Monday, February 8, 2021

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List

Joe: The gallows humor of talking about 2020 as a year that happened has been done and beaten well into the ground, but as we talked about a bit with our own Recommended Reading list - there was a lot of really great stuff that was published last year.

I like to say (ad nauseum) that Hugo Season is eternal, but for me the Locus Magazine Recommended Reading List really kicks off awards season.

Adri: It’s nice to have things that are eternal, even in these strange times. Time may not have any meaning any more, but at least we’re looking at a Locus list, same as every February.

Joe: If you look at raw numbers, I’ve read as many books in 2020 as I have in almost any other year of my life - but one thing the pandemic impacted (besides everything) is the availability of books through my local library. My library was shut down for several months, and even upon reopening I noticed that the acquisition of new books had slowed down. New books were still “on order” months after publication, which is unusual for my library. But, 2020, ya know?

My ability to focus on reading didn’t slow down, but I read far fewer new releases than I’m used to. I feel slightly out of touch. How about you?

Adri: I didn’t have any problems with sourcing (or, uh, buying) new books in the pandemic, as my heaving shelf of unread 2020 releases will attest. What I did have trouble with, like many people, was reading motivation. Pandemic plus various changes in circumstances meant that my reading speed of the last few years really slowed down, and I ended up allocating a lot of leisure time to gaming instead. While I still read a lot, I also ended up on two awards juries looking at 2019 work, both of which were huge undertakings (when somebody asks you if you want to judge a best small press award, get ready to throw two months’ worth of alternative TBR out of the window). So I’m also looking at this list feeling a little bit lost - I count 17 books that I’ve read across the novel categories, which feels much lower than previous years.

Joe: I do want to jury an award some day, but I don’t see World Fantasy calling my name anytime soon.

Adri: It was the (as yet still unannounced) British Fantasy Awards! And I answered a call for volunteers rather than being top of anyone’s list of potential judges...

Joe: I don’t put myself out there very often, which is just a personal thing / issue / something.

Weirdly, I bought a half dozen new books. I just didn’t read them once the library opened again. I did make significant progress on the list of past Hugo Award winners, though. Some good books (Way Station, A Case of Conscience), some pretty awful (ask me offline).

So - we’ve both established that we didn’t read nearly as much of what we wanted, though knowing what our standards are we still probably read quite a bit of new stuff. What were some standouts on the Locus lists? What jumps out at you?

Adri: In the end, I had four standout novels from 2020, all of which are on this list: Harrow the Ninth,

which I loved even more than its predecessor for its unapologetic commitment to utterly baffling ridiculousness; The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was everything I wanted from a politically smart historical fantasy; Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (the only thing I’ve read from the horror novel list) which is so so creepy and so very good; and The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, which made me care ever so slightly about New York. I usually have at least one total dark horse of a favourite - and I still have time to pick one up - but I’m glad that Locus and I are on the same page for now (and also you should read all those books).

Joe: If I can count, Locus has seven of nine from my Year’s Best list, which is a pretty good hit rate. One I’m not surprised (but disappointed) in its lack of inclusion, the other I’m straight up mad about and I just noticed it in prepping for this conversation, so I’ve got my salt up right now. I’ll come back to that, hopefully at a point where I’m not going to swear incessantly.

There’s a couple of ways to take this, I think. We can get to the big books - The City We Became, The Ministry for the Future, Harrow the Ninth, Black Sun - but I’m really excited about the inclusion of Linda Nagata’s Pacific Storm. It’s a five minutes in the future thriller set on Hawaii as the US is basically trading the island / state away to pay off debt (that could be a novel in and of itself), and it’s a lot of fun. Nagata self publishes first, and I’ve been into her near future science fiction since The Red a few years back. She’s great. It’s not going to be up for anything, I don’t think, but I dug it.

: That’s very cool! I think some of the books I’m most delighted for are actually a bit further down, in the anthologies and collections categories: Julian K. Jarboe’s Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel, A.J. Fitzwater’s The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, E. Catherine Tobler’s The Grand Tour are all great reads from smaller presses that I love seeing here. I also really… I don’t know if “enjoyed” is even the word… Disease by Sarah Tolmie, which is a weird and wistful collection of speculative pathology. I almost wanted to include it in our best novella recommendations, but it felt too much like a stretch, but it’s nice that I get to vote for it in the Locus awards at least!

Joe: I need to read more collections / anthologies. I’m well behind on those. Years ago I read a collection

from Robert Shearman published in the UK, though it was great - and this year he has a very impressive collection, three volumes, functionally a choose your own adventure style book where your experience reading it is shaped by what sort of story you want to read next as you finish one. I haven’t read anything of it yet, but Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe at the Coode Street Podcast talked it up. It’s from PS Publishing, so available on your side of the pond. That’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark.

