Top Ten Tuesday: best of 2019

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. Today, it’s time to look back at the best of the year that just was…

I’ve read fewer than 70 books this year, a few less than usual (but it’s been a busy year) but more than enough to make picking favourites a challenge. My reading has been very evenly spread across various flavours of fantasy vs science fiction, and included a dozen rereads – higher than usual, but a trend I’d like to continue. I used to live on rereads and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting familiar stories through read-alongs.

Still, I’ve felt vaguely dissatisfied with this year’s reading overall. It’s only looking back at my ratings that I realise why: a massive 10 reads failed to achieve 3 stars, my threshold for a recommended read. That’s a whopping 1 in 7 reads that left me grinding my teeth for some reason. I only reviewed 2 of these reads as I couldn’t muster the energy to write a critical but even-handed review (and only one was an ARC, so).

Thankfully, I dished out an equal number of 5 star ratings – and nearly as many 4.5 star ratings – so overall 2019 has been a very good year indeed. So should I feel dissatisfied? Only that I didn’t fit more reading in!

But it’s time to talk about the books I loved best this year. You know I have few rules for how I marshal my top ten: some years I include rereads, most years I include backlist reads, generally I follow my ratings. This year, I tried tracking my ‘read of the month’  – and no, I would have had no problem declaring a book per month as my top ten, what even are numbers – but I died in an avalanche of amazing reads as winter fell, so that went out the window.

So without further do – and excluding re-reads, sort of – here’s my top twelve of 2019.

Book cover: The Kingdom of Copper - S A ChakrabortyKingdom of Copper – S A Chakraborty

Chakraborty dished up another satisfying instalment of myth, world-building, politics and conflict in the sequel to one of last year’s favourites. Bookish disaster prince does DIY to win a girl he’s definitely not interested in is a subplot designed to win my heart. City of Brass gets a nod here as a 5-star reread, for capturing the simmering threat of a divided culture.

I Still DreamBook cover: I Still Dream - James Smythe (I honestly have no idea but it's blue an orange and curvy) – James Smythe

Gorgeous cover, timely subject matter and more compassion than cynicism – this exploration of AI, ethics and humanity left me in bits. We awarded I Still Dream the Subjective Chaos Kind of Award for Best SF and it has had a place on this list from the moment I finished it. Just wonderful.

Book cover: The Traitor Baru Cormorant - Seth Dickinson (a fractured mask of a woman's face floating on a field of black)The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson

Raising cynicism and ruthlessness to new levels (yes, even by 2019 standards, shush), Baru Cormorant is the fantasy accountant you didn’t know you needed and my anti-heroine of the year. Don’t get attached to anyone. One of the best fantasies of the decade, seriously.

Book cover: Tiamat's Wrath - James S A CoreyTiamat’s Wrath – James S A Corey

The final act of The Expanse just keeps getting better and better, proving that it’s worth investing for the long haul. Tiamat’s Wrath pushed an already high bar into orbit – be ready for an emotional hammering from the very first page. Here’s hoping Mr Corey can stick the landing in the final book next year.

Book cover: The Unbound Empire - Melissa Caruso (a woman in a flame-coloured ballgown seen from behind, merging into the outline of a flame-coloured crow in flight)The Unbound Empire – Melissa Caruso

This series has become a firm favourite. The plots trip along through thoughtful world-building as compelling, often ambiguous characters shake the status quo. I love how this series centres friendship and family (extra points for writing a love triangle I actually adore). The triumphant conclusion to a 5-star trilogy.

Book cover: The Poison Song - Jen Williams (a winged cat snarling against a field of green)The Poison Song – Jen Williams

Dark but not grimdark, this 5-star series laughs at genre boundaries. Not as traditional as it sounds (loners bond to save world from ancient enemy) – Williams plays with tropes, twists her world-building and delights in wrong-footing you at every step. Devastatingly good, and that ending wrecked me.

Book cover: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneThis Is How You Lose The Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Sometimes you know you’re being manipulated from the start, and sometimes you don’t care. This is almost more poetry than prose, a gorgeous literary exercise in epistolary time travel enemies-to-lovers romance. Do not burn before reading.

Book cover: The Calculating Stars - Mary Robinette Kowal (a group of women silhouetted against a starry sky)The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

I fell head over heels for this uncompromising re-imagining of the space race. Scientists, engineers, pilots and mathematicians must work together to find a way to get humanity off-planet after an extinction event. If only half of them weren’t being excluded from the effort by their gender and race…

Book cover: Turning Darkness into Lighnt - Marie BrennaTurning Darkness Into Light – Marie Brennan

If sequels are tricky, stand-alone follow-ups to best-selling series are harder – but there’s no challenge too big for Lady Trent’s granddaughter. The politics of language, culture and history are every bit as gripping as Isabella’s globetrotting adventures, and impetuous Audrey just as adorable.

Book title: A Memory Called Empire - Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

An accomplished debut that puts Arkady Martine firmly at the heart of my wishlist for the future. This political space opera explores notions of identity and the haunting loneliness of the expat – whilst taking ruthless potshots at cultural exceptionalism and colonial expansion. Brilliant.

Book cover: Steel Frame - Andrew SkinnerSteel Frame – Andrew Skinner

I’ve done nothing but rave about this book since I put it down. Andrew Skinner ruthlessly targeted my weak points and won my heart with this unexpectedly feelings-led military space opera of giant robots punching each other. Carry me.

Book cover: The Bone Ships - RJ BarkerThe Bone Ships – R J Barker

RJ finally won me over with this stunning shipboard fantasy of sea monsters and bird mages. A hapless young man comes of age under the tutelage of a ruthless captain determined to save their world from itself – one convict at a time, if necessary. Magnificent.

Honourable mentions go to all my 4-star books: they would be a compelling top ten in their own right. Particular favourites that I feel guilty for not squeezing into this list (ARGH SO MANY GOOD BOOKS) include Mughal fantasy Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, magical space western Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells, and the unexpectedly compassionate (if still hip deep in gore) Godblind trilogy by Anna Stephens. Dammit, Anna, I know I don’t like grimdark, but will you write me some more?

What have you enjoyed most so far this year?