What a strange year it has been! I hope reading helped get you through the ups and downs. I know I definitely turned to books for both comfort and information, rereading old favourites, and learning about newly relevant subjects. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!
Disillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shamans in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power. The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from these cataclysmic power struggles. Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions.
Kacen Callender tells the story of Felix Love, a high school student who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the non-binary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of internalized homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online.
As the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history. Casey McQuiston has written what is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary, but for me this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun.
Old beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter, Sarah. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all. At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, Eden Robinson layers in little bits of weirdness that creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Coming eight years on the heels of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is divided into six books within books. At first, alternating chapters from Zachary’s perspective are interleaved with fragments from his mysterious library find. Morgenstern also layers in excerpts from the diary of Zachary’s friend Kat, one of the few people who seems to notice or care when he goes missing from the university in pursuit of answers, desperate to discover the provenance of the book, and ascertain once and for all whether the world it describes might be real and reachable. The Starless Sea is the story of a magical library, but also something much more impossible than that. It is a story of doorways, and possibilities, of choices and their consequences.
An honourable mention also goes out to S.A. Chakraborty, who completed her truly excellent Daevabad trilogy with The Empire of Gold this year.
What were your top fiction reads of 2020? I especially want to hear about your comfort reads and fluff! What got you through?