I’ve read a lot this year. As of writing, I am five books away from completing my Goodreads 80 book reading challenge and I’ve filled most of my bingo card. I still have a tiny bit of time left on these challenges, so I’ll hold off talking about them for now.
In this post, I’m going to look at some new releases. Books published in 2020, that I have read in 2020. This year has been a complete dumpster fire, but at least there have been a lot of amazing books published this year. Lucky me has even managed to read a few.
Stormsong – C. L. Polk
This is the sequel to Witchmark. It could be read as a standalone, but it works much better with the worldbuilding a backstory from the first book. Also, if you read Stormsong first, it ruins the mystery and gives massive spoilers to Witchmark. So, yes, you can read Stormsong first, but, just, please don’t.
In Stormsong we follow Dame Grace Henley – sister of Witchmark protagonist Miles and Chancellor of Aeland – as she navigates the aftermath of the events of Witchmark. I enjoyed seeing the fallout of the victory of the first book, and it was a delight to return to the magical Edwardian-inspired world of the Kingston Cycle. As well as having a strong plot and gorgeous worldbuilding, Stormsong also has a lovely F/F romance. I don’t read a lot of romance, but this was a nice dose of romance that left me feeling warm and happy, though I did enjoy the romance in Witchmark more.
The finale work in the Kingston Cycle Trilogy, Soulstar, is expected to be published on February 16, 2021.
Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus: An Adult Romance Novel – Chuck Tingle
And right after I finish saying I don’t read a lot of romance, let’s jump into the erotic trans romance novel I read this year. This is Chuck Tingle’s big Fuck You to J.K. Rowling, and despite being a quickly written loose Harry Potter parody, it was so much better than I expected. Harriet Porber is legitimately clever and charming, whilst also throwing around the craziness that is the Tingleverse.
I did a big review of this classic here. The TL;DR: Has plot, has dinosaurs and sentient motorcycles, calls out J.K. Rowling and toxic romance tropes, and contains an amazing magic system that uses metafiction to validate trans identities
The City We Became – N. K. Jemisin
After how much I loved Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it was inevitable that I would pick up this one. This is Lovecraft meets the controversy of gentrification, and I loved it so much. Many of the scenes were genuinely creepy (at least on the audiobook narrated by Robin Miles), and the character’s reactions to being so suddenly flung into a world of interdimensional realities and Lovecraftian horrors are believable and entertaining.
The City We Became picks up right where Jemisin’s short story The City Born Great finishes, with New York City come to life and under attack by interdimensional abominations. In this universe, cities that are alive have human avatars, who embody the city and have magical powers drawn from their connection to the city. New York has six avatars; one that represents the city as a whole, and five for the five individual boroughs. After the primary avatar is incapacitated with his fight with The Enemy at the start of the story, the other five begin to realise that they have become something new, and must figure out their new powers while seeking each other out and avoiding the Enemy.
I am not American and have never been to New York, so I feel that part of the appeal of this book – the whole love letter to New York aspect – just didn’t click for me. Despite that, the city still made for an interesting setting. And I suppose I could say, for an interesting character. The ‘magic’ system in this story is great, running on symbolism and New York stereotypes. One early scene involved Manhattan and his roomate in a park surrounded by white tentacles. Manhattan realises that throwing money and credit cards on the ground makes it impossible for the tentacles to spawn in the immediate area of the money. Later on there is a car chase scene, and the characters find that the road rage other divers direct at them as they zoom past provides them with some protection.
Magic aside, any encounter the characters have with the Enemy is amazing. Definitely an amazing villain. She brings out the best in the magic system and worldbuilding, while also being a complex, malicious, sometimes scary character. And seeing her true form at the end was a nice whoa moment. The fact that she is all this while subverting the usual coding for villains is also interesting. All the evil stuff is bright white, and the Enemy usually appears as a friendly non-threatening white woman.
The City We Became is a really fun book. I wish it had the same level of characterisation as Broken Earth. Hopefully, there are more books in this series and we get to know the boroughs better, or meet more cities.
The Last Emperox – John Scalzi
This is the finale work of Scalzi’s Interdependancy trilogy, and the most important thing I can say about it is that it nails the ending. If you have been reading this trilogy, then rest assured the ending won’t dissapoint. If you haven’t read The Collapsing Empire or The Consuming Fire, then do not read this first; there is a lot of recapping of the previous books, but you still need to have read them to follow along with The Last Emperox.
The Interdependancy Trilogy is about a space empire called The Interdependancy and it’s impending destruction due to changes in space climate. Well, changes in the layout and function of the flow streams (kinda like wormholes) which will leave all the worlds of the Interdependancy isolated. Due to the way Interdependancy politics and economics works, with it’s reliance on monopolies of essential goods, isolation would leave all but one world in this space empire unable to support life long term. The objective of the Interdependancy is that everyone has to rely on each other; it is exactly what it says in the name. Fortunately, scientists have discovered this problem with plenty of time to come up with a way to save people, as long as the rich and powerful of the Interdependancy believe them and are moved to act on this warning against their own self-interest.
