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Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2014

Considering the trilogy as a whole, the overused term masterpiece justifiably applies.

STELES OF THE SKY

From the Eternal Sky series , Vol. 3

Wrapping up Bear’s complex and beautifully rendered historical-fantasy trilogy (Shattered Pillars, 2013, etc.).

Necromancer and blood-sorcerer al-Sepehr, head of the Nameless assassin cult, arranged to have his daughter Saadet impregnated by Qori Buqa, Khagan of the nomad horse-warrior Empire, whom he then murdered. Re Temur, Qori Buqa’s nephew and the true heir to the Khaganate, decides to raise his banner at Dragon Lake, site of the Khagan’s vast abandoned palace—but how to reach it? Perhaps his companions, the wizard Samarkar, Hrahima, a huge human-tiger Cho-tse warrior, and the silent monk, Brother Hsiung, can find a way through the magic doorways created by the extinct Erem Empire. But Erem magic is deadly poisonous—Brother Hsiung is already half-blind from attempting to study it. Edene, Temur’s woman, escaped from al-Sepehr by stealing a green Erem ring, which gave her command of the ghuls, a slave race created by Erem, and control of the toxic Erem magic and all poisonous creatures, but an evil presence within it whispers to her—and she’s carrying Temur’s child. She must also deal with a djinn who, appearing sporadically and unpredictably, sometimes offers help while admitting he’s bound, against his will, to al-Sepehr. Various other groups—wizards, warriors, empresses, survivors of the civilizations broken by al-Sepehr’s treachery—converge on Dragon Lake. These and other narrative strands progress and interact through fully realized characters whose personalities and motivations arise from the dazzlingly detailed cultures and landscapes from which they derive. If there’s a disappointment, it’s the bipedal tiger Hrahima, a vigorous presence whose background and motivations remain largely unexplored. Notably, apart from the hero and his antagonist, all the leading characters are women. It all adds up to an eminently satisfying conclusion.

Considering the trilogy as a whole, the overused term masterpiece justifiably applies.

Pub Date: April 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7653-2756-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.

THE WORD EXCHANGE

Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of the print-empty, Web-reliant culture of the 22nd century.

Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies. Our heroine is Anana Johnson, who works closely with her father, Doug, at the antiquated North American Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary is an artifact in a near future where most of the populace uses “Memes”—implantable devices that feed massive amounts of data to users in real time but also monitor their environments to suggest behaviors, purchases and ideas. The devices, marketed by technology behemoth Synchronic, have become so pervasive that the company has enough clout to create and sell language itself to linguistically bereft users in their online Word Exchange. If that sounds creepy, it is, and it gets worse. One evening, Doug gives Ana two bottles of pills and a code word, “Alice,” to use if danger should enter their loquacious lives. When Doug disappears, Ana and her comrade Bart must navigate the increasingly treacherous world behind the clean lines of Synchronic's marketing schemes, complete with chases through underground mazes and encounters with the subversive "Diachronic Society," which leads the resistance against the Meme vogue. The danger explodes when the world is engulfed by “word flu,” causing widespread, virulent aphasia. “As more and more of our interactions are mediated by machines—as all consciousness and communications are streamed through Crowns, Ear Beads, screens and whatever Synchronic has planned next, for its newest Meme—there’s no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization,” warns the resistance. “The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.”

A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.

Pub Date: April 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-53765-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

A hugely entertaining, surprising and perhaps prophetic package that, without seeming to, raises profound questions about...

AFTERPARTY

An eye-popping glimpse of a near future when designer drugs are commonplace, from the author of Raising Stony Mayhall (2011, etc.).

It’s a future where anybody with a chemjet printer and a recipe from the Internet can create designer drugs. In Toronto, biochemists Lyda and her genius wife, Mikala, IT whiz Gil, finance specialist Edo and lab tech Rovil start a company dedicated to developing a drug that would combat schizophrenia. They achieve success with Numinous, but the drawbacks, alas, become apparent too late: It’s addictive, the effects are permanent—and those who take it gain the unshakable conviction that a personal deity accompanies them. Worse, after taking a massive overdose—how this all comes about emerges only gradually—Lyda stabs a now-estranged Mikala to death, or so it appears. Gil takes the blame; Edo goes hopelessly crazy; Rovil seems functional. Declared insane, Lyda’s locked up along with her invisible companion, a guardian angel called Dr. Gloria. While incarcerated, Lyda learns that a drug very much like Numinous has hit the street in the form of a sacrament dispensed by a new church. To prevent an epidemic of psychotic zombies, she must escape, locate the other survivors of the original five and put a stop to it. She’ll need the help of Ollie, a brilliant but drug-ravaged intelligence analyst. Among the obstacles they’ll negotiate are a drug-dealer gang of Afghan women; Native American cigarette smugglers who take great delight in outwitting the U.S. Border Patrol; and Vincent, a psychotic assassin who farms miniature buffalo in his living room. This taut, brisk, gripping narrative, dazzlingly intercut with flashbacks and sidebars, oozes warmth and wit.

