Top 20 Best Speculative Fiction Novels of 2012

It’s that time of year again, the time when every book review site tells you what their favorite books of the year were. At The Ranting Dragon, we’re quite proud of this year’s list. Thanks to our very diverse staff, we have books in a lot of genres, with plenty of high fantasy and urban fantasy, science fiction and young adult fiction, all evaluated with the help of our rating system to establish some equality in our assessments of the books we’ve reviewed, regardless of reviewer or genre.

Who am I kidding, though? The real reason this list is awesome is that there were so many awesome books this year. Just take a look at all the wonderful titles below. We have up-and-coming authors like Mark Lawrence and N.K. Jemisin, masters like Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson, Seanan McGuire, Brent Weeks, and China Miéville, and debuting authors Saladin Ahmed (who snatches the title of best debut!) and Myke Cole (who came very close to that title).

Here are our twenty favorite novels of 2012:


1. King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was our favorite debut of last year. The sequel, King of Thorns, came out this August, and it’s even better than the first novel. Expanding upon the dark and brutal story of Jorg—now a king—as he tries to become emperor of the Broken Empire, King of Thorns is a breathtaking, captivating, and violent venture into a wonderful world filled with morally ambiguous characters and compelling worldbuilding. Don’t expect a fairy tale filled with cheesy fantasy tropes; King of Thorns is instead a dark slice of realism. Like a landslide, this savage, vicious, and dark story rushes onward with a pace that takes a reader’s breath away. All you can do is follow it on its set course through to the spectacular ending and the silent void that follows.
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2. Cold Days by Jim Butcher
After some much-needed time off, Harry Dresden is now back in this fourteenth installment in the popular urban fantasy series The Dresden Files. However, he is no longer just the only guy in the Chicago phonebook under the heading “Wizards.” Oh, no. He is now the Winter Knight and beholden to Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, ruler of the Unseelie Court of the Sidhe. Cold Days has action, it has snark, it has one of the most trippy and twisted plots ever seen, and it has fantastic worldbuilding. It is an epic entry in a series that continues to improve upon itself, and it proceeds to set the stage for the novels to come. Cold Days will make you laugh your butt off and leave your mind reeling with all of the possibilities. It cuts straight to the core of the reader’s humanity with surgical precision and refuses to let up on the pressure and suspense until the very end.
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3. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Emperor’s Soul has all the elements that gained Brandon Sanderson legions of fans: his trademark innovative magic systems, strong characters, and unique plot twists. In fact, in many ways, this novella, set in the world of Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris, is an ode to unique magic packaged as an intriguing character-driven tale. In The Emperor’s Soul, a captured thief named Shai is recruited to use her outlawed magic to do the impossible: reconstruct the emperor’s damaged soul. With its skillfully crafted and creative magic, strong characters both male and female, and an action-packed conclusion, The Emperor’s Soul is the perfect starting point for those eager to pick up Sanderson’s works without having to read a huge book, while still providing plenty for his existing fans to love.
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4. Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is one of two authors accomplishing an extraordinary feat last year: she published two novels worthy of our Best of 2012 list! The better of these is Ashes of Honor, the sixth installment of McGuire’s New York Times bestselling Toby Daye series. A year after the events of the previous novel, One Salt Sea, we return to San Francisco and the world of changeling October Daye. Ashes of Honor finds the balance between introspection and action. With naturally flowing worldbuilding and real and dynamic characters, this is a deeply personal and intense story that will keep you on the edge, hoping to be pushed over.
While we have chosen to put only one novel per author on this list, McGuire’s Discount Armageddon deserves an honorable mention here as well. The first in her InCryptid series, it is an exceptionally well-written urban fantasy tale with a unique premise, fantastic character work, and a plot that just pulls you along until you finish.
