10 Books That Defied My Expectations

Posted 5th September 2023 by Sia in Lists, Top Ten Tuesdays / 6 Comments

TTT

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. Check out upcoming Top Ten themes on Jana’s blog!

This week’s prompt was submitted by yours truly, so of course I couldn’t miss it!!! Still so delighted that it was accepted, and I can’t wait to see what all my favourite bloggers do with it!

Here’s my own take!

The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, Indigenous MC, secondary asexual character, minor disabled Indigenous character
Goodreads

In Lambda Award finalist Chana Porter’s highly anticipated new novel, an aspiring chef, a cyberthief, and a kitchen maid each break free of a society that wants to constrain them.

In the quaint religious town of Seagate, abstaining from food brings one closer to God.

But Beatrice Bolano is hungry. She craves the forbidden: butter, flambé, marzipan. As Seagate takes increasingly extreme measures to regulate every calorie its citizens consume, Beatrice must make a choice: give up her secret passion for cooking or leave the only community she has known.

Elsewhere, Reiko Rimando has left her modest roots for a college tech scholarship in the big city. A flawless student, she is set up for success...until her school pulls her funding, leaving her to face either a mountain of debt or a humiliating return home. But Reiko is done being at the mercy of the system. She forges a third path—outside of the law.

With the guidance of a mysterious cookbook written by a kitchen maid centuries ago, Beatrice and Reiko each grasp for a life of freedom—something more easily imagined than achieved in a world dominated by catastrophic corporate greed.

A startling fable of the entwined perils of capitalism, body politics, and the stigmas women face for appetites of every kind, Chana Porter’s profound new novel explores the reclamation of pleasure as a revolutionary act.

I honestly had no idea this was SFF! Nor did I realise this was written by the author of The Seep – which I haven’t read yet, but it is HIGH on my tbr, as I’ve heard nothing but love for it. But that means The Thick and the Lean took me COMPLETELY by surprise when it in fact turned out to be set in a world with two moons, zeppelins, and a morbidly fascinating dominant religion that is super sex-positive, but comes close to outright demonising eating!

It’s not Hard SciFi or anything – we’re not talking space travel and origamiing (real word!) the laws of physics – but it was unexpected and delightful to find spec-fic where I wasn’t looking for it!

A Restless Truth (Last Binding #2) by Freya Marske
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: F/F, secondary achillean characters
Goodreads

Magic! Murder! Shipboard romance! The second entry in Freya Marske's beloved The Last Binding trilogy, the queer historical fantasy series that began with A Marvellous Light

The most interesting things in Maud Blyth's life have happened to her brother Robin, but she's ready to join any cause, especially if it involves magical secrets that may threaten the whole of the British Isles. Bound for New York on the R.M.S. Lyric, she's ready for an adventure.

What she actually finds is a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Marvellous Light…but in that way that fades more the further you get away from the book, you know? So Restless Truth lingered on my tbr until I was looking for something fun and light, something I could pick up and put down easily.

Yeah, spoiler: Restless Truth is not easy to put down. It is fun and light, but it’s also absolutely dazzling; it was the first book in a long while that gave me that glittery-bubbles-fireworks feeling in my chest, and you could not have pried me away from the pages with a crowbar! I was completely swept off my feet, fell head-over-heels for every one of the characters and their should-have-been-ridiculous shenanigans on a great big BOAT, and I still don’t understand how it managed to feel like joy in text form. BUT I MASSIVELY APPROVE!

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual biracial/latina MC, F/F, bisexual MC
Goodreads

In this spellbinding debut novel, two estranged half-sisters tasked with guarding their family's library of magical books must work together to unravel a deadly secret at the heart of their collection--a tale of familial loyalty and betrayal, and the pursuit of magic and power.

For generations, the Kalotay family has guarded a collection of ancient and rare books. Books that let a person walk through walls or manipulate the elements--books of magic that half-sisters Joanna and Esther have been raised to revere and protect.