A hugely entertaining, surprising and perhaps prophetic package that, without seeming to, raises profound questions about the human mind and the nature of perception.

Pub Date: April 22, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7653-3692-7

Page Count: 303

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

The essence of being a magician, as Quentin learns to define it, could easily serve as a thumbnail description of Grossman’s...

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THE MAGICIAN'S LAND

From the The Magicians Trilogy series , Vol. 3

Deeply satisfying finale to the best-selling fantasy trilogy (The Magicians, 2009; The Magician King, 2011).

After being dethroned and exiled from the magical kingdom of Fillory for helping his friend Julia become a demigoddess, Quentin returns to Earth to teach at his alma mater, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. But when his student Plum stumbles across the school’s resident malevolent demon, which Quentin refuses to kill because it was once his lover Alice, they’re both thrown out and forced to take a risky freelance magic job. This involves stealing a suitcase that once belonged to Plum’s great-grandfather Rupert, one of the five Chatwin siblings whose adventures in Fillory were the subject of best-selling books Plum thinks are fictional—until she opens the suitcase to find Rupert’s memoirs. They fill in some blanks about what really happened to the Chatwins in Fillory and provide clues that will help Quentin’s old comrades Eliot and Janet, still ruling over Fillory, who have been warned by the ram-god Ember that the land is slowly dying. As in the previous novels, Grossman captures the magic of fantasy books cherished in youth and repurposes it to decidedly adult ends. He slyly alludes to the Harry Potter series and owes a clear debt to J.K. Rowling’s great action scenes, though his characters’ magical battles have a bravura all their own. But his deepest engagement remains with C.S. Lewis, as Narnia is the obvious prototype for Fillory; the philosophical conclusion Grossman draws from his land’s narrowly averted apocalypse is the exact opposite of that offered in Lewis’ overbearing Christian allegory. Human emotions and desires balance unearthly powers, especially in the drama of Alice’s painful return. A beautiful scene in Fillory’s Drowned Garden reconnects Quentin with the innocent, dreaming boy he once was yet affirms the value of the chastened grown-up he has become.

The essence of being a magician, as Quentin learns to define it, could easily serve as a thumbnail description of Grossman’s art: “the power to enchant the world.”

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-670-01567-2

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

McIntosh has his finger on the pulse, again.

DEFENDERS

Abandoning the domestic sphere he explored so aptly in Love Minus Eighty (2013), McIntosh tells a more global yet still deeply personal tale about life during wartime and its aftermath.

In 2029, the telepathic, starfish-shaped Luyten have just about conquered Earth—it’s tough to fight an enemy who knows everything you’re about to do. Pushed to the brink, humanity develops the defenders: brilliant, 16-foot tall, three-legged soldiers impervious to telepathy. But once the Luyten are defeated, there are millions of defenders who are ill-suited to anything other than war and who are in a position to demand whatever they want from the weaker humans. The larger picture is primarily filtered through the perspectives of Kai, an orphan who inadvertently befriends Five, a wounded Luyten later captured by the U.S. government; Oliver, Kai’s eventual adoptive father, a socially awkward CIA operative who interrogates and becomes unduly influenced by Five; and Lila, Kai’s future wife, a clever, scientifically inclined young woman. As in his other work, McIntosh builds a believable universe with well-thought-out social dynamics—although the beginning of the novel does jump about in time somewhat confusingly. The genetically engineered soldier who can’t adapt to peacetime is a frequent figure in sci-fi, but most previous examples of the trope haven’t considered the implications quite so carefully. And, of course, the novel’s sharp commentary on the difficulties soldiers have fitting into civilian society after their service—and the struggles of civilians both during and after war—has a sadly contemporary relevance. There's also a fascinating take on how political alliances shift over time: One's bosom friend today can be one's deadly enemy tomorrow, and vice versa.

McIntosh has his finger on the pulse, again.

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-21776-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

Such is the allure of an extremely talented writer at the height of her powers.

CROWN OF RENEWAL

From the Paladin's Legacy series , Vol. 5

Final entry (Limits of Power, 2013, etc.) in the Paladin’s Legacy series.

