I have head SUCH a fantastic reading year, you guys! Not only did I surpass my goal by a crazy amount (mostly thanks to the OWLs and NEWTs readathons) but I also did really well balancing older and newer books, catching up on unfinished series, finally picking up that book everyone loved ten years ago, and so on. I am quite proud of myself and I am even happier that I have such a long list of favorites. 2019 has been good to me, reading-wise.
As per usual, I’ll split my top reads into books published in 2019 and books published before this year. This will also give you a good idea of which books will make it onto my nomination ballot for the Hugo Awards. I’ll include all the 2019 publications I’ve read that didn’t make my list of favorites, so you know what pool I have chosen these books from.
Favorite Books Published in 2019
The most recent publication of 2019 and a book I did not expect to love as much as I did was Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. I knew I liked her writing, her characters, and her stories (so… everything, basically), but this is her first novel for adults. It is set in the real world and it deals with ghosts and demons and stuff. That didn’t sound like my jam. But boy, did I fall into this story! It took me all of one chapter to fall in love. Then the crazy world of secret societies in Yale drew me in more and more. Alex Stern is one hell of a protagonist, the plot was exciting, the storytelling structure kept me intrigued the entire time… I hope that enough people read this in time for nomination season because it totally deserves an award nod or two.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine was a fantastic start to a space opera trilogy (series?) that I went into without much expectation. Reviews had generally been positive, so I thought I’d try it out. And then Arkady Martine blew me away with great world building, brilliant ideas, and characters that sneakily weaseled their way into my heart. We follow Mahit Dzmare, the embassador of a small space station, to the capital of the gigantic Teixcalaanli empire because the previous embassador has been mysteriously killed. Now, figuring out whether it was murder and if so, who murdered him, is one thing. But navigating that foreign-to-Mahit society with a second person implanted into your brain is a whole different story. I was hooked immediately and enjoyed every single page. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.
I am one of many people who loved the clever mind-fuck that was Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. Part military science fiction, part time travel story, lots of nods to Heinlein and Haldeman, but entirely its own thing, this novel kept me transfixed the entire time. When I wasn’t trying to figure out what the hell was going on or putting the puzzle pieces together, I was engaged by the protagonist and their internal struggles, and especially by the world Hurley has created. There are so many details in this book that I suspect make it a great candidate for multiple re-reads. I urge everyone who likes either time travel, riddles, or military SF to pick it up. I am pretty sure this will end up on the Hugo Award short list.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey came out of nowhere for me. It was sold as Harry Potter for adults but with a Muggle protagonist. And yeah, it pretty much is that, but it’s also a detective story at a magic school. The murder mystery was exciting and I loved following along with Ivy as she gathered clues, interviewed people, and so on. But what made this book so special for me was the frayed relationship between our muggle protagonist and her magical sister (there is some jealousy involved, as you can imagine) and the student characters we get to know throughout the story. This was just an incredibly well written book that I hope more people will pick up. I haven’t heard a lot of buzz around it yet but it absolutely deserves it.
Other 2019 books I’ve read: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth, Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow, G. Willow Wilson – The Bird King, Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread, Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch, Fonda Lee – Jade War
For the Retellings Challenge I picked up Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer, which retells one of my favorite tales, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Instead of a polar bear, the male character in this story is a white wolf. And while all the stops of the original fairy tale are there, Meyer has made this quite her own story. Echo is a lovable heroine whose decisions remain understandable the entire time (if you know the fairy tale, then you know that is not the case with the original protagonist). The magic castle where Echo lives with the wolf almost feels like its own character (it has a magical library!!!), and the ending was such a thing of perfection, I have no words to describe it.
I have loved Sam J. Miller‘s writing ever since I read The Art of Starving. His adult novel Blackfish City was even better! So naturally I grabbed Destroy All Monsters the moment it came out. While it wasn’t quite as perfect as his other two books, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, it had brilliant, flawed, difficult characters, and the relationships between them are anything but simple. This book wasn’t so much about the plot (there is one, don’t worry) but more about mental health, friendship, and how to deal with trauma. The fantasy element was cool but if you want nice, clean lines between your fantasy world and the real world, this may not be for you. Things get blurry, things get messy, and I loved every bit of it.
