According to the list I maintained last year, in 2011 I read 260 books. (And I probably missed some in there somewhere.) This might sound like an impressive statistic, but the truth is that, at that volume, I’ve forgotten more books than I remember. I read a lot of “cotton candy” fiction, books that might be enjoyable enough at the time but don’t leave a lasting impression once I’ve finished them. That’s why I think it’s important to call out the books that have really stood out to me this year.
A few administrative caveats: I am only considering books that were published in 2011. So if I read it in 2011, but it was published in an earlier year, it won’t make the list. I’m organizing my picks in alphabetical order by author. I know it’s a top 10 list, but I’m having enough trouble trying to narrow it down that much. I can’t even imagine how much trouble I’d have if I tried to rank my top 10.
So here we go:
Fate’s Edge by Ilona Andrews. The fifth book in Andrews’ Kate Daniels series also came out in 2011, but it was the third book in The Edge series of paranormal romances captivated me more—maybe because, in tone and humor, it was so different than most of the other, darker stuff I read. The witty banter between Kaldar and Audrey reminds me of screwball comedy of the 1930s. (Specifically It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, if you’re wondering.) I also love that both Kaldar and Audrey have moral compasses that don’t exactly point due north: Kaldar is a con man, and Audrey is a semi-reformed thief. It’s a fun book, and you don’t have to read the earlier books in the series to follow along. (Though I definitely recommend you do, because both On the Edge and Bayou Moon are fantastic.)
Hunt the Moon by Karen Chance. There’s a lot going on in this book. Epic battles with gods. Vampire politics. Huge volumes of mythology. But what really got me about the fifth installment of Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series were the interpersonal developments. I’m a sucker for a love triangle, and this series has one doozy going on. Mircea, the master vampire, has claimed Cassie as his mate, but treats her like a child. Pritkin, the prickly mage, pushes Cassie to be strong and self-sufficient, but holds her at arm’s length. In this book, we get to see more of both men, why they are the way they are, and why Cassie is attracted to both of them. These books can be read alone, but the character developments make much more sense when they’re read in order.
Head Rush by Carolyn Crane. My most-anticipated read of 2011 was definitely worth the wait. The final entry in Crane’s Disillusionists trilogy answers all the questions left hanging at the end of 2010’s Double Cross, and also shows some immense character growth for the protagonist, Justine. Justine is the kind of protagonist I can relate to on a lot of levels. She’s not a superhero or a magical being. She’s not a kickass warrior. She’s sometimes paralyzed with fear and can be quite neurotic. Yet she always does the best she can under the circumstances she’s given. As the fates of Justine and the two men in her life—once-criminal mastermind Packard and Mayor Otto Sanchez—fall into place, Head Rush becomes a very emotional book. These are characters I’ve come to care about, and Crane never makes the mistake of making any of them “good” or “bad.” Instead, it’s the humanity of these characters in this supernatural world that resonates. If you’re going to tackle this series, start with Mind Games and Double Cross; this is definitely one that builds up to the grand finale.
Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison. One of the most promising series debuts this year, and one of the best paranormal romances I’ve read…ever. A young, disenfranchised woman named Pia—who hides her supernatural roots—steals a penny from Dragos, a dragon and the leader of the shape-shifting Wyr. Rather than kill the woman or eat her, Dragos finds himself intrigued by her. I love that Harrison made Dragos so severe and inhuman in his emotions and his reactions. He’s an ancient dragon, older than the human race. Why would he act human? I also love that Pia is a very strong character as well, who challenges and complements Dragos every step of the way. Harrison’s world—dragons in modern-day New York City?–and characters were so strikingly original that it lingered with me for the rest of the year.
Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning. The conclusion to Moning’s Fever series delivered on so many levels. It gave us just enough answers that we felt some resolution…but not so many that Moning can’t pick back up and write about Mac, Barrons, and Vlane again in the future. We find out who killed Mac’s beloved sister. The relationship between Mac and Barrons comes to a crescendo. And we finally discover who’s doing what for whom and why. Anything else I could say about this book would be a spoiler, so I won’t go there. But I definitely recommend you start with the first book, Darkfever, and keep working your way forward. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put them down.
