Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2020

What. A. Year. It was a great year for stories—not necessarily publication—but a terrible year for everything else. While the pandemic brought about more time for some readers, I did NOT fall into that category. If anything, then the pandemic had me being more occupied, which brought about less time for reading. Don’t get me wrong, I still met my reading goal (100 books), but I’m going to have to change the way I do these end-of-the-year lists. I didn’t get to read or to finish reading all the books I wanted to read this year (I lost some time because I no longer had a long commute), but I read just enough books to compile this list. These books were released and read—by me—in 2020. 

#15: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

            This novella didn’t get the same recognition similar novellas received, and that’s a shame because this standalone work is entertaining and brilliant from start to end. The story follows a troupe of thieves for hire who are completing a job when they are recognized and have to escape, with a nun following them. From there, several hijinks and revelations ensue until the big reveal at the end leaves readers wondering whether or not this book should be a standalone. 

#14: Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            This is a standalone novel, which serves as the English translated follow up to Vita Nostra. The story follows a DJ who saves a young girl from bullies, and by some hidden powers from the girl’s “family,” he becomes her legal guardian during her “stay” in “our world.” The girl is accompanied by a teddy bear and music strings, and her mission is to locate her missing brother while learning how to play the violin. However, the longer the girl stays, the stranger the world surrounding the DJ becomes until he is forced to behave like an adult—who is afraid of a teddy bear. 

#13: Wayward Children #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

            Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children sees the return of Jack, who has been betrayed by her twin sister, Jill. A few of the students embark on a quest—which is supposed to be forbidden—in order to save Jack from Jill. This story continues to look into how the children at the school continue to hope to return Home, while catching up with their former classmates who were able to do so. On top of this, the narration of present events continues to lay out the consequences to those who believe they can ignore the rules of the world. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

#12: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

            I didn’t know what to make of this debut novel. That is, until I read the first few chapters, and the title fits the story brilliantly. The story follows Michael Kingman, the younger son of David Kingman, who was executed for murdering the Crowned Prince. Living in exile with his older brother and sister, Michael is given the chance to reenter high society and to prove his father’s innocence. But, how is Michael going to complete these tasks when everyone is a liar, and several people want him dead?

#11: The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff

            Dr. Sarah Kozloff took her massive epic fantasy and gave it to readers as a quartet, so they could binge read the books without too long of a wait. The decision to present 4 “shorter” books instead of 1 huge one had me reflecting back to Tamora Pierce’s series. However, this series can be read by both teens and adults because the lead protagonist grows from girlhood (and exiled princess) to adulthood (and a queen). During the time, she has to learn how to fend for herself, avoid being recognized and captured, how to protect her kingdom by joining up with the rebel army, and using her “Talent” to reclaim the throne. The author gives an excellent balance between fantasy (magic) and reality (science) as readers are given a straightforward—as in no previous look back on what occurred in the last book—narration which allows for an enjoyable reading experience. 

#10: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

            Believe it or not, this is the first book by the author that I’ve read. Even though this book is a fantasy story, I will argue that the elements of magic realism make the story more realistic. The protagonist is a social worker who works for an agency that deals with “unusual” children. These children either have special abilities or are of a magical species, and our society deems that all of these children must be “registered” and “observed” so that they will grow up to be “productive adults.” The protagonist is given an assignment to observe a house where several “unusual” children reside. And, it is through this assignment that the protagonist begins to see the children as children and not just the nature of their species. This is a brilliant story about foster children, prejudice and family. 

#9: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

            What if you were caught in a precarious situation in another country? What if assassins and political powers were searching for you? What if you were the queen of your nation? How would you survive your ordeal? This book—a reprint of the author’s debut novel—presents readers with a realistic account of survival and being royal during a time of fragile establishment and foreign hostility. What happens when a queen is lured to another land only to be betrayed and left stranded there? It’s a good thing the queen knows how to use a sword.

