5 Self-Published Authors to Watch
As most of you know, I love 'undiscovered talent.' Be it in literature, film, music, any kind of creative arena.. one of my favorite things is stumbling across those gems that haven't quite caught the light yet. Though I'm sure these authors are getting plenty of love, being self-pubbed is no easy task and certainly doesn't afford them the same widespread public notice that they might get with a professional team dedicated to promoting them.
In no particular order, I present you with my top 5 self-published reads of the year.. and 5 authors you really should be watching going forward. Each of these authors is well-rounded. Some develop elaborate magic systems or extremely creative retellings, but all offer deep back story, strong character development, and a unique storytelling voice.
Isabella August - Crown of Whispers (Faerie Lords series)
Benedict Patrick - To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl (Yarnsworld series)
On the Isle of Sound and Wonder - Alyson Grauer
Olivia Atwater - Ten-Thousand Stitches (Regency Faerie Tales)
Jesse Nolan Bailey - The Jealousy of Jalice (A Disaster of Dokojin series)
5 Indie Press Authors to Watch
Truth be told, though 2020 was rough in a lot of ways.. it was a great year for quality indie titles. I know the health crisis has made it really difficult for indie authors to get their books noticed and to ramp up their releases with physical appearances.. so I wanted to share my top 5 indie reads.
If you aren't familiar with them yet, there's still plenty of time to check out their work. Again, this list is filled with unique talents, wildly creative worlds to explore, and in one case.. an intriguing almost circular storytelling style.. the likes of which I've only seen in film.
Wren Handman - Wire Wings
Sean Gibson - The Part About the Dragon was (Mostly) True
Ryan La Sala - Reverie
A.J. Vrana - The Hollow Gods (Chaos Cycle Duology)
Marie Brennan - Driftwood
Honorable mentions go out to Lillah Lawson (Dead Rockstar), Daven McQueen (The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones), A.E. Ross (To The Flame), Sarah Burton (The Strange Adventures of H), and Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea.)
Top 10 Big Press Favorites
I read a ton of big press titles this year and enjoyed so many of them that it wasn't easy narrowing this down to just the top ten. Though some of these authors have been around for some time, these were also my first experiences with them and I really loved their stories.. even when they broke my heart. Especially so..
The result of that is a top ten, followed by a handful of honorable mentions as in the indie group.
If you'd like to know more about any of the titles in my 2020 Year in Review lists, you can find complete reviews for them in the Index above.
Aiden Thomas - Cemetery Boys
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff - Aurora Burning (Aurora Cycle series)
Alice Oseman - Loveless
Sarah J. Maas - House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City series)
Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Mexican Gothic
Erica Waters - Ghost Wood Song
Dylan Farrow - Hush
Noelle Harrison - The Island Girls
Janella Angeles - Where Dreams Descend
Ivy Pochoda - These Women
Though they didn't make my Big Press top ten, the following authors and titles were also standouts for me this year - Robert Jackson Bennett (Shorefall), Andrew Eliopulos (The Fascinators), and April Genevieve Tucholke (Seven Endless Forests.)
Continue below to read my review of the book brought to you by Xpresso Book Tours and Julie Gilbert!
'Cemetery Songs' by Julie Gilbert is the story of Apollonia Stone.. a girl who can hear the final thoughts of the dead. Struggling with her circumstances, a biracial teenager adopted into a transracial family who lives in one of those small towns with minimal diversity, her path to self-acceptance is littered with challenges.
When she finds out her birthmother has died, she starts to slip. In an emotional spiral, she accidentally sets fire to the high school, falls way behind in her classes, drives away her friends, and gets suspended from her job. To make things even worse, a former classmate witnesses the fire incident and blackmails her into helping him break the law.
Despite the way things begin between them, Polly has mixed feelings for her extortionist.. Billy Meyer. She's a compassionate girl and things aren't great for him either. So, naturally the more she comes to know of his story, the more conflicted she finds herself.
Volunteering for the city archive, amidst a research trip to a local cemetery.. Polly discovers a ghost she can actually communicate with. Harrison Card.. a kind, charming teenager who died mysteriously in the 1920's.. spurs her curiosity and her determination to find out more about what happened to him.
I was really intrigued by the premise of the book, which I felt sounded creative and would deal with some serious real world issues. The first half though.. is both incredibly slow and quite dull. I understand about slow building backstories and developing characters. That wasn't the problem. It was just monotone story telling. Though there were multiple people in scenes, initially.. none of them had any real distinction. No unique voices to separate them.
Around the midway point there was a definitive shift in the narration and dialogue. As Billy and Harrison emerged more openly across the pages, those personalities finally began to unfold. The voices of both boys and Polly becoming clearer.. brighter. From that point on, I was hooked. Though my main investment was in Billy and Polly.. I was eager to see how Harrison's story played out as well.
As for those important topics.. I just didn't think they were done as well as they could have been. Despite the author's personal background, the prose didn't feel as if it connected with the important issues that the story addressed. Likewise, aspects of Harrison's story were interesting. The author did touch on some culturally significant history, but seemed to skim over much of the emotional and psychological affects of the despicable behavior experienced by the characters.. which left it feeling kind of thin.
That being said, Gilbert is still a solid writer. The story is concise and well-told. After the midway point, which I just feel was a little too long to wait to get things moving.. I eagerly poured through the rest of the text.. and she did have me blinking back tears a couple of times. Just, not necessarily where I think she should have.
