Also, there is no doubt that this list, like every other list out there is built entirely on the combination of the books I've actually read with my own prejudices, taste, preferences, and the choices I made when selecting books to read across the breadth of 2020. That's really what we're saying when we say we've put together a list of the "Best Books of the Year". It's the best we've read, the best we can remember, the best based on what we appreciate in speculative fiction. One of the other best books I've read this year is Louise Erdrich's latest novel The Night Watchman, but this is a speculative fiction blog focusing on more nerdy endeavors, so for the sake of theme I'll limit this list to science fiction, fantasy, and everything in between and around the edges.
Most years I think I stay fairly well on top of the genre and will read most of the significant novels of the year. I'll miss some, of course, but granting my abovementioned prejudices, taste, preferences, and choices - on the whole, I know the shape of the year and there's usually only a handful of books that I wanted to read that I didn't get to before it comes time to make this list.
1. The City We Became: I find it difficult to write about The City We Became without talking about N.K. Jemisin's previous novels even though they have absolutely nothing to do with The City We Became, but that's because the explosive excellence of her Broken Earth trilogy set a level of expectation that I was legitimately anxious that The City We Became would not be able to live up to. It was an impossible task that was only relieved by this novel being just about as different from those historic novels as can be - but the thing is that N.K. Jemisin is writing at the top of her game and while my apprehensions were founded because how the hell do you follow The Broken Earth, the answer is - with this.
The City We Became is the personification of New York City writ large, a city being born into something greater and distinct beyond just being a significant city(which is a concept I absolutely adore) and Jemisin turns the whole thing into a cosmic battle that is absolutely intense and raw and everything I didn't know that I wanted from a novel. This was an absolutely incredible experience. Adri reviewed The City We Became earlier in the year and thought highly of it, but I absolutely loved it. I don't think that's because I had a childhood on Staten Island and Adri did not, but you never know. Also, having a childhood on Staten Island would not make me the hero of this book so perhaps I won't lean too much onto that connection.
2. Harrow the Ninth: Gideon the Ninth was an impossible debut, bold and astounding and groundbreaking and, as Adri put it in her review, "the queer NecRomantic murder mystery you've been missing all your life". It was just about as spectacular a debut as a writer could have and Tamsyn Muir could have ridden the coattails of that novel and given readers more of the same. Even granting the ending, Gideon's voice was so singular and so iconic that to move away from it would be unthinkable. And yet, Harrow the Ninth does exactly that and throws everything you think you know from Gideon the Ninth in question. Frankly, its maddening. It is also flawlessly accomplished.
3. Savage Legion: I've written at various lengths about Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour series of gonzo-culinary urban fantasy novellas (here's my review of the final volume, Taste of Wrath, with links to the previous six). While I'm going to talk about Savage Legion a bit here, I can't help but to make my strongest recommendation to go find a copy Envy of Angels, starting reading, and thank me later. But we're not here to talk about Sin du Jour (well, you're not. I'm always here to talk about Sin du Jour). We're here to talk about Savage Legion - Matt Wallace's epic fantasy debut, a twist in the concept of what Epic Fantasy (capital letters) does and can do within the framework of the sub genre. We're here to talk about why it's so friggin good.
4. Unconquerable Sun: These days Kate Elliott is most known for her epic fantasy novels - Crossroads, Spiritwalker, Crown of Stars, Black Wolves, and Court of Fives. Unconquerable Sun is a return to her science fiction roots - though like a good space opera it does read in some ways like epic fantasy in space (which, I think, it is an entirely separate essay and conversation). Given the high concept of "gender-bent Alexander the Great in spaaaace", that works remarkably well. High concepts and elevator pitches are nice and fun, but at least for me it's all about the execution and my trust in the writer. I have nothing but trust in Kate Elliott and she has earned every bit of it. Unconquerable Sun nails the whole thing.
5. The Ministry for the Future: This is the first novel on the list that I've previously written about, so I'm going to crib from myself while talking about it.
Though it begins with absolute horror, The Ministry for the Future is ultimate a hopeful novel. Robinson looks hard at our present and pushes towards the global, societal, ecological, and economical catastrophes that are looming and makes them happen. Then, he offers hope for how humanity could (and arguably must) transform our cultures to tackle the very real climate breakdowns that are occurring. This isn't much of a spoiler to say that it would require a fundamental change to human culture and that there will be some nations (the United States, say) who lag behind in effective response.
