& Fridays: Ampersand Read’s Best Books of the Year

Ah, we’ve come to the end of another year (yeah….WHAT?!) and thus, the very important Third Annual Ampersand Read Best Books of the Year Awards! Or TAARBBOTYA if you want a title that requires an obnoxiously long acronym (here’s looking at you, A Court of Mist and Fury, or should I say ACOMAF?!) HUZZAH! HOORAY! AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!

It’s been a pretty damn good year of reading. Not that I’ve had many bad years, really. I found that I’ve read an incredible number of good sequels this year. It was quite hard to narrow it down. Without further ago (because I added some categories this time so it’s a long awards ceremony now):

Most Surprising

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, May 2016

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

I almost crowned this book in “Best Sequel” and THEN I thought it might be “Best Twist,” because this book, second in a series, feels like such a different book than the first. It has stronger characters, and this huge, sweeping plot that sets up so much for the books to come. My jaw dropped multiple times at how much I loved this book. I liked A Court of Thorns and Roses. I LOVED A Court of Mist and Fury. There is so much to fangirl about, and I became so invested in the world and the characters. Most of all, I wasn’t expecting these changes and by the end, I couldn’t see how the story could be any other way.

 

Most Beautiful

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

I’ve got a thing for beautiful stories. Stories that maybe aren’t the most action packed, maybe aren’t the most succinct or as brief as they could be, but damn do they know how to place and write a sentence. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway does a lot in a small space. At just over 150 pages, it’s rather short for a novel. It takes a lot to set up the world of a book, let alone a book where children fall into other worlds: you must set up dozens of other little stories (the worlds the children fall into) in the one big story (a safe haven for them to meet others like them). But the language evokes such feeling in this novel; it is small but talks about very big things.

Best Start of a Series

nevernight

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

The sequel to Nevernight does not even have a name yet, and it is already on my calendar to be ready to buy it. The writing style/language is polarizing: you either jump in with both feet and love it, or you fight the book the whole way. I ate it all up with a spoon, and now I want more. The premise of the story – a Hogwarts-style school for assassins where someone starts killing off the students – is just the tip of the iceberg. It is funny and beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Can August 2017 get here sooner?!

Best Sequel

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

I was kind of hoping the sequel to last year’s brilliant City of Stairs would be from the perspective of Sigrud – the ass-kicking muscle to Shara’s quiet politician. But war general Turyin Mulaghesh does just fine, expanding the already vividly complex world Stairs began, and turning it a bit on its head. Second books in a series often slump, and are just a bridge to the final act. This sequel turns everything up to eleven, and I can’t wait for City of Miracles, out in April.

Honorable Mentions

So. Many. Other. Contenders. Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo’s sequel to last year’s stupendous Six of Crows was just as good as its predecessor, shipping all the best ships and hiding all the right secrets from readers until just the right moment to shock and awe us.

And Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman was crazy great as well. But I’m in love with the series, so I went into reading the sequel a little biased.

Best Cover

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman,.

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman,.

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

I just….so much work goes into these books! There’s art, there’s story, there’s graphics and diagrams and just so so SO many hours of genius. You only get an inkling of how involved the creation of these books are when you look at the covers, but it’s a good inkling. The transparent, watercolored dustjacket, the censored sections of files, revealed only in bits and pieces, the layout of it all: AMAZING.

Honorable Mentions

Smoke by Dan Vyleta features a beautiful painting by Claude Monet that is so atmospherically PERFECT for the novel and place in time. Plus, the colors are just plain pretty. We Could be Beautiful by Swan Huntley is highly reflective – a stray sunbeam and you could blind passerby if you were reading in public. But its subtle play on an out-of-focus yet still beautiful subject, and suggestion of a mirror is the perfect choice for a book that deals a lot with image and impressions.

Best Character

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Jesper from Crooked Kingdom (and Six of Crows)

Ooh a toughy. Not only do I have to narrow a choice down to a book I read this year, but to a single character that I liked “best.” Which is essentially impossible, because there were so many good guys and gals and monsters to choose from. And everyone in Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom is amazing. But I came to find Jesper to be one of my favorites. He’s the witty banter-er of the group, the comic relief. But he also has a complex backstory, and I feel like he could have a spinoff series of his own (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!). Plus he and Wylan are adorable.

