Here are the books I read (or listened to) this year. This list includes print books, audiobooks, manga, and an audiobook version of a graphic novel. It does not include lectures or podcasts. I was not sure how to order them – completion order, author, series type – so I did sort of a combination of these: split into categories with books by the same author within each category grouped together. The numbers in parentheses indicate the order in which I read them. Before I get started, here is a note on spoilers:
One of the reasons I do these lists every year is to reflect on the reading I have done. Another reason is to share a more personal blurb (rather than a back-cover blurb) of the books I have experienced, just in case these might inspire others to read them too, or to read at all. One of the challenges I have given myself is to create non-spoiler reviews for books, especially series. It gets harder to do this for the later books in the series, but I want you to be able to read my reviews for each book without knowing what is going to happen in any of them. I want the review to capture a “feeling” rather than to summarize the plot, though I may include some minor plot points to help shape the review. I hope I do okay at this, and if I ever fail at keeping things spoiler-free, I apologize and hope these slips will not ruin the stories for you should you ever read them.
Stay tuned (or skip to) the end of this list for a book survey from The Perpetual Page Turner, answered by yours truly.
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens (1)
Novel, classic literature
This is a fictional memoir (not intended by the protagonist to ever be read by anyone else, but rather as a journal of sorts) that begins at birth and ends around middle-age. It follows the protagonist, David Copperfield, through his childhood, adolescence, and much of his adulthood with incredible detail of events and also the emotions that were felt during those events. The subplots weave in and out of each other, with characters fading and reemerging at different points in time. The writing is personal and rich – at times dark or disturbing and at others humorous or romantic. I understand why Dickens novels are classics and why this one is considered a masterpiece.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (49)
Novella, classic literature/fantasy
This ghost story is less frightening and more endearing, in my opinion, though it does lend an eerie and depressing vibe to an otherwise joyful time of year. An old miser, who is at best indifferent and at worst outright cruel to pretty much everyone he encounters, is visited by one and then three more spirits on the night before Christmas. Visiting his own past, present, and potential future allows him to reflect on how his behavior has affected others and himself. Dickens tells this story with his own exquisite verbiage, though keeps it quaint enough to be akin to a fairy tale.
FLCL Omnibus, by Hajime Ueda (9)
This manga is about a young adolescent dealing with the struggles of growing up. Aaaaand there’s robots and space police and weird mutations and clones and all sorts of abstract weirdness. There is also family drama, romantic intrigue, and other relationship issues that arise for the main characters. I have actually watched the anime version (though only once and a long time ago so I only remember a few things), but the manga is different in many ways, both in form and in plot. It can be very difficult to follow the specifics of what is going on. The conversations sometimes seem like pieces of two different conversations awkwardly fused together to simulate dialogue, which sometimes makes sense and sometimes doesn’t, while the action sequences are a series black-and-white stills, so it can be hard to distinguish what is happening within the chaos. Despite this, I think I understood the gist of the plot well enough. The points I missed were filled in by my partner, who has also seen the anime several times, and read the manga along with many other reviews of both works online. I know people who really like FLCL. I have heard that it’s supposed to mean nothing, but that’s the point, and that everything matters and doesn’t matter at the same time. I am not opposed to this idea, but I think I would have appreciated it more if it flowed more fluidly. The combination of disjointed panels and a confusing plot was not enough to attain my admiration, but it did still manage to hold my interest.
Among Others, by Jo Walton (15)
This book is the perfect example of magical realism. Taking place mostly in the 1979-80, it is the (fictional) diary of a teenage girl who LOVES science fiction and fantasy books. She also believes in fairies – more than believes in them, she sees them often. Apart from the fairies and other magic-doings, her diary is one of the most realistic depictions of a teenage diary I have ever read in fiction. I kept a diary all through middle school and high school, and I was constantly met with many parallels to my own way of recording. It tells of how she escapes an abusive parent and goes to live with the other whom she doesn’t know. It tells of how she goes to school and tries to make friends and all the regular teenage experiences she deals with, plus a few that are a bit more unique yet still very real. It tells all this in her own words and from her own experience, which is both practically self-aware and quite magical. Much praise to the author, and no wonder this book won the Hugo.
Star Wars: Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray (19)
This book starts out as a youthful account of a girl and boy, from the same planet but with very different upbringings, who become friends. The story travels with them through school and beyond where life events and their own ideologies lead them in different directions. The book progressively gets more serious and more emotional without losing its tonal cohesion, which is impressive. The story weaves through big events that most Star Wars fans will recognize, such as the battles of Hoth and Endor, but from a different perspective than what is shown in the films. It is interesting to see how the political atmosphere affected people in all sectors of the galaxy, not just the Skywalkers and their close circle, and to be able to experience the Star Wars universe during that time frame again but with a different plot and characters. Though the book does have a mid-grade writing style throughout, the story itself gradually grows into something more adult with much more gravity. However, the pacing made this development seem natural, and the book maintained a compromise between the youthful writing and the adult themes that worked surprisingly well.
Uprooted, by Niomi Novik (10)
This book is about a girl who is taken from her home to live with a mysterious and cantankerous wizard. What first feels like a nightmare turns into a realization that everything is more than what it seems and the real nightmare is threatening to destroy all the things she takes for granted. The heroine is pulled, in part by her own strong will and in part by the impending inevitable, into an adventure that could determine the fate of her dearest loved ones, and many others. This is a fairytale – like Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty – and it feels like a fairytale, except that it is told from a detailed first-person perspective and expands into something more. It starts out localized, with only a few characters, but progressively widens until it reaches a large scope with much higher stakes. Even when you start thinking things are going to resolve soon, the story keeps flowing down new pathways, deeper into the dangerous, enchanted forest. I LOVE the magic in this book. It is classic spellbook magic – incantations and potions – but the way it is described and manifests is so eloquent and unique. It is music and nature all woven into a beautiful design.
