As I said in my list of my five favorite non-fiction books, this was a big reading year for me. I read more than I have before and tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to try out new genres and expand my reading comfort zone. Not everything I read was a success. This was also the year I finally learned to give up on a book rather than see it through to the bitter end and I think I was happier for it. The following list weren’t all necessarily my favorite in the moment (though I rated all of them 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads) but they are the ones that stayed with me the most. They are full of the worlds and characters I see myself most wanting to revisit in the future and share with those I love.
1. Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin I couldn’t pick just one book in this trilogy so I picked them all. With Hugo awards for the first two books with a definite possibility for a third next year, this series has gotten a lot of praise and attention. It deserves every bit of it. The world that Jemisin has built is unlike our own while simultaneously being informed by our own. The blend of science and magic is so cleverly and vividly sketched out. There is so much lore and history of this other world contained in these books and it is fascinating. Where I feel this book really shines, however, is in its understanding of humanity. It understands our psychology in all its beauty and ugliness. It understands the worlds we built for ourselves and how those worlds could fall. It’s a story about oppression, survival (both physical and emotional), anger, and the lengths a mother will go through for her daughter. It takes some time to adjust to the structure of the first book and orient yourself within the world but once it hooks you, you won’t want to put it down. You may want a highlighter or notebook handy, however, because there are so many lines that are beautifully insightful and resonant that’ll you’ll want to save. It’s diverse, incredibly plotted, and explicitly political. This is what the sci-fi and fantasy genre can be at its very best and I am thrilled with the success it’s found.
2. A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses #2) by Sarah J. Maas To give you an indication of how much I enjoyed this book, I read it four times over the course of the year. I love the characters in this book more than any others I encountered this year with the exception of the Leverage team. Within pages of meeting them, I felt like I had a sense of who they were and the bonds they shared. Each member of the Court of Dreams has survived cruelty and cages of various sorts and disregard and it didn’t break them. It made them stronger and it made them kind and it made them the sort of people who dreamed of a better future. Who would fight and give their lives for that future because of how strongly they believe it is worth it. They are all extraordinarily powerful but that’s not what defines them. It is their heart that draws me in everytime. This whole book is about finding your inner strength and learning how to fight for yourself and the life that makes you happy all while finding people who will love and support you through it. Who will take your blows and carry you to freedom and open their arms and embrace you for who you are rather than what you can do. It’s a book that makes me feel from start to finish, from heartache to utter delight and everything in between.
3. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera In life, we don’t always get closure. We imagine possibilities for ourselves that never come to pass, things are left unspoken, and we can be left with regret over the things we didn’t do. But as Griffin and Jackson learn through this book, those regrets and unfilled promises don’t mean we can’t move forward. As they learn, it’s sometimes the most unlikely people who help us to do that. Griffin never wanted to like Jackson. He was the boy who was dating his ex-boyfriend. The last boy who would ever date him. In the aftermath of Theo’s death, however, they feel like the only two people in the world who understand what it meant to lose him. They became friends and got lost in their grief together. They isolate themselves and make bad choices. It’s only after they confront their histories, the real history and the version they imagined for themselves, that they can begin to move forward. It’s about first loves, grief and healing, and living with OCD. I love the way this story is told, with alternating chapters between the past and present. We see Griffin and Theo fall in love and fall apart and everything leading up to the phone saying that Theo was dead, bringing us back full circle to the start of the present in the beginning of the book. It’s a gorgeously written book that draws you into Griffin’s emotional world so effectively. It’s the first book of Silvera’s that I’ve read but it won’t be the last.