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5. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin is an exemplary innovator of the fantasy genre. Her fresh take on epic fantasy pushes the boundaries of imagination, and her work might well be destined to become a literary classic one day, what with its ingenious new settings, themes, viewpoints, character dynamics, and magic. The Killing Moon, the premier novel in the Dreamblood duology, continues this trend. It is her first more mainstream novel, using viewpoints and themes that fans of epic fantasy are better used to, yet it remains refreshing with its Egyptian-inspired setting, strong female protagonist, interesting character dynamics, and wonderful magic system. An innovative blend of high and contemporary fantasy elements, The Killing Moon should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading traditional epics, as well as those tired of reading the same recycled tropes over and over. This true jewel of high fantasy may pave Jemisin’s way to becoming a mainstream star of the genre.
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6. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Imagine The Arabian Nights starring Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and you’ll have a sense of what the first debut on this list is like. Throne of the Crescent Moon follows the story of Doctor Adoulla Makshlood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat.” On the verge of retiring, Adoulla is forced away from his hopes and plans when he learns of a series of grisly murders and rumors of a sinister conspiracy. Together with a young holy warrior and a woman who can take the form of a lioness, Adoulla must unravel the mystery surrounding the Throne of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms before it is too late. With a gorgeous world, fantastic characters, and the author’s sheer capacity for beautiful and engrossing storytelling, this is not a novel to miss out on.
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7. Control Point by Myke Cole
The second debut on this list, Myke Cole’s Control Point is accurately summarized by Peter V. Brett’s blurb on the cover: “Black Hawk Down meets The X-Men… Military fantasy like you’ve never seen it before.” This novel is one hell of a roller coaster ride with very little down time. In Control Point, people all across the globe become Latent, suddenly developing magical abilities. In the US, the military has taken control of magic. When protagonist Oscar Britton finds himself with prohibited abilities, his life changes forever. Control Point is an intense masterwork of military fantasy that grips you from start to finish until your eyes practically race over the words as you approach the thrilling ending. With the spectacular world Cole created and the significant amount of foreshadowed questions yet unanswered, the potential for the rest of the Shadow Ops series is substantial.
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8. Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher
Superhero fiction seemed to be all the rage in 2012, and Adam Christopher’s Seven Wonders is a fine example of how amazing this genre can be. Seven Wonders does exactly what it set out to do: this tour de force novel reads like a wonderful superhero comic, with strong characters both male and female. Its fusion of astonishing comic book style storytelling and literary fiction creates a new version of our near-future populated with superheroes. Nearly all supervillains have been defeated, except for The Cowl. Tony, a normal dude, suddenly wakes up one morning with superpowers and decides to take The Cowl down; but the only remaining superheroes, the Seven Wonders, don’t quite appreciate his help. If you are a fan of comic books and superheroes, Seven Wonders may well be your perfect read. Its grand scale and impressive prose will definitely appeal to anyone who enjoys comics, and its flamboyant action and incredible characters are certain to entertain for hours.
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9. Sharps by K.J. Parker
Sharps may well be K.J. Parker’s most accessible novel to date. While in every way a standalone novel, this story ties together all of Parker’s previous works in a wonderfully unique and wholly engrossing way. Brimful with characters that are each of them skillfully written and morally ambiguous bastards, this novel is about a group of unlikely protagonists brought together for a fencing tour in hostile territory, but while they expected to fence with blunted weapons, they suddenly face their opponents using sharps—and Parker’s magnificent prose exalts these fencing matches to a form of art. Sharps is an incredible story of realistically wrought characters facing a world of intrigue, with a political complexity matching our own world, where the stakes are intensely high.
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10. The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks
The Blinding Knife is the second volume in Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer series. Continuing the story from The Black PrismThe Blinding Knife is in every way a huge step forward for Weeks. With it, he has moved beyond simply being another incredibly entertaining traditional author, becoming one of those rare masters who can create truly marvelous and ambitious pieces of tremendous scope with engaging characters and a fascinating thematic undercurrent. The Blinding Knife is a wonderful work of high fantasy with engaging characters facing the perfect antagonists, set in a creatively-wrought and increasingly chaotic world brimful of imaginative magic and interesting politics. Weeks holds fast to the traditions of his genre while adding a compelling new flavor.
