The Best Novels I Read in 2014

I somehow failed at this exercise last year, but I managed to pull it off for 2014. Phew, starting the year off with one in the Win column! Before we get to The Best of, if you’re really curious, here’s a list of every book I read in 2014.

While compiling the best, I started with what I’d rated 5 stars — just 11 novels. I could take just the best 10 of those — piece of cake, right? Wrong. There were titles I expected to see there that weren’t, and a couple that I was surprised to see listed. So I looked at the 4 and 4½ books — and had a similar reaction.

Now, I stand by my initial ratings — for honesty’s sake as much as laziness. But I did put some of my lower rated books in the best, knocking some 5-star books out. They might have been impressive workds, doing everything I wanted — but some of these others stuck with me in ways the 5’s didn’t — emotional impact, remembering details/stories in more vivid detail, that sort of thing.

Eh, it’s all subjective anyway, so why not? I did try to account for recency bias in this — and pretty sure I succeeded, but I may owe an apology or two.

Later today, I’ll post the Honorable Mentions list and the Worst of List — as well as what I’m looking forward to most in 2015. The Day of Lists, apparently. With one exception, I limited these lists to things I hadn’t read before (it shows up in the Honorable Mention post). Enough jibber-jabber, on to the Best Novels I read in 2014:

(in alphabetical order)

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)Red Rising

by Pierce Brown
My Review
This was exciting, compelling, devastating, thrilling, and occasionally revolting. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve recommended this one to this year.
5 Stars

Skin Game (The Dresden Files, #15)Skin Game

by Jim Butcher
My Review
It almost feels like a cheat to put this on the list, but I don’t know if any of the books since Changes would’ve made a year end list, so it’s not like Butcher/Dresden owns a spot here. I laughed, I got pretty darn misty a time or two, I’m pretty sure I audibly reacted to a victory also. Best of this series in awhile.
5 Stars

The Girl With All the GiftsThe Girl With All the Gifts

by M.R. Carey
My Review
This probably would’ve gotten 5-star rating from me if it hadn’t had to overcome genre/subject prejudice. Still, freakishly good.
4 1/2 Stars

Robert B. Parker's Blind SpotRobert B. Parker’s Blind Spot

by Reed Farrel Coleman
My Review
Coleman knocked this one out of the park, erasing the bad taste that his predecessor had left, and making me look forward to reading this series in a way I hadn’t for years. As good as (better in some ways, worse in others) Parker at his best.
5 Stars

Those Who Wish Me DeadThose Who Wish Me Dead

by Michael Koryta

My Review
Not the best Koryta book I’ve ever read, but something about this one has stuck with me since I finished it. Solid suspense, exciting stuff.
4 Stars

Endsinger (The Lotus War, #3)Endsinger

by Jay Kristoff
My Review
I knew going in that this was going to be a. well-written, b. brutal and c. a good conclusion to the series (well, I expected that last one, expected tinged with hope.). It didn’t let me down. I admit, I shed a tear or two, felt like I got punched in the gut a couple of times and didn’t breathe as often as I should’ve while reading. Such a great series.
5 Stars

The Republic of ThievesThe Republic of Thieves

by Scott Lynch
My Review is forthcoming
Can’t believe I haven’t finished this review yet — it’s 80% done, I just can’t figure out how to tie the paragraphs together in a way to make it coherent and (I hope) interesting. A lot of this book is a prequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora and yet there was genuine suspense about those parts. Lynch had a big challenge introducing us to a character here that had achieved near-mythic status, and she ended up living up to expectations. Just a gem of a book.
5 Stars

The Winter LongThe Winter Long

by Seanan McGuire
My Review is forthcoming
Again, I’m not sure how I haven’t finished this review yet. McGuire takes a lot of what Toby’s “known” since we met her (all of which is what we’ve “known,” too) and turns it upside down and shakes the truth out. Every other book in the series has been affected by these revelations — which is just so cool. There’s also some nice warm fuzzies in this book, which isn’t that typical for the series. McGuire’s outdone herself.
5 Stars


by R. J. Palacio
My Review
Heart-breaking, inspiring, saved from being cliché by the interesting narrative choices Palacio made. Yeah, it’s After School Special-y. So what? Really well done. I have no shame saying this kids’ book made me tear up (even thinking about it know, I’m getting bit misty-eyed).
5 Stars