One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire. By the fifth book, many series start to feel tired. But Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series—about a half-fae knight who discovers her heritage isn’t exactly what she thought it was—keeps getting better and better, and the latest installment is the best yet. McGuire benefits from having incredibly complex, well-developed characters; even the antagonist gets flushed out. We also revisit the unresolved thread of Toby’s human family, who thought she abandoned them. There’s also one plot twist that left me reeling, and I’m glad that McGuire is willing to “go there” with her characters.
A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang. It had been a long time since I read a new urban fantasy series that instantly captured my attention, but this one got me. I think what I really dug about the story was how darkness and humor intermingled. At the center of it all is Abby, a young woman scarred—physically and emotionally—by the death of her mother, and now trying to survive as the touchstone (sort of an anchor to Earth) for the fae protectorate. She befriends Brystion, a self-loathing incubus searching for his lost sister. There’s darkness, there’s betrayal…but there’s also hope for redemption.
Tempest’s Legacy by Nicole Peeler. The third book in Peeler’s Jane True series turned it from a “will probably read” to a “must read” for me. Underneath the humor and fun, this is a darker turn for the series—in which Jane finds out what has happened to her estranged mother and must deal with the ramifications of that. It also further develops her relationships with vampire Ryu and barghest Anyan. But the strength of this series is that it has always been, above all else, about Jane and her personal growth. Jane’s relationships have always been reflective of her growth as a character, and this is no exception. I also love Jane’s voice, which is funny and self-deprecating even at her most difficult moments.
Secrets of the Demon by Diana Rowland. One of the factors I used to judge this list was whether I would come back to buy the next book in the series, or the next book by the author. Secrets of the Demon, the third book in Rowland’s Kara Gillian series, has already won out on that front: Sins of the Demon, released on January 3 of this year, became one of the first books I read in 2012, and I couldn’t even wait to re-read the previous books before I jumped in. By increasing the complexity of Kara’s odd love triangle (with a demonic lord and an FBI agent), Rowland has given us two heroes to root for. And by ending the book on a game-changing cliffhanger, she leaves us wondering how this will affect the future for these characters, and the series. The good news is that I don’t have to wait anymore for the fourth book. The bad news is that the fourth book left me dying for the fifth one.
The Renfield Syndrome by J.A. Saare. I read Dead, Undead, or Somewhere in Between—the first book in Saare’s Rhiannon’s Law series—back in 2009. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I remember thinking it had a great deal of similarity to other urban fantasies/vampire romances out there already. But it stood out from the pack—and it featured one hell of a twist ending—thus ensuring that The Renfield Syndrome became one of my most anticipated reads of 2011. It was worth the wait. Saare sends her protagonist 101 years in the future and then puts her characters through hell. They make choices with irreversible consequences. It’s a bold departure from the typical tough girl/alpha hero solve crimes while falling in love formula that many urban fantasy romances take. Saare took a risk, and it paid off, leaving her fans anxiously awaiting the third book in the series.
Honorable Mention—the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane (Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, City of Ghosts). I couldn’t include these on the list because the books were published in 2010, although I didn’t actually read them until 2011. But I thought Kane’s series deserved some recognition because they spoke so much to me personally. In 2011, I was busy working on the revisions for a novel featuring a very “dark” heroine, one whose actions were often both illegal and immoral, and I wondered whether readers could ever sympathize with such a heroine. Then I read Unholy Ghosts, the first book in Kane’s series, and it felt like a revelation. Chess is one of the most self-destructive heroines I’ve ever read about. Her drug addiction—and her efforts to hide it—actually incite many of the plots. And the male lead, a man simply known as Terrible, is an unattractive, scarred enforcer for a drug dealer. Kane’s world is almost dystopian, a perversion of Puritan New England and Poltergeist, and Chess is one of the few people who see how bleak it really is. Yet it’s those small glimmers of hope that keep you reading, keep you hanging on, keep you rooting for Chess. I don’t know whether I accomplish this in my own writing. But it’s certainly something to aspire to.