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Hello once more! This is Courtney Schafer, returning to guide you on one last journey through the under-read wilderness. (Apologies for the delay since my last post. It’s been a hell of a year.) My previous posts discussed treasures from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s; now I’ll finish off by taking a look at the current decade. The 2010s aren’t even over yet, and already I’ve read so many great books deserving of more attention that I found this list the most difficult of all to narrow down to reasonable length.

My usual caveats still apply: this list is personal in nature, and not meant to be exhaustive, nor even to identify the "best" books of the decade so far. I’ve simply chosen reads I enjoyed that seem to have slid under the radar and deserve to be discovered by more readers. I have also restricted myself to choosing only one book/series per author, and listing any given author only once over the four-decade span of my posting series.

As always, if you have favorite treasures of your own, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments!

Wall of Night series by Helen Lowe (pub dates 2010-present)
This series is classic epic fantasy, complete with an adolescent protagonist prophesied to stand against an evil force rising to overwhelm the world. The story follows Malian, heir to a great house of the warrior Derai, who must struggle to survive her many enemies and grow into her magical powers. Yet in similar manner to Alison Croggon’s excellent Pellinor series (discussed in my 2000s post), don’t let the use of traditional tropes scare you off. The power of a story lies in its execution, and Lowe’s stellar worldbuilding ensures her story feels fresh and wholly her own rather than derivative of older works. cover of The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe I particularly like the science fictional suggestion that both the psychically gifted Derai and their ancient opponents the Darkswarm come from another world—that in fact, their battle has been fought over multiple worlds, moving from one to the next as the planets are torn asunder in the struggle. The idea of mixing interstellar travel and epic fantasy isn’t new (see Cherryh’s Morgaine saga, or Wurts’s Wars of Light and Shadow), but the mixture certainly isn't common, and boy do I love the unique spin Lowe has put on the idea. Another area where the series shines is plotting, especially the "long game" style of plotting, in which disparate threads come together to give revelations that cast older scenes in a whole new light. This first becomes evident in the second book The Gathering of the Lost, which features some interesting (and authorially risky) choices of character narration, plus pulls off some excellent reveals of motivations and character backstories. Third novel Daughter of Blood has continued this trend of excellence, so I can’t wait to see where Lowe takes the story as the series continues.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine (pub date 2011)
This is steampunk done as a dark, poetic dream of a post-apocalyptic future in which magic and machinery coexist in uneasy harmony. The story deals with simmering tensions amid the performers in a quite unusual traveling circus; if you ever saw the amazing but short-lived HBO series Carnivale, that’s probably the closest match in terms of feel. It’s one of those books that won’t work for every reader—some won’t like the nonlinear timeline and the constantly shifting tenses and POVs—but if Mechanique does work for you, oh wow, it’ll blow your socks off with its elegance and emotional power.

The Fey and the Fallen duology by Stina Leicht (pub dates 2011-2012)
cover of Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht This duo of books (Of Blood and Honey / And Blue Skies From Pain) combines the Sidhe of Irish legend with fallen angels and the gritty reality of life during the Troubles in 1970s Ireland. Protagonist Liam is half-puca (shapeshifter), and his struggle through the books to understand and accept his Sidhe heritage provides a nice counterpoint to all the divided loyalties and moral quandaries inherent in the real-world problems he faces. Liam’s struggle with his own darker impulses makes for compelling, gut-wrenching reading, and Leicht does a particularly excellent job in the second novel in delving deep into the psychological effects of the trauma he’s experienced. I highly recommend the books to anyone who likes their fantasy dark and full of realism.

Tower and Knife trilogy by Mazarkis Williams (pub dates 2011-2013)
This trilogy is multi-POV epic fantasy with plenty of intrigue, characters in shades of gray, and interesting magic and cultures. It’s always nice to read something set outside the quasi-medieval European setting so common in epic fantasy, and here the desert descriptions were particularly well-done; Williams’s prose is spare yet poetic and powerful. I also like that the trilogy’s POV characters cover quite a gamut of ages and attitudes without adding any bloat to the story. Williams doesn’t make the mistake of continuing a character POV past their natural arc in the story, and only adds new POVs as the story requires. The characterization is as deft as the choices of POV; each character from mad prince to aging queen to budding mage has a distinct voice and their own flaws and passions, and the women are just as complex and interesting as the men. The story is at times terribly bleak, particularly in the second book, but what I love best about the trilogy is that it doesn’t dive forever into darkness. Hope returns, albeit in quiet fashion to match the subtlety of the story. I found the ending to be both beautiful and satisfying.

