Off The TBR’s Best of 2021

Hey. How are ya’ll doing? I thought I’d ask before I got into my “Best of 2021” list because this has been another crazy year and sometimes it is nice to just do a little check-in. Even more so this year since the dumpster fire that is the current world plague shows no signs of letting up anytime soon and from what I can see on social media most of us seem to be coping but it’s getting on our last nerves. So yeah, I thought I’d just do a little check-in.

Well now that we’ve got that out of the way how about something positive? It’s that time again…the time when all the book bloggers are posting their year end, best reads of the year. I like to wait for the year to finish out before posting my list just in case a last minute read squeaks its way in. 2021 (like 2020 before it) sucked in so many ways, but for me it was still a good year for reading. As usual I enjoyed the vast majority of the books I read, and there were only a very few I didn’t. I still feel like we are experiencing that new golden age of science fiction and fantasy with so many great books to choose from both in traditional publishing or from indie/self-published authors and I hope it never ends.

So here it is, my top reads of 2021. Note, this is my list of top reads of 2021, meaning it is a list of my favorite books I read during the year, not necessarily my favorite books published in 2021. I’ve intentionally left off any #SPFBO finalists I may have already read as the competition is still undeway and the judging team I’m a part of has not posted any of our scores as of yet.

I managed to read 37 books this year (exceeding my Goodreads Challenge) and this list comprises those I rated as 4.5 Stars or 5 Stars and even includes a short story. I’ve arranged them mostly in order they were read by rating.

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Book Review: The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies

Banner Image of cover of The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies superimposed over zoomed in image of same cover. Text reads "Book Review" and "Off The TBR"

You ever see a book on a bookstore shelf or posted about online and without knowing anything about it or the author just know that’s a book you want to pick up and read after the very first encounter with it? No questions or hesitations? That’s kinda rhetorical because I’m guessing most of you if you love to read have felt this sensation at least once but it’s possible you haven’t. Well, today I want to rave a little about one such book.

This feeling doesn’t occur with me very often. Usually I need to see some hype about a book or author first, and if not I go into it with some reservations. But one day back in September/October I noticed a Twitter post from Trudie Skies about their book The Thirteenth Hour which was due to be published very soon. The cover is what I noticed right away (YES I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVER). The color, the imagery, even the script/font. Just take a look below and you’ll see what I mean. I jumped over to read the blurb and was like, “yep, I’m buying this one.” Something about it just made me feel like I would love it. I hadn’t seen the first review, or anyone else hyping it yet. But I felt confident I’d like it. I waited for the paperback version to be available because I wanted one for the shelf and then waited somewhat impatiently for it to arrive. When it did I got this beauty in the mailbox…

Cover image of The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies

When the saints fail, the sinners step up.

Cruel gods rule the steam-powered city of Chime, demanding worship and tribute from their mortal subjects. Kayl lost her faith in them long ago, and now seeks to protect vulnerable and downtrodden mortals from their gods’ whims. But when Kayl discovers powers that she didn’t know she had—and destroys a mortal’s soul by accident—she becomes Chime’s most wanted.

Quen’s job was to pursue sinners, until the visions started. Haunted by foreboding images of his beloved city’s destruction, Quen hunts soul-sucking creatures made of aether who prey on its citizens—and Kayl is his number one target.

To ensure Chime’s future, Kayl and Quen must discover the truth of Kayl’s divine abilities before the gods take matters into their own hands.

For a city that bows to cruel gods, it’ll take godless heathens to save it.

The Thirteenth Hour is the first book in The Cruel Gods series—a gaslamp fantasy featuring magical portals, gothic cosmic deities, quaint Britishisms, and steampunk vibes. This is an adult book containing strong language and mature themes that some readers may find disturbing.

Goodreads Blurb

Highlights

  • Gaslamp fantasy
  • Portal fantasy
  • Steampunk vibes
  • Gothic undetones
  • Light and funny/dark and heavy
  • Worldbuilding

The Thirteenth Hour surpassed my expectations. And just to reiterate, I expected to love it.

I want to start by mentioning the worldbuilding. Trudie Skies has created a world made up of twelve different realms each ruled over by a different god, and populated by a unique people with powers and abilities unique to that realm. Some can hide in shadows, some can mesmerize, some can control light and fire, some can control time. Each realm exists in a pattern like a clock and at the center of them is a city called Chime which is neutral ground and where peoples of all realms can live and work. In Chime is a portal (a clock tower) that allows one to travel between realms but only twice a day, twelve hours apart, when the hand on the clock reaches that realms designated hour. Hence the portal fantasy element I note above.

Within this world and it’s realms all things and all peoples are not equal. The gods are indeed very cruel (hence the series title), and some peoples are treated as less than others. There’s oppression, abuse, and darkness. It isn’t just the gods who are cruel, but the people as well. There are have’s and have nots, and they are relegated to specific areas of the city. Worship of one’s god is expected and required and violators are punished. So when a group of “godless” hoping to address the plight of those in the undercity stirs up trouble just as a strange new threat to Chime is uncovered…well…things begin to get messy.

I hesitate to say more about the story details because I hate the idea I’ll include a spoiler. I’ll just mention what I loved about the book. The gaslamp fantasy with seampunk vibes is something I love. I don’t read a lot of this subgenre but I really tend to enjoy it. And Trudie Skies does it well. It isn’t overblown and heavy and nothing felt forced. It was dark and gritty and the mood and tone were just right.