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11. Seawitch by Kat Richardson
This seventh novel in the bestselling Greywalker series by Kat Richardson returns us to the world of Harper Blaine, a private investigator who once died for two minutes. Now she is a Greywalker, one who is able to see and interact with the Grey, the plane of ghosts and other supernatural entities. Harper’s latest case sees her investigating a ghost ship with Detective Rey Solis, a man well skeptical of anything falling outside of “normal” logic. On top of that, Harper must navigate her way through the case while avoiding destruction, ghostly and paranormal threats, and death. Y’know, the usual. With a unique magic system, a kick-ass heroine who isn’t afraid to take names, a story that will appeal to both mystery and paranormal lovers, and a fantastic supporting cast of characters that brings an exquisite level of believability to Harper’s world, Seawitch is definitely one for any urban fantasy enthusiast.
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12. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
The sequel to Ship Breaker, acclaimed author Paolo Bacigalupi’s foray into young adult science fiction, The Drowned Cities is set in the same unspecified future—a future where resources have become scarce, governments have collapsed, and the gap between the rich and the poor has become almost insurmountably wide. However, though marketed as a sequel, it can stand as a completely independent novel, with only one character from Ship Breaker appearing again in The Drowned Cities. Bacigalupi is one of the few authors that can always be relied on to produce top-notch material with every new book, but he really has outdone himself with The Drowned Cities, creating something truly remarkable. It’s nothing less than a stellar book.
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13. Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
As mentioned in the fourth entry in this list, Seanan McGuire’s Ashes of Honor, there are two authors who published two books worthy of this list. Chuck Wendig is the second. His first novel in the Miriam Black series, Blackbirds, is a truly fantastic novel about Miriam Black, a young woman who has visions of people’s deaths in vivid, excruciatingly gruesome detail, down to the date, time, and cause of dying. And Miriam is always right. She should know. She’s tried to screw with fate—and failed miserably. The second book in the series, Mockingbird, is even better. Where Blackbirds was messed up in all the best ways, Mockingbird cranks it up to eleven. Much about the book is reminiscent of the first—only bigger, bloodier, and bawdier. Chuck Wendig is not just a writer, he’s a cursesmith. This is a fast-paced and horrific urban fantasy with sharp dialogue, nuanced characters, and an original voice in a glutted genre. Wendig grabs you by the collar then throws you down a set of literary stairs and leaves you begging for more. It’s the kind of story that looks almost familiar on the face of it, but the details and quality of Wendig’s writing set it apart.
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14. The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
The Rise of Ransom City is a sequel of sorts, following Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World—a wonderful, genre-bending novel released some two years ago. In The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman returns to the half-made world from a completely new perspective—it is the autobiography of Harry Ransom, an inventor who crosses the paths of the protagonists of the first novel. In a stroke of mad-genius brilliance, Gilman has created a story that far surpasses its predecessor in writing and scope, a novel that is in nearly every way a standalone while still wrapping up the events of The Half-Made World. This book is for anyone who enjoys American pioneering history, westerns, steampunk novels, or contemporary fantasy. This is an unparalleled and deep example of what happens when the lines between fantasy and literature start blurring, and, in writing it, Felix Gilman has established his literary craftsmanship once and for all.
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15. In the House of the Wicked by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Remy Chandler, a Boston-based private investigator, isn’t your typical private eye: he was once known as Remiel of the Heavenly Host Seraphim, before he left Heaven of his own accord after witnessing the destruction and bloodshed of Lucifer Morningstar’s war with the Almighty. In this fifth installment in the series, Ashley Berg, a girl who is like a daughter to Remy, has been kidnapped by a once-formidable sorcerer. This sorcerer wants his revenge upon those who wronged him in the past, and if Remy doesn’t play along, Ashley will die.  Featuring an upped ante, well-developed characters, and a particularly unique supernatural pantheon for urban fantasy, In the House of the Wicked is a very powerful, very personal tale that is equal parts gut-wrenching, heart-warming, and awe-inspiring.