Dogsland trilogy by J.M. McDermott (pub dates 2011-2014)
The Dogsland books form a stark, haunting, literary tale that packs quite a punch into a short amount of pages. McDermott’s writing reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s: while reading, I had that same sense of deep truths hidden between interlocking tales, where words left unspoken hold equal weight to those on the page. The framing story follows a married pair of shape-changing hunters, whose sacred mission is to seek out and kill the halfling children of demons, and cleanse the tainted ground the demon children leave behind. cover of Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott This taint is quite real: the very touch of these halfling children can sicken ordinary humans, even kill them. And yet, as one of the hunters experiences the memories of a slain demon child in order to track down more, we learn the demon-spawn are as human as the rest of us: afraid, alone, desperate to survive, capable of both cruelty and compassion. In some ways, the hunters are far more Other than the demon children.They view the world with the cool practicality of the wolves whose form they can take, and share a wolf’s disdain for weakness; but they, too, are capable of tenderness and love. Deeper and deeper layers are revealed as the trilogy continues, and the story is a beautifully written exploration of prejudice and what it means to be an outcast. Recommended for those who like their fantasy dark and different from anything else on the shelf.

House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier (pub date 2012)
I first heard about House of Shadows on Kristen Bell’s excellent review site Fantasy Book Café. Bell’s review intrigued me, with its talk of beautiful writing and sympathetic characters, but my library didn’t have any copies of the book, and I hesitated over whether to shell out cash. Then I mentioned the book to a well-read friend of mine, and he promptly gushed about it, saying Neumeier's writing reminded him of Patricia McKillip. McKillip is one of my all-time favorite fantasy authors for the lyric beauty of her prose, the mythic feel of her stories, and her vivid characters, so that settled the point—I had to buy the book. Oh goodness, I'm so glad I did! I loved House of Shadows, hands down. It's a subtle, atmospheric, gorgeous novel, and yes, there was much about the feel of the story that reminded me of McKillip (in a good way, not a derivative one). Interestingly, the book's blurb manages to be both factually accurate and yet wholly incorrect in conveying a feel for the story. Only one of the two sisters mentioned in the blurb is a major POV character, and two other protagonists aren't mentioned at all, including my favorite character, the foreign mage Tauddis. Tauddis is quietly clever in the face of seriously ruthless men out to manipulate him, which is something I always love. House of Shadows can be read as a standalone, but I can't even tell you how delighted I was to find out Neumeier has written a sequel. After reading the first scene of said sequel on Neumeier's blog, I want to read the rest right NOW NOW NOW oh god it’s been so hard to wait! Neumeier does have a hefty backlist of adult and YA titles, so I’ve been able to enjoy those in the meantime. I still want that sequel, though.

Bloodsounder’s Arc trilogy by Jeff Salyards (pub dates 2012-2016)
If you like gritty military fantasy that’s got just as much focus on the characters as the realistic battles, this series is for you. cover of Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards I thought the first book, Scourge of the Betrayer, sounded intriguing from the get-go: a naïve, bookish scribe plays “embedded journalist” in a hardened military company with a haunted, enigmatic leader. Sign me up, I said! I always love characters with secrets. The first book is quite tightly focused—if you read fantasy for grand, sweeping dramas and elaborate worldbuilding, you won’t find it here. To me the tight focus felt refreshing, and keeps the novel lean and well-paced. In the following two books, the scope of the story expands quite a bit, as the reader learns more about the politics and motives of the players in the conflict. The final book of the trilogy might’ve been my favorite of the bunch, as Salyards continues the brutal realism of the military action while adding in a whole new creepy and very cool fantasy element. Endings can be hard to pull off, but I found this one solid and satisfying.

The Children trilogy by Ben Peek (pub dates 2014-present)
Ben Peek writes weird, melancholic, beautifully crafted fantasy that’s focused more on philosophical questions and themes than heroic action (despite the epic battles). The diverse cultures and complex politics feel messily realistic in a way not often seen in the epic fantasy genre, even as the world itself, littered with the corpses of gods, is strange and dark and utterly unique in feel. The storytelling is nonlinear and requires the reader to pay attention to sort out chronology, so the series may not be the best for those who want a straightforward tale. But if you enjoy making thematic connections and watching multiple story threads weave together to build a coherent, thought-provoking whole, this is fantasy you shouldn’t miss.

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock (trilogy of novellas published 2015-2016)
The Los Nefilim novellas are alternate-history dark fantasy set in 1930s Spain, and they are amazing. I love Frohock’s writing, which is concise yet beautiful and evocative. More, I absolutely adore her characters: half-angel, half-daimon Diago, struggling to overcome a painful past and accept friendship and trust; his lover Miquel, gentle yet fiercely competent; Rafael, the young son Diago wants desperately to protect. cover of In Midnight's Silence by T. Frohock Frohock does a wonderful job portraying their deepening bonds, and each character’s growth and change as they face new threats and agonizingly difficult decisions. Each novella has its own story arc and resolution, but together all three form a truly satisfying story that packs a hell of an emotional punch. I tell you, I could happily read many more novellas (or novels!) following the characters’ lives. Also, for those who want stories featuring positive portrayals of LGBT relationships that do not end in tragedy or death, take note: this series is for you! Los Nefilim may be dark fantasy, but that darkness is complemented by a glorious blaze of tenderness and hope. Honestly, I cannot recommend these novellas highly enough. Tightly plotted, beautifully crafted, deeply affecting—this is fantasy at its best.

