I read a lot of books this year. With all the writing I knew I had ahead of me, I kind of figured I wouldn’t get much reading done. However, when I hit my Goodreads goal of 35 books somewhere in July, I decided to push that number up a bit higher to 50. Now, as the year closes out, I’ve read 65 books, and I might finish a few more before the year ends, who knows? I’m pretty close on at least one!
What I do know is that I’ve read some fantastic books this year (I even read one of them twice!) I got to introduce my kiddos to a few of my own childhood favorites such as Wayside School and Bridge to Terabithia. I listened in while my husband read The Hobbit out loud to our kiddos. I read some favorite authors such as George MacDonald and Diana Wynne Jones. And I read a whole lot of indie books, as well.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t write a single comprehensive book review this year. I meant to, but what writing time I had usually got spent on Turrim Archive or Summer Princess.
But it’s high time some of these books got a little bit of vocal love from me, so I’m here with my annual tradition of shouting about my 15 Favorite Fantasy Reads of 2019. (If you’re curious about the other 50 books I read, you can view all the titles HERE).
Just like last year, I have a couple of rules for this list:
1. Indie Books (or Small Press)
2. Full-length novels only
3. Speculative Fiction
(Yes, the ones that didn’t make it are glaring accusingly at me). I really enjoyed pretty much every book I read this year… so if a book I read didn’t make the list, that’s really not a reflection on said book… just that… well… I’m not going to write a dissertation on 60+ books. I have to draw a line somewhere!
Also, get ready for rampant rebellious rule breaking!
(Clicking on the titles of the books will take you to their Goodreads Page – thanks to Sarah for the suggestion!)
Yep, I’m breaking two of my own rules right off the bat (and when you only have 3 rules, that’s kind of a lot). Neither of these books are fantasy, and they’re both novellas (which makes it harder to break onto my list of favorites anyway). But these two books were just beautiful. And it’s Christmas-time, and these are very Christmas-y, and I loved them to pieces. The Inn-Keeper’s wife is a sort of modern-day retelling of events similar to those surrounding the birth of Christ, while The Carpenter’s Wife continues the story of this young couple and their baby born in the garage of the completely full inn. Both books are poignant and achingly beautiful as they tenderly deal with themes of infertility, unexpected pregnancies, and miscarriage. Both stories made me cry, but not because they are sad in and of themselves, but because I could identify achingly with some of those themes and what the characters were struggling with.
The Story of With by Allen Arnold
One of the first books I finished in 2019, I listened to this book in audio-format while filling nail holes in the trim of our new house with putty. I had started listening to it before Realm Makers 2018, but listening to audio books is time-consuming when you’re a full-time wizard who reads way faster than most people can talk. However, I am glad I listened to this one, because it was both a beautiful and encouraging story to listen to, and the audio book is phenomenal. There are two narrators, one telling the story, the other explaining the story, and the back and forth nature of this duo allowed me to catch some nuances I think I might have missed had I been reading the book myself.
If you are or have ever struggled with wondering why you bother in your creative pursuits, this is a must-read. And I would argue, a must-listen! Highly recommend.
The Dragon’s Flower by Wynn Estelle Owens
This Asian-inspired retelling of Rapunzel was as beautiful as it was complex. And yet, the complexity was handled so well that it never felt convoluted or confusing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Rapunzel retelling before, and as I was in the midst of planning to write one of my own, this was intriguing to me. I loved the authentic feel of the Asian setting. The characters had compelling arcs, and the story itself was ultimately satisfying. And while I saw a few things coming because I knew it was a retelling and I expected certain beats to get hit… the author still managed to twist the plot around and surprise me.
Fairest Son by H.S.J. Williams
I’m just breaking my own rules all over the place here, as this is technically a novella. You’d think I’d get tired of Snow White retellings at some point… especially since Snow White has never been my favorite fairy tale. Buuuut, you’d apparently be wrong.
This gender-bent Snow White retelling absolutely took my breath away with its beauty. Both main characters were compelling and their arcs wove together perfectly. Even though I’ve read more than two-dozen Snow White retellings over the past two years, this one still managed to surprise me with a few of its twists and turns… possibly because the elements of the retelling were so subtly woven throughout the story that I actually forgot I was reading a retelling at all. Even though it was not a full-length novel, this little novella makes it onto this year’s list without any difficulty at all. It was breathtaking. The writing style itself is lovely. The author wields words like an artist’s brush and paints you a picture of this story that you can’t help but stare at in awe.