Adri: I’ve had this recommended to me before and will have to check it out (especially because books only available in the UK are rare and wonderful things and I will take any opportunity to make Americans jealous)

Joe: That’s fair. We’ve also talked offline about The Scapegracers. I read it a few months after you reviewed it. Locus has it in YA because of course they do, but that’s another book I couldn’t put down that I’d like to see more buzz about.

But! Have you read or heard of Tender is the Flesh?

Adri: I haven’t!

: Okay - it’s friggin gruesome. It’s near future again - some sort of disease basically either wiped out animals or made it so that we can’t eat animals. Something like that. So, in humanity’s (or America’s, I’m not sure) desire to eat meat - we’ve created an undesirable class of people who are able to be slaughtered for their flesh (as well as breeding stock for the same). Tender is the Flesh is intense, horrifying, told in just matter of fact description - but so compelling. I’m not sure if I’m happy that it’s included in science fiction here but it’’’s something. And if I read it, I need to tell someone about it who doesn’t live in my house. You’re welcome.

Adri: Well, thank you for bringing that into my life. I am intrigued - and I note that it’s by an Argentine author, and I’m always in support of more SFF from outside the UK and North America making it into these lists.

While we’re talking about things that don’t seem to be in the right category… I appreciate that there’s no Locus category for “historical poetry translation” but putting Maria Davhana Headey’s Beowulf translation into Best Horror Novel feels… weird. Not as weird as putting Marlon James in there last year, but I’m still a little unconvinced by the category boundaries here.

Joe: Not being caught up on my Beowulf, I think my last was Seamus Heaney’s translation - and I do plan

to read this one - but horror? It’s fantasy at most, right? Like, if she’s treating Grendel as an actual monster. And if Grendel isn’t supernatural, then it belongs as much as Nicola Griffith’s Hild did on the Nebula ballot (I’m mixing complaints, though Hild is excellent but I don’t believe Locus included it). I guess I just want someone to explain the horror category to me, honestly.

Actually - what I really want to understand is how is Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown at all genre other than because he previously wrote a genre novel? It’s great, but it’s not science fiction.

Adri: If you’re a Locus List contributor and you’re reading this, you know where to find us.

So, not to rush you if you’re not finished internally swearing, but we probably have to talk about notable omissions. The one I spotted which feels a little awkward to mention because I’m, uh, not particularly disappointed about it, is K.M. Szpara’s Docile. I had issues with the book, but it was also a big release and Szpara is a previous Hugo finalist, so it’s a little surprising that it’s not among the First Novels here.

Joe: Since we edited out our digression, I’ll be polite. I am not the reader for Docile. I did expect to see in First Novel and because I’m not the reader for that book, I share your lack of disappointment in it’s omission. For personal reasons, I also hope that I don’t have to read it for the Hugo Award this year.

Hey, we don’t have to be positive ALL the time at NoaF!


Taking a breath here.

I’m not okay, Adri, and I’m not over it yet.

How in the everlasting fuck is Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion not included in either Fantasy or First Novel? Did they not read it? Did they miss it? Are we going to get a revised edition of that list with this glaring freaking error rectified? How? What? Who? Where? When? Why!

: Well, I can’t help with the thought process here, but having also not read it (sorry!) I will say you have at least convinced me to buy it, so I can put it with the other [number redacted] books from 2020 I have staring at me from my shelves. In seriousness, though, you’re not the only person who read and loved that book - and I think Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series was robbed of a Best Series nomination, to be honest - so I will sympathise with your pain.

Joe: Don’t start me on Sin du Jour. Those fucking novellas were incredible.

That’s the thing - the press Savage Legion received was very positive. I think the people who read it, loved it. But from following Matt on twitter I don’t think it received the wide ranging readership that it should have (nor did Sin du Jour). It’s a damn shame. I also think I’m done swearing for the moment.

Adri: I think we have similar conversations - though with marginally less swearing - every year about books that we wanted to see included that weren’t, and of course we caveat our own lists with the note that we just can’t read everything, or even a representative chunk of the things, and the Locus reviewers, despite being a bigger team, of course have the same restrictions. But I feel like there’s something about this year that makes it that extra bit frustrating - knowing that so many authors have had their books (especially debut novels like Savage Legion) come out in the middle of a bloody apocalypse, and have had all the regular channels of publicity and book tours and celebration cut off, and of course there are books that don’t get the hype they deserve every year and book marketing is a whole… thing… but it feels especially rough this year, you know?

And then that makes me feel even worse about being a negligent reader in 2020, but… well, that line of conversation is not exactly productive. Anyway, we are all doing our best and everyone reading this should make Joe happy by reading Savage Legion (which I’ve just noticed doesn’t have a UK publisher, so go sort that out as well please, world)

Joe: You said it far better than I was prepared to, since I think I might have actually spluttered when I realized Savage Legion wasn’t on the list.

