I know it’s traditional to close December with a post about the best books you read this year, and I will recap my five-star reads sometime next week, but I thought I’d start with something a little bit different. These books weren’t all on my five-star list, but they all had a special element that really stood out. These are my 2020 superlatives.
Best Character: Matsuda Misaki (The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang)
I lean towards reading for the characters, so my favorite characters of the year are indeed all from books that I rated five stars. Misaki is the sort of character I want to see more often in fantasy. She’s a gifted fighter with a desire for combat but subject to the social expectations of a patriarchal society. So far, not so unusual. But her social ties are not easily broken—she has a husband (though not a good one), close friends, and four young sons who rely on her. So throwing off her bonds to fulfill her dreams is never truly a live option; rather, she has to find a way to carve out a life in a society that does not value her as they should. The world is complicated, and the time isn’t always ripe for revolution, which is why I find Misaki’s story so compelling. She wrestles with conflicting desires and responsibilities and how she can make life better for herself and those she loves, even if it’s not in the world she would’ve wished for.
Runners-up: Murderbot (The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells—full review), T’sha (The Quiet Invasion by Sarah Zettel)
I’ve already gushed quite a bit about Murderbot, who is basically your introvert friend, but with more weapons and hacking ability. Its struggles to find its place in a hostile world, learning to deal with people and manage new emotions along the way, make The Murderbot Diaries one of the best things I’ve read this year. Also, I love Murderbot’s sense of humor.
T’sha is an ambassador in a culture of winged aliens that live in a symbiotic relationship with living cities. Her race is one of the most interesting non-human peoples I’ve come across, giving her a fascinating cultural perspective, and her intelligence and benevolence make her so easy to love.
Most Uplifting: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
It’s a good year for some uplifting reads, and I haven’t read Becky Chambers yet, so there’s room for others in this category. And, as with the others, there’s a degree of subjectivity here, but subjectivity when you’re looking for a feel-good story is worth a special note. Some uplifting stories have a good bit of darkness before ultimately finding the hope or overcoming the darkness. Some keep the tone lighter throughout. If you’re looking for the latter, do yourself a favor and skip straight to Redemption in Indigo.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is fantasy comfort food—it’s a sweet story about a girl coming of age and fighting the rich and powerful men who would have her stifled and servile. There are moments that get fairly dark, but it never loses its hopeful tone, and what’s an uplifting story without something to overcome?
Runners-up: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Redemption in Indigo is a retelling of a West African folktale about…well, redemption. It features, in the midst of supernatural schemes, a woman whose relentless insistence on faithfulness and seeing the good in others transforms the lives of those around her. It’s short, easy-to-read, and fun.
The Calculating Stars is another one that gets dark, with all-too-realistic racism and sexism, plus a catastrophe the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in millennia, perhaps ever. But it’s ultimately a story about overcoming, with competence shining through in the face of the doubters. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this.
Most Creative: Driftwood by Marie Brennan (full review)
It’s been a long time since the last time I stopped in the middle of a book and marveled at the creativity of the premise, but I did when reading Driftwood, a tale of the place where worlds go to die, smashing up against each other so that the space of a couple blocks may contain not just different peoples or different landscapes, but even entirely different laws of physics. It felt like I was a kid reading my first story about portals to other worlds.
Runners-up: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (full review)
Senlin Ascends follows a stuffy schoolteacher, Thomas Senlin, through the greatest wonder of the world: The Tower of Babel. Only, The Tower is not what it seems, with each level containing entirely different societies and fresh dangers aplenty for the unaware tourist. In a way, it’s a classic adventure story, but the world in which he adventures is fascinatingly bizarre.
Ninefox Gambit introduces the idea of technology that relies on group psychology, so that if the people stop celebrating the right holidays, their guns will stop working. It sets the stage for some fascinating psychological warfare, even before we hit the premise of a straight-laced soldier having the consciousness of a mad, homicidal genius implanted in her head.
Fastest Page-Turner: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes is a thriller in space. There are mysterious diseases, vast conspiracies, and a small group of people out to set things right. It starts fast and doesn’t let up for more than 500 pages. It’s not often that a book that long feels so fast, but I could not put it down.
Runners-up: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft, The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
These two are sequels, which gives them the unfair advantage of not needing to take time to introduce the world. Arm of the Sphinx continues the story of Thomas Senlin, with some swashbuckling airship adventures and more fascinating dives into the mysteries behind The Tower of Babel. The Sharing Knife, on the other hand, has convinced me that Bujold will keep me turning the pages no matter what she writes. In this case, it’s fantasy romance, with monsters to fight and disapproving families to meet. She seems to do everything well, but her interpersonal drama is truly outstanding.