This has been my first year participating in the r/Fantasy book bingo, which has quickly become one of my favorite reading challenges. To complete the board, you need to read 25 books (well, 24 books and a handful of short stories) by 25 different authors, all fitting into various bingo categories. It’s been a wonderful way to try new authors that might’ve otherwise languished on the TBR while I binged my favorites–or perhaps may not have been on my radar at all. I completed one bingo card back in August, but I was having so much fun that I decided to try a second, with the added challenge of not repeating any authors from my first card. It was, again, a whole lot of fun, although it’s led me to starting so many new series that I’m pretty well drowning in unread sequels. Next year, I’m going to have to make a card of all sequels and see who’s kidding who.
Here’s a rundown of my second card, put in order of how I’d rank the books, because rankings are always ways to make people mad (but in a fun way, not a mean way). Keep in mind that I’ve traded out some books I’ve disliked for better entries that fit the same category, so being low on this list does not mean that I disliked a book or that it was one of my worst reads of the year. 23 of the 25 got at least four stars from me on Goodreads, and I could see myself recommending any of them under the right circumstances.
1. The Nothing Within by Andy Giesler
Categories (place on my card in bold): Self-published
Mini-Review: A post-apocalyptic, Amish-inspired dystopia. Yes, you read that right. Enthralling from the start, with the first-person narrative delivered by an itinerant oral storyteller, interspersed with journal entries from the long-ago apocalypse. Not sure that I’ve read anything like this, and it was tremendous, with excellent characters that carried the start and an intriguing plot that picked up around the 33% mark. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: The door was certainly left open for future action, but this book has a complete and satisfying arc and would work as a stand-alone if the author decides not to return to this world.
2. The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft
Categories: Politics (hard), Exploration, Epigraphs (hard), Big Dumb Object
Mini-Review: Picks up where Senlin Ascends left off, with plenty of adventure, more fleshing out of secondary characters, and deeper exploration into the mysteries of the Tower of Babel. I had trouble putting it down, and I’d heartily recommend to anyone who liked Senlin Ascends.
Cliff Severity: This book had a fairly satisfying arc within the overall arc of the series, but there are still two books left, and this one has quite a sequel hook.
3. “And They Were Never Heard From Again” by Benedict Patrick, “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough” by L. Tu, “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, and “Proof of Existence” by Hal Y. Zhang
Categories: Five Short Stories
Mini-Review: I artificially inflated the rating here by eschewing hard mode and cherry-picking my five favorite stories of the year. The Patrick and Tu stories are darker, and the Wiswell and Prasad entries are a bit lighter, but they’re all excellent.
Cliff Severity: Short stories, as usual, don’t really have cliffhangers, although some end with uncertainty.
4. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Categories: Politics (hard), Self-Published, Magical Pet
Mini-Review: On the darker side of middle-grade, a teenage wizard with an affinity for bread finds a dead body in her Aunt’s bakery and is thrown into the middle of a conspiracy against those with magical ability. There are some fairly predictable plot points, but there was enough uncertainty to keep me interested as an adult reader, and the juxtaposition of depth and humor was striking. The characters were fun, the magic system was fascinating (I say as someone typically unmoved by magic systems)…this one does pretty much everything right, easily living up to its title, hard as that may be to believe. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Yay stand-alone!
5. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Categories: Published in 2020 (hard), Ghost, School Setting, Feminist (hard)
Mini-Review: A Black teenager goes to college following the tragic death of her mother and finds a secret society of magic-users that trace their ancestry to King Arthur. And one of them seems to have it out for her. This hits a lot of the YA tropes, but it does them all so well that it makes them feel fresh. The plot is engaging, the character relationships feel real, and the legacy of racism on the contemporary storyline hits hard without feeling preachy. The flashback scenes in particular are exquisite. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Resolves the major arcs, but introduces a fairly significant cliffhanger for a sequel hook.
6. Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike
Categories: Self-Published, Necromancy, Politics, Made You Laugh (hard)
Mini-Review: A satire of RPGs and Wall Street that starts out feeling clever but not especially memorable, and then about 75% of the way through, I realized that the D&D archetypes had turned into real characters that I actually cared about. You wouldn’t think a comedy would hit like this emotionally, but it does.
Cliff Severity: Resolves the major plot arcs, but leaves the door open for further action (and in such a way as to make it very difficult to not jump right into the sequel).
7. Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett
Categories: Made You Laugh, Politics, Optimistic (hard)
Mini-Review: I guess I ranked the two comic fantasies next to each other. Guards, Guards is funnier than Orconomics, and it starts faster as well. This one hit more of a lull in the middle, but some of the individual scenes are absolutely hilarious. And the satire holds up decades later.