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16. Greatshadow by James Maxey
The first in the Dragon Apocalypse Trilogy, Greatshadow is a sword-and-sorcery novel in a way very few modern fantasies are. Our heroine, the mercenary Infidel, needs to pull off one last job before she can retire in style after the untimely death of her partner in crime, Stagger. So she joins a group of the world’s mightiest heroes in order to kill the dragon Greatshadow and loot his treasure along the way. Absolutely nothing goes as planned, however, leaving Infidel in some sticky situations. While this is a loving ode to 1980s pulps, the characters are grounded, have weaknesses, and the whole book doesn’t take itself seriously. Overall, this is a good read for those in the mood for rollicking adventure fantasy.
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17. The Silvered by Tanya Huff
The Silvered is Tanya Huff’s latest offering and marks her return to fantasy from science fiction. Aydori is a small country on the edge of an expanding empire, and with an army camped right on its border, things aren’t looking too good. Under the cover of battle, said empire kidnaps five of Aydori’s most powerful mages, and narrowly misses napping the sixth, Mirian Maylin. Together with the shapeshifter Tomas Hagen, Mirian sets off to rescue the other mages from the clutches of a mad emperor. Huff is a master storyteller, and her detailed worldbuilding and characterizations are a real treat to read. Perhaps most fun is the magic system in use here, where the rules may not be exactly what they seem and surprises abound for both reader and protagonists.
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18. Railsea by China Miéville
China Miéville’s Railsea, a novel for young adults, could be described as a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—if the ships were trains and the whale was a giant mole, that is—but to do so would be trying to fit Railsea into a descriptive box in which it doesn’t quite fit or belong. Railsea takes place in a world where, instead of ships traversing the ocean, trains traverse a landscape swathed in a seemingly infinite tangle of railways. Like in all of his work, Miéville’s quirky style is full of weird eccentricities, painting descriptions that not only conjure beautiful mental images when read but also sound beautiful when said aloud. Railsea is something so uniquely wonderful, so infectiously entertaining that I encourage everyone who loves books to at least give it a try.
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19. Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard
Jonathan L. Howard, author of the humorous Faustian series Johannes Cabal, ventures into new waters with Katya’s World, the opening to a new science fiction series aimed at young adults. As the title implies, this book follows fifteen-year-old Katya of the planet Russalka, a world with no landmasses aside from the polar ice caps. With stellar and thoroughly intriguing worldbuilding, a female protagonist who (for a change) doesn’t venture into triangular romance, and a sweepingly fast-paced story, Katya’s World is a thoroughly entertaining novel that will be impossible to put down. Howard’s novel is for anyone who enjoys reading about life on imaginary planets, especially those who are sick of the abundance of love triangle stories in young adult fiction today.
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20. The Black Mausoleum by Stephen Deas
This year’s list is our third consecutive best-of-year-list since the start of The Ranting Dragon in October of 2010. Together with N.K. Jemisin, Stephen Deas has been the one big constant throughout these lists. In 2010, The King of the Crags came sixth. In 2011, The Order of the Scales came eleventh. This year, his newest dragon book, The Black Mausoleum comes twentieth. Do his books get progressively worse? Definitely not! The competition simply grows tougher. This dragon-filled, near-sword-and-sorcery novel tells a standalone tale set in the same world as Deas’s previous dragon novels, where dragons now rule the world. We follow three unlikely protagonists in their search to find a weapon against dragons. With all of its sheer epicness and wonderfully grim moral ambiguity, The Black Mausoleum is a great starting point for anyone who has been thinking to check out Deas’s work.
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So, there you have it! Our twenty (or twenty-two, really) favorite speculative fiction books of 2012. Now that we’ve showed 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. I posted my best reads at the blog and had two guest posts as well (not a lot of overlap, but a couple of titles.) Kindle-aholics best are up at the top of the blog; mine are a few posts down done in two pieces because there were rather a lot of them.

  2. Although I haven’t read all of those you mentioned I thought ‘The City’s Son’ by Tom Pollock was absolutely brilliant.

  3. “Caine’s Law” by Matthew Stover deserves attention. It’s fantastic.

  4. King of Thorns fucking kills it. Good job.

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