Best of 2020: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

I say this every year and it continues to be true so it’s worth saying again – these two genres are producing so much amazing content right now that it is hard to keep up with it all. But when with as many of them I read this year, there are so many more that generated a lot of enthusiasm that I couldn’t fit in and that is truly an exciting place to be as a reader. I love the variety of stories being told and all the ways these authors and more are expanding the ideas of what these genres can be and who these stories are about and for. These were some of the books that moved and excited me the most this past year, regardless of genre, with many favorite authors and some that I got to discover for the first time this year.

1. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune This was my favorite book of 2020. It is beautifully kind and has the most precious found family full of slightly unusual children that deserve all of the love in the world. It’s a fantasy take on a “very regimented main character learns that sometimes a little chaos makes for a happier life” story but mostly it’s about finding your place and your people where you’re allowed to be exactly what you are and so you become a better, fuller version of yourself. Arthur is truly the best adoptive father to his house full of children that no one else would care for and seeing how all of these children blossom throughout the story is heartwarming, as is Linus’s growing love and protectiveness toward them. They may have started as an assignment but they became his and learning to reconcile that with the life he thought he was supposed to have, where he never knew that colors like cerulean could exist and be a part of your life, is the most satisfying emotional journey. It’s a story of good people finding happiness and it was the story I and so many others needed this year. (Add to Goodreads)

2. The City We Became by NK Jemisin I was always going to love this book. It’s by an author I love and it has an amazing premise (5 New Yorkers band together to protect their city from an ancient evil). But even going in with high hopes, it moved me in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for because of when I read it. Fiction is never divorced from our world, it is created from what is and what could be and what ifs. But to read a story of these people fighting for the soul of their city, explicitly against a villain that foments hate and distrust in others, while pausing to browse Twitter and see New York (along with cities across the county) turning out in huge numbers to say that Black Lives Matter and to demand a better, more just world, was an incredibly powerful experience. It is a love letter to New York and the diversity of its residents and neighborhoods and the way they stand together. It’s a world that is simultaneously ours and not ours and that makes the anger and sharpness of the rebukes more straightforward than the sentiments in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (which is also a gorgeous, searing read) but it does the same thing for the hope. It is a book that explicitly says “the world might be awful, but we don’t have to like it that way” and tells us to want and fight for better. It’s a tremendous start to what is sure to be another outstanding trilogy and I cannot wait for more. (Add to Goodreads)

3. A Killing Frost by Seanan McGuire No piece of media I consumed this year gave me as much excitement or happiness as this book. It is the 14th book in the October Daye series and I don’t understand how this series keeps getting bigger and deeper while still feeling so small and character-driven. It’s a book with gigantic plot implications that immediately set my theorizing brain (and that of the wonderful fandom on Discord) going in all sorts of fun ways but it also features one of McGuire’s favorite things to write about and that is the idea of finding your way home. Over the course of the book, it’s a description that could apply to three different characters and each time, it made me very emotional. Home is the place you fit, where there are people who love you. Whether that is a daughter, a squire, a fiance, an aunt, the man you once loved and his wife, or any of the other complicated string of relationships that make up this wonderful universe, it is finding those people and holding on to them. It gave a character I adore the happiest ending (or maybe just a new beginning) that could ever exist for him, in a way I was so utterly unprepared for and that still fills me with indescribable joy, and expanded (or just made official) Toby’s ever-expanding family and was the brightest spot during a difficult time. I am so grateful for this book and this series and the way it continues to mean a little more to me with every passing year. (Add to Goodreads)

4.The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal I absolutely love this alternate history of the space race and attempts to move significant portions of Earth’s population to space after a natural disaster. I think the worldbuilding is fascinating and with this book, we get to see a different aspect of it after the first two books spent with Elma navigating the space program as the first Lady Astronaut. Nicole is a politician’s wife as well as an accomplished pilot with space experience and watching her navigate those two warring identities would have been fascinating enough for a whole book. But then it threw in a compelling mystery with sabotage and betrayal and I couldn’t put it down. I love stories about politically savvy women who are all about image management. They know who they are expected to be and use that to their fullest advantage. I find them utterly fascinating and Nicole is such a good example. She gets to be what others expect her to be on the surface and full of depth below that she is only able to show to a few trusted friends. She’s calculating and brutal and will do it all with a smile and heels and it’s a thing of beauty to witness. It pushes things forward in a very interesting way and leaves you completely satisfied before we return to Elma’s journey to Mars in book 4. (Add to Goodreads)

5. The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson What a stunning debut. As I mentioned in my YA list, I love stories about people finding out that the world they thought they knew was constructed on lies to keep certain people in their place and choosing to push back and make it better. The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are fitting, as the primary purpose of women in this world is to have babies and ultimately serve the Prophet and his lineage. It’s horrifying and unsettling while also feeling believable in this isolated community, where information and travel is strictly controlled. It’s an overall examination on the abuse of power, the lengths people will go to justify and maintain that power, and what it takes to break free. It is a horror story and that means some parts, especially toward the end are brutal and violent, which is not the easiest to read but the “burn it down” energy it contained felt right and resonant for this year. (Add to Goodreads)

