusting.

Thankfully, this type of humor worked perfectly into the plot, and made sense. It also was not a large part of the rest of the novel.

That’s not to say the rest of the book wasn’t funny. I haven’t read a book this hilarious since Sanderson’s Alcatraz series. Many of the plot points and ideas–even the alien species and the religions–in the book seem ridiculous and crazy at first glance, and I found myself laughing throughout.

But Scalzi also managed to do something here that I’ve never seen done before quite so well: he blended the ridiculous levels of humor and insanity into a coherent plot, where every part, every rambling explanation of how a man wrote prophesies as poems to get money from an old lady, and inadvertently founded a church (Uh, yeah. That happened.), and makes it not only make sense, but also play a critical role in what happens in the plot. I was continually astonished by the way he did that in this novel; every time he went off to explain some new and crazy idea, I expected it to be just put there to be silly. I was wrong every single time, and it made me happy, every single time.

The plot itself was gripping. It follows a rather interesting and shady bunch of people across the galaxy. Many of them are brilliant at what they do, some are simply despicable. My favorite is, hands down, Harry Creek. He is, in many ways, everything I wish I could be. A talented programmer, a brilliant soldier, and a genuinely good guy, who’s just trying to do what he can to save the human race from complete annihilation at the hands of a race of aliens who want… A sheep.

Two of the main characters, Harry and Archie, are both very good with computers, and technology plays a critical role at several points in the plot of the novel. I’ve read plenty of books before where the computer science side of things was handled with a hand-wave or a few fancy tech buzz-words. Not here. This is the real deal. Scalzi knows what he’s talking about when he talks about computers and how they work. I’m a second year computer science student, and I’m not sure that I could write those portions of the novel as accurately as he did, but I definitely know enough to know that he wrote them correctly. I’m not sure if he is that knowledgeable himself, or if he called in an expert to help him (Sanderson has said, for example, that he did something of the sort with the medical scenes in The Way of Kings.), but the end result is excellent. I want to thank Scalzi for the attention to detail, and I wish more authors would do this.

The plot of the novel itself is never forgotten for more than a few pages, and the pacing is excellent. In a novel that could easily become sidetracked in the richness and humor of the universe, Scalzi manages to focus on the single central plot, and I was very impressed and never bored with the book. I finished it in four days, and it did not feel like I was rushing. In fact, I usually put it down at 3 AM, wishing I could read more, but knowing I had to get up and do other things the next day.

This novel is a stand-alone, and it shows. At times, I think I forget how satisfying a good stand-alone novel can be, lost in the glory of Randland and Westeros, the Cosmere and Temerant (Kudos if you know them all.). I’ve loved other stand-alones before, most notably Tigana. The Android’s Dream reminded me why. It is completely self-contained, and has an incredibly fun, twisty, and satisfying ending. It reminded me of a Sanderson ending, with its complexity and unexpectedness, although I was able to call a few of the major twists a few pages before they happened. Four days to start, live, love, and finish an entire world. I really should read more stand-alone novels.

In conclusion: The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi is a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud hilarious–even if it does occasionally stray into crude humor–stand-alone novel. It manages to make the humor utterly ridiculous and simultaneously integral to the completely serious plot. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that portrays computer technology accurately, and it has a very twisty, satisfying ending.

It blew me away. If you like brilliantly funny novels, and you want a quick, satisfying read, I highly recommend The Android’s Dream. Five of Five stars.

Links:

Goodreads

Amazon

John Scalzi’s Blog

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

 

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From the back cover:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

I read Ancillary Justice earlier this year as an attempt to prepare myself for voting in the Hugo Awards for the first time. The results of the voting have just come in, and Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, making it the first novel ever to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards, considered by some to be the “triple crown” of the sci-fi and fantasy world. Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s first published novel, making this feat even more impressive.

The non-linear structure of the story is confusing at first. It’s told in two parts, the present and a series of flashbacks. I don’t have page- or word-counts, but it felt like the flashbacks took up nearly as much of the novel as the present time viewpoints, and I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks. That being said, these flashbacks were written well. I was never confused as to where or when I was, a problem I’ve run into with many books in the past.

The ideas behind the novel are very engaging, and Breq’s character most of all. She is–or was–an AI, capable of simultaneously inhabiting the bodies of hundreds, or even thousands of captives at once, allowing her to not only serve the crew herself as a ship (She is not allowed to be her own crew.), but also maintain a presence on a nearby planet. We see much, much more of this in the flashback chapters, which makes them absolutely critical for an understanding of her current situation, where she had been broken off from the ship, and is trapped in a single one of the bodies she once inhabited, reducing her to something nearly human.

Her struggle, an attempt to take revenge on the person–a term I use loosely here–who did this to her, has consumed her life since this event, and we meet her as she nears the point where she will have all of the tools she will need. Her drive for revenge is what pushes the novel along.

However, I feel that it gets distracted in places. The flashback chapters start out by simply showing us the world–fascinating through the PoV of an AI, but still mostly exposition–and I had a hard time getting through the first part of the book. Also, Breq takes some side-trips on her journey to attain the items she needs that I didn’t see any reason for in the plot, which frustrated me. I felt the book itself could have been shorter, and would have benefitted from it, mostly from a pacing perspective.

The ending was simultaneously satisfying and annoying. Ancillary Justice is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book, Ancillary Sword, comes out on October 7th, less than two months from now. Ancillary Justice doesn’t tie up as many threads as I was hoping it would, but it does seem like it will fit well into the context of the trilogy. I’ll be getting the other books as they come out. I’m hoping the second book will be structured a little differently, with more action and less time on flashbacks. I can’t say much more about the ending without spoilers, so you’ll have to read it yourself to understand what I’m saying.

