The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2020!

Posted 28th December 2020 by Sia in Best SFF Of Each Year, Lists, Recommendations / 2 Comments

It’s been one HELL of a year…but it’s also been a pretty awesome year for fantasy and scifi readers. We’ve had some ridiculously incredible books in 2020, and while that doesn’t cancel out the rest of it, it did make it easier for me, at least, to get through it all.

I mean, wow. The start of the new literary decade, at least, is looking very bright indeed!

So: THIS, HERE, IS THE TOTALLY DEFINITIVE LIST OF THE BEST FANTASY & SCI-FI PUBLISHED IN 2020! Some of the titles you’re expecting are not here, and some of the books that are here are ones you didn’t hear about at all. I hope you enjoy it anyway!

Now, in publication order – onwards!

A Pale Light in the Black (NeoG #1) by K.B. Wagers
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: asexual, F/F, genderqueer, lesbian, non-binary, pansexual
Published on: 3rd March 2020

The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.

Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.

But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.

Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

I tried so hard to review this, but I just couldn’t do it justice. Pale Light in the Black is just brilliant: clever, non-traditional, queer as hell, and so much fun. A character-driven novel with just enough action and mystery to keep you glued to the pages, Pale Light paints a picture of a future I dearly hope our own approximates – minus the conspiracies! – while letting the reader live it through an utterly incredible cast. Once you’re in, this book won’t let you out until you’re finished reading it, and I challenge anyone not to enjoy every moment of the experience.

Docile by K.M. Szpara
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Gay MCs, mlm or M/M
Published on: 3rd March 2020

There is no consent under capitalism

Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, a challenging tour de force that at turns seduces and startles.

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents' debts and buy your children's future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

Compellingly written, with all the nuance that was missing from CS Pascat’s Captive Prince trilogy, Szpara’s debut novel made waves in the best ways. It reminded me of the best kind of fanfiction, which I mean as the highest of compliments; it was compulsively readable without stinting on character development and while expertly dissecting some pretty big questions. It was also unapologetically queer, in a way that’s only starting to be seen in traditionally-published fiction. While I’d urge anyone who hasn’t read it yet to check out the trigger warnings before picking it up, it’s unquestionably one of the best books of the year – and establishes Szpara as someone who’ll be shaping the genre for years to come.

The Fortress by S.A. Jones
Representation: Matriarchy
Published on: 17th March 2020

Jonathon Bridge’s arrival at The Fortress – a society run and populated by women – begins with a recitation of the conditions of his stay: he is forbidden to ask questions, to raise his hand in anger, and to refuse sex. 
Jonathon has offered himself as a supplicant in The Fortress after his pregnant wife Adalia discovered the ugly sexual violence pervading his top-tier firm. She has agreed to continue their fractured relationship on the condition he enter The Fortress for one year.
Jonathon is utterly unprepared for what will happen to him over the course of the year – not only to his body, but his mind and his heart.
This absorbing, confronting and moving novel asks questions about consent, power, love and fulfilment. It asks what it takes for a man to change, and whether change is possible without a radical reversal of the conditions that seem normal.

Another uncomfortable but un-put-down-able read, The Fortress technically isn’t quite a 2020 release – it was originally published in 2018 in Jones’ native Australia. But it didn’t make it to the rest of us until this year, which is my justification for including it.

In a lot of ways Fortress reminds me of Handmaid’s Tale, and I think it’s the natural next step in the conversation Handmaid’s Tale started. It’s both a deconstruction of toxic masculinity and a reminder that simply flipping the patriarchy into a matriarchy wouldn’t solve things – as well as being an unbelievably addictive story. I thought I had too weak of a stomach for this kind of book, and there’s no denying that a lot of it is not-nice, but there was just no way to put it down. It’s so good!

The City We Became (Great Cities, #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: PoC cast, gay, two-spirit, M/M or mlm, trans secondary character
Published on: 24th March 2020

Three-time Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N.K. Jemisin crafts her most incredible novel yet, a story of culture, identity, magic, and myths in contemporary New York City.

In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn’t remember who he is, where he’s from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power.

In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it’s as if the paint is literally calling to her.

In Brooklyn, a politician and mother finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels.

And they’re not the only ones.

Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She’s got six.

