These end-