Books Read in 2020: Four-Star Sci-Fi and Fantasy

 Oy, what a Monday-ish Monday. Slept badly, dragged my ass to work in a mostly-empty school, had zero energy or motivation. Every time I passed the library doors while shelving books I could see the same janitor cleaning the same section of the same wall. It felt like time had stopped. 

Angus has been looking for a PS5 since November (new video gaming platform that has been annoyingly difficult to find). He finally managed to snag one from Amazon right before Christmas but it looked like it might not arrive until the week after he left for school. In addition, I was weirded out by the fact that he had ordered it from with a Canadian address - every time I've tried to do that it made me go to He was committed to leaving Monday, and on Saturday it said it would be here Tuesday. Then yesterday it said it would get here between 10:30 and 2:30 today. I got home from work at 12:15 and it had just arrived, and there was much rejoicing in the kingdom. Now I just have to be vaguely anxious until he's gotten across the border and then safely back to school.

I came across yet another Best Books of All Time list today. These always make me roll my eyes while simultaneously adding some of the books to my to-read list. The one I realized I have been meaning to read for years was Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. The one that made me roll my eyes hardest was a mystery that I had in my three-star list this year - this just made me think that someone who never reads mysteries read it and thought that was what a mystery should be, and wanted to appear well-rounded as a reader. At least there were several older books on it - I find it very frustrating when all the books have been written in the last ten years, like, "All Time" doesn't reset every decade, guys.

Four-Star Sci-Fi and Fantasy

The New Voices of Science Fiction edited by Hannu Rajaniemi: Synopsis from Goodreads: Your future is bright! After all, your mother is a robot, your father has joined the alien hive-mind, and your dinner will be counterfeit 3D-printed steak. Even though your worker bots have staged a mutiny, and your tour guide speaks only in memes, you can always sell your native language if you need some extra cash.The avant-garde of science fiction have arrived in this space-age sequel to the 2018 award-winning anthology, The New Voices of Fantasy. In The New Voices of Science Fiction you'll find the rising stars of the last five years: Rebecca Roanhorse, Amal El-Mohtar, Sam J. Miller, E. Lily Yu, Rich Larson, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker, Alice Sola Kim, Darcie Little Badger, Nino Cipri, S. Qiouyi Lu, Kelly Robson, Suzanne Palmer, and more. Their extraordinary stories have been hand-selected by cutting-edge author Hannu Rajaniemi (The Quantum Thief) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (Invaders).So go ahead, join the starship revolution. The new kids have already hacked the AI.

To be perfectly honest, I cringe when I see a book of short stories come up for these posts, because I suck at making good notes on them and it is really hard to remember details this many months later. I do know that I borrowed this from the library, read it and liked it so much I borrowed and read it again. I have also downloaded and read Strange Waters by Samantha Mills many, many times and it is now among my favourites. It is a time travel story nominally, but is actually about a mother's determination to get back to her children, and about whether to spending your life in pursuit of a goal at the expense of all else is worthwhile - it's beautiful and bittersweet. Our Lady of the Open Road is also very good - it relates to the author's novel which I also coincidentally read this year, and is about the way music connects people and can be a revolutionary force. 

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu: Synopsis from Goodreads: From award-winning author Ken Liu comes his much anticipated second volume of short stories.Ken Liu is one of the most lauded short story writers of our time. This collection includes a selection of his science fiction and fantasy stories from the last five years — sixteen of his best — plus a new novelette.

Yeah, for this one I have absolutely nothing. Look at that knockout of a cover, though.

Wastelands: The New Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams: Synopsis from Goodreads: The brilliant new post-apocalyptic collection by master anthologist John Joseph Adams, for the first time including new stories by the edgiest modern writers.

