#REVIEW: The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The headline to this post is a lie; this is not going to be a review, not even by my standards. This is just, like, me waving this thick-ass paperback around and squeeing at people. I love Adrian “Spiders” Tchaikovsky a hell of a lot, and he approaches if not exceeds Brandon Sanderson levels of prolific, so there is an awful lot of him out there to read, only I don’t feel like I talk about him in this space all that often.

The reason for that is simple: his books are batshit insane, from start to finish, all of them, and it makes him kind of hard to write about, because when you try to describe what happened in a Tchaikovsky book the tendency is to wave your hands around and, like, make gurgling noises and say “trust me” an awful lot. I actually fooled myself on this one; it actually starts off in the real world, and for the first hundred pages or so you could be fooled into thinking it was either a book about cryptids or a murder mystery, and while I enjoy both of those kinds of books they would end up feeling awfully pedestrian coming from Tchaikovsky.

Yeah, by the end of the book there are sentient, human-sized rats in plague doctor costumes, a computer the size of a planet made entirely from ice, giant spacefaring trilobites that communicate via manipulating piles of centipedes into an approximation of a human face, technologically advanced Neanderthals, and something like a dozen timelines all collapsing into each other including a part where you get section one of chapter seventeen something like eight times in a row only it makes sense and it’s cool, and oh okay it’s a fucking Adrian Tchaikovsky book after all.

Note that, despite looking like a perfect match to Children of Time and Children of Ruin, this book is not connected with those books in any way that I was able to figure out. I’ve got it on the shelf next to them because it looks like Volume 3 of a trilogy, but it’s not. And, looking on Google to see if I can find an image of the three books next to each other, I just discovered that there actually is a third book from that series coming in November, called Children of Memory, and I’ve already got another book by him in a different series on my unread shelf, meaning that by the end of the year it’s not unreasonable to believe I’ll have read four Adrian Tchaikovsky books, which will probably easily top 2000 pages between the four of them. He’s also got a (completed) seven-book fantasy series out there that I haven’t even touched yet, and he also writes three hundred novellas every year.

Christ, dude. I love you, but … slow the fuck down.

#REVIEW: Bluebird, by Ciel Pierlot

Before getting into talking about the book, I want to point out that this is one of several books that I either have on deck or have read recently that I discovered through TikTok. My main location for book discovery right now is Twitter and. has been for a while; I follow so many writers and agents on there that anything interesting is inevitably going to cross my radar sooner or later. But #BookTok is becoming a bigger force as time goes on, and I still don’t think I’ve heard about this one on Twitter anywhere, so it’s good that I was paying attention, because Ciel Pierlot’s Bluebird is a hell of a book.

Also, it’s been a running joke around here for years that my book “reviews” are often about anything but the book, and … well, this one isn’t going to be an exception? So let me say the words Lesbian gunslinger fights spies in space and just walk away after that, because I know my people, and that sentence got a certain number of you opening up Amazon already. It was certainly all I needed to order the book, and I got exactly what I wanted, and while I once criticized a book whose tagline was lesbian necromancers in space on the grounds that there was not quite as much lesbian necromancy or space as that sentence implied, this is well and truly a book about a lesbian gunslinger fighting spies in space and it is absolutely everything I want from life right now.

It is also– and here we go with the review being more about me than the book, so brace yourself– about 75% of the way to being a great Benevolence Archives book, with most of that remaining 25% being simple matters of renaming a few characters and slightly altering the villains. Because the main character of this book reminds me so much of my Rhundi that it’s scary, and I kind of want to hand my entire universe over to Ciel Pierlot and let her run wild in it to see what happens. I mean, Rhundi isn’t a lesbian, and Pierlot’s main character Rig’s relationship with her girlfriend June is one of the best parts of the book, but the personality and the attitude and the swagger are all there, and I feel like my writing style and Pierlot’s are similar enough that matching the tone of the BA books wouldn’t be a challenge for her at all.

So obviously I really liked the characters. The worldbuilding here is pretty cool too, with the galaxy divided up among three warring factions more or less separated by religious beliefs about the same original set of facts; blah blah blah God did this, and all three factions are convinced that this was done for their benefit and not that of the other two. I’d love to see more; we get enough into the weeds to tell this story but there aren’t any places where I felt like the book was info dumping just for the hell of it. That said, I think the one place where the book does fall down a bit is related to the worldbuilding: Rig is a Kashrini, an alien race that may as well be an ethnic minority given how the book treats them, and there’s a subplot going throughout the book about how the Kashrini are treated (poorly) by their faction that I felt could be explored a little bit more. Rig in particular makes a habit of reclaiming Kashrini artifacts whenever she finds them in the possession of non-Kashrini– think Killmonger in Black Panther for a close analog– and I would like to have learned a little bit more about her actual people. She spends most of the book trying to rescue her sister, and found family is definitely a theme, but I’d like to have seen a bit more detail on this one story thread.

Bluebird is a standalone, tying everything up with a nice bow at the end, and I don’t know right now what Pierlot is working on next. I’d love to see more done with this world and these characters, but one way or another she’s on The List now, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for her next book. Check it out.


I’m going to be honest, here: if I had written this post a couple of days ago, closer to when I actually watched the show, it would have been much longer and, frankly, more interesting. All of my brain space for the last couple of days has been taken up by working my way through my To Do list and trying to rewrite the Constitution, which I wish was a fucking joke and isn’t.

Here’s the non-spoiler review of this show: It was pretty good until the final episode, but only pretty good, and the final episode was fucking stellar. Lemme toss a little separation line here, so that those of you who don’t want to read the spoilery parts have adequate time to dip out and come back later:

In some ways, the show’s most amazing trick happened in the first episode. I wasn’t exactly digging around for spoilers on this show, but I wouldn’t have bothered avoiding them, and the fact that I’d not even seen a rumor that Lil’ Leia was going to be a major character? Is fucking unbelievable. I have been a frequent and noisy proponent of casting Millie Bobby Brown as Leia and giving her a movie or two (and there are rumors flying recently about that finally happening) but she’s too old to have been in this show and, my God, Vivien Lyra Blair was amazing. I was entertained at the idea that people were complaining about her looking too young, as the actress is the exact same age that Leia was supposed to be; I can only assume that these people haven’t seen children in a while. Sometimes they are small! It happens. I promise.

And this gets right to the crux of the weirdness of the show: at first glance, everything about it seems to utterly screw up the continuity that A New Hope set up, or at least screws up all the assumptions that absolutely everyone made, but are never actually specifically stated in the film.

Because Leia never says she and Obi-Wan have never met.(***) And Vader’s line about “when I left you, I was but the learner” does not actually mean that the last time they met was the battle on Mustafar. In fact, and I’m literally just realizing this right now as I’m typing this sentence, it’s really hard to reconcile the words “when I left you” with what happened there, since Obi-Wan left him for dead. And knowing that Obi-Wan already knew Leia adds a nice resonance to his last moments during the fight in ANH with Vader; just before he dies he looks to his left and sees both of them, at which point he recognizes that his job is done and sacrifices himself. I’d always assumed before that he was just looking at Luke, y’know?

So this show is, in a lot of ways, the best kind of retcon: never (that I’ve noticed, at least) does it explicitly contradict anything that came before, but it recontextualizes some moments in ways that are really interesting. The whole “from a certain point of view” conversation with Luke, where Obi-Wan says that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin? Vader literally told him that, and it’s interesting to think about that (outstanding) sequence in the final episode where Vader’s voice synthesizer is flipping back and forth between Anakin’s voice and Vader’s, because I genuinely don’t know if that’s Anakin talking and he’s trying to assuage Obi-Wan’s guilt or if it’s Vader talking and he’s bragging.(*) And what happens next? Obi-Wan calls him “Darth” for the first time.

Again: we all know that the real reason that Obi-Wan Kenobi called Darth Vader “Darth” on the Death Star is because at the time George Lucas hadn’t really decided that “Darth” was a title and not Vader’s first name. But from within the story? It’s kind of awesome, because to my recollection Obi-Wan never once uses the word “Vader.” Once whoever that is tells him that Vader is responsible for Anakin Skywalker’s death, Obi-Wan reverts to calling him “Darth,” because as far as he’s concerned there’s no person there anymore. There’s just the Sith. And in context, it makes perfect sense. Frankly, it’s disrespectful, and in a way I really enjoy.

You could probably criticize the show for setting up yet another situation where Kenobi leaves Vader for dead. At this point, he’s absolutely convinced his friend is gone, and they don’t give him any kind of out for not killing him; Vader’s incapacitated and he’s right there. I get why Obi-Wan leaves him on Mustafar. I don’t get why he doesn’t end Vader here, on whatever (very cool, by the way) planet that was.

(Oh, one criticism, just for the hell of it: the show leans a bit too hard into the idea that every Star Wars planet is two or three square kilometers in size and exactly the same climate everywhere. I generally liked Reva as a character but that bit where she just shows up to some random-ass spot on Tatooine and asks the first random-ass moisture farmer she meets where to find “Owen?” Come the fuck on. Also, I absolutely hate the post-sequels decision that anyone can get from anywhere in the galaxy to anywhere in the galaxy in seconds. It’s lightspeed, Goddammit, not, like, Warp Ninety.)(**)

Anyway. This is another place where the overarching story constrains what Kenobi was able to do. Obviously he can’t kill Darth Vader nine years before A New Hope, because Vader’s got three movies left. But they should have given us a reason Vader survived, and they didn’t. Obi-Wan just didn’t kill him, because reasons.

I also really liked Vader’s final conversation with Palpatine. The last thing he does before (he thinks) leaving Kenobi buried and dead is call him “Master,” and while I don’t remember the precise line of dialogue in the conversation, he has to tell Palpatine that he is his only Master who matters during that last conversation. Nicely done, and again, gives Vader a reason not to spend the next nine years constantly chasing Obi-Wan like we all felt like he ought to be doing.

So yeah, this is in Definitely Watch territory for me. Better than either season of The Mandalorian, and infinitely better than Book of Boba Fett. I’ll watch Andor, I suppose, but I don’t have especially high hopes for it, as Cassian Andor was one of the few characters in Rogue One that I didn’t feel like I wanted to know more about. Give me the Goddamn Baze Malbus/Chirrut Imwe show that I want! Give it to me now!

(*) It’s not clear at all how much actual work Hayden Christensen had to do in this show. Obviously Young Anakin shows up a few times, and guys, if there was ever a time to use your creepy de-aging magic, this was it, because Hayden’s got some serious crow’s feet– but a robot imitating James Earl Jones does the voice, there’s someone else in the suit doing the fighting, and I think there was even another person involved in the costume somewhere– but I’m pretty sure that’s him under all that makeup during this scene, and for what it’s worth, for a guy who’s trying to convey a whole lot of complex emotions with, effectively, one eye, and that eye covered by a contact lens nonetheless, it’s a really impressive little bit of acting.

(**) Last gripe: way too many people survive getting stabbed with lightsabers in this movie show. Okay, granted, it’s a self-cauterizing wound, so I suspect getting stabbed with a lightsaber is actually a little better than getting stabbed with a blade, but in general lightsabers are surprisingly nonlethal in this series– Reva survives getting stabbed twice!– and the bit with the Grand Inquisitor felt especially unnecessary.

(***) This is the third postscript because I didn’t realize it until after hitting publish, so this is a late edit: this also recontextualizes Han and Leia’s otherwise completely inexplicable decision to name their son Ben, which you might now was the name of Luke’s son in the pre-Disney Expanded Universe books. Han thought Kenobi was nuts, and Leia, as far as anyone knew, barely even laid eyes on him. It even makes “Ben” a better name choice than “Obi-Wan” might have been, because Ben Kenobi was the guy who Leia was saved by. I don’t know if they even thought about this when they were writing the show, but it fixes one of the more nitpicky problems I had with the sequel trilogy in a way I really like.


It seems like an awfully daunting task to actually review James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, so I’m just going to write a brief post about it and hopefully that will be enough to convince literally every single one of you to pick it up. I finally finished the 9th book last night after sitting on it for a little while (beginning it at the same time I was starting Elden Ring wasn’t a great decision) and now that I’m done with the series, I’m just kind of stunned at what an amazing accomplishment the entire series is.

I was kind of irritated to discover that Leviathan Falls, the final book of the series, was compared to A Song of Ice and Fire on the back cover, as if ASoIaF is the superior product that Expanse ought to be compared to. I’ve said this about other series before, but The Expanse is markedly better than ASoIaF, not the least because it’s actually finished, and we all know George is never, ever finishing that series. It is also better than That Other fantasy maxi-series you might have in mind, if for no other reason than the series, unbelievably, is nine books and, oh, 4500 pages long or so, and features almost no bloat. That’s kind of astounding, considering what has happened with nearly all of the long-term fantasy series on the market right now.

(Why am I not comparing it to other SF series? Because in a lot of ways there’s nothing to compare it to. Scalzi has done a bunch of books in his Old Man’s War series, but they’ve all been pitched as standalone, more or less, as opposed to having been deliberately structured as a nine-book series from the start. Kevin J. Anderson has his two Saga of Seven Suns series, the first of which was seven books and the second a trilogy, but I’m the only person I know who has read those and I never see anyone talking about them, plus the Corey collective is simply a better writer than Anderson. The closest SF analog may actually be Iain M. Banks’ Culture books, but … uh, I haven’t read those.)

But yeah: one way or another, this series feels like it was planned out, at least in the broad strokes, from the beginning, and while the scope of the series ends up enormous, the author(s) have been smart enough to keep the characters a fairly tight group, with a core of four main characters who are in every single book. Is this a plot armor situation? Maybe, but it never really feels like it, and frankly my two favorite characters in the series both died, so they’re entirely willing to kill characters when they feel like they need to. The status quo keeps sliding around, too; there’s a thirty-year time jump at one point, and there are at least two points in the series where they basically kick the legs out from under everything you thought you knew and remap the board from scratch. Alex, Naomi, Amos and Jim are the constants; everything else is up for grabs.

I know it’s a hell of a thing to tell everybody to go read a nine-book series, but if you’re a sci-fi fan at all and you haven’t picked these up yet, you really owe it to yourself, and the series is done(*) so there’s no longer any excuse. Go get ’em.

(*) There have been several novellas as well, which are going to be collected into a 10th book sometime next year, I think, but this story is definitely finished as of the last few pages of Leviathan Falls. The universe is still out there if they want to come back to it, but it’ll be something very, very different if they do.

The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2021

It is December 30, and Adrian Tchaikovsky is just going to have to wait until next year if I happen to really love the book of his that I’m starting today. This is an interesting list to me for several reasons; several of these books are very much of the “I loved this but you really might not” type, as holy shit that was weird and awesome seems to have been a common thread for a lot of the books I really liked this year. Also, a handful of them weren’t on my shortlist, meaning that after I did my first pass on that I thought “Hey, where was book X?” and realized that at the time I read it I didn’t think it was going to be good enough to make the list at the end of the year and then it did a really good job of sticking around in my head. I read so many books that books I read early in the year are at a serious disadvantage, so it’s always neat when one creeps up on me.

Also, as I’m writing this right now I still don’t know what the #1 book is going to be, which is a sign of just how much I loved both of them. Don’t pay a ton of attention to the specific rankings until the top five or so, as usual, because if I put the list together tomorrow they might shift around a little bit.

As always, “new” means “new to me,” so although there are a number of 2021 releases on here and none of them are really old books, being read in 2021 was the requirement for inclusion, not being released.