I will say again what I’ve said in my review of the book. I liked The Cruel Prince but I LOVED The Wicked King by Holly Black. The characters are already set up, the world isn’t new for us readers anymore, and the plot in this second book just keeps on giving. Jude and Cardan’s relationship has always been weird, to say the least, but Holly Black does such a fantastic job writing these characters that I kept catching myself hoping they’d end up together. It’s wrong… and it’s made clear that it’s wrong. Cardan’s a dick, Jude is getting more and more power-hungry, and their feelings for each other are probably more lust than love. But man, do I ship them! But this isn’t only a book about whether two characters get together – there is political intrigue, betrayal, really thrilling scenes where you worry for the protagonist’s life, and oh yeah… you may have heard that the ending offers a huuuuge twist. I did not see it coming and it hit me right where it hurts, like all the best stories do.
My biggest surprise when it comes to novellas was probably To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Not only did that short book pack a lot of plot but it also shows great worldbuilding, the authors’ well-known almost too nice characters (a bit less nice but more realistic here than in her novels) but it also makes you geek out with the four space travellers over finding a tiny proof of life on a distant planet. There is so much to discover in these pages and I loved everything about the story. Even the ending – though it is a polarizing one – was okay for me. Sure, I may have preferred a slightly different one but I felt that the chosen ending hit the right tone for the novella’s ultimate message.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone turned out to be a completely different kind of story than I expected. Two agents of warring factions are changing events in time in order to achieve… some goal, I guess? You see, it’s not important why there is a Time War, what’s being fought for, or even who may win in the end. Red and Blue, the two protagonists, communicate across space and time via letters and coded messages. Their correspondence turns into friendship and even into love. So this is an epistolary story with a time travel background, but the heart of it are the characters and the beautiful language. It’s not what I expected but I enjoyed it very much. I admit, my esteem for the tale has grown a little less as I am slowly forgetting details about it, but while I was reading it, I was completely in that world. And for that, it deserves a spot on this list.
Other 2019 novellas I’ve read: C. S. E. Cooney – Desdemona and the Deep
I knew I would love Colleen Doran‘s graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s short story Snow, Glass, Apples. I just didn’t know how much. This dark retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the not-really-evil stepmother hit all the right spots. It’s clear early on that Snow White is the villain in this one and the queen is just trying to save her people. As dark fairy tales go, this one is pretty damn dark! But what made it even better than the story as such was the amazing artwork by Colleen Doran. The story just flows across these pages, even though there is little use of panes. There are so many details that you can linger on every page, soaking in the gorgeous drawings. Highly recommended!
Other 2019 graphic novels I’ve read: V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince
Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places & Outer Spaces was a fairly short read, but it packed a punch. I have read many of Okorafor’s books and loved them all (most recently the Akata series which gave me the same vibes as Harry Potter did all those years ago), but I hadn’t known anything about her as a person. In this book, she talks about an operation on her spine which left her paralysed. She explains not just what life is like with limited mobility (spoiler: it’s difficult, and there’s lots of little things able-bodied people like myself don’t even think about) but also how this thing made her into the person she is, how it gave her ideas and how she then put those ideas into writing. As memoirs go, I have little experience, but this was as exciting to read as any novel, and I loved the insight it gave me into where some of Nnedi’s amazing ideas had actually come from.
Favorite Audiobooks (published whenever)
I have loved audiobooks for as long as I can remember but ever since I developed a serious audiobook habit, I have noticed just how much of a difference the narrator can make. In order to honor the people who have read me some gorgeous stories, I want to share my favorite audiobooks with you. These aren’t necessarily favorite books, but the narration or production of the audiobook feel noteworthy to me.
Nnedi Okorafor makes an appearance again, with her amazing novel Akata Warrior. This book also belongs to the list below (favorites published before 2019), but the audiobook was such a standout experience that I have to mention it here. As the book is set in Nigeria and features mostly Nigerian characters, but a protagonist who grew up in America, narrator Yetide Badaki had to do different accents. Now I can’t judge how accurate the Nigerian accents were (Badaki was born in Nigeria, so I assume she knows what she’s doing), but it was such a pleasure listening to the story and to the dialogue that frequently switched between American English and English with a Nigerian accent, that I was totally immersed in the experience. The duology (so far) also comes highly recommended in general. As mentioned above, it gave me strong Harry Potter vibes, not because it’s a copy of our favorite boy wizard but because reading it filled me with the same sense of wonder.
Holly Black’s The Queen of Nothing may not have made it into my favorites of 2019, because I just loved The Wicked King more, but the audiobook narration of all three novels in this trilogy is fantastic! The books are read by Caitlin Kelly and while she doesn’t do accents, I really liked how she differentiated between the various characters. She was especially great at reading Cardan. When audiobook narrators read a character of a different gender from their own, it can sometimes sound forced or even ridiculous (men doing squeaky high voices for female characters for example) but Kelly managed to deepen her voice and even to give Cardan a super sexy timbre without ever taking me out of the story’s flow.