New short fiction by many of the edgiest modern authors, offering tales of life after the apocalyptic event or events that end society as we know it today. In addition to a selection of newly reprinted works, WASTELANDS 3 will feature original, never-before-published stories by a group of writers hand-picked by master editor John Joseph Adams. Original stories by Veronica Roth, Hugh Howet, Elizabeth Bear, Seanan McGuire, Tananarive Due, Wendy N. Wagner and many more. Reprints will include works by Carmen Maria Machado, Charlie Jane Anders, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ken Liu and Cat Valente amongst others.

I will never pass up an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow or John Joseph Adams. All the usual themes of post-apocalyptic short fiction here - the effects on the earth and the survivors, isolation, suspicion, desperate attempts to survive. Standouts were As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders - a girl in a panic room after the end of the world and a genie, and The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente - the ice caps have melted and humanity lives on a floating island called Garbagetown, and a young girl named Tetley (you will love and hate why) sets off on a quest. 

Cursed: An Anthology of Dark Fairy Tales edited by Marie O'Regan: Synopsis from Goodreads: Twenty curses, old and new, from bestselling fantasy authors such as Neil Gaiman, Karen Joy Fowler, Christina Henry, M.R. Carey, and Charlie Jane Anders.ALL THE BETTER TO READ YOU WITHIt's a prick of blood, the bite of an apple, the evil eye, a wedding ring, or a pair of red shoes. Curses come in all shapes and sizes, and they can happen to anyone, not just those of us with unpopular stepparents ...Here you'll find unique twists on curses, from fairy tale classics to brand-new hexes of the modern world--expect new monsters and mythologies as well as twists on well-loved fables. Stories to shock and stories of warning, stories of monsters and stories of magic.

As Red as Blood, as White as Snow - the prince is evil and Snow White and her stepmother team up against him! YES! Henry and the Snakewood Box - a demon, a simpleminded prey and a thought experiment (I should get my husband to read it) and a delicious denouement. Wendy, Darling - I am all in for Peter Pan retellings, and for Wendy Darling as an adult. I really liked this anthology. 

The Need for Air by Lettie Prell: Synopsis from GoodreadsA mother. A son. A virtual world they both share where each could live forever and achieve their fullest potential. Until one of them decides that isn't enough for life.

I've read quite a few iterations of this trope -- downloading people's consciousness into a virtual world. Some people think it's an answer to the prayer for immortality, and others think it's a pale imitation of actual life and would rather live for real even in an imperfect world. In this case it's a mother and her son who have divergent opinions, and it's heartbreaking.

As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang: Synopsis from Goodreads: An alternate history short story looking at decisions and consequences, and what it takes to pull the trigger.Winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

At my Monday school I have almost no phone signal, so I can't go on my phone at my break. That's fine, but depending on what I have for lunch it's hard to hold an actual book while I'm eating. I discovered that Tor, one of my favourite science fiction and fantasy publishers, has a website with a wealth of good stuff on it, including book reviews, publishing news and FREE SHORT STORIES. This was a revelation. A thematic twin to Ursula LeGuin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, it features a nation where the codes needed to access missiles are implanted inside a child, and in order to use them the president must kill the child with a ceremonial dagger. It's about a place where those in power are not allowed to look away from the devastation that their decisions about making war will cause. It's about really having to weigh all the possible permutations of a decision before putting it into action. It's quite and devastating. 

Two Truths and a Lie by Sarah Pinsker: Synopsis from Goodreads: 

Stella thought she’d made up a lie on the spot, asking her childhood friend if he remembered the strange public broadcast TV show with the unsettling host she and all the neighborhood kids appeared on years ago. But he does remember. And so does her mom. So why doesn’t Stella? The more she investigates the show and the grip it has on her hometown, the eerier the mystery grows.

Weirdly, I read this around the same time I was watching the Candle Cove season of Channel Zero, which also involved a weird children's tv show that only some people remembered. I like how an unreliable narrator gets tripped up when one of her lies then turns out to be true. This is nicely creepy and unsettling, although the end was a little more ambiguous than I like. 

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire: Synopsis from Goodreads: Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.

 When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.) If she can't find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests... A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do. Warning: May contain nuts.

