This was a very good reading year for me. Although I didn’t read that many books – only fifty or sixty at a guess—the percentage of books I enjoyed was high. Due to conflict of interest this list excludes some books I enjoyed, but combining my four favorite romances with my four favorite non-romances of 2014 made it very easy to come up with eight terrific books. Here they are, listed in alphabetical order by author:
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (My review)
This fantasy novel isn’t a romance, though it does have a small romantic subplot that ends with all signs pointing to a happy resolution. It’s the coming of age and coming into power story of a despised half-goblin who ascends to an elvish throne unprepared for his new position.
The intricate development of the steampunk-ish, Asian-influenced world is both labyrinthine and enchanting, and many of the characters are endearing. Also woven through the novel is a humanist sensibility. How Maia familiarizes himself with court life, confronts his enemies, makes alliances, and grows into a good emperor—kind to others and, hardest of all, to himself– makes for a marvelous journey. A-.
Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews (My review)
If The Goblin Emperor was the book I loved most this year, Burn for Me, the first book in a new, same couple Urban Fantasy series with a strong romantic element, was the most exhilarating reading experience of my year.
Set in a world where the rich and powerful wield magic, it too was a coming into power story; in this case, for its brave and determined heroine. Nevada Baylor is a detective thrown into a case over her head, who must partner with the fearsomely powerful “Mad” Rogan, a man she doesn’t trust but can’t help falling for.
Nevada and her family were wonderful, distinct and vivid characters, and while I had some doubts about Rogan, that he’s utterly fascinating to read about isn’t in question. The plot was a roller coaster, but what I loved most of all was that Nevada and Rogan’s partnership was a full one, with each learning from the other and growing as a result. B+.
The Hook Up by Kristen Callihan (Jane’s review)
Of all the New Adult books I’ve tried (admittedly, only a handful) this was the first to fully work for me. At first it engaged me with the sexytimes. Later it engaged me with the football player Drew’s pursuit of the gun shy, reluctant to commit Anna. Their relationship begins as a sex only, no emotional intimacy allowed affair, but for all that, there was a gratifying amount of courtship in this book.
The book made me feel I was back on a college campus, and just when I thought the hero was too mature and much too perfect, especially for his age, he had a meltdown that showed that deep down he was young and not entirely secure. I was glad of that and glad the book ended with the couple recognizing their need to work hard at their relationship, because it added a coming of age element I really appreciated to this young couple’s story. I closed the novel grateful for the time I spent watching Drew and Anna grow. B.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (My review)
This sequel to Leckie’s much-lauded science fiction debut, Ancillary Justice, wasn’t what I expected. This book zoomed in close up on one system of the galaxy-spanning Radchaai empire and was perhaps more accessible than its predecessor, but it also placed its protagonist, Breq, on murkier moral ground.
Now serving as fleet commander in her onetime enemy’s military, Breq arrives on Athoek station with a strong desire to at least attempt to make amends to the sister of the officer she once loved and killed. Also along for the ride is Tisarwat, a young lieutenant acting very oddly—rather like the ancillaries Breq inhabited when she herself was a spaceship.
No romance here, but Breq’s complete dedication to righting what wrongs are in her power to right is very much in evidence—as are wrongs aplenty. With brilliant, detailed worldbuilding, a complex and fascinating protagonist, a mystery to solve and the fate of an empire hanging in the balance, this series continues to impress me. B+/A-.
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner (My review)
Sweet Disorder was my first Rose Lerner though I’ve since read her debut, In for a Penny. Like Willaful, I prefer this book, a Regency era historical romance set in the town of Lively St. Lemeston.
Because of the town charter’s rules, Phoebe can bestow the right to vote on the man she marries. Nick is the brother of her party’s candidate, and he tries to persuade her to marry a baker who will cast a vote for his brother, something Phoebe considers doing to conceal her younger sister’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
There was so much I loved about this book, from its political (vote canvassing!) aspect, the quirky secondary characters, denizens of Lively St. Lemeston, to the sense of community, the smart writing, the plus-sized heroine and the hero who is a younger son and never inherits a title.