Here are the lists from previous years:

And here we goooooooooooooo…

15. Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho. I have read several of Zen Cho’s books but I am pretty sure this is the first time she has appeared on this list; it’s the story of a Malaysian-American girl whose family returns to Malaysia after a series of financial setbacks and who immediately starts being visited by the ghost of her grandmother. While calling it autobiographical doesn’t really make any sense, as I’m pretty certain Zen Cho hasn’t experienced any ancestral hauntings, it’s clear that she’s drawing on her own experiences as a child of immigrants in this book, and as a result it feels more personal and intimate than a lot of her other work has. The supernatural influences don’t stop with the grandmother; Malaysian religion and Malaysian gods and an interesting (at least to me) take on Christianity are also a big part of the book, and there are enough twists and turns over the course of the narrative to keep the pages turning. Jess herself is a bit of an asshole, but having had some time to marinate on it I think it makes her feel more real. This is Cho’s best book by a decent margin, and she was already someone whose books were on my “buy automatically” list, so just start adding everything I talk about to your TBR right now.

14. The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi. So, uh, spoiler alert: Vivek Oji dies in this book. The title? Not a joke.

Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi is a superb talent, and Death is a title that is a little difficult to talk about without spoiling plot details, as, well, you kinda already know Vivek is gone at the beginning of the book and so learning about what happened is the whole point. I don’t know that this is quite a mystery story except in the broadest possible outlines; it’s more of a story about a tragedy that happens to a family than anything else, and of Emezi’s three books that I’ve read (the other two being Freshwater and Pet) this is the most assured and emotional their writing has ever been. The book jumps around in time, telling the story of Vivek’s life as well as his death, and it’s yet another piece of evidence for my oft-repeated statements that if you like to read and you’re not regularly picking up books by Nigerian authors you are seriously missing out.

13. Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. This is the first book on the list that I would likely not have read were it not for #readaroundtheworld, and in fact I found it by sending a message to a friend of mine from high school who lives in Hawai’i now and asking her to recommend some books by native Hawaiian authors. This is another family story (another theme this year, as I look through the rest of the books) that starts when a seven year old boy falls off a boat and nearly drowns and is rescued by … sharks. Which, y’know, isn’t exactly typical. Then a friend blows part of his hand off with fireworks and the boy is able to heal him. Which, yeah, also not typical, and the narrative blasts off from there.

Most of the family members– three children and a mom, with Dad popping in for a chapter or two here and there– are point-of-view characters for some part of the narrative or another, as they go through their lives and move back and forth between the island and the mainland. This is a book about the weight of family expectations, and what happens to you when The Future is always something you thought you understood until it arrived differently than you expected.

12. You Sexy Thing, by Cat Rambo. Getting sent books for review consideration has developed into a thing that happens four or five times a year now, and while I got sent early copies of two of the books on this list, I don’t know that this book would have gotten onto my radar had I not had it sent to me for free. So it’s great that it was, because the book is awesome.

This is a book where describing the setting, and assuring you that the book lives up to the setting, should be sufficient to get you to read it. The copy on the back cover describes the book as “Great British Baking Show meets Farscape,” and that is perfectly sufficient in and of itself to get me to hand over my money. The characters are all (well, mostly) members of a military unit who have retired and opened a restaurant, and as the book opens they are eagerly anticipating a visit from a food critic who has the power to award them something called a Nikkelin Orb, and … yeah, at that point I was already in, and that’s before it’s revealed that the title of the book is the name of an intelligent bioship that the characters (sort of) steal, or things like the team’s explosives expert being a chimpanzee who only communicates via sign language, or the four-armed, eight-foot-tall head chef, or the hypersexual floating squid who also makes up part of the crew. With a setting and characters like this you barely need a story, but Rambo succeeds there as well, and while I’m not a hundred percent certain there are more books coming in this series, I really really want more.

11. The Meaning of Names, by Karen Gettert Shoemaker. I said in my original review of this book that I had really liked it but I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to read it again, and while that is still true the book has really stuck around in my head– this is one of those that wasn’t originally on my shortlist for this post but forced itself onto the list anyway.

Names is set in Nebraska during World War I, in a small German immigrant community. You may already be raising an eyebrow; if you suspect that a book about German-Americans during World War I might in some way be about nativist prejudice against those immigrants, well, you’d be right, and do you happen to remember what else happened in 1918? Oh, right, a fucking global pandemic involving a respiratory disease.