I liked this ever-so-slightly-less than Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but only slightly. I love this series - the device of children who have visited magical worlds and need to be reintegrated is endlessly fascinating, and gives such great opportunities for world-building, at which McGuire excels. I continue to be amazed at the way she writes so well in almost any conceivable genre.

Ninth House by Lee Bardugo: Synopsis from Goodreads: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive. 

I've just given up being exasperated that I keep reading books and then being dismayed to learn their the first in a trilogy then realizing that often the "blah blah blah #1 IS RIGHT THERE IN THE GODDAMNED TITLE" was there all along so it's my own stupid fault. I keep meaning to read Six of Crows by this author which a lot of people I know loved, but for some reason didn't manage to. I loved this, though. It's about secret societies at Yale and the entitled rich people (mostly men) who belong to them, but with magic. Then this scrappy female character who sees dead people wades right in to fuck shit up. There's a strong thread against classism and a lot of really cool ghosty stuff. I am eagerly awaiting the second book. 

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas: Synopsis from Goodreads: In 1967, four female scientists worked together to build the world’s first time machine. But just as they are about to debut their creation, one of them suffers a breakdown, putting the whole project—and future of time travel—in jeopardy. To protect their invention, one member is exiled from the team—erasing her contributions from history.Fifty years later, time travel is a big business. Twenty-something Ruby Rebello knows her beloved grandmother, Granny Bee, was one of the pioneers, though no one will tell her more. But when Bee receives a mysterious newspaper clipping from the future reporting the murder of an unidentified woman, Ruby becomes obsessed: could it be Bee? Who would want her dead? And most importantly of all: can her murder be stopped?Traversing the decades and told from alternating perspectives, The Psychology of Time Travel introduces a fabulous new voice in fiction and a new must-read for fans of speculative fiction and women’s fiction alike.

I love time travel stories - I love the cheesy, plot-driven ones and the hard science ones and the meandering cerebral ones. I now find it a bit odd that I don't recall ever reading one that concentrated so much on what traveling in time does to one's psychology. This was a solid and important entry into the time travel canon, with a great cast of characters, many of them female, and a melancholy, bittersweet tone that compliments the subject of time travel nicely. The device of new time travelers meeting and learning from their older counterparts, and the vast differences in their mindsets, is really affecting, as is seeing time travelers experience different moments in their lives from different points along the time spectrum. I could do without the whole having sex with different iterations of oneself, but let's be honest, if it was possible, you know it would be happening.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia: Synopsis from Goodreads: A dying billionaire sends one woman and a cast of dreamers and rivals on a citywide treasure hunt in this irresistible novel by the author of Bellweather Rhapsody.Tuesday Mooney is a loner. She keeps to herself, begrudgingly socializes, and spends much of her time watching old Twin Peaks and X-Files DVDs. But when Vincent Pryce, Boston’s most eccentric billionaire, dies—leaving behind an epic treasure hunt through the city, with clues inspired by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe—Tuesday’s adventure finally begins.Puzzle-loving Tuesday searches for clue after clue, joined by a ragtag crew: a wisecracking friend, an adoring teen neighbor, and a handsome, cagey young heir. The hunt tests their mettle, and with other teams from around the city also vying for the promised prize—a share of Pryce’s immense wealth—they must move quickly. Pryce’s clues can't be cracked with sharp wit alone; the searchers must summon the courage to face painful ghosts from their pasts (some more vivid than others) and discover their most guarded desires and dreams.A deliciously funny ode to imagination, overflowing with love letters to art, from The Westing Game to Madonna to the Knights of the Round Table, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is the perfect read for thrill seekers, wanderers, word lovers, and anyone looking for an escape to the extraordinary.

The Westing Game for grownups. Much like the first Racculia book I read, this was a bit of a glorious mess - a lot of characters, a lot of sub-plots, a lot of shenanigans. Most of it thoroughly enjoyable. The title is a bit misleading, as Tuesday Mooney just barely converses with one 'ghost', maybe two. I will always be interested in what this author does next. 

