Happy New Year! In addition to being the start of a new year, today is the day this blog is officially a teenager: Fantasy Cafe turns 13 years old today! I can hardly believe I’ve been blogging that long.

Now that I’ve read everything I will ever read in 2019, it’s time for the favorite books of 2019 list. My main goal for the year was to embrace what I love and ruthlessly cull books that aren’t drawing me in. (This is different than not being in the right mood for a book: it means if nothing about the writing, world, or characters makes me want to keep going after the first 50 pages or so, just get it off the bookshelf/to-read pile and don’t look back.) The latter is still a bit hard at times (what if it gets better?!), but I think I did a decent job with the former considering I ended up with 8 books released in 2019 that I loved, 3 published before 2019 that I loved, and 2 I thought were noteworthy as honorable mentions. That’s better than the number of highlights I had in 2018.

Cover images link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Favorite Books Released in 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January Cover

Book of the Year
1. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
My Review

This standalone historical portal fantasy novel set during the early 1900s is about January Scaller, who often heard words like “willful” and “temerarious” used to describe her as a child. When she was seven years old, she discovered and stepped through a Door to another world, but when she tried to share her experience, she was punished for making up tales and lectured on the necessity of being a “good girl who minds her place.” Lonely and desperate for affection, she took that lesson to heart and molded herself into someone demure and proper, as was expected of her. Then at seventeen years old, January came across a mysterious book titled The Ten Thousand Doors, which begins as a scholarly account of Doors like the one she found but becomes a personal account of how they changed the author’s life—and in escaping into this story of true love, adventure, determination, and tragedy, January’s life also changed.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a treasure. It’s not only a celebration of books and stories but also is itself a beautifully told story with two exquisitely written, unique bibliophilic voices between January’s first person narration and that of The Ten Thousand Doors (which is included in its entirety, complete with delightful footnotes!). It’s an ode to words, imagination, and stories, particularly the power they have to burrow into hearts and souls and show one something true, meaningful, and lasting—and it is in itself just that type of book. It’s also an ode to dreamers and outsiders, to being who you are and daring to write your own story despite society’s attempts to shape your path into one that doesn’t fit you, among being a book about so many other things—and it is magnificent.

It’s an indelible book that seems destined to be a classic, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January is my choice for Book of the Year in 2019.

Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri - Book Cover

Book of the Year Runner-Up
2. Realm of Ash (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri
My Review

Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri’s fantasy debut novel inspired by Mughal India and Indian classical dance, was my Book of the Year in 2018, and Realm of Ash is also stellar. It’s similar in feel to the previous novel with gorgeous writing, intricate themes, dimensional relationships of all kinds, and a slow build romance founded on respect and shared goals, yet it stands apart as being different given its story, characters, and deeper maturity. While it expands the world and explores the aftermath of the first book, Realm of Ash is a standalone companion novel that follows Arwa approximately a decade after her sister’s story in Empire of Sand. It begins with Arwa being newly widowed as the sole survivor of a massacre, saved by the very same blood she’d spent her life fearing. Believing that this blood may be able to break the curse on their kingdom and prevent future attacks like what she experienced, Arwa offers to serve a princess in pursuit of a solution. Her offer is accepted, and she ends up secretly working forbidden occult magic in the dead of night with a scholarly illegitimate prince, who introduces her to the titular spirit realm.

Like its predecessor, I loved Realm of Ash and found it deeply affecting. At its heart, Arwa’s story is about taking back a piece of herself that had been stolen from her and the different sides of love—both its crueler side and its softer side. It’s also about society and power structures, truth and the cost of knowledge, and the need to forge new paths by “dreaming a new world,” and the lyrically sharp prose that cuts deep makes it all the more hauntingly memorable. Realm of Ash is one of those special books I expect to reread one day even with the ever-increasing number of books I want to read for the first time.

