Top 20 Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels of 2013

Wow, I can’t believe this is the fourth time already that we’re posting a list of our favorite novels of the year. And what a year 2013 was! The speculative genre, with all its varying subgenres, is constantly growing in quality and volume. It never ceases to amaze me to see the refreshingly original ideas that new authors release and to watch established authors improve or even reinvent themselves. I feel like our genre keeps evolving into a better version of itself.

To tell you the truth, though, it’s been a tough year for this website. We’ve seen a big change in staff and an decrease in the amount of articles published. That’s especially sad considering the amount of wonderful books released in 2013 that we didn’t get to review. However, there are plenty of books we did review, or that our staff members at least had a chance to read.

The list below accumulates the reading experiences of our staff—and some former staff—and frankly, I’m pretty dang proud of this list! A big thank you to all of our reviewers here at The Ranting Dragon, and an even bigger thank you to all of the featured authors who gave us such wonderful books to read!

So without further ado, here are our twenty favorite novels of 2013:


1. Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole
Last year, Myke Cole’s magical US Army took the world by storm in Control Point. In 2013, its sequel in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, raised the bar by adding more magic, American politics, and the Indian Army to the mix. Fortress Frontier is an amazing combination of military fantasy, epic worldbuilding, and superhero influences, with action that sweeps you up from the very first page and may lead to sleepless nights trying to finish the book as quickly as possible. Control Point was great, but its main character was flawed, and not in an altogether good way. In Fortress Frontier, Cole mends that flaw and the result is a roller coaster novel worthy of the title of “Best SFF novel of 2013.” If you like superheroes, ancient mythology, military fantasy, comics, epic fantasy, TV shows like StargateHeroes, and The 4400, or really if you are geeky in any possible way at all, we cannot recommend Cole’s Shadow Ops series to you highly enough.
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2. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
River of Stars is the twelfth novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay and is based loosely on twelfth-century China, during the Song Dynasty. As we’ve come to expect, Kay weaves historical names, places and events into a fictional tapestry that still retains the feel of historical work, all while engaging the reader in the intensely character-driven style that makes his works so engrossing. River of Stars is an expertly crafted, character-driven fantasy of the highest order. If you want to really get to know characters, to get a deep sense of who they are and their place in their society and role therein, you should read this novel. If you want to close a book’s back cover, take a deep breath, set it down, and not even consider picking up another book until you’ve had time to just appreciate the raw artistry you’ve just witnessed, you should definitely read River of Stars.
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3. Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire
The highest ranking urban fantasy—and Seanan McGuire—novel on this list is the second installment in the InCryptid series. This series has an intriguing premise: an urban fantasy without magic. At least, if there is magic, it hasn’t gotten any screentime. That’s all been reserved for the monsters. And oh, what a cast of monsters it is. Like the real New York City, McGuire’s NYC is filled with a smorgasbord of creatures of various cultures from all around the world. Beyond the setting, what really cements Midnight Blue-Light Special in its third place on this list are the characters and their relationships: they are filled with complex emotions and realistic thought processes. Yes, Midnight Blue-Light Special is a novel filled with action and a marvelous, twist-filled plot, but it is the emotional connection between characters and reader that truly makes this book something special.
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4. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
The sensational young adult novel Steelheart, first in the new Reckoners series, is something we’ve never seen from big-shot author Brandon Sanderson before. It is a superhero—or, rather, supervillain—novel set in an apocalyptic version of our world. Yet, it still features Sanderson’s trademark worldbuilding, complete with an original and creative magic system and a mystery of sorts surrounding the magic and its users. More than anything else, though, Steelheart is an action novel that sweeps readers up and carries them away with the turning of pages. Steelheart is a true page-turner that never slows down and explores one important theme throughout: power corrupts. It might be a little more lighthearted that the typical Sanderson novel, but it is also the most exciting roller coaster he’s ever written. Easily one of Sanderson’s best novels to date, it is a thoroughly satisfying novel that begs for more.
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5. The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
Peter V. Brett has two wonderful gifts that are on full display in The Daylight War, the much awaited and anticipated third volume in The Demon Cycle. The first is his ability to create characters that are… not necessarily ambiguous, but something beyond that. While The Daylight War has good characters and evil characters, Brett is great at turning that completely upside down. He may introduce a character as a nemesis, and then show you the story from that character’s perspective. Suddenly, their motives will make sense, and it will become crystal clear where they came from and what made them the way they are. Brett’s second gift is his ability to build multiple incredibly realized cultures that interact with each other in stunningly realistic ways. While The Daylight War isn’t as great as its predecessors The Warded Man and The Desert Spear, these elements, as well as the breathtaking action scenes and epic demons that get more and more fleshed out as the series progresses, still make it one of the best novels released in 2013.
