[EDITED to add in the very best of the self-published books I read in 2013, the ones that won a Barney award.]
Just to prove that Nathan isn’t the only one who can put together a best-of list…
Self-publishing gets a bad rap. Some wit once said: the best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it; and the worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. Occasionally, trawling through the endless heaps of optimistic offerings on Amazon, it seems as if half the world’s population sat down at the computer, rattled off that novel they’ve always wanted to write, and without a single further thought clicked the ‘Publish’ button. Bad spelling, bad grammar, no punctuation at all, wooden characters, trite plots…
But there are authors out there who write as well as any of the big names, and better than many of them. They take the time to edit thoroughly, they add professional cover art, they take endless trouble with formatting. Their work is indistinguishable in quality from anything put out by the traditional publishers. And the great virtue of taking control of your own publishing is freedom. Self-pubbers can write what they want, in the way they want, as long or as short as the story needs to be. They’re not constrained by genre or perceived marketability or what’s hot. They can be as original as they like, and many are astonishingly imaginative.
The Light of Kerrindryr by H Anthe Davis
World-building is a fundamental part of fantasy. Some fantasy authors draw a squiggly-edged continent, add a few kingdoms, three rivers and a mountain range, decides how many gods are in the prevailing religion and – we’re done! On with the story! This author is not quite like that. You want to know where the highest rainfall is? Which are the best grain-producing regions? Where the stables are in the army camp? How the ogres count? (Seriously; in base six, if you want to know, which gives the mathematical module in my brain a frisson of pure delight.) And it goes without saying that there are languages and some creative swearing, which, by Morgwi’s balls, is piking awesome.
All the human characters here are fascinating, but there are non-humans, too; ogres and skinchangers, goblins and some really creepy beings called eiyet. Creepy oozes out all over the place, and there are moments of pure horror, in the Hitchcock sense of chills up the spine, rather than the more usual sense these days of grossness and spilled entrails. There are also magically enhanced – well, things, for want of a better word. There is a certain blurring of the distinction between alive and not-alive which gave me the heeby-jeebies, frankly.
The story is complex, subtle and many-layered. Compelling characters, a fully-realised world, an action-packed plot that zooms along at a rate of knots and never feels in the least contrived, and a wonderful ending with plenty of emotional resonance. A beautifully conceived and written book with real depth.
The Demon of Cliffside by Nathan Fierro
This was one of those serendipitous discoveries that justifies (honest!) the endless hours trawling blogs and reading tweets. It was a casual query on the fantasy subreddit: anyone know any books with really original settings? And someone popped up and said: yes, my mate’s written this book set in a place with constant rainstorms. And so it was, but it was also much, much more. Because the main character (the unnamed and undefined ‘demon’, so called because no one quite knew what she was) was a fascinating and entirely alien creature. She’d been living there for thousands of years, and latterly humans had arrived and built a city around her. She’d adapted, as she always did, but the humans brought out a new aspect of herself. Since the book is alchemypunk, that leads to all sorts of brilliantly realised consequences. A fantastic foray into fantasy by an author who seems to have appeared from nowhere.
The Touchstone Trilogy by Andrea K Höst
Andrea K Höst is one of my favourite authors, and catching up with her Touchstone trilogy (Stray, Lab Rat One, Caszandra) was a highlight of the year. It’s YA – but don’t let that put you off – and is sort-of scifi, but very close to the border with fantasy. Almost-eighteen year old Cass is walking home from her suburban school one day after her last exam before graduation when – pop! – she finds herself in the middle of a not-Earth forest, with no way back. For a while, she is on her own, surviving as best she can. Then some super-ninja soldier types from a technologically advanced society turn up and rescue her, and discover that she causes all sorts of weird effects in their world.
It’s always fun watching the inevitable culture clash, but the author, as always, avoids the cliches. The way she shows the development of Cass’s language skills, in particular, is masterful. Cass is smart, and funny, and so, so likeable. Then there’s love interest Ruuel, who’s fit, and perfectly honed, and laconic to the point of terseness, and so not my type but awesomely hot… It takes the best part of two books before he sees Cass as a person, rather than a military weapon. The plot is clever and vividly memorable, and would have kept me turning the pages even without the attractions of the two leads. All three books in this series were pure undiluted pleasure. I was slightly drunk on the enjoyment of it, and hey – no calories, no falling over and no hangover afterwards. Just a great big smile.