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (20)
A dark fairy tale told from multiple perspectives, Spinning Silver is a story of loss and gain and what happens when mortals make deals with magical beings. It mainly follows three young women of different backgrounds in a Baltics-inspired country whose lives become more and more intertwined throughout the story. It begins with a Jewish moneylender’s daughter who takes on her father’s business, with help from a hard working assistant, until her dealings catch the attention of an elven-like lord. Meanwhile, a duke hopes that his daughter will catch the interest of the eligible tsar. The mortal and magical worlds slowly weave together as the action builds and the stakes rise. This story is like a folktale of old, but longer, more intricate, and more personal. The imagery is beautiful and the characters are both humble and extraordinary.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, by Brandon Sanderson (29)
Novella, fantasy (part of the Cosmere)
This novella has a lot of going on for being so short. In a world where ghosts wander dangerously, an innkeeper and her daughter search for a band of criminals in the woods in hopes of collecting a bounty on them. There is the danger of the criminals themselves. There is an even greater danger of the ghosts, who are only benign as long as very particular rules are followed. And perhaps the greatest danger of all is what will happen if they fail. Dark, suspenseful, and paranormal, this novella is a thrilling afternoon (or morning, or any time of day) read.
Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson (32)
Novel, fantasy (part of the Cosmere)
This is a story of princesses and gods in a world where colors have power. When a princess is sent to be the wife of a god-king in a neighboring kingdom, she learns quickly that things in the palace are not as she originally believed. Her sister then goes undercover to try to prevent a war between two kingdoms. Meanwhile, a god who doesn’t think he’s a god starts investigating strange events and ends up learning even more about himself. All these stories weave together, unraveling mysteries and magic. As usual for this author, the book is easy to read with a good balance of action, dialogue, emotion, and world-building.
The Sandman, by Dirk Maggs and Neil Gaiman (31)
Audio graphic novel, fantasy
This was WAY cool. I have listened to radio shows in the past, and of course read many plays, but this was like listening to a play being acted out with all the stage directions narrated and with sound effects to really put the listener into the action. I could visualize it, like watching a movie, and some of the scenes appeared in my mind like panels of a graphic novel. All of it fit so well, especially with the voice actors who simultaneously over-dramatized and perfectly portrayed their characters. The Sandman, who goes by many names — Morpheus, Dream, Oneiros, and more — is neither a hero nor a villain, but the main character that the listener follows through a series of stories that bounce through time and at least a few dimensions. The stories were creative and interesting whilst alluding to other well-known stories, comics, myths, and even history. A few of the episodes string together or are referenced later, but there isn’t really a single arc that continues throughout. The mood is a dark fantasy and the events are often disturbing and horrific. Despite this, The Sandman was very engaging and made me want to keep listening. I’ll say it again: way cool.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (33)
Novel, classic sci-fi
This classic sci-fi is like a twisted Tarzan story with scientific and social implications. It first presents a dystopian civilization in which technological and genetic advancements in humans affect the social structure and overall culture. Humans are raised in specific classes, conditioned to believe that being essentially a living machine is good, and are administered a drug to suppress their emotions. The book then sets this society against a more traditional one in which humans value each other as individuals and delight in the more romantic aspects of culture. The initial civilization views this other as primitive and backward, living in squalor without control or sophistication. The book examines arguments for and against both with dismal irony. Though clearly written nearly a century ago, the basic dilemmas presented in this novel are still relevant today.
Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler (36)
Novel, fantasy/historical fiction
This is a historical fiction with a twist. Suddenly and mysteriously the protagonist is pulled from her home in 1976 across the country and back in time to a plantation in 1815. Though never fully explained why, after a few of these jumps back and forth she starts to figure out some rules for when and how it happens. This by no means lightens the suspense, though. This book gives the reader glimpses of the brutality of slavery and the mindset of people at that time in history. The relationships are powerful, tense, and sometimes surprising. This is an emotional book. It’s easy to read because the story is captivating and the characters are sympathetic, but hard to read because the whole situation is uncertain, grueling, and at times heartbreaking. Though it uses the tool of time travel to explore situations that would otherwise be hypothetical, the core of the story is raw and genuine.
The Martian, by Andy Weir (38)
Novel, modern sci-fi
Told partly in personal log entries and partly in third-person prose, this book is about an astronaut who travels to Mars with a crew and gets stranded there by accident. His new mission is to draw on his skills as a botanist and mechanical engineer to survive for as long as he can. This book is very sciency but totally accessible and really fun, especially thanks to the charismatic and youthful personality of the protagonist. In fact, the reader’s attachment to him is what makes the adventure and suspense all the more gripping. You don’t have to know all about physics and biology to follow along. And although the trip to Mars itself is beyond our current reality, the book itself is quite realistic in terms of possibility.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stephenson (39)
Novella, classic literature/gothic fantasy
This novella is a mystery-horror about a lawyer who investigates the unsettling relationship between an esteemed gentleman scientist and a murderous man-monster. Though I was familiar with the story and its reveal since childhood, I can imagine the reaction from someone reading it for the first time in the 1800’s when that type of fantasy/sci-fi was not nearly as prevalent. Even now, it raises questions of good versus evil and human nature in a classic gothic style that lends grittiness to the horror.