The MartianThe Martian

by Andy Weir

My Review
Very science-y (but you don’t have to understand it to enjoy the book); very exciting; very, very funny. Only book I’ve recommended to more people than Red Rising — I think I’ve made everyone over 12 in my house read it (to universal acclaim). Not sure why I haven’t made my 12-year old, yet.
5 Stars

Endsinger by Jay Kristoff

Endsinger (The Lotus War, #3)Endsinger

by Jay Kristoff

Hardcover, 432 pg.
Thomas Dunne Books, 2014
Read: Dec. 16 – 23, 2014

Let me show you what one little girl can do.

Of course, if you’ve read the first two novels in The Lotus War, you’ll know the list of what this one particular little girl can’t do is probably much shorter. The only question at this point is, can one little girl survive?

Kristoff has quite the wringer to put you through before you get the answer to that. For example, within the first thirty pages — thirty — Kristoff reveals something about a character I’d grown to have a certain affection for, and pitied after what happened to them in the previous book which makes me question everything I thought about them. And then he does something to that character I’m not sure I’ll forgive him for (will still read him, don’t get me wrong, I’ll just bear a grudge).

On the other hand, Endsinger is filled with so many fist-pumping moments, and fun sentences — like

Hiro laughed like a man who’d only read about it in books.

that you can keep pressing on — and actually enjoy the book. Another example of this:

Michi’s foot connected with the Inquisitor’s groin like a redlining goods train. It was the kind of kick that made one’s testicles throw up their hands and move to a monastery in the Hogosha mountains. It was the kind of kick that made orphans of a man’s grandchildren.

I mean, that’s something that Bruce Willis should be saying as he takes on Hans Gruber’s second-cousin or whatever.

I’m not going to describe much plot-wise here. It’d be too difficult to do it justice at this point — if you haven’t read the first two books anyway, there’s not a lot you’ll understand here without a lot of effort on my part. And if you’ve read the first two, you don’t need that to be an inducement to read the this one. It’d be easy in a book like Endsinger to just point every character at the final battle, throw in an obstacle or two along the way and let that be that. Heck, just coming up with an excuse to have Yoshi and Buruu travel around for 70-100 pages as the best buddy comedy pair to come along lately would’ve been a very satisfying way of spending time before the big battle. Instead, we get character development — a lot of it. We get mysteries explained. We get new characters, we learn new things about characters that we’ve known really well since book one (or thought we did, anyway). And they’re all thrown at a couple of really big battles, with some obstacles to overcome along the way.

The themes of the first two books continue to be explored here. The two that stuck out the most for me were: what makes a hero, what do they look like and what’s worth fighting for — honor, family, love, something else. Heroes aren’t what you think they are, don’t look like you think they should like — even (especially) to themselves. But everyone knows one when they see and/or hear one. As for what’s worth fighting for? That’s different for every one.

You don’t think people should know what happened here?”
“Oh, I think they should know, no doubt. I just don’t think they’ll care.”
“How could they not?”
“Because it will be different next time. It always is.”
“Different?” Akithito frowned at the cloudwalker captain.
“Different,” the Blackbird nodded. “Whatever they fight over. It’ll have a different name or a different shape — religion or territory or black or white. People will look back on us and say ‘we could never be that blind.’ People don’t learn from history. Not people who count, anyway.”

There’s a measure of cynicism, realism and idealism in Kristoff’s exploration of these (and other) themes. It’s tough, and probably ill-advised, to try to pin one of these viewpoints on Kristoff. But it seems to me that idealism’s voice is a bit louder than the rest.

Kristoff is great at keeping you on your toes. Things are bleak, but you start to think that hope is on the horizon, that one cavalry or another is coming — and coming soon. And then the hope is dashed. Or you start to think that all hope is gone and things are going to fall to ruin, and this is going to turn into a YA historical dystopian series, but then a new source of hope, a new rabbit gets pulled from a hat. He blindsides you time after time, from every direction.

