What a dismal year in the world of men. The orange troll squatted upon the country and squeezed out a series of final offenses that have caused untold hardship and strife, drove us all into our homes for shelter against an invisible enemy welcomed with open arms and naked face by the very troll that decided that we should all suffer for his sins. Indoors, alone for months at a time, reading was a very popular activity, and books had one of the best years in… well, years. We turn to these stories for a voice in the night, for emotional journeys denied us in the world outside our Covid bubbles, and books did not fail us.
There were so many amazing books that I haven’t even had a chance to start, yet! The pile of things to read grows and grows!
What I did manage to experience, this gloomy year, was full of surprises and delights and unexpected whimsy and beauty in some rather dark and strange and even completely mundane places. I reviewed most of these books, at some point during the year, and what I didn’t yet review, I plan to as soon as I can schedule it.
These are not in any meaningful order, just laid out as I recall them, and I don’t really care what year something was originally published, just that I recall reading it this year and liked it. Books have no expiration date, really. Why not include some older titles?
P. Djeli Clark has fairly quickly established as a major author, with a string of excellent titles, awards. The recent announcement of a film adaptation, by HBO of his latest work about racists becoming a vehicle for otherworldly horror, will only increase his acclaim. I read THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 early this year, which did not come out this year, and fell in love with this alternate history of the world that places Egypt at the center of a magical economy, and explores the complex ramifications of the rules of magic carefully crafted by the author in the form of an investigation into a tram car that is haunted by what appears, at first, to be a ghost, but is, in fact, something else, entirely. His investigators, Hamed Nasr and Onsi, are fascinating characters, and seemed to step off the page immediately as familiar detective archetypes in a world so unfamiliar, no small feat! This made the complex world easier to engage with, following along with the sort of detective pair one would expect in a BBC murder mystery. This made the fabulous and fabulist world accessible. The world, itself, is the star. Cairo, the setting, is probably the main character of this tale, to me, with rich and vivid descriptions of places and ways of life that make the reader long to walk among the magical streets that could have been but never were.
N. K. Jemisin is easily one of the greatest writers alive right now, in the field of science fiction and fantasy and outside of it. The wide acclaim is absolutely warranted. Her latest novel, THE CITY WE BECAME, imagines a sort of superhero origin story built upon avatars of a city that is growing into something even larger that itself, becoming sort of sentient, and having to fight off the terror of an otherworldly invasion in a plane of consciousness few can even see. Different burroughs of the city of New York take life in a ragtag bunch of defenders who… I mean who am I kidding? You’ve read this one. It’s N. K. F-in’ Jemisin. I don’t need to tell you this is a great book, right? I was reminded very much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, except without all the things I dislike about that cinematic experience that builds a huge canvas at the expense of narrative cohesion and consistent quality that Jemisin, as a brilliant sole creator in a single book, can bring.
M. John Harrison has been at the leading edge of weird fiction for so many years, he’s practically the gravity well at the center of the definition, if not very near to it. Any year that contains a new M. John Harrison book is a very good year for this, alone. THE SUNKEN LANDS BEGIN TO RISE AGAIN journeys through the flats and fields of the little villages and towns of England, paints a picture of such strange and unsettling imagery across a landscape so familiar. A master craftsmen, the very way he describes the landscape can be beautiful and familiar and new and unsettling, all at once. The story of green and sunken men rising up from the swamps and low places grows stranger and strange by the page until the reader having begun a narrative that felt fairly mundane discovers they have arrived in a place for more drowned where the water has risen and it happened so slowly it felt like peace. It’s certainly a novel worth re-reading in a better year, when we all do not share it’s sunken qualities.
At the very beginning of the terrible pandemic, I had discovered this excellent Japanese novel in translation called THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa, and it told a story that resonated deeply with the early days of the invisible flood. A fascist state wipes out the memory of some object or person or word or body part of person, and the memory police come in the night to take the forgotten people and things away. And these artifacts and people are truly forgotten, as if they never were. A writer who can remember a little better than she should lives in this doomed city, forgetting her art and her family and defies the memory police by hiding her editor in her house against the police, who would take him away to be forgotten. It is a haunting and disturbing book that will filter into dreams with an unsettled and unearthly calm against a slow unsettling of reality, itself, and ends almost as if what is forgotten is what is real, and what is not forgotten, who is not forgotten, was never there, at all. It’s a beautiful journey into a strange and uncanny place, and will leave a mark on the imagination where it will, oddly enough, never be completely forgotten.