It’s almost a given at this point that anything from NK Jemisin is going to blow us away, and City We Became is even more incredible than the most ardent Jemisin fan could have expected. What could I possibly say to do it justice? It’s a mic-drop to the urban fantasy genre; it’s clear that Jemisin is going to make UF her own just as she did with Epic Fantasy, and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next!

The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle #1) by Nghi Vo
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Nonbinary MC
Published on: 24th March 2020

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella as unconventional as its protagonist, the genderqueer priest Chih, whose priesthood collects stories and information. Beautiful, delicate prose subverts the expectations of Epic Fantasy and remakes them into something extraordinary, taking the often-untold stories of women and casting them onto the stage of kingdoms and empires. It’s deceptively quiet and soft, and it reads like music; both this and its sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, are something seriously special.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians: A Novel (The Shadow Histories Book 1) by H.G. Parry
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: WoC PoV character
Published on: 23rd June 2020

It is the Age of Enlightenment -- of new and magical political movements, from the necromancer Robespierre calling for revolution in France to the weather mage Toussaint L'Ouverture leading the slaves of Haiti in their fight for freedom, to the bold new Prime Minister William Pitt weighing the legalization of magic among commoners in Britain and abolition throughout its colonies overseas.
But amidst all of the upheaval of the early modern world, there is an unknown force inciting all of human civilization into violent conflict. And it will require the combined efforts of revolutionaries, magicians, and abolitionists to unmask this hidden enemy before the whole world falls to darkness and chaos.

I managed to review this one, so you can read my full thoughts on it over here, but in short, Rights of Magicians is a historical fantasy with the feel of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, despite engaging with much darker themes; the historical slave trade, and the bloody massacre of the French Revolution. Real historical figures appear in a world just a few side-steps from our own, where magic and classism are inextricably intertwined and Parry deftly weaves pointed commentary into an incredibly readable story!

Unconquerable Sun (The Sun Chronicles #1) by Kate Elliott
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: F/F or wlw, minor nonbinary character
Published on: 7th July 2020

Princess Sun has finally come of age.
Growing up in the shadow of her mother, Eirene, has been no easy task. The legendary queen-marshal did what everyone thought impossible: expel the invaders and build Chaonia into a magnificent republic, one to be respected—and feared.
But the cutthroat ambassador corps and conniving noble houses have never ceased to scheme—and they have plans that need Sun to be removed as heir, or better yet, dead.
To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.
Take the brilliance and cunning courage of Princess Leia—add in a dazzling futuristic setting where pop culture and propaganda are one and the same—and hold on tight:
This is the space opera you’ve been waiting for.

Unconquerable Sun was pitched as ‘genderflipped Alexander the Great, but in space!’ which should really be all you need to know. But just in case it isn’t, let me assure you that Elliott’s well-established skill at worldbuilding is on full display here, along with a cast of incredible characters who each have their own agendas and stories. Casually queer, intricately plotted, and playing for the highest of stakes, this is Elliott at her absolute best – and that’s saying something!

In Veritas by C.J. Lavigne
Representation: Mental health
Published on: 1st May 2020

"Things that are and are not, she thinks, and the dog is a snake."

In this fantastic and fantastical debut, C.J. Lavigne concocts a wondrous realm overlaying a city that brims with civic workers and pigeons. Led by her synesthesia, Verity Richards discovers a hidden world inside an old Ottawa theatre. Within the timeworn walls live people who should not exist--people whose very survival is threatened by science, technology, and natural law. Verity must submerge herself in this impossible reality to help save the last traces of their broken community. Her guides: a magician, his shadow-dog, a dying angel, and a knife-edged woman who is more than half ghost.

With great empathy and imagination, In Veritas explores the nature of truth and the complexities of human communication.

In Veritas is a beautifully strange book that reimagines the very heart of urban fantasy, lyrical and absolutely unique – and a must-read for everyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t quite belong.

And, frankly, a must-read for everyone else as well. If you’re looking for fantasy like it’s never been done before, look no further: this is it. Keep an eye on Lavigne, folx, and believe me when I say In Veritas is a book to savour and treasure.