The Conspiracy by Erica Dakin
This is another book I encountered by chance, this time on Goodreads. The author mentioned in a post that she wrote hot fantasy romances featuring half-elves. Well, my mother always told me to read widely and broaden my mind… This is the second in the Theft and Sorcery series. The romance between Sita and Kai is perfectly believable, the obstacles (an essential component of any romance) were realistic, even the instant attraction was nicely done. And Kai was one of the most charming heroes I’ve ever encountered, with none of the smug arrogance that so often characterises the male lead these days. There were moments when Sita was pushing him away and I was muttering: look, if you don’t want him, dear, send him my way. You just don’t find blokes as nice as that too often. The sex was well written without being over the top, and there were some moments of pure romance that were perfectly lovely (sigh…). The world-building and plot were entertainingly enjoyable, even without the other… erm, attractions of the book. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their fantasy fun and fast-paced, with a hefty dollop of sex thrown in.
The Wandering Tale by Tristan Gregory
This is a collection of four novellas set in a single world, and only loosely connected: a minor character from one story becomes more important in the next one. Each one is published and sold separately. Start with The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth. When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles he’s been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isn’t just for kings and soldiers. This is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than I’ve seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. There’s a lot of subtlety in these stories. People are honourable without being stupid or caricatures, they behave in believable ways and display both intelligence and strength of character. Even the bad guys have reasonable motivations. Below the surface are some thought-provoking themes – of war and honour and duty and bravery, the responsibility of power and the pragmatism of politics. Each episode is a little gem in its own right, but together they add up to something much more interesting.
The Five Elements by Scott Marlowe
A cracking read with elements of steampunk, alchemy, a fairly standard form of elemental magic plus there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. The main character, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. He’s a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. The pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. One of those books I tore through at high speed – that just-one-more-chapter syndrome; it’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read.
The Tattered Banner by Duncan Hamilton
Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. It’s unusual to read a story where the rapier is the the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. The book sidesteps all the street-boy-goes-to-posh-school cliches, and quickly gets Soren out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek, which was one of those awesome moments that stays with you long after the book is finished). The world behind all the action has great depth, one where magic was once widespread by is now outlawed. A terrific page-turning read, and the follow-on book, ‘The Huntsman’s Amulet’, looks like reaching the same standard.
The Fall of Ventaris by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. This follow-on is more of the same, but with even more depth, showing more of the city itself, its history, and the three main religions. The authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people. Duchess’s many schemes take her all round the city and below it, and these adventures bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome. Great characters, a compelling plot and terrific world-building; this is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts.
And All The Stars by Andrea K Höst
A YA post-apocalypse story in the literal sense, beginning the very instant after, as main character Madeleine finds herself amidst rubble from a disintegrated underground station. And dust, vast amounts of dust which coat everything, including Madeleine herself. And as she makes her escape through the ruined station, she encounters the base of the Spire, a black spike, which has instantaneously risen into the Sydney skyline, along with numerous others all around the world. The dust is the key, for those who encounter it are irrevocably changed. Finding out about the dust and the strange Spires, as well as simple survival, creates a pacy adventure which rattles along nicely. The characters aren’t the standard issue beautiful people who leap into perfectly honed action when called upon. These are relatively ordinary people with odd combinations of talent and weakness. Problems are solved by intelligence, common sense and teamwork, rather than brute force. Nor is everyone uniformly heterosexual. And then, just when you think you’ve got the book neatly pigeon-holed, there’s a moment which changes everything, one of those magical OMG moments when your perception simply shifts sideways to open up the story in innumerable different ways. I love it when an author manages to do that to me. An interesting and thought-provoking read.
And because it’s the season for bundled deals, a bonus novella:
Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani
I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. This is just as good, the first in a projected series of perhaps six novellas altogether. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. Hitomi is a lovely heroine – spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. She always does exactly what she wants to do, regardless of whatever instructions she’s given. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains; things just aren’t that simple here. One doesn’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages, and beautifully written.
Disclaimer: with work as professionally presented as these, it’s hard to tell what’s self-published and what isn’t, so if I’ve got any wrong, my apologies to the authors.