Black Wolves by Kate Elliott (pub dates 2015-present)
I realize Black Wolves already has quite the cheering section here on Lady Business (hi Renay!), yet I had to add my voice to the chorus. I think it’s a crying shame that such a terrific start to a new epic fantasy series hasn’t gotten more attention in the wider fandom. Kate Elliott is no stranger to epic fantasy, of course, having written several great series already during her decade-spanning career. Yet I feel Black Wolves is a stand-out even among Elliott’s other excellent work. This is Elliott at the height of her craft, writing complex, grand-scale epic fantasy that delves deep into how cultures struggle to adapt to change. The book has plenty of "cool factor", too, from giant justice eagles to guerilla warfare to a demonized (literally!) minority wielding some very interesting magical powers. But aside from setting and themes, what really impressed me is Elliott’s deft handling of her characters and story structure. Often with multi-POV books I find some characters much more interesting than others, but here I was interested in all the characters’ threads and found the reveal of information to be handled just right – not too fast and info-dumpy, and not so slow as to be frustrating. Black Wolves is set in the same world as Elliott’s Crossroads series, but I can vouch that you don’t have to have read the Crossroads books to enjoy this one. I didn’t have any trouble following the story despite not having read the prior series, though I’m sure doing so would add an extra layer of appreciation. Me, I can’t wait to see where Elliott takes the story next.

Devil’s West series by Laura Gilman (pub dates 2015-present)
Oh, how I adore the setting and magic of Gilman's re-imagined wild west, where the devil (or at least, a being of great power who's willing to bargain as the devil does in folk stories) has claimed much of the territory west of the Mississippi. cover of Silver on the Road by Laura Gilman Protagonist Isobel is a girl raised in the devil’s town who makes a bargain with him to become his “left hand” and ride the wilderness of his territory, dispensing justice—something sorely needed, as a strange, deadly magic is rising in the territory which threatens to destroy all that the devil protects. Young Isobel is mentored in this role by Gabriel, an experienced rider who has some intriguing secrets and history. The prairie they ride is beautifully described and full of all kinds of imaginative flourishes, from spirit creatures to mad magicians. The series has two books out so far: Silver on the Road and The Cold Eye. The pace of the story in both books is quite measured; some might find that frustrating, but I enjoyed the "slice of life" aspect and Isobel’s journey into acceptance of her power and nature. When the next book comes out, doubtless I will inhale it with just as much delight as I have the first two.

Scorched Continent series by Megan O’Keefe (pub dates 2016-2017)
I'm a total sucker for scoundrels with more depth than is at first apparent, and strong bonds of friendship between very different people, and dangerous psychic-power style magic, so it's like the Scorched Continent series was made just for me. It’s got con men and badass women and doppelgangers and airships and and all kinds of fast-paced action, and I find it so much fun to read that it’s hard for me to be objective. All I can say is that after I’ve finished each of the three books (Steal the Sky, Break the Chains, and Inherit the Flame), I’ve immediately gone back and re-read all my favorite scenes—and really, there’s no greater praise I can give a story than that. Is the series perfect? No. Did I enjoy the hell out of it? YES. I’m still hoping O’Keefe will give us more stories of scoundrel Detan, his best friend Tibal, awesome watch officer Ripka, and all the rest of the Scorched Continent characters.

Looking for more under-read awesomeness from recent years? Try these:

  • The Alchemy Wars series by Ian Tregillis
  • Wild Hunt series by Elspeth Cooper
  • Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
  • Shattered Kingdoms series by Evie Manieri
  • Chronicles of the Tree by Mary Victoria
  • Song of the Shattered Sands series by Bradley Beaulieu
  • Seven Eyes series by Betsy Dornbusch
  • The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente
Thanks everyone for reading, and tremendous thanks to Renay and the rest of the Lady Business crew for inviting me to do this posting series. May you all discover many new authors to love!

Courtney Schafer is an avid mountain climber and an author, combining her love of scaling steep and massive rocks with her love of books to create The Shattered Sigil series, which begins with The Whitefire Crossing, a story about survival, betrayal, blood magic, and friendship. She's on Twitter at [twitter.com profile] cischafer.

Date: 2017-12-08 10:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
I'm pretty sure Stina Leicht has been recommended to me before, but I'm often wary of reading books with Irish characters as they can turn quite Oirish to me.

I have read Helen Lowe;s series and really enjoyed it, can't remember if I read the third of not... something for me to look into.

And I know I bought the first book in the Dogsland series, but I've never gotten to it. It sits, unopened on my kindle :(

But I have read Black Wolves, and I second, third and fourth all the positive things about it. Loved it.


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