The Ministry for the Future is an impressive work of imagination and prognostication. It offers a road map that we are unlikely to take until things are too late, but then that is not much different from the path taken in the novel."
6. A Pale Light in the Black: In just four years K.B. Wagers has become one of my favorite science fiction storytellers. They have published five books in the Indranan and Farian War series (so far!) and I was surprised that A Pale Light in the Black came out before The Farian War was complete, but any (brief) hesitation I might have about starting a new series from a favorite author was gone on the first page. Oh. Right. I'm in good hands and on comfortable ground.
7. Stormsong: Witchmark was one of the quietly buzziest debuts of 2018, which sounds absurd on the face of it but (at least from my perspective) the story of Witchmark built and built until it was one of the most significant novels of the year. In the end, Witchmark was a World Fantasy Award winner and a Nebula Award finalist, among others. I described Witchmark as "a lovely novel and excellent debut" and I stand by that. It was excellent, but it is also a novel that has been slightly diminished in my estimation by the passage of time. I admit, I may be one of the only readers to have had that reaction given how beloved a novel it was and the award recognition it received.
"The most singular talent of Architects of Memory is finding a new bent on a space opera story—a genre that’s been well-trodden so thoroughly and covered in footprints that it can seem impossible to find a patch of your own. And while Karen Osborne does steps on patches that have been stepped on by seemingly every sci-fi author, there are idiosyncrasies to characters and twists regarding alien life that more than make it fresh. While characterization isn’t at the top of the novel’s mind, it does do a much-more-than-serviceable job of establishing believable motivations and ample depth to keep you caring.
But the greatest joy of Architects of Memory lies in its plot and the themes they develop. Whether it tackles individuality and collectivity, the belligerent survival instincts of humanity, or relationships in secrecy, it lays the foundation for those themes and builds upon them, never leaving them underdeveloped along the way. The most intriguing theme is how memory is so tied up with our sense of self. We’re a collection of the knowledge we accrue and the relationships we build, but without memory, those things slip through our fingers like sand. Love can change from everlasting to a brief sensation. Familial bonds that we preoccupy ourselves with if the world around us is rotten becomes lost if our memory – our personal storage locker that tethers all our meaning – is gone.Space operas can sometimes be so unwilling to take risks and stray from conventions that they’re forgettable. Stories that have edifying substance don’t matter if they immediately leave our memory. The best way to counteract that is to have original characters, and hard-hitting themes despite how well-trodden some story beats are. Architects of Memory does that. Its craft, emotional intelligence, and smooth writing style work to create a gem that will be at the top of my mind for a long time."
9. The Relentless Moon: One thing I appreciate about Mary Robinette Kowal's science fiction is that it is ultimately optimistic. If I may be excused the pun, and even if not, I might suggest that her science fiction is relentlessly optimistic. Sure, the Lady Astronaut series began with a meteorite crashing into and devastating the Earth, but each of the novels have been about problem solving and a belief that the seemingly insurmountable is something that - with enough science, ingenuity, and hard work - can actually be overcome. To quote myself, The Relentless Moon is "about striving towards excellence and truly building a better tomorrow even in the face of a devastating future."
With The Relentless Moon, Kowal moves past the focus of Elma York of the first two Lady Astronaut novels, away from the race first into space and then Mars. Kowal brings the focus to the Moon (it's in the title, after all). The focus is on the moon, but also on the challenges of Earth. Not everyone is satisfied (let alone happy) about the existence of the space program and the diverted resources that could be better used to recover from the meteorite. That's the deepest core of the novel.
The Relentless Moon is more than the pain, of course. I am very much not the first to appreciate the generally healthy marriages in the Lady Astronaut novels, but reading about a relationship where both partners support each other and recognize the sacrifices they make to achieve goals and just build each other up is absolutely refreshing. Equally refreshing, especially perhaps when reading this novel during a pandemic, is that science is celebrated and problems are typically solved by smart people working very hard to come up with a solution. To paraphrase both Mark Watney (The Martian) and Vanilla Ice: if they have a problem, yo they'll solve it by sciencing the shit out of it. That's delightful. It's also important. There is violence in The Relentless Moon, but it is mostly off stage. The struggle is that of science, engineering, imagination, and decency. This novel, like the two Lady Astronaut novels before it, is about striving towards excellence and truly building a better tomorrow even in the face of a devastating future. The Relentless Moon is hopeful science fiction, and that's something worth celebrating - especially when it's this good."
POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.