The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/F or wlw, minor nonbinary character
Published on: 2nd June 2020

A fast-paced, well-plotted fantasy retelling of an ancient Scottish fairy tale ballad, this exciting debut will appeal to fans of Stephanie Garber's CARAVAL, Shea Ernshaw's THE WICKED DEEP, and Kendare Blake's THREE DARK CROWNS.
Every year on Walpurgis Night, Caldella's Witch Queen lures a young boy back to her palace. An innocent life to be sacrificed on the full moon to keep the island city from sinking.
Convinced her handsome brother is going to be taken, sixteen-year-old Lina Kirk enlists the help of the mysterious Tomas Lin, her secret crush, and the only boy to ever escape from the palace. Working together they protect her brother, but draw the Queen's attention. When the Queen spirits Tomas away instead, Lina blames herself and determines to go after him.
Caught breaking into the palace, the Queen offers Lina a deal: she will let Tomas go, if, of course, Lina agrees to take his place. Lina accepts, with a month before the full moon, surely she can find some way to escape. But the Queen is nothing like she envisioned, and Lina is not at all what the Queen expected. Against their will, they find themselves falling for each other. As water floods Caldella's streets and the dark tide demands its sacrifice, they must choose who to save: themselves, each other, or the island city relying on them both.

The Dark Tide is unquestionably one of the year’s highlights, and one that will stay with me forever. Breathtaking prose whisks you away to a world where the magic is truly magical and the witches are perfectly enchanting; the similarities to the story of Tam Lin are there, but Dark Tide leans on no one and nothing to establish itself or wow the reader. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and if it’s not on your best of the year list, then your list is wrong.

You can read my full review over here.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Lesbian MC of colour, cast of colour
Published on: 11th August 2020

Seth Dickinson's epic fantasy series which began with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, returns with the third book, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant.

The hunt is over. After fifteen years of lies and sacrifice, Baru Cormorant has the power to destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest that she pretends to serve. The secret society called the Cancrioth is real, and Baru is among them.

But the Cancrioth's weapon cannot distinguish the guilty from the innocent. If it escapes quarantine, the ancient hemorrhagic plague called the Kettling will kill hundreds of millions...not just in Falcrest, but all across the world. History will end in a black bloodstain.

Is that justice? Is this really what Tain Hu hoped for when she sacrificed herself?

Baru's enemies close in from all sides. Baru's own mind teeters on the edge of madness or shattering revelation. Now she must choose between genocidal revenge and a far more difficult path—a conspiracy of judges, kings, spies and immortals, puppeteering the world's riches and two great wars in a gambit for the ultimate prize.

If Baru had absolute power over the Imperial Republic, she could force Falcrest to abandon its colonies and make right its crimes.

I don’t think anyone would claim that Dickinson’s not a good writer, but I was wary of jumping into Tyrant – I remembered, vaguely, being creeped out by the first two books in the series (see the aforementioned weak stomach). And while Tyrant does have a decent amount of grossness in it, it’s also – finally! – an optimistic and triumphant book, the one everyone who’s been following Baru has been waiting for. And it’s just bloody (hah!) brilliant.

But definitely don’t start here, if you haven’t read the first two books!

Raybearer (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour, secondary asexual character, minor gay and lesbian characters
Published on: 18th August 2020

Nothing is more important than loyalty. But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?

With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.

I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Raybearer, and I waxed poetic about it in my review, and my feelings for it haven’t changed one bit. This is an incredible, and incredibly clever, book that draws from an African setting instead of the oft-defaulted-to Medieval Europe, and more than that, it’s a story that you live, not one you read. It’s a showstopper: the writing is stunning, the characters are fabulous, and the worldbuilding is to die for. It’s a great blazing light of a story, and if you haven’t picked it up yet, you are missing out!

Ifueko’s entered the scene with a bang, and I suspect she’ll rapidly become one of the genre’s heavy-hitters. She certainly deserves to be!

The Faithless Hawk (The Merciful Crow, #2) by Margaret Owen
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual love interest, secondary gay charachter, minor m/m
Published on: 18th August 2020

Kings become outcasts and lovers become foes in the thrilling sequel to Margaret Owen's The Merciful Crow.

As the new chieftain of the Crows, Fie knows better than to expect a royal to keep his word. Still she’s hopeful that Prince Jasimir will fulfill his oath to protect her fellow Crows. But then black smoke fills the sky, signaling the death of King Surimir and the beginning of Queen Rhusana's merciless bid for the throne.

With the witch queen using the deadly plague to unite the nation of Sabor against Crows—and add numbers to her monstrous army—Fie and her band are forced to go into hiding, leaving the country to be ravaged by the plague. However, they’re all running out of time before the Crows starve in exile and Sabor is lost forever.

