What a year. All I can really say is thank god for the books that got me through it, that distracted me from the hell outside, that kept me going through the 23-hour-a-day, over 100 days long lockdown here in Melbourne. Thank you to the bookshops and authors who were able to keep supplying us with magical worlds to escape into, during a time where we really needed an escape. So I’m going to jump straight in to this post without saying anything else – here are my favourite books read in 2020!
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
If I had to choose just one book, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is my book of the year. It’s the book I read as an ARC earlier this year, immediately pre-ordered my own hard copy, and have since gifted to 3 or 4 other people. Because I need as many people as possible to read this. This is the modern gothic novel of my dreams. It is dark and twisted and the atmosphere is utterly captivating. Set in 1950s Mexico, it follows Noemí, a young socialite who goes to visit (and potentially rescue) her cousin after she receives a letter hinting that her cousin is in danger. Up high in the misty mountains of Mexico is a world of dangers, many mushroom related, and all equally terrifying and atmospheric, the tension in this novel is absolutely sublime.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
YA contemporary is a genre I only came to last year, but I have loved exploring the new releases in this genre, years after I myself was a teen, because we just have so many more diverse reads than when I grew up. And it really just makes my heart sing when I see myself in books that never would have been published when I grew up. Felix Ever After is one of these books. It is one of the most personal and heartfelt stories I’ve read, and I connected so closely with Felix. It is a story about a young trans man who decides to catfish his bully and ends up in a quasi-love triangle. But what Felix Ever After does best is really explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality and it is this that made this book connect so personally to me.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Much like Mexican Gothic, The Space Between Worlds was a book I snagged an ARC of and then immediately upon finishing had to buy the hard copy. Because this book is spectacular. It’s probably my favourite science fiction novel of all time. It’s a twist on the parallel universe trope, but in this world, you can only travel between parallel universes if the parallel you is already dead. Otherwise you’ll be gruesomely torn apart in the process of travelling. But this book is so much more than that trope: it’s a catastrophic take down of capitalism, it’s like a glimpse into our future if we carry on down the track we’re heading, set in this world ravaged by climate change and where the divide between poor and rich is so glaringly horrific. From the way Johnson depicts trauma and portrays Cara in the aftermath of this trauma, to the intense, full-of-yearning sapphic relationship, everything about this book is just excellent and Johnson has found a reader for life in me.
The Unspoken Name by A.K Larkwood
This was a book I read fairly early on in the year (April) just as the pandemic started ramping up and anxiety was at its highest. And god, it just blew me away. I was completely immersed in the world created by Larkwood and it was such a perfect distraction. I’ve spent the entire year since April thinking ‘yes, I need to reread this book’. And since we now have confirmation of a sequel coming this year, I’ll definitely be rereading it in advance of that! The Unspoken Name has everything I adore about fantasy: sapphic orcs escaping from gods who want them as a sacrifice, necromancy, slowburn sapphic romance, very powerful women totally losing their shit, wizards, tusks, portal travel, and so much more! The worldbuilding is so brilliant, this world is just absolutely huge and full of so much amazing detail. It really reminded me of the DragonAge games, which I also adore, so really it’s no surprise that this is one of my favourite books of the year! Bring on the sequel!
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales
This book holds a particularly special place in my heart for several reasons. Firstly, it is the only book I have ever received a physical ARC of – I won it in the bushfire auctions at the start of 2020. And secondly, the Melbourne book launch for this was the very last event I went to before Covid hit and the entire country went into lockdown. And that’s before I even talk about the actual content of the book. This was just such a perfectly fun, lighthearted queer Grease retelling. The main character, Ollie, has such a funny voice, he was so sarcastic and self-deprecating which is one of my favourite voice styles to read in YA. And Gonzales absolutely nailed it. It also has some really fantastic discussions around queerness, particularly bisexuality. Only Mostly Devastated really reminded me of all my favourite 90s romcom films, like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, and it was such a brilliant, positive book to read in a time when the world was crashing apart around us.
The Library of the Unwritten by A.J Hackwith
One of my first reads of 2020, this one managed to stay on my favourites list for the entirity of 2020! It is quite possibly the most fun fantasy book I’ve ever read, just so full of joy and laughter. It’s set in Hell’s library, a place where all the unwritten manuscripts are housed. When a character escapes from one of the books, the librarian must hunt them down, but somehow ends up in the middle of a war between Heaven and Hell. The writing style is so funny and snarky, I absolutely loved it. And the casual queerness in the world is perfect – even more so because the word pansexual is actually used on the page to describe the main character!! Which is the first time I think I’d read that in a fantasy book! The worldbuilding also felt very hopeful – there are no guns in the library because humans stopped imaginning them – small inserts like that really gave this book the happy and joyful atmosphere that had me so in love with it.