Curse Bound by J.L. Mbewe
I’ve been following this series and waiting with bated breath for the final chapter in the trilogy for what seems like forever!!! I feel like I need to re-read the entire trilogy back-to-back-to-back at some point, but my memory is pretty good and I didn’t want to wait… so I snatched this up and read it as soon as it was available. And it was every bit the epic conclusion I’d been hoping for. The characters all had to dig deep and face some of their greatest fears. The epic war that has been building throughout the trilogy broke across the world and for a while I was extremely concerned about all of the characters and worried that none of them would survive all the difficulties they were having.
I feel like reviewing final books in series is always a bit of a difficult thing, because I don’t want to spoil anything (like ANYTHING), but what I can say is that the promise of books 1 and 2 was kept. The characters grew mightily. The book took me on the final leg of the quest and made me cry (both happy and sad tears). It brought me to the edge of my seat and it made me want to jump into the story and wrap several of my favorite characters in bubble wrap and kidnap them from their author to protect them… this trilogy is epic and I loved it. The only downside is that it’s over.
Strayborn by E.E. Rawls
Finally, a book I actually reviewed after I read it!
A fantastic MG academy story with magic and vampires, tortured pasts and secrets and friendship. I loved this book and look forward to the next installment!
H.L. Burke is one of the indie authors I follow around on the internet hoping to pick up tips when it comes to marketing and things, but also because I enjoy her books. I enjoyed all the snippets she shared as she was writing these two books and so when our book club picked the first one as our September read, I had already bought the paperback and was reading it. I loved it so much, this was the book I read twice. The characters delighted me and I decided to spend more time with them while waiting for the second book to release. Arynne is a compelling little burst of fiery energy (and yet, she has quite a few self-esteem issues and definitely has a temper), while Kajik is a simmering bundle of gentle strength and sweetness. The tidally-locked world was intriguing, the magic was fun, the quest was epic, and the love story was beautiful. There were a few twists and turns throughout the story that I didn’t see coming, and one that I did… so that made me feel smart! (Which is always a plus).
The second book, interestingly enough, did not enthrall me quite as completely as the first one did. The love-story kind of took over and settled itself into the central focus (and while yes, there was a lot of focus on romance in the first book, it was outweighed by all the adventurous stuff and the characters focused on not dying and things like prophecies and the prospect of marriage to a total stranger and all). The pacing of the story also started to feel a little rushed. I think I was hoping for a little bit more time to pass, and I really wanted to see more of Arynne learning how to use her magic and maybe driving Evyd a bit nuts the way she did with her brother in Solea and all the politics stuff in the first book that was kind of fun to see. Arynne learning her way around the palace and the city and getting to see more of it with her would also have been nice. But overall, it was a worthy sequel and a satisfying end to the duology.
So Sang the Dawn by AnnMarie Pavese
By far the longest book I read this year, So Sang the Dawn is a story that, at its heart, is about friendship. It is also a coming-of-age and much fantasy. Set on our own world, but in a magically hidden fantastical realm set in Antarctica, the main characters get kidnapped and brought there against their will and are then imprisoned and forced to become gladiators for the main villain. Snow, ice, friendship, gladiators, and magic? What more could you want? This is one of those books where you dive deep into the POV of a single character and live the story through her eyes. And when you do that for a whopping 734 pages, you’d better believe you get to know her well! First-person stories are usually a harder sell for me, but I loved this one enough to place it in my top-ten reads of the year, so that should tell you something. It helps that Aurora is not a whiny, self-deprecating character whose head was something unpleasant to be in. Unlike many other 1st-person narrators, she has some spunk and ingenuity and a selfless drive to protect her friend no matter what it costs her personally.
Another strength of this story was its length. Oftentimes, when a book rises over 150,000 words, you start to get the feel that there are places where it could have been trimmed to make it stronger. I never really felt that way about this book. It used as many words as it needed, and used them well.
The Stroke of Eleven by Kyle Robert Shultz
I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Kyle Robert Shultz’s books quite a lot. The first book in this series, The Beast of Talesend, was one of my favorite reads of 2017, and this year I caught up on most of the rest of his writings. There are still a few books and short stories I haven’t read, but I read a lot of them this year.