Honorable Mentions

Too many to count. General Turyin Mulaghesh from City of Stairs, Rhysand from A Court of Mist and Fury, Darrow from Morning Star, and Nancy from Every Heart a Doorway to name just a very few.

Book I Most Want to See on Screen

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

AGAIN. Can you imagine this movie? I can. It would be AWESOME. I am a sucker for clever characters whose plots are one step ahead of me, and I love that in the movies that I watch, too. Scenes in these books seem to play out very cinematically. Now who wants to direct?

Best Book I Read All Year

I couldn’t actually pinpoint just one (although I will in a moment for the sake of the awards. THE SHOW MUST GO ON!). I read so many books this year that I really liked, that it feels almost dishonest to say “I liked THIS one the best at the time of year/the week/the mood I was in that I read it.” Morning Star by Pierce Brown capped off the Red Rising trilogy so, so well. City of Blades and Gemina were superb sequels to series that I drool over. Nevernight was a fantastic start to what is probably going to be a beautiful friendship between me and Jay Kristoff’s new series.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire was just straight up amazing, and for how short it is, I know the book will stay with me a long time. The characters, the themes, the unbelievable potential for more stories: fantastic

& Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

The Book Itself: The covers of this series have been so clever! The tattered wings of the crow form the spires of a city this time. And the edges of all the pages are dipped in a bright, vivid red. Atmospheric and just plain awesome.

My Review: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and left crippled by the kidnapping of a valuable team member, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of magic in the Grisha world.

I adore books and characters that are cleverer than me. I am drawn to crafty thief-types who have orchestrated something so complex, so diabolical, than just when they’re backed into a corner, and I’m frantically reading pages to find out how they get out of it, they pull something off that I never saw coming. It takes truly talented authors to do that. It makes me both envious as a writer and a very happy reader.

Six of Crows was one of the best examples of that that I read last year. The characters were haunting and witty and so, so clever. Kaz Brekker, the leader of the charming band of misfits, was the epitome of that (although he left most of the snark to Jesper, the sharpshooter).

But the first book let Kaz do the planning, and focused on bringing the disparate characters into a cohesive team. This book backs that team into corner after corner. But this time, they’re unified, closer to one another emotionally, and they hatch plans together instead of relying on Kaz alone.

And it’s not just one heist, either. The team is trying to get back at Van Eck for double-crossing them and stealing Inej in the first book. Kaz has his revenge fantasy against Pekka Rollins. Eventually the ENTIRE city seems against them (as in, there are wanted posters). This isn’t just breaking into the Ice Court. This is getting back at multiple people, simultaneously, all while trying to stay sane, friendly, and oh yeah, alive. The story dragged a bit for me when they started plotting their next moves. In the first book, Kaz did all of that, and he did all of that offstage. Not one person knew everything up his sleeve (which created some understandable tension). So we didn’t see the discarded ideas, the obstacles he had to puzzle through. We see more of that here in Crooked Kingdom. I think it was definitely necessary, and earned, but it took me a bit to adjust.

Leigh Bardugo is also just excellent at banter and dialogue. I wish I were half as verbosely clever as these characters in real life.

Crooked Kingdom was much more emotional, overall. I was rather surprised that all of them emerged relatively unscathed in Six of Crows. Uh-oh, I thought. That means someone’s going to bite the dust in the next one. There’s no way all of them are making it out alive. I would never go so far as to tell you if that’s true. But I will say that the character development throughout the novel, and the resolutions for each of them had me tearing up several times. Wylan, who I didn’t feel particularly attached to in the first book, gets a backstory in Crooked Kingdom. And it’s pretty heartbreaking. And you knew Inej had a terrible past, but now you get to hear more about it and cry the requisite tears. Bardugo had the unenviable task of making you care for, developing, and providing resolution for not one, not two, but three major relationships amidst this cast of characters. I was pulling for every one of them. And while maybe not all of them got the ending I was hoping for, I admire the way I was made to care for them (Jesper and Wylan FOR LIFE, by the way…).