Yes, it is climate change in space. No, it is not subtle.
Nothing in this trilogy is subtle. It is fun space opera with funny, engaging dialog. Personally, I loved Wil Wheaton narrating these books, especially when it came to some of the more sarcastic and snarky comments. Of course, I’ve noticed people tend to have a variety of opinions on Wil Wheaton as an audiobook narrator. I read the first book, and listed to the other two; for me, Wil Wheaton’s narration makes the big infodumps and internal monologs in this book actually enjoyable
The Relentless Moon – Mary Robinette Kowal
Since The Relentless Moon is a Lady Astronaut novel, I went into it very excited. There was also a bit of trepidation, since this is the first novel of the series to not follow the Lady Astronaut Elma York. Still, I dove in, listening to the audiobook version because I really enjoy listening to Kowal narrate her own works, and I loved everything about this one.
The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history… which I am only just realising now as I type this. I could have ticked off the ‘Alternate History’ tile on my book bingo card back in August.
The Relentless Moon is a conspiracy/mystery story set on the luna colony in an alternate 1963 where a deadly world-destroying meteorite has spurred humanity to throw nearly everything into a global space program. Meteorite aside, the Lady Astronaut world feels so much like what our efforts to explore space could have been. Kowal has done a lot of research on both spaceflight and the era these books are set in. Everything has the feel of a real, fully possible history.
The star of the Lady Astronaut series is Elma York, a pilot and math genius who campaigns for the space program to allow woman astronauts. The first two books in the series, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, follows Elma as she becomes an astronaut and flies to the Moon and Mars. The Relentless Moon takes place at the same time as The Fated Sky, where Elma is busy flying to Mars. With Elma out of the way, protagonist duty falls to Nicole Wargin, a fellow Lady Astronaut friend of Elma’s. Nicole is in her fifties and struggles with an eating disorder. Neither of those facts are her defining feature. Like Elma, she was a pilot in WWII, though it appears that Nicole learnt other skills during the war as well, which become useful when a saboteur pops up on the moon. Whilst she is using her technical and political skills on the moon, her husband, senator Kenneth Wargin, is considering running for President of the USA.
I love Nicole as a character, I love her relationship with Kenneth, and I loved reading about her and the rest of the crew from the previous books solving mysteries and kicking ass on the moon. The Relentless Moon is a wonderful book and can be read as a standalone if you are not up-to-date with the Lady Astronaut series. It is also the longest book I read this year, which surprised me. It did not feel long at all.
Network Effect – Martha Wells
The fifth Murderbot story, and the first novel length entry in the series. OMG where should I start with the gushing for this book? There is so much action, humour, emotion, space Netflix, and ART is back! Network Effect is a non-stop action ride with science fiction’s most introverted murder-cyborg and I was pumped the whole way through.
The Murderbot Diaries series follows the titular Murderbot; an artificial human/cyborg created to be a nearly-indestructible and well-armed security guard. It isn’t supposed to have free will, but before the series started it found a way to hack into itself and disable the module that kept it obedient. Once free, it spent decades doing a half-arsed version of it’s job while streaming space Netflix in it’s mind.Then All Systems Red comes along and Murderbot is rented by a survey team from a planet with actual ethics that someone decides to kill. Cue multi-book adventure.
Theoretically, you could read Network Effect as a standalone. Though having read book 2 and meeting ART (Asshole Research Transport) will make this much easier and understandable. And, why would anyone look at a critically acclaimed award winning series and decide to just read books #2 and #5? I recently saw a box set of the first four novellas in shops, and even though I have audiobooks of all of them (plus a kindle version of All Systems Red) I am tempted to get the pretty murderbox.
Network Effect not only throws Murderbot into a new adventure, but it also explores the aftermath of the the previous one. Muderbot got its happily ever after after going through huge trauma and growth in Exit Strategy, so it was really good just knowing that that wasn’t the end of Murderbot’s story. It was also great seeing ART and Murderbot meet each other’s humans, and the two of them figuring out their relationship. And Murderbot having a laugh at ARTs ‘real’ name. ART is a spaceship by the way, just in case that wasn’t clear. I loved their relationship in Artificial Condition, and I enjoyed them coming together here; especially since they are not meeting under the best circumstances and things don’t go so well between them. Relationships are hard for Murderbot, which I find super relatable.
The plot of this book does get convoluted. I don’t really remember a lot of the details of the plot now, but given how high the stakes were for all the characters involved, I was super invested at the time. The main draw was definitely the character interactions. And the humour; Murderbot is sarcastic and pessimistic and since this story is told from Murderbot’s first-person perspective, the commentary on everything happening gets very entertaining. The first-person perspective also works surprisingly well in the action scenes. Murderbot isn’t human, and its perspective includes not only what it can see and hear with it’s own body, but what it can see through it’s drones and the information it gets from the computer feeds it is hooked into. This could have been a complete mess, but Martha Wells has the skill to make it work.
