In the ongoing tire fire that is 2020, supply chains are still messed up and the postal service is still struggling—as are local bookstores. Independent retailers have begun asking that people start their Christmas shopping early, so that everyone can properly and safely manage the influx. If you can do so, I encourage you to support your local bookstore with these reads—or a local bookstore by ordering through Bookshop.
The Lives of the Saints (Leigh Bardugo) – This is more like two presents in one, since the book itself is a beautiful object, with a gilt-stamped cover and lavish illustrations for each brief story. You also don’t have to be familiar with what I must now reluctantly refer to as the “Grishaverse,” aka, the stories set in Leigh Bardugo’s Russian-inspired fantasy world. These stories stand on their own and are short hagiographies, bright and dark by turns. This pairs well with Bardugo’s other collection of stories, The Language of Thorns, which is also a beautiful volume and also doesn’t require extensive knowledge of her expanded universe.
If I Had Your Face (Frances Cha) – This book is a masterpiece and perfect for any Koreophile in your life. (Or for anyone who likes good writing, compelling characters, and complex drama.) Four narrators tell four very different stories about life in Korea—but maybe they’re all telling the same story about how rampant misogyny and deep economic divides wrack women’s lives. But don’t despair. When they come together, there’s also hope, community, and meaning to be found.
Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) – Escape to Mexico in the 1950’s and the wealthy, gorgeous world of Noemí, who wants to party all night—and go to university all day. Her father is grudgingly fine with the first part, but he’s reluctant to pay for her education, so he sets her a bargain: pay a visit to her cousin, an heiress who might be in trouble. Is she sick? Or is her illness only a symptom of her husband’s nefarious designs on the family’s wealth and privilege? Noemí will have to use all her cunning and fierce will to find out exactly what’s happening. Thank goodness for her sharp red lipstick and sharp mind: she’ll need every edge to survive.
A Deadly Education (Naomi Novik) – Now that she-who-must-not-be-named has gone firmly off the deep end, everyone’s looking for replacement school-related fantasies. My vote goes to this, book one in the Scholomance, a much darker take on magical British boarding school. El is a sullen, angry loner with a natural flair for evil, but she doesn’t indulge her talent for death and destruction. Instead, she snipes at her class’s resident hero, Orion Lake, until their bickering and mutual life-saving becomes a friendship by default. Through it, El shows Orion the profound socioeconomic divides that run through the school (a piercing indictment of the British class system), and Orion shows El how maybe there’s some hope to be had nonetheless.
Ring Shout (P. Djèlí Clark) – This may be my pick for the best fantasy novel of the year. White supremacists are literally monsters in this not-all-that-alternate reality, and Maryse is a monster hunter. She has a magic sword, a trio of guardian not-exactly-angels, and a destiny to save the world—or maybe many worlds, since what the KKK has summoned is far beyond their tiny minds can conceive.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) (Hazel Jane Plante)– I love stories within stories, and this book, about a women grieving for her best friend and unrequited love, is a perfectly poignant example of what’s great about them. The narrator is ostensibly writing an encyclopedia of a fictional television show with a cult following, but is actually writing her way through all the feelings she still has for her friend, who introduced her to the show and so much more.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher) – This book is 2020. It’s got sourdough starters, ill-equipped kids trying to save the world because the adults are doing such a poor job of it, fascism, tragedy—and a whole lot of dark, tragicomic humor to keep it all going, along with a really hefty pinch of hope. If you want to be reminded that there are still good people, read this book.
Sweet Bean Paste (Durian Sukegawa) – This book was published a few years ago, but I only just now got to it—and am telling everyone about it. A bittersweet story with a truly beautiful message, I was touched by the author’s compassion and his characters’ misfit tenacity.
Flyaway (Kathleen Jennings) – This utterly gorgeous little volume sets a family mystery inside a town’s mystery inside some of the most sumptuous writing I’ve encountered. Bettina is kept from the world by her perfectly poised mother, but when a letter comes from one of her vanished brothers, she finally has the impetus she needs to break free. Exploring the harsh beauty of the Queensland countryside, the magic shimmers like heat on a highway, always a little further off and a little unreal.