All Worlds Are Real: Short Fictions by Susan Palwick: Synopsis from Goodreads: Beautifully crafted, unfailingly strange, and always moving, Susan Palwick's stories shift effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, magical realism and horror. Here you will encounter aliens, ghosts, and robots, along with a colorful assortment of eccentric and vulnerable humans. You will see souls trapped in lucite, witness the operations of a magical measuring tape, and watch the oldest woman on a generation ship bequeath a precious Terran relic to a young friend. Collecting tales published in markets such as, Asimov's, F&SF, and Lightspeed, All Worlds are Real also includes three new pieces exclusive to this volume. 

I read Flying in Place - an amazing, heartwrenching, revelatory book, highly HIGHLY recommend - many, many years ago before authors really had any online presence (or before there was such thing as an online presence, come to think of it). She is an amazing writer but not extremely prolific, so it took me a while to discover more of her books and then finally start following her blog. At some point, she said she wouldn't be blogging much and invited readers to follow her on Facebook. Again because she is less lauded than I (and many) think she should be, there weren't that many followers, which has led to us having a Facebook relationship much like I have with my IRL friends, which is mind-boggling to me.Anyway, I loved this collection like I love all of her writing. One reviewer called it "Chicken Soup for the Granola Christian Soul" which is not precisely wrong, but IS snotty, reductive and simplistic. Susan is an Episcopalian lay preacher, a woman of great faith and one of those people who spends almost every moment of every day trying to truly do good. This comes through in her writing, but not in a saccharine, sappy way. Her characters are drug-dealing Republicans or lesbian dominatrixes (dominatrices?), hugely flawed, damaged people, and the endings are not always happy. I find it impressive that I know her online writing voice well, and yet it is completely subsumed in her fiction writing voice - I forget that it is her writing even though her sensibility is always apparent.

A  Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker: Synopsis from Goodreads: In this captivating science fiction novel from an award-winning author, public gatherings are illegal making concerts impossible, except for those willing to break the law for the love of music, and for one chance at human connection.In the Before, when the government didn't prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce's connection to the world--her music, her purpose--is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery--no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she'll have to do something she's never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough. 

In a way it was freaky as hell reading this - terrorism and a deadly virus leading to anti-congregation laws and people terrified of being large groups. In a way I thought the author had definitely not reckoned with the American right and their deadly earnest insistence on being able to go to Arby's and get a haircut even if it literally kills them - it's funny that in her story it was the musicians who were breaking the rules about gathering. Apart from all that, I loved it. It reminder me of We Sold Our Souls in its depiction of music as a subversive, powerful uniting principle. I also admired the way it showed that "doing the right thing" isn't always clear-cut and obvious, and sometimes it is possible to work within the system. Great mix of good characters, solid world-building and good writing.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow: Synopsis from Goodreads: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own. 

I was excited to read this after several rereadings of the author's memorable short story The Autobiography of a Traitor and Half-Savage, and it did not disappoint. I mean, come on - a strange book that carries the scent of other worlds? A smart and determined little girl and a portal fantasy? Sign me the fuck up. Aside from some penetrating analysis of otherness, it is a sprawling book of magnificent adventure. There were one or two times when the pace slowed a bit much for me, and as soon as I started to think that something amazing would happen and I would forget I had ever doubted. There was one - not even a twist, because it was so obvious, but for some reason I was too dumb to see it coming, and then I was just SO DELIGHTED.

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig: Synopsis from Goodreads: In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls' lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn't sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with? When Annaleigh's involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it's a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next. 

I can't remember why I violated my prohibition against reading anything with this title format -(House of Sage and Salt, Court of Thorns and Roses, Thing of Things and Things, etc., etc.) which seems to be on every second YA book and bugs me for some indefinable reason. But I like books based on dark fairy tales and books set by the ocean. This was good - I was impressed by the author's ability to write the twelve sisters so that I was able to distinguish between them. The setting was impeccable, and the love story was honestly come by (no insta-love). 