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6. The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney
Historical fiction has slowly been on the rise. There’s just something about a story that integrates fantasy with the history of our world that appeals to speculative readers—when it’s done well. And J. Kathleen Cheney’s debut novel does it exceptionally well. The Golden City features a historical Portugal that feels completely real, all while containing fantastical elements that are added to the world and the history in such a masterful way that they feel completely organic. Not only does the world Cheney has created feel organic and alive, but so, too, do the people who inhabit it. It’s almost impossible to believe that The Golden City is a debut novel. It is that good, what with a world and characters that just come alive in your mind and a story that doesn’t let up and leaves you begging for more. The Golden City is the highest ranking debut novel on this list, and Cheney has made her way to our must-read list.
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7. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Brennan’s latest work, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoire by Lady Trent, first in a planned series, offers the rich and engaging story of a thoroughly believable character dealing with the problems and mysteries of a unique fantasy world with marvelous parallels to Victorian Europe. Though the focus of this book is on the “Memoire” part of the subtitle, there are still plenty of dragons. Through the uncompromising narration of an adventuring woman in search of dragons, A Natural History of Dragons is the story of the misadventures of her first scientific expedition. This is an honest, fascinating, and absorbingly touching story of genuine human beings and the pursuit of science at all costs. If you are looking for a grown-up version of How to Train Your Dragon with some Jane Austen mixed in, A Natural History of Dragons is just the book. It is an extraordinarily well-written and tremendously gripping tale filled with mystery, humor, discovery, and originality.
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8. Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy is one of the most important series written in the last decade. It has changed the face of the fantasy genre and explored its darkest corners, and is both loved and hated for all its glorious horror. One thing stands above all, though: Mark Lawrence is an amazing author, one of the best of our time. He proves this ones again in Emperor of Thorns, the concluding volume in the trilogy. While Emperor isn’t as good as its predecessors (you may remember that King of Thorns was our #1 on last year’s list)—it is too traditional—it is an amazing novel that establishes the trilogy firmly near (if not at) the top of the best series ever written. The pace is again relentless, the details marvelously gruesome, and the ending absolutely stunning. As a concluding novel, Emperor of Thorns does everything right. It provides the perfect twist to the perfect ending of a twistedly perfect story.
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9. Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series is one of the best urban fantasy series ever written. Chimes at Midnight, the seventh volume in the series, only serves to confirm that. The layers of this story are astounding, and the world that McGuire keeps revealing is gorgeously faceted. Not only has McGuire created a supernatural world that has history and weight, but she’s also fit it into our reality so well that it’s nigh seamless. The Toby Daye series is one of the best examples of solid urban fantasy worldbuilding you’ll ever encounter—and beyond that, McGuire’s propensity to uncover new corners of the world never ceases to please. This book is an epitome of everything that makes the Toby Daye novels one of the best urban fantasy series on the market, right up there with Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files: tight and believable characters, a gorgeously-realized universe, and so many unexpected twists it’s almost like they’re going out of style.
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10. Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Sometimes it can take the entire length of a book to develop an opinion of it. Other times, perhaps more rarely, you know within the first two pages that you’ll love it. Such a book is Etiquette & Espionage, the opening of Gail Carriger’s new Finishing School series, set in the same fictional world as Carriger’s other big series, Parasol Protectorate, but occurring twenty years prior to the events of that series. Containing lessons rather than chapters, Etiquette & Espionage is, simply, delightfully written. The humor is droll and dry, invoking an almost constant stream of giggles. The characters fit the humorous tone as well. Just by reading the beautiful narration describing her actions, readers will feel like they know and understand main character Sophronia within mere pages. Etiquette & Espionage is a quick, very fun read, filled with steampunk technology and paranormal creatures. This young adult novel is suited for all ages, without the annoying tropes that have become common in the YA genre as a whole.
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11. Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson
Set three years after the events of the first book, Thieftaker, this second installment in D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles sees a return to the life of conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille. The pacing in Thieves’ Quarry is urgent without being hurried or rushed, the details explored just enough to leave you wanting to turn the next page. (And the next, and the next.) That’s a difficult feat in and of itself without taking the unfamiliar setting of 1768 Boston into account, but Jackson manages to weave a tight plot, showing the reader the story as opposed to telling it. Thieves’ Quarry is a book for the urban fantasy enthusiast who wants something completely new from typical urban fantasy fare, for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and for those who would like to see these two things combined. With engaging characters, a snappy plot, and some exceptional worldbuilding that transports the reader into the heart of Revolutionary America, D.B. Jackson’s Thieves’ Quarry is, put simply, darned good writing.
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12. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Set in 1899 New York City, Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, follows the lives of Chava, a female golem, and Ahmad, a male Jinni, as they try to co-exist with the local immigrant communities. This is a character-driven story of self-discovery and soul-searching as these two non-humans strive to find meaning in their lives. Taking place in the boroughs of New York City against the backdrop of Eastern European turmoil and mass immigrations, The Golem and the Jinni is a testament to Wecker’s skill as the occasional allusion to these events add depth rather than detract from the story at hand. Because of this, The Golem and the Jinni is a vibrant work with succinct yet sensible detail, immersing rather than deluging the reader in its setting. With memorable characters, and a well written plot that satisfies at the end, The Golem and the Jinni is a smashing debut novel.
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13. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
There are two relatively new trends in the fantasy genre. First of all, a lot of fantasy today combines magic with gunpowder, and second, epic fantasy is moving away from medieval Europe tropes to explore new frontiers. Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names is another flintlock fantasy, featuring a wonderful world of mysterious magic and awesome guns. It’s the first of two flintlock debuts on this list (more about that at #16 below), starting a new series titled The Shadow Campaigns. Aside from featuring gunpowder, however, it is the very epitome of the trend of exploring new worlds. The Thousand Names gorgeously chronicles the war between the invading colonists from the fantasy equivalent of medieval Europe fighting with blazing guns and perfectly written, cunning strategy against an Arabian-inspired people wielding mysterious magic. The Thousand Names is an engaging and entertaining debut filled with relatable characters, stunningly detailed military stratagems, exciting new magic, and aptly captured tension.
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14. Walking in the Midst of Fire by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Walking in the Midst of Fire is the sixth book in Tom Sniegoski’s Remy Chandler series and may well be the best book in the series yet. The underlying messages of about free will and consequences within the series in general and this volume in particular add extra depth to the story and are likely to leave a lasting impression. In addition, the interpretations of angelic pantheons presented in the Remy Chandler novels are just downright exciting. Now couple all of that with a fantastically human protagonist and a plot that sends the reader through the full gamut of human emotion, and this series is a recipe for a wonderful reading experience. In this book, we begin to see the sheer weight of the consequences of Remy’s actions from previous books, while it sets up for a truly grim seventh installment. For that alone, Walking in the Midst of Fire is one of the best novels released in 2013.
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15. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
A Memory of Light, begun by the late Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson, was undoubtedly the biggest release of 2013. Being the final volume in the much loved Wheel of Time series, it is also the most emotionally-laden book released in a long time. This is the end of an age, the end of a series many of us have so long loved and that has shaped—and will continue to shape—the fantasy genre for many years. Favorite characters faced hardships and even death in this roller coaster ride with breakneck pacing and tons of action. However, A Memory of Light was also an underwhelming book: Robert Jordan spent tens of thousands of pages setting up a huge story filled with characters, factions, and nations, but only half of this potential was tapped, and much was simply ignored. Regardless, A Memory of Light is likely the most gloriously battle-filled book ever published, and it does do a great job concluding the Wheel of Time series. This is a beautiful memory of Robert Jordan, the author beloved by many, and a testimony of Brandon Sanderson’s skill as an author.
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16. Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
Fantasy, like most genres, seems to move in phases. Whether it’s an increase in grit, an abundance of vampires, or just plain old sentimentalism, there are noticeable trends that rise and fall. A new movement of guns, magic, and social upheaval started with Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series and really hit its stride last year with two wonderful flintlock fantasy debuts. The second on this list is Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan’s epic fantasy filled with gunpowder, trade unions, and the collapse of old ways—not just in-universe, but in some of the well-worn tropes of the genre as well. The story blends political fantasy, military fantasy, epic fantasy, and even fledgling-Industrial Era urban fantasy into a focused narrative with well-written characters and an interesting slant on common fantasy tropes. McClellan’s debut points him out as an author to be watched, especially with The Crimson Campaign coming out next month!