Lovecraft Country (Matt Ruff) – Now that the show is nearing its end on HBO, it’s a good time to read the book or get it for someone who hasn’t read it yet. They differ enough that the experiences will be unique, and both are very much worth the time not just to watch or read, but to reflect on and savor.
A Chorus of Dragons – The third book, Memory of Souls, of a planned five, hit the shelves in August, and for the duration of its hefty 600+ pages I forgot that I even wanted to leave the house. You absolutely do have to read the whole series, because there are so many complex plots among the gods, wizards, aristocracy, and nations that it would be impossible to jump in in the middle. However, I promise you that every single page is extremely worth it. Body swapping, dragon-fighting, past life romances, hellscape battles…this book has a romance enacted in the footnotes it’s so crammed full of awesomeness and badassery. A lot of books will claim to have it all. These books do.
The Locked Tomb Trilogy – Look, I don’t know any better way to tell you to read these than the tagline: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted palace in space.” This book belongs to brittle Harrow instead of insouciant Gideon, but there’s still a haunted palace, there’s still a ton of necromancy, and everyone is still extremely gay.
The Founders Trilogy (Robert Jackson Bennett) – The second installment, Shorefall, came out this winter and delivered an absolute dynamite second entry into this story of a rebel firm of magic users trying to make it in a cutthroat capitalist empire. Even more exciting? Their magic is like code, except when they write it on any object, they rewrite the laws of physics. Sencia, like a magical supercomputer able to think in the fundamental code of the universe, now must push herself into the territory of gods. It’s the only way to defeat another godlike figure, one wants to bend the world until it revolves only around him.
Silver in the Wood/Drowned Country (Emily Tesh) – Henry Silver, son of a famous folklorist, only meant to do some research. But in getting out from under his mother’s shadow he falls under the sway of two entities in the Greenhollow Wood, one old and cruel, one old and only reluctant. The deep, slow magic of trees—and of love—permeate both these books.
The Honours/The Ice House (Tim Clare) – Though they’re a little hard to find (they were more widely released in the UK), Tim Clare’s books are worth any effort you need to make to get your hands on them. The prose is scintillating, and the story is full of tension, action, and wit. Delphine’s parents may have dragged her to a stuffy English estate, and they may accidentally have joined a cult as well. Sullen Delphine wants no part regardless: she wants to sneak around and shoot guns, and thanks to some strange goings-on, she’s going to get a lot of chances to do just that.
Robin Hood’s Children – These books took me back to a simpler time when saving the world (or at least the kingdom) was straightforward, when kids could be heroes, and when heroism was about daring and bravery rather than the agony of sacrifice. This isn’t to say that The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley don’t have complexity or social relevance, it’s just that they start and end in a place of optimism and decency. What a relief to read these books in this time.
Alice/Red Queen/Looking Glass (Christina Henry) – On the other end of the emotional spectrum are the Alice books by Christina Henry, which don’t flinch from any darkness. Though they’re scary and sometimes difficult to read for the way they show the evil in human hearts, they also embody the adage “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” The hope here is hard-won but won nonetheless, and it’s very good to see such fearless writing on the page, reminding us that hope is a verb.
The Merciful Crow/The Faithless Hawk (Margaret Owen) – Okay, yes, these books feature plague very heavily, so if you can’t stand any more of that, probably these aren’t for you. But! If you think you can manage it, have I got a duology for you. Biting, tense, and full of action,
Darius The Great (Adib Khorram) – There’s no sophomore slump here. Darius the Great Deserves Better is maybe even better than Khorram’s debut Darius the Great is Not Okay. I love the realism of this slice-of-life book as Darius tries to navigate family troubles, grief, being Iranian-American, his first boyfriend, bullies, school, soccer, mental illness—oof, that’s a lot. But there’s so much insight, kindness, love, and loveliness that it never feels overwhelming.