6. Stormsong by C.L. Polk If Witchmark was about exposing and stopping an oppressive act Stormsong is about what happens in the aftermath. Because it’s never just one problem or one thing that needs to be solved and reimagined. It’s a system of things put into place that decides who has value and who is allowed what privileges. The world now knows about the atrocities of Aeland but now it falls on Grace to continue to move her country on the right path via legislation and sweeping changes. There is so much political maneuvering and planning, which is always a favorite of mine in a fantasy book, and in many ways, it was a commentary on our own world and what we feel is the “correct” way to bring about change. I love a good inconvenient love story and that is exactly what Grace and Avia find themselves in and the way Avia is able to provide a new perspective for Grace after a lifetime being groomed for a particular type of political service and lifestyle. It’s beautifully written and highly recommended for anyone who likes their historical-feeling fantasy with a touch of romance. (Add to Goodreads)

7. Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin Science fiction and fantasy have been doing amazing things in short fiction lately, mostly through magazines and anthologies, but also through the Forward series this is a part of from Amazon. They are proof that you don’t need a lot of space to tell a compelling story and this one got under my skin in the typical way a Jemisin story does. If it’s available to you, it’s another one that I recommend in audiobook form (possibly with the print version to follow along with, as I prefer to do) because it’s narrated by Jason Isaacs who does a very good job with the overall feel of the piece. It’s a creative method of storytelling that makes the most use out of the shorter form and above all, I love the idea of this society thriving and baffling the people who left in the process. It’s a celebration of working together to achieve something brighter, a world that’s not structured to celebrate the greed of a few while leaving everyone else behind. It’s about community and our dependence on each other and the lies we’ve been told about resources and their abundance (or lack thereof) and hope for what could be. (Add to Goodreads)

8. Peter Darling by Austin Chant This is an excellent retelling of Peter Pan with a love story between Peter and Hook that works incredibly well. The idea of Neverland not just as a place of eternal childhood but a place where Peter could be free of the expectations his family had for him back home as Wendy and simply be himself. It’s Peter’s return to the place he once called home only to find that it had changed in his absence (as had he) and he couldn’t force it back to the land he once knew. The push and pull of his relationship to Hook is fascinating to watch evolve over the course of the book and it’s lovely to watch. It’s a story about growing up and into yourself and fighting for a life you want instead of the one others want for you. Even if you don’t feel any real attachment to the original story, in either book or Disney movie form, this retelling is so beautifully written and imagined that you can’t help but love it. (Add to Goodreads)

9. In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard This is another retelling, this time of Beauty and the Beast, but in a Vietnamese-inspired setting and where the Beast is a dragon and a woman. It’s a fresh take on a story and trope we all know so well. I really love shorter stories that feel like a small peek into a larger world and that’s exactly what this is. The world the Vanishers have left behind is a harsh one, physically and mentally. It’s created a hard mentality where only the useful are allowed to survive and that is the framework that Yên has to unwind, as one of the useless. She gets to find value and pleasure and purpose in a place she didn’t expect. The writing is poetic and captivating and leaves you wanting more. It makes you inhabit this world so fully that it takes a while for that feeling to evaporate, which is always one of my favorites. (Add to Goodreads)

10. Finna by Nino Cipri This is an incredibly fun novella that is both about the horrors of retail work and the paths not taken. This definitely not IKEA (for legal reasons, of course) has an unfortunate wormhole problem and sometimes customers get sucked through them and need to be retrieved by the certainly underpaid employees. They lead to other stores in other universes and offer other possibilities, some positive, some less so. As any good trip to a multiverse should, it explores the complicated feelings that arise over the lives we didn’t lead and how things could have gone. It’s a story for anyone feeling a bit stuck where they are in life or anyone trying to overcome self-destructive habits. It’s a very fun setting for a story and I am looking forward to the follow up as well as anything else Cipri writes in the future. (Add to Goodreads)

For more Best of 2020 fun, don’t forget to check out Marvelous Geeks’s lists and keep an eye out for some end-of-the-year wrap-up posts from Nerdy Girl Notes coming next week (and check out Mary’s Year in Books post!) And for TV thoughts, listen to our joint podcast episodes where we talk about our favorite characters, relationships, and more.

1 thought on “Best of 2020: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

  1. I always love seeing your end-of-year book posts because I always end up finding some new books that I want to read!!

    I’m definitely hoping to read The House in the Cerulean Sea sometime early next year as I’ve been wanting to for a while, and of course The City We Became as I really think the premise for it sounds so cool. And as you know, Seanan’s October Daye series is constantly in the top 10 of my to-read pile, if I can just get myself started!

    Finna and Emergency Skin both sound fascinating, and I’m excited to hopefully get to read them someday.

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