I'm going to narrow this to the best book I've read for the first time in the last twelve months. It's... it's safer to do that.
And here, I will have to let go of any pretensions of grandeur or highbrow reading and acknowledge that the best book(s) I have read in the past year is People of the Weeping Eye and People of the Thunder, by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neil Gear.
In an older entry I talked about this series of books and my incredible love for them. One of the things I have enjoyed about the continuing of the series is that fact that it is very rarely a set of books that deal with the exact same people, but rather a real world that contains a lot of stories about different people and the different ways in which they see and live in the world.
Sometimes a character will overlap, but almost never a main character, always side or background characters... or a main character from an earlier book will pop up again as a side character in a new one.
People of the Weeping Eye and People of the Thunder are exceptions. This was originally a single manuscript telling a single story, which got so long it was eventually split into two.
The Gears are archeologists and anthropologists first. Each of their fiction novels has an incredible bibliography attached to the end, referencing piles of papers, studies, and examinations done on sites all through the country. This is overwhelmingly noticeable in their novels: what characters ear, how they cook, the clothes they wear and how those clothes were made, how houses/shelters were built, all of these things are present in their books and described in a way that doesn't take away from the story.
For me, as interested in North American anthropology and archeology as I am even the fine arts that I got my degree in, this is an added draw to keep my attention.
The other draw in these books is simply that the Gears are incredible writers. Characters are fully fleshed out human beings with a past that happened before the book starts and a future that continues on afterward. One of my pet peeves is books which seem to have characters which only exist for the duration of the text.
The story, as its base, is this: A Trader is on the run from a tragic past, a girl with a specific form of madness who speaks backwards and lives backwards in time, an old Healer and a very lucky dog are called by the powers that be to head directly into danger and, if they prove themselves, come out the other side.
I was worried that the madness of Two Petals, who is called a Contrary and who generally speaks backwards and has a sense of living backwards through time (her memories are of things that haven't happened yet, basically) would be annoying or tritely written, but the Gears are careful to have her madness be an aspect of her character, but not her character's primary or only method of interacting with the world.
I had purchased the two books to read over the next month or so before I moved, around the beginning to June, to start reading in July. I picked the first up in late June, intending to start the process of reading through it.
I finished it four days later.
I finished the second book a week after that.
Absolutely I loved the writing, I loved every twist in the story. I stayed up into the wee hours of night reading to the end, I had to get to the end of the book, which is something I actually very rarely do.
So, yep. These were the best books I've read in the past year.