On gender and worldbuilding

This is not a review of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, or at least I don’t intend to tag it as one. That said, it’s as close as I’m going to come, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I thought about the book by the time I’m done writing anyway. And we should definitely take a moment and stare at that outstanding cover, which is the best thing about the book.

Also, note that the two silhouettes at the top are both pretty gender-neutral, as that’s gonna be a thing.

Let’s talk for a second about how we assign gender to people we haven’t met. Typically this is a thing that happens so fast as to be nearly automatic, to the point where if we aren’t able to immediately assign someone to “male” or “female” it’s immediately noticeable and, for a lot of people quite stressful. (I’m leaving the discussion of whether that’s okay aside, for the record.) But here’s what we do: a quick visual scan for secondary sexual characteristics, right? Prominent breasts, facial hair, hips, then things like clothes and hair length, and sometimes we’re in situations where one thing will trump another. I can’t be the only guy in the world who used to have long hair and has been addressed as “ma’am” by someone behind me who hadn’t seen my face yet, and not one of those people didn’t immediately change their mind and get apologetic the second I turned around and they saw my beard. Never-not-once did anyone think “Wow, that lady has a beard!” Similarly, as a fat guy, while I’m not exactly proud of this, the fact is I’ve dated women with smaller breasts than me. Nobody’s ever looked at my chest and decided I was a woman.

Transgender and nonbinary people have become a lot more broadly socially accepted in the last few years, and the notion of asking people what their pronouns are (or explicitly noting them in, say, an email signature, or a sticker on a name badge) has become something that people are much more likely to do now. This is what happens when those secondary sexual characteristics fail us; sometimes we misgender people, and people making their pronouns clear from the jump has become a good way to avoid making that mistake. There’s still no good way to visually identify someone as nonbinary, though, because people who are nonbinary may still initially scan as feminine or masculine (and people who do present as ambiguous aren’t always nonbinary) so if someone uses they/them as their pronouns (or anything, really, other than he/him/she/her) there’s no immediate way to find that out other than asking, if the person doesn’t do something to make it clear to other people.

In my Benevolence Archives, elves are nonbinary, to the point where displaying visible secondary sex characteristics is viewed as a birth defect. Elves use xe/xir as pronouns, and everyone just knows that, because that’s how elves work. How do elves reproduce? Dunno, I haven’t decided yet. But I decided early on in building the universe that each of the major races would approach gender roles and gender differences a little differently as a culture. For elves, it’s irrelevant. Other cultures range from dwarves, which are a strict matriarchy, to the strict patriarchy of the ogres, to the slightly softer gender role differences of gnomes and humans.

One more side path, and then I’ll circle back to Winter’s Orbit. Feel free to pop over to this post about Sarah Gailey’s novella Taste of Marrow real quick. In short, my main issue with Gailey’s book was one character, named Hero, who uses they/them pronouns, and it becomes very clear over the course of reading the book that Hero is not so much a character as a little game that Gailey is playing with their (Gailey also uses they/them pronouns, although I don’t think they were doing that when Marrow came out, which makes me wonder if I should go back and edit it) readers. Hero is never physically described at all, either by their clothing or their body, and Gailey goes so far as to make sure that Hero never has to talk to anyone other than the core group of characters so that there is never a situation where someone might meet them and guess at their gender. Making things somewhat more annoying is that the book is set 100 or so years ago, making everyone’s open acceptance of whatever is actually going on there slightly less realistic than the central story tenet of the book, which is cowboys riding hippos.

I’m happy to read books with trans or nonbinary characters. And this isn’t so much a complaint about “I don’t know what’s in this person’s pants!” as I have no idea at all what this character might look like, and that’s annoying. Give us something! Nonbinary characters shouldn’t be in your book just so that you can have one character that your audience is endlessly digging for clues about just to figure out how to picture them.

(This can be tricky, of course, and I’ve also read books that made sure you knew characters were trans by doing things like having scenes where a trans woman character more or less loudly announces I SHALL NOW GO URINATE WITH MY PENIS IN THE LADIES’ ROOM, which also sucks because it’s character development via bludgeon. I have a minor side character in BA who I have known was gay since the jump but it’s never made it on the page because I’ve not been able to come up with a way to make it not sound forced in. But that’s a separate conversation.)

So. This book.