The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells (42)
Novel, classic literature/sci-fi horror
This book starts out as a curious tale about a man who is invisible. It gradually turns into a revenge thriller, with some old-fashioned science-fiction mixed in. It moves quickly with lots of action, showing the results of an experiment and where this might lead, especially when controlled by someone with questionable morals and motives.
War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (48)
Novel, classic literature/sci-fi horror
The basic premise of this story is that England is attacked by martians that move around in machine-like casings and shoot people with heat guns. The protagonist does not take much of an active role in the story, but rather is an observer of the horrors while struggling to survive through them. The eerie style of the book makes it just as much horror as science fiction, and introduces an idea of aliens that are not humanoid, or even animalistic creatures, but something humans can hardly even begin to understand.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? And Other Questions About Dead Bodies, by Caitlin Doughty (43)
A mortician with a witty sense of humor answers questions about death and dead bodies posed by children. Caitlin Doughty is simultaneously down-to-earth and open to deeper meanings. She is graphic in her descriptions of morbid topics, but explains things in a way that would make sense to pretty much anyone. Combining science, history, and anecdotes, this book is both informative and fun to read, especially if you have any interest in the realities of death.
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly (45)
This book started out like the beginning of a fairy-tale, with hints of magic-to-come but no explicit fantasy elements. It takes a while to get there, but eventually the main character — a boy named David living in 1940’s England — is called into another world with terrifying monsters and a weakening ruler. The story pays homage to many fairy tales but puts its own spin on these. Though it reads like a storybook, with the basic themes being coming-of-age, dealing with grief and jealousy, and discerning good from evil, the events that occur on David’s journey are quite strange, gruesome, and graphic. This is an oddly dark book — childlike in style yet mature in content, reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale — and the author seems to have written it this way intentionally. It works on some level, but at times it also feels at odds with itself. I think some readers will love it, and others may be unsure how they feel about it if and when they get to the end. I will say that from the beginning it felt to me like a hybrid of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Pan’s Labyrinth. Having read it leading up to Halloween, it definitely fit the mood.
Mythos, by Stephen Fry (46)
This is a retelling of many of the Greek myths. It begins when time itself began and takes the reader through the formation of titans and other immortal beings, through the birth of various gods, and eventually to the creation of humans and the interaction between morals and immortals. Although Fry includes a lot of etymology and explains connections between stories, he purposefully minimizes analysis from the stories themselves (a little time is devoted to minor analysis in the Afterward). The prose reads like a mixture of collegiate lecture and a fairy tale short story, which makes it both intellectual and entertaining. These stories are sometimes goofy, sometimes sad, often ridiculous, and always fantastical.
Note: there is another mythology book by Stephen Fry called Heroes, but since it’s not technically a sequel, I put this in this category.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein (52)
Novel, classic sci-fi
In this classic science fiction novel, a human who is born on Mars and grows up among Martians, is then brought to Earth as an adult. Having a completely different cultural background, he is taught and influenced by those around him. As the story progresses and he becomes more involved with a wealthy old man and his found family of live-in employees, the human Martian becomes a powerful influence on others as well. The book explores many philosophical topics within its plot and dialogue, including social structures, morality, family, love and sex, religion, and truth. However, at times it’s hard to tell whether the author is promoting these ideas, or mocking them. It reads like a satire but also makes some logical points with powerful portrayals from a number of angles. Perhaps the purpose is not to make a point, but to raise questions? Aspects of the environment, dialogue, and gender roles are a bit outdated — though speculating a possible future, the fact that this book was written decades ago is evident. In any case, this book is witty, intellectual, and written with a vibrant and compelling voice. It may affect different people profoundly in very different ways.
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune (54)
What a sweet, heartwarming story! This book is a sort of second-coming-of-age about a middle-aged case worker who investigates orphanages for magical youth. He is sent on a special assignment, during which the walls he has built around himself are chipped away. He learns just as much about himself as he does about the people he is investigating, and grows into who he really is while discovering what he loves about what he does. This book is cartoonish in execution and serious in meaning, yet the two fit together perfectly with the author’s writing style — in this way, it reminds me of a Pixar movie, but pushes against taboos even more. It’s wholesome, romantic, silly, and sincere. I would recommend it to almost any age.
ONE IN A SERIES
The Dresden Files 2: Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher (13)
The Dresden Files is a fun fantasy-mystery novel series. It takes the trope of a misunderstood wizard and the trope of a kind-of-a-jerk-but-good-at-heart detective, and it blends them. There seems to be threads that connect the books, mainly the relationships of the main and a few recurring characters, but each one is its own complete story with accelerating intensity. Fool Moon was hard for me to get into, I think because it started out with a few clichés (e.g. werewolves) and the tension felt uncomfortable rather than exhilarating at first. But about halfway through it widened up and got more personal to the main characters, and the mystery and adventure got more exciting. It had a few unexpected twists that had been hinted at just subtly enough not to incite a face-palm, and that helped aid the appeal. The adventure and violence did get a bit over-the-top, but it’s basically a romper, so it fit.
Septimus Heap 1: Magyk, by Angie Sage (25)
The first in a juvenile fantasy septology, this book is surprisingly long with a large array of characters for its reading level. It is narrated in third-person omniscient, bouncing between the perspectives of the different characters within a single chapter, and sometimes even within paragraphs. The story itself is adventurous and magical, slowly woven through a world with wizards, assassins, ghosts, and talking animals. Early on, the reader learns an interesting piece of information about the titular character which opens up a mystery that is not definitively solved until the end (though a good reader of any age is likely to piece things together much sooner). It is adorable how many typical fantasy elements – like spells, boggarts, and dragons – are given their own unique flourish in this book. Though I am interested to eventually see what the rest of the series holds, this book did resolve itself in a satisfying way. I would definitely recommend for a young reader (or an older reader who likes this kind of thing, like me).