The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

3. The Unbound Empire (Swords and Fire Trilogy #3) by Melissa Caruso
My Review

The Unbound Empire is one of those rare series conclusions that I felt was done right. Successes feel earned, character arcs make sense, and it manages to be satisfying without dangling loose ends or being so neatly tied up that it seems as though the characters have done everything important they’ll ever do. It also has a great pace: it always seems to be moving forward, but it also isn’t so rushed that it glosses over the fun dialogue and character interactions that were a large part of why I loved these books in the first place, like a lot of series finales tend to. This entire series is immensely entertaining with each book getting better, and I also appreciated that it does a few things that seemed a little different than the usual, especially when mixed together: from following a protagonist who embraces the role she’s born into and makes it her own, to focusing on governments that are not monarchies, to being set in a society with gender and LGBTQ+ equality, to including a love triangle with more nuance than most, to the final book having an actual competent villain. It was incredibly refreshing to encounter a villain who was powerful but also enhanced his magic with knowledge and didn’t just reuse the same tricks all the time. This made a character who was basically 100% Pure Evil work so much better for me than they normally do.

Although I found the previous book slightly more entertaining due to its introduction to Kathe, the Crow Lord who enjoys playing games and steals every single scene he is in, I think this is the strongest book in the series. (But never fear if you too are a Kathe fan—he is one of the reasons I loved this installment too!)

Both of the previous books in this trilogy were also among my favorites of their release years:

Review of The Tethered Mage (Swords and Fire Trilogy #1)
Review of The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire Trilogy #2)

The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty

4. The Kingdom of Copper (Daevabad Trilogy #2) by S. A. Chakraborty

I read City of Brass, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, earlier this year and had generally positive but somewhat mixed feelings about it: which is to say I can’t decide whether I merely liked it or really liked it since it had a fascinating world and lush writing, but the travel parts were so slow. It begins with Nahri, a con woman with some unusual abilities with healing and languages, discovering she’s only half human when she accidentally summons a djinn who served the non-human side of her family. This mysterious man then takes her from her home in Cairo to the djinn city Daevabad, where Nahri eventually meets the other main point-of-view character: a naive, principled young warrior prince named Ali. Once their stories converged, I found the book far more engaging and ended up being interested in what happened to both of them, but I didn’t expect to love the sequel as much as I did since the first book did seem to crawl at times.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself being a moody reader who couldn’t seem to settle on a book to read. I kept picking up books I was eager to read, then putting them down again—until I picked up The Kingdom of Copper. This installment is more focused on characters and political factions within Daevabad, and I found it far more absorbing than the first book in the trilogy. It’s largely about a new generation wanting to amend the mistakes of the previous generation to create a better, more just world, and the difficulty of doing so when those with the most power seem intent on repeating the same mistakes. I thought the characters were better fleshed out in this installment and found many of their interactions riveting (even amusing at times!), and I thought the choices they made at the end were fitting.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

5. The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden
My Review of The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)
My Review of The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2)

The Winter of the Witch is an excellent series conclusion that expands on the world while remaining true to the feel of the previous books in the trilogy, and all three of the Winternight books are wonderful: beautifully written historical fantasy based on Russian folklore with well-crafted characters. The Bear and the Nightingale begins before Vasya’s birth, with her mother being told that she would be a child like her own mother, rumored to be a witch. And Vasya does indeed see spirits that most others cannot, spirits that are now reviled as devils with the spread of Christianity. I love how Vasya embraces her gifts despite how they’re viewed by everyone around her and does not drown in angst about having unusual powers, and The Winter of the Witch reveals more about the grandmother she inherited them from and where she came from. It’s an emotional final book, and this entire trilogy is among my recent favorites. These are books that belong on my bookshelf forever.