Lastly, I have to recommend Graphic Audio yet again for their mindblowing productions. In 2019, I listened to the full cast audiboook of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and it was as much of a treat as the previous two books. The series itself is a highly ambitious riveting epic fantasy that I just can’t get enough of. But having the dialogues acted out by different people, with background music and sound effects, just turns these audiobooks into a whole new experience. Graphic Audio have adapted most of Sanderson’s work and while the audiobooks don’t come cheap, I highly recommend you check them out. You can start with one of Sanderson’s shorter standalone works or the Mistborn series to see if you like this type of radio play. I gladly throw my money at them and basically auto-buy any new adaptation that comes out. Because they’re just that good!
Other audiobooks I’ve listened to: Megan Whalen Turner – The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner – The Queen of Attolia, Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky, Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few, Martha Wells – Rogue Protocol, Leigh Bardugo – The King of Scars
Favorite Books published pre-2019
My standout older book of the year was probably The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker. I had known that I would love this book but I didn’t know just how much. Every review I’d read has mentioned buzz words and plot devices that pushed all my buttons. But reading about Chava and Ahmad, these two mythological creatures pretending to be humans, following their day-to-day lives, and discovering their origins, was so much more rewarding than I could have guessed. I loved everyting about this book. The characters, the language, the structure… and then Wecker even goes ahead and delivers an action-packed perfect ending.
Another book that gave me tons of warm and fuzzy feelings was Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer. I had actually started reading this before 2019 but put it aside again (because the timing sucked). This time around, I was enthralled the entire time. When I wasn’t basking in Taylor’s lyrical language, I let myself fall into her world of blue-skinned demon children, a boy who grew up in a library, and a city trying to get over its dark past. I haven’t picked up the second part of this duology yet because I have a feeling I will need this book for bad times or a reading slump. Strange the Dreamer was one of the most gorgeous tales I have ever read and it has a firm place in my heart.
I was already in love with The Raven Cycle so when I picked up The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, I expected nothing less than a new favorite. And I got just that. But in addition to a beautifully told story about magical horses who come from the sea and eat humans (and whatever else they can find), Stiefvater also delivered a brilliant, quiet romance between two incredibly lovable characters, and the most perfect last line I have ever read. In any book. Ever!
I cried several times during this novel, but when I read that last page and got to that last line, I was a sobbing mess. If you want a gorgeous standalone novel with a bit of mythology, a bit of romance, and fantastic characters, pick this up.
This was the year of Leigh Bardugo for me. I finished her Grisha Trilogy (plus King of Scars) and I’m finally getting the hype. Her short story collection, The Language of Thorns, was a spectacular return to the Grishaverse.
These are the fairytales told in the actual Grishaverse. So you get “The Too-Clever Fox” (where Nikolai’s nickname comes from) plus a bunch of others. Each story is fantastic on its own but together they paint such a vivid picture of the world Bardugo has created. Plus, the book itself is stunning. The print comes in two colors and with gorgeous illustrations.
I enjoyed Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff’s Gemina – the second book in the Illuminae Files Trilogy – mostly because it was the right book at the right time for me. At a different time, my opinion of this book could have been very different, more critical, more analytical. But I needed a quick, thrilling adventure with a bit of romance and this fit perfectly. The format, transcripts of video footage, chat messages, phone calls, etc., made this really easy to read. The plot was like Die Hard in Space and the romance may not have been original, but it worked for me. While it is maybe not an award-worthy piece of writing, it gave me exactly what I needed and I enjoyed every single page. Who cares if this is great literature. It gave me plenty of enjoyment, silly romance, action and fun, and I will not feel guilty for loving it!
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman is a special book. I didn’t fall head over heels in love with it immediately, but the story grew on me over time. The longer I read, the more I liked it and the more I cared about Tess. It’s a quiet tale of a girl coming into her own, dealing with her past, and finding her place in the world – quite literally. Although it is an episodic story, it never felt episodic. The writing is beautiful, but the characters were the living, beating heart of this book. So though this wasn’t an immediate crush, once I finished the book I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the warm, happy feelings it gave me stayed with me for quite a while.
That’s it for my favorites of the year. 2019 has been good to me!
I discovered some new-to-me authors, I caught up on series and backlists by authors I already liked, I read a variety of books – graphic novels, non-fiction, novellas, and of course lots of novels – and it has been an incredibly rewarding year. What were your favorites? Leave a link to your post or share your standout 2019 books with me in the comments! I love to see what everyone else read this year and which books I may have overlooked. And of course:
Happy New Year!!! 🙂