I do get it, and I know Locus has particular biases which are perfectly fine. Series work after the first couple books tends to not make it (R.F. Kuang’s The Burning God - not on the fantasy list). Anything from Seanan McGuire deep into a series, very much not on the fantasy list. The books that fall into the comfort read category, which isn’t a knock, tend not to make the list (and often those are series work).

But since we’ve mentioned we’ve missed some books on the list, what do you still want to read that made
the list that you haven’t?

For me, it’s stuff like Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (which I own), Elizabeth Bear’s Machine (which I own), Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (which I own), Joe Abercrombie’s The Trouble With Peace (umm, which I own), and Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Futures Witches (I don’t own this one!)

Adri: I own, and have not read, and should read, The Once and Future Witches. Also in that category is Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott (in my defence, this one came out several months later in the UK), Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson and Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling. I also had a mysterious library hold come in on Saturday which turned out to be Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, so put that on the list as well - and I really want to check out The Wall by Gautam Bhatia. Oh, and I’m halfway through Stormsong as well. So, just a few things to get to (and let’s not even get started on the short fiction).

: Unconquerable Sun is great! Stormsong is great! Piranesi is...I don’t know. I’m curious how it is being received by various voting bodies.

Adri: I’ve heard more good things than bad, but I’m not quite sure what my expectations are.

Joe: I never read Jonathan Strange because I’m put off by it being 1000+ pages, but I’ll get it someday because it won the Hugo. Piranesi is, I’m told, completely different. Lots of folks loved it. I finished it. I can say that.

Did you read Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead? I’m curious how Yellow Jessamine compares, because I LOVED The Luminous Dead.

Adri: I haven’t - but I do really want to check out her writing. Yellow Jessamine is the last of the 2020 Neon Hemlock novellas that I haven’t got to and I’ve been super impressed by the line so far, so I’m expecting great things (side note, the lack of Anya Ow’s Cradle and Grave or Leigh Harlen’s Queens of Noise on this novella list is also quite a big oversight, and Stone and Steel by Eboni J. Dunbar definitely deserves your eyeballs too!)

So as regular readers might know, Joe won himself the grand prize of a future beer by guessing the entire of 2020’s Hugo ballot in an e-mail to me before it was announced last year. This act of impressive genre clued-in-ness (there might be a better word for that) has set the bar quite high for this year… so, Joe, what are your guesses for the 2021 Hugo novel finalists?

Joe: Jesus, you want me to make this publicly performative? I built that prediction ballot out of a weird category pick-em and I honestly need more time. We should totally do a shorter prediction article before the finalists are announced.

That said, let’s do this. Here is my current (and evolving) pool of potential finalists. This is not in order, except going down the Locus lists.

Unconquerable Sun, The Relentless Moon, The Ministry for the Future, Network Effect, The Angel of the Crows, Piranesi, The Once and Future Witches, The City We Became, Harrow the Ninth, Black Sun, Mexican Gothic, The Only Good Indians, Architects of Memory, Beneath the Rising, The Bone Shard Daughter, Axiom’s End, A Deadly Education.
If I had to guess, and you’re making me, the finalists are coming from that list. I don’t *think* I’m missing anything.

Adri: I think you’re onto something, and my comment seeing it written out like that is: we could easily have a ballot this year that’s built out of beloved Hugo favourites, including past winners from other fiction categories and former finalists (and winners) in Best Novel. While there’s no book in that category that I wouldn’t wish success, on an overall level I hope that’s not the ballot we get. Last year’s Best Novel category was entirely too white, which I suspect won’t happen this year with authors like Jemisin, Roanhorse and Moreno-Garcia in contention, but one of the positive things about last year is that it contained several debuts, and I’d like to see more great, new work punching through this year as well.

Joe: Not having read the whole list, I think you can build a really good ballot any way you want to shake it out. I do think we’re fairly likely to see a lot of familiar names on this year’s ballot - though this would be the first time Martha Wells would be a Best Novel finalist and despite her long career, it’s only been since 2018 and Murderbot that she’s been on Hugo’s radar. She’s a familiar name because of how big Murderbot became, but would still be fresh for the category. I do think she has a good chance of making the ballot with Network Effect (I’m 50 pages in at the time of this chat)

Adri: Yeah, I’m here for more Murderbot Hugos, and Network Effect is a great entry into the series.

Joe: I think this year’s ballot is likely to be predominately female again, with only Kim Stanley Robinson with a reasonable chance of cracking the final six. He’s a perennial Hugo favorite and I think will be on a lot of ballots (including mine). Looking at likely finalists, it’s probably at least half white.

Whatever the short list is, unless there are some major surprises, this is going to be another really strong year.

Adri: Yeah, I’m excited for sure. Also, terrified over how much reading I still have to do. But isn’t that just another form of excitement, really? What would I do if I wasn’t buried under a mountain of too-good books?

Joe: There are far worse problems to have.

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

Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy