Here are some suggestions for what to spend your holiday gift cards on if you are a fantasy reader.
First, a couple of caveats: in order to pare down number of books we need to cover, we the reviewers are sticking primarily with authors or publishers from the southeastern part of the US, and we gave fantasy and science fiction titles for middle grades and teens their own post: http://bullspec.com/2012/12/20/exploding-spaceships-2012-guide-for-family-reading/ .
Starting off in book release date order, from January 2012, we have Raven Cursed, written by Faith Hunter and published by ROC. This is a busy year for Faith and her heroine; the fifth Jane Yellowrock novel was released in October and is further down this list.
Jane Yellowrock is a unique heroine: she’s a shape-shifting skinwalker who hunts vampires…and, irony of ironies, works for a master vampire.
The story is set in New Orleans and the Asheville area of North Carolina, and the author makes great use of the ancient and scary legends peculiar to both places.
Jane Yellowrock herself is every inch the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding road warrior, kicking copious amounts of vampiric backside, during which process blades get broken, guns get smashed and clothing gets shredded. Through it all, Jane comes across as all woman; Hunter does a wonderful job of showing that femininity and lethality are not mutually exclusive.
Romance and friendship are strong motivating factors for Jane and both create serious complications in her line of work; when friendship and work become dangerously intertwined, Jane has to come up with a creative solution that lets her and her friends survive. Some of her friendships become strained in the process, but by the end most everyone is back on speaking terms.
Hunter draws heavily upon Celtic traditions for the magic depicted in this story, and shows that warlock magic is very different from witch magic.
Overall, Raven Cursed is a very good adventure/mystery with a strong female lead, a good twisty plot, and enough fight scenes and Beautiful People to hold any reader’s interest.
In February came the release of the next book in Gail Martin’s The Fallen Kings Cycle, titled Book Two: The Dread. Conflicting family obligations drive the plot in this concluding volume of the cycle. The Summoner-King, the Queen and their baby all have their parts to play but from varying locations. As is usual for Gail’s plots this one is complicated with enemies, assassinations, and magical issues. Hopefully, the very interesting infant will grow up some and become the subject of a new series.
April saw Baen release the new Dave Freer novel, Dog and Dragon. The title and dedication give a clue about who is the key character in this story: Freer dedicated the book to Roland, his Old English Sheep Dog, and the title puts the dog first.
In the previous book, Dragon’s Ring, Meb was revealed to be a mage of great power in a land where the dragons have kept magic out of human hands by killing all the mages. Meb believed her name to be Scrap, apprentice to Finn the black dragon and didn’t realize that she was using magic instinctively; she just dismissed it as luck.
In Dog and Dragon, Meb travels through Lyonesse and learns about the magic in that world, while Dileas remains with Finn, leading the dragon through several portals between alternate worlds to reunite them with Meb. Dileas proves to be a remarkable canine, possessed of unusual intelligence and having no fear of a dragon’s scent. As the story progresses it becomes quite clear who is the leader of the dog/dragon pair…and it isn’t the dragon. This is a very interesting fantasy world with unusual and well developed characters who will hopefully appear in another volume soon.
Larry Correia is the most frequently appearing author on our list with 3 volumes of 2 different series. Hard Magic: Book I of The Grimnoir Chronicles was released in paperback in April. This series is completely different from any other fantasy on the market. It is set in a pulp novel style film noir alternate 1930s with magic users being treated almost like mutants are in the X-Men universe. None of the characters are really good guys, they are just less bad so you can root for them. Jake Sullivan is a complex and interesting main character. His relationships and histories with the other characters make the story feel like the background is very extensive. Look for Jake’s appearance in a short story in the Baen Christmas volume titled Cosmic Christmas.
May brought us MacBeth: A Novel from A.J. Hartley and David Hewson. Strangely, this was originally an audio book and its popularity led to the print version. You won’t find it in some bookstores because it is published by Amazon’s publisher Thomas & Mercer. A.J Hartley also appears on our middle grades list for other fantasy writing, but this one has truly merged his day job as a Shakespeare professor with his fiction writing, with a fantastic result.
