Best of 2014: A 5-Star Year in the Ruins

Apparently, I read (or attempted to read) a lot of books this year. According to Goodreads, an astounding 124 books successfully passed through the Ruins this year, and another 30 were abandoned along the way. Of those that made it through, 11 were perfect 5-star reads, which is actually 3 more than the year before. In chronological order they are . . .

Brian Staveley is actually responsible for the first and last 5-star reads of the year, with The Emperor's Blades back in January and The Providence of Fire in November. The first was the fantasy debut of the year for me, a book that reminded me of my first encounters with the likes of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. It managed to feel fresh and original, yet familiar at the same time. The second was a stunning follow-up that successfully built upon the character-driven adventure of the first book while expanding the history, mythology, and world-building to suitably epic proportions. It was a complex, complicated story, but that was precisely the kind of depth I was looking for.

Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire was something of a grimdark masterpiece, so I think we were all curious to see how the first book of The Red Queen's War would stand up. Prince of Fools turned out to be a different kind of grimdark - spooky, creepy, and entirely unsettling. Although there was a constant sense of doom hanging over our Jal and Snorri, Lawrence also sprinkled a little more easy humor throughout the tale, approaching the edges of a buddy comedy with Jal and Snorri. It didn't have quite the same biting edge as the original trilogy, but it already feels like it may just be a stronger, more well-rounded tale.

Veil of the Deserters was everything I was looking for in Jeff Salyards' highly anticipated follow-up to Scourge of the Betrayer - a rare sequel that actually manages to outdo the first. The stakes were bigger, the world-building taken to a whole new level, and the characters really came alive for me. We began to learn who Captain Braylar is, and what it really means to be Syldoon, and Arki really came into his own here as a force to be reckoned with in the army. It put that first story arc into a larger context, and opened up the larger tale that Salyards set out to tell. There's no doubt it was one of the strongest middle installments I've read in a very long time, but overall it was just a fantastic read.

Deadlock was a novel that got under my skin and into my head in a way that few authors can manage. Tim Curran made the most of the dim, gloomy, cold, claustrophobic atmosphere of he haunted ship, messing with the reader's senses with the suggestion of things heard, seen, and felt . . . and the intimation of what they might really be. It was a story that was chillingly methodical in the pace at which it built in intensity, carefully layering on the fear and the horror. The monster at its heart was worse than any simple spook or poltergeist, but the true measure of Curran's mastery was in the slow reveal of the monster and the madness.

Words of Radiance was a book about which I was ridiculously excited, but one about which I was a bit hesitant, given the frustratingly bloated mess with which he concluded The Wheel of Time. Brandon Sandserson described is a "an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume" and, as it turned out, that summed it up perfectly. There was definitely a lot going on, but very little in the way of wasted pages, and almost nothing of the narrative bloat I had feared. Upon turning the final page, I was left stunned and in awe by what Sanderson accomplished. He really did take the story to the next level, offering satisfying resolutions to several story threads, while spawning (and twisting) new ones beyond its pages. Things actually happened - events of consequence - all leading up to a climax that resolved the core plot line of this second volume in an incredibly satisfying manner.

There aren't too many books that make me take a step back and say "Wow" but The Mirror Empire was one of them. It had an absolutely amazing beginning - one of the best opening chapters I've read in a very long time - and just kind of steamrolled ahead from there. What Kameron Hurley crafted was definitely different, even challenging in places, but ultimately an epic fantasy in the truest sense of the term, with an incredible depth of imagination. It was ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure. The novelty of it never wore thin, and the imagination never ceased to amaze. By no means a light read, it was precisely the kind of story you don't mind settling down to understand and appreciate.

City of Stairs is a novel that I almost gave up after the first third. In fact, I actually set it aside for about a month before picking it up for one last try. Suddenly, I found the hook, and it all came together for me, propelling me along in a furious read towards the conclusion. Although definitely steeped in elements of epic fantasy, Robert Jackson Bennett dabbled in a lot of different genres, successfully tying them all together in a surprisingly cohesive whole. It was impressive in both scope and range, with strong characters, an even stronger mythology, and some inventive conflicts and action sequences. As philosophical as it was entertaining, it may have taken a bit of work to get into, but it more than repaid the investment.