I will say that I wish the ending had…more. There are major moves to wrap up each character’s story. But in the end I felt a little empty. I don’t know whether I truly felt that there were loose ends, or if I just really, really want more books featuring these characters. But you leave with everyone setting off to do some amazing things (MUST…NOT…SPOIL…), and in a way it felt too nicey-nice to me. I need the grit of this world and these characters back! Bring them all back together for one last heist! For FIVE MORE HEISTS! ALL THE HEISTS!!

At the reader’s panel I went to, where Leigh Bardugo was one of the authors, someone asked if her next book would include any these characters, or be in the same world. She, of course, couldn’t say yay or nay, probably because her publisher made her swear a blood oath not to. But she did say, “It’s a big map,” which basically means hold onto your hats, we’re heading back to Grisha land. But can we get everyone here back too? Pretty please?!

It’s a terrific sequel, and an amazing duology. Please, go read it.

My Grade: A

& Reviews: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2015

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2015

The Book Itself: You can’t see it from the cover photo alone, but the pages are trimmed in black, making for a very cool effect, and an awesome addition to a bookshelf. The crow on the cover is really ingenious, too, with the wingtip forming the spires of a city.

My Review: Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

My best friend raved about this book and pushed it into my hands. I was reading the first two books in the Gentleman Bastards series (read reviews on The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies here and here) at the time, and the synopsis of Crows sounded like a too-similar story arc in young adult form. So I put it off.

I am glad I finally picked it up after a couple of palate-cleansing books. It is incredibly well-written and structured, and despite it having a boggling number of protagonists, I felt like I got to know each one.

Leigh Bardugo also wrote the Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising). I read the first of that series in 2014, but for some reason didn’t continue. I liked the book, and it built a really complex villain and love triangle, but perhaps I just got wrapped up in other books or it wasn’t quite what I was looking for at the time.

Well, Six of Crows is set in the same world. Upon seeing a list of Grisha on one of the first pages, I called my friend in a panic “Do I need to go read that whole series before I get to this one?!”

“No,” she reassured me. “It stands on its own.”

And it certainly does. Not only did I immediately understand what the Grisha were and how they fit into the world (this book is set after the events of the other series, so you might get a couple spoilers about the aftermath of the series’ events), but I fell into it and just kept reading. You get steeped in the action right away, from multiple characters and multiple sides of the story. And at first, having these six+ people as your guides for the rest of the novel seems overwhelming: each chapter cycles narration between them, and you have to get them straight, as well as feel like you know them and their motivations.

And I don’t know quite how Bardugo managed it, but the pacing and structuring is so well done! We get flashbacks and backstory for each and every thief/thug/sorcerer (or sorceress). And it is done in such a way that I didn’t feel that it detracted from the main plot. Which, speaking of plot, is fantastic. We have the formation of our dream team: teenage thieves and weapons specialists (I automatically age them in my mind because it just seems weirdly implausible that they are in their teens), we have the formation of The Mission, we slowly set up the stakes for The Mission for each character, and we carry out The Mission. I didn’t feel taken out of the story at any point, I didn’t detest or even dislike any one character – the ones you feel have bad intentions to start with turn into complex people with beliefs that differ from others in key ways.

I am finding that I am drawn towards crafty main characters. The kind that always seem in a bind, but they are only in a bind because they planned it that way. And just when you think all hope is lost, they reveal the secret to the magic trick, and they wiggle their way out of trouble. It makes the plot interesting, and a bit unpredictable. Even though I know this character and know that this is probably a ruse that they have orchestrated to get something that they want, I want to learn how they did it, and how exactly they are going to get away. Kaz Brekker, the leader of our motley crew, is one such character. He always has something up his sleeve. But he’s complex, and his backstory is pretty heartbreaking.

So, it is safe to say that I liked it. A lot. Crooked Kingdom, the sequel, comes out this September, and it is already on my calendar. The worldbuilding is strong, any romance is a nice background, and not the cloying focus, and you will love this ragtag bunch of misfits.

My Grade: A