A desperate Fie calls on old allies to help take Rhusana down from within her own walls. But inside the royal palace, the only difference between a conqueror and a thief is an army. To survive, Fie must unravel not only Rhusana’s plot, but ancient secrets of the Crows—secrets that could save her people, or set the world ablaze.

I’ve been trying to write a review of Merciless Crow, the first book in this duology, since it was released last year. I haven’t yet figured out how to capture its sheer awesomeness in words, and I’ve had the exact same problem with Faithless Hawk. Beautiful, sharp prose, incisive storytelling, characters you’d fight to the death for – and then throw in teeth-magic, dead gods, a wicked would-be queen and a heroine who is bitter and brutal and ruthless when it comes to protecting her own. It’s a recipe for perfection, is what it is, and Faithless Hawk only builds on the brilliance of the first book, taking the levels of epic higher and higher. It would be too much for a lesser writer to pull off, but in Owen’s hands, the execution is flawless.

She’s another one to watch, folx, mark my words.

Night Shine by Tessa Gratton
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: F/F or wlw, secondary genderfluid character, M/Genderfluid
Published on: 8th September 2020

An orphan girl must face untold danger and an ancient evil to save her kingdom’s prince in this lush, romantic fantasy perfect for fans of Girls of Paper and Fire and Tess of the Road.

How can you live without your heart?

In the vast palace of the empress lives an orphan girl called Nothing. She slips within the shadows of the Court, unseen except by the Great Demon of the palace and her true friend, Prince Kirin, heir to the throne. When Kirin is kidnapped, only Nothing and the prince’s bodyguard suspect that Kirin may have been taken by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls, a powerful woman who has plagued the land for decades. The sorceress has never bothered with boys before, but Nothing has uncovered many secrets in her sixteen years in the palace, including a few about the prince.

As the empress’s army searches fruitlessly, Nothing and the bodyguard set out on a rescue mission, through demon-filled rain forests and past crossroads guarded by spirits. Their journey takes them to the gates of the Fifth Mountain, where the sorceress wields her power. There, Nothing will discover that all magic is a bargain, and she may be more powerful than she ever imagined. But the price the Sorceress demands for Kirin may very well cost Nothing her heart.

Gratton specialises in non-traditional fantasy, and she’s outdone herself with Night Shine, as I explained at length in my review. An out-of-the-box story populated by brilliant characters, bucking any expectations you might bring to it (including the expectation that it’s going to be good, because it’s not good, it’s amazing) with worldbuilding to die for, this is a book everyone should be raving about.

The Scapegracers (Scapegracers, #1) by H. A. Clarke
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Lesbian MC, queer cast, F/F or wlw
Published on: 15th September 2020

An outcast teenage lesbian witch finds her coven hidden amongst the popular girls in her school, and performs some seriously badass magic in the process.

Skulking near the bottom of West High’s social pyramid, Sideways Pike lurks under the bleachers doing magic tricks for Coke bottles. As a witch, lesbian, and lifelong outsider, she’s had a hard time making friends. But when the three most popular girls pay her $40 to cast a spell at their Halloween party, Sideways gets swept into a new clique. The unholy trinity are dangerous angels, sugar-coated rattlesnakes, and now–unbelievably–Sideways’ best friends.

Together, the four bond to form a ferocious and powerful coven. They plan parties, cast curses on dudebros, try to find Sideways a girlfriend, and elude the fundamentalist witch hunters hellbent stealing their magic. But for Sideways, the hardest part is the whole ‘having friends’ thing. Who knew that balancing human interaction with supernatural peril could be so complicated?

Rich with the urgency of feral youth, The Scapegracers explores growing up and complex female friendship with all the rage of a teenage girl. It subverts the trope of competitive mean girls and instead portrays a mercilessly supportive clique of diverse and vivid characters. It is an atmospheric, voice-driven novel of the occult, and the first of a three-book series.

There are books that are about magic, and then there are books that are magic – and Scapegracers manages to be both. Clarke’s prose is pretty literally spellbinding, utterly exquisite, and I dare you not to fall in love with Sideways and her entire coven. There’s no quick blurb that can do justice to Scapegracers, because any attempt at describing the story makes it sound simple and generic, and it’s anything but; it’s feral and glittering and rich and deep, raw and glorious. Without question, this book is one of the year’s shining stars, and Clarke’s is a name to watch.