I LOVED The Beast of Talesend. I highly enjoyed Tomb of the Sea Witch.
The Stroke of Eleven completely blew both of them out of the water.
I’m not sure what it was, exactly. Even now, I can’t quite put my finger on what it was about this book that I loved so much, but it’s like in this story everything comes together and works perfectly. Kind of like clockwork.
The same humor is all still there. The characters are every bit as lovable and endearing. Nick is grumpy, but he’s starting to embrace his circumstances and as much as he’s always been the mature one of the group… he does some epic amounts of growing up in this book that I didn’t think were even possible. We get to see Nick use some of his detective/deductive reasoning skills to get them out of danger, and that is also fun.
There’s danger. There’s hi-jinks. There’s wit.
But there’s also a darkness. And I think it is that darkness which so perfectly underscores the light, bringing a new depth and maturity to the wit and humor of this book. There’s a sense that the stakes are getting higher, and that there might be some permanent consequences for actions and repercussions that may not be all glass slippers and roses.
Romanov by Nadine Brandes
Okay, this one isn’t technically an indie book, since it’s published by Thomas Nelson… but Nadine is a Realmie, so I’m allowing it. (I made the rules, I’m allowed to break them)
Romanov was one I’d been eyeing for a while, and when my sister gifted me with a copy and a personal recommendation, that was all the nudge I needed to put it at the top of my reading pile. I’ve always loved the movie Anastasia, and I enjoyed learning about that period of time in my World History class in high school. So historical fantasy set during the end of the Romanov reign? Sounds like fun to me!
And it was!
This story is delightful. And… oddly very slow in terms of pace. For the majority of the book, practically nothing happens. In many ways, I felt like I was reading something akin to “Little Women meets The Diary of Anne Frank” for the first two-thirds of the story as opposed to something resembling fantasy. And yet, this did not detract in any way from my enjoyment of the story. Brandes weaves the characters with such an expert hand, that you spend all those pages constantly worried about what is going to happen to everyone, dreading the worst… and knowing, to some extent, that it WILL happen, because you know what happened to most of the Romanovs.
But even in spite of the fact that the story (while highly fantastical in many respects with regards to supposing how various events might have happened in a world where magic exists) follows the actual events of the Romanovs, I was surprised and gratified to find that the story does NOT end on a downer. There were definitely moments that were sad, and things that made me cry. But overall, the story winds its way to a conclusion filled with light and life and hope and even joy. And I appreciated that greatly.
Firstborn Academy by Isla Frost
I don’t actually know much about this author. I kind of stumbled across her by accident. But considering that JFP press doesn’t have a website and the books are being rapid-released, I’m assuming Indie or at least Small-Press here.
The description says “Harry Potter Meets the Hunger Games” and…. that’s spot-on for accuracy. I found the characters to be highly enjoyable, the dystopian-esque world was unique and interesting (and I don’t love dystopian, so that’s impressive), I loved the quasi-portal nature of it, the sentient house where the firstborns are sent, and delving into the mystery of the WHAT and WHY of Firstborn Academy has me itching to get my hands on book 2.
Ghostlight by Rabia Gale
This was our October book-club read… and it was exactly what I was in the mood for. A ghost-story set in a world with some seriously spooky elements… and yet, the story itself wasn’t that spooky at all.
I can’t think of any words to describe this better than “charmingly chilling.” This is a ghost story, with plenty of intrigue and spooky flare, and a villain who sticks close to the shadows and is just present enough to add an “edge of your seat” factor. This is the kind of story that will give you a delightful little shiver down your spine as you read it, but also won’t keep you up at night with the covers clutched around your throat debating whether or not it’s safe to cross the room in the dark to get to the bathroom.
And that might be the first time I’ve ever used that sort of analogy in a review.
Suffice to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading the sequel.
Sand and Storm by Stella Dorthwany
Books that take place in the desert aren’t usually my cup of tea… but this book absolutely swept me off my feet and transported me to another world. This is one of those books where you start reading it and you almost forget you’re reading a book. You’re living the story. Or at least, that’s how it was for me. I devoured this book in two days flat and enjoyed every minute of it. (I’m reading the sequel as we speak). Interestingly enough, this book does a fabulous job of not feeling anything like any other story set in a desert that I’ve ever seen or read. The characters were compelling, the stakes were high, and the magic was quite different from anything I’ve read before. The world-building was also worth noting as something special, with different castes depending on strength of the magic-user as well as their family ties, but there is clearly a more varied world than just the main city/area where the main characters are from. I could believe an entire world makes up this realm, not just a single continent with a few different nations. I would happily continue reading more stories with these characters set in this world.