No review of Ancillary Justice would be complete without talking about the “pronoun thing”. In the language of the Radch, In which Breq thinks and speaks, all sentient beings are referred to as “she”, regardless of other considerations. This becomes apparent when Breq is required to interact with those outside of the empire, and often becomes confused by which pronoun to use. She notes that it is easier to just use one, and that it is often confusing to try to distinguish male and female among the many species which inhabit the galaxy, many of which have different visible sexual dimorphisms, or at times none at all.

This use has been praised by many in the SF/F community as progressive, and it is one of the reasons why the book has won so many awards over the past year. I personally found it to be an interesting–if distracting–world-building element an the beginning, which blended into the universe by the end of the story. I would be very interested to see how they would handle this in a movie or television adaptation of the series, where the viewers would have visual cues on the genders of the characters.

Verdict: Well worth the read, and I have no problems with Ancillary Justice winning the awards it did (Though I was pulling for The Wheel of Time for the Hugo.), as it was well written and contained some absolutely brilliant ideas. I found the flashbacks to be info-heavy, the pacing sometimes slow, and the ending slightly dissatisfying (Though it’s the first in a series, so it’s understandable.). The characters were well written, and the central conflict seemed very realistic. I’d recommend, but it’s not at the top of my list. Four out of Five stars. It’ll be interesting to see how Ancillary Sword does in next year’s awards.

Links:

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Sword

Review: The Emperor’s Blades

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I have been incredibly lucky this year in the books I’ve been able to read. So much so, in fact, that my luck has spilled over into next year. The Emperor’s Blades, which I’ve had the chance to read, by Brian Staveley, will be released January 14, 2014.

This book tells the story of three siblings, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden, the children of the Emperor of Annur.

Well, they were his children. The Emperor has been assassinated. The Emperor’s Blades, the first book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, investigates what happens to each of them immediately after his death.

Adare, living in the capital, has to deal with the most immediate effects of her father’s death, and attempt to hold the empire together until the heir to the throne can return and become emperor. At the same time, she attempts to hunt down her father’s murderer.

Kaden, Adare’s brother, is the heir to the throne. He has spent the past eight years in a remote monastery on the edge of the empire, training in the ways of the monks, yet never understanding why. He must now try to figure out what he was sent to learn before it is too late–it will be crucial to his success as emperor.

Vayln, separated from his siblings by an ocean, is learning to be a Kettral; an elite soldier who, working with a team, flies into battle on the back of giant hawks. But before he can return home and grieve for his father, Vayln must pass the grueling but mysterious test to become a full Kettral, as well as avoid possible attempts on his life.

————

There are a lot of decent books being published these days. I have read, and enjoy a large number of these, even if they don’t make me incredibly excited.

There are even a good number of good books being published, ones that I truly enjoy and would recommend to my friends, and give high ratings to. These are not as common, but they are not too hard to find if you look through the reviews.

And then there are great books. Books that will blow your shoes off and leave you stunned because the author has done such a magnificent job in their craft. These are the books that you recommend to all of your friends, and are often annoyed if they haven’t read them.

The Emperor’s Blades falls firmly into the third category. I read the book during the semester, with my full load of classes. My copy comes in at 476 pages, and it’s certainly not a short book by any means. I have been rationing myself this semester, forcing myself to read slowly so that I have time for schoolwork and other activities that I need to finish.

I read The Emperor’s Blades in 4 days. Once I started, I could not put the book down. The pacing and tension that Staveley builds throughout is incredibly well done. The chapter switches, from viewpoint to viewpoint, quickly reached the part where, at every single viewpoint switch, I thought “No! I want to stay with this character!” even though I had thought the same thing when I left the character I was returning to. It takes a skilled writer to make you feel this way about all of the characters in a book, and Staveley has done it magnificently well. The pacing will leave you breathless as you tear through the book, so be warned.

The book was not perfect. I would have preferred to see more from Adare’s viewpoint (She definitely did not have 1/3 of the screen time.), and some of the plot devices and world-building (the monks in particular) felt well worn.

However, those shortcomings are greatly outshone by the rest of the book. In addition to the pacing, the characters were compelling. While I would not classify any of them as “lovable”, they are relatable, and that, perhaps more than anything, is the most important thing. Vayln, in particular, seems to just want to leave his island and get back to the kingdom, but must struggle through various trials first. Because I, too, wanted him to be able to leave, I sympathized with him.

The ending was well executed, bringing various threads together into a satisfying and brutal climax, which left a lot open for the next two books. This book is not a “fun” book, the amount of death and other brutality is high, but it gives a very realistic sense to the world, and I wouldn’t want it even a notch lower.

The world-building was interesting. There is, obviously, a lot going on behind the scenes here that we don’t know about yet, which I assume we will find out a lot more about in the next two books. I am going to with-hold judgement on the full extent of the world-building until more of the world is revealed, but what I have seen–including the chilling prologue–is excellent.

And on that note… Ninja assassins on giant flying hawks? Why has no-one written that before? The Kettral are flat out awesome. I can’t even begin to describe how totally cool they are; you have to read yourself to get the full impact. And I highly recommend that you do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to everyone. Brian Staveley is an author to watch, and I predict this will be one of the best debuts, if not the best, of 2014. You can actually read the first seven chapters right now, here. If you want to pre-order your copy, you can do so from Amazon, here. I know I’ll be getting another copy when it is released. This is an incredible book, and the author deserves my money.

Without question, I give The Emperor’s Blades five stars, and a high recommendation. Go read it!

You can find Brian Staveley’s website here.