So it turns out that 2020 was a pretty amazing reading year? I hadn’t really noticed because there were so many other things to occupy my brain, such as the quarantine and the election and the crumbling of American democracy, but in looking back at my reading spreadsheet I discovered that I had read a shocking number of books that needed a place on my Best Of list. There are, in fact, so many that it has necessitated me breaking this post down into two parts. This one covers my reading through like mid-June or something, and represents the number of books I was able to write synopses of before I got tired and gave up because it was the day before inauguration and I’m one entire live wire of stress and terror.
Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi
Riot Baby felt terrifyingly topical when I read it in January of this year, and then it just got more and more and more topical somehow. It’s about two Black siblings, Ella and Kev, who each have special powers. Jumping around in time, Riot Baby shows us a dystopian America that’s functionally just… America, and Kev ends up incarcerated for living in the world while Black. Using their powers, Ella and Kev pay telepathic (?) visits to each other, as well as to a number of scenes in America’s racist history, and search for ways to bring the whole racist system down.
Tor’s novella line continues to publish absolute bangers, and Riot Baby felt like a gift in a year when America has felt even more like a dystopia than usual. Its leaps through time are deliberately disorienting, so that the reader is never quite allowed to settle into any certainty about what the book is going to be. Instead you’re carried through time and space in a sort of grand tour of American oppression. Riot Baby is imaginative, strange, dizzying, exhilarating.
Butterfly Yellow, Thanha Lai
I can’t remember who recommended Butterfly Yellow to me, but it was this wonderfully quiet and careful YA novel about a Vietnamese girl who comes to America in search of her little brother, from whom she was separated during the Vietnam War. She’s certain that he’ll be delighted to be reunited with her, but instead she finds that he’s comfortable in his new life with his adoptive parents. Hằng befriends a cowboy named LeeRoy and sticks around, patiently trying to rebuilt her relationship with her brother.
Because we see Hằng so much through LeeRoy’s eyes, I kept thinking that she was younger than she was, so it threw me off a bit when she develops a romance with LeeRoy. And overall I think Butterfly Yellow feels slightly more middle grade than YA. Aside from that small area of disorientation, though, it was a book with a great deal of emotional depth. No matter how much we want easy answers, such answers aren’t forthcoming. Instead, it’s a story about perseverance in love and finding joy in an imperfect world.
Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
On a grim day in January, I opened my mail to find an ARC of Harrow the Ninth, upon which I shrieked like a banshee and dived into it with an enthusiasm. Gideon the Ninth, you’ll recall, was the lesbian necromancers in space book, and this is the middle book in the series. We follow Harrow as she struggles with her imperfect Lyctorhood and her fractured memories of what happened at Canaan House.
This book is bonkers. It is bonkers. Every choice that Tamsyn Muir makes in this book is bonkers. It is a symphony of what-the-fuck, with every instrument playing a perfect, terrifying what the fuck variation, and all I could do was let myself be swept along by it. I know that some folks have said they found this one a harder read than Gideon — in Gideon the Ninth you’re in Gideon’s head enjoying her irreverent take on all the horrifying blood and murder events, whereas in Harrow the Ninth you’re living with Harrow’s rage, grief, and self-loathing. So I hope it won’t make me sound like a callous monster when I say I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a book. I was grinning from ear to ear every time I opened it. I cannot wait for the third one.
Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo
WHEW did somebody say “mastery of the novella form”? I got Empress of Salt and Fortune as an ARC and was not immediately sucked in after reading the first few pages. Then on a Saturday I was like “I’m going to dedicate some actual time to reading this bastard” and sat down and read it all in one sitting. It’s the story of cleric Chih, who is collecting stories on their travels through a country that has been shaped by a powerful empress. They encounter an old woman who used to serve in the royal palace, and settle in to hear her version of the empress’s rise.
Just, wow. I absolutely loved this book. I am not one for secondary world fantasy, usually, but Vo builds her world around material culture: the tooth that was part of the gown the empress wore when she came as a bride to the palace; the dice that she used to play games and cast lots; a map of pilgrimage shrines throughout the empire. The things are the hook into the story of this empress, and the story is about women’s rage. It’s about the refusal to accept the oppression and denial your life has given you, and the overlooked ways women use to communicate among themselves, using tools that powerful men can’t be bothered glancing at twice.
I still don’t quite know how Vo managed to pack so much worldbuilding, emotion, and plot into 118 pages, but I do know that I’m excited for her future career and inevitable superstardom in the world of SFF.