Great Cities 1: The City Born Great & The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin (34)
Short story + novel, fantasy/sci-fi
The City Born Great: This short story is an intelligent blend of realism and poetry that exhibits prejudice and empowerment. A young, homeless black man in New York City gets chased by the cops for simply being there and discovers a connection to his city that surpasses even the skyline. Though its revelation is more poetic than literal, it opens the door to some very cool ideas.
The City We Became: The aforementioned short story was revised and expanded into a novel in which the “birth” of New York City manifests several avatars which represent, and in a sense personify, the five boroughs. They each have distinct backgrounds, personalities, and reactions to their situation, but they must come together against a common threat to the city as a whole. Though the story itself isn’t particularly complicated or intricate, despite the weird multi-dimensionality thing, the way that the story is told is what really makes this book something special. Jemisin’s writing style weaves the narration between the points of views of a diverse group of people and an extraordinary, almost supernatural series of phenomena. This urban fantasy-sci-fi plot combined with relevant racial and social disparities makes this a profound book, especially for 2020.
The Scholomance 1: A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik (41)
An enjoyable beginning to a new YA fantasy series. This book is about a Welsh-Indian loner teen trying to stay alive in a magic school infested by monsters. When she suddenly and surprisingly attains an unlikely ally, drama ensues, only adding to the already complicated dangers. Though the events are thrilling and at times gruesome, the tone remains youthful and fun. The very cool magic system is well-suited to the writing style and has significance in the plot. It will be exciting to see how this world continues to unfold and expand in future volumes.
Hitchhiker’s Guide 2: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams (50)
Second in this comedic sci-fi series, our unlikely heroes find themselves in imminent danger which leads to a string of unlikely events that take them to the far reaches of the universe and to various places and times in between. Though this book has more complicated interwoven plot strands, it also feels more cohesive and directional than the first — it’s not just going nowhere, it’s going to specific places that call back to previous loose threads, but you would never have guessed because they are so creative and ridiculous. If you’re paying attention, the humor is penetrating. You may discover that even tiny crumbs of information could be important — and perhaps, simultaneously, definitively not.
Strange the Dreamer
Strange the Dreamer – Book 1, by Laini Taylor (18)
This book takes place in a fantasy world with scholars, engineers, and alchemists, but also gods, demons, and ghosts. It is about a young librarian who is obsessed with myths and legends, particularly the mystery of a lost city. When presented with the possibility to learn more about this city and the mysteries surrounding it, he reaches for the opportunity to do just that. The book starts out with the typical story of a young man with big dreams but a mundane life who wants adventure and is suddenly pulled into the journey of a lifetime. Then it starts becoming sort of a heist, but veers off and instead becomes a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of magic and dreams. There are things I like about this book, like how the characters are not conventionally attractive but have unique features which make them simultaneously more realistic and more contrived; like how many of the side characters play a small role in the grander story by supporting the plot rather than taking it over or getting in the way (though it can be difficult to tell which ones actually matter and which ones are just there). The ending seems to lead right into the sequel, which would be fine for anyone who is deeply engaged, but can be a little frustrating to someone who likes the world but hoped for a resolution of the story itself. Overall, it’s a neat fantasy that takes a lot of tropes and twists them around to make something familiar but unique.
Muse of Nightmares – Book 2, by Laini Taylor (22)
I liked this sequel more than the first book, Strange the Dreamer, but reading this also made me like the first more. The two are very much a pair, but it felt like the first book was just introducing the world, the conflict, and all the characters so that the second could carry out the story that was meant to be told. The second introduced a few additional characters that were crucial to the plot, though it is clear that their existence was not an afterthought. Once I had a clear vision of the environment and understanding of the stakes, it was much easier to visualize the events in this book. There were some pretty cool aspects of the magic-system that were expanded upon until this book. I definitely feel like you need to read both to get the full story. The last quarter did drag on just a bit as it tied up various loose ends, but it would have felt unfulfilling for it to leave things out just to wrap up more quickly, so I’m okay with how it went.
The Shining, by Stephen King (37)
A young, gifted boy and his parents stay the winter at a hotel in Colorado where his father, a recovering alcoholic, has a new job as caretaker. While the three of them are trapped by snow, a haunting ensues. It’s not simply a matter of ghosts or going crazy, though. There is another element to this story that gives it more depth and animation. I felt it was less frightening than it was exciting. Though it is a horror story, there are also psychological and fantastical aspects to the events that occur.
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King (40)
The boy from The Shining has grown up and struggles with alcoholism like his father. Unlike his father, he eventually takes the steps to recover. As an adult, a similarly gifted child reaches out to him and they develop an unlikely friendship. This connection becomes very important when they discover vampire-like nomads who pose a threat to people like them everywhere. This story is a dark fantasy that is less of a continuation of The Shining and more an expansion of the world in which it takes place. I liked it a lot. All the characters are fun to read, even the villains. The story is spooky and thrilling and pays homage to The Shining while being its own thing.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
Broken Earth 1: The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (12) – 2nd time reading
This book is about a planet that experiences geographic fluctuations which strongly affect its inhabitants, their culture and history. I had read this book before, a few years ago, but I read it very quickly and could only remember the general themes and a few scenes blurrily. As I read it again, more details came back to me and reading it slower helped me to appreciate it more. This is a really different fantasy book. It almost feels like a sci-fi, but in the way that Dune and Star Wars are sci-fi – it takes place on a unique world/planet and the “magic” that some of its inhabitants possess is analyzed and controlled in specific ways, but it is still not explainable through actual science, at least at this point. It also feels very parallel to our world in a lot of ways – some of the language used, the societal structure, the relationships. In this book, Jemisin explores themes of prejudice, unconventional relationships and identities very overtly. She also plays with unconventional narrative by having three different POV characters and two different POV styles (third-person and second-person – which is also possibly first-person disguised as second-person). It introduces a very unique world that is still enough like our world, in language and metaphor, to feel connected to.