Winter’s Orbit began in a way that caught my attention immediately. The book begins with the Emperor (note: male form of the word) summoning her grandson and commanding him to marry a man whose husband has just died, because it is essential that this bond of marriage between the two families be maintained. In going over the grandson’s qualifications for said marriage, he is described as “not gender-exclusive.”

As first five pages go … yeah, my attention was captured pretty quickly. And finding out a few pages later that the two main cultures in this book both identify gender by, effectively, clothing accessories was, if nothing else, not something I’d seen before. One planet, if I’m remembering correctly, identifies men with wooden jewelry and women with crystal jewelry, and if you’re not wearing either you’re nonbinary and use they/them. The other planet apparently uses knots in scarves as a gender identifier, to the point where one character doesn’t recognize a knot and has to be corrected by another when he misgenders someone.

At one point the main character is asked about his ancestry, and he names two “primaries,” and then says for the rest of his genetic mixture the person asking would have to go check his records, so while this is the only detail we get about childbearing (and there are no children whatsoever in the book) one can assume that giving birth is no longer something that half the population is expected to do.

You may already see my problem. In this book, use of “he” or “she” tells you absolutely nothing about what someone looks like, and not only that, there’s not any correlation between gender and societal role– the Emperor and at least one general are both “she,” for example, and suddenly “not gender-exclusive” makes more sense than “bisexual” might have, because in this world there’s no connection at all, as far as I can tell, between someone’s body and their gender. So this book is getting a lot of attention for gay representation, but there’s actually nothing to let us know that Kiem and Jainan both have penises, or more to the point, since they both identify as male, that there’s any concept of homosexuality that can be mapped to this world in the first place. In fact, having read the book, I think there are a couple of hints that Jainan has XX chromosomes and a body we’d call a woman’s; he is described several times as smaller than Kiem, has long hair, and– more telling– there is a scene where he takes his shirt off in front of Kiem and Kiem turns around to give him privacy, which seems slightly unlikely if there aren’t female-presenting breasts under that shirt.

The book explicitly talks about their skin color– both are shades of brown, with one darker than the other– and Jainan’s long hair comes up a couple of times, but other than that they are given no physical description at all. They actually have sex at one point in the book without the author giving any details about what they’re actually doing. I don’t expect this book, which is YA, to flirt with being porn or anything like that, but … come on.

For that matter, if you’re going to posit a world where physical characteristics don’t tell you anything about a person’s gender, relegating those to external pieces of jewelry or knots in scarves, for crying out loud, and where different genders don’t have any particular societal role … why are we still bothering in the first place? What, precisely, makes Kiem a “he” other than that the author is calling him that? What does “he” or “she” even mean in this world? Can Kiem change jewelry tomorrow and expect people to start calling him “she”? Is there any societal weight at all to one’s choice of gender? How does nonbinary even make sense as an option when your gender doesn’t actually, like, do anything? In our society, saying that you don’t buy into the male/female dichotomy has some implications. In a world where gender is meaningless, what does nonbinary mean?

How do you tell someone’s gender if that person is naked?

Do people with uteruses still get pregnant? Clearly this one character has tons of different contributors to his genetic makeup, but he’s royalty; is that true for commoners as well? If we’re still doing political marriages, does viability for producing offspring matter, or can any two people create a child?

The book gets into none of this, which I find immensely frustrating, because frankly the implications of this simple decision about how gender works are the single most interesting thing about the book to me. And that’s a damn shame, because if you’re going to make fiddling with gender a part of your worldbuilding, you owe it to your readers to explore the implications of what you’ve decided to do. And that’s before we have to carefully avoid giving any useful description of anyone in the book– it goes without saying that no one ever has facial hair, for example– so that your setup can even work.

I don’t think it’s asking for much to expect authors to put as much thought into their worldbuilding as the reader will within the first fifteen pages. I dunno; this piece is 1800 words or so long so maybe I’m displaying some sort of hangup on my part, but c’mon. Do better.

#REVIEW: Persephone Station, by Stina Leicht

Let me start with the tl;dr of this review: I really enjoyed the story of this book, but there are certain aspects of it that are going to make it flat-out unreadable for certain people, including my wife, so that’s kind of tempering my reaction to it and it’ll be really interesting to see how much of it sticks with me in a month or two.