Perhaps it is selfish to include one of our own books on my year’s best list, but I was not the lead editor on this project, and we bought it because we loved it very, very much, and think you will, too. If the uncanny and unsettling is too much to bear in a world where the doom never ends, Natania Barron’s QUEEN OF NONE is an Arthurian tale told by the forgotten sister of King Arthur, Queen Ann. She is the mother of Sir Gawain, and a pawn of men who see her only as a pawn to marry off to their great disadvantage. It is a beautiful journey into epic fantasy reclaiming the myth of Arthur for a new generation. (Behind the scenes, Natania’s huge success broke our printing and distribution model and we’re tearing our hair out waiting for the new printing’s distribution to come on-line, again! AUGH! ANY DAY NOW! WE ARE YELLING ALL THE TIME AUGH! I hope by the time you see this the print edition is available, again. IT REALLY SHOULD BE WHERE IS IT WHY HAVEN’T YOU GOTTEN UP YET AUGH AUGH AUGH! There will be a few dozen available at a virtual book launch event at Quail Ridge Books! Go there! Order one, now!)
The one book that I’ve thought about the most and resonated with me in ways I did not expect was this absolutely stunning tale of an animal city on the edge of insurrection. Joni Murphy’s TALKING ANIMALS is a must read. At first, one might mistake the premise for Disney’s mostly forgettable Zootopia, but the beauty and wonder and danger of Joni Murphy’s New York City is turned completely on its head by the musical and profound narration and hum of the city bureaucrat llamas at the center of the text. The environmental drama is sold as a fable, but feels like far more than just a fable, where the animals of the sea are uniting with a radical leftwing in the city to push back against a corrosive and plutocratic city hall. It is a reminder not only of how strange life is, but how estranged we are from each other, from the world around us, and all the many creatures that call this planet home. It is a lovesong to a city that probably exists or existed or will exist. It is a humming melody that carries inside of it the memories of a community. This odd, enchanting, little book has sat beside my computer all year, and I find myself picking it up, and flipping through to relive the beauty of it, and the language that feels just right inside the shell of dreams.
Okay, PIRANESI is absolutely delightful. It is the very definition of escapism, set inside a fascinating world that is a house full of statues and birds and sea creatures and floods. It’s on nearly every major year’s best list that I’ve seen so far in mainstream places, and seems to be instantly etched into the literary consciousness as a little masterpiece of the possibility of fiction, a labyrinth of the mind and the human heart. No doubt, in years to come, many MA’s and PhD’s will be exploring the house of Piranesi, extricating meaning from the house’s mercurial smile of statuary and whimsical beauty and wicked doubles in a seemingly eternal struggle. It’s a surprisingly easy read for something that contains so many multitudes of interpretive meaning, and is as mysterious and wondrous as the blessed house that is the center of the whole universe of man.
Among the anthologies I read this year, there were a few standouts, and none more worthy of inclusion than DOMINION: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SPECULATIVE FICTION FROM AFRICA AND THE AFRICAN DIASPORA, which emerged as a very successful Kickstarter campaign and quickly took off as a very successful project in its entire, to wide critical acclaim, introducing many new voices in SF/F to the larger world of genre, while also reintroducing some familiar voices, like Nicole Given Kurtz and Suyi Davies Okungbowa, reframing their work from inside the context of a cultural and experiential tradition of continental origins. The stories are a wide gamut from lost robot dogs to ghostly fathers in black magical markets, kings and apocalypses. It paints a broad picture of genre that celebrates the voice and culture and traditions that argues effectively for a global vision of genre, inclusive of all continents and cultures, and celebrating the contributions that a cultural and social context can bring to narrative fiction.
So that was 2020. There are more amazing books this year than any one human could have possibly read. What were your favorites? What should not be missed? What old books did you discover this year that deserve to echo a great deal longer than just the year they arrived? We want to know what you read! Tell us in the comments and feel free to lionk your own year’s best book posts!