Cliff Severity: Serves effectively as a stand-alone, although it leaves the door open for future adventures with the same cast (of which there are several, none of which I’ve read yet).
8. Driftwood by Marie Brennan
Categories: Published in 2020, Optimistic (hard), Climate, Politics
Mini-Review: This isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as five loosely-connected short stories in a common world. But a couple of the stores are really good (the second one would be one of my top shorts of the year had it been published separately), and the world is absolutely stunning. And at just 200 pages, it’s readable in an afternoon. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: This world is ripe for more stories, but this one resolves.
9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
Categories: Translated, School Setting (hard), Snow/Ice/Cold, Book Club
Mini-Review: A dark magic school that feels inspired by New Weird instead of Harry Potter. Often unsettling, always interesting. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Yay stand-alone!
10. Chasing Graves by Ben Galley
Categories: Self-Published, Ghost, Necromancy, Politics
Mini-Review: A snarky lockpick who only looks out for himself arrives in a new city only to see himself killed and his ghost enslaved. Interesting world and a main character that sucks you in. Lots of intriguing setup, although the payoff will have to wait. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Feels like the first third of a long book more than the first book of a trilogy. Maximal cliffhanging.
11. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Categories: Optimistic (hard), Ace/Aro (hard), Feminist (hard), Published in 2020 (hard)
Mini-Review: A Lipan Apache teenager with an affinity for ghosts has to solve the mystery of her cousin’s murder and uncovers a lot more than she bargained for. Exciting throughout, dealing with strong anti-colonial themes and with the most wholesome and supportive friends and family that I’ve seen in YA fantasy. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Stand-alone!
12. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Categories: Canadian, Politics, Book Club
Mini-Review: Heavy on the history and light on the fantastical elements, Kay creates a fantasy analogue of Moorish Spain, with major characters from three different ethnic and religious groups. It’s an intricate political fantasy that pulled me in from the start and quickly regained momentum after a lull in the middle. The length and subject may suggest a slow burn, but almost every chapter sees a hook that gives partial context and kept me reading on to get the full picture. Definitely as good as advertised. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Two stand-alone in a row, what is the world coming to?
13. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Categories: Published in 2020, School Setting (hard)
Mini-Review: A dark magic school that takes some of the plot holes of Harry Potter (why do the adults persist in sending children into such danger) and make them the entire plot. An utterly compelling lead with a powerful first-person voice has to battle monsters at the same time as her own affinity for dark magic and her lack of upper class pedigree. It doesn’t do everything right, but it’s never boring. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Resolves the major storyline and then drops a very intriguing sequel hook right at the death.
14. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Categories: Politics, Ghost, Number, Book Club
Mini-Review: Really fascinating concepts—homicidal genius inhabits the brain of a straight-laced military lead, science/magic system that depends on group beliefs—and excellent character work undercut to some degree by a lot of technobabble that makes the lead look like a genius by confusing the reader. It’s a strong start to the trilogy but also doesn’t quite reach its potential. Full review here.
Cliff-Severity: Resolves the immediate storyline but in such a way that opens up more story than it resolves.
15. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
Categories: Big Dumb Object (hard), Politics (hard)
Mini-Review: A relentless space thriller with conspiracies and mysterious objects and everything else that keeps you turning the pages. Not sure it’s one that really sticks with me after I put it down, but it’s a fun read (and often ensemble casts take more than one book to really come into their own).
Cliff Severity: Resolves the major plot arcs, but opens up a wide world that’s ready for more stories.
16. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Categories: Book Club, Ghost
Mini-Review: An entertaining procedural that doesn’t make many mistakes but also doesn’t necessarily go above-and-beyond. If the series only gets better from here—as seems to be the reputation—it should be a good one.
Cliff Severity: A procedural, so it resolves the story but with the expectation that there will be more stories.
17. Code of the Communer by Kai Greenwood
Categories: Self-Published, Snow/Ice/Cold, Exploration (hard), Big Dumb Object, Published in 2020
Mini-Review: An atmospheric novel about a tribe of forest nomads who, facing a threat from hostile settlers, seek out the semi-mythical homeland of long-ago giants. Some of their debates about what was reality and what was myth felt a bit contrived, and not every character really clicked, but the writing was smooth and the tension of exploring new lands with unknown dangers was exemplary. Full review.
Cliff Severity: Resolves the main arcs, but in a way that opens the door for future adventures.