One of the pull quotes on the back of this book describes it as Casablanca meets The Magnificent Seven meets The Mandalorian, and that’s … pretty astonishingly accurate, honestly, although it was a miss to choose The Magnificent Seven and not Seven Samurai, the movie Magnificent Seven was based on, since Seven Samurai is an Akira Kurosawa movie and the main spaceship in this movie is actually called the Kurosawa. If that mix of things– seedy bars, bounty hunters, big guns, combat mechs, corrupt government and law enforcement and a small team of people fighting back against an overwhelming force, plus aliens— appeals to you, then this book is going to be right the hell up your alley, and while I hadn’t actually seen that blurb when I bought the book, it would have immediately sold me a copy. That’s not up my alley. That’s my entire fucking alley, and this is a very Star Wars kind of science fiction, where we’re not worried about the science so much as it’s set in space and there are laser guns and giant mechs and AI and talking space ships and aliens. Honestly, it hit me at about the halfway point that this very easily could have been a Benevolence Archives story with a couple of minor setting tweaks. That’s a compliment, in case it’s not clear; anytime I read a book and think Damn, I wish I’d written this, it’s a good thing.

And all the main characters are women or nonbinary– yes, all of them; I don’t think there’s a single male in the book who gets more than a handful of lines– and not quite everybody is gay, I suppose, but a lot of them are, and it’s all delightful.

Except.

It occurs to me that it’s not impossible that what has happened here is that somebody fucked up and sent the ARC version of the story to the printers. Because there are parts of this book– published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, mind you, not an indie title or a small press– that very clearly did not have the attention of an editor. There is the occasional hugely clunky sentence, the type that every author produces from time to time, where you accidentally switch tense or something halfway through, but you notice it during editing. There are misspelled words. There are misused homophones from time to time. There is the occasional word that is simply the wrong word, like that word doesn’t mean that and doesn’t belong in that sentence. It’s not constant– more like once every handful of chapters, although I remember at least one three-page run with multiple errors packed closely together– but it happens often enough that I’m really surprised this book came from a big press. And the book is 500 pages long, so “every handful of chapters” is still a good number of times. Stina Leicht isn’t famous enough to have gotten the Stephen King/George RR Martin treatment where the “editors” are barely doing a pass on her books and otherwise she can write whatever she likes. And the book’s not badly written— where it works, it really works, and these are the sorts of errors that nearly every manuscript is going to have from time to time, and the type of thing that I’m used to seeing in ARCs, which often aren’t final copy. But this is final copy, so somebody dropped the ball somewhere, and if you’re the type of person who is going to be knocked out of the book by that, you’ll want to stay away.

I am 100% in for more from this author in the future (and, to be clear, this isn’t her debut) and I would love to see more of these characters, but this is a one-shot as far as I know, and the story ends satisfyingly. But the bad editing is a thing, and it’ll be interesting to see whether I remember this better in six months for having really enjoyed the story or all the mistakes I noticed.

#REVIEW: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

First, the obligatory “My God, LOOK AT THAT COVER” moment. Go ahead, take a few, they’re free.

DISCLAIMER! Cassandra Khaw’s new novel The All-Consuming World does not actually come out until August 21. I found out that copies of this and her other upcoming book were available through Netgalley the other day and jumped, immediately, and got lucky, and then rearranged my reading schedule so I could get to it as quickly as I could. I have read three previous works by Cass Khaw, including her Hammers on Bone, which was #3 on my Top 10 list for 2016. I think that The All-Consuming World is her first novel; it’s definitely the first novel-length work of hers that I’ve read.

I’ll not bury the lede: my favorite thing about Cassandra Khaw is not her characters or her stories, but her writing. Of all the writers I currently consider myself a fan of, and there are dozens of them, she is the one whose writing abilities I would most like to completely absorb and use for my own dastardly purposes. Her writing is gritty and visceral and verbose in a way that is perfect for either Lovecraftian body horror or what we used to call cyberpunk, and All-Consuming World has elements of both, and my God was this book a joy to read.

Now, that’s kind of a problem as a reviewer, because it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to dislike anything Khaw writes because what she’s writing about is almost irrelevant to me. I’d read a recipe book cover-to-cover if Cass Khaw wrote it. But precisely because she is so stylized an author, I can easily imagine my opposite as a reader out there; I’ll read anything she writes because of how much I like her writing, but there are going to be people out there who are going to bounce off of her style, hard. Toss in the legitimate body horror elements (one character keeps a gun in her ribcage for part of the story) and the fact that the word “fuck” is at least a quarter of one particular character’s dialogue and this becomes a “not for everybody” book. But for me? My god, smear it on my face.