#8: The Daevabad Trilogy #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

            Yes, this book is massive, but the story makes the pages go quicker. The last book in the trilogy takes place immediately where the last one leaves off. Nahri and Prince Ali find themselves far away from Daevabad as a rebellion and usurpation continues there. Under the rule of a new tyrant, Nahri and Ali must decide whether or not to save the empire and its magic. Meanwhile, Dara comes to terms with all of the decisions he’s made in his past and during his present as he determines whether or not loyalty outweighs being noble. This was a great ending to this Arabian Nightsinspired epic fantasy. 

#7: A Chorus of Dragons #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

            The 3rd book in this 5-book series—remember when I thought it was a trilogy? I’m so glad I was wrong!—has all of the characters from the first 2 books joining together in order to save the world from the “real threat.” All of the events from the previous books lead up to where all of the protagonists and the characters find themselves in, and the roles they are supposed to play in the near and the far future. Another prophecy is mentioned, another dragon is introduced, and ulterior motives are revealed. The question is—especially after THAT ending—what will the heroes do next? 

#6: The Black Iron Legacy #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

            I enjoyed this sequel to The Gutter Prayer—my #1 Favorite Speculative Fiction Book of 2019—and it’s an interesting book. One of the reasons for this is because of the new P.O.V. characters—and a few previous ones—the readers experience the events from. This book focuses on the aftermath of the end of the first book, and instead of magical forces, there are political conspiracies and familial backstabbing amongst all of the characters. Unfortunately, politics overshadow the real threat, which once again comes from the gods.

#5 (Tie): Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

            This novella takes the history of a film which promoted racism—and revived the Ku Klux Klan—and added a supernatural element to it. There is the Klan, who terrorize Black Americans, and are human; and, there are the Ku Kluxes, supernatural beings who feed off of fear and hatred, and are only identified by those with the Sight. Because the Ku Kluxes look like White Americans, only the Black demon hunters are brave enough to fight them and to defend our world from them. However, what happens when the Ku Kluxes join the ranks of the KKK? 

#5 (Tie): Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

            This novella presents the horrors and the consequences of institutional racism in Modern America. The story follows a sister and a brother who are “victims” of racism from their early childhood. After realizing that there is no avoiding becoming a “statistic,” the siblings have to decide on whether or not to use their gifts in order to change their world for the better. 

#3: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

            This standalone novel is the follow up to the author’s debut novel. This time, instead of one female protagonist, there are three sisters. After several years apart, they are reunited under circumstances and a cause—the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and, it’s not just about the right to vote, but the right to use magic. This historical fantasy presents a throwback to Camelot, fairy tales, spells and symbolism as well as practices which brought about the Women’s Vote, the (first) Civil Rights Movement, and Labor Laws. This is a fitting story to mark what was happening one hundred years ago.           

#2: Bethel #1: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

            This debut novel immersed my attention and had me completing the book within 24 hours! This dark fantasy story presents the protagonist who is her community’s reminder of past sins and upcoming retributions. The author gives readers an amazing take on the hypocrisy surrounding religion, family, race, sex and leadership. The ending to this book has me excited for the upcoming sequel, which we will be getting in 2021!

#1: Between Earth and Sky #1: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

            There are times when the synopsis of a book isn’t enough to snag a reader’s interest, so the emphasis shifts to the book’s cover. And, what a cover! Even if you hadn’t read Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series—which is a dystopian urban fantasy series—then reading this series—which is dark fantasy—will introduce readers what a talented storyteller the author is to all who must become familiar with her books. The novel starts with the past, jumps forward to the last moment within the narration, and then jumps back to the aftermath of the opening chapter. Readers get are presented with several characters from different backgrounds and positions, and where the Winter Solstice is a date in which something is about to happen and decisions have to be made before the moment—and, once they’re made, there is no going back. This book begins and ends the way you believe it will, which makes it all the more shocking and entertaining. Book 2 is expected sometime in the future, which will answer the question: What will happen next? 