18. The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker
Categories: Self-Published, Snow/Ice/Cold, Politics
Mini-Review: The first installment in a six-book epic, The Path of Flames sets up a fascinating world in which most of the main characters are fundamentally deceived about reality. The conflict in this book was enthralling, and trying to piece together which aspects of the world were real and which were misinformation has me very curious about the rest of the series. On the other hand, the main characters were bound tightly to fantasy archetypes, and I always felt like I was seeing them as mediated by the author’s voice instead of really getting into their heads. The strengths here are incredible, but the weaknesses are concerning moving forward. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Clearly the first in an epic series—some of the storylines don’t even intersect in the first book. That said, there is an intermediate storyline that is introduced and resolved in an interesting and satisfying way.
19. A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers
Categories: Ace/Aro (hard), Optimistic (hard), Published in 2020, Color
Mini-Review: A heartwarming found family story in space with a diverse and likable cast. The main mystery is pretty interesting but often takes a backseat to a futuristic sports competition with yields some nice training sequences but doesn’t hit the right beats in the competition. Full review here.
Cliff Severity: Storyline resolved, but introduces an ensemble cast that is sure to have more adventures.
20. The Blood Tartan by Raymond St. Elmo
Categories: Self-Published, Book Club, Romantic
Mini-Review: How do you review a Raymond St. Elmo novel? It has the trappings of urban fantasy in a 19th century setting, and it checks all the boxes for paranormal romance, but it’s nothing like you expect from either urban fantasy or paranormal romance. With a introspective and *extremely sane* lead character, it’s full of ruminations and digressions that revel in the joy of words. There is a plot, and it’s not especially hard to follow, but it takes a backseat to the individual passages. You have to be in the mood for this kind of story, but if you are, it’s excellent.
Cliff Severity: A satisfying intermediate conclusion but with an overarching storyline left open.
21. A Magical Inheritance by Krista D. Ball
Categories: Self-Published, Canadian (hard), Feminist, Book About Books
Mini-Review: A unmarried woman rapidly approaching spinsterhood (I mean, she’s in Regency England and almost 30!) inherits her Uncle’s occult library and has to (1) sort through it all, and (2) keep her inheritance away from various men who feel entitled to it. It’s light on plot but has plenty of snappy dialogue from some very no-nonsense, opinionated women (and one husband with a few excellent cameos) who are hard not to love.
Cliff Severity: Satisfying in its own right, but introduces a fun ensemble cast that will doubtless be worth revisiting.
22. Draigon Weather by Paige Christie
Categories: Climate (hard), Feminist
Mini-Review: Splits the story between two major characters, a strong-willed girl in a society that wants women to keep silent (and, if they don’t, sacrifices them to the Draigons in exchange to ease punishing, unnatural droughts) and her childhood friend who aspires to become a Draigon-slayer to keep her safe. The former storyline hits quite a few more cliches than I’d like—clever girl in a sexist society forges her own path, finds a mysterious and eccentric mentor, is endangered by said sexist society, etc.—while the latter is an absolutely fascinating deconstruction of the “knight in shining armor” trope. Much like Tucker’s entry a few spaces above, this series feels like it could be absolutely fantastic if it builds on the strengths or nothing special if it’s undercut by the weaknesses. But through one book, it’s stuck in “liked it but didn’t love it.”
Cliff Severity: Resolves significant arcs, but leaves major characters in uncertain positions that demand a sequel.
23. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
Categories: Optimistic (hard), Audiobook
Mini-Review: I know Sanderson is much-loved, and I promise, I really tried to give him an honest chance, but I probably won’t be reading more. A black market soul forger is pressed into service to help cover up a grievous injury to the emperor. The magic system is interesting, and the story is likable enough, but this is one of those that you enjoy while you read and then totally forget when it’s over.
Cliff Severity: Stand-alone, except for the whole Cosmere thing.
24. The Black Company by Glen Cook
Categories: Color, Politics, Book Club
Mini-Review: Follows a mercenary company through a very episodic series of jobs. It did get a bit of overarching plot towards the end, but one book was not enough to really invest in the purportedly stellar ensemble cast, and the plot wasn’t enough to hook me. There were some hints of building blocks towards the series that has the kind of reputation that this one does, but not enough to really be excited about book one.
Cliff Severity: Doesn’t necessarily have an overarching plot arc, but resolves some smaller arcs and opens up a broader storyline for the following books.
25. Sabriel by Garth Nix
Categories: Magical Pet (hard)
Mini-Review: A teenage girl just coming to mastery of her magical ability is sent on a journey through hostile country to save her father. I know this one’s beloved, and I can see why the damsel-in-distress subversion draws people in (here, it’s the damsel who has to save a mage in distress), but it felt mostly like Sabriel and her snarky cat companion getting dragged along by the plot—she never really gets to be more than reactive.
Cliff Severity: Resolves main storyline, works effectively as a stand-alone, despite other works in this world.