Top Ten Tuesday: best of 2018

Text only: top ten TUESDAY

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. It’s all about books, lists and sharing the love we have of both with our bookish friends. And as we start a new year, it’s time to look back at our best of the best from 2018…

2018 was a year that featured a lot of reading to order rather than reading to whim. The first half of the year (and then some) was dominated by the Subjective Chaos reading list (with a few ARCs and read-alongs thrown in). I hit a bit of a slump in the autumn, but Spooktastic Reads and SciFiMonth spurred me on with themed reads before finishing the year by trying to catch up on 2018 releases I’d missed.

Reading to order sometimes feels like work rather than pleasure, but that wasn’t the case this year. The Subjective Chaos list was stacked with the best 2017 had to offer, and I was delighted by many books I might not have read at all left to my own devices. And the autumn may have had themes, but it was fairly free-form – I made a reading plan, and then ignored it completely whilst sticking within genres.

And the result has been a good year: 82 books read (plus Born to the Blade and 2 seasons of Tremontaine), of which two-thirds (53) rated 4 stars or higher and only 2 rated 2 stars or lower. I feel like I DNFed more than usual (7) – if a book didn’t capture my heart, I didn’t force myself to finish it (outside of Subjective Chaos), which always helps keep average ratings high. But life is too short and the TBR too big to force feed myself things I’m not particularly enjoying.

So, putting together this top ten is going to be really hard. Looking back at my Best of the Year So Far from midsummer, I can’t disagree with any of my picks: all ten were brilliant books that I keep recommending to anyone who asks. But I’ve read some stunning books since then, and it’s a long time since January so I fear the books I loved early on are at a disadvantage. Can we make it a top twenty? In fact, let’s do exactly that: without further ado, my Top Ten of the Rest of 2018.

What do you mean that’s cheating? My top ten, my rules…

The Poppy War – R F Kuang

I hesitate to recommend The Poppy War to people because it merits as many content warnings as accolades, and I think it should get lots of accolades. It may sound like a familiar plot – an underdog heroine wins a place at an elite school, claims an unusual destiny and fights to save her country from invaders – but its fusion of early twentieth century Chinese history with mysticism and its provocative character arcs are anything but. This is not the story it sounds like it will be, and it’s devastatingly well told.

The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir – Melissa Caruso

This series had me at hello. It matches a conscientious highborn bookworm with a fierce, uncompromising gutter rat and sets them to challenging their society (and each other). Caruso adds magic, politics and entertaining villains for an absorbing fantasy that will be a regular reread for me for years, I suspect. I love it for prizing friendship and compassion; and for acknowledging that however terrible the external threat, the status quo isn’t perfect. Each instalment is strong enough to win a place individually on this list, and I can’t wait for next year’s finale (or the new series announced in the same world).

Shelter – Dave Hutchinson

This bleak little book gets no awards for originality per se, but sometimes the joy is in the telling. 2018 is the year I fell head over heels for Dave Hutchinson’s dry humour and oh-so-believable dialogue. His characters leap into life in their interactions, and the context here is John Wyndham without the optimism. I loved it. Fancy a farming family feud set in post-apocalyptic Berkshire? This is the book for you. Need to restore your faith in humanity? Erm, this won’t help.

The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

I loved the book, and I rather liked the film too – so if the slow pace and sheer size of the book puts you off, see that instead. Waters is a mistress of atmosphere, and she gets my full-hearted approval for absorbing me even though I disliked the narrator. There are so many clever touches from start to finish (watch out for her handling of the male gaze), and I especially liked her commitment to ambiguity. What happened at Hundreds Hall? You get to decide what you believe.

Soulbinder – Sebastien de Castell

The Spellslinger series is just getting better. I loved Spellslinger, was indifferent to Shadowblack, enjoyed Charmcasterand adored Soulbinder. This series is worth getting into for the long haul – while each book is a fun romp, it’s the long-term relationships and character developments that pay off in spades. Soulbinder firmly moves it from ‘books I read casually as they come along’ to ‘must read Queenslayer now please’.

Europe at Dawn – Dave Hutchinson

Well done Mr Hutchinson, you make my list twice. I’ve been impressed by the Fractured Europe sequence even when I’ve found it frustrating; but Dawn may be my favourite of the lot. It’s a triumphant conclusion to a series I consider essential reading for our times – and no small part of my pleasure is in its clear-eyed realism, in spite of being set in a parallel future featuring cartomancers.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls – Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has a strong track record for writing deeply-felt novellas and short stories, and I’ve love her Dai Viet space opera universe. The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a highlight, with particularly strong world building and absorbing conflicted relationships. Those seeking a flashy, martial space opera may be disappointed, but I found it very satisfying.

The Red Threads of Fortune – J Y Yang

I have fallen hard for Yang’s Protectorate novellas with their fusion of magic, technology, mythical creatures and difficult relationships, but Red Threads is by far my favourite. I loved that it focuses on internal conflict and the complexities of marriage as much as on the Machinist rebellion; and it’s full of brilliant reptiles (of course I loved it). Note: newcomers to the series may still need to start with The Black Tides of Heaven to get a grasp of the setting.

To Kill a Kingdom – Alexandra Christo

When I heard there was a retelling of The Little Mermaid where the mermaid rips out princes’ hearts, I knew I’d missed a major release this year. Expect a Mediterranean feel to the secondary world, and for the (inevitable) romance to feel well-earned (our mermaid siren really doesn’t want to win this prince’s heart in a traditional manner, and she keeps her claws very sharp). I got a V E Schwab vibe from the cinematically immersive and highly entertaining narrative.

Shockingly, you’ll note that Record of a Spaceborn Few didn’t make my list. Yes, I’m surprised too – but that goes to show in part how good a year it’s been, and in part that I just didn’t love Spaceborn Few. I enjoyed what it was doing, but it was a solid 4 star read rather than a stand-out for me.

Best in Class

What’s that? I have to pick an Absolute Best Read of 2018? Well, that I can do, without even pausing to think:

The Fifth Season / The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This is how the world ends – with a series so relentlessly good that it’s an almost impossible act to follow. I say almost, because I think The Poppy War is a worthy successor. But the Broken Earth trilogy remains monumental (well the first two books do. I’m taking the third on faith – I haven’t read it yet). There is literally nothing about these books I don’t love; and everything leaves scars. My favourite kind of reading.

What are your favourites for 2018?