Another year has passed, which means another year’s worth of reading to celebrate! Yes, it’s time to share my favorite fiction reads of 2018. And let me tell you: Even though I had a pretty good idea which of the 53 fiction books I finished last year would end up on this list, I’m glad I didn’t share my list right away – because there was a last-minute shake-up!
Like with past best-of reading lists I’ve posted, this year’s showcases my 10 favorite brand new books of 2018 and 10 favorite previously published books. Unlike past years, though, I’ve made two notable changes. First, goodness, there were too many close calls when I tried ranking the books from #1 to #10! So I opted for alphabetical listing by title instead. Second, and sadly, no giveaway this year. As fun as giveaways can be, I can’t give one the attention it needs right now. So I hope you understand my need for keeping things simple, and you still enjoy reading this post regardless.
Ready to dive into the first list? 😉
Favorite New Fiction Books of 2018
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Contemporary / Literary Fiction)
This was my final read of the year, and it wasn’t until the last two pages that I knew I’d have to list it here. (Markus Zusak, how dare you write another book that made me cry. *sniffles while smiling*) This family saga about five Australian brothers raising one another amidst loss, guilt, and deeply held secrets is marketed as YA here in the States. But with Zusak’s poetic prose, endearing and complex characters, and an intricate nonlinear narrative that gradually unveils the bigger picture, it has the ability to appeal to older readers just as Zusak’s previous book The Book Thief had. Make no mistake, though: Bridge of Clay is a very different book. It’s as aching and moving as The Book Thief, but it’s also surprisingly witty and uplifting.
Circe by Madeline Miller (Fantasy / Mythological Retelling)
This reimagining of one of Greek mythology’s legendary sorceresses lingered with me for weeks after I finished reading it. With elegant prose and a brilliantly executed vision, Madeline Miller tells the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios and Homer’s villainess in The Odyssey, from Circe’s perspective. By the end, I saw her not as a vicious, seductive witch who can turn men into pigs, but rather as a woman, sister, and mother who has loved and lost, been betrayed and scorned, and stands her ground against gods and mortals alike. (And, of course, who can turn men into pigs!) It’s one of those rare stories that’s so special, I couldn’t think of a single thing about it I’d change… which made it an easy pick for this year’s list.
Guardian by A.J. Hartley (YA Steampunk Mystery)
It still boggles my mind that so few people have heard of the Steeplejack series! Of course I recommend you start with Books 1 and 2 (Steeplejack and Firebrand, respectively). That way, everything makes sense when you get to this high-stakes, socially relevant finale. Guardian sees young steeplejack-turned-detective Anglet Sutonga taking on her most harrowing case yet: proving that her employer, an up-and-coming biracial politician, is innocent of a murder that higher-level members of the city’s government – run mostly by affluent white men – have clearly committed. Everything that A.J. Hartley has been building all series long comes to a heart-rending climax that bears a striking resemblance to the current social climate. If you’re looking for a YA speculative fiction series that addresses racism, justice, and related themes, look no further than Hartley’s Steeplejack books.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (Speculative Fiction Short Story Collection)
There was no doubt in my mind that N.K. Jemisin’s first short story collection would end up on this list. Yes, I love her fantasy novels to pieces, but her storytelling is also that consistent and that mind-blowing. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is no exception. This is a true showcase of Jemisin’s worldbuilding, creative vision, and masterful prose. The stories run the gamut from cyperpunk and alien invasion sci-fi to urban fantasy and alternate history. And throughout this volume, currents of the themes that appear in her longer works – oppression, resistance, moral dilemmas, justice, survival – run strong. If anything, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? serves as a reminder that marginalized populations in real life, much like the marginalized characters in Jemisin’s stories, are still fighting for equality and respect.
The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton (YA Magical Realism / Horror)
I’m still a little stunned over how much darker this book compared to Leslye Walton’s first novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. And yet I enjoyed it just as much. The Price Guide to the Occult sweeps readers away to a fictional island in the Pacific Northwest, where young Nor Blackburn must find the strength to confront her emotionally abusive mother (who’s also a bestselling author and practicing witch) and come to terms with her own supernatural powers. Price Guide isn’t an easy read: It addresses toxic family dynamics and self-harm, and the magical elements border on macabre at times. But Walton’s sensitive approach to her subject matter, as well as her lyrical prose and evocative setting, make this atmospheric story of courage, first love, and self-acceptance both haunting and moving.
Side By Side by Jenni L. Walsh (Historical Fiction)
Jenni L. Walsh’s Becoming Bonnie, which imagines how good girl Bonnelyn Parker might have become part of the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. So I was thrilled that its sequel Side By Side was just as satisfying. I felt like Walsh put me in Bonnie and Clyde’s backseat so I could witness their two-year crime spree during the Great Depression firsthand. But like with Becoming Bonnie, the characters (especially the refreshingly candid and fiercely loyal Bonnie) and their complicated relationships are the true shining stars. Walsh also does a commendable job of drawing sympathy for Bonnie and Clyde despite the crimes they commit – which explains why the disastrous ending (which is no surprise, since it’s based on true historical accounts) still hit me hard.
