First up we have the Flora Segunda series, of which I've just finished the second book, Flora's Dare:
I read the first book several years ago, and so didn't remember too many details going in to the second. Fortunately the author did a nice job catching me up, though, and I quickly remembered why Flora was one of my few 5-star's over on Goodreads back in the day.
The setting of Flora is a fantastical alternate world inhabited by some of the most colorful characters you're ever likely to meet - in every sense of the world. Men and women alike wear kilts and bright makeup, dye their hair crazy colors, and go to punk concerts where the speaker system is a captured amplification demon. If that sounds futuristic or cyberpunk, it's not. If anything, there's an old world sensibility here, where automobiles and indoor plumbing are still novelties, women wear stays (corsets), and magic and monsters are a routine part of life.
Flora lives in Califa - an alternate California - which has been conquered by "the Birdies," an Aztec-inspired culture peopled with terrifying flayed priests and animal-human hybrids. I found the politics a little confusing in the first book, since you're thrown into the story with little-to-no background, but it's gradually explained in bits as you carry on into Flora's Dare.
The language of Flora Segunda (and Flora's Dare) sets it apart, and really adds to the other-worldliness of it all. There are lots of unfamiliar terms that you pick up through the context - things like "maquillage" for makeup or "weskits" for waistcoats. (Both of those are real words, btw. [singing] The more you know...!)
Like I said, it's been a while since I read and loved the first one, but I think Flora's Dare was even better than the first. It's refreshingly original, surprisingly funny, and Flora has just the right amount of pluck to make her admirable, but with enough weakness to still make her relatable. I'm really looking forward to the third in the series, Flora's Fury - and I desperately, desperately, want to see them all made into movies, if only so I can see her best friend in his top knot, kilt, and blue lipstick. :)
Next up is one a few of you have recommended: Shadow and Bone.
I just finished this the other night, since, like all good books, it refused to let me put it down. Shadow has the familiar fantasy setup of an ordinary-girl-discovering-her-extraordinary-power, along with a surprisingly effective love triangle, but what really gives it flair is the Russian influence on everything from the characters (there's a sinister Rasputin-type priest) to the language and dress. Like Flora, many of the words you'll have to pick up through context, but here the geographical influence is a bit subtler. In essence you get a great fantasy story spiced up with a bit of Kvas - great for flavor, but not quite so integral to the story.
The last third of Shadow and Bone packs a real emotional punch, and while there is some slight resolution, it mostly leaves you hanging, metaphorical loose ends flapping all OVER the place. That's a big pet peeve of mine - the whole string-you-along-to-force-you-to-buy-the-sequel thing, but I'm going to give Shadow a pass because it's such an excellent story. (Not to mention its stellar cosplay options. Again, I'd love to see a movie with these characters!)
As you might expect, Shadow is part of a trilogy. Siege and Storm is next, but just came out a few months ago, so I'm not sure when we can expect the third title.
Which brings me to my final review today, which is yet another series:
Two covers, same book.
When I first read this it was titled Monster Blood Tattoo, but since then the publisher decided book series aren't nearly confusing enough and changed the title to Foundling. Add to that the fact that the series has had covers calling it the Lamplighter series, the Foundling's Tale, AND the Monster Blood Books, and I don't know how anyone keeps it straight. >.<
Whatever you call it, though, you should definitely read these books. There are three total: Foundling /Monster Blood Tattoo, Lamplighter, and Factotum. They follow a young orphan (or "foundling") named Rossamünd as he sets out in the terrifying world of the Half Continent. Here there be monsters - literally - and all of civilization is based around waging war against them. Monster hunters are celebrated heroes, branding themselves with tattoos of their conquests' blood and undergoing bizarre surgeries that give them supernatural powers.
Like Flora and Bone, Foundling borrows artistic influence from our history books; this time from Georgian England. Take a look at Rossamund's uniform on the cover of Lamplighter, and you'll see what I mean:
If you like long reads as much as I do, then you're going to love this series. It's brimming with rich detail and a glossary that stretches over 100 pages - a glossary which you'll find yourself consulting over and over, I might add. The constant barrage of unfamiliar language and names might be a little off-putting for some, but I found it added a whole new dimension to the story, and forced me to pay that much more attention. (Unlike Flora and Shadow this language is completely made up, so there's little chance of your recognizing the words.)
Foundling is dark and action packed, but it also wrestles with a morality that forces Rossamünd to question who his enemies really are. It's fascinating, compelling, and like nothing I've ever read. And if that's not high enough praise for you: I also just ordered the hardcovers online, since I like to surround myself with only my favorite books. So, yeah, give it a try!
And as always, please share your own recommendations in the comments! (I've made a list from your comments on previous posts, and I'm working my way through it - but the ones that get recommended more get bumped higher on the list. :))