Once again, rather than a monolithic existential threat, multitudinous intrigues and designs move the story forward. Arian, wife of Lyonya’s King Kieri, poisoned by an iynisin (evil elf-mage) blade, languishes, while Kieri, warned by Dragon to release mages trapped in the past, needs to discover his innate Old Human magic. In neighboring Tsaia, iynisin attack and grievously wound King Mikeli’s brother, Camwyn; Dragon is willing to heal Camwyn, but the price is that Mikeli may never see his brother again. Mage powers continue to appear in both nobles and commoners—a development opposed so vehemently by traditionalists that they are prepared to murder children to stamp it out. Jandelir Arcolin finds himself preoccupied with the gnomes who have declared him their prince, their all-encompassing Law and their concern for the Law’s correct application. Mikeli wonders what the iynisin intruders were after and concludes they sought the mysterious sentient regalia that reposes in a box that none save former mercenary Dorrin, Duke Verrakai, may open or even move. The regalia itself orders Dorrin to take the box on a perilous quest to a distant land, a journey that Dorrin herself does not expect to survive. Moon offers convincingly realized characters persuasively shaped by the extraordinary richness, depth and texture of the world they inhabit and the low-key yet knotty problems they must confront. So mesmerizing is the narrative that it’s a sad surprise having to emerge into the mundane world at story’s end. While fully satisfying, this conclusion leaves ample scope for further embellishment or spinoffs: excellent news for all concerned.

Such is the allure of an extremely talented writer at the height of her powers.

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-345-53309-8

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2014

An enthralling read for aficionados of intelligent, impeccably rendered fantasy.

ARCANUM

Medieval fantasy from the author of The Curve of the Earth (2013), developed from a single question: What if a civilization that relied on magic was suddenly deprived of it?

A thousand years after the fall of Rome, the German-speaking palatinate of Carinthia depends entirely on the magic provided by its hexmasters for trade and farming, defense, even lighting for the great library. In exchange, the hexmasters claim one-half of Carinthia’s wealth. Peter Büber, Prince Gerhard’s huntmaster, is disturbed by his discovery of not one, but two unicorn’s horns, with no sign of the beasts they were attached to; equally odd, he witnesses a band of wild giants defeat and kill an Italian wizard. Meanwhile, Teuton warriors demand passage across Carinthia; when Gerhard refuses, they move downriver to attack and occupy a town. As the princes have done for 1,000 years, Gerhard dons his magical armor, buckles on his magical sword and, not expecting to fight—an activity for which his forces are quite unsuited—summons the hexmasters, anticipating a blast of magic and an easy victory. Instead, only Nikoleta Agana, a mere adept, answers Gerhard’s call: Apparently, she is the only person still able to wield magic. Soon, wagons shudder to a halt; barges float with instead of against the current; and the lights go out. Only in the Jewish quarter, where magic is shunned, does life proceed normally. The stellar cast also features rebellious, extremely capable and unfortunately unwed Sophia Morgenstern, her despairing father, Aaron, librarian Frederik Thaler, usher-turned-spymaster Max Ullmann, and Felix, Gerhard’s 12-year-old son. The fading-magic scenario has become something of a trope, but Morden, against a gritty, utterly convincing backdrop, anticipates every consequence and wrings out surprise after surprise.

An enthralling read for aficionados of intelligent, impeccably rendered fantasy.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-22010-1

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2013

This SF thriller provides yet more evidence that Scalzi (The Human Division, 2013, etc.) is a master at creating appealing...

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LOCK IN

In the near future, a meningitislike disease has killed millions and left a small percentage of survivors "locked in"—fully conscious, but unable to move any part of their bodies.

Government-funded research has allowed the locked-in Haden's syndrome survivors to flourish in a virtual environment, and to interact with the real world via humanoid robots known as “threeps.” They can also use the bodies of a small group of Haden survivors known as “Integrators,” who have found that they can allow their bodies to be controlled by others. Right before a major rally by Haden activists to protest a law cutting support for survivors, a series of murders and the bombing of a major pharmaceutical company suggest that someone has developed the ability to take over Integrators’ bodies against their will. Rookie FBI agent and Haden survivor Chris Vance and Vance's new partner, troubled former Integrator Leslie Vann, must find the culprit before an even more devastating act is committed. There’s only one real suspect from the get-go, so most of the mystery lies in determining his motives and finding the evidence to make an arrest before his plan can be fulfilled; but the novel—which contains plenty of action, great character development, vivid and believable worldbuilding and a thought-provoking examination of disability culture and politics—is definitely worth the ride.

This SF thriller provides yet more evidence that Scalzi (The Human Division, 2013, etc.) is a master at creating appealing commercial fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7653-7586-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: June 26, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

Stross at the top of his game—which is to say, few do it better. Pounce!

THE RHESUS CHART

From the Laundry Files series , Vol. 5

Fifth in the Laundry Files series (The Apocalypse Codex, 2012, etc.), Stross’ stunning incarnation of magic as a branch of applied mathematics. As always, of course, the devils are in the details.

