Monday, January 4, 2021

Top 9 Books of the Year

Some people do a top ten list, others do a top eleven (insert your outdated Spinal Tap joke here), some may go shorter, though I don't understand those people. My list is 9 books long. Why? Partly to be a little bit different and partly because I want the tenth spot on my list to be reserved for that really great book which I simply did not get the chance to read during 2020. That really great book may also be something I have only heard whispers about and I may not discover for several more years. Whatever that tenth great book is, I’m holding a spot for it on my list.

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. 

This is obvious, but 2020 has not been a typical year in any stretch of the imagination and for numerous reasons I've missed out on a whole lot of really exciting novels which I do still absolutely plan to read next year - but I can only consider those books which I've actually read. Keeping reading after the list for a brief discussion of the stuff I missed out on. Remember that open tenth spot? 

This Top Nine List is more or less in order. The top two slots are a complete lock, but ask me tomorrow and some titles may shift around a bit. The order you see below is not the order in which I started this article. Whichever order the list is in, these are the nine novels published in 2020 which I feel were the strongest titles of the year.

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. 

The scope of what Tamsyn Muir attempts and achieves in Harrow the Ninth is staggering, which is why I'd like to quote Adri's review of Harrow to conclude. Muir spends at least half of Harrow on a knife edge and a single slip would invite disappointing failure. Muir's hand is steady.

"And that's the real big question, with a book this dense and complex and self-contradictory: is Muir going to pull it off? In a word: fuck yes. It's that payoff to a deeply ambitious structure that really puts Harrow over the top, even when compared to its juicy but more classically-plotted predecessor; it takes serious talent to turn part of your sequel into a nonsensical retcon of the events of the previous book without completely losing your audience, let alone to turn that retcon into a vital strand of the plot and a vehicle for character growth in its own right. Even when it's refusing to take itself and its own genre seriously on the surface, every twist in Harrow's tale draws the audience deeper into its terrifying, ridiculous, mystical world and the people within it. This is a rare series that lives up to its hype and then some, and Harrow the Ninth one of the best books I've ever read."

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. 

Paul Weimer wrote about Savage Legion back in June (which feels like two lifetimes ago) and does a great job covering the scope of what Wallace is working with here. Weimer writes, "the novel is a much more complicated and inventive novel than the title, cover and promotional matter led me and might lead you to believe. There are potent themes here that Wallace is exploring, the writer’s ambition to write a story that talks about some fundamental and difficult subjects, even in a secondary world setting far removed from our own, is done with verve, nuance and burgeoning skill. The role and power of the poor in society. Oppression, control of news and information, and endless war. The horror of war, environmental degradation, resource extraction and the uses of power. It’s a heady cocktail that Wallace plays with. It’s even more impressive with the savage and bloody battle scenes, the slice of life character moments, and the nuanced relationships that develop between various characters in the novel. While I am annoyed and call out again the novel is not what it seems to be, the action sequences are top notch, pulse pounding, and excellently done, a real highlight of the book."
While I acknowledge Paul's point that the promotion of the book focused on Evie's storyline of forcibly joining the legion and the novel is so much more, but I do not share his annoyance with that fact because I've never expected Matt Wallace to just tell a simple story of pulse pounding action. Matt Wallace doesn't write simple. Of course, far be it for me to complain about someone else taking issue with a book's promotion given my own history.  The point, of course, is not about the promotion of Savage Legion, successful as it may have been in drawing Paul and I towards the novel. 

The point is that everything about Savage Legion kicks ass. Yes, the action scenes which are specifically written to kick ass do, in fact, kick ass. Wallace writes action like nobody's business. But it is Wallace's deft treatment and handling of the socio-political in this novel which really sings. Everything is vibrant and rich and immediate. It's not that you can't look away, it's that you don't want to. Savage Legion is a fucking accomplishment.


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. 

Other than having once seen Oliver Stone's Alexander movie starring Colin Farrel and having forgotten just about everything in that movie, I don't know the story of Alexander the Great. It's just a name, a half forgotten legend. It doesn't matter. Kate Elliott may be using that as the framework, but it shouldn't be considered a barrier to entry. Unconquerable Sun is a science fiction epic, a story of family and high political plotting and drama. It's a novel of ambition, both Sun's and of the author's. Kate Elliott doesn't reach for the stars, she lives there and Unconquerable Sun shines as brightly as can be. 

If you don't believe (which you should), perhaps check out Paul's review of the novel. He mentions one bit of Elliott's worldbuilding which might be my favorite bit of this wonderful novel, "her use of the idea of Channel Idol. How does one try and come up with an interstellar idea of Arete (excellence) in a way to mirror Alexander’s rise to power, fame and reputation? Easy. Create an interstellar network of news and entertainment called Idol. Add in a Eurovision like contest called Idol Faire." It's a side bit of shade and color to the novel, but it is so well constructed it feels as natural as it anything else.