Kristoff is great at his pacing, there are many moments he lets breathe, lets the readers and the characters observe everything going on, taking in all the sensory information and the thoughts of everyone. But he’s also capable of throwing in a sudden scene to grab the reader. The quick scenes bouncing around between the various characters in the heat of battle really work well to keep the tension high (though that can be a bit confusing unless you force yourself to slow down and read carefully — which is the last thing you want to do at that moment).

After awhile — about three-quarters through the book, after all the death, destruction, and (seemingly) climactic confrontations and battles getting you to that point, you simply can’t believe Kristoff can keep it going. How can the book last so many more pages? Is he going to give us a Peter Jackson’s Return of the King-style multi-epilogue? Probably not, it really seem to be Kristoff’s style. And then Kristoff shows you how he’s going to fill the rest of the book, and you pity all his characters, even those you’ve grown to despise, because that’s just not right.

In the end, Endsinger is a very satisfying conclusion to one of my favorite series in recent years. It’d have been easy for him to go for a “Everybody lives, Rose” kind of thing, where Hiro and the Lotus Guild are destroyed, Yukiko and Buruu are universally hailed as heroes, the Kage take over, and happily ever after. But he doesn’t give us that. Instead, we get the kind of conclusion promised in the first two books: it was emotionally satisfying (and induced a wide range of emotions, and may have involved a Kleenex or two on my part), it gave characters real conclusions to their arcs (not all happy endings), it tied up what needed to be tied up and it pointed towards the future. I’m going to miss this world and most of these characters. But I’m glad Kristoff didn’t try to milk this longer — it’s great as it is.


5 Stars

Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff

Kinslayer (The Lotus War, #2)Kinslayer

by Jay Kristoff

Hardcover, 432 pg.
Thomas Dunne Books, 2013
Read: Dec. 6-13, 2013

It’s a law that the second part of a trilogy is going to be darker in tone than the rest and will leave things in a precarious position. The mark of a really good second part of a trilogy is that even as you expect that, the tone and direness of the events affect you as they ought, and don’t just seem as ways to advance the overall story arcs to get through the third installment.

Kristoff’s Kinslayer delivered on that. And then some — I’m not sure where I expected/wanted things to go following the calamitous events at the close of Stormdancer — obviously there’d be fighting between the Guild, the Kagé rebellion, and various groups trying to fill the void left by the death of Yoritomo. And, of course, Buruu and Yukiko would be smack dab in the middle of it. Beyond that, I really had no idea.

Which is fine and dandy, because I was pretty wrong — yes, there’s conflict between the Kagé, the Lotus Guild and various Shōgun, but not all-out warfare (mostly). And for the bulk of the novel, Yukiko and Buruu aren’t directly involved in that story — they are off on an important quest on their own, their storylines intersect with the rest at the beginning and end of the novels (like Luke and R2 off to Dagobah in another noted second part of a trilogy).

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not all doom and gloom. There are more than a few chuckles, some fun times to be read here. Early on in the book, I wrote the note, “the conversations between Yukiko and Buruu are fantastic — the playfulness, the teasing, the love — it’s like Temeraire with snark.” But then things started to turn — in the capitol, in the Kagé wilderness and even with the thunder tiger and his stormdancer. Yukiko is having trouble controlling her powers, there’s division in the rebellion’s ranks, and it seems that nobody in the capitol is telling the truth to anyone about anything. Betrayal courses through this novel. It’s raw and powerful.

What makes all the betrayal effective isn’t how it moves the plots forward, but because with established and new characters, Kristoff has created characters you can believe, characters you can empathize with, identify with, care about — no matter their allegiance in the conflicts. So that when plans go awry, trust is broken, loved ones abandoned (or worse), it matters to the audience.

True to form, things are bleak — if not worse — as the novel closes, but Kristoff has set the stage for something very exciting, and many things that I’m not even going to pretend to predict. Can’t wait for what’s next.

Lastly, I am indebted to Kristoff for the Character Reference pages at the beginning and wish that more serial fiction people did something like that — an easy way to re-orient yourself in this strange world. If only there was a pronunciation guide, too. But now I’m getting greedy.


5 Stars