I mention gothic undertones in my highlights section. This isn’t a gothic novel. Let me be clear about that. But, there are gothic elements imbued within it. Certain realms definitely have that feel (I’m looking at you Eventide). And while Kayl isn’t the chaste heroine of many a gothic tale she fits other elements. Again it’s not gothic by the numbers, but it isn’t grimdark or dark fantasy either. I just think gothic fits it better as a descriptor that anything else with all the associated vibes of that subgenre. And it definitely delivers on some of those themes.

The writing is also well done. The pacing is very balanced and shifts between the POV characters Kayl and Quen. Just enough is revealed each chapter to make you wonder what is going on, what will happen next, and to keep you turning those pages. Skies balances the heavy elements and tone with fun and light banter between characters. She also gives Kayl something of a childlike quality that shines through the all the darkness around the character.

But my favorite thing is the most basic thing…the story. All the other pieces serve the story well. A band of misfit “godless” who are fighting for better lives for everyone around them stir up the ire of the gods while a new threat to their world emerges. While everyone is vying to understand and get control of this threat things get out of hand and the very existence of the realms is in danger. Secrets about the characters’ past are revealed to themselves and others, and they fight to save not just their own souls and those of their friends, but the lives of everyone. Within all of this we get a story about love, and passion, and devotion that asks who deserves those things, whether required or a gift, and whether they can overcome divine powers set to control them. We get a story about faith and it’s application and focus. We get a story about living in spite of it all. Add a chunk of action and drama and you’ve got a great read.

I know I don’t gush well and I tend to be more technical than emotive in my reviews, but believe me when I say I loved this book. I hope you’ll give it a chance, and that you will love it too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Author: Trudie Skies
Series: The Cruel Gods #1
Publisher: Self-Published
Publication Date: October 13, 2021
Format: Paperback
Pages: 535

What I’m Reading: The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies

Banner image of cover of The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies superimposed over zoomed in and blurred image of same cover. Text reads "What I'm Reading" and "Off The TBR"

Wow…it seems like a million years since I last put up a What I’m Reading post (it’s been almost five months). And nearly as long since I last posted (about three weeks). My blogging presence has taken a hit in recent months and I may be scaling things back a bit in the future. I’ll write a post about that hopefully sometime soon. But for now I want to tell you about this new book I’m reading.

I first came across this book when the author was tweeting about it in the weeks leading up to it’s release. The first thing that grabbed my attention was it’s beautiful cover. All those blue shades and the clock face and the title script. Yeah…I judge books by their cover and this one got an immediate thumbs up from me. Then I took a look at the blurb and was sold on it. Once it was available in paperback I put my order in. It’s been sitting on my TBR for a few weeks and last night I decided to move it to the top of the stack. So what am I reading? Well…it’s The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies.

Cover image of The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies.

When the saints fail, the sinners step up.

Cruel gods rule the steam-powered city of Chime, demanding worship and tribute from their mortal subjects. Kayl lost her faith in them long ago, and now seeks to protect vulnerable and downtrodden mortals from their gods’ whims. But when Kayl discovers powers that she didn’t know she had—and destroys a mortal’s soul by accident—she becomes Chime’s most wanted.

Quen’s job was to pursue sinners, until the visions started. Haunted by foreboding images of his beloved city’s destruction, Quen hunts soul-sucking creatures made of aether who prey on its citizens—and Kayl is his number one target.

To ensure Chime’s future, Kayl and Quen must discover the truth of Kayl’s divine abilities before the gods take matters into their own hands.

For a city that bows to cruel gods, it’ll take godless heathens to save it.

The Thirteenth Hour is the first book in The Cruel Gods series—a gaslamp fantasy featuring magical portals, gothic cosmic deities, quaint Britishisms, and steampunk vibes. This is an adult book containing strong language and mature themes that some readers may find disturbing. For a full list of content warnings, visit Trudie Skies’s website.

Goodreads Blurb

The Thirteenth Hour
The Cruel Gods #1
Trudie Skies
Self-Published
Publication Date: October 13, 2021
Paperback

Everything about that blurb grabbed my interest. From the name of the city (tied back to that clock) to the interaction between “gothic” gods and mortals, to the gaslamp fantasy. Without having read any of Trudie Skies other works or even any snippets of this one, I knew I wanted to read it.

Since it’s release day I’ve seen a number of other reviewer friends post about The Thirteenth Hour and every single one has been positive and glowing, whether on Twitter, blogs, or Discord channels. It’s currently got a 4.55 rating over on Goodreads.

I started the book last night and I’m about 100 pages in. So far I’m excited about the world(s)-building (12 realms each ruled by a god and one city in which the people of all can mingle) and the development of the various peoples who make up these realms. There’s a dark edge to it and the initial plot elements have been set in motion. Already there are many questions to be answered and dark alley’s to be explored. I’m looking forward to reviewing this one once I’m done. Hopefully I won’t put off that review too long.

Have you already read The Thirteenth Hour? If so what did you think? Do you have it on your TBR or are you thinking about it? Have you read any of Trudie Skies’ other books? Let me know in the comments.

-Jason