Thought you didn’t like Shakespeare? Try this version. You need not be familiar with MacB…er, “The Scottish Play” to enjoy this tale of intrigue, mystery, and murder. The authors have made some embellishments here and there, but the story remains intact, and will keep you turning pages right up to the bitter end.
The eleventh-century Scottish highlands are the perfect place for mystery and mayhem: the forbidding terrain and weather make travel difficult, and the characters have to hole up in their castles for day and weeks at a time; this is enough to bring out anybody’s crazy, and when the crazy comes out to play, things get messy. Really messy.
Hartley and Hewson have added details and plot twists that will surprise even veteran Shakespeare fans, while at the same time remaining very true to the source material; the authors’ familiarity with and love of this material really shines through; the reader will at points feel like he is right there with the characters, especially at the big finish when…but that would be telling.
In June Baen released the paperback of something totally new from this publisher: urban fantasy with an erotic edge in The Wild Side. This volume was a pleasant surprise when the cover art first appeared on the screen during a Baen Traveling Show. Baen doesn’t release many short story collections in a given year, but 2012 seems to be a banner year for them as this volume and two others made our lists. Every story in this volume was good and they ran the gamut from funny to dark. Hopefully they will give this genre a try again in the future.
The most unique take on paranormal urban fantasy in 2012 has to be from Kate Locke in her new series The Immortal Empire with Book 1 being titled God Save the Queen, released in July 2012 from Orbit. Her series is set in an alternate history where the UK monarchy and upper-class are vampires and werewolves. Modern science is used to explain that the bubonic plague mutated to cause vampirism in England and lycanthropy in Scotland. These conditions occur when the “Prometheus Protein” is inherited from both parents, how they are expressed is different in the two countries because at the time of the mutation they were geographically isolated from each other due to the low tech level and the terrain.
Xandra Vardan is the protagonist, a half-blood vampire who works as a guard for the royals, a position which only the best students from the half-blood academy are allowed to take. Xandra’a mother died when she was young but apparently had some secrets which no one has shared with Xandra. She has normal young adult feelings about abandonment, step-moms, sibling rivalry, and the search for a spouse regardless of the strange alternate world she lives in.
As Xandra uncovers her past and solves the problem of her missing sister, she also uncovers secrets that some aristocrats, including her father, would rather she didn’t uncover. This results in great personal danger, but Xandra has made a couple of new friends who help keep her alive. Look for more volumes to come in this series: the next volume is titled The Queen is Dead, due for release in February 2013, followed by a third volume, Long Live the Queen.
July also saw the release of Kalayna Price’s newest Alex Craft novel, Grave Memory from ROC. This is the third volume about the grave witch who solves murders by raising the dead and questioning them. This story centers around the raising of a shade who doesn’t remember the days right before his brutal end, which has been classed as a suicide, but this isn’t clear because the shade can’t remember it. Dark magic appears to have overcome the human will to live and this is a frightening thought for everyone, because the fact that magic could not do that had allowed the magical and non-magical humans to coexist peacefully. This new dark magic could upset the power balance of the world and result in a power struggle which could endanger everyone. Alex Craft’s world and her supporting characters are very complex and interesting. The sexy people described in the book and the situations they get into are all interesting without being overly descriptive. The yearly release of a new book in this series is always a welcome event. Grave Visions is due out in August 2013.
D.B.Jackson’s Thieftaker was released in July 2012 from Tor. This is an alternate history/fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary War Boston. Familiar faces and places from US History are present, but the addition of people with magical powers makes it obvious early on that this is not our universe’s Boston of the 1760s.
Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker, an investigator who specializes in cases involving magic. However, Ethan is himself a conjurer, and in a time and place where witches are subject to persecution, he must keep his spell use very low-key, and the local mob queen/thieftaker Sephira Pryce tolerates him (and doesn’t rat him out) because her people aren’t conjurers.