All magic comes with a price, though, and for years the sisters have been separated. Esther has fled to a remote base in Antarctica to escape the fate that killed her own mother, and Joanna's isolated herself in their family home in Vermont, devoting her life to the study of these cherished volumes. But after their father dies suddenly while reading a book Joanna has never seen before, the sisters must reunite to preserve their family legacy. In the process, they'll uncover a world of magic far bigger and more dangerous than they ever imagined, and all the secrets their parents kept hidden; secrets that span centuries, continents, and even other libraries . . .

In the great tradition of Ninth House, The Magicians, and Practical Magic, this is a suspenseful and richly atmospheric novel that draws readers into a vast world filled with mystery and magic, romance, and intrigue--and marks the debut of an extraordinary new voice in speculative fiction.

I picked this up on a whim – a complete whim! – because I was intrigued by the sound of magical books…and it turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year, easily. The magical books aren’t just cool; the entire magic system is bloody brilliant, and I adored the sneaky, unexpectedly-complicated plot. The characters nicked my heart when I wasn’t looking, and there is a wonderful dog and an equally wonderful cat! What more could you ask for?

You can read my full review here!

If Found, Return to Hell by Em X. Liu
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary MC, Chinese cast and setting
Goodreads

Being an intern at One Wizard sounds magical on the page, but in practice mostly means getting yelled at by senior mages and angry clients alike. And so, after receiving a frantic call from a young man who’s awoken to a talisman on his bedroom wall—and no memory of how it got there—Journeyman Wen jumps at the chance to escape call-center duty and actually help someone for once.

But the case ends up being more complicated than Wen could ever have anticipated. The client has been possessed by a demon prince from Hell, and he’s not interested in leaving.

I was expecting this to be a romance – and I thought (assumed, really) that the MC was a cis guy. Neither of those things are true, and it is SO GREAT! As someone who’s worked Customer Support for tech, my heart went out to our MC, who really just wants to help just one person for real…and ends up with a ridiculously adorable prince of hell to babysit. And maybe the beginnings of a pretty awesome found-family.

Also, the scene with the vacuum cleaner made me laugh until I cried.

The Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue, #1) by Christopher Buehlman
Genres: Fantasy
Goodreads

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.

But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.

Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.

Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva's. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.

I initially passed right by this – I mean, that cover? That colour scheme? That style of illustration? On a book with Thief in the title? Clearly the kind of gritty macho grimdark that I really can’t stand.

(For one thing, I have far too weak a stomach.)

Well, it is a bit gritty, but it’s definitely not grimdark – it’s a snarky, delightful adventure in a world that’s become matriarchal by default (because most men were killed in the goblin wars) and has no horses (also because of the wars), and our black-tongued thief has a heart of gold, more curiousity than a cat, and an amazing voice (the book’s written in first-person and that was EXACTLY the right choice!) The prequel we’re getting next year is one of my most-anticipated books of 2024! Pretty good for a book I thought wasn’t for me at all!

No Gods, No Monsters (Convergence Saga #1) by Cadwell Turnbull
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Black bi mc, Puerto Rican American sapphic mc, biracial bi ace trans mc, nonbinary side character, Black bi side character, Black side characters
Goodreads

Named a BEST BOOK OF 2021 by the New York Times , NPR, the New York Public Library, Audible, Tor. com, Book Riot , Library Journal , and Kirkus ! Longlisted for the 2022 PEN Open Book Award

“Riveting…[A] tender, ferocious book.”— New York Times

“Beautifully fantastical.”—NPR

“Masterful.”— Chicago Tribune

One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother has been shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it. As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters. At the center is a mystery no one thinks to Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark? The world will soon find out.