Broken Earth 2: The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin (14)
The story continues, and it really feels that way. Some of the old timelines have come to a conclusion, but the main viewpoint simply keeps going, and we are now following another character who had only been introduced in the first book. The orogens – people with mysterious Earth magic – are slowly discovering more about what they can do while also learning more about the world around them and how they are able to interact with it. Orogeny is not a new magic, but it has been controlled for a long time. Now, with communities in conflict and the planet literally falling apart, a few orogens are doing what they can to keep going, and in the process they – and thus, we the readers – begin to see mysteries unravel. The main mystery concerns huge obelisks which, after some accidental experimentation in book one, appear to be more important than originally believed. There are a lot of intricacies so far in this series, yet it doesn’t feel like there is too much to grasp since each facet is interwoven seamlessly throughout the story as a whole. There are also a lot of unresolved questions at the end of this book, leading into the third.
Broken Earth 3: The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin (16)
This finale built upon the second book and circled back to themes introduced in the first. The whole trilogy felt like one continuous story in three parts. The world started to make more sense as the events went on and the main characters learned more about their own powers and desires. The characters and the planet are similar in that they are strong but flawed, which gives it raw realism within an otherworldly story. It perfectly blends science fiction and fantasy in a unique way that brings light to issues that are present in our world. Though I had a hard time really loving this series, mostly for its writing style and pacing which is not bad but just not my favorite, I did appreciate the themes and messages I was able to discern.
The Inheritance Trilogy
Inheritance Trilogy 1: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (42)
In a world of many kingdoms, with gods and mortals living together, a young woman descended from the high ruler is called to the palace as one of three potential heirs to the throne. The validity of her candidacy is in question, however, and she soon realizes she is unwillingly included in several conflicting plots. As she investigates the cause of her mother’s recent death, she befriends a few imprisoned gods, which leads her to surprising discoveries about herself and the cosmos. This book is high fantasy in an atypical way. The everyday magic is simply part of how everything operates, yet its source is absolute. It also plays with narrative – bouncing between the usual mode of storytelling and a seemingly out-of-context dialogue – but in the end it all fits together and makes sense. There are some really cool literary and philosophical ideas woven throughout the story as well. This could be a stand-alone book, as the ending feels quite satisfying, yet it does leave room for more story if that is desired, and in my case, especially since there are two more books to this series, it is.
Inheritance Trilogy 2: The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (44)
Several years — or perhaps several hundred years? — after the events of the first book, this sequel follows a young artist who is blind to the material world but can see magic, including her own artistic creations. Already involved with godlings, she gets involved further with a mysterious sort of godling whose presence and actions cause them both more trouble than they ever expected, but also leads to revelations that could change their lives and the world. This book is told from a different perspective than the first, yet weaves into the overarching story of gods and mortals. Art (drawing, painting, sculpting) is also significant to the story, as reflected in the art-termed subtitles for each chapter.
Inheritance Trilogy 3: The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin (51)
Another century or more has passed, and we now follow one of the secondary characters from the previous books as he becomes the main protagonist. As a child god, he befriends two mortal children and the consequences of this are more than any of them imagined. Years later, a group of rebels attempts to assassinate the royal family, and he finds himself swept up in the intrigue, which has political but also existential ramifications. The finale of this trilogy is the culmination of the events and worldbuilding that occurred in the first two books. It raises the stakes significantly and expands on the imagery and complexities of the gods and their offspring. Jemisin does a great job of thrusting the reader into a unique and complex world with a lot of the fantasy vibes but none of the tropes.
Bonus: The Awakened Kingdom, by N.K. Jemisin (53)
A few hundred years after the events of The Kingdom of Gods, a newborn godling learns about the world and tries to understand her purpose. She spends some time with the mortals in a matriarchal clan, and has adventures that lead to new discoveries. This book flips gender roles upside down, but in a way that makes sense. It also continues to explore the epicness of this world and the forces that make it all happen, all from the perspective of an innocent, smart, often confused yet ever evolving god-child.
The Poppy War Trilogy
Poppy War 1: The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (17)
This book follows a teenage war orphan from her foster home, through her military education, and into the utter horrors of war. It starts out dark and gets progressively darker, with occasional fun, sweet, or adventurous moments sprinkled in. Many of the characters are likable, or at least interesting, but don’t get attached because things change quickly. This book covers a lot of time and ground. Based on conflicts between China and Japan, it takes place in an alternate-Earth where magic exists but is believed in and understood by very few. The protagonist is young and goes through several traumatic experiences, leading her to make difficult decisions. This book has a lot of action and violence, and though the most horrific events happen off-screen, we get to see the aftermath which is by no means uplifting. The writing is great and the world is fantastically set up, but you need a strong stomach for this one.
