& 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: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

The Book Itself: Was this font designed for Kristoff’s new book? Because I’m digging it: intricate and swirly and cool-looking (I’m great at adjectives). Kristoff was one of the co-authors of Illuminae, which I christened the best book I read all of last year. I was looking forward to his new book here regardless of the cover. But the cover is pretty badass: mysterious looming figure with a dagger dripping blood, shadowy wings spread behind her. This looks like it will not be a nice book. It will be a nasty one; bloody. Here there be monsters.

My Review: In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?

I get the question “So what are you reading right now?” several times a week. Either because I a.) currently have a book in hand, or b.) the questioner knows me, and knows that I read, and that I ALWAYS have a book on me at all times. When I got this question while reading Nevernight, I showed them the cover and then exclaimed “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!”

And then that was either met with “Awesome!” or confused expressions of mixed worry and fear.

And while that sentence: “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!” is pithy and piques the interest, what it really is is accurate yet superficial when it comes to what this story involves. Nevernight is complex, gritty, dark, suspenseful, and at the same time giddily exciting. That sounds like a weird combination, but bear with me.

The book did lag a bit in the beginning for me, as I got used to the writing style and plot pacing. But I had just come off of an incredible book high from a wonderful book that I’d just finished, and was dreading my next read paling in comparison. Mia Corvere is a sassy, tough-as-nails girl who just happens to want to be an assassin. This is because, you guessed it, she has a score to settle. A chip on her shoulder. A revenge fantasy. She is, of course, more than meets the eye. This is evidenced by the fact that a cat made of shadows follows her around and talks to her, literally feeding off of her fear.

We meet her after years of training under a tutor of sorts, seeking to enter what might be the equivalent of a Graduate School of Killing People – the Red Church. And once she gets there, holy crap, does the story take off. Not only are there classes: poison making, pickpocketing, weapons fighting, and seduction/people skills. But there are other would-be assassins as classmates. Deadly classmates who will do anything to become a Blade – one of the elite assassins of the Red Church.

The story has witty banter, murder mystery aspects, and clever characters who surprised even this reader with well-laid plans that began wayyy back in the story (our protagonist included). The writing style is not for everyone. It’s description-heavy, simile-ridden, and there are pithy footnotes that act as a world-building tool that I admit I found distracting at times. But I got sucked into the story and the setting, and I devoured chapter after chapter like I was getting paid for it (I’m not, I promise). The ending is so well-paced and tense that you’ll want to be able to sit somewhere and read straight through it.

Mia as a character becomes really well-rounded, even though at the end of the story, we really don’t fully understand what she really is or what she can do. I had an emotional response to events that happened to her in the story, and to the characters around her. She is a girl learning to be an assassin, and trying to cling to some humanity.

There is a lot of set up for furthering the series here. The book is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue of the person chronicling Mia’s story: she becomes legendary, and we’re here to witness her become so.

I could draw a lot of comparisons: Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy style, a Hogwarts setting, and characters and shady dealings a la Locke Lamora. But I really do think this story stands alone, and I loved it. I will be counting down the many months until the second installment.

My Grade: B+