This book was written well before Covid became a thing, but it has a number of really uncomfortable parallels to everything going on today, and I’d actually love to sit down with Karen Gettert Shoemaker and have a conversation with her about having written this book that was about one thing when she wrote it and now reads like a satire on American society. Because everything going on right now involving Covid happens in the book– well, no horse paste, but the rest of it is spot-on– and … yeah. It’s hard to read. But it’s damn well done for all of that, and I had to include it on the list.

10. Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. Barkskins is another one that I originally didn’t intend to put on the list, and the third book so far that I wouldn’t have read were it not for the #readaroundtheworld project, this time for South Dakota. This is historical fiction, and insanely detailed and well-researched historical fiction, following the descendants of a seventeenth-century French indentured servant through over three hundred years of history. Part of it ends up being a history of colonialism, and part of it ends up being a (fictional) history of the logging company that the original character starts and one branch of the family keeps alive through the years. This is also very much a book about environmentalism; you can imagine that people who own a logging company might have a few ideas about what to do with trees, and the book addresses both the ideas of early white colonists that America’s forests were literally endless and inexhaustible and later attempts at conservation, and we end up with characters on both sides of that conversation. The conversation about conservation. The conservation conversation.

Oh, and because it’s a generational saga, Proulx doesn’t feel any need to be especially nice to her characters, because one way or another they’re gonna die, since the book has two hundred years and 500 pages left to go. So sometimes people have a nice interesting storyline going and then step on a nail and die of typhus a page later. God, I’m glad I live in an era with modern medicine.

9. African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard. I read very little nonfiction this year compared to a typical year, and in fact as I’m sitting here I can’t come up with more than maybe one or two other nonfiction books from 2021. Even this one is lightly fictionalized, as Yasuke was definitely a real person and was, yes, an African samurai in sixteenth-century Japan, but the only way we know he existed is through some artwork and a series of letters from a Jesuit priest who lived in Japan at the time. Geoffrey Girard is a novelist and Thomas Lockley a historian, and I think the novelist might actually have written more of the book than the historian did, as we spend a lot of time inside Yasuke’s head and recounting day-to-day events in his life than the historical record might strictly be able to support. That said, this book also doubles as a biographical treatment of Oda Nobunaga, who was also real and also fascinating, and while it’s necessary to take specific claims with a grain of salt from time to time– we don’t know how Yasuke felt about discovering he was going to have servants in the house Nobunaga gave him, an anecdote that a couple of pages is devoted to– the book is truthy enough in the broad strokes, and it’s a fascinating read.

Just don’t expect Yasuke to have magical powers or to have his giant spirit bear attack you. That’s from video games, and it definitely didn’t really happen.

8. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab. Another book that flirts with historical fiction without being historical fiction, Invisible Life starts several centuries ago in France and tells the story of Addie LaRue, an immortal woman who is cursed to not be remembered by anyone once they look away from her. While this type of lifestyle does have its advantages (it’s easy to steal from people if they literally don’t remember you exist once they lose sight of you) you can imagine that it also has massive drawbacks, and the occasional meal with the Actual Devil doesn’t do much to assuage the loneliness of being, effectively, unperceivable.

And then she meets someone who can remember seeing her, and everything changes, and the narrative takes off from there. This is, like Barkskins, a book that gets a lot of points for being something that I absolutely could never ever write, as the research alone for the book’s timeline must have been an immense amount of work, and Schwab handles it like someone who lived there. I want to take a particular moment to recommend this book to fans of Sandman, as LaRue’s story has certain commonalities with Hob Gadling’s, and he was one of my favorite Sandman characters, so chances are the similarities will hit others as well. I know book reviewers who have named this one their favorite book of all time, so expect it to make an impact.

7. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin. Did I say historical fiction? How about a Chinese cowboy in the American West? How about lots of shooting and killing and crime, and a prophecy and a seer thrown in just for the hell of it?