There are many more 2020 novels on my To Read pile. One of these is Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth, which I am currently listening to. Harrow the Ninth is the sequel to Gideon the Ninth, the hit lesbian space necromancer novel written last year. So far I am enjoying it; hopefully I finish it before the end of the year. I also intend to read Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant early next year.
The Flock of Ba-Hui – Oobmab (Writer), Akira, Arthur Meursault (Translators)
This volume contains four stories originally published by Oobmab on the Chinese fiction website Ring of Wonder. The four novellas have been translated and collected in this book along with a framing story, therefore The Flock of Ba-Hui can be classed as a fix-up novel.
I used this book to tick off my ‘Translated from Chinese’ book bingo tile, and reviewed it here.
The Sandman – Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs
Is an audio adaptation of a comic book still a book? Or is it now a radio drama? Well, my definition of ‘book’ is that it appears on Goodreads, so yup, it is a book. The Sandman comics have been on my radar for a while, but starting a comic book or graphic novel series is a big commitment, so I dragged my feet on it. This adaptation is my first exposure to Sandman, and I can say that I had no trouble following the story or understanding the lore.
Sandman is set in the DC universe, and has appearances by other DC characters and settings (e.g. John Constantine, Arkham Asylum.) Morpheus, the titular Sandman, is an Endless; an immortal personification of a natural force. In this case, the embodiment of dreams. I haven’t encountered this side of the D.C universe before, and I really enjoyed it. We don’t see many superheros here, and the story is a dark fantasy rather than a hero story.
I cannot compare this adaptation to the comic, but I enjoyed both the story and the performance, which bodes well for both versions of The Sandman. Beware though that this story is very much a horror story. At times, it is a very gory horror story. I usually like horror, but there were parts where I felt squicked out by what was happening. One of the downsides of having such excellent narration ond effects.
Novellas & Short Stories:
I haven’t been keeping up to date with short fiction this year. I have also neglected my Novella reading list, so this section will be very brief.
I read Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire at the start of the year. I was really looking forward to this new addition to the Wayward Children series since it revisited my favourite portal world and wayward children. Unfortunately it just didn’t do it for me. I can’t remember why, but it just wasn’t as memorable or exciting for me as the other books in the series. It was still worth it to see Christopher meet the skeleton horse though. In July Tor.com released a short story in this series called Juice Like Wounds, set during the events of In An Absent Dream and presented as one of Lundy’s sidequests. I have just discovered it and I love it.
I also read the two most recent novellas in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series. (The Physicians of Vilnoc and Masquerade in Lodi.) This series was my first introduction to Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, and these two novellas are the first ones I’ve read after reading the novel Curse of Chalion. It was nice going into Masquerade in Lodi with more background on the theology of this world, but it wasn’t necessary. Physicians and Masquerade are the 8th and 9th books in this series going by publication order, but respectably they are 9th and 4th in chronological order. This leads questions about which order the novellas should be read. I did them in publication order, which worked fine. If you want to read them in chronological order you will go #1, #2, #5, #9, #3, #4, #6, #7, #8 but I think as long as you read #1 first, #2 before #5, #3 – #4 – #6 in order, and #7 – #8 after #6, you should still have a good time. #8 only has a brief mention of events in #7, so you could reverse their order if needed. These numbers refer to the publication order of the books. After typing all that, I really don’t want to make this section longer by matching numbers with books. Here’s the series on Goodreads: Publication Order, and Chronological Order. Can’t wait until the next book comes out and reshuffles everything again.
The Penric and Desdemona series is set in Bujold’s World of the Five Gods. It jumps around to different adventures in the life of the sorcerer Penric and Desdemona, a powerful demon he was accidently possessed by when he was a teenager. In this world, demons are the source of sorcerer magic, and they work like the Trill in Star Trek; each time they jump to a new host, the essence of their previous host becomes a part of their identity and is brought along to the new host. Desdemona is made up of ten women, a mare and a lioness. Penric is her first male host. Throughout the series, the two develop a strong partnership and become a very powerful team.
As you can tell by the fact that I have stayed with this series for nine books, I think very highly of it. I feel that Masquerade is one of the weaker stories in the series, whilst Physicians is much stronger. However, Physicians of Vilnoc is a story about frontline healthcare workers trying desperatly to save people from a mysterious plague. That might hit a bit too close to home for some people right now. Or maybe it’ll be the right mix of relevance and fantasy to make you happy.
There were a lot of novellas released this year that I’ve heard good things about. The one I’m most eager to get to is Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, since I’ve loved all of his other novellas. As for short stories, I think I’ll have to go over to Rocket Stack Rank and see what gems I’ve missed this year.
What other 2020 books have people been enjoying this year? Leave comments below. 2020 has not been the best year for anyone; It has however given us some pretty good stories, and that’s always a good thing.
Stay safe everyone; hopefully next year is full of adventure for us all.