We all know that 2020 was not exactly a banner year in most ways. It did, however, afford some time for good reading. Since everyone is doing year’s end compilations, I’m going to offer a selection of the new books I perused last year. They weren’t all newly published in 2020; that just happened to be when I read them.
- Starsight (2019). For some reason, I still haven’t been thrilled by Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy (other than his completion of The Wheel of Time, which was masterful). I must be missing something, given his rep. But I was intrigued to see him venture into science fiction with Skyward (2018). His heroine, one of the young pilots defending an embattled human refuge on a far-off planet, is a near-outcast, fiery and determined. She shone in Skyward; the sequel, Starsight, took her in new directions amid unexpected developments. Her story appears to be complete as a duology, though the Wikipedia page for Starsight says there are two more books in that universe to come.
- In the category of “best book about mercenary librarians,” I enjoyed Kit Rocha’s Deal With the Devil (2020). Dystopias aren’t usually my locales of choice, but I couldn’t resist a tale of near-future ninja-like librarians in a collapsed America, with a post-apocalyptic mission somewhat in the vein of A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Encyclopedia Galactica. The strong romance elements didn’t hurt either. There are more books in this series too, but I haven’t read them yet.
- I’m still learning how best to appreciate John Scalzi, and his fabulously eccentric sense of humor. I didn’t take to his reworking of H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy stories, but his Collapsing Empire trilogy (2017-2020) was great reading. It kept me eager for more, despite the atmosphere of inevitable disaster (see above re dystopias) and the deadly political infighting. The story has just enough likable characters and just enough victory to keep it from being a downer. It’s also a fascinating study in how to do space opera that’s sufficiently weird to qualify in today’s market—a subject in which I have great interest.
- Arabella the Traitor of Mars (2018) completes the trilogy whose first volume I discussed a while back. Still great fun, and a satisfying conclusion. I suppose this counts as science fiction, though the premises—a solar system filled with breathable air in which open-decked ships actually sail between the planets—are so wild that one doesn’t want to examine them too closely: way down toward the soft end of the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness,” but succeeding in spades under the “Rule of Cool.”
- Kevin Wade Johnson’s Roads Between Worlds (2013) gives us a different take on the many-worlds theme, with unusual and engaging characters wielding conceptually mysterious talents. I’m pointing to the Amazon page here for reference, but Johnson is moving his books to another platform and I gather there may be a brief hiatus before they’re available again.
- Shorefall (2020) is perhaps the winner in the category of “books that seemed like endings but weren’t.” I read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (2018) with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by its exotic magic system, colorful and diverse characters, and steampunkish city setting. As with Starsight, the sequel both doubled down and expanded the universe in new directions—a combination I’m coming to think is crucial for a series. Right up to the end of Shorefall, I had the idea this was a duology; until at nearly the last minute I realized, OMG, it isn’t over. Bennett raises the stakes almost unbearably in this second volume, and now I’m going to be watching the skies to see the “Unknown” listing for the third volume on Goodreads turn to something definite that I can anticipate.
- Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) and its sequel The True Queen (2019), by Zen Cho, win the award for best Regency fantasy of the year. (One might suppose that “Regency fantasy” would be a vanishingly small category, but it seems to be a growth industry, from The Enchanted Chocolate Pot to the many series of Gail Carriger.) Dragons, dilettantes, Malaysian mages, and British political intrigue blend in this very entertaining series. There’s a third volume expected here, as well. The pull of the trilogy is hard to resist.
- Jo Walton writes not only crackerjack commentary on fantasy and science fiction, but some of the most offbeat and philosophically sophisticated fantasy around. I try to avoid buying hardcopy books these days—I’m running out of bookshelf space—but I sent away for a copy of Among Others (2011) to keep after I read it from the library (and promptly lent my new copy to my daughter). It’s not easy to tell where the story is going—it keeps you guessing; but the end is satisfying and appropriate.
- Beth Overmyer’s The Goblets Immortal (2020) is a promising series opener, with plenty of adventure, sympathetic characters, and a unique system of magic. Aidan and Slaíne are an unlikely but engaging pair, on the run from their pasts, seeking to solve the mysteries of the Blest and the curious effects of the Goblets. The next book in the series, Holes in the Veil, comes out February 16. Join us here next time to hear a bit about how Beth developed the series.
- As we wind up the Christmas season, I want to give a nod to the Dash & Lily books by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (2010-2020), even though (a heavy burden to bear) they’re not science fiction or fantasy. I caught the Netflix series based on the first book, and was motivated to hunt up the books themselves (read two, one to go). Loved these characters; just the right combination of snark and warmth to celebrate the season.
Uncharacteristic as it may seem, I spent some time this year engrossed in nonfiction works too. Many of them I can claim as research for my next project—or maybe it’s just that when you’re focused on X, everything you read seems to have some relation to X. The nonfiction catch included—
- Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), on how civilizations rise and fall;
- Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets (2019), on competition, concentration, and free markets;
- Jeff Sypeck’s Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of AD 800 (2006), on the origin of the Carolingian dynasty that united a sizable part of Europe for the first time since the fall of Rome;
- Robert Gates’s Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World (2020), on the various modalities of international power and action;
- Jonathan S. McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie (2017), a fascinating work on a subject so specialized that I’d thought I was the only one interested.
Happy reading in 2021!