I thought this was going to be a really epic, incisive, brilliant contemporary fantasy that would grab all these big complex issues in its teeth… And it is! But it’s ALSO this sprawling multiversal (is that a word?) tangle…no, ‘tangle’ implies it’s out of control, and Turnbull definitely has it all under control…labyrinth of interconnected plotlines and characters and philosophies – one that doesn’t give you (m)any answers, by the way; presumably we’ll get at least SOME in book two (out in November, I think).

I never would have expected, if I’d been asked, that I could enjoy so much a book that embodies the term organised chaos, a book that raises so many questions it does not in fact answer. But I really, REALLY did!

My review!

The Velocity of Revolution by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Cast of colour, oppressed minorities, bi/pansexual cast, secondary asexual character, secondary F/F relationship, polyamory
Goodreads

From the author of the Maradaine saga comes a new steampunk fantasy novel that explores a chaotic city on the verge of revolution.

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi's skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália's presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion.

I thought that dieselpunk sounded interesting, but I was NOT expecting a sex-positive, queernormative setting, where group sex is very common and the food sounds so good it gave me actual hunger pangs! Nor was I expecting mushroom magic, or the complexity of the colonialist themes, or how engines could be so intrinsic to a form of spirituality. (Magic system? Belief system? I’m not sure what the right term is here.) I’m still shocked at how much Maresca managed to pack into a standalone, without making any element feel rushed or underdeveloped. I can’t believe this book hasn’t gotten so much more attention!

My review!

In the Eyes of Mr Fury by Philip Ridley
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: M/M
Goodreads

On the day Concord Webster turned eighteen, the Devil died. The Devil's real name was Judge Martin, but Concord's mother called him the Devil. She said he boiled babies for dinner and made lampshades out of human skin. So why did she, who hated him so venomously, have a key to his house?

The key will unlock more than just Judge's front door. It will also unlock a multitude of stories - where magic children talk to crows, men disappear in piles of leaves, and James Dean lookalikes kiss in dark alleys - and reveal a secret history that will change Concord's life forever.

Philip Ridley's second novel (following the sexually charged tour de force Crocodilia) was an instant cult classic when originally published in 1989. Now, for this new edition, Ridley has reimagined the story, expanding the original novel into the world's first LGBT magical realist epic. A vast, labyrinthine, hall-of-mirrors saga, its breathtaking imagery and stunning plot twists - covering over a hundred years - reveal Ridley to be one of the most distinctive and innovative voices in contemporary fiction.

'Philip Ridley's stories compel attention.' - The Times (London)

'Ridley is the master of modern myth.' - The Guardian

'Ridley is a visionary.' - Rolling Stone

The first time I heard about this book, it was in a conversation where we were talking about our first times encountering queerness in fiction. A coworker waxed poetic about In the Eyes of Mr Fury, how they’d read it to raggedness as a library book in childhood and had never seen it again. Well, one of my superpowers is tracking down books, and I LOVE arranging surprise gifts, and it turned out the book was back in print. I even found them a signed copy!

…And then I was curious. I mean, at first glance, and hearing my coworker talk about it, it didn’t sound very impressive, or like my kind of book at all. But why not check out the first few pages? Maybe my coworker was just bad at describing books.

TURNS OUT, THEY’RE REALLY BAD AT DESCRIBING BOOKS.

In the Eyes of Mr Fury is closer to straight-up contemporary fantasy than it is magical realism, but it exists in the liminal space between both, where memories can be played on a film projector and birds deliver babies in flying cradles to would-be parents. It’s queer and a very good breakdown of how awful people can be about queerness, but I consider it a book about queer joy, not queer suffering. This is a book that should never have been out of print, and needs to be on everyone’s tbr, seriously!

A Matter of Oaths by Helen S. Wright
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Brown cast, M/M
Goodreads

'A compelling, mind-bending future that's finally come home to the present' – Becky Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

When Commander Rallya of the patrol ship Bhattya hires Rafe as their new Web officer, she knows she is taking a risk. As an oath breaker, Rafe has suffered the ultimate punishment – identity wipe – but luckily for him, there's no one else around qualified for the job. Shunned by his previous shipmates, Rafe is ready to keep his head down and do his job, but his competence quickly earns him respect, admiration, and, in one particular case, love.