Literally, that is—since advanced computation attracts the interest of bloodthirsty entities from other realities. The British government’s countermeasure is known as the Laundry, a department so secret that anybody that stumbles upon its existence is (one way or another) silenced. Applied computational demonologist Bob Howard, whose boss is James Angleton (an Eater of Souls—and you really, really don’t want to know), has acquired some of Angleton’s occult powers. Bob’s wife, Mo O’Brien, also works for the department: She’s a combat epistemologist whose weapon is a demonic violin. Fast-tracked into management after recent successes, Bob grows suspicious when a whiz-kid team of investment bankers which calls itself the Scrum discovers an algorithm that promises to make its members billions in profits but whose unfortunate side effect (via the aforementioned hyper-reality nasties) is to turn them into vampires. (The supreme irony of this will be lost on few readers.) An added complication for Bob is that the Scrum’s ringleader, Mhari Murphy, is an ex-girlfriend. More peculiar yet, why is everybody in the Laundry convinced that vampires don’t exist? Bob’s superiors take prompt action—and form a committee. Laundry regulars by now will be familiar with Stross’ trademark sardonic, provocative, disturbing, allusion-filled narrative. And, here, with a structure strongly reminiscent of Len Deighton’s early spy novels, the tone grows markedly grimmer, with several significant casualties and tragedies, perhaps in preparation for Angleton’s feared CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Stross at the top of his game—which is to say, few do it better. Pounce!

Pub Date: July 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-425-25686-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Ace/Berkley

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.

ANNIHILATION

From the Southern Reach Trilogy series , Vol. 1

After their high-risk expedition disintegrates, it’s every scientist for herself in this wonderfully creepy blend of horror and science fiction. This is the first volume of the Southern Reach trilogy from VanderMeer (Finch, 2009, etc.); subsequent volumes are scheduled for publication in June and September 2014.

The Southern Reach is the secret government agency that dispatches expeditions across the border to monitor Area X, an ominous coastal no man’s land since an unspecified event 30 years before. This latest expedition, the 12th, is all-female, consisting of a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a biologist (the narrator). Names are taboo. Their leader, the psychologist, has hypnotic powers. They have no communication devices, but they do have firearms, which they will use; some earlier expeditions also ended bloodily. Close to base camp is "the tower," a mostly underground structure that acts as tunnel, which they descend. On its walls are grim biblical admonitions, raised letters made of fungi. The biologist incautiously inhales tiny spores which, she will discover later, fill her with brightness, a form of ESP. Tension between the women increases when the anthropologist goes missing; they will discover her dead in the tower, discharging green ash. Next, the psychologist disappears. Leaving the hostile, ex-military surveyor behind, the biologist makes her way to the other interesting structure, the lighthouse, which she climbs in dread. VanderMeer is an expert fearmonger, but his strongest suit, what makes his novel a standout, is his depiction of the biologist. Like any scientist, she has an overriding need to classify, to know. This has been her lifelong passion. Her solitary explorations created problems in her marriage; her husband, a medic, returned from the previous expedition a zombie. What killed the anthropologist? The biologist’s samples reveal human brain tissue. Some organism is trying to colonize and absorb the humans with whom it comes in contact. Experiencing “the severe temptation of the unknown,” she must re-enter the tower to confront the Crawler, her name for the graffiti writer.

Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-10409-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2013

Sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery.

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THE MARTIAN

When a freak dust storm brings a manned mission to Mars to an unexpected close, an astronaut who is left behind fights to stay alive. This is the first novel from software engineer Weir.

One minute, astronaut Mark Watney was with his crew, struggling to make it out of a deadly Martian dust storm and back to the ship, currently in orbit over Mars. The next minute, he was gone, blown away, with an antenna sticking out of his side. The crew knew he'd lost pressure in his suit, and they'd seen his biosigns go flat. In grave danger themselves, they made an agonizing but logical decision: Figuring Mark was dead, they took off and headed back to Earth. As it happens, though, due to a bizarre chain of events, Mark is very much alive. He wakes up some time later to find himself stranded on Mars with a limited supply of food and no way to communicate with Earth or his fellow astronauts. Luckily, Mark is a botanist as well as an astronaut. So, armed with a few potatoes, he becomes Mars' first ever farmer. From there, Mark must overcome a series of increasingly tricky mental, physical and technical challenges just to stay alive, until finally, he realizes there is just a glimmer of hope that he may actually be rescued. Weir displays a virtuosic ability to write about highly technical situations without leaving readers far behind. The result is a story that is as plausible as it is compelling. The author imbues Mark with a sharp sense of humor, which cuts the tension, sometimes a little too much—some readers may be laughing when they should be on the edges of their seats. As for Mark’s verbal style, the modern dialogue at times undermines the futuristic setting. In fact, people in the book seem not only to talk the way we do now, they also use the same technology (cellphones, computers with keyboards). This makes the story feel like it's set in an alternate present, where the only difference is that humans are sending manned flights to Mars. Still, the author’s ingenuity in finding new scrapes to put Mark in, not to mention the ingenuity in finding ways out of said scrapes, is impressive.  

Sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3902-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

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