Death By Owls: My Top SFF Picks of 2018 and Most Anticipated of 2019

Death By Owls: My Top SFF Picks of 2018 and Most Anticipated of 2019

“Reading this at the age of 13, I understood that fantasy, the place I was looking for, is not to be found in dragons, ghosts, or magic wands. It resides in language. Fantasy is death by owls. It’s mourning through gesture. It’s music, incantation in half-light. An inverted heart.”

An excerpt from one of my favourite things: this utterly timeless article by Sofia Samatar on the rich language of fantasy and how it crafted her into a writer, with reference to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (Samatar is the author of A Stranger in Olondria, an utterly symphonic South Asian fantasy wrought in gilded prose that honestly reads like poetry).

Hwæt!

Welcome to my spotter’s guide to the greatest fantasy novels and comics of 2018, with a bonus YA section, my most anticipated titles of 2019, AND some shameless shelfies. Disagree with something? Slide into my comments.

Now, this guide is obviously not comprehensive, but it collects my absolute favourite fantasy reads of the year, including those almost unanimously hyped and beloved, recced to me by trusted blogger/bookseller/publishing friends and now resplendent on my shelves. Given I basically live on book Twitter, I feel fairly confident that I’ve captured the true crème de la crème of this year’s haul and would quite happily wax lyrical at length about every single one of these symphonic stories. Most are 2018 releases, but I’ve included a few 2017 Special Cases and, like I said, a 2019 “most anticipated” section, as well as the bonus shelfies right at the end.

These all come with my highest recommendation, but may I suggest the following lists for any I’ve missed. I definitely still have many of these to go on my TBR:

So, without further ado!

Top Rec of 2018

The Poppy War by RF Kuang

What is it: So, this was an incredibly tough choice as there’s been a heck tonne of awesome fantasy this year, but The Poppy War undoubtedly takes the gold for me, perhaps above even Circe and Vengeful. This is, quite simply, epic fantasy at its very VERY best, while at the same time being gloriously refreshing in that it is NOT a derivative pseudo-European setting and is also written with such raw immediacy and glorious grimdarkness with no romance whatsoever, despite there being a beautifully crafted web of relationships. It is not whimsical, it is not meandering, it is not weighed with exposition or archaism. This is a book of war and all its attendant darkness.

And let me say a word about the author. Rebecca Kuang is quite literally, like, a year older than me, and she has produced this as her DEBUT. Suffice it to say, my feelings towards her are INTENSE.

She’s American, currently studying an MPhil in Chinese history & literature at Cambridge on the Marshall Scholarship, and I got to meet her at Foyles’ SFX book con last month where she had to fend off the worst line of racist questioning I have ever seen at a panel. The moderator had already been sub-par, bringing the conversation again and again back to Tolkien instead of using him as a springboard for a rich discussion of modern fantasy, and so he triggered two consecutive comments-not-questions from old white men essentially attacking Rebecca for slamming Tolkien even though she’d explicitly referenced LOTR as the perfect blueprint for a trilogy narrative. She endured this wave of blatant racism without the faintest flinch or loss of poise and just coolly shut both of them down. It was so fucking serene and, basically, I would follow her into a war zone.

Anyway, a brief bit about the actual story… The title refers to opium, while the book draws much of its inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the likes of the Nanjing Massacre in a setting akin to the 11th-13th-century Song Dynasty. It kicks off with a downtrodden orphan earning a place at the infamous military academy of Sinegard, not through blood status or prophecy or magic but sheer hard work studying for the Empire-wide Keju test. Reminiscent of Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru, hardly anyone can believe Rin didn’t cheat given her origins, her guardians already in the midst of plotting to marry her off to the highest bidder. And so she gets to enrol in this place she’s only ever dreamed of. But life only gets harder, that is until she discovers her lethal magical powers and the existence of the gods. While she learns to control her abilities, a third Poppy War is brewing with the Empire’s ancient enemy across the narrow sea…

Teaser quote: “But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

The Rest of the Shortlist

Vengeful by VE Schwab

What is it: Five years in the making, Vengeful is the delectably dark sequel to Vicious, now a cult classic among bibliophiles the world over (see my review here).

A bewitching love-child of the X-Men and Hannibal, the Villains duology revolves around the mythic rivalry between Victor Vale and Eli Ever, the morally grey Superman and Lex Luthor of this extraordinary world.

Their pursuit of EOs, or ExtraOrdinaries, begins as Eli’s college thesis, towards which Victor is drawn like gravity. While Eli discovers the precise combination of trauma and fear needed to trigger these supernatural mutations in people who go through near-death experiences, it is Victor who comes up with the idea to attempt to create one, to become one. And so the epic rivalry is born.

No one writes cerebral supervillains like Schwab.