Right, the plot. As if that matters. Here’s the blurb, it’s as good as anything:

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade… but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

And, like, okay, that’s what it’s about, I guess? But this book is more about how it tells its story than the story it tells. The description leaves out that all of the members of the team are at least nominally women (one of them is nonbinary in a way that is either immensely sloppy or really interesting, because I could not figure out what the deal with … that person’s pronouns was at any point in the story*) and most of them are immortal and several of them die during the book and that’s not a spoiler because it’s also not a problem. I think Maya alone goes down at least three times. I think one of them is technically dead for the entire book? Maybe two? No more than two characters are dead for the entire book.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. Pre-order this book and read it immediately when it comes out. If you like good things you will like it.

*The character is sometimes he and sometimes she, and will bounce back and forth between both sometimes in a single paragraph, and I either missed the explanation or just couldn’t figure out what the rules were.

#REVIEW: Requiem Moon, by C.T. Rwizi

Y’all.

I keep telling y’all to read more African fantasy and science fiction literature. I have been on this for at least a couple of years now. C.T. Rwizi was born in Zimbabwe, raised in Swaziland and currently lives in South Africa, and his phenomenal debut novel Scarlet Odyssey was my favorite book of last year. I have had the sequel, Requiem Moon, pre-ordered for months. It jumped to the top of my queue as soon as it got into the house, and I finished it this morning, and …

… man, this guy is not a fluke. I admit it! I was kind of worried. I’ve read enough sequels to great debut novels that weren’t great, and if I slip and say “trilogy” at any point in this piece, be aware that I have no idea how many books Rwizi plans this series to run. I know that it’s entirely possible for a second book to fall apart, and there’s good reason for that; second books in a series are a fuckton harder to write than first books, and they’re frequently written under time pressure to boot; you had your whole life to get that debut novel ready, and the sequel needs to be out in a year. Look around for the sequel to Skylights. Believe me, I understand second book syndrome.

I am pleased to say that while I don’t love Requiem Moon quite as much as I loved Scarlet Odyssey, and it and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue are battling it out in my head for my favorite book of the month, it is still a phenomenal novel and is absolutely a worthy sequel to the original.

My only regret? I probably should have reread Scarlet Odyssey before I picked this one up. It does a great job of getting you caught up, but there is a lot going on in this book. You lose the coming-of-age narrative of the first book and much of the prejudice that the mystic Musalodi had to put up with in the first novel, and also the travelogue aspect, as the entire book takes place in the capital city of Yonte Saire … or, at least, almost all of it, except the part that doesn’t, and I really want to spoil the place where Salo ends up for a chapter but I feel like it would be mean. What the book does is crank up the political complexity and gets deeper into the worldbuilding, and you find out quite a lot more about the genuinely refreshing and original math- and high tech-based magic system Rwizi has cooked up here. This book, by the way, does not give one single shit about genre conventions; Rwizi’s gonna put some science fiction in his fantasy and some fantasy in his science fiction and everybody loves a Reese’s so you’re not going to whine about it. Salo grows a lot, both in character and in power, over the course of the book, and … shit, I don’t want to spoil any of this, and there’s not really any point into getting too far into the plot anyway since it’s a second book. Just believe that shit, which was perhaps not previously as real as we thought, gets real, and I caught myself thinking at about the halfway point that there hadn’t been nearly as much action in this book as compared to the first and yeah that was just Rwizi teeing up my emotions.

And then like Jesus holy shit the ending. I have no idea where the hell he’s going with this series, and it’s fantastic.

I loved this book, I love this author, and you need to read Scarlet Odyssey, then read this, and then listen to me and start reading African speculative fiction on the regular, because there’s all kinds of good stuff out there and it needs more exposure.

The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020

And here. We. Go.

I am currently on book 137 for 2020, and depending on how much time I spend reading over the next several days I’ll likely be on 138 or maybe 139 by the time the year ends, but one of those is going to be a reread and the other is not super likely to set the world on fire, so it is officially Safe to Put the List Together, and write what has consistently been my favorite post of the year during the time I’ve been writing here. This is the second year I’ve gone to 15 books; it didn’t feel quite as necessary as last year but I figure honoring 11% of my favorite books at the end of the year instead of 7% isn’t going to end the world or anything.