Like, I’m done talking there, because much like the premise of You Sexy Thing, you’ve already decided if you’re going to read this book, and if you’re a good person you’ve decided to read it, unless you already read it back when I originally reviewed it. And if you’ve decided to read it you are correct, and if you have not decided to read it you are wrong, so make sure you’re on the right side of history here. Westerns starring Chinese cowboys should have people reaching for their credit cards and slamming them on the table, dammit. You’ve all seen TikTok. Like that.

This is Tom Lin’s debut, and I’m pretty certain that it’s a one-off, so who knows where he’s going to head with his next book, but you can rest assured I’m going to be reading it.

6. Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. This is the oldest book on the list, written in 1992, and was another book I read because of #readaroundtheworld, representing (see if you can guess) South Carolina. There’s a movie, too, which I haven’t seen, although my understanding is that it’s pretty good as well.

This is the only book on the list that I really feel needs a content warning if you’re going to read it; the main character, a young girl called Bone, is growing up fatherless and poor in a small town in South Carolina, and it is not an easy life, for her or any of her family members, particularly the women. Domestic violence and sexual assault are themes throughout the book, and there is at least one explicit rape scene.

It is a rough goddamn book to read, but it has well-earned its place in American literature and I’m really glad I read it. I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed the experience, but this is one of those books you should make sure to pick up anyway.

5. Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder. This is a book where the main character abruptly turns into a dog halfway through and it’s not the weirdest book on the list. It’s definitely one of those “I loved this and you might not” books, though, and its deep and abiding strangeness is the best thing about it. The main character, referred to only as the Mother for half of the book and then as Nightbitch for the rest, is a suburban housewife, married to a man who spends most of his time out of town and is probably cheating, and she spends her day entertaining their toddler, a job that she does not respond to with joyous anticipation every day.

At all.

Frankly, she hates being a parent; hates the dead-eyed, joyless repetition of it all, hates the walks and the puréed food and the endless messes and the sleepless nights for both her and the child and the mindless fucking drudgery that any honest person will admit is part and parcel of raising, in particular, a toddler.

And then she, uh, turns into a dog for a while, and she convinces her kid to sleep without her at night by also being a doggy and sleeping in a kennel, and after that it gets kinda weird, and you should absolutely trust me and read it.

4. Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Okay, this is the weirdest book on the list, and I bought it because I was looking for books from Eastern Europe and from Ukraine specifically, and oh holy shit I don’t even really know how to describe it even now. I saw someone who described it as “Harry Potter, but written by Kafka,” and that’s maybe correct but I think it might be slightly more accurate if the author was the lovechild of Kafka and Lovecraft. The main character is a college-age girl who gets railroaded into college at a small school in an out-of-the-way town and begins studying, basically, eldritch horror, where absolutely nothing makes any sense at all and knowledge can’t be expressed in words and one of her assignments is to just memorize a list of nonsense words because it’s going to unlock her brain for something else and it is so fucked up and so incredibly Russian and at one point she has scales and wings just because that happens and oh my God you have to read it just so that I have someone to talk to about it. Defense Against the Dark Arts has nothing on the Special Technologies class. Nothing.

3. The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez. Man, this one was really something special. The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an immigrant community– specifically, a single apartment complex inhabited by immigrants, some legal, some not, from all over Mexico and Central/South America– in Delaware. There are years where this book would have been #1 with a bullet, and it was one of the major highlights of #readaroundtheworld. It employs a rotating POV among ten or so different people of various ages, some born here, others who came as adults, and some who came as children, all Spanish-speaking but at a variety of levels of comfort with English and with American culture. The book is set in the early years of the Obama administration, and you might recall that the economy was not great during those years, so everyone is operating on a razor’s edge where losing a job or making a mistake could lead to homelessness, and the unique frustration of having been an educated, respected professional in one country who has to clean houses in America because your credentials don’t transfer and you don’t speak the language pervades the entire book. It also contains one of the sweetest love stories I’ve ever read, and even if the other characters’ stories weren’t great, the relationship between Maribel and Mayor would have gotten the book onto the list. This is a superb piece of work and absolutely everyone should read it.

