Okay, so it’s time for my final favorite books post for 2020, my favorite speculative/fantasy reads! I read more fantasy than anything else, so there was a lot to choose from, and I finished a bunch of series this year, so that made this even more difficult. This is my favorite post of the three to make!
Also, we have a tie for the #1 spot because I just…could not decide. Interestingly, the books that tied have some themes in common; they are both tied up in my ethnic heritage, so that’s really interesting!
10) The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho
There is such a delightfully whimsical quality to Zen Cho’s writing. It’s the perfect mixture of elegant, old-fashioned, and propulsive. It never fails to endear me to her narrative and her characters, which are delightful! There is so much background and history to this country that I feel like Zen Cho could write an entire high fantasy series set here; in fact my only complaint is that this is only a novella, because I could read so much more from this world and these characters. There is so much casual gender and sexual diversity in our characters, there’s witty and hilarious banter, there’s a slow-building and subtle romance, and there’s magical martial arts. This was an absolute romp.
9) Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
I was very surprised by this book! It’s far more of a slow-burn than I had anticipated, but I think I actually liked it more for that. I didn’t necessarily want big drawn-out battles; I liked that this was a lot more introspective than I’d expected. I’d picked it up because I was craving supervillain/henchwoman vibes and this definitely gave me that. I really loved the main character’s intelligence, dry humor, and resilience; her big thing is that she’s all about data, which I adored. It was such an interesting way to ground the superhero genre in reality.
8) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I think the only review I managed to give for this book was a stuttering “wow” because I wasn’t sure just what to say. Everyone loves this graphic novel, and I’m no different. It is just so…bizarre, but in a great way? Like, take the setting. There’s medieval costumes and titles and weapons, but also modern technology and Comic Book Universe stuff, and somehow it all meshes together super well. You’ve got supervillain/henchwoman vibes, only the henchwoman is actually more murderous than the supervillain. The author just kind of like…threw logic out the window and just went for it with this, and it works. It’s also very queer in a way I did NOT expect!
7) Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
It’s no secret that I found this book nigh incomprehensible, but when I decided to look up spoilers so that I wasn’t confused, my frustration fell away. Somewhere along the way I just…fell in love. I think the writing has a lot to do with that. The writing is absolutely fucking exquisite – sharp and erudite and clever and humorous. The characters are all brilliant: sharply drawn and utterly unique even when there are so many of them. And then there’s the memes. There’s an honest to god “none pizza with left beef” joke in here. There’s also the homage to fandom and fandom culture; the entire book is essentially a “Five Things/Five Times” fic. Plus this book is confusing on purpose, and it’s so damn weird and confusing that it flips back around to brilliant.
6) Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
I…never expected to love Joe Abercrombie so much, but here we are. I didn’t give a single book in the First Law Trilogy anything higher than four stars, but we’re here at the end of the year and I’m still thinking about the trilogy, and I’m extremely excited to read the next trilogy in this world. There’s clearly something compelling about his work that keeps people coming back. Also, SAND DAN GLOKTA, one of the best fantasy characters of all time, truly. I honestly think if it weren’t for Glokta I would not have finished this series. I think Glokta was brilliant in all the installments, but in this third one in particular I loved his interactions with another character, Ardee. I also really loved how everything came together and far-flung characters all met one another. A fantastic conclusion!
5) Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This delectably Gothic, deliciously weird, and appropriately horrifying tale of a young woman tasked with rescuing her cousin, allegedly imprisoned in a dilapidated old mansion, potentially being poisoned by her husband’s family, is on many people’s lists. I’m honestly just so happy people are finally discovering the greatness that is Silvia Moreno-Garcia; I’ve been a huge fan of hers since I read The Beautiful Ones a few years back (one of my favorite books of all time!). Mexican Gothic is an homage to all kinds of classic Gothic tropes, but in changing the setting to Mexico and placing white people in the position of inscrutable villain/monster rather than the dark-skinned Mexican heroine, Moreno-Garcia subverts traditional Gothic implications of the dark foreigner as Other. I also found this to be super duper fast paced; I could not put it down.
4) The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
There are some books that, while not perfect, just make you feel very strongly. I was on tenterhooks the whole time I was reading The Dragon Republic. I was so heavily invested in the characters and their relationships with one another that I really didn’t care about anything else in the book, so I easily overlooked the minor issues with pacing that may have bogged down another novel. The bulk of this book is essentially a protracted military campaign. In such a long book, I anticipated I’d struggle with the pacing, given that I don’t particularly like military fantasy or military strategy, but Kuang’s writing remains as compelling as ever; I couldn’t put this book down, and when I did put it down all I could think about was wanting to pick it back up again. I read it in exactly two sittings. The other major strength of this book is in the character dynamics, particularly Rin and Nezha. And the worldbuilding becomes more intricate in this installment; the Hesperians are a chilling addition. Kuang has such a great ability to make her characters suffer, and in doing so, making the reader suffer alongside them.