As always, these are books that are New To Me, not necessarily new releases, although a lot of them did come out this year. Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously– if I did this again tomorrow they’d probably be in a slightly different order– and in particular the top five or so were tough. Basically, I know you got some gift cards for Christmas, hie thee to a local bookstore and pick something up; they’re all good.

Here are the last seven years’ worth of lists:

15. THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is both the oldest of the books on the list, dating all the way back to the hoary days of 2010, and the first book on the list that I actually read. In fact, I started it in 2019, after last year’s list was written, but didn’t finish it until the first week of January. Siddhartha Mukherjee has shown up on this list before, with The Gene: An Intimate History coming in at #14 last year, and despite their relative positions I think Emperor is a stronger book. It is, as the title states, a history of cancer, or rather a history of cancers, as the book makes repeatedly clear that part of what makes this disease so difficult is that there are so many different types of cancer and it affects the body so differently depending on where and when it appears. It’s a fascinating piece of work; a little less technical (and thus a touch more accessible) than The Gene, which was already impressively accessible, and frankly everyone knows someone who has passed of cancer, so you’re going to feel a personal connection to this book while you’re reading it whether you want to or not.

14. DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara. There are a couple of books on this list that need to come with content warnings, and part of me kind of feels like Docile needs to come wrapped in brown paper with a big sticker on the back that says Are You Sure? on it. It’s a book about free will and brainwashing and capitalism and sex slavery, set in a future where debt has been made inheritable and people are literally signing decades of their lives (and sometimes their entire lives) over to the few remaining ultrarich to act as their servants in order to erase their family’s debts. They are given a drug that makes them into a Docile, which is basically a pliant, personality- and free-will-less drone who exists only to do the will of their masters. When they are released from their contracts, they remember nothing from their time as a Docile. And they don’t always come back right. The main character is Elisha, a young man who becomes a Docile but refuses to take Dociline, meaning that he is expected to perform exactly as the other Dociles but actually feels and remembers everything he is experiencing.

It’s a hard book to read, on a lot of levels, but this was another real early read in the year and it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know that I want a sequel or anything but I’m definitely in for whatever Szpara comes up with next.

13. ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro. I read two different books by Mark Oshiro this year, this and Each Of Us a Desert, and I went back and forth several times on which one deserved to be on this list more. I feel like Desert is a better book on a technical level, so to speak, but Anger is a Gift affected me emotionally far more than Desert did, so it gets the nod. This is another book that’s going to kind of beat the hell out of you while you read it; it’s the story of Moss Jefferies, a young man from Oakland, California who lost his father to police violence six years before the events of the book begin, and is still struggling with panic attacks and PTSD from the aftereffects of his dad’s murder. Now a high school sophomore, Moss is forced to deal with the increasing militarization of his urban high school and, as he finds himself drawn further into demonstrations and protests, has to reckon with police violence again. There is a sequence in this book that made me so angry I nearly tossed the book across the room, and it was harder to read it as a teacher than I think it might be for most people, because I spent a substantial amount of time very, very angry with the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids in this school. This book is technically YA, the first of several on this list (I read a lot of YA this year) and it’s probably the most adult-feeling of the books on the list. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

(Disclaimer: Mark read, and enjoyed, The Benevolence Archives: Vol. 1 for his Mark Reads Stuff series on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with him before this happened– someone else got him to read my book– and while I’m not going to lie and pretend that that series wasn’t the reason I picked up Anger in the first place, it’s not the reason Anger is on the list.)

12. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson. So, uh, compared to the rest of the books on the list, this one is maybe going to stand out a little bit? Y’all know me. I like speculative fiction, stuff with dragons and wizards and ghosts and unspeakable evils and laser guns and exotic alien worlds. Even when something is set in the “real world,” I like to see a tinge of the supernatural here and there.

You Should See Me in a Crown is basically a Disney movie set to prose. It’s the story of Liz Lighty, who ought to be a superhero, a young nerdy Black girl attending an ultra-rich Indianapolis high school. She has her entire life planned out– the college, the extracurricular activities, the careers afterwards– and then critical financial aid falls through and throws the whole thing into doubt.

So she decides to run for prom queen, which for some reason comes with a massive scholarship award at her high school, and she and her friends basically Voltron up to marshal the forces of all the not-traditionally-popular kids at the school and make Liz the prom queen.