Vengeful continues this rivalry, and the bewitching arcs of characters like 13-year-old scene-stealer Sydney Clarke, as well as introducing the likes of mercurial shape-shifter June and the incomparable Marcella Morgan. The moment Marcella melts the face off her husband you know you’re in for a veritable five-course feast of a treat. She is the personified epitome of 2018. After spending years as the glorified trophy of her crooked husband, relentlessly sidelined, belittled, and patronised by the leaders of Merit’s gangs, she finally finds herself in a position to exact some truly stunning revenge.

As Schwab put it herself in a Den of Geek interview:

Vengeful is a 2018 reaction to a 2013 novel… Vicious is a highly masculine book about toxic masculinity, about identity and obsession, love and hate and friendship and rivalry. Vengeful is a book about all of that and about the ways that women are stripped of and re-take power in the world.”

Here’s hoping for the much-rumoured Victorious in another 5 years…

But yeah, Schwab is one of my all-time favourite authors, I’ve devoured literally all of her books, and I would happily read nothing but her. After the Villains duology, definitely inhale Shades of Magic (if you haven’t yet, the London-based elemental magic trilogy now with prequel comics and a sequel trilogy in the works) and Monsters of Verity (the haunting duology in which acts of violence create real monsters and music is the soul-reaping weaponry to wage war against them… I know, right?!).

Teaser quote: “Once upon a time, when the marks on his back were still fresh, Eli told himself that he was growing wings.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

What is it: This is quite simply one of the most exquisite books ever written. Madeline Miller has a towering intellect that just suffuses her writing in the most sumptuous way possible, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A fantasia upon Greek mythology at its absolute finest. Enough said.

Teaser quote: “All my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

What is it: A Rumplestiltskin retelling (woven with threads of Eastern European folklore) starring Miryem, daughter of a gentle Jewish moneylender exploited by their village, who sets out to do it herself, earning the reputation of being able to turn silver into gold in the process. This reputation sees her run afoul of the king of the Staryk, who threatens to turn her into ice if she cannot render gold three times, while she must contend with the creatures of cold haunting the woods with a devouring winter. Her fate is also entangled with Irina, trapped in a marriage to a demonic witch-son tsar, and with Wanda, a pauper Miryem liberates from poverty. This is a rapturous fairytale of mercurial monsters that centres around three women society condemned as pallid and pitiful until their rage burned those expectations to ash.

Teaser quote: “So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”

Now would also be the time to scream about Uprooted (2015) if you haven’t read it yet, an equally subversive draconic fairytale that resonates on a perfect string harmonic. Also, of course, the Temeraire series, because dragons.

The Longlist

The Hottest Comics of 2018

Top Rec of the Year

Blackbird by Jen Bartel and Sam Humphries

What is it: A lush neo-noir fantasy, in which Nina Rodriguez is positive that a secret magic world ruled by ruthless cabals is hiding just beneath the veneer of Los Angeles. The problem: everyone thinks she’s crazy. The bigger problem: she’s not crazy – she’s right. Can she unravel the mystery before the Great Beast catches up with her? Isn’t that a PREMISE.

The first three issues are out so far! It’s a seriously beautiful comic.

The Rest of the Shortlist

Abbott by Saladin Ahmed

What is it: While investigating police brutality and corruption in the uncertain social and political climate of 1970s Detroit, hard-nosed, chain-smoking tabloid reporter Elena Abbott investigates a series of grisly crimes that the police have ignored and uncovers the dark occult forces under the lethal control of a secret society of the city’s elite.

The paperback bind-up of volume 1 just came out! It goes perfectly with Blackbird.

The Steel Prince by VE Schwab

What is it: This is the epic prequel story to Schwab’s beloved Shades of Magic trilogy. It stars Prince Maxim Maresh, the future king of Arnes and Red London we first meet in A Darker Shade of Magic, father to Rhy and Kell, two of our protagonists, as he is shipped off to an outpost of the empire where he crosses paths with the notorious pirate queen Arisa Rasora. The artist Andrea Olimpieri captures the world of the books with such stunning attention to detail, most giddily bewitching in the Gallifreyan-like rendition of the elemental magic.

The first four issues are out now with the bind-up coming in March. They can definitely be read as a standalone but the richer reading experience would be to binge Shades of Magic first.

Ongoing Faves

Bonus Entry

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson

Most Anticipated Fantasy of 2019

Top Rec of 2019

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

What is it: Well, the first question should be, how do I know this will be my top rec of 2019 already? The answer is because it’s the top fantasy rec of my entire life…

This book. THIS BOOK. It has cemented itself firmly as a searing corner of the holy trinity of soul books that quite literally characterise my entire personality, being, soul. The other two, for frame of comparison, are Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and EB’s Wuthering Heights. Am I being hyperbolic? Honestly, like, not at all? There is no exaggerating the sheer existential gravity of one such soul book. This is how art can inspire you, empower you, anchor you, save you.

So, what is it?

