Year-end, favorite reads lists always make me a bit itchy. I adore shouting about the books I love, but there’s always a voice in the back of my mind telling me I haven’t read everything, I’m still so behind, and besides the year isn’t over yet! The truth is, it would be almost impossible to keep up with all the wonderful books published in a given year, so let’s call this a list of a few of my favorite novels and novellas published in 2020 (so far) while acknowledging there’s a lot to catch up on. All that said, I enjoyed the heck out of these ten books, and I hope you will too!
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Tor Books, July 2020)
Phyllis (Pea) is blessed with saint’s hands, or cursed with them, depending on your point of view. They make her incredibly skilled with knives, a skill she uses in service of Russian Vic, a mobster, meting out his version of justice. Dev has saint’s hands too, and they tell him where threats lie, a useful skill as a bartender in Vic’s employ. Tamara doesn’t have saint’s hands, but she has a way with cards. When she isn’t dancing for patrons in Vic’s club, or managing the talent, she uses her cards to try to understand the forces of fate binding her, Pea, and Dev together. Trouble the Saints is a noir-inflected dark fantasy, set in an alternate 1940s, rife with magic and danger, and Johnson’s writing is lush and breathtaking. The novel is told in three parts – Pea’s voice, Dev’s voice, and Tamara’s. Their stories overlap as they each try come to grips with their pasts, the hurts they’ve caused, and the relationships they’ve broken. Yet love and hope still abides in each of them, even as they grapple with impossible choices.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom, October 2020)
Ring Shout is one of several recent, brilliant works that tap into the well of cosmic horror and Lovecraftian mythology to explore the real-world horrors of racism, shifting the focus of the story to those Lovecraft himself would have found monstrous (i.e. non-white, non-male people). Maryse Boudreaux specializes in killing monsters, specifically Klu Kluxes, who look like regular Klansmen on the surface, but are in reality beings from another dimension. They want to come through to this world, and hate is the doorway they intend to use. However there are other forces at work in the world, and drawing on the strength of those forces, and of her own community, Maryse intends to plant herself in the way of evil and send it packing. The voice and characters are perfect, and Clark expertly blends real-world horror with the supernatural for a truly chilling tale.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey, June 2020)
Noemi receives a letter from her cousin, asking her to come to the remote manor house where she lives with her husband. All the Gothic trappings are in place in this sumptuous novel, including the gaslighting husband who claims nothing is wrong despite Noemi’s cousin’s fears, the mysterious and rarely-seen elder relative confined to his room, the remote location, the pervasive sense of dread, and the household servants who are loyal to their master(s) and openly hostile to everyone else. Moreno-Garcia does an excellent job of capturing the Gothic feel, and combining it with cosmic horror, ramping up dread and unease at each turn, and offering up striking – and strikingly horrific – imagery. The novel explores both supernatural horrors, and the horrors of colonialism and those who feel they have the right to consume everything in their path as they take their perceived rightful place as rulers and masters.
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed (Solaris, March 2020)
What would you sacrifice for knowledge, especially if that knowledge could lead to new technology like clean, renewable energy to benefit all of humanity? Mohamed ask this question, and more, in a novel that flawlessly blends grounded science and cosmic horror. Johnny is a genius, a child prodigy grown to a teenage prodigy, relentlessly driven to invent and create as though she’s running out of time. Nick is her best friend, bonded to her by a shared childhood trauma where they survived a shooting as part of a hostage situation. The exploration of friendship, loyalty, and the balance of power within relationships is woven throughout the novel, combining cosmic stakes with highly personal ones as Nick and Johnny are each faced with impossible and often heartbreaking choices. A sequel, A Broken Darkness, is forthcoming in March 2021, and I am already looking forward to it.
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings (Tordotcom, July 2020)
Myths, ghost stories, and legends weave in and out of one another in this Gothic-inflected novella set in a small town in Western Queensland. Bettina tries to be a good daughter. Her mother emphasizes it, insists on it, until it becomes almost like a hypnotic suggestion buried in her brain. She has to be good, because there’s so much bad in her family. Her brothers were monsters, at least that’s what people say, and her father simply vanished one day. There is much Bettina has forgotten about her personal history, and the truth of her family isn’t the only secret in town. There are layers upon layers of secrets, mysterious vanishings, and inhuman things that haunt the woods. The novella is beautifully written, atmospheric and moody. Reading it is like peeling away layers of stories nested inside stories to uncover horrors that echo through the years and ripple outward to change everyone they touch.
No Man’s Land by AJ Fitzwater (Paper Road Press, June 2020)
Set in North Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand during WWII, the novella follows Dorothea “Tea” Gray, whose brother Robbie has gone off to war. Wanting to do her part on the home front, Tea joins the Land Service. Even before she arrives at the farm where she’s been assigned, she has the sense of being watched, and the strangeness only increases from there. She hears her brother’s voice as if he’s actually in her head, she finds her senses heightened, and she experiences the persistent sense of something calling to her, as though there is something inside of her that isn’t fully human. No Man’s Land is beautifully-written, exploring the margins of the vast conflict that is WWII by focusing on the lesser-told stories of those serving at home. Fitzwater also weaves in queer romance, and queer rights, further bringing buried history to the forefront and giving it a rightful place in the spotlight, while putting a fresh spin on the genre of animal transformation stories.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, July 2020)
The past returns to haunt the present, in an exploration of the way trauma and memory can persist not only through the years, but from generation to generation. A hunting trip gone wrong follows a group of friends as one of the elk they killed as young men returns years later as something more, a creature bent on revenge for the violence done to her, her calf, and the herd. Jones suffuses the novel with paranoia, and a mounting sense of dread, taking the story through multiple unexpected twists and turns. The book is tense and fast-paced, the imagery striking, and the horror effective. The novel also has a strong emotional core, exploring regret, the way violence begets violence, and how vengeance can feel hollow and wasted, but also how one cycle ending can make way for hope and something new.
Riot Baby by Tochi Oyenbuchi (Tordotcom, January 2020)
A powerful novella crackling with anger and pain, Riot Baby tells the story of Kev, a child born at the height of the LA Riots, steeping him in violence that forms the backdrop of his life. His sister, Ella, has a gift; she can see the future, though what she sees isn’t always pleasant. As he grows, Kev is caught in the system, unfairly treated due to the color of his skin, ending up in jail. Meanwhile, Ella seems to be becoming something more, her power growing every day. The family relationships at the novella’s core – between brother and sister, between the two children and their mother – is beautiful, bittersweet, and provides hope amidst the horror. There is pain and injustice, but there is also a sense of fighting back, of rising above the tide of violence and unfairness that seeks to consume the characters’ world.
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray, February 2020)
Deathless Divide is the sequel to Dread Nation, one of my favorite books of 2018. I stalked one of my local bookstores, ready to pounce on the book as soon as it appeared on their shelves, and I was annoyed when they dared (gasp!) not to have it the moment it came out. Set in an alternate history where the Civil War ended due to the rise of the undead, Deathless Divide picks up the story of Jane McKeane and Katherine Deveraux, two formers students of Miss Preston’s School of Combat, trained to kill zombies and keep nice white ladies safe as their personal assistants. They’ve gone from enemies to friends, seen the fall of several towns, nearly died multiple times, fought countless hordes of undead, and have lost or become separate from many of their friends. Deathless Divide very much puts its heroes, especially Jane, at a low point, beaten down, carrying guilt, dealing with loss, but still fighting. It’s a hefty book at 550+ pages, but it’s fast-paced, balancing action with genuinely heartbreaking and heartfelt moments. It’s a pleasure to continue following Jane and Katherine as their journeys shape them, and as they in turn shape the world around them, including shaping each other. Like Dread Nation, Deathless Divide is both completely satisfying, yet left me wanting more – more of these characters, and more of this world, but then, always leave them wanting more is the mark of successful art, right?
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, March 2020)
In 2016, N.K. Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great” was published at Tor.com, in which a young, homeless man suddenly finds himself as the living embodiment of New York City, newly-awoken to sentience and facing the cosmic threat of Lovecraftian beings. The City We Became expands on the short story, the first book in a planned trilogy, introducing readers to the five boroughs of New York, each with their own avatar, who must band together (or decline to do so) in order to save their city as he struggles to fully wake and come into his power. Meanwhile, the enemy is spreading tendrils through the city, and taking over citizens in an effort to stop them. Like Clark’s Ring Shout, The City We Became blends the horrors of racism with cosmic horror, providing spot-on social commentary alongside a highly satisfying speculative fiction tale. The characters are wonderful, and the book reads like an extended love letter to New York, taking what anyone who has spent time in the city knows to a cosmic scale: New York is not a city to be fucked with.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared in publications such as Uncanny, Tor.com, Shimmer, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies. Her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as being a two-time finalist for the Nebula Awards, a two-time finalist for the Sunburst Awards, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She has two collections, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, published with Lethe Press, and a novella, Catfish Lullaby, published with Broken Eye Books. Her debut novel, Wendy, Darling, is forthcoming from Titan Books in June 2021, and a new short story collection, The Ghost Sequences, will be published by Undertow Books in August 2021. In addition to her fiction, she contributes the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter as @ac_wise.
She is represented by Barry Goldblatt at BG Literary.