It’s fucking delightful. Like, this book ought to have a giant blinking NOT FOR LUTHER sign on it, and it was bloody delightful. I loved Liz, I loved her fumbling, tender relationship with Mack, her girlfriend, and I even managed to buy into the high school being a real place by the end of the book. (Every so often I wonder if my high school was really weird or if every other portrayal of high school is nonsense. I was on the prom committee in high school. The “popular kids” were largely also the geeks and the nerds. It was a weird place.)

11. THE WEIGHT OF INK, by Rachel Kadish. Now, this book, on the other hand, should have come with a giant blinking FOR LUTHER sign on it. I was a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies major in a previous life, and have a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Bible, so if you hand me a book that’s basically about a couple of historians digging through a recently-discovered treasure trove of documents written by a female Jewish scholar and philosopher in London in the 1660s, I’m going to be halfway done with the damn thing before you actually get finished handing it to me. The book bounces back and forth between the two historians reading the documents in the modern day and the blind rabbi and the woman who is scribing for him (and, later on, writing her own treatises and corresponding with the likes of Spinoza) in the seventeenth century, and it’s probably the densest read on the list but Damn is it rewarding. This was recommended to me after a post where I complained about not really appreciating Literature, and this is the closest to Literature of everything I read this year, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re into history or really any kind of scholasticism at all this book will have something for you in it. Beautifully done.

10. THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. We’re on a bit of a roll here, as both this book and the next one could probably be termed Literatures as well, but don’t hold that against any of them. The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational family saga, the story of a pair of inexplicably light-skinned Black twin sisters, born in a Southern town so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps.

On their sixteenth birthday the twins flee their home together, heading to New Orleans, and several years later one of them abandons her sister and runs again– to marry a white man who has no idea of her race or her background, and to disappear into wealthy white society. The other sister marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and eventually ends up back at home again.. Both women have daughters, and their daughters’ lives interact at various points throughout the story, neither of them having any idea who the other is or even that they have any cousins in the first place. The book starts in the Deep South and as it moves from the 1950s to the 1990s it widens its scope across the country. Bennett’s writing is lovely, and her characters feel like real people even when they’re placed into a setting that can at times feel a little metaphorical.

9. CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. This book is a great example of something I was talking about earlier, a book that is mostly rooted in the real world and classy enough to be a Literature but works in just enough of the supernatural to keep weirdos like me interested. I read Conjure Women and The Vanishing Half pretty close to back-to-back, and they have a lot of similarities– both are family sagas to one extent or another, although this one doesn’t have literal twins in it, setting the relationship between an enslaved woman, her daughter, and their master’s daughter as the relationship it explores. The mother is a midwife and a healer, and her daughter Rue is reluctant about following in her footsteps, and is assigned as a playmate to the master’s daughter, Varina. Then the Civil War hits, and … well, things get interesting.

Take a close look at the cover, there, which isn’t initially as striking as some of the covers to books I enjoyed this year (random note: 2020 was a great year for book covers!) but is probably among the best covers of the year once you read the book and realize what you’re looking at. This and Vanishing Half are definitely an example of a situation where if I put the list together tomorrow they might flip places on the list. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other so get ’em both with that gift card I know you have.

8. THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, by Rin Chupeco. LOL, this one is about an angry murder ghost in case you thought I’d forgotten what kinds of books I usually read. You might look at the cover to this and think to yourself wait, isn’t that the girl from The Ring? And, well (heh), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the ghost in The Ring and the ghost in The Girl from the Well are both based on the same Japanese myth. This book wins the Can I Eat This Author’s Brain and Claim Their Powers award for this year, as it’s the book I’d most like to have written myself of everything on the list. It’s actually told from the perspective of the angry murder ghost, and Chupeco’s prose is creepy and alien in a really remarkable way; the ghost really doesn’t feel human at any point in the book, and that’s something that I feel could get out of control and ruin the book really easily if the author isn’t careful and skilled enough. I also read the sequel to this this year, The Suffering, which does have the ghost as a main character but is told through the perspective of another (human) character from this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit but it didn’t floor me as effectively as this one; Chupeco’s voice in this book is outstandingly well-done, and this was easily the scariest thing I read all year.

7. THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang. Right about here is where it started getting really difficult to rank the books, by the way, and if anything this book got downrated a little bit by being the third book in a trilogy, making it a little tricky to recommend on its own. I loved the first book in the trilogy, The Poppy War, and had some trouble with the second, The Dragon Republic, at least in part because I didn’t remember the events of the first book as well as I should have. So I reread the first two books before reading this one, and … damn, y’all.

