The year is almost done. I’m still trying to catch up on all the wonderful books that came out this year. I will always be trying to catch up on all the wonderful books that came out in any given year. It’s a delightful problem to have. I will never truly feel sufficiently caught up, but that’s not going to stop me from sharing a list of my favorites novels and novellas thus far!
In fact, I already started the process with a post at Vernacular Books. But, as is my way, I have more books to add! To quickly recap, here are the books included in my Vernacular post. You can read about each in more detail over there.
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Riot Baby by Tochi Oyenbuchi
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
And now that your TBR pile is already teetering perilously, the list grows…
The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler
This is a collection I’ve been waiting for since I first encountered E. Catherine Tobler’s circus stories. Did my need to read it will the collection into being? Probably not, but you’re free to thank me anyway. The Grand Tour brings together many, but not all, of Tobler’s stories set in and around Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Like the circus itself, the stories move fluidly through time and space, revealing wonders and terrors along the way. Tobler’s writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, and the collection offers up a delightful blend of horror, science fiction, fantasy, history, and even a hint of romance. There are vanishing acts, found families, and jars of marmalade that hold moments in time. There are people donning costumes in order to shed their disguises and become their true selves. It’s a truly gorgeous collection, and once you’ve properly immersed yourself in Jackson’s world, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Kraken Sea as well so you can go back to Jackson’s roots and see how it all began.
Thin Places by Kay Chronister
An atmospheric, moody, and haunting collection full of beautifully written stories. A few in particular truly stood out, namely “Too Lonely, Too Wild”, “Roiling Without Form”, and “Life Cycles”. If you’re new to Chronister’s writing, this is an excellent place to start in order to get a sense of her strong voice and her eerie and lingering characters and settings. If you’ve read her work before, then you know how wonderful it is, so why not treat yourself to a whole collection?
Docile by K.M. Szpara
A near-future science fiction novel that presents a frightening and all-too-plausible look at the economic systems designed to allow the wealthy to hold onto their position and power, while everyone else is caught up in a endless cycle of debt passed down from generation to generation. Elisha sells himself into service as a Docile in order to protect his sister and pay off his family’s debt. As a Docile, he must absolutely obey the will of his owner, Alexander Bishop III, whose family just so happens to be behind the invention and manufacture of Dociline, a drug designed to completely remove a Docile’s will. Elisha saw Dociline ruin his mother’s mind, leaving her an empty shell, and swears he will never take it, meaning he will be fully aware of everything that goes on during his term of service where he must completely submit himself to Alex’s will. Docile is by no means an easy read, exploring uncomfortable territory around consent and abuse. The discomforting nature of the story is deliberately done, and it is balanced and grounded by characters that feel deeply human, whose choices and actions grow out of their worldviews, no matter how unsettling those world views might be.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
Set in Lemberg’s Birdverse, this novella explores transformation and self-discovery, as two trans elders seek answers about themselves and where they belong in the world. The prose is poetic, and the worldbuilding rich and immersive. The fact that the story centers on two grandparents taking on an epic journey filled with magic and danger sets it apart from other quest stories, and highlights one of the novella’s central themes – to be alive is to be constantly in the act of becoming, and one’s self is not a finite, but a thing that constantly evolves and grows. Earlier this year, I wrote a post discussing the novella in more depth, which can be found here.
Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
A fast-paced space opera, which like Szpara’s Docile explores systems of debt, and questions of who has access to resources. Ash Jackson is a salvage pilot doing her best to hide a chronic illness that would leave her out of a job if her employers ever found out. After an encounter with a mysterious alien artifact, Ash’s entire world beings to unravel and she is caught up amidst companies out for profit, conspiracies, and secrets, unsure who to trust or where to turn. The writing is sharp and brilliant, the worldbuilding fantastic, and the characters highly relatable, which makes the situations they are forced into even more brutal and heartbreaking. Not only does Osborne do a fantastic job of exploring the uncaring nature of corporations and the distribution of wealth, she perfectly captures the physical and emotional cost of war and its ongoing impact long after the fighting itself is done.