Poppy War 2: The Dragon Republic, by R. F. Kuang (35)
In a dark, war-ridden empire, a young soldier clings to what loyalties she still has while suffering the grief, guilt, and trauma of the recent past. The power she has learned to wield stagnates and her journey weaves through a series of violent battles and emotional encounters as she strives to survive. I like how many times the story seamlessly shifts gears without pulling the reader out of the world. Arguably just as brutal as the first in this series, and despite the many turns it takes, I feel like this one maintains a more consistent mood throughout. It also feels like it’s leading somewhere specific, with more hints dropped and issues introduced that will be important in the third installment.
Poppy War 3: The Burning God, by R. F. Kuang (47)
The finale of this trilogy continues with the same grimdark mood. Here we see the culmination of the war and some of its aftereffects. The magic in this story blossoms into the full force of its destructive nature. A lot of the theories I had for what would happen actually did come to pass, but not at the time or in the way that I expected. This book also deals a lot with the psychological damage suffered by the main character. At the same time, we are seeing more of the world and more of what the magic can do, this book also deals even more with the personal relationships that play such a huge role in what happens to the world.
LONGER FULL SERIES
Legends of the First Empire
Pile of Bones, by Michael J. Sullivan (8)
Short story, fantasy
This is a short story that follows Legends of the First Empire mystic Suri in her early adolescence, before her introduction to Clan Rhen. She and her wolf sister Minna are traipsing through the woods when they come across a mysterious discovery. Things become spooky and tense, but never truly despairing. This story is a quick, fun introduction to the writing style of Michael J. Sullivan, the magical world of Elan, and the beautiful characters that live in the mind of one and the land of the other.
Legends of the First Empire 1: Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan (2)
Age of Myth takes place in Elan, the same world as Riyria but in a different era three thousand years previously. The world is civilized, but more tribal, and the relationship between the Rhunes (humans) and Fhrey (godlike creatures with long lives and mystical powers, which are basically elves) are nearly reversed from the Riyria series. The story follows a Rhune widow Persephone as she discovers a threat to her people and slowly uncovers other mysteries about certain members of her clan. Meanwhile, Raithe and Malcolm are an unlikely duo that team up and find themselves helping her. Eventually, a number of Fhrey get involved as well, but their roles are more ambiguous. Even though this is not Riyria, it feels very similar, with a world only starting to develop into what it becomes, and characters that are just as riveting as we have seen before (or rather, after?). There are also several very strong and wise women, and I am excited to see their continued development as the events of Elan history unfold.
Legends of the First Empire 2: Age of Swords, by Michael J. Sullivan (3)
Shortly after where the last book left off, this book starts with disaster. The main characters must journey to another chiefdom and come up with a plan for rising against the enemy that threatens them all. The female protagonist and her crew go in search of weapons while the male protagonist stays to deal with the politics of the allied clans (sort of). Of course, I love how the women are portrayed as strong and brave, not in the traditional knight-in-shining-armor way, but in their own clever, loyal, intelligent, and protective ways. There are times when it feels like the “hero shows up at the last minute, just in time to save the day” trope happens a lot in this series, but this phenomenon always happens in an unconventional way. Just when you think “oh yeah, I totally expected that”, something else will happen as a result that seems to come out of nowhere and yet totally makes sense. Even the things that happened as I expected were still true to the characters and fun to read. I love the world-building in this too – not only does it show more of the land than previously seen, but it also shows HOW certain things (tools, words, customs) came to be. For things that have their own origins in our world, Sullivan creates a totally different origin story that fits into his world of Elan, and I’ll say it’s pretty cool.
Legends of the First Empire 3: Age of War, by Michael J. Sullivan (4)
The title of this book is quite pertinent. The Rhunes (humans) and Fhrey (those who still follow the Fane) are at war. There are many elements to the battles that occur, and many other plans happening in the periphery. Political unions are being discussed (at the expense of personal desires), reinforcements must be called, talents are developed, sacrifices are made, and confrontations – both physical and magical – determine the fate of many. This is arguably the most complex and emotionally affecting book of the series yet. Which scares me, because there are three more books to go… I’ll probably be sobbing by the end of this, but it’s all so wonderful!
Legends of the First Empire 4: Age of Legend, by Michael J. Sullivan (5)
Like all books in this series, the title signifies the overarching theme of the book: in this case, Legend. The concept of legend appears in several ways – in the minds of different characters, as major aspects of the main plot, and as sprinkles in a few side plots as well. The main plot commences when an attempt at making peace backfires and a group of friends (some true, some accidental) follow a prophecy (sort of) in order to regain their chances of surviving the ongoing war. However, the road they are led down becomes far deeper, darker, and more dangerous than any of them could have guessed, nor are they certain where exactly it will lead. We the readers aren’t either, since it ends in a cliffhanger. Let me just say that it makes a clear allusion to what I can guess is the overarching theme of the next book: Age of Death. Michael J. Sullivan makes me happy and sad and curious and fearful and hopeful all at once – again.
Legends of the First Empire 5: Age of Death, by Michael J. Sullivan (7)
Picking up where the last book left off, most of our heroes are in a very dark place indeed. Emotions get all twisted up as improbable reunions kick-start the exploration of this unknown land. The journey is quite dreamlike and gets more nightmarish as the truth behind myths and legends come to light in the darkness. Meanwhile, political schemes are brewing in the Fhrey capital as the Fane (ruler) seeks to arm himself with weapons while others secretly plan his overthrow. One thing I have noticed is that the magic in this series is much more in the forefront, and more intense, than most of the magic in Riyria, which is definitely present but subtler overall except for certain climactic moments. Age of Death in particular is very fantasy-heavy. It’s also a whirlwind of “what’s going to happen next?” and it continues this way to the very end, and beyond…
Legends of the First Empire 6: Age of Empyre, by Michael J. Sullivan (21)
This book had the ambitious task of concluding a majestic series and tying up all the loose ends, setting the scene for the future of the world therein. It does all this, but it also leaves open a few extra blanks and allows the reader to fill them in, yet it does this without it feeling like a cheat because previous books provided us with enough information to piece together what those possibilities are. I’m not going to say too much about the plot, but I will say that, despite jumps in time and changes of perspective, this series as a whole feels like a continuous and complete story that fulfills its true purpose. The characters and the world bring the story to life, and it’s so colorful and dark and magical and real all at once.
