2020 was a horrible year for pretty much the entire world. Like many others, I suffered a great deal of loss, but also some hopeful new beginnings. I managed to meet my modest Goodreads goal of 30 novels, by finishing 31 and being half-way through another. I have the hope moving into 2021 that I can make more time for both reading and content generation, and we’re going to start off that goal the usual way: A top list!
I make a point to be very aware of the fact that ‘best book’ is just code for ‘book I enjoyed the most’ and am definitely not making any objective claims here. If you didn’t like these books, that’s valid, we just have different tastes. This is also not really intended to be a review of the books either, but instead more my reactions to reading them, and the kind of thoughts they engendered. Plot summaries are easy to find. But if you’re here because you tend to like the books I review positively, here’s my top three from 2020 to add to your list if you haven’t already read them:
3) (2020) Machine’s Last Testament, Benjanun Sriduangkaew
It’s interesting to me to think about the fact that all three of my top three books this year came to me through stories more complex than just ‘I thought it looked like a good book and bought it’. In the case of Machine’s Last Testament, I had noticed a Twitter mutual frequently retweeting somebody whose tweets I couldn’t see. A little memory searching and pondering made me realize that I had probably been swept up in some mass-blockings centering around some industry unpleasantness of some years earlier. After a generous intercession by the mutual, I’ve gone on to have several excellent conversations with Benjanun, and picked up this book, which will be the first of many that I read.
There’s a point sometime after reading something like Machine’s Last Testament where you become aware, for the first time, of the fact that you can’t actually think of whether it had a single cis white male character, and not only are you just realizing this now, but the reason you’re only realizing it now is that you have lost absolutely nothing of value by that lack. It shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that the best way to get queer rep in your books is to read books by queer writers, but nevertheless, reading Machine’s Last Testament highlighted that in addition to having needed to take conscious steps to read more women, and more authors of colour, a similar step needed to be taken to read more work by queer authors.
As I’ve said in other articles, you have nothing to lose but a bunch of mediocre white dudes clogging up the middle of your ranked reading list, taking no chances, and certainly not giving you extremely well-written and thoroughly developed queer characters, chock full of emotion, character development, action that actually focuses on what the action means and not just describing what the action does and of course, some fantastic lesbian and queer romance. I found out after the fact that I came in at the slow-paced end of the ‘how soon do we get to the sex’ scale, which was probably good for me. A fantastic book, easily grabbed the number 3 spot.
2) (2019) The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon
The story behind my coming to read The Priory of the Orange Tree is perhaps a little more mundane. I definitely already did want to read it, had been hearing nothing but good things about it, and picked it up so many times in the bookstore, but was always held back by my budget not being able to accommodate 25 dollars plus tax for one book. Being poor sucks. But what can you do? Apparently the thing you can do is have an extremely kind and generous friend who, having himself read and loved the book, was so insistent that you read it so you could give him your feedback that from the other side of the ocean, he bought and shipped it to you. Thanks friend!
So with the novel finally in hand, off I went on an 800 page journey of magic, dragons, romance, betrayal, despair, hope, a fantastic magic system, compelling characters. The friend who purchased it for me kept pestering me for progress reports, how I felt about it, and many lengthy conversations were had. Reading back over those conversations to write this article I’m amused to note that it fell victim to one of my ‘marks of a great novel’ which is that most of the conversations we had were criticizing tiny barely relevant minutiae, because we’d long since gotten past “This book is amazing, and has so many amazing things” that all that was left was to ruminate on things like extremely specific elements of the world design.
There was an exchange where, after I’d fallen down one of these weird rabbit holes, he said he was sorry that I wasn’t enjoying the book, and I had to correct him that not only had I loved it, it was almost certainly a lock on number 2 for the year, which it was, and which it held from that point on. This article is deliberately light on plot details for the novels, but as should be clear, Priory of the Orange Tree was absolutely wonderful, a gust of fresh air into the sails of this kind of sweeping, epic fantasy novel, and you owe it to yourself to read it.
1) (2019) This Is How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
If only I had known, when my sister first messaged me on Facebook to ask if I had heard anything about this sci-fi novella getting a ton of attention, because it was co-written by a friend of hers from when they were in University, what I was in for. They’d shared a few classes, worked together on a few publications, before drifting apart afterwards, and now she was seeing El-Mohtar’s name all over the book sphere. Looking at it, I very nearly didn’t even pick it up at all. 200 pages, in hardcover? Almost 30 dollars for a book I could read in one sitting? What a fool was I. Thankfully, my bookstore had a VERY nice sale on, just after Christmas when I was flush with gift cards, and I grabbed it.
I just…wow. It was the very first book I read in 2020. I literally read it January 1st, and it just locked onto the number one spot of the year and refused to let go no matter what other authors or novels I threw at it. It’s hard to say much about it without risking spoilers of the wrong kind. Slow-burn, enemies to lovers, lesbian romance adventure philosophical tract shot through with a frankly outrageous array of kinds and ranges of pop culture references, told through a series of letters. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have truly created something incredible here, and I absolutely cannot suggest it enough to anybody for whom even a single one of those descriptors sounds appealing.
To make a super weird analogy, reading descriptions of This Is How You Lose The Time War feels strangely to me like reading descriptions of Katamari Damacy. While it might be immediately obvious to people for whom that sort of thing is their particular niche that this will be for them, to others it sounds strange, almost outlandish to the point where your first instinct might be to dismiss it out of hand. But then you actually sit down and experience it, and there’s just this ineffable joy, that this is exactly the right thing. From a guffawed ‘for a book I could read in one sitting?’ to an almost desperate reading of it in one sitting, unwilling to wait even a moment for the next chapter took all of 5 pages. I have probably personally sold a dozen copies of this book to people, and if anybody reading this hasn’t read this yet, you must add yourself to the list.
This Is How You Lose The Time War is not only my number one book of the year, it has the distinction of being the first book in a long time, enough years that I’d really need to sit down and think it out to number, that a book has cracked into my all-time top five, out of almost certainly thousands of sci-fi and fantasy novels, to be the second best book I have ever read.
Thank you for sticking with me through all this text. Hopefully if you haven’t read some of these, you might now be inspired to check them out. My goal is for you to see a little more of me this year, and try to get back on a more regular track, so please comment, share, all that good stuff, and good reading for 2021!
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