3) A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
If you want, you can find some of the controversy surrounding this book, but all I’ll say is, aside from one or two unnecessary and egregious lines, the rest of the book is a well-intentioned if clumsy attempt at creating a diverse world, and overall, I think it worked. Before any of the controversy happened, however, I read an ARC, and I think I finished it in a single day. I LOVED this. Yes, there’s very little plot, but that doesn’t matter, because the strength of this book relies on three things: the main character’s El’s HILARIOUS internal monologue/narration, El’s developing relationship with Orion, and the setting of the Scholomance itself. This book is just. So funny. And so compelling. I loved El’s character and her background. I also just really love the worldbuilding outside the scholomance; I think it’s so fascinating how magic and magic users function in this world. I really hope the next two books show us the world outside the Scholomance; I’d follow these characters for like seven more books.
2) Resenting the Hero by Moira J. Moore
This is a very weird high fantasy book with comedic elements, modern sensibilities, and an irreverent, casual tone. The heart of the novel is the relationship between the two main characters, Dunleavy and Taro, and it works because they are so different, and so flawed. Dunleavy, in particular, is a hard person to like. She’s the narrator, and the story is told in first-person, so we’re constantly privy to her judgemental thoughts, and oh boy, is she judgemental! She’s also inexperienced, naive, a little full of herself, cold, overly logical, and has little to not emotional intelligence. In other words, she’s an extremely unlikable heroine, so naturally I liked her a lot. Her gradual thawing towards Taro is wonderful to watch, especially considering he is not what I had expected at all! Dunleavy’s narration is what really makes this book shine, though. She’s hilarious. She’s so dry and witty and takes everything in stride, so her internal monologue is just really funny. It’s so rare that I can find high fantasy that can truly be called comedic, but this book truly was just laugh out loud funny. Even when things were dire, Dunleavy was being sarcastic, so it made the whole thing ten times funnier. Which is not to say it didn’t deal with serious topics! On the contrary, this was a fantasy that had oddly modern sensibilities. Things like assault and violence were addressed head-on in the same sort of direct way they might be addressed in the modern world, and issues of equality between Sources and Shields and their institutionalization were brought up in an engaging way. All of this was was brought together into a really intriguing, page-turning mystery. I really want to read the rest of the series soon!
1) The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
I wrote a lengthy review for this book that I am quite proud of, and I’m just going to quote right from it. The Bird King is a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts. Read entirely straight, it is simply a moving, often hilarious romp featuring endearingly complex and sometimes comical characters, a tale of deep friendship and a desperation for freedom, with a dash of magical realism. But if you care to look past that, you see a novel begs to be dissected and compared against the inspiration it is meant to be retelling, a novel that wants to interrogate the nature of faith and divinity, of love and freedom, of the human condition and humanity’s relationship to God. It feels like a book that is beyond anything that I could ever hope to fully understand, and I loved it. I loved it not just because I loved the characters, or Hassan and Fatima’s deep love for one another, or because I found it funny and fun, though all those reasons are valid too. But mainly I loved it because I connected to it on such a deep emotional level that I can barely even articulate it. I so rarely read books that pull heavily from Islamic history and tradition, and perhaps this is part of why so many reviewers found the narrative slow and distant, because so many aspects of it are unfamiliar to Western readers. For me, The Bird King felt like coming home.
1) The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
I first read The City of Brass as an ARC in 2017, and it was in the top three favorite books then too. I had to re-read it this year to binge the series, because I’d forgotten nearly all of the plot, and I fell in love with it all over again. While I very much enjoyed the second and third installments of the series, I do think the first remains my all-time favorite. Much of the reason for that is that Nahri and Dara have the most interaction in this book, but there’s also something so lovely about the wondrous sense of discovery and mystery and buildup in this first installment. In general, though, Chakraborty is one of those authors whose writing has that unnameable quality that just pulls you in and makes you feel so very much; I connected with these characters and this world on such a deep level. It helps, of course, that Nahri is a Cairene, like myself, and that for the first time I got to see Egyptian and Islamic heritage and lore in a fantasy book. I can see myself coming back and re-reading this for a third time one day, just to re-experience the way it makes me feel, and that’s no small thing.