Here is a piece of the message I wrote to the author and his editor (who is also his wife):
Thank you so much for writing the Riyria and Legends series. I love all your books so much and get the same feelings of joy and inspiration from them as I did from my favorite series as a child. I am also an aspiring writer and I love hearing the writing and editing processes in your forwards and afterwards. The fact that you do so much of this yourself and have created a dedicated fandom out of your passion and talent is just as inspiring as the stories you write. You are both two of my heroes, and I very much look forward to experiencing more of your creations.
The Last Wish, by Adrezej Sapkowski (considered book 0.5 of the Witcher series) (6)
Collection of short stories, fantasy
This is a book of short stories, with a longer story woven throughout, which all take place in the same magical world and follow a Witcher (kind of like a magical bounty hunter) named Geralt. The world is so important to the stories, giving them the magic they need to breathe and the people and creatures that give color and texture to each story. Each one is like a dark medieval fairy tale. In fact, a few of them are alike enough to well-known fairy tales that they are recognizable relatives, but these are like the twisted cousins of the ones we know. The Witcher connects the stories, though the order in which they are presented may not be the order in which they occurred. This book acts as an introduction to the Witcher, the world, and some other characters that may be important to the main story arc (and perhaps events that will prove to be significant) later on.
Sword of Destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski (considered Book 0.75 of the Witcher series) (23)
Collection of short stories, fantasy
This book is a collection of short stories following a witcher named Geralt. For those of you who don’t know, a witcher is a person who has undergone physical training and magical transformation in order to slay threatening monsters. The stories in this book felt more connected and in more of a chronological order than The Last Wish (the other witcher short stories book that I have read previously). Both serve more as introductions to the world and characters, which will be expanded upon in the main series. One of the themes in this book is destiny, which becomes more significant in each subsequent story. They are all dialogue-heavy, but this by no means detracts from their excitement. The dialogue feels authentic, often suspenseful or humorous, and usually accompanied by minor actions, the combination of which drives the plot. The sequences that are primarily action are also quite thrilling. I am excited to continue on to the main series.
The Witcher Book 1: Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski (24)
This book features characters introduced in the first two short story collections and sets off an arc that will continue throughout the series (so I am told). The Witcher Geralt is responsible for the wellbeing of a potentially important young lady, but there is a lot of uncertainty and mystery surrounding her. Amidst their travels to safety, aided by sorceresses and dwarves, they learn of political conflicts involving guerrilla elves and of someone dangerous searching for them. The climax comes a bit early and the last part of the book acts as a transition into the second. The world is abundant with fantasy elements and both the dialogue and the action are engaging.
The Witcher Book 2: The Time of Contempt, by Andrzej Sapkowski (26)
This is going to be another one of those series that I’m going to have to review carefully so as not to give away too much of the plot. It’s also a series in which all the books are ongoing; in other words, each book picks up where the other left off in a continuous flow rather than having distinct breaks between books. Within the story, political tensions rise as schemes unfold among sorcerers and kings, culminating in a bloody battle that jumpstarts a new war. The Witcher is once again separated from those he has fought to protect, yet eventually reunited with a dear friend who tells him more about what happened. Meanwhile, our mysterious young sorceress-in-training is stranded, aided by some unexpected companions…
The Witcher Book 3: Baptism of Fire, by Andrzej Sapkowski (27)
Continuing from the previous book, our protagonists are traveling with a crew of colorful and capable companions. Many adventures ensue, including picking up new members and dropping others along the way. They are in search of a lost child who is supposedly destined for great importance. Meanwhile, sorceresses gather in the name of magic and royals struggle to carry out their political schemes. The culmination of events and the merging of paths lead to exciting action and new developments, but the story still has a long way to go. With this book, I feel like I am starting to get a better handle on the intricacies of politics, history, and mythos of this world. It’s beginning to make sense and I am starting to see connections, but there are still tangles and loose threads.
The Witcher Book 4: The Tower of the Swallow, by Andrzej Sapkowski (28)
This is my favorite of the series so far. It follows the witcher Geralt very little, though the scenes where he is featured are pretty exciting and fun. It mainly follows the young witcher girl who everyone is searching for, showing where she is in the present with flashbacks to what she went through to get there. The storytelling technique of jumping back and forth in time and between different points of view to tell different perspectives of the same story felt more cohesive and easier to follow in this book, though it could have just been my preference for what was happening. Everything seems to be coming together, different strands of the tale connecting. This book also felt more sentimental than previous books in the series because we see how the main characters are personally affected by certain events, not just physically but emotionally. The next book is the last in the saga and the longest of all, so here goes…
The Witcher Book 5: The Lady of the Lake (30)
This book is the last of the Witcher saga, and the longest. It had a lot to cover and a lot to wrap up. The mystery and tension were high as the reader learns the truth of some of our villains and heroes. Prophecies manifest, but sometimes in surprising ways, and there are ambiguous dips into other worlds that feel like hints of that common final saying, “but that’s another story…” The action sequences are thrilling and the emotions are great. Mostly, the resolution that we have been given glimpses of thus far becomes more clear, and because the characters and their motives are familiar to us, their continued actions in relation to one another make sense in ways that may have been cloudy before. I liked this book a lot, probably equal to the previous book in the series. If you’re going to start The Witcher saga, it’s definitely worth finishing.