            There were so many books that came out in 2020—miraculously—I didn’t get to finish reading them all! I want to read all of the books I missed this year and in previous years, but I want to be able to read all of the upcoming books (in the new year) as well. I’ll find a way to pull it off! Hopefully, this pandemic will end within the next several months—I’m not holding my hopes or my expectations too high—so some normalcy can return. Otherwise, here’s to another great year in reading. Which books of 2020 were your favorites?

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

The Popularity and the Revolution of Fantasy Thanks to S.P.F.B.O.

S.P.F.B.O. 5 is over, and this year’s winner—The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang—received one of the highest scores in the competition’s short history, 8.65. While this year’s competition was fierce and resulted in a close 2nd place, the hype and the feedback circulated to where bookbloggers with a larger platform started discussing the competition and published authors shared their thoughts on the books—the finalists—on social media. This competition has amassed such a huge following in such a short time and a few of the finalists did get picked up by big name publishers to become the published authors they already were. Mark Lawrence is the perfect example of “paying it forward” and “sharing the wealth.” In 5 short years, this international best-selling author has used his platform to kickoff careers of these emerging authors.  

I heard of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off while searching for fantasy books on Amazon. If you recall my essay—“Factions in Technology that Made a Difference: e-Readers and Self-Publishing Companies”—then, you’ll remember that I mentioned a few authors who are indie authors and/or publish through “smaller” publishers, thus embellishing the sort of books I’ve been reading ever since. As I browsed through ebooks to purchase, a few covers caught my attention, and they all had the same acronym: S.P.F.B.O. When I finally Googled the letters, I learned of the competition organized by Mark Lawrence. And, my first question was: Who is Mark Lawrence? Yes, I learned about S.P.F.B.O. before I read and reviewed any books written by Mark Lawrence. When I started contributing to Fantasy-Faction, I realized that this competition was growing into an event indie authors, bookbloggers and fantasy fans look forward to, and it’s been going on for 5 years! 

I experienced S.P.F.B.O. 5 from the entries to the semi-finalists to the finalists, and of course, the winner. While I haven’t read all 300 books that were entered, I did read a few before the competition—because their descriptions intrigued me, and some titles and book covers caught my attention as well. And, I purchased the books of all 10 finalists! So far, I’ve read only The Sword of Kaigen, but I started reading both Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke and Never Die by Rob J. Hayes, and I am blown away by what would have been overlooked stories if not for the competition. It’s because of bookbloggers and fantasy review sites that more indie authors are willing to enter S.P.F.B.O.! At this rate, Mark Lawrence might have to expand the entry pool (please don’t take that suggestion too seriously)! 

So, will S.P.F.B.O. continue to influence the market and the industry that is the fantasy—and the speculative fiction—genre? Yes, I believe so, especially if it hasn’t already. I’ve noticed on social media that these “indie” books are being read and enjoyed by “mainstream” and award-winning authors as well (i.e. C.L. Polk reading Fortune’s Fool by Angela Boord). And, this is more than authors supporting other authors, it’s about how indie authors and small publishers continue to strive to get their stories out there with the threat of them being overlooked…until the right attention is given to them through their published books (i.e. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter). S.P.F.B.O. is both introducing and promoting the works and the creativity of these authors to a platform that is willing to keep an open mind. And, because of this competition set up by Mark Lawrence, readers get to experience and to witness this transcension, which is expanding the speculative fiction genre, too.

I’ll end my experience with S.P.F.B.O. 5 by saying the following: Congratulations to M.L. Wang; read The Sword of Kaigen and the books by the other finalists; good job to all of the reviewers, the bookbloggers, and the vloggers for all of the time and the effort you put into this from reading the 300 submissions to the 10 finalists to the winner; and, a huge THANK YOU to Mark Lawrence for starting this competition and turning it into an annual event. The number of books that have been added to my TBR pile has increased yet again, and I’m okay with that. I can’t wait to see what happens during S.P.F.B.O. 6!