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. 

"It may be a stretch to call The Ministry for the Future the last major novel of Kim Stanley Robinson, though I listened to an interview with Robinson where he did suggest this may be exactly that because he was changing his novel writing focus after the intensive work to put together this novel and the last several. If so, The Ministry for the Future is one heck of a way to close out this chapter of his career.

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."
One point which I'd like to rehash a bit is the idea that The Ministry for the Future is a significant work of imagination and a major and important novel. As big as Kim Stanley Robinson is within the field of science fiction, I believe his work has ranging impact in the wider world. While I'm not sure the extent of Robinson's impact, he is very effective in shining a light on the consequences of our collective actions and to propose a way forward.  He's also a heck of a storyteller. If you don't believe me, maybe Barack Obama's opinion carries a little more weight.


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. 
More than anything else, A Pale Light in the Black is fun. There is heady, serious science fiction that wants to teach you a lesson while telling a story (this is not a knock, look back at my thoughts on The Ministry for the Future) and that science fiction is great (told you). There is also room for the science fiction that takes your hand and pulls you along on a romp of a ride, thrilling you at every turn. Some do it with epic space battles an others do it with a fabulous cast of characters you want to be friends with and follow along on any of their adventures, whether it is drinking with your crew in the bar or participating an an intra-service military skills competition. A Pale Light in the Black is the second kind and is a pure friggin delight to read from start to finish. 

By now I've pretty much ceded the reviewing of K.B. Wagers' novels to Paul. He's done a bang up job and, frankly, he's far more prolific and consistent of a review than I can hope to be right now. As such, this would be an excellent time to check out his review of A Pale Light in the Black

What I think I appreciate most about A Pale Light in the Black is *who* the book is focused on. The Near Earth Orbital Guard. NEO-G. It's the Coast Guard in space, which is just about perfect. They, like the actual U.S. Coast Guard perform an incredibly important mission and are highly skilled professionals who save lives. They, like the actual U.S. Coast Guard are often looked down upon as being a lesser branch of the military (which is wrong and incorrect, they have a particular mission and perform it with excellence, but the idea remains - I also wrote that previous sentence the week the new Space Force were announced to be Guardians, so we'll see how that condescension shakes out). So when it comes to the Boarding Games, the aforementioned military competition, the NEO-G team has a lot of somethings to prove. 

I've also gotten this far without mentioning Jenks, the most delightful damn character I've read this year, which is why we've got Paul taking point on the reviews.


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. 
Then came Stormsong, a novel which exceeded any expectation I had. Everything Witchmark did well (which was a lot) Stormsong did better. Plus, it added a more than heavy dose of political intrigue to go with the top notch interpersonal relationships C.L. Polk crushed in Witchmark. But what Polk does so exceptionally in Stormsong is the melding of the political with the personal - which, I suppose is what politics can be, the personal writ large. 

Stormsong is exceptional storytelling. The smoothness and the naturalness of Polk's storytelling in Stormsong is an absolute wonder.


8. Architects of Memory: Each year has several prominent debut novels and, generally, two or three or them are likely to make my list of favorites. Architects of Memory was one of my more anticipated debuts and I'm quite happy that it live up to the anticipation. I may not have been able to read all of the books (debuts or otherwise) I wanted to this year, but the ones I did were quite good. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Sean Dowie wrote about Architects of Memory back in October and had this to say:

"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. 
To further quote myself, 
"There's a lot going on in The Relentless Moon and Kowal keeps everything moving and flowing together with remarkable deftness and an underlying compassion that smooths the edges off even the harshest aspects of the novel - including Nicole's eating disorder, racial issues, domestic terrorism, and a desperate fight for survival on the Moon. Everything is handled with sensitivity, though Kowal does not shy away from the emotion of the worst moments - it's more that Kowal is such a smooth writer that the reader is in safe hands. The novel leans into the pain, but with a light touch.

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."

As I mentioned in the introduction, for as many books as I read in a year, there is always something amazing that I missed and that I just didn't have time to get to. Or, as plugged in as I try to be, that I just haven't heard of (or heard enough about). As much as I wanted to, I did not read Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse), The Burning God (R.F. Kuang), Ring Shout (P. Djeli Clark), Network Effect (Martha Wells), Elatsoe (Darcie Little Badger), The Once and Future Witches (Alix E. Harrow), Piranesi (Susanna Clarke), Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), Machine (Elizabeth Bear), Axiom's End (Lindsay Ellis), A Deadly Education (Naomi Novik), The Angel of Crows (Katherine Addison), among others. The list of highly recommend and presumably stellar novels that I just didn't get to read this year is long and distinguished. That's the reason for the tenth spot on the list.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.