What appealed to me most of all to the way the theme of disorder expressed itself in the main characters’ forbidden attraction to one another. Nick and Phoebe’s need to claim what they wanted – each other—rather than what social order required of them, made their passion for each defiant, necessary and brave. A-.
The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin (Group review by Sunita, Jayne and Willaful)
One of my favorite books of last year was Lin’s The Lotus Palace, so I was eager to read The Jade Temptress, and it did not disappoint. Set in Tang Dynasty China, The Jade Temptress begins with a murder—that of General Deng, whose headless body is discovered by the famed courtesan Mingyu. To protect herself from being held responsible for the death of her “protector,” Mingyu contacts Constable Wu Kaifeng. The two work together to solve the mystery of Deng’s murder, and they gradually fall in love.
One of the things I appreciate about Jeannie Lin’s historical romances is their sense of place and milieu. The worlds of the Pinkang Li’s pleasure district comes to life, as does Kaifeng’s investigative work. The novel is part police procedural, part romance, and set in Ninth century China. It’s hard to find something more fresh than that in historical romance.
The other thing I love about Lin’s romances is how well-matched her couples are, despite their differences. Kaifeng is as solid and straightforward as Mingyu is mercurial and mysterious, yet they fit together like two halves of the same whole. Which is not to say they aren’t fully embodied as separate, independent beings. A scene in which Mingyu must choose between her gilded cage and all its luxuries and freedom with Kaifeng, whose life is simpler, is still vivid in my mind the better part of a year after reading it. Their HEA, when it comes, is utterly lovely. B+.
The Duke of Dark Desires by Miranda Neville (My joint review with Rose to come soon)
Of all the authors I read, Miranda Neville may be the most consistently satisfying. Eight novels and one novella into her oeuvre, I’ve only been disappointed once. The Duke of Dark Desires is one of her best, and quite possibly my favorite of all her books.
The novel begins with the arrival of “Jane Grey” in England a decade or so after the death of her family during the French Revolution. Jane seeks revenge on a Mr. Fortescue whom she believed betrayed her father’s trust, leading to her family’s arrest. Believing Julian to be the duke to whom Mr. Fortescue was related, Jane takes a position as governess to his half sisters, little realizing Julian is the man her father spoke of. Julian, meanwhile, seeks to seduce Jane, unaware that she is a survivor of the tragedy that has haunted his conscience for a decade.
How Jane made it through the revolution and the loss of her family at age fifteen is a harrowing tale, but she is a true survivor, a heroine to admire. Through knowing her, Julian comes to appreciate what family means, as well as Jane’s immense courage. This novel was darker than Neville’s books usually get, but not without an occasional light touch. A beautiful and moving novel. B+/A-.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (My review)
This YA novel, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Jazz Age, is no fantasy, but a story about the bonds of sisterhood, with its fierce devotion and fierce conflicts.
Jo Hamilton is the eldest of twelve sisters kept hidden from the world by their oppressive father. Dancing is the girls’ only outlet, and to keep Lou, the sister Jo is closest to both in age and in other ways, from bolting, Jo suggests sneaking out of their gilded cage one night. This act of defiance becomes the girls’ one freedom, stolen at night when their father and the servants sleep.
But to keep their father from learning the truth, Jo must pay a heavy price—that of earning her sisters’ resentment for returning them home by daybreak. When their regular haunt, the Kingfisher Club, is raided by the police, and rumors of twelve wild girls who dance the night away reach their father’s ears, things begin get desperate for the girls.
How Jo protects them, or fails to protect them is the tale told in The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. With vivid characterizations, spare yet poetic prose, and a poignant yet perfect resolution to the story, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is well worth the attention of any fan of fairytale retellings. B/B+.