4. One Salt Sea (October Daye #5) by Seanan McGuire This particular book encapsulates two of my favorite things about McGuire as an author. First, I love her vivid world-building. This book expands our knowledge of Faerie by introducing us to the Undersea and gives us more backstory on the Luidaeg and in doing so, we start to see the scope of the world she has created. Her background in mythology and folklore shines through and brings these characters and this world to life in a fantastic way. Second, I love her ability to make me yell at my Kindle and feel all of the things. Because her characters feel so real and developed, we feel each victory and failure keenly. We’ve had four books up to this point to get to know and love these characters and everything builds so naturally on what has come before. It makes perfect sense for Quentin to want to be Toby’s squire (and for May to take bets about it) and for Raj to be as much Toby’s apprentice as he is Tybalt’s heir and for Tybalt to know how much Toby would want his leather jacket back. They made me emotional because they felt right, like the emotional was earned. On the flip side of that, Toby’s devastation after losing Connor and Gillian also felt earned. I was admittedly less invested in Connor but Toby’s realization that Gillian had been pulled too far into Faerie to come out of this unscathed caused me to curse at the book. I want that kind of engagement from my books, I want them to make me cheer and cry and most of all, believe in the emotions of the characters. And for me, no one does this better or more consistently than McGuire.
5. The Rewind Files by Claire Willett You can always tell when someone gets to write something they are really passionate about and that’s exactly how I felt reading The Rewind Files. I knew going into the book that Willett was a big fan of All the President’s Men and the Watergate scandal and that natural love and large amounts of research make this book pop. It’s an area of history I know little about but this book made me want to learn more, which I feel like always speaks well of any historical (or historical-adjacent) fiction. But the detail that went into reconstructing the fall of Nixon’s presidency is only one part of what made this book great. The time-travel portion is really solidly done and takes great care to address time loops and paradoxes and cause-and-effect. Basically all those things that make time-travel such a difficult thing to write and maintain some sense of rules and logic. But not only is the science and internal logic written well, it also dives into philosophical issues. It brings up interesting questions about fate and the ripple effect actions, both big and small, can have on the future of the world. Finally, and probably most importantly to me, these characters are amazing. I love Reggie Bellows so much. She is sarcastic and doesn’t really like people but will fight to the death to save them and she is fantastic at her job. It’s a job that I find super appealing for my particular skillset and strengths for all the reasons Reggie loves it and I loved seeing that part of myself reflected in her. Her relationships with the other people in her life feel authentic and draw you into a beautiful group dynamic that blends biological and chosen families. Honestly, the best evidence for how much I loved these characters is the fact that it made me care enough about them and what they wanted to cry over them. They came to life and I won’t forget them.
6. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie This is a beautiful story about a teenage girl discovering freedom and the life she desires in the midst of an oppressive father and regime in Nigeria. It’s a story that works on several levels. It’s perfectly enjoyable if you just look at the emotional journey Kambili goes through in this book to realize the way her life had always been at home wasn’t normal. Life could be full of joy and play and mistakes and love that wasn’t contingent on your achievements. Her father is a respected member of the community and the church, but he was also a tyrant who demanded strict adherence to his views. Those who don’t fall in line, including his own father, should be shunned. He rejects his own culture and their traditional beliefs in favor of the Catholicism brought to Nigeria by the British. Growing up that way caused Kambili to shrink. Her own wishes were minimized and the only goal was to prevent her father’s displeasure. But when she goes to stay with her aunt and cousins after it gets too dangerous to stay at home, she blossoms. It’s a slow process but she learns how much more can be accomplished and enjoyed in life than what she had been taught. People could differ but still be good and valued. She is encouraged and falls in love and learns to think for herself for the first time and it’s tremendous to watch. I imagine this book works even better when read with more knowledge of postcolonialism than I currently have. It would provide a richer understanding of Eugene and the underlying political structure of Nigeria that is a secondary feature in the book. It’s a terrific debut and I can’t read to read the rest of Adichie’s fiction books.
7. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant In the process of reading this book, I had a moment where I genuinely forgot that mermaids weren’t real. I was marveling how cool mermaid anatomy was and was completely engrossed in the science before realizing that it was all made up. The science (I think) was sound and reasonably plausible, but it did in fact come out of the genius mind of Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire’s sci fi & horror pseudonym). Her ability to blend scientific research and fact with just enough fiction to make it believable is incredible and it’s all borne out of a love for all the weirdness and possibilities that science offers and the people who are discovering it. She writes and understands scientists so well and brings their passion to life. As much as I love the scientific elements of a Mira Grant story, they are just one element that makes them great. I am not ordinarily a big fan of horror and suspense but I loved every moment that made me curl into my hoodie in anticipation. Since her Newsflesh trilogy, she has only gotten better at creating tension through her words and the atmosphere she creates. As a giant fan of her work, both as Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire, it excites me to see her continually strive for better. Finally, it has all the diversity and character development that is the other defining characteristic of her works. She wants to make a world where more people can be seen in the fiction they consume and she actively takes steps to make that happen. People are never tokens, they are complex and treated with care. It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to them (this is a horror novel, after all) but it does mean that they’re allowed to be people rather than concepts. The protagonists aren’t saints and the antagonists aren’t faceless evil. Everyone is nuanced while never falling into the trap of making everyone equally morally gray. Some people are better humans than others and as is often the case in Grant books, the bad ones often get eaten. I may never want to go into the ocean again but I do hope we’re able to return to this world in the future.
8. Kindred by Octavia Butler While this is technically a science fiction book (or at least it involves time travel, classify it as you wish), it is mostly an unflinching look at slavery in America through the eyes of a young Black woman in the 1970s as she is pulled back through time to save her ancestor. Octavia Butler’s straightforward prose is the perfect fit for this story. Nothing is sugar-coated or needs to be embellished, we experience Dana’s horror at the life her ancestors experienced right alongside her. The exploration of Dana’s complicated relationship with Rufus is incredible. He was her great-grandfather and until the point that he fathered a child with her great-grandmother, Dana needed him alive for her own history. He was also her master and sometimes friend. He could be cruel, as his father was before him, and manipulative. He was entitled and despite Dana’s best efforts to make life for herself, her fellow slaves, and the children he would bear better, he never really outgrew the person his father and his time taught him to be. Equally well-explored was Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin. On later visits, he was pulled back through time with her, but as a young white man, his experiences were very different. Understandably, this sort of life changes a person. Dana carries the physical and mental reminders of her time in the past with her, even as she is finally able to stay in her correct time. Similarly, this book is one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.
9. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker Through no choice of their own, two mythical creatures find themselves transported to New York City in the early 1900s and into communities where they sort of fit in but find something lacking until they meet each other. Despite the presence of mythical creatures who can do some extraordinary things, this book feels very rooted in its time and place. It’s a story about immigrants and a tribute to the communities they’ve always built for themselves in new lands. It’s a story about feeling understood and connected to another person. Chava and Ahmed are fascinating characters on their own and through them, we are able to explore and question things about humanity as a construct. We see our contradictory desires and the pain they cause. We see the desires we impose on others to make them fit exactly as we think they should. Their independent storylines kept me engaged as they learned about their new world and found a comfortable place for themselves but it’s the slowly growing friendship and love that shows the book at its best. By their natures, they were very different. Chava is made of earth while Ahmed is made of fire. Together, they teach each other and push each other and get each other to a place where they are no longer constrained by their natures. It’s a beautifully written book that made me feel like I was getting a glimpse into a world that could have existed, unseen to our eyes.
10. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein I don’t fully know how to talk about this book without spoilers but I think it’s one that benefits from allowing yourself to be taken through the ups and downs and twists of the book as you experience it for the first time. I suspect it will be a rewarding book to reread when I get back around to it. What I can say, however, is that it is a story about two young women who take part in World War 2. When we think about the war effort, we often think about all the brave men who served around the world. We tend to overlook the contributions that women made so to read a book centered around them was a refreshing change. They fought to the best of the ability and were brave even when they were scared. They rose to every challenge placed in front of them. They were also best friends. This is among the best depictions of a life-changing female friendship I’ve seen in a novel. As Julie says, “it’s like being in love, discovering your best friend”. Their love for each other will grab hold of you and refuse to let you go. The style of the book takes some getting used to and made it initially difficult for me to fully emotionally invest in the story but by the end, I cared so much about these girls and their story that it had me in tears. Even if historical fiction isn’t your preferred genre, this book is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone.
Honorable Mentions: The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Emily M. Danford), Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (Becky Albertalli), Nimona (Noelle Stevenson), Shadowshaper (Daniel José Older), Room (Emma Donoghue), Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson), The Color Purple (Alice Walker), Redshirts (John Scalzi), Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Seanan McGuire), Uprooted (Naomi Novik)