This series is another one that could stand for a trigger warning or two. One of the central events in the first book is modeled on the Rape of Nanking, and it’s absolutely horrible, and none of the characters are ever the same afterwards. The first book ends with a literal genocide, as an entire nation is set aflame. PTSD, rape and drug abuse and addiction are major themes of the series. But, my God, R.F. Kuang, who is somehow only in her early twenties, is a hell of a writer, and if you’re not someone who feels like they will suffer lasting psychological effects from reading this kind of book, in the final evaluation it’s one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve ever read. I didn’t give Dragon Republic enough credit when I first read it– which was exactly why I did the reread– and while placing seventh on this list might seem like a drop-off in quality when The Poppy War was third the year it came out … like I said, don’t read too much into the specific rankings. But read the books. Definitely read the books.

6. SPLIT TOOTH, by Tanya Tagaq. Okay, I promise after this one I won’t use the phrase “trigger warning” again, and I won’t make fun of myself for being bad at Literature again either, but I’ve gotta do both for this book. Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Indigenous author, and I read an interview with her where she describes this book, set in Nunavut in the 1970s, as a “mythobiography,” and that’s as good of a description of it as I can imagine. It’s not precisely a memoir, and it’s not precisely an autobiography either– I don’t imagine that Tagaq thinks she was impregnated by the Northern Lights, which happens to the protagonist in this book– but the mythical and supernatural elements of the book somehow manipulate the “real” events of the book into being more shocking than they might have been otherwise. This book is beautifully written– the prose is among the best I’ve ever encountered and probably 15-20% of the wordcount is actually poetry and I loved the hell out of it anyway. Growing up poor and indigenous in Nunavut in the 1970s was no picnic, and this is another one to be careful with, as child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are definitely themes, but this is an amazing book and among the best surprises of 2020, as I effectively bought it blind when I realized I hadn’t read anything by indigenous women yet in my #52booksbywomenofcolor project and more or less grabbed it at random. I love it when that works out.

5. SAVAGE LEGION, by Matt Wallace. We are about to enter into a series of “first books of fantasy series,” as four of my top five books this year are Volume 1 of what will turn out to be at least trilogies if not, in some cases, longer. I just took a break for lunch, as I’ve been working on this post for three hours, and I swear to you that I sat back down and again considered rearranging the next set of books, so call all of them the best book of the year if you want. I won’t tell anybody.

At any rate, Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion is a hell of a book, and what was the most fascinating thing about it for me was the way it somehow manages to simultaneously absolutely bathe itself in tropes and cliches of the genre and come off as something fresh and new, and frankly that’s a hell of a trick to have pulled off. Legion employs the rotating-third-person-POV construct that’s become popular since Game of Thrones came out, but the really interesting thing about it is that you don’t figure out that several of the characters you’re reading about are the bad guys until everything starts slowly knitting itself together at the end. His characters are definitely modern, as he manages to knit together an interesting, diverse cast of POVs without succumbing to The Nation To The South Is Like This and The Dwarves Are Like That sorts of tropes. Also worth pointing out: one of the POV characters is in a wheelchair, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that in a fantasy novel. Generally when fantasy interacts with disability it’s to cut off a limb in combat or sometimes to have a character who is Blind But Not Blind, and I swear I wrote that before realizing that GoT does both. This is not that, and this book deserves a lot more attention than it got.

4. LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn. Let us first take a moment to appreciate that cover, please.

Legendborn is not only the first of a series, it’s author Tracy Deonn’s debut as well, and … man, I loved it. I loved it. Much like Wallace’s Savage Legion and Kuang’s Poppy War, this book starts off feeling very familiar and very tropey. YA can get away with that to a slightly larger degree than books that are supposedly aimed at adults, but it’s still there nonetheless. The main character is not quite off at college, as she’s in high school, but she’s participating in a program that is located at a college and she lives in a dorm. And she’s off at a party and she Witnesses Something She Shouldn’t Have Seen, and then there are Secret Powers that Must Be Hidden, and there’s a Secret Society, and then like thirty pages into the book Tracy Deonn starts pinpointing exactly what you think is going to happen and gleefully curb-stomping the hell out of all of it, and yes eventually there’s a Powerful Boyfriend and a Smolderingly Sexy Antagonist who is the Boyfriend’s protector and best friend but hates the main character because of Secret Reasons, and this is one of those books that is difficult to describe properly because it sounds so clichéd but you just have to trust me that Tracy Deonn knows exactly what she’s doing and everything is going to be delightfully subverted by the end, and there’s even a Big Twist at the very end that I absolutely did not see coming and led to a fun bit of self-examination where I had to decide if I’d missed it because I’m white.