The Good Luck Girls, Charlotte Nicole Davis
ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE YA!!!
Every year for the last few years, there’s been at least one YA novel where I was like “this is just a good fucking adventure story, what a pleasure, what a dream,” and as I look back on them, they are all, one hundred percent of them, road trip adventures. So in case there was any lack of clarity about what I like and whether I am predictable, the answers are road trips and yes, I am very predictable.
The Good Luck Girls tells the story of a group of girls fleeing from the brothel to which they were sold as children, trying to escape the consequences of a patron’s death. They are seeking asylum in a place they’ve only heard about, a place that for all they know doesn’t even exist — but they have to try and get there, or else resign themselves to spending their lives being hunted by the raveners who have been tasked with finding them and punishing them.
As dark as this premise is, Davis does a terrific job of writing a book that doesn’t feel doomed, yet also doesn’t gloss over the genuine trauma these girls have been through in their lives. Aster is determined to get all her friends to safety, whatever the cost to her; she’s smart and resourceful and angry and driven, and I cherished her. There’s a slow build-up of grudging respect between her and the house favorite at their brothel, Violet, which of course I adored, and the stakes of their road trip escape remain high, high, high, so there’s this lovely release of tension any time they have the chance to stop and rest and be happy for even a short time. And the set-up for book two just really thrilled me. Can’t wait for more!
The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Whoever decided to get Paul Lewin to do the cover for this book deserves a trophy. Also, I love Paul Lewin’s art. One of my goals for this year is to read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, not just because I need to read more of Octavia Butler’s work, but also because if I like it then I can maybe buy the editions that feature Paul Lewin’s fancy, gorgeous covers.
Anyway, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games digs deep into major fantasy properties to explore the ways Black characters in those franchises have been used and abused by both the stories themselves and the audiences who received them. Thomas is a terrific, insightful cultural critic, and her work is particularly notable for how clearly she loves these properties and wants better for them. Her readings of the texts and their audiences enriched my understanding of these books, movies, and TV shows, and I’m so excited for whatever this author plans to do next.
Norma Jean Baker of Troy, Anne Carson
Before *waves hands* all this, I attended a conference at which New Directions had a booth, and you just wouldn’t believe the shriek of joy I emitted when I realized that Anne Carson had a new book. Anne Carson is the translator, poet, and genius behind If Not, Winter (an amazing translation of Sappho) and Nox, a book-in-a-box I incepted myself into being able to afford the first year I lived in New York.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy combines the story of Helen of Troy with the life of Marilyn Monroe, whose name before fame was Norma Jeane Baker. It’s expectedly strange and funny and devastating.
In ancient Greece you use the verb [I am too lazy to recreate this in WordPress], which comes over into Latin as rapio, rapere, raptus sum, and gives us English rapture and rape — words stained with the very early blood of girls, with the very late blood of cities, with the hysteria of the end of the world. Sometimes I think language should cover its own eyes when it speaks.
Anne Carson is a queen on etymology. If you liked the above quotation, I refer you to Nox, which does a lot of this kind of thing.
Realm of Ash, Tasha Suri
Remember when I was lowkey obsessed with Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri’s debut? Well, in an exciting twist, I loved Realm of Ash even more. It maintains the same Angry Girl / Soft Boy romance dynamic, but dials the anger and the softness up by several notches.
Even saying that feels like a disservice to Realm of Ash, because it ignores the absolutely wonderful worldbuilding and plot work that Tasha Suri is doing. It’s the kind of sequel that Diana Wynne Jones would write, where the book is set in the same world under (some of) the same set of assumptions, but it’s far more of a companion novel than the type of sequel where you’re like, aw, yeah, gonna get some answers now. Realm of Ash is about the crumbling Ambhan Empire, and the efforts of a widow and a prince to understand the limits of their forbidden magic.
I just… I loved this? Again I say that I tend to struggle with secondary world fantasy, but authors like Tasha Suri and Nghi Vo seem determined to undermine my carefully established opinions. Tasha Suri comes out of fanfic, and you can really tell by the way she makes relationships so central to her plotting. I loved this book, and I cannot wait for Suri’s 2021 book The Jasmine Throne. I love her.
Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch
This round-up includes three nonfiction books (unless you count the book of poetry; in which case, four), and I stand by all of them. Because Internet is a linguistics book about the language of the internet, and it’s 24-karat gold in my opinion. Gretchen McCulloch talks about all the things you’d expect, like the development of emojis and the reason why memes work or don’t, as well as a whole slew of things you wouldn’t, like how Arabic-speakers convey the Arabic alphabet on Twitter and why old people use so many ellipses in their emails.
If you’ve ever been like “I am extremely online, but why?”, I highly recommend that you read Because Internet. It won’t explain why you are so online (who could?), but it will describe your life in terrifyingly accurate terms.
The True Queen, Zen Cho
I could just as well have put The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water on this list, because Zen Cho blessed us with two new releases in the last two years, but The True Queen was the one that I really loved. This may reflect my general preference for the novel-length format. The True Queen is a follow-up to the 2015 Sorcerer to the Crown, and I loved it so so so so so much. It’s set in an alternate version of the nineteenth century, as Sorcerer to the Crown was, but it focuses much more on people who aren’t English. Yay!
I love Zen Cho for so consistently writing books that could have been dark and grim but are, in fact, funny and light-hearted. In these quarantimes, it feels like a particularly revolutionary writing choice. The True Queen deals with a lot of heavy themes (imperialism, family conflict, etc.) in a way that isn’t too grim but also doesn’t feel like a cop-out by the author. I just truly loved this book, as I have all her books to date. I had so much fucking fun reading it, and in a year where fun was few and far between, I value that so so so much. ZEN CHO.
The City We Became, NK Jemisin
Yes, I was furious at the offhand way in which NK Jemisin dismissed New Orleans in this book, and yes, it made me cry on podcast. But apart from that gripe, which while not minor to me was minor in terms of the space it occupied in the book, I really loved NK Jemisin’s latest novel. It’s about the city of New York becoming sentient, manifesting itself in the avatars for each borough, who must come together to fight against an evil white Lovecraftian tentacle creature.
In perhaps the clearest measure of success, The City We Became made me feel agonizingly homesick for New York City. I was supposed to visit it in 2020! Reading this reminded me so keenly of what the city is like, in all its boroughs, in every iteration, and I just got really fucking emoshe about it. NK Jemisin’s writing is typically beautiful, her plotting typically tense, and I was left with a mighty yearning for more of this series.
A Song Below Water, Bethany Morrow
It’s the misogynoir fantasy novel of your dreams! Tavia has known for years that she’s a siren, and she knows that she must be careful never to reveal what she is. Living in the city of Portland, she has plenty of opportunity to see the kind of oppression faced by other Black people, especially Black women, especially sirens. In the aftermath of a siren murder trial, Tavia learns that an idol of hers is also a siren, and she begins to understand that she has no alternative but to use her voice to pursue her values.
I loved the worldbuilding in A Song Below Water, and I dearly hope that Bethany Morrow has plans for more books in this universe. Though Tavia struggles mightily with understanding what it means to be a siren, sirens are not the only magical being in this world. I would love to see books that deal with other kinds of magic and their implications — not least because Tavia’s beloved sister Effie has secrets of her own that are uncovered in the course of the novel. I love sister stuff! I love it! And this book is about sisters who are absolutely ride-or-die for each other, which was great to see — I love a complicated sibling relationship, but I also love the kind of relationship that’s all about love and loyalty.
Boyfriend Material, Alexis Hall
Mirabile, Janet Kagan
Okay, I confess that this one’s on me. My aunt has been trying to get me to read Mirabile for, like, six years, and every time I was like “oh yeah yeah I’ll get to it for sure” and then because I couldn’t easily access the book, I did not for sure get to it. Last year, my aunt totally got me by just lending me the mf book, so it was either I read it promptly or I became one of those people who borrows a book and never remembers to return it. And y’all know I refuse to be that person.
Mirabile, which was published in 1991, is about xenobiologist (?) / xenoecologist (??) Mama Jason, who is responsible for researching and keeping under control the many mutant life forms that inevitably arise on the planet colony of Mirabile. This is a novel in stories (not usually my favorite thing), most of which were published in Asimov’s Science Fiction before being collected in novel form, and each chapter deals with a specific life form, from the Kangaroo Rex to the Loch Moose Monster. It’s the kind of low-stakes SFF novel that I’m constantly searching for: Though Mama Jason is tasked in some ways with the survival of the colony, there’s never any real question that she’ll succeed in her endeavors. She has a funny, wry narrative voice, and it’s overall just great to see an older woman protagonist in SF. My aunt was right. I should have read this sooner.
Part two is coming your way soon! Probably!