2020 was a weird year, and between my disappearance from the book community and the fact that time has long ceased to have any meaning, the concept of “yearly favorites” felt less important than it usually was to me. However, this is my favorite post to write, and I believe that talking about the good that stays with us is the most important thing about book blogging, so here are my 8 favorite novels out of the 80+ books I read, and some non-novel favorites. I’m sorry this is late; I hope you’ll find something here you’ll like too.
my favorite book of the year is at the end of the list.
The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
Weird F/F sci-fantasy with themes of surviving religious abuse, some of the funniest scenes ever written, and a cast of somewhat-to-fully unhinged magical beings. Of course I loved it, for that and for being one of the few fantasy books that managed to actually surprise me with a twist this year.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
This book feels haunted (it haunts me). Nothing happens (everything happens) and it feels like a depressive episode (it changed my life) and I forgot most of it (I think about it almost every day) and the ending hurt to read (the ending was perfect). I gave it four stars, originally (I almost DNFed it) but it’s one of those books you only learn to love with distance (it never really leaves you, and you will be forever followed by its atmosphere of gloom).
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I could tell you what this is, but I think that if you’re here you already know, so instead I’m going to say that I didn’t get this book.
I mean, I loved it, I flew through it and felt a lot and just really appreciated how out there and absurd and unapologetically itself it was, but I think so much of what actually happened didn’t register, mostly because Gideon has a very… unusual perspective. It reminds me of what happened to me when I read Radiance back in 2017 – it didn’t make sense the first time but rereading it just made everything click. By which I mean, this book has so much rereading potential and I should just get to it already.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
I, too, would like to have a morally questionable immortal moth girlfriend. Apart from the very Acqua-relevant queer monster theme, this was a wonderful story about what isolation does to a person’s self-esteem and about taking back the power from what has been used to hurt you. Sweet but sharp, short but subversive, this is one of the most remarkable YA fantasy novels that came out in the last few years.
The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty
What is there to say but the slow set-up that was the worldbuilding in The City of Brass is definitely paying off? This is a series that gets that the best kind of court intrigue comes from putting together a web of complex, messed up relationships wrapped in centuries of feuds, rivalry, trauma and bloodshed. It hurts. It’s hilarious. I love most characters and I don’t want them to be hurt, but that’s simply not possible. Many people in this book don’t have a sense of humor but somehow I still spent half of the time laughing. It’s perfect.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Steampunk folktale fantasy featuring a mecha dragon with a telepathic bond, a remarkably cruel magic system, and a walking disaster of a protagonist. Reading from the point of view of a character who isn’t special but gets their time to shine is fun – I’d do worse in their place and be just as way too into the beautiful enemy prime duelist (Acqua-relevant content). And if I were a weapon of mass destruction I’d also choose to be a pacifist! It’s not the happiest of stories but thinking about it makes me happy, our ideas of humor just match. It also has great commentary on art, colonization and war – all tied into the remarkably cruel magic system, of course.
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The main surprise of the year: I went into this book thinking I wasn’t going to like it, and I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. After having read so many books about oppressive societies and revolutions, I kind of thought I already knew the beats – but this book is a different thing entirely. It’s the kind of unreal and distant story that feels closer to reality than any of the books attempting to portray a realistic conflict I’ve read, because it’s not interested in telling easy lies about the nature of power. It’s a dreamlike, complex novel with wonderful worldbuilding set on a tidally locked planet (always there for weird sci-fi worlds), with one of the most interesting messed up friendships I’ve ever read at its center. It’s also a deeply queer story in its look at what it means to outgrow a friendship, at unrequited love, even at biopunk body mods. [And: every book that makes fun of cultural exceptionalism has a special place in my heart.]
Night Shine by Tessa Gratton
I don’t know if I can do this book justice. I loved Night Shine for its atmosphere, for the way Tessa Gratton’s writing manages to make everything feel real while keeping the magic alive, for its attention to detail and what it said about the allure of invisibility; but mostly, because it’s the F/F villain romance I have always been looking for. (The Sorceress Who Eats Girls? Best character of the year.) It’s also a story about queerness and the power of being a monster, which as themes are really important to me, as were the complicated friendships and this book’s total disregard for binaries – while talking about gender, while talking about the distinction between friendship and romance. It’s the kind of book that reminds me of the potential of queerness in fantasy, the kind of story that reminds me of why I read.
Unlike my top 5 favorite novels, these are so different from each other that ranking them wouldn’t really make sense.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (review): it convinced me that nonfiction about heavy topics is worth it by being the worst-best case of genre soup I have ever experienced, and when I talk about the importance of looking at things sideways, I mean this – follow the mark left by a phenomenon through the human imagination and archetypes.
Monstress Vol. 4: The Chosen by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (review): with each volume, the story gets more complex, gradually makes less and less sense, and gets more explicitly queer. All three things are appreciated and making sense is for the weak.
Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney (review): overwritten and overwhelming goblin chaos; distilled essence of that feeling of wild joy one can get by watching things explode. Fae are for the lost and the queers and the freaks and this book gets it.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (review): quiet, introspective fantasy about the details that changed a kingdom and the women who made that happen; it looks at revolution from an angle I hadn’t seen before and with writing of a quality I hope I’ll see again.
Favorite Short Stories
My opinion is that the best short stories are more about the feeling than the point. If you want to know what these are actually about, longer reviews can probably be found in my Short Fiction Time posts.
Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed): I, too, would sleep with a city who would like to lovingly rearrange and replace my body parts ❤ Favorite story of the year.
The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed): a beautiful story about memory and grief featuring space archeology, alien and familiar at the same time.
The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta): gory and grotesque in a way that is all but banal and that I won’t easily forget; at the same time a fever dream and a reflection on what we find horrifying or depraved and what we don’t. Always here for the messed up F/F content.
Stop your women’s ears with wax by Julia Armfield (Salt Slow collection): gay story with a feral energy that just keeps building, keeps rising, cackling loudly like the best fae stories even though it’s not technically a fae story at all – it just finds the same glee in destruction.
Have you read any of these? What were your favorites of last year?