How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
One of my goals for 2020 was to actually read some nonfiction/memoirs for the first time, and it makes me so happy that one of them actually made my favourite books of the year list! How We Fight For Our Lives is a memoir from award-winning poet Saeed Jones, and you can definitely tell Jones’ background is in poetry. The prose in this memoir is absolutely stunning. It felt like someone had punched me in the chest the whole through, like there was this gaping hole inside me, the way that only the most special of books can make you feel. Stunning and heartbreaking and a book I am longing to reread.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Mostly Dead Things is the book that most surprised me in 2020. It was a book I randomly saw on a library shelf and picked up with absolutely no expectations (especially given the Goodreads rating is also fairly low – so let me preface this by saying, GOODREADS PEOPLE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!). But I was absolutely blown away by this adult contemporary. It is one of the most visceral, sensual books I’ve ever read, which created such an intense reading experience. It is definitely a strange book: it follows a taxidermist whose father commited suicide and whose mother now makes erotic art out of the taxidermy animals. It is dark and follows a lot of selfish, unlikeable characters making really shitty decisions. But I was just completely enthralled by Arnett’s writing, it is such a raw, agonising portrayal of grief that I felt like someone clawed me open the whole way through. Absolutely stunning!
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro & The Ikessar Falcon by K.S Villoso
I read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro back in January, and The Ikessar Falcon when it released in September, and this series immediately moved to my all time favourite fantasy series. I am so excited for the finale to this trilogy (coming in May!) Villoso is one of my favourite fantasy authors for a very particular reason: I like pain. I read this series, I think my favourite characters are at absolute rock bottom, that things can only go up! And then Villoso just smashes me and the characters with a rock and we tumble even further. There is such power in knowing that anything could happen to these characters, that they actually might not win. They all fill me with such passion, both fury and fierce loyalty. Villoso embeds her writing with such excellent character development, alongside so much action in a way that not many fantasies do (usually we see a focus on either one or the other). This series in an absolute masterpiece of fantasy and I need more people to read this so we can scream about it together.
The City We Became by N.K Jemisin
N.K Jemisin is one of my all time favourite authors and writer of one of my favourite fantasy series The Broken Earth trilogy, so of course I had very high hopes for the start of a new trilogy, The City We Became. And of course, this is N.K Jemisin, so all my hopes were met! What a start to a new trilogy! This is extremely different to the Broken Earth trilogy. In The City We Became, we are in modern day New York, in a world where cities can become alive when they reach a certain size and develop a unique enough culture. New York is waking up, and six individuals suddenly find themselves with the soul of the city inside them. They have to fight back against The Enemy, who wants to destroy the city so New York doesn’t destroy other worlds when it wakes up. This was such a unique and creative concept but my favourite thing about Jemisin’s writing is the way she blends science fiction and fantasy elements with the insidiousness of racism and otherness to create this spectacular commentary on our current world. It’s just absolutely incredible. Jemisin really has a way of combining these huge creative powerhouse concepts with vicious take downs of societal structures and the racism they uphold.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J Klune
T.J Klune is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, I haven’t read a single book of his that I didn’t love. The House in the Cerulean Sea is probably the most comforting book I read all year. It felt like a hug. It’s that simple. It follows a caseworker from the Department in Charge of Magical Youth as he goes to check on some very special children at a very special orphanage. There, he finds even more than he ever dreamed himself worthy of: family. This book was just the sweetest, happiest, most joyful book I read all year. It is full of Klune’s trademark emotional wringing, from laughter on one page, to tears on the next, but it is so full of hope and joy that I want everyone to have the most magical of times reading it.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The Mercies was my first Kiran Millwood Hargrave book, and Hargrave’s first adult book. And what a fucking book it is. I haven’t traditionally been the biggest reader of historical fiction – there’s a reason this list is mostly SFF after all! But I am so glad I decided to give this book a try, because it was absolutely beautiful. This book almost felt gothic in its atmosphere, set in this far-away, cold, and lonely village in Norway. It follows a group of women after the menfolk of their village are all killed in a violent storm, and suddenly they have to fend for themselves. But then a new commissioner, a witch hunter, is sent to the village, and as he tries to take back control from the women, friendship is weaponised and the women are manipulated into throwing about rumours of witchcraft that result in the most horrific of acts. This was such a beautifully destructive book, really showing the way power, and the desire for power, can warp and destroy everything you hold dear.