Ethan is hired by local bigwig Abner Berson to find a brooch that had gone missing when Berson’s daughter’s body was found after a riot, and his search leads him into a world of rebels who want to free the American colonies from England. Riots and other public disturbances are drawing attention to the differences of opinion about England’s right to restrict imports into America.
A side-effect of Ethan’s conjurations is the appearance of a glowering, gesturing ghost dressed in mail and a tabard, who blends his power with whatever Ethan is using to power a given spell. In the world of Thieftaker magic requires an external power source; some spells just require some natural form of matter, like leaves or water, but more powerful spells require blood, and people who frequently invoke powerful conjurations carry the scars of many cuts on their bodies. This elemental take on magic makes the presence as such abilities quite believable in a historical-style world.
Ethan is a well-developed and engaging character who has a bit of a “bad boy” past, and his tiffs with his sometimes-girlfriend Kannice and his sister Bett bring some familial normality into Ethan’s crazy thieftaker world.
Readers who like a good adventure or mystery will find Thieftaker worth their time, and alternate history/fantasy buffs will also enjoy this magical version of Colonial America.
David Weber was very prolific in 2012 and managed to get on all of our lists. His War Maid’s Choice from Baen is the only traditional fantasy to get on the list for July, which was a busy month for book releases. This is the fourth volume in the War God series. Bahzell Bahnakson and courser Walsharno have met their equal in Leanna Hanathafressa and courser mare Gayrfressa.
This volume centers around the adventures of Leanna and shows that she can save the king and kingdom as well as Bahzell can even though she is much younger and a female human. Bahzell plays a part of course, but this volume concentrates on the part Leanna and the war maids play in saving the kingdom from destruction and shows how the attitudes towards women warriors is forced to start changing. On the romance front, Leanna knows what she wants and the gods agree with her so Bahzell is forced to go along and give up his logic based denial. Leanna’s past and its effect on her family and their retainers is explored and this adds a dimension to her character which wasn’t there when she was a side character.
Overall it is a great read with a heroine who kicks butt and takes names and proves her profession’s usefulness on many occasions. This series of fantasy adventure is always a good read but this one is even better than previous volumes due to Leanna. Future volumes can explore Bahzell and Leanna together which is alluded to in some clues given by the gods at the end of the book. Hopefully those tales will come soon.
August brought a fourth volume of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series from Baen, Monster Hunter Legion. This one has even larger battles because there is a monster hunter convention in Las Vegas and of course that won’t go well. It is good to be back with the entire group again, after the last volume being almost bereft of Owen Pitt. If you haven’t tried this series and like your vampires destroyed instead of kissed, then you should try it. It has realistic guns, tech, and vehicles, but urban fantasy setting with monsters, not all of whom are the enemy. The group is based in a county in Alabama which the author invented, but the job of hunting monsters takes the characters all over the place. Like many Baen books, it has lots of shooting and weapons details, but it also has a group of characters who have relationships both friendly and sexual within the group so you get a bit of romance and family and friends in with the explosions and fighting. It makes for a good mix.
In October Jane Yellowrock returned in Death’s Rival from ROC. Faith Hunter threw the vampires a curveball in this volume: the vampires who previously were always helping humans get well from battle injuries are now the ones getting sick with a plague, quite a shock for beings that haven’t been sick for centuries. Jane has to figure out where the plague came from and how to stop it, all while dealing with an unknown rival fighting against her boss for the title of Master Vampire of New Orleans. There are some rather unpleasant scenes in this volume, so it is not for the squeamish or underage. The sexual tension is high but there is a lack of sex scenes which seems to get to Jane as much as it will the reader. Lots of eye-candy is described, but Jane and Rick are permanently restricted due to Rick’s job and Jane is at a standoff with everyone else. Plenty of potential for her to make up her mind about the others in later volumes. New characters introduced in this volume are very interesting and have moved into Jane’s house, which leads to some interesting rather family-like talk and some smirks and some confusion. The next Jane book is titled Blood Trade and is due out in April 2013.
Next from The Exploding Spaceship: What to Do With That Gift Card, Part 2: Science Fiction Reads for 2012