And that’s it! If you think this is a lot of books, keep in mind that my boyfriend read even more this year than I did!
Note: The survey is for books you read throughout the year, no matter when they were published, and is not limited to just books that came out in 2020!
2020 Reading Stats
Number of Books You Read: 55 (if you count The City Born Great and The City We Became as separate… if you count them together, 54)
Number of Re-Reads: 1 (The Fifth Season)
Genre You Read The Most: Fantasy
BEST IN BOOKS
1. Best Book You Read In 2020?
Not necessarily my favorite, but I think the best overall, in the sense that it would be fun for any reader, even those who typically read other genres, and is easy to follow while also being intellectual, profound, clever, witty, and lots of other things… is The Martian.
2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?
The Book of Lost Things. It was still good and I liked it, but it could have been so much better if certain aspects were approached differently.
3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe… honestly, it’s not surprise this book was surprising 😉
4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?
The person I talk to most about books is my boyfriend and he has read, or reads at the same time, most of the books on my list. But I did push him to read Uprooted, which got him into Naomi Novik, so I’m glad about that. I also recommended Jemisin to my brother and he read The Broken Earth trilogy and has her other books on his TBR list, so I feel good about that too.
5. Best series you started in 2020? Best Sequel? Best Series Ender of 2020?
Oh man…. This one is so hard. I’m going to pick a different series for each question:
Best series started in 2020: Legends of the First Empire
Best Sequel: The Dragon Republic (Poppy War trilogy)
Best Series Ender: The Lady of the Lake (Witcher series)
6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2020?
7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?
Kindred. This book is still kind of fantasy, but it’s more historical fiction, and in the American antebellum period. This isn’t a genre or time period I’ve read much of, but this book was super powerful and affected me a lot.
8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?
The Burning God
9. Book You Read In 2020 That You Would Be MOST Likely To Re-Read Next Year?
A Christmas Carol — I could imagine reading this every year between December 22 and 25
10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2020?
The Broken Kingdoms
11. Most memorable character of 2020?
I keep coming back to Roan, from Legends of the First Empire
12. Most beautifully written book read in 2020?
Maybe Muse of Nightmares or The Broken Kingdoms
13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2020?
14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2020 to finally read?
Stranger in a Strange Land
15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2020?
“Nothing human beings do is set in stone–and even stone changes, anyway. We can change, too, anything about ourselves that we want to. We just have to want to. People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.” – Bronca, The City We Became
16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2020?
Shortest: The City Born Great
Longest: David Copperfield
17. Book That Shocked You The Most (Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)
Tie: Age of War, Stranger in a Strange Land
18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)
Roan and Gifford from Legends of the First Empire
19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year
Rin and Nezha from The Poppy War trilogy
20. Favorite Book You Read in 2020 From An Author You’ve Read Previously
Age of Swords or Age of War
21. Best Book You Read In 2020 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure/Bookstagram, Etc.:
Most of my books were recommended by someone else — either my boyfriend or my brother or possibly my father — or I read because of their influence. So I’m going to do the opposite — I’m going to say my favorite book of the year that I read solely on my own discovery, not related at all to anyone’s recommendation or influence:
And it’s a tie… Uprooted and Kindred
22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2020?
*sigh* Honestly not a lot of big crushes this year… maybe Raith from Legends of the First Empire or Arthur Parnassus from The House in the Cerulean Sea.
23. Best 2020 debut you read?
“Debut” as in the book came out in 2020 or it’s the author’s first book?
I only have one for the former, which would have to be The Burning God.
24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?
The Inheritance Trilogy
25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?
The House in the Cerulean Sea
26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2020?
Age of War and The House in the Cerulean Sea
27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?
Among Others (was not published this year, but I read it this year, and it is a gem)
28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?
How vague… I’m going to say Age of Death
29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2020?
Most unique amidst all my other books this year would probably be Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? And Other Questions About Dead Bodies.
30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?
Tie: The Poppy War — this book is all about being mad, and it’s justified — and Kindred — slavery is literally the worst.
YOUR BLOGGING/BOOKISH LIFE
1. New favorite book blog/Bookstagram/Youtube channel you discovered in 2020?
Daniel Greene on YouTube
2. Favorite post you wrote in 2020?
3. Favorite bookish related photo you took in 2020?
Huh… I should probably take more bookish related photos…
4. Best bookish event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, etc.)?
Can’t really do these things in 2020, but I did pre-order The Burning God, which is a new thing for me.
5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2020?
6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?
I don’t blog, really, but most challenging in book life was deciding whether to read Rhythm of War by the end of this year, or wait until next year and re-read Oathbringer first. I eventually chose the latter.
7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?
No blog for me (yet).
8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?
9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?
Not really, but I did get a lot more into Goodreads.
10. Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?
My goal was to read 40 books. Win and bonus win!
1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2020 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2021?
Not my number 1 priority, but definitely a goal: Rhythm of War
2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2021 (non-debut)?
3. 2021 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?
Also not sure.
4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2021?
Nowhere (Skyward Book 3) — hopefully!
5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2021?
I may like to participate more in the YouTube comments discussions, but we’ll see.