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: Synopsis from Goodreads: Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There's still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.

This is the slow, romantic, meditative kind of time travel story, also a beautiful queer love story. I have read and loved short fiction by Amal El-Mohtar but didn't know Max Gladstone, but they write very well together. I don't know why I even bothered writing anything rather than just quoting the best review on Goodreads: "Killing Eve but they are time traveling pen pals". 

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness: Synopsis from Goodreads: The extraordinary happens every day...One night, George Duncan - decent man, a good man - is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.

This is another author who has a pretty impressive range - you're never sure exactly what you're going to get and once or twice I've been underwhelmed but generally I'm very satisfied. I'm always down for another version of this tale. In all honesty, I'm not sure this really works as a coherent story, but I don't actually care. The writing was beautiful, some weirdly intriguing shit happened, and I was here for all of it. I really admire how Ness goes for it, and the 'it' is never quite the same thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes less so, but it is anything but formulaic, and when it does work it is magical.

Providence by Max Barry: Synopsis from Goodreads: A dazzling, inventive, and thought-provoking new novel from the ingenious author of Jennifer Government and Lexicon.Gilly, Talia, Anders, and Jackson are astronauts captaining a new and supposedly indestructible ship in humanity's war against an alien race. Confined to the ship for years, each of them holding their own secrets, they are about to learn there are threats beyond the reach of human ingenuity--and that the true nature of reality might be the universe's greatest mystery.In this near future, our world is at war with another, and humanity is haunted by its one catastrophic loss--a nightmarish engagement that left a handful of survivors drifting home through space, wracked with PTSD. Public support for the war plummeted, and the military-industrial complex set its sights on a new goal: zero-casualty warfare, made possible by gleaming new ships called Providences, powered by AI.But when the latest-launched Providence suffers a surprising attack and contact with home is severed, Gilly, Talia, Anders, and Jackson must confront the truth of the war they're fighting, the ship that brought them there, and the cosmos beyond.

I don't love a lot of satire, but I have a soft spot for the kind that lightly skewers something while remaining kind and generally respectful about the source material (like The Book of Mormon). This is a kind of send-up of space opera or space adventure while also being a pretty good space adventure. There are the same fucked-up, flawed, struggling characters in the same impossible circumstances as are found in the brilliant Lexicon. Enjoyable and insightful.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher: Synopsis from Goodreads: My name's Griz. My childhood wasn't like yours. I've never had friends, and in my whole life I've not met enough people to play a game of football. My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs. Then the thief came.There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. Because if we aren't loyal to the things we love, what's the point?

I always feel kind of cringily embarrassed for authors who post pleas for people not to reveal the twist in their book - like, if you have to do that, does your book maybe rely too heavily on that twist? That said, there definitely are books that I'm glad I went into without knowing too much, and this is one of them, so never mind I guess, I'm just a bitch. This was a really cool book - an elegy for a past world, a coming-of-age story, a road movie in book form, and a beautiful story about the love between a boy and his dog. The only quibble I have is that the foreshadowing was a little heavy at times. It would make an amazing movie. 


StephLove said…
A lot of the books we have in common-- This is How You Win the Time War (read this past year), Ninth House (in the to-read pile), and Song for a New Day (also in the to-read pile)-- are books I read/will read because Noah wanted to.

I think I may have already said this on GR, but Westing House for grownups is an excellent recommendation.

Jake has had the money saved up for a PS5 for a while, he is just waiting for one to become available!
Ernie said…
I was almost done reading this, then I saw your next post pop up so I am now behind. We are urging Reg to do different things with his time . . . like, maybe read? I feel like he is stuck still waiting to meet his high school friends. Anyway, I suggested that he take a look at some of these titles you recommend. Fingers crossed.

Loved "sign me the fuck up". Also your angle about writers begging people not to reveal the twist. Personally, I would not risk my life for a haircut or an Arby's sandwich (my grandma used to ask us to drive her there as an outing from her retirement home- I was always like, really?).

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