I can’t believe it’s this time of year already! This year has flown by and looking back, it hasn’t been the greatest reading year for me. Despite discovering the beauty of audiobooks, and several new genres, not many books stand out as really brilliant. As I browsed my Goodreads Reading Challenge I made a note of the ones I loved and as luck would have it, (as what is a favourites list if it does not contain 10 items?) I ended up with 10 wonderful novels. I thought I’d be able to squeeze them into one post, but alas, as each book came up I got so excited I had to write more. If you would like to check out Book List 2 of 2, you can do here. So, in no particular order here is part one of my favourite reads of 2017…
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip
This story was a wonderful surprise! If you enjoy fantasy books and take only one recommendation from this list, make it this one. It totally blew me away, it is clear to see why it won the World Fantasy Award in 1975. McKillip’s writing is magnificent, it is incredibly immersive and she expertly weaves very human emotions and events with magic. The character development of the protagonist is a joy to watch unfold. From isolation high in the mountains, we follow Sybel, a young, beautiful and powerful sorceress who has grown up surrounded by magical beasts. She has had very little human interaction and the story really begins when she is charged to raise a baby boy. What follows is an incredible adventure full of high stakes, deadly villains and angry kings, all while demonstrating the power of true love. I’ll leave you to discover what kind of love McKillip choses. There is no good vs evil here, but shades of grey. Each character has to follow their instincts, but it’s how their decisions affect others that the intricacy of this novel really comes to life. Despite its short length, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld sure packs an emotional punch. It is amazing how much McKillip is able to explore and I mean it when I say that I have truly never read anything like it. The worldbuilding is breathtaking and all the characters, man and beast alike, have well developed, complex personalities that just jump from the page. This is how fantasy should be written.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Speaking of wonderful writing, Burial Rites is an incredibly atmospheric example. Set in 19th Century Iceland, this novel follows the last days of Agnes Magnusdottir, a young woman charged with the murder of her former master, as she works at an isolated farm while she awaits execution. This beautiful piece of historical fiction is based on the real case of Agnes, the last woman to be executed in Iceland and how she affected those forced to house her. Was she truly guilty? What did happen to Natan Ketilsson? Burial Rites is truly a study of what pain and poverty can force people to do and shows how kindness can penetrate the most hardened of souls. It is very character driven and you really understand all the characters inside out. Their development feels natural and some of the scenes nearly brought me to tears. Kent packs in so much emotion in so few words and actions, she has such a masterful control over language that her prose makes you feel unsettled and nervous one moment, to horrified and immensely saddened the next. Agnes’ story is heart-breaking, although naturally the author cannot know what truly happened or how Agnes truly felt, but it certainly felt believable. Each chapter begins with translations of real Icelandic documents from the time of Agnes’ trial which adds an extra element to the story. I particularly enjoyed googling the real life events and people afterwards. This is a must read for anyone who enjoys being completely transported to a different time and place. It is rare for me to be so captivated with a setting but Kent writes so, so well. I could picture the desolate landscape, I could feel the chill of the ocean spray as it lapped the rugged coastline, I genuinely felt like I was stood watching the story unfold. I felt Agnes’ fear, I felt her housemates’ revulsion, I felt lost. If you couldn’t tell, this novel made me feel everything.
Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
Something a bit more fun, I think, after the intensity of Burial Rites. Kings of the Wyld is an excellent example of how much fun fantasy can be! I have waxed lyrical about it here so go check that out if you want a full review. But for now, all I can say is you’re in for a treat! Packed full of interesting, funny, flawed but lovable characters, Kings of the Wyld is a truly fantastic novel. It is rare to read an epic fantasy that weaves diversity and humour together as well as Eames does here. At its heart, this is a quest story, and offers plenty of nods to the world of Dungeons and Dragons and video games, but with tonnes of tragedy, humour and the fantastical thrown in for good measure. Honestly, we have cyclops, centaurs, goblins, spiders, giants, gorgons, druins and more! Personally, I didn’t pick up on any of the references that this is famed for, as I have never been part of the gaming/D&D world, but that did not affect my enjoyment of this novel one bit. I particularly enjoyed how all the diverse characters were considered normal and accepted. This book is so refreshing. Fantasy is without doubt my favourite genre, but I often find myself escaping into worlds where everything is dark and twisted, with little hope or light relief. Granted there are sections like that, where you really feel the despair and potential futility of their quest, but then, then there is the humour. I really enjoyed the swearing and the banter between the friends. The love between the group was evident and the joking around felt natural. Moog is one of my favourite characters of the year, ever the optimist he was hilarious. His great lines combined with Slowhand’s dry sarcasm make for great fun. Definitely one to watch.
Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier
2017 may have been a year of largely-okay-reads, however it is the year I discovered Juliet Marillier. After two books, she shot to one of my favourite authors. It was tricky to pick my favourite out of the six books of hers I have read so far this year, but considering I think this may be one of my all-time favourite books, I had to go with Son of the Shadows. In fact I love it so much I’m really struggling to articulate why. This is the second instalment of Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the first being Daughter of the Forest. DotF is possibly my second favourite Marillier novel, alongside Heir to Sevenwaters (book 4) so I definitely recommend you start with that one. I can’t say too much without spoiling the events of the first book, but I can say that it is set in a magical, medieval Ireland full of folklore, superstition, the Fae and fantastic family relationships. This series follows the trials and tribulations of a family living in a feudal world who reside in what is essentially a castle (albeit a sparse one) that rests in the heart of a forest, with seven rivers that flow into a large lake. This is the setting for all six of the Sevenwaters books and despite the story taking characters far and wide, it all comes back to Sevenwaters. As the series grows, you see how Marillier weaves the Irish druidic/pagan folklores with the passage of time, how beliefs in the world develop away from the magical but how time almost stands still in their pocket of the forest. But ultimately, these are tales of love and loss, incredible courage and strength in the face of adversity, and the power of the family. There is mysticism to Marillier’s writing, the magic feels almost tangible despite its subtlety. The forest is teaming with life, and the way the druids work with nature really draws you into the land and world. It’s easy to see how Irish folklore developed, and it is a testament to the wonderful writing that I spent a lot of time contemplating how much I would love to live at Sevenwaters. Yes, the characters go through truly horrific things, but their love for each other and those they bring into their lives is so powerful it fills me with happiness and hope. The writing is reminiscent of Robin Hobb, with the strong focus on character development and worldbuilding, but never in an obvious, information-dump way. The story in Son of the Shadows is absolutely heart-breaking, full of twists and turns but in stunning scenery and ultimately shows that somethings work out, and even when they don’t, not all is lost. I loved every minute of it and really struggled to put it down. It’s a story of finding oneself, and helping others battle their demons in order to live life to the fullest. There is a lot of character growth, not all of it positive. It’s a very realistic study of the nature of humanity and how different characters deal with what comes at them. I like that this is not a happy ever after series, despite the magical realism. I like that there is a scale of happiness, and how you must make the most of the little things, and learn to accept what you can’t change. It’s not a perfect world, there is pain, there is struggle but there is also wonder. and magic. Oh and love that conquers some, destroys others. I also recommend Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier too, if you fancy an excellent twist of Beauty and the Beast that is not part of a series.
Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer
Here’s another new book that’s rocketed up to my all-time favourites list. Heyer was the most prolific regency romance writers of her time and I think an underrated gem of the historical fiction world. I am forever grateful to my Twitter friend who suggested I try her work after reading Jane Austen. Full of wit, humour and intelligence, Devil’s Cub is a fantastic story of a selfish Lord who desires a woman so much he contrives to kidnap her (without any intention of marrying her – shock, horror!). What he doesn’t expect, is to accidentally take her protective older sister. But there’s a shock in store for Mary if she thought Vidal would let her get away with it. Full of capers, sarcasm and great one-liners, I adored this timeless story from start to finish. In the first pages, Lord Vidal shoots someone, and leaves the body in the middle of the road, because why should he do anything about it? Heyer’s wonderful way with words makes you love characters you should hate. Her books are clean romances that are perfect for warming your soul. I found this extremely readable, unlike some Austen, and full of wonderfully hilarious events and people. Although this is technically book two of the Alistair series, you do not need to have read any of the others to appreciate this book. I didn’t and I will be rereading it before I get to any of the others. If you enjoy this, I recommend The Grand Sophy and Venetia too. Or Regency Buck, if you fancy a little less romance and a lot more mystery…
And so comes the end of part one! I’ve tried to split the books evenly so there’s a bit of everything here, fantasy, historical fiction and a dash of romance. Looking back, I’m really pleased I found these books, they’re the stories I never knew were missing from my life. I’ve explored new genres and discovered I love them nearly, if not quite the same amount, as much as I do fantasy novels. I struggle to write coherently when describing books I love, so I apologise for not being quite as eloquent as I would have liked, but hopefully that shows how much I enjoyed them.
Stay tuned for part two, which contains an amusing muskateer-esque trio; a witch and a vampire to beat all witches and vampires; an incredible start to a huge complex epic fantasy with dragons, gods and espionage; a magical world where a tree gives life to a whole race and a low fantasy tale of revenge set in world reminiscent of a renaisance-esque Italy… You’re intrigued, I know you are 😉