You can read more about it in my review!

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bisexual + disabled MC, queer cast
Published on: 22nd September 2020

A smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower—for good or ill—is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured. And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.

Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing. And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

A sharp, witty, modern debut, Hench explores the individual cost of justice through a fascinating mix of Millennial office politics, heroism measured through data science, body horror, and a profound misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.

Dear gods, this book! I sang its praises in a full review, but the tl;dr version is read this book immediately. It’s the wake-up call the superhero genre has been begging for, equal parts hilarious, poignant, and razor-sharp; this is a book that flips tables and dissects conventions and packs one hell of a punch. Even if you have no interest in superheroes (and -villains) at all, this is an absolute must-read, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep track of the name Walschots – because it’s one that’s going to soar.

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1) by Naomi Novik
Representation: Biracial MC
Published on: 29th September 2020

“a twisted, super dark, super modern, female-led Harry Potter”

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Sold yet?

I find it hard to explain why I love Deadly Education so much, because the moment you start describing a magic school packed full of monsters out to eat the students – many of whom don’t make it through graduation – it sounds…a little grim. And there’s no getting around the fact that it is, indeed, pretty dark. But it’s saved from total despair by the sharp and bitter tongue of its narrator, who is stridently resisting Fate’s insistence that she grow up to be a Dark Lady. El (short for Galadriel, because her mother is that kind of parent) is a brilliant, spiky character with far more heart than she gives herself credit for, and I absolutely adored her. The set-up and worldbuilding is one of my favourite takes on the magicals-hidden-from-mundanes trope, and Novik wrings your heart in her hands with how much she makes you love these kids. You’ll be on the edge of your seat rooting for them long before the final page.

This is a magic-school story for those of us who never would have fit in at Hogwarts.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Secondary asexual character
Published on: 13th October 2020

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

Midnight Bargain is a standalone, regency-style fantasy that is truly magical; it’s one of those books that pulls you in and makes you feel everything as if you’re living the story yourself. It rips your heart out and punches you in the gut for a follow-up – and then has you hugging the book to your chest, rolling around the bed with delight when things go well for the characters. Feminist in the best of ways, with beautiful magic and entrancing prose, I wouldn’t be surprised if Midnight Bargain wins Polk another World Fantasy Award.

My review!

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: F/F or wlw, WoC love interest, disabled and asexual-coded main character, minor trans character, minor Indigenous character
Published on: 13th October 2020

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Harrow rocked the genre with her debut Ten Thousand Doors of January, and although Once and Future Witches is very different, it makes it very clear that January was not a lucky fluke – Harrow has word-magic in her bones. Her sophomore novel is full of the same beautiful prose, but this time weaving witchcraft and feminism together, making them one and the same. What makes Once and Future Witches stand out from other stories that have tried to do this is a) the gentle reminder that feminism needs to be intersectional to be worthwhile, because b) white people ways are not the only ways, and c) the wiggle-your-toes-with-delight worldbuilding, packed full of tiny cool details like why women’s clothing doesn’t have pockets and the secret messages embedded in fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It’s a beautiful book with a wonderful cast of characters, and absolutely cements Harrow’s status as a writer to watch.

True Love Bites (Hunger Pangs #1) by Joy Demorra
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MCs, M/M or mlm, disability, anxiety,
Published on: 24th November 2020

In a world of dwindling hope, love has never mattered more...

Captain Nathan J. Northland had no idea what to expect when he returned home to Lorehaven injured from war, but it certainly wasn't to find himself posted on an island full of vampires. An island whose local vampire dandy lord causes Nathan to feel strange things he'd never felt before. Particularly about fangs.

When Vlad Blutstein agreed to hire Nathan as Captain of the Eyrie Guard, he hadn't been sure what to expect either, but it certainly hadn't been to fall in love with a disabled werewolf. However Vlad has fallen and fallen hard, and that's the problem.

Torn by their allegiances--to family, to duty, and the age-old enmity between vampires and werewolves--the pair find themselves in a difficult situation: to love where the heart wants or to follow where expectation demands.

The situation is complicated further when a mysterious and beguiling figure known only as Lady Ursula crashes into their lives, bringing with her dark omens of death, doom, and destruction in her wake.