The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper
Piper blends cosmic horror with the real-world horrors of transphobia and a system that allows people to fall through the cracks into poverty and homelessness. After losing her job, falling out with her family, and nearly dying at the hands of a back-alley surgeon, Monique is simply trying to survive, living in the abandoned tunnels beneath New York City. When the only good thing in her life, her girlfriend Donna, disappears, Monique sets out to find her. She knows Donna was taken, and that she isn’t the only one. Others have disappeared, people like herself and Donna that nobody else will care about or miss. Monique encounters a creature known as Grey Hill, a monster out of urban legends, who is responsible for the disappearances. She gives chase, and finds the mystery goes much deeper than a lone creature snatching people away. There’s a whole secret society living beneath the music hall with a plan to unleash horrors of cosmic proportions. Piper offers up truly unsettling and haunting descriptions, striking imagery, and a unique monster in Grey Hill. The cosmic horrors waiting to be unleashed are a troubling mirror for the real-world horrors Monique faces. The doctor who nearly ends her life and the cult (and their cosmic masters) she encounters underground are two sides of the same coin – uncaring beings who see people like her as fodder, a means to an end. The Worm and His Kings is a highly-effective novella that explores horror on multiple levels – both supernatural and mundane.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
This tense and eerie novel is either the perfect thing to read during a pandemic, or the worst, depending on your state of mind. Written well before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Tremblay accurately captures so many aspects of a global medical catastrophe – the scramble for resources and a response, the distrust and misinformation, the paranoia, and the breakdown in communication leaving people stranded. Natalie is eight months pregnant when the virus hits, a rabies-like sickness that turns people and animals into violent, zombie-like creatures. She and her husband are attacked in their home, her husband is killed, and Natalie is bitten. Natalie turns to her friend and college roommate, Dr. Ramola Sherman, for help, and she and Rams begin a desperate race against the clock to get Natalie to a hospital where she can hopefully be vaccinated before it’s too late, or if worst comes to worst, her baby can be safely delivered even if she succumbs. Tremblay puts a unique spin on the (don’t call them)zombies trope with ravenous creatures who spout unsettling nonsense that sometimes sounds like religious doctrine. The characters and relationships at the heart of the story lend it real emotional weight, making for a surprisingly effective ending that had me tearing up at times.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
A highly satisfying epic fantasy with perfect pacing that makes it feel like a fast read despite the hefty page count. Roanhorse weaves together multiple storylines and points of view, as the characters are slowly drawn together for the impending celestial event known appropriately enough as Convergence. Serapio was blinded and scarred by his mother as a child to make him a living vessel for a lost god; Xiala is a sea captain who frequently finds herself on the wrong side of the law, and is equally feared and revered for her ability to command the sea through song; Naranpa is the current Sun Priest, caught at the heart of a conspiracy to depose her. The worldbuilding is rich, the characters wonderful, and the writing beautiful as Roanhorse explores the notion of epic destiny and what happens when the purpose you’ve been building toward your entire life goes completely off the rails.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Where Kingfisher’s delightfully creepy The Twisted Ones (published in 2019) took on Arthur Machen’s classic horror story “The White People”, The Hollow Places takes on Algernon Blackwood’s cosmic horror novella “The Willows”. In the wake of her divorce, Kara (known as Carrot to friends and family) moves into her uncle’s Wonder Museum to take care of the place for him while he has surgery. The Wonder Museum is an establishment crammed full of strange taxidermy and other oddities, and when one more oddity arrives – a small carving from the Danube region labeled “corpse otter” – Carrot thinks nothing of it. Until a mysterious hole appears in one of the Wonder Museum’s walls, and she and her neighbor Simon, who runs the coffee shop next door, discover an entire world behind the wall. The novel is rife with intensely creepy imagery and truly skin-crawling moments, and captures the spirit of Blackwood’s original novella, while giving it a fresh spin. The cosmic horror on display here is of the vast, uncaring universe, coupled with the awesome and terrifying power of nature variety, rather than the squamous, tentacled variety, which is refreshing as not as many authors seem to be playing that corner of the sub-genre playground. I highly recommend picking up The Twisted Ones as well and giving that a read while you’re at it!
The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
A glorious manners and magic novel reminiscent at times of The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, while being utterly its own thing. Beatrice is a powerful sorceress, practicing magic in secret, collecting grimoires in order to learn how to make The Great Bargain and bind a major spirit to her will. She isn’t merely seeking power for her own sake, but also to help her father with his business, and ensure her family’s financial future without having to get married. Her family, and society at large, has other plans for her however. Marriage, however, means Beatrice will be forced to wear a collar that will suppress her powers in the name of keeping any potential children that might be conceived safe from demonic possession. In her quest for grimoires, Beatrice crosses paths with Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe. Beatrice learns that Ysbeta is after the same thing she is, and they strike a deal to share knowledge, which quickly blossoms into a friendship. At the same time a romantic relationship blooms between Beatrice and Ianthe – one which could endanger all of her plans, even as it delights her family. The novel is sumptuous, filled with glorious descriptions of fashion, food, and buildings, and the characters are wonderful. The intricate social relationships, and delicate balance Beatrice must keep between all the people in her life in order to pull off her plans mirrors perfectly the bargains she must make with the spirit Nadi in order to accomplish her goals. Everything in her life is a negotiation, and there are rules to be followed and cleverly subverted. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the choices Beatrice faces brutal and heartbreaking, and the characters’ and the way they deal with each other brings it all together. Even when there is subterfuge involved, characters respect each other, have honest conversations, and genuinely try to understand each others’ viewpoints, something which doesn’t happen often enough in fiction. Polk provides a masterclass in a narrative that offers up plenty of tension and obstacles for characters to overcome without relying solely on said characters butting heads literally or figuratively.
The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller
Miller perfectly blends crime, mystery, and the supernatural in a story set in a fictionalized version of Hudson, NY – a town with a bloody past rooted in the whaling industry, currently caught between dying and gentrification. Ronan finds himself on a train from Manhattan, headed back to his hometown. Hudson is the place he deliberately left behind, where his mother committed suicide and he was ruthlessly bullied by homophobes as a kid. He hadn’t intended to return, and in truth, he isn’t entirely certain why he has, as he has no memory of boarding the train of what he’s doing there. The first person he encounters on his arrival is Dom, his best friend, and first love, now a cop married to another former classmate, Attalah. Ronan quickly rekindles his friendship with Dom, which leads to a rekindling of their romantic and sexual relationship as well, even as he deepens his friendship with Attalah over their mutual hatred for the outsiders taking over their town. Attalah and Ronan develop a plot to drive out the gentrifiers and retake Hudson, but in doing so, they accidentally tap into something larger and more powerful than themselves, a supernatural force fueled by hate, which neither of them can control. The Blade Between is beautifully-written, the fantastical elements meshing perfectly with the real world issues of eviction and substance abuse, and the complicated and messy human relationships at the book’s heart. The Blade Between is by turns painful and hopeful, not shying away from the ugliness and hatred humans are capable of, but showing their capacity for kindness and caring as well. Miller’s Hudson is both a haven and a hell, a thin place slipped out of time where great wonders and great terrors exist side by side, and occasionally, the ghosts of long-dead whales sail the skies.
Despite the length of this list, I’m always looking to add to my TBR pile. What books did you love this year?