I have a months' worth of books to tell you about, but I've been reading so much I had to thin it down. I'm keeping it to speculative fiction this time. Here are my top three (in no particular order).
Curtsies & Conspiracies
YA Steampunk by Gail Carriger
Sophronia's latest classes on the airship-finishing school she attends are same as usual: the proper way to serve tea and the proper way to poison someone. Sophronia is learning to be a spy, and she's the best of her class--causing the other girls to start avoiding her right when she needs them most. A plot is afoot involving vampires, vampire-haters, and a possible kidnapping. Not to mention Sophronia has started discovering these things called feelings...for a boy.
As they divert to London, Sophronia uncovers mysteries such as who is feeding her vampire teacher and why all the girls are really avoiding her. Spying on the teachers is really paying off--when she can throw off her suitor, that is. The question is, will she be able to do figure out who's doing the kidnapping and why before anyone else gets hurt?
This is the second book in the series, but I was unable to get a hold of Etiquette and Espionage and was dying to read Gail's work, so I dove into it anyway. There wasn't much from the previous book I needed to know--mostly characters' relationships, which I picked up quickly enough; though I'll still go back and read the first one! This is top-of-the-line writing mixed with an inimitable voice and a strong-willed main character who will run you headlong into a story you can't escape and will leave you laughing along the way.
The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear
Epic Fantasy (trilogy) by Patrick Rothfuss
This is the gripping tale of a hero told by the man himself--long after his hero days are over. Kvothe's first-person account follows his childhood in a performing troupe; his days spent as a street orphan barely surviving; his legendary stunt to get into The University, the only arcane school in existence; and beyond. Kvothe is daring, childish, and too smart for his own good, and he quickly rises to notoriety among his fellows. But notoriety comes with a price.
After the deaths of loved ones, he is left with a burning question: how the mythical Chaendrian could possibly be real, and why such creatures would stoop down to kill mortals. While he's searching for answers to questions that affect the fate of the world, he's also just a kid in school, being bullied by the richer kids and not taken seriously by his teachers. Brash actions constantly land him in trouble, whether for misuse of artificery (an engineering-magic hybrid using runes and metalwork) to protect himself from a murder attempt or calling a professor names after being drugged by another student. Meanwhile, he keeps seeing the impossible--faeries and dragons and Chaendrian--and no one will believe him.
I cannot tell you how much I love these books. Though told first person, there are short chapters in between where we see the character as he's telling the story--a man who lives an apparently normal life but carries deep wounds. We're left to wonder how he got that way. Meanwhile, his adventures are ridiculous and amazing, rambling all across the world yet always burning with the same questions of magic. This is the most sympathetic character I've ever met and there's a reason it's now my favorite fantasy. Rothfuss is taking forever on the final book, but by the quality of the writing in these, I can see why.
Fantasy by Brandon Sanderson
For a thousand years, the skaa have been enslaved to the noble elite under the regime of the Lord Ruler. An immortal being, he defeated a long-ago villain that threatened the world and then claimed the world as his own. The skaa are so beaten down they no longer revolt, and even the nobles are subservient, if cleaner and more snobbish. Allomancy, a magic where powers come from ingesting different metals (pewter gives you strength, tin gives you extrasensory abilities, etc.), is tightly controlled and only allowed among the nobility.
But some skaa half-breeds manage to eke out an existence with their illegal magic. The greatest of these is Kelsier: the only skaa currently known to be a Mistborn (having all the allomantic powers) and the only man to ever be captured by the Lord Ruler, sent to the Pits, and survived to tell the tale. Now he's decided to do the impossible: persuade the skaa to rebel and overthrow the Lord Ruler.
Everyone says he's out of his mind, but a few of his friends are crazy enough to join him. When he rescues another Mistborn, Vin, from being beaten to death, she joins his crew and slowly learns about her powers. Though terrified at first, she slowly learns her worth and becomes ever more vital to their plans as spies are captured and their army destroyed. In the end, there's only one hope left...
I'm drawn to characters with charisma--that's the word to describe Sophronia and Kvothe. No less Kelsier! The plot of the book keeps twisting as setbacks befall them, but Kelsier keeps everyone going and there's always something he's hiding...
I have read some Sanderson before: Elantris and his contributions to the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. But Mistborn is Sanderson at his finest, being neither his debut novel nor the continuation of someone else's work. This is him as an established writer, and it rocks.
Word count: 942.