I first heard about Priory at the London event for The Song Rising (Book 3 in the dystopian Bone Season series, see my review here) when Samantha said she was working on a story about dragons and I was like “omgomg me too, dragonsdragonsdragons”. Months later, I attended the launch of Melinda Salisbury’s State of Sorrow, in which she gave the most impassioned recommendation of this draconic tome I had heard yet, pitching it as a book that would truly revolutionise modern fantasy. I then got to see an early version of the cover at the launch of Katy Webber’s MG series. THEN through various dark magic enchantments I managed to get my claws on a PROOF.

It is utterly sensational, an Elizabethan Game of Thrones meets an f/f Pride & Prejudice meets Pirates of the Caribbean, utterly brimming with wyrms, wyverns, and all manner of draconic things. It is MYTHIC in its magnitude. The story follows magic-wielding warrior Ead Duryan and dragonrider Tané of Seiiki in their Homeric quest to quell the forces of darkness broiling deep within the oceanic Abyss that splits East from West now spilling out across the world from the forests of Inys to the shores of Orisima. It’s a truly symphonic epic that takes as its foundation stones the legend of St George and the Dragon and the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation 20, interwoven with Eastern mythology.

From a court seething with secrets whispered in starlit alcoves and a plague-ridden volcanic fortress lost to the fires of the enemy, to a magical sanctuary wreathed in golden fruit and the storm-wracked island at the edge of the world where the sea dragons roam, this world will bewitch you body and soul.

I was basically drooling over every page. It’s also about 12,000% more feminist and diverse than every single other high fantasy tome that has come before it (fun fact, there are more named horses than named women in LOTR). And shout-out to the first positive mention of periods and how they were managed I have ever read in this genre.

Honestly, so often when you read a fat fantasy book from literally any time before the last couple of years, you have to do some serious de-toxing in its wake to cleanse yourself of the pages and pages of violently misogynistic, racist, homophobic, heteronormative, white supremacist, medieval European patriarchies that utterly dominate just about every single one. No words, therefore, can quite capture the giddy, soul-soothing splendour of a high fantasy epic that doesn’t just break that caste but utterly eviscerate it.

Suffice it to say, do your blazing core of repressed rage a favour and preorder it now.

Teaser quote: “‘To be kin to a dragon,’ Nayimathun said, ‘you must not only have a soul of water. You must have the blood of the sea, and the sea is not always pure. It is not any one thing. There is darkness in it, and danger, and cruelty. It can raze great cities with its rage. Its depths are unknowable; they do not see the touch of the sun. To be a Miduchi – to be human – is not to be pure, Tané. It is to be the living sea. That is why I chose you. You have a dragon’s heart.’”

The Rest of the Shortlist

Bonus YA Fantasy Section

YA will always be a passion of mine because, as a wizened member of the Gen Z old guard, its origins are embedded in my childhood, and it consistently does the most subversive and intersectional things, especially in fantasy. I also think quite a few books get shelved in teen or YA instead of adult because they focus on characters in their early 20s, particularly when they’re predominately female and/or written by women. But they’re just as thematically sophisticated.

Top Rec of 2018

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

What is it: Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared…

Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were slaughtered indiscriminately, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Now she has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Teaser quote: “No matter how much I crave peace, the gods have other plans.”

The Rest of the Shortlist

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

What is it: A sinister fantasy that at its heart is a bewitching slow-burn love story between two girls enslaved under a demon king as they struggle to avenge their people with a deliciously dark premise and some of the best bi rep I’ve ever read.

Teaser quote: “We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable. And there is a fire catching among us.”

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

What is it: This is a paranormal-magic-realism-Stranger-Things-esque horror treat drenched in magic and mystery. Three girls wind up on the lethal island of Sawkill Rock, home to a vicious Grendel-like monster who has been abducting children for decades. It’s deliciously feminist and has amazing bi rep. Basically, as characterised beautifully by one reviewer, it’s about a group of Sapphic girls who draw on their magical powers to fuck up the life of the island’s bogeyman.

Teaser quote: “Girls hunger. And we’re taught, from the moment our brains can take it, that there isn’t enough food for us all.”

The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

What is it: A genderbent Beowulf retelling in which an all-female pack of paid mercy killers wind their way through a deeply magical Norse-inspired world of dead kings and lost gods in search of glory.

Teaser quote: “No magic is as strong, or as powerful, as fear.”

Rick Riordan Presents

What is it: One of my favourite ventures this year was the launch of Rick Riordan’s imprint at Disney, to publish new stories by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritages. The first three titles were Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, Jennifer Cervantes’ Storm Runner, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl.

The Longlist

Most Anticipated YA Fantasy of 2019

Shelfies

Because shelf pride, ya know? That gap in the third image is waiting for replacement copies of Vengeful and The Dark Vault (a reissue bind-up of two of Schwab’s previous books), which I gave to the sis.

“For those of us who give our lives to it, for those of us whose lives were, at some time & in some way, saved by Art, whether music, literature or another art form, art is much more than entertainment or something to make the walls look pretty. It’s what everything else is for.”

– Neil Gaiman
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