Another year of reading draws to a close. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!
Frances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But Sara Collins’ novel is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station. By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. Although framed by a murder mystery, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance.
Grappling with the consequences of her genocidal actions in Mugen, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Runin “Rin” Fang turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions. In her second novel, R.F. Kuang brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.
It has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and even Nahri is not immune to this thinking as she struggles to find her way out from under Ghassan’s thumb.
Alex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watchdog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. This novel might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie.
(Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.)
As a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance. In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide?
Looking for more great reads? You can check out my Top Picks from past years. Or check back later this week, when I’ll feature my top non-fiction reads of the year.
What were your top fiction reads of 2019?