Starless by Jacqueline Carey (Fantasy)
Boy am I glad this was my Jacqueline Carey read. Starless tells the sweeping epic of Khai, a young warrior destined from birth to serve as protector (a shadow) of Princess Zariya, and their involvement in a prophesied fight against a dark god who threatens world annihilation. It sounds like a typical quest story, but it’s not. Starless is told from Khai’s first-person perspective, so the “save the world” adventure takes a backseat to his character development and relationships with Zariya and others – an approach that becomes even more important when Khai, and thus the reader, discovers he’s a girl who’s been raised as a boy. Yes, the worldbuilding is solid, and the prose is gorgeous. But above all, it’s a fantasy where genderfluid and disabled characters (Zariya uses crutches to walk) of color take control of their destinies and play significant roles in their world – and gosh, does it do so beautifully.
Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (YA Fantasy)
Even though I’ve finished Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet, I still have a LOT of catching up to do with her other Tortall books. That being said, I dove into her newest novel Tempests and Slaughter as soon as it came out. It reveals the teenage years of the mage Arram Draper (a.k.a. Numair of the Immortals Quartet) as he attends an imperial university to further develop his magical skills. Along the way, he finds friendship in “kitchen witch” Varice and prince Ozorne – and inadvertently attracts the attention of ancient gods with his risky spellwork. Exciting, breathtaking sorcery shares the spotlight with a large cast of diverse and distinct characters. But the focus stays on the inquisitive yet goodhearted Arram and offers hints of a painful decision he may have to make later in the series.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Fantasy)
I’ve always loved reading about Indigenous American peoples. So imagine my excitement when I discovered this post-apocalyptic fantasy story with a mostly Navajo and Indigenous American cast, written by an Indigenous author (Ohkay Owingeh / Pueblo, to be exact). Trail of Lightning is Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel, and follows monster-hunter Maggie Hoskie as she travels across the Navajo reservation, or Dinétah, to rescue a missing girl. What she finds instead, however, is more terrifying than she could ever imagine. Gritty, humorous, and steeped in Navajo culture and lore, this fantasy is unlike anything I’ve ever read before – and probably unlike anything you have read, too.
Vengeful by V.E. Schwab (Fantasy / Superhero)
Set 5 years after Vicious, V.E. Schwab’s Vengeful does much more than catch readers up on what’s happened to Victor, Eli, Sydney, and Mitch since then. New ExtraOrdinaries (humans who develop superhuman abilities after a near-death experience) are introduced. Returning characters grapple with their powers’ limitations. And that’s not even the worst of the problems our anti-heroes encounter. The twisted morality, tight pacing, and cinematic execution that worked so well for Vicious works even better this time around. But what made Vengeful so powerful for me was how its themes of power, feminism, and deception mirrored what was going on in the real world politically at the time. That kind of timing may seem like a coincidence at first, but it never fails to make the book you’re reading that much more important.
Favorite Previously Published Fiction Reads of 2018
American Street by Ibi Zoboi (YA Magical Realism)
After borrowing American Street from my local library, I knew I needed to get my own copy. This critically acclaimed YA novel follows Fabiola, a Haitian teen who’s forced to finish her move to Detroit alone after her mother is detained by U.S. immigration officials. Her transition into life with her aunt’s family in a tough, unfamiliar city is rocky, so Fabiola clings to her Vodou faith and the belief that she’ll see her mother again. When she’s presented with the chance to make that reunion happen, she soon realizes the price that she and her loved ones have to pay for their American dream. Between its brave and spiritually grounded heroine, an unflinching look at the country’s social and political issues, and a fresh take on magical realism that sheds light on Haitian Vodou, American Street is undeniably powerful and unforgettable.
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson (YA Fantasy)
No second-book slump with this installment of Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns Trilogy. The Crown of Embers presents the young Queen Elisa with new challenges as she and her kingdom recover from the battle that closed out The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With few people she can trust and even fewer options on how to fight back, Elisa must learn to harness the power of the Godstone she bears – and she may have to cross an ocean to do so. This book is tightly paced and brimming with magic, intrigue, and romance. But the best part is Elisa’s continued growth; she’s truly coming into her own as a smart, courageous heroine and finding more confidence and empowerment with every step.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (YA Dark Fantasy)
When you write a YA fantasy duology in which the first book is the origin story of the second book’s villain, you’re taking a pretty big gamble. But that gamble pays off for Julie C. Dao in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a chilling yet hypnotic East Asian take on the Evil Queen legend. Peasant girl Xifung sets out to realize her future as Empress of Feng Lu, a destiny she’s glimpsed through her aunt’s oracle cards. But to do so, she must make unthinkable choices, turn away loved ones, and use a dark magic that awakens when she eats the hearts of those recently killed. Yes, it’s daring and morally ambiguous. But with abundant sensory details, a focus on ambition over romance, and moments of unexpected vulnerability, it’s also well-crafted and convincing – and we could use more YA fantasies like that, I think.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Fantasy)
In this sequel to Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, young Vasilisa openly defies her choices of convent life or marriage, instead blazing a trail of adventure that inadvertently leads her to the court of Moscow. Her disguise as a boy and her blossoming magical powers could prove costly for her and her loved ones – yet the latter could be what saves them all from a growing supernatural threat. The lyrical writing, wintry setting, dynamic characters, and folklore-inspired magic of The Bear and the Nightingale makes a mesmerizing return here. But The Girl in the Tower also improves on its predecessor’s weaknesses, thanks to a more exciting and evenly paced plot. So if you’ve been on the fence about continuing the Winternight Trilogy, I implore you to give a The Girl in the Tower a chance.
Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson (YA Historical Fantasy)
Thanks to this book and her Fire and Thorns Trilogy (see The Crown of Embers above), Rae Carson has become one of my all-time favorite YA fantasy authors. Into the Bright Unknown in particular is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer series, about a girl in America’s Gold Rush era who has the ability to sense – what else? – gold. And after helping her community accumulate considerable wealth, it’s no surprise that Leah Westfall and her friends become targets. So they travel to San Francisco to hatch a clever scheme, bring down a power-hungry billionaire and his magical assistant, and save their fortune. With an unexpected but fun heist plot, vividly rendered setting, and emphasis on friendship and “chosen family,” this is an immersive and endearing end to a series I’ve really enjoyed.
The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy)
This is the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology; and while I don’t think that series is as strong as her Broken Earth or Inheritance novels, The Killing Moon is still an amazing story. The story’s difficult to summarize, since so much of it relies on the worldbuilding. So, instead, here’s what you’ll find: Assassin priests. An insane king (not kidding). Conspiracies and backstabbing (literally and figuratively). A magic system based on dreams. Two countries inspired by ancient Egypt and Nubia, and on the brink of war. The result is haunting, hypnotic, and frightening at times, with complex characters, equally complex relationships, and a plot riddled with tension and revelations. Jemisin isn’t afraid of putting her characters through their worst nightmares (no pun intended), and The Killing Moon is no exception.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (Fantasy)
Epic in scope yet deftly plotted, this first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series takes place 1,000 years after a prophesied hero failed to save the world. Every revolt against the Lord Ruler since then has failed. But that doesn’t stop criminal mastermind Kelsier from planning the ultimate revolution. When fate brings an orphaned teen named Vin into Kelsier’s path, Kelsier is certain he’s found his plan’s missing piece. But first, he’ll need to teach Vin how to harness her underdeveloped Mistborn powers, and Vin will need to learn to trust again if she’s to succeed. Everything about Mistborn – the worldbuilding, the metal-infused magic system, the characters, the trope-twisting – is so well done that I’d need an entire blog post to gush about it all. So this one paragraph will have to suffice. 😉
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Fantasy)
Do you love books about dragons? How about books about multiple species of dragons? Even better, a fictional memoir about a woman who studies dragons for a living? That’s what you get with Marie Brennan’s Memories of Lady Trent series. The first installment, A Natural History of Dragons, covers Isabella Trent’s childhood fascination with dragons, her thrilling but covert first expedition as an amateur dragon naturalist, and her attempts to break free of society’s expectations regarding her gender. The worldbuilding is impressive, and the characters feel like living, breathing people. But what really makes A Natural History of Dragons work is how Brennan allows Lady Trent’s intelligence, spirit, and dry humor to shine through in her first-person narrative. Oh, and the MANY kinds of dragons, of course.
Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older (YA Urban Fantasy)
In Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older introduced us to Sierra, an Afro-Latina, Brooklyn-based girl who discovers shadow-shaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into music, paintings, and other art forms. In the sequel Shadowhouse Fall, Sierra and her friends and family must confront two opponents at once: the real-world forces that threaten to oppress their community, and an ancient, enigmatic enemy that fears the rise of the shadowshapers. So it’s similar to the Steeplejack books and American Street in that it addresses similar, relevant themes and topics (namely racism and police brutality) and celebrates racial, ethnic, and other types of diversity. But in addition to being timely and thought-provoking, it’s also incredibly fun. The final Shadowshaper Cypher book comes out this fall, so if you’ve been meaning to check out this series, now’s the perfect time to do it!
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (YA Fiction)
At one point in 2018, I was looking for YA books with characters who have anxiety and discovered this debut novel by Akemi Dawn Bowman. Now I’m glad I read it. Yes, this story about a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian girl who struggles with social anxiety, emotional and sexual abuse, and low self-esteem is hard to read at times, but it’s also profoundly precious. So many topics – art, friendship, family dysfunction, biracial identity – are packed into this 350+ page novel. Yet Bowman navigates them all carefully and sensitively, weaving her themes together into a tale of a young woman who finds her voice and self-worth creatively and literally.
What were some of your favorite reads of 2018? Which book(s) was the biggest surprise for you?