The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson
I read the entire Wingfeather Saga this year, and I have to tell you… the first book left me feeling… whelmed.
I enjoyed the way it started, laughing at the humor, enjoying the footnotes and the characters… but after a while, it started to feel… more tedious, than anything else.
Book 2 was slightly better. Fewer footnotes, but the story seemed to move slowly.
However, I’m nothing if not tenacious, and there had to be a reason the characters from these books kept making their way into the Silmaril Awards, and I was determined to find out why.
Book 3 was when I began to understand.
And book 4 was when I fell in love with the series. Every bit of groundwork laid in the first three books comes together here in an epic, beautiful, gleaming story that I can honesty say is one of my favorites I’ve ever read. Ever.
I can’t do this book justice in this small space (and this is already one of my longest posts ever with two more books to shout about), because I’d need to do a complete saga review. So suffice to say…. THIS BOOK is fantastic.
If Wishes Were Curses by Janeen Ippolito
I loved this book so much. I spent three days ignoring things like writing and dishes so that I could finish it swiftly. It had a sort of “Angel” meets “I Dream of Genie” kind of vibe to it, which might sound a little weird, but it worked. This story with its fae and jinn and vampires and werewolves and dragons and shifters and elves all set in Pittsburgh, of all places, was one that I highly enjoyed. Urban fantasy isn’t always my favorite, but this book pulls it off spectacularly.
Allis’s snark and intelligence and proclivity to dive headfirst into danger because she relies a bit too heavily on her “nearly indestructible half-jinn side” made her a fun protagonist to ride around with. As a first person narrator, she didn’t annoy me at all. Her team of friends and family were all intriguing and compelling and I can’t wait to learn more about them.
Cendric, the vampire-raven-shifter-lawyer is a new favorite of mine, I can already tell, even before reading the second book (which I have now finished and loved).
If you’re looking for something extremely unique with snark, adventure, a bit of romance, and a pretty complex plot… I highly recommend this one.
And now…. the BEST BOOK I read in 2019…
drum roll please
The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
Okay… yeah… so Enclave isn’t technically considered a “small press” anymore… but you know what? They’re still smaller than most traditional publishers, so I’m rolling with it.
Besides, this was far and away my FAVORITE book that I read this year.
This was kind of everything I wanted Inkheart to be, but it wasn’t. I loved the whole idea of creative people using their talents to make stories and songs and art come to life… not by writing them down, but by fashioning them into beautiful objects you can see and touch and hold. Tanwen’s ability to create crystallized ornaments that embody the stories she tells was such a brilliant device, it took my breath away.
I read this book after having a hard conversation with my daughter about a series that disappointed us and we had to stop reading because of objectionable content. I told her about a few stories that I’ve had to stop reading. We shed tears together over it. For a few days, I was worried that I might never get the taste of that disappointment out of my mouth.
And then I picked up The Story Peddler.
The book blew me away with its beauty. As pure as the crystalline figures Tannie creates, this story sparkled in my imagination as I read it and soothed my soul, reminding me that there are good stories out there still to discover.
While in many ways, this book is a typical fantasy coming-of-age story, with a young peasant protagonist who discovers she holds a power that the evil tyrant king finds threatening… there were many times that the story twisted out from underneath me and went a completely different direction than I had expected. Characters I expected to be villains turned out to be heroes. Beloved people I expected Tanwen to leave behind in the village showed up dressed as villains. I experienced dread and heart-pounding trepidation and wondered how in the world anything could turn out all right in the end. And through it all were woven the beautiful threads of a subtle Christian message about using our creative gifts and talents for the True King.
Truly, this book was the breath of fresh air that my heart and mind needed, and at just the right time, as well. I can’t wait to read the next book!
And now we move on… to 2020! Here’s hoping for another year full of incredible reads!
Have you read any of the books on my list? What were your favorite reads of 2019? What books are on your 2020 “must read” list? I’d love to hear from you!