Oh, and the ending is going to kill you. Maybe be ready for that.

I need y’all to understand that right now as I am typing this I am not a hundred percent convinced of the order of these last two books. One of them, if you’ve been around for a while, you can probably predict, one of them maybe you can’t. I will freely admit that I’m deciding on #1 because it makes a better story, and it would probably be most accurate to just have them tie, but they’re both absolutely outstanding and tomorrow I might rank them differently. Just FYI.

2. The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune. I will get into this more tomorrow, probably, or maybe even later today, but my initial post about this is my #1 post of 2021, and I have absolutely no idea why. It has literally gotten twenty times as many hits as my #2 post from this year. I have perhaps overused the word delightful in talking about this book, which is about love and found family and acceptance and optimism and taking risks for love and it was absolutely something I needed to read this year, but the simple fact is that delight is the #1 emotion I felt while I was reading it. House is about an orphanage for special children, and by “special” what I mean is that one of them is basically a gelatinous cube and another is the literal son of Satan, and the man who cares for them, and another man who is sent from the government organization that oversees the orphanages to make sure that the children are being treated well and are safe.

There is a reason that this is the only book on this list where I linked to my original piece about it, and I wrote about all of these books as I read them, and that is because of the inspiration for the book. Klune has been open about the idea that the germ of the novel came from his learning about Canada’s Residential Schools, which were absolutely horrible places, and has taken a lot of heat for that comment. The problem is that the book he has written is not about a residential school. He has taken something terrible and used it as inspiration for something that is lovely and life-affirming and beautiful, and it is an astonishingly good book. I’m not interested in arguing with someone who felt differently; your reactions to the book are your own. But I think they are objectively wrong on this one.

And, likely surprising no one, the #1 book on my list:

1. Jade Legacy, by Fonda Lee. To a certain extent, this was inevitable; Legacy is the third book of the Green Bone Saga trilogy, and the first book, Jade City, was my favorite book of 2018 and the second book, Jade War, was my favorite book of 2019.

Jade Legacy had a hell of a lot to live up to and a hell of a high bar to clear– sticking the landing on any story can be tough, sticking the landing on a trilogy where the second book was so good I compared it to The Godfather, Part II is even harder, and sticking the landing when you’ve decided to extend the third book over several decades as opposed to the tighter timeline of the first two books, meaning that your characters are going to age significantly and your world is going to change radically over the course of the book, is so rough I can’t even comprehend it. The fact that Fonda Lee not only managed to finish this thing but that she finished it while the world was falling apart is a towering achievement. Legacy is absolutely a worthy ending to what has become one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, vying with The Lord of the Rings and basically nothing else for that honor. It covers multiple generations and multiple continents and multiple families, and it’s about honor and death and colonialism and crime and violence and friendship and honor and yes I said honor already but it’s kind of a big thing and if you haven’t picked up this series yet after I’ve spent the last four years hollering about how good it is I don’t know why you’re even here.

(Oh, and I got it as an early ARC, which is probably the single best thing that happened to me this year; I cannot describe how excited I was when I got an email from Lee’s publicist asking me if I wanted an early copy of the book. Yes, I bought it anyway; I’d actually already preordered it when the ARC showed up, and I’ve even got another set of the trilogy that came out in a limited edition, meaning I have three copies of this book in my house.)

I cannot recommend this book any more highly. Yes, it and Cerulean Sea were very, very close this year, but Sea is a stand-alone and this is a capstone to an astonishingly good series of books. It is the best book I read this year.

Honorable Mention, in No Particular Order: The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick; Island beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende; Heartbreak Bay, by Rachel Caine; A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini; Persephone Station, by Stan Leicht; Requiem Moon, by C.T. Rwizi; The Book of Lost Saints, by Daniel José Older; Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi; The Searcher, by Tana French; The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison; The Unquiet Earth, by Denise Giardina; Bump, by Matt Wallace; The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker; and The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw.