Last year wasn’t as strong a year for books as 2017 in terms of quantity or quality of those read, but there are still plenty of books worth highlighting! (And, although there may not be as many books finished, there were many more sampled and set aside.)

About half the books I read last year are ones I enjoyed and would recommend without reservation, but there are eight of those that stand out to me as being especially notable. Without further ado, here are my very favorite books of 2018!

Book of the Year

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

1. Empire of Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri
My Review

Though I read three books that I absolutely LOVED this year, Tasha Suri’s wonderful debut is the one that stands out to me as the most memorable and deeply affecting. Inspired in part by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is the story of a young woman who is forced into an arranged marriage and bound to serve the Empire because she possesses magic that is rare even among other descendants of the gods’ children like herself. It’s also the story of the ways in which she and her new husband fight back against evil and injustice—not with the strength of force and weapons, but with the strength of hearts and minds—while gradually falling in love. It’s a fantastic, elegantly written, character-driven book that explores themes of resistance and oppression, choice, and the strength of bonds between people, and as much as I appreciated all of that, my favorite part is the main character at its heart. Mehr shapes her own tale not just because of what she can do with her extraordinary gifts but because of who she is: her decisions, her hope, her courage, and her determination all play important roles in the story’s course and eventual outcome.

Book of the Year Runners-Up

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

2. The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire #2) by Melissa Caruso
My Review

Melissa Caruso’s debut novel, The Tethered Mage, was one of my favorite books of 2017 (also, That Book That Kept Me Reading Until 2:00 AM). Given that, I had rather high expectations for The Defiant Heir—which actually exceeded my expectations and took the series to the next level in every way. While the first book introduces the Raverran Empire and its system of weaponizing mages after Amalia accidentally bound herself to the fire mage Zaira, the second one shows more of a neighboring country ruled by powerful mages with connections to their lands. Each of these Witch Lords steals the show any time they’re present, and the one that plays the biggest role is my favorite new character: Kathe, who doesn’t seem entirely trustworthy but is so charismatic that neither Amalia nor I could help but like him anyway. Amalia and Zaira’s friendship has also developed delightfully, and the banter, camaraderie, amusing dialogue, and KATHE made for the most fun reading experience I had in 2018—although The Defiant Heir also contains high stakes, difficult choices, and DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES.

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

3. Starless by Jacqueline Carey
My Review

Although Jacqueline Carey has written many wonderful books, Starless is my favorite of hers I’ve read so far. It’s a beautifully written story told from the perspective of Khai, revealed to be a desert god’s chosen and soul’s twin to a princess as a baby. Like all of the rare soul’s twins to a member of the royal family, Khai is trained to be the princess’ protector within the desert god’s Brotherhood—even though he would have been raised as a girl had it not been for this destiny and its long-held traditions. It begins with Khai’s early life and training (which I think is the best part partially because of Brother Yarit, chosen for a special role by the desert god to his great chagrin) and expands into an epic journey after he meets the princess. This thick standalone novel explores this world of gods and prophecies but also gender identity, honor, fate, love, redemption, and the necessity of change and progress—and while I felt that the phrase “Love as thou wilt” from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books was applicable here, Starless would be best summarized as “Be as thou wilt.”

Additional Favorites

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

4. Mirage (Mirage #1) by Somaiya Daud

I don’t yet have a review to link since I’ve been struggling to write one that I feel does this book justice. Mirage, Somaiya Daud’s debut, is heart wrenching and gorgeously written with a voice that reflects the main protagonist’s poetic soul. It’s narrated by Amani, a young woman who is suddenly ripped away from her family and her home moon without any explanation. The servants of the conquering Empire who abducted her take her to Princess Maram, and Amani discovers that she looks like the Emperor’s daughter—and is expected to pretend to be the princess at potentially dangerous public functions. My favorite part of this book is Amani, who does not have any special abilities but ends up in an unusual situation merely because she resembles the princess, yet manages to have an impact on those around her because of her deep inner strength and compassion. (I love these types of characters.) The growth of Amani’s complicated relationship with the princess is the highlight of the book, and I also very much appreciated the depiction of Amani’s faith.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

5. City of Lies (The Poison Wars #1) by Sam Hawke
My Review

City of Lies, Sam Hawke’s debut novel, is a wonderful fantasy mystery with an intriguing premise and compelling three-dimensional protagonists. It follows two siblings—one who is secretly a poison detection expert and the other who is secretly a spy—as they try to uncover who poisoned their uncle and the Chancellor and why, as well as why their city is under siege by what would appear to be their own people. Given that it revolves around murder, war, and betrayal, City of Lies may sound grim, but it’s actually an optimistic book with main characters who sincerely want to listen, learn, and address any grievances their people may have. As much as I loved the two main characters and their close friend, the Chancellor’s heir, my favorite character of all was one introduced later in the story: Hadrea, who does not mince words about she thinks.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

6. The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R. F. Kuang
My Review

The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s debut novel, is partially based on the Second Sino-Japanese War; as such, to call it “dark” is a bit of an understatement. It follows Rin, a war orphan who determines to score highly enough on a test to get into an elite military academy and does so—but finds that, as difficult as mastering the Four Noble Subjects was, getting into the academy was the easy part compared to her classes and (later) actual war. It examines how war changes people, for better and worse—with heavy emphasis on worse—and I especially appreciated the handling of Rin’s choices. No matter how horrible they are, they are completely hers: they aren’t brushed off as being influenced by the gods or made in ignorance, and they have consequences. This disturbing, gutsy book is definitely one of my most memorable reading experiences of 2018.

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

7. Grey Sister (Book of the Ancestor #2) by Mark Lawrence
My Review

Red Sister, the First Book of the Ancestor, was my Book of the Year Runner-Up last year (and That Book I Kept Recommending Throughout 2017). Though I didn’t feel that Grey Sister was quite as compelling as the previous installment, I still enjoyed continuing Nona’s story very much and absolutely loved the second half. In particular, I appreciated the focus on strength and power taking a variety of forms and how the nuns exhibit these in different ways: though Abbess Glass isn’t a badass warrior like many of the others, she is just as badass as any of them due to her inner steel. I’ve become very invested in Nona, Abbess Glass, and some of the other characters, and I also loved the emphasis on friendship and the strength that comes from people working together.

Circe by Madeline Miller

8. Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is a powerfully, beautifully written novel told from the perspective of the titular Greek goddess. It covers a huge span of time, chronicling her childhood, her discovery of her abilities with transformation, her exile to the island, and various encounters with gods and heroes. Especially earlier in the novel, Circe doesn’t always see the world around her clearly, and her gradual understanding of the reality of the way things are and her desire to belong and connect are sympathetic and palpable. Most of all, I loved the lyrical writing and the feminist exploration of Circe’s story, goddesses within the Greek pantheon, and other women from Greek mythology.