Given that I generally find short story collections uneven in terms of quality, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the horrors of Figures of Fear: An Anthology. This was a collection that had the same impact for me as King's Night Shift or Barker's Books of Blood, opening my eyes to a new favorite author in Graham Masterton. There were several common themes in the collection, including those of portals, hidden worlds, the consuming power of fire, and the consequences of our choices. I liked that he didn't cheapen things with big moral lessons, allowing his dark tales to be just that - dark - with dark conclusions and even darker twists to follow. Really, just an astounding collection.

With The Deep, Nick Cutter dragged things down to a whole new depth of horror. It was extraordinarily dark, doom-laden, and depressing . . . unrelenting in its horrors. It was a book that made the most of its cramped, claustrophobic, underwater atmosphere, making the reader sweat alongside the characters. Cutter did a better job of layering in multiple horrors than just about any author writing today. There was no down time, no softer moments, no humor to relieve the tension - just an unending series of horrors that get deeper and deeper under your skin. The ending seemed perhaps a tad too familiar, but I liked what Cutter did with it, particularly with the ominous final scene.

With their 14th entry in the Special Agent Pendergast saga, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child not only got their hero back to his prime, but got the story back to basics. Blue Labyrinth was an extraordinarily strong entry in the series, and exactly what I'd been hoping for. It wasn't the best Pendergast tale, but it was the best in a long time. The story was strong, there was some real danger/suspense, and the characters all got a chance to shine. Personally, the way it brought things full circle, especially in dealing with the fallout of the original museum adventures, put it way over the top.


With that said, either I've become much more adventurous in my reading, or I've become a lot more discerning in what I choose to spend my time with, because this year also saw 30 titles discarded along the way (compared to just 16 since 2010). I don't want to dwell on those titles (a 'Worst of' list just seems kinda petty), but I will mention my biggest disappointments of the year:

  • All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park was dense, thickly layered, and far too self-aware for its own good, a difficult read that attempted to be clever, but which was just confounding.
  • Consumed by David Cronenberg is a title about which I was incredibly excited, but I found it to be pretentious, meandering, and desperate to be hip, alternately boring and annoying me.
  • WereWoman by Piers Anthony was entirely too sophomoric and simple for my tastes. It felt like a wish-fulfillment fantasy where everything just sort of happens, dumped on the page with the bare minimum of description


Rather than end things on a downer, I also have to credit that new-found sense of adventure with introducing me to some indie/self-published authors I otherwise wouldn't have stumbled across. S.E. Lindberg and Justyna Plichta-Jendzio are two such authors I've been fortunate enough to encounter in the past, both of whom had 4-star dark fantasy follow-ups land on my e-reader this year. Seriously, take a look below - their stories are just as awesome as those cover promise.

As for new authors, Lyka Bloom certainly made an impact on me this year with a pair of solid 4-star reads. Her style of fetish-fueled erotic horror is certainly an acquired taste, but she's worth checking out if you're open to something a little different. Rubberwerks was darkly imaginative and erotically sinister, with the hive mentality of her faceless, featureless, latex dolls an original twist on zombies, while Inferno: Transmission had the feel of a slasher-flick revenge tale, a surprisingly effective tale of erotic horror that truly gets under your skin.


  1. Bummer the Cronenberg book wasn't very good. But glad Preston and Child made your top list.

    1. I had such high hopes for that. I mean, Cronenberg is both a genius and a horror pioneer. Unfortunately, neither the concept nor the execution were worthy of his legacy.

  2. I had way more 5 star reads than I did last year for some reason. I think part of it came from a willingness to abandon books faster. Also I wasn't so quick to request everything on NetGalley that only kinda sounds good.

    And I have yet to see a list that doesn't have City of Stairs on it.

    1. Yeah, I definitely learned to abandon books faster this year. No point wasting time on a book that's just not working. I'm still pretty stingy with the 5-stars, but I'd *like* to give more. :)

  3. Goodness yes, it's been a great year. My top fantasy list of 2014 will be so long. I see a few here that will be on mine too...Salyards, Staveley, Sanderson, Bennett...

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

  4. that truly is a tone of books read this year! You could build a bookmas tree with them :) As per usual, you always have the best of epic fantasy pics!

  5. how did you do to have so little books, lol I couldn't... It's so difficult but I'm impressed that you did. I've only read one on your list but I loved the Sanderson book! I need to read more from him. thanks for sharing!

  6. I gave up on Bennett's novel too after the first sixty pages or so. I guess I should give it a second shot as well. Great list, Bob.


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