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17. Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
From Timothy Zahn, arguably the best Star Wars Expanded Universe author, comes a new stand-alone novel featuring our very favorite scoundrel: Han Solo. Scoundrels is no standard Star Wars adventure, though; it has no Jedi, nobody using the Force, no lightsaber fights. Instead, it is a heist story set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and inspired by Oceans 11. Whether Scoundrels is your first or fiftieth experience reading a Star Wars novel, there will be both new and familiar faces. Anyone will know Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian; those more familiar with the Expanded Universe will recognize Winter. Most of the characters Han pulls together for this heist, though, are completely new, and completely fascinating to learn about! If you think Jedi are the coolest thing ever, Scoundrels might be a bit disappointing for you, but if you love elaborate heists and consider criminals to be the best protagonists, you wouldn’t even have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciate this amazing novel.
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18. Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore
“Necromancer” is such an ugly word, isn’t it? Wrong! It’s an amazing word. How often do you read a book with a necromancer as the protagonist? Never! And that uniqueness alone is reason enough to put Stephen Blackmoore’s Dead Things, first in the new Eric Carter series, on this list of best books of 2013. Eric Carter sees ghosts and talks to the dead. He’s turned it into a lucrative career putting troublesome spirits to rest, sometimes taking on even more dangerous things. For a fee, of course. Aside from Eric Carter, the wonderful pace, the great cast of other characters, and plot have something to do with this book being one of the best releases of the year, too. Oh, and the fact that the score for Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street will play through your head the entire time you’re reading Dead Things. Because the protagonist is a necromancer who uses blood magic with a straight razor focus. Yep, it still makes us snicker in glee.
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19. A Turn of Light by Julie E. Czerneda
A Turn of Light, the first in Julie E. Czerneda’s Night’s Edge series, isn’t an epic, multi-volume narrative fraught with battles and magic. Instead, it’s something beautifully simple and gorgeously romantic. What begins as a simple girl’s yearning for more becomes a bildungsroman about finding one’s place in the world, about the consequences of seemingly simple actions. For all her adventurousness, Jenn, the protagonist of A Turn of Light, is also very naïve and prone to selfishness from time to time. While the setting and plot are nothing to write home about, the characters truly shine in this drama set in a fantasy world. The cast seems stereotypical at first glance, but as their situations evolve, you find they live rich, deeply engrossing lives. If you’re looking for romance and characters you can love while still immersing yourself in a foreign world, A Turn of Light is just the book you need.
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20. The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
The Rithmatist, first in a new series, is the third (!!!) Brandon Sanderson novel on this list. It is also the second of his young adult novels listed. And, it is entirely different. Where Steelheart was a breakneck action novel, The Rithmatist is instead a character-driven exploration of magic and mystery. The Rithmatist still has almost every element you might expect from a Sanderson novel: a creative new magic system, a mystery closely related to said magic system, and relateable yet completely unambiguous characters trying very hard to figure out said mystery. What makes The Rithmatist stand out, however, is its viewpoint. Where other Sanderson novels are often told from the perspective of a magician, the protagonist in The Rithmatist can’t do magic at all—he’s simply obsessed with it. Because of this, the novel is both endearing and intriguing, and the ending is absolutely perfect. Another great addition to the growing pile of Sanderson books, and a perfect end to our list of best books of 2013.
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So, there you have it! Our twenty favorite speculative fiction books of 2013. Now that we’ve shown you ours, it’s time you show us yours. We’d love to hear from you in the comments. What were your favorite reads of the year? What books do you agree or disagree with? What books did we miss? Let us know!

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 31 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he can be found in a comfy chair reading a fantasy book. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing to boot. Stephan lives in a small town in The Netherlands with his wife Rebecca, an editor for The Ranting Dragon, and their two cats.

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  1. Myke Cole’s first novel just didn’t work for me, but I can’t argue with River of Stars. I was nervous about reading that one, sure that Kay could never recapture the magic of Under Heaven, but then he went and topped it. Wow.

    Brett, Lawrence, and Jordan/Sanderson are all well-deserving of recognition, while Wexler and Czerneda are still lingering in my to-be-read pile, although I know I’ll get to them both before long.

  2. How is Blood Song by Anthony Ryan not on this list?

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