This is the third YA book to appear on this list, and as I’ve already said I read a lot of YA this year, but you absolutely should not let that get in the way of your reading this. Go get it and put it in your head now, please.

3. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. There’s always at least a couple of nonfiction books on this list, but Leonardo da Vinci was the first one that was in serious contention for the top spot. This book is a combination of a biography of Leonardo himself and a book about art history, and it is filled with pictures of his artwork and detailed analyses of his paintings. This is the second book of Isaacson’s I’ve read, his first being a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I will likely read his biography of Einstein sometime this year. Isaacson’s thing is that he really likes writing about geniuses, and the most notable thing about this book, above and beyond the fact that Leonardo himself is endlessly fascinating, is the sheer enthusiasm that Isaacson brings to discussing his subject. Art history is one of those things that I don’t personally know a whole lot about, but I love listening to and reading people who do know a lot about art talk about it, and both parts of the book were done exceptionally well. Descriptions of art can slide into the sort of half-gibberish that music reviews can turn into if the author isn’t careful, and I have to admit that a lot of the time I’m taking his word for it when he does things like describe facial expressions of the various subjects of a painting and such, but this is an amazing book about an amazing person and I very strongly recommend it even if you don’t necessarily think Leonardo is someone you want to spend 600 pages with. Because, seriously, you don’t want to read about Leonardo da Vinci? Quit being weird and go pick this up.

(Also, one more thing: this book wins for the best book as a physical artifact for the year. The paper is creamy and thick and the book feels great, and since it’s full of artwork that is begging for analysis the print itself is of a really high quality. I only spent like $12 on it brand new, and that’s ludicrous.)

2. BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. We’re back to Volume One of A Fantasy Series territory here, and Rebecca Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors over the last several years, someone whose books get bought on release day and leapfrogged over whatever else happens to be in the queue at the time.

Anyway, let’s stare at the cover for a moment.

Black Sun is second-world fantasy, heavily influenced by Mesoamerican history and culture in much the same way that The Burning God is influenced by Japanese and Chinese culture. And you’re about to see another theme between this and the book that ended up being my favorite of the year, because the thing I loved the most about both books was the worldbuilding. I don’t know how many books are planned for this series but I hope it’s a million, because I could read about this world forever. It’s also one of those books where the ending kind of upends the status quo that’s been set up throughout the book, so we’ll see where Roanhorse goes with the second volume, which hopefully will be out really soon.

1. SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi. This has been the frontrunner for most of the year, and I did go back and forth a couple of times on whether I was going to have it or Black Sun as the top book of the year, but in the end it won out. And, well, there are some definite similarities between the two: second-world fantasy inspired by a culture that you typically don’t see a lot of in fantasy literature, this time being Central Africa rather than Mesoamerica, and absolutely outstanding worldbuilding. What ended up giving Odyssey the edge was slightly stronger characters and a more detailed (and math-based!) magic system, existing alongside multiple detailed religious systems and a complicated politics to boot. This book also features rotating 3rd person POVs, although it’s clear that 18-year-old Musalodi, a mystic who achieves a place of power and influence among his people and is immediately sent forth on an Important Quest, the actual purpose of which is to get rid of him, because men aren’t supposed to be Mystics and no one in his home really wants to deal with him. Genderflipping traditional roles is kind of a thing throughout this book, and Salo’s journey and the people he encounters along the way are all fascinating. There are also hints at another culture, possibly much more technologically adept, sort of on the outside of the events of the story but watching closely, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which comes out in March and which I’ve already pre-ordered. It is the best book I read in a year full of good books, and you need to read it.

HONORABLE MENTION, in no particular order: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman, A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, by Roseanne A. Brown, THE VANISHED QUEEN, by Lisbeth Campbell, MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, by Waubgeshig Rice, THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold, SPIDERLIGHT, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, by Alexis Henderson, and DEATHLESS DIVIDE, by Justina Ireland.