And a desperate plea for help neither of them can ignore.

Thrown together in uncertain times and struggling to find their place amidst the rising human empire, the unlikely trio must decide how to face the coming darkness: united as one or divided and alone. One thing is for certain, none of them will ever be the same.

Everyone lucky enough to know about Joy Demorra’s ‘Phangs’ story has been on the edge of their seats waiting for it – and oh dear gods does it deliver! True Love Bites, the first part of Hunger Pangs, is…basically perfect??? The writing is tight, elegant, and delightful, the characters live and breathe on the pages, and the story itself is as clever as it is deliciously indulgent. There’s exactly enough worldbuilding, the relationships between the various characters are wonderful, and as someone suffering from a fibromyalgia flare-up when I started reading, I literally cried at seeing disabled characters placed front-and-center. I wouldn’t call it fluff – this is a story with meat on its bones – but it does make for wonderful escapism. This is one of those books that just makes you happy. I want to push it into everyone’s hands!

Lovequake by T.J. Land
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: PoC MC, M/M or mlm, F/F or wlw, minor asexual character, major trans character, disability
Published on: 26th November 2020

No one knows what to make of Sunday.

He’s handsome. He’s stylish. He’s got endless amounts of cash that he splashes around like water.

But there’s something just a little bit wrong about the way he talks – like he’s never had a conversation before – and the way he walks – like he expects walls to simply get out of his way. Though his hair and beard are immaculately groomed, he never brushes the former or trims the latter. And he talks to the sky.

All of which are very solid, sensible reasons for Zip Fletcher, cheerfully rude Welsh sex worker, not to develop a crush on him.

Zip is, however, not a sensible man.

LOVEQUAKE is an M/M + F/F romantic scifi adventure set against the backdrop of a quintillion-year-old cosmic war.

Lovequake is another indie read – I believe it’s self-published – that absolutely blew me away, and made me grin so hard my cheeks hurt. From the very first scene, in which the alien visiting earth accidentally names himself after an ice-cream sundae, it was clear this book was going to be something special, and it really, really is! The writing is phenomenal, and although the story is light in tone there’s an incredible richness here, both in terms of diversity and in the depths it dives to in pursuit of real meaning. It tackles issues and plays with concepts I’ve never seen in science fiction before, and I’m not sure I’ve ever fallen in love with a whole cast of characters so thoroughly. Lovequake is a book that sweeps you off your feet and washes your exhaustion and cynicism away, and it ought to be all over the bestseller lists!

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Secondary nonbinary character

When the witch built the forty-flight tower, she made very sure to do the whole thing properly. Each flight contains a dreadful monster, ranging from a diamond-scaled dragon to a pack of slavering goblins. Should a prince battle his way to the top, he will be rewarded with a golden sword—and the lovely Princess Floralinda.

But no prince has managed to conquer the first flight yet, let alone get to the fortieth.

In fact, the supply of fresh princes seems to have quite dried up.

And winter is closing in on Floralinda…

Books published after September or so get a pretty raw deal when it comes to ‘best of the year’ lists; for Florinda’s sake, I wish it had been published earlier in the year! But there’s no question that it’s a masterpiece. What sounds like a fun, fluffy tale turns out to be rich and wry and clever – and fun! But also complicated and quite dark in places; it’s a balance perhaps only Muir could have struck and made work as beautifully as it does. I wasn’t sure what to expect, after loving both Gideon and Harrow the Ninth, but I ended up adoring it even more than those! Tower is perfect for those who’ve read Muir’s other books, but also a great place to start for those who haven’t – or for anyone who’d like to avoid all the necromancy in the Locked Tomb series.

Therein concludes my list! What were your favourite reads of 2020? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!

And here’s to an infinitely better 2021 for all of us!

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2 responses to “The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2020!

  1. It really has been a year of excellent books in spite of all odds – the ones I’ve read from your list I’ve loved; and there’s a heap here that are on my shelf awaiting my eyes that I’m really excited for. I’m also really glad to see a positive word for Tyrant Baru Cormorant – Monster got such a lukewarm response, it’s good to hear someone bang the drum for the series beyond Traitor.

    • We really did get lucky with the books in 2020! Definitely made it easier to get through. But yes, if you can get through Monster, Tyrant is EPIC. Renewed my faith in Dickinson for sure!

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