The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang

6. The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R. F. Kuang
My Review of The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)

The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s debut novel inspired by Chinese history and the Second Sino-Japanese War, was one of my favorite books of 2018 with its unflinching look at war and its impact—and The Dragon Republic offers the same and is even better. This series follows Rin, a war orphan whose drive gets her accepted into an elite military school where she discovers she has shamanic abilities. She doesn’t even get to finish her training before she’s thrust into a war, and The Dragon Republic has yet more war, gods, and magic. It’s a meaty book that delves more into the country’s politics and its relations to other lands, and it seems to largely be about the futility of war and how it harms everyone involved. Rin’s a fascinating character: one who has done monstrous things that seem all the more chilling because she is also someone who still exhibits some empathy and is sympathetic in some ways.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black - Book Cover The Wicked King by Holly Black - Book Cover The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black - Book Cover

7. The Folk of the Air Trilogy by Holly Black
The Cruel Prince, The Wicked King, The Queen of Nothing

Technically, only the second and third books in this trilogy came out this year, but I read all three this year and found them highly addictive. The Folk of the Air follows Jude, a human who grew in Faerie with her twin sister and half-redcap older sister after the latter’s biological father slaughtered her parents and raised all three of the children. The sisters live in a brutal world, and The Cruel Prince is about Jude deciding that if she cannot be better than the people of Faerie she will become so much worse—and training as a spy, honing her fighting skills, and practicing mithridatism. In The Wicked King, Jude learns it’s easier to acquire power than it is to hang on to it, and it has an amazing ending that made me very glad there wasn’t a long wait for the third book. I did feel that The Queen of Nothing was the weakest of the three since it lost some of the previous books’ edge and rushed some events and character development, but I still had a wonderful time reading it.

Sure, Jude has a bloodthirsty streak, but I loved her resolve, determination, and voice. Jude is my Murder Protagonist of 2019.

Honorable Mentions of 2019

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Descendant of the Crane, Joan He’s debut Chinese-inspired fantasy novel, follows a young queen thrust into leadership earlier than she expected. As she tries to solve the mystery of her father’s death, she learns that the world is not as straightforward as she’d always believed—nor was the father she so admired. The writing is lovely, and it’s an impressive first novel with a wonderful ending that has a rather interesting revelation about a certain character…

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Book Cover

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a standalone historical fantasy novel set during the 1920s with mythology inspired by the Popol Vuh. Casiopea spends her days serving wealthy family members who treat her like dirt, dreaming of one day being free to travel. Then one day she inadvertently frees the Mayan god of death she didn’t realize was locked in a chest in her grandfather’s bedroom. Now bound together, Casiopea and the god journey to retrieve the body parts that were taken from him before he was locked away—while the brother who overthrew the recently freed Mayan deity plots to stop them. The story and voice are delightful, and I rather enjoyed this novel.

Favorite Books Published Before 2019

A Spark of White Fire - Sangu Mandanna - Book Cover

1. A Spark of White Fire (Celestial Trilogy #1) by Sangu Mandanna
My Review

Sangu Mandana’s Mahabharata-inspired Celestial Trilogy begins when a secret princess decides to reveal her true identity by defeating her twin brother in a competition for a god-forged sentient warship—even though a war goddess warned her that it would be best for her to remain in the shadows. A Spark of White Fire is one of the most exciting, fun novels I’ve read this year, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Esmae meeting the family she never knew after she won the contest—especially since she discovered her preconceptions about many of them were wrong… This also has an amazing final scene that sets the stage for the rather aptly named A House of Rage and Sorrow (which had a superb ending as well, although I preferred the first book overall).

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

2. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
My Review

The Book of M, Peng Shepherd’s debut novel, is a memorable post-apocalyptic tale in which some people suddenly lost their shadows—and soon after, all of these people without shadows started losing their memories. The longer they remained shadowless, the more they forgot, but they regained the ability to reshape the world into their faulty picture of what it was supposed to be. Rich with symbolism and allegory, it follows four characters navigating this chaotic landscape—one of whom recently lost her shadow, and another who lost his memories in an accident before the world collapsed—and explores the connection between memory and identity. It’s a creative novel with wonderful storytelling, and it also has a superb twist at the end that I thought was perfect.