It's difficult to maintain the glow of acceptance however, when his past is chasing him across the galaxy in the shape of an assassin, intent on dealing once and for all with Rafe, whatever the cost.

Originally published in 1988, A Matter of Oaths is a space opera with heart, intergalactic intrigue and epic space battle.

With a new introduction by Becky Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

'Fast paced and inventive ... it held my attention to the end' – C. J. Cherryh

The fact that this was on my tbr strongly suggests that at some point, I was aware that this is a queer, brown, wildly original sci fi…but it was on my tbr for so long that I forgot what it was doing there. And when I idly glanced at it a while back, for whatever reason I got the idea it was the kind of dry bland 80s stuff I didn’t care about.

(What the hell, past!Sia??? How?!)

But something nudged me towards it again recently – I honestly don’t remember what – and WOW. WOW!!! Instant full-immersion, instantly fascinated by the sci fi elements (spaceships are controlled by being hooked up to peoples’ NERVOUS SYSTEMS, how cool is that?!), instantly delighted by the diversity and sheer brilliance of the cast. I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t get anything else done until I’d devoured the whole thing. Hands down one of the best sci fi novels I’ve ever read in my LIFE!

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Brown secondary character
Goodreads

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family's mountain cave . . . if only they'd let her leave it. Her family thinks she's too young to fly on her own, but she's determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she's transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she's the fiercest creature in these mountains--and now she's found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time . . . won't she?

I – quite naturally, I think – assumed a book about dragons and chocolate was going to be cute and sweet and fun. I had no idea that it would, or even could, also explore – in an age-appropriate but still very deftly and meaningful way – Real Issues as well, like families that don’t see you and adults/bosses who will take advantage of you (NOT the lovely people at the chocolate shop, fyi) and, I would argue, something very close to depression, in the saddest part of the story. It’s never grim or overly heavy, but Dragon With a Chocolate Heart was the book that made me realise that Middle Grade did not – does not – automatically mean that a book is simplistic, that it has nothing of substance to say, that it has no teeth. That, in fact, a whole lot of Middle Grade is just as powerful as the best kinds of YA or Adult fiction. It’s not about the intended age of the audience; it’s about authors (and stories) that don’t talk down to their readers.

Dragon With a Chocolate Heart is cute and sweet and fun. But it’s not a fluff-piece, and I didn’t see that coming.

And that makes 10! Have you read any of these? What are some books that defied YOUR expectations???

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6 responses to “10 Books That Defied My Expectations

  1. Oooooh this post makes me warm and fuzzy – I was also surprised and delighted by No Gods, No Monsters, I’m currently reading Em X Liu’s upcoming novel and listening to Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe and I _adore_ A Matter of Oaths, which is just such a glorious cyberpunk space opera (I remain gutted that Helen has not gone on to a huge and flourishing career on the back of it). The Thick And The Lean has been on my TBR since before release, and I also had no idea it was so thoroughly spec in its setting – bumping that up my TBR!

    • Sia

      I am DELIGHTED this gave you fuzzy feels! 😀

      It broke my heart into PIECES when I realised Helen Wright’s never published another book! Can you imagine if Matter of Oaths were published now, with the same pre-release hype as, say, Jasmine Throne got??? It would be such a huge hit! Which it deserves to be! And then maybe she would have been willing/able to write more!

      I may never get over it.

      Hope you enjoy Thick and the Lean when you get to it! It felt oddly indulgent, even when it was dealing with Not Nice things. I’m even more excited to check out Seep now!

    • Sia

      That’s fair. But we’re getting the prequel next year! He decided he needed to write that first, THEN move on to the sequel/s. But I think that’s proof he’s not dropping the series 😀

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