Jade City and Jade War were my first two reads of 2020 and they stayed at the top of my favourites list ALL YEAR! These two chonky books follow the Kaul family crime syndicate as they try to wrest control of their city from their rival clan. I am so phenomenally in awe of Fonda Lee’s ability to write battle scenes. The intensity, the fear, the panic that claws through me when I read these fight scenes is absolutely unparalleled, I absolutely race through them, desperate to know if my favourite characters will still be alive at the end. The worldbuilding is also exceptionally well done, the world is so huge and yet I feel like I know the city of Kekon so well through Lee’s writing. The magic system is so cool – using jade to grant almost superhero like abilities, but ones that require huge amounts of training to achieve? Perfection! So in summary, I love everything about this series and I am shaking with excitment (and perhaps fear) to read the finale which is publishing in September!
It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake by Claire Christian
This really was the year I learned that happy books can be good too….I am such a sucker for a SFF novel that brutally tears me apart, but this year I really learned the benefit and necessity of a pure comfort read. And adding to my other new comfort reads on this list Only Mostly Devastated, The Library of the Unwritten, and The House in the Cerulean Sea, is It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake! Not only is the cover absolutely beautiful in real life (the pink is so bright, my heart just sings looking at it), but this book is such a beautiful and positive outlook on life. It made me think about the way I view the world and how I think and how I can be a more positive person. It’s a book all about making yourself find pleasure in life, about doing the things you’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s sex-positive, the representation of bisexuality is phenomenal, and Christian has such humourous writing that I laughed my way through this book from start to end.
The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang
Queer novellas are really in a golden age right now, and it makes me so happy that one of the ones I read this year made it into my favourites! Neon Yang’s novella series is incredible. Currently, there are 4 parts, the first being The Black Tides of Heaven. I am so impressed at the detail and standard of worldbuilding Yang was able to incorporate into such a small book. It is by far some of the most impressive novella writing I’ve ever read. The casualised queerness is exceptional, and I was overjoyed to see the way gender is explored in this world, with children growing up gender neutral until a time when they are ready to make a decision. Can we do that in real life please? I have also read (and loved!) the fourth novella in this series, The Ascent to Godhood, and plan to read the middle two asap because I long for more time spent in this beautifully created world.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Yes, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has such power that TWO of her books are on my favourite books of 2020 list!! I will literally buy everything she writes from now until eternity. This fantasy was one of my last reads of the year, and it was such a beautiful way to finish it. Gods of Jade and Shadow is set in 1920s Mexico, and follows Casiopea, a young woman who accidentally awakens the Mayan God of Death. Oops. It follows them on an adventure across Mexico as the two try to restore his power before he sucks her energy dry, killing her in the process and turning himself mortal. This book was just so full of adventure and curiosity and hope. Moreno-Garcia’s writing is absolutely picturesque, I felt like I could see each of the places they visited so clearly, from the bustling heart of Mexico City, to the desert of El Paso. The romance is spectacular – accidentally falling in love with the Mayan God of Death is exactly the type of fantasy romance I love. You know how it must end, and yet your heart is just torn apart watching them fall more and more in love. The yearning in this book is just out of this world. I never cry at books, and there were so many tender, beautiful moments between the two of them near the end, that I was tearing up so much!! Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the most exciting authors writing right now, and I cannot wait to read her THREE, yes THREE, releases coming in 2021.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Last on my list, but very much not least, is my final read of 2020! Winter’s Orbit is a 2021 release (coming February!) that I had an ARC for, and I really cannot express how much I need everyone to pre-order this book. It is the exact style of SFF that I have been longing for. Winter’s Orbit follows two men, Kiem and Jainan, after they are made to marry shortly after the death of Jainan’s first husband, in order to sign a treaty that keeps their empire safe from invasion. This book is just so full of joy: it is full of some of your favourite tropes including a variation of a personal favourite of mine, there’s only one tent… The romance and pining is so beautiful, the way their relationship develops is just perfect – from the uncommunicative, forced marriage start, to the foolhardy resuces to save the other! I also thought the writing about domestic abuse and the trauma from Jainan’s first marriage was really well handled, and written really beautifully. Please no one ever hurt sweet Jainain again!!! This book is the tropey fun I have been longing to see in SFF and I can’t wait to get a hard copy and reread it when it releases in Feb!
And another year is now passed, along with 17 new favourites to add to my bookshelves! What were your favourite books of 2020? Do we have any of the same ones? Let me know in the comments! I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and let’s make 2021 less shit, yes!