All-in-all, regardless of the few constructive criticisms above.. it's a worthwhile read. If for no other reason than to open eyes to some of the horrors of the past.. present.. and probably still the future ahead, to encourage the reader to learn more about these types of incidents on their own, and to raise awareness of the world around us.. to the real things others are still struggling with every day.. give this book a chance.
'The Part About the Dragon was (Mostly) True' by Sean Gibson.. could just be called.. 'Well.. There WAS a Dragon, but More Importantly, There's was a Bard with a Fantastic Can.' And honestly, I'd be perfectly fine with that title too.
Basically the story follows a handsome (Mostly.. see what I did there?) group of adventurers who have minimal experience, but a lot of heart as they set out to aid the village/town.. er.. townage of Skendrick in their time of need. It seems they've been set upon by a vicious dragon that periodically lays waste to.. well, read the book and you'll see. The point is.. they're desperate for help and our fair heroes see an opportunity to grow their reputation while maybe pocketing some treasure.. thanks in no small part to Heloise.
Who's Heloise, you say? Only one of the most amusing voices to grace the pages of fantasy fiction.. who also happens to be our first-person fourth-wall-breaking narrator.. and to hear her tell it, an incomparable beauty with an unequaled gift for storytelling. Heloise, the Bard.
Being as my favorite bard is Jaskier from the Witcher series, my expectations are set pretty high. That said, no character has ever reached a pinnacle worth mentioning in connection.. until now.
Even if this story had been uninteresting, I would have loved it through Heloise's eyes. I mean, clearly.. and you'll see why if you give it a chance. There's nothing she can't dress up and make more appealing, other than maybe Whiska. (But she CAN be made more exciting, and that's something our bard excels at.) And she does dress up pretty much everything for public consumption.
Truly, our narrator is hilarious and charismatic, brags casually without being annoying (I mean.. AT ALL), and both versions of the story she tells (the TRUTH and the MYTH) are entertaining.
Nadi, the fearless elven leader of the adventuring group, is a true warrior. She's a little too serious, which makes her a perfect contrast to.. well.. everyone else in the group. She's also probably the most competent overall, but well.. ditto on my last comment. Rounding out our collection of adventurers are Rummy.. the interminably good-humored half-dwarf/half-elfling and the butt of most of the size jokes, Borg.. the sweet, slow.. rock man of huge physical proportions, and Whiska.. the Ratarian wizard with one seriously bad attitude.
They go together a bit like fire and gasoline, which makes for plenty of tense times that are guaranteed to leave you laughing. As a group, they're uniquely gifted at making their lives more complicated than they need to be and getting themselves into more than they can handle, which makes it all the more interesting to see if they can get out of it.
I can't praise the story enough. If you want something light-hearted and fun to read, that will zip by quickly.. but still want to feel like you got the content you hoped for, this is definitely the book you should pick up.
'Ruinsong' by Julia Ember is the story of a girl with the magic of spellsong. A birth trait that can be a gift or a curse under the ruthless Queen Elene of Cavalia, it earns our main character.. Cadence.. the spot of Principal singer in her Court.
As an orphan, Cadence has no real attachments outside the queen's court. She has a fondness for her old tutor, Madam.. warm, distant memories of a girl named Remi.. and love for her little dog, Nip.. the only being she feels is family. That love is a weakness to be exploited though and she's a powerful spellsinger, which makes for a uniquely dangerous tug-of-war with her emotions.
Having been forced to torture Cavalia's disgraced nobles over the queen's personal grudge against their kind, she does what she can to atone along the way. Either insisting on being allowed to include healing spells or giving her time and her voice to the point of her own suffering to those most heavily in need.
When she and Remi are united, all is not well between them. Remi's view of Cadence has been colored by the queen's hand and the two couldn't be on more opposing sides of an issue. Their chance meeting is a crossroads of sorts.. leading to decisions that can affect everyone in their country for a long time to come.
This book is a very dark lgbtq+ fantasy full of richly textured characters and world-building. Though the magic induced torture isn't frequent, it's certainly grisly.. but it's also only done with purpose within the plot. It's not gratuitous, but it impacted the story and myself as the reader, quite strongly. If graphic scenes regarding people or pets bother you, be wary.. but it's a wonderfully told tale of forbidden romance and the horrors of a totalitarian queen obsessed with vengeance.
I became deeply invested in this story rather quickly. Cadence is a sweet girl, despite the things she's forced to do. Sweet enough, that even understanding how the suffering affects the citizens.. it's still difficult to see her treated unkindly for it.
The magic can be beautiful or brutal, but is fascinating in it's structure.. and in the perseverance of those who wield it, or perhaps the stubbornness of the goddess who bestows it.
Of the broad cast of supporting characters, I found Remi's suitor.. Nolan to be quite a surprise. He could have been a far more typical male role, but he thought of others first.. sometimes at great risk to himself. Likewise, the queen's right-hand man is a wonderfully vicious villain. In fact, I both dreaded and eagerly waited each of his appearances throughout the book.
It seems to be a nice standalone story, as the conflict all wraps up nicely by the end.. so no concerns here about cliffhangers or anything of the like. I'm definitely eager to see what else Ember might have up her proverbial sleeve. I'm extremely impressed with her style and structure, but especially her willingness to push the envelope with the darkness of her content. I loved this book.