As Wyrd & Wonder comes to a close, it feels like a good time to gather together some of my favourite reads from the first half of the year. Not all of these were 2020 releases, though; plenty were amazing books I didn’t get to the year they came out. I’ve categorised them accordingly!
There was a lot of (incredibly justified, as it turned out) hype for Docile before release, and there’s been a lot of conversation about it since – as a queer futuristic dystopia with legalised slavery, how could there not have been? To be honest, I don’t really think I’ve got anything smart to add to the discussion. Docile is wonderfully written, reading like the best kind of fanfic (and that’s meant as an enormous compliment), uncomfortable and difficult and not flinching away from the subject matter or its implications. It managed to make me ship the main couple, without romanticising or ignoring the brutal, messed-up realities of that relationship – and then dealt with that reality, with the fall-out. I loved it. Szpara is an incredible writer – although I already knew that from his short stories – and I can’t wait to read his future works. I’ve already pre-ordered his next book!
Empress of Salt and Fortune is an Asian-inspired fantasy novella, featuring a genderless monk and their magical bird companion. The priesthood they belong to records – well, everything, all kinds of story and history – and the book is about the aforementioned monk and bird listening to and recording the story of the foreign-born empress, who was sent into exile after the emperor was done with her. It’s a beautiful little book about feminine strength and friendship, fierceness and loyalty, tracing the quiet beginnings of rebellion as they fanned into open war. It’s told via the stories of precious objects, the things left behind, and it’s a clever way of framing the tale. I don’t feel like I’m doing it any kind of justice, but I’m incredibly excited for the sequel!
I mean…it’s NK Jemisin. Does any book need more of an introduction than that? If it’s Jemisin’s work, it’s going to be jaw-droppingly good. And The City We Became is freaking fantastic; Jemisin’s first urban fantasy novel, it’s about the people who become embodiments/avatars of New York’s boroughs when New York is ‘born’ – passing some metaphysical tipping point into becoming a living being in its own right. The problem is, there’s alien creatures from other dimensions out to kill cities like this as they’re born – and though New York’s central avatar fought off that first attack, he’s now MIA, and the monsters have broken protocol to keep attacking the city even now that it’s alive. It’s a brilliant, fierce magical adventure story, intimately tied to the very nature of New York – I was unsurprised but relieved that the city’s avatars are incredibly diverse, both in terms of race and sexuality. I’m not a New Yorker – I’m not even American – but damn, this book is enough to make me love that city. The City We Became is heartpounding, clever, and (as with all Jemisin’s stuff) incredibly original. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely need to.
Cate Glass is the pen-name of Carol Berg, who’s written some of my favourite unique and elegant fantasies. Conjuring of Assassins is the sequel to An Illusion of Thieves, set in a Renaissance-esque world where those with magical abilities are put to death, as doorways through which the end of the world could come. In Illusion, the main character, whose magical power allows her to don impenetrable disguises, joined forces with other mages to form a team capable and willing of taking on impossibly delicate tasks – in heist-form. Conjuring is another heist-story, and the writing is so rich, the worldbuilding so perfect, that it’s an absolute joy to read. Conjuring also builds on tiny hints left in Illusion, beginning to suggest that there’s a lot more to this world’s mythology – and the hatred towards and purpose of magic-users – than people know. So far there’s more questions than answers, but I can’t wait to learn more in future books!
This one’s kind of cheating, because I’ve already read it – but I can’t wait for it to be released so everyone else can read it too! It’s an incredibly intricate, beautiful, powerful novel (I can’t believe it’s Ifueko’s debut?!) that I already know is going to be one of the best books of the decade.
Wise and the Wicked almost reads like magical realism at first – it’s about an all-female family descended from Russian immigrants, all of whom, usually around puberty, are ‘gifted’ with a premonition of their own deaths – their Time. That’s the only magical power left to them, where once (supposedly) they had much greater and impressive gifts. Teenage Ruby is trying to have a normal life, but that starts to spiral out of control when her grandmother dies – and the family discovers that she, of all the family, managed to live past her Time. Discovering that that’s possible sets Ruby on a path that leads somewhere entirely unexpected. The writing is beautiful, and the twists and turns are fantastic – I can’t believe where this book ended up going (in the best way). But damn, I need a sequel!
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get to Jen Williams! I read a chapter of her first book, Copper Promise, when it first came out, and I bounced off it, and I guess I put Williams on my list of authors not to bother with. Well, that was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done! Thankfully, something made me pick up Ninth Rain – I think it was reading somewhere that one of the main characters is a lesbian – and I absolutely adored it. The book is set in the world of Sarn, which has been attacked eight times by monstrous alien creatures – monsters that were fought off each time by the Eborans (picture something like elves, but even more arrogant) and their magical War-Beasts. But the Eborans’ tree-god, the source of their longevity and War-Beasts, is dead, as are most of the Eborans. One of the last of the survivors, Toreth, has abandoned Ebora and is now working with Vintage, an eccentric vintner who’s devoted her life to studying the alien ruins. The two of them eventually cross paths with Noon, a young woman capable of turning life-energy into impossibly hot green flames. The three of them are swept up in the politics of priesthoods and the mysteries behind the monstrous attacks and the decline of Ebora, and just – damn, okay? The writing and worldbuilding are stunning, and although it took me a little while to warm up to a few of the characters, once I did, I fell hard. I’m seriously kicking myself for taking so long to read Williams’ work, and I’m deep into book two of this trilogy now!
Although I love the Green Creek series as a whole, Wolfsong has a special place in my heart – not just because it’s the first book of the series, but because the narrator, Ox, has a voice like nothing else I’ve ever read. Yes, there’s werewolves and queerness and magic and mysteries and so much found-family and love, but it’s Ox’s voice that makes this one a masterpiece. It was the right decision to choose other narrators for the other books in the series, but Ox is special.
Which is not at all to say that I’m not looking forward to the conclusion of the series, Brothersong. Are you kidding?! I can hardly stand the wait – and that’s despite the fact that TJ Klune has two other releases this year, both of which rock!
(I mean, I haven’t read the Extraordinaries yet, the second of Klune’s 2020 books. But. It’s Klune. It’s gonna rock.)
The Worldbreaker series is, I guess, not for the faint of heart – Healey doesn’t flinch away from having bad things happen to good people, and it’s hard to argue that the violence isn’t grimdark-level. (Although there is, at least, no rape, for which I’m grateful. Why is it easier to read about other forms of violence than it is rape?) But gods, if you can handle that, it’s so worth it. Healey’s worldbuilding is beyond compare, and her writing is – is ‘brutally poetic’ a thing??? Because if it’s a thing, then that’s Healey’s writing style. The cast is very diverse – several of the cultures in this series have more than two gender roles – the magic system brilliantly unique, and the stakes are impossibly high. I love it. I love it I love it I love it. I’m not sure I realised how much until I was rereading these two in preparation for the final book of the trilogy. (Which I’m in the middle of now, and, just. Wow.)
I managed to review Dragon’s Legacy this month for Wyrd & Wonder, so you can read my thoughts about this one over here. Suffice to say, this is one of those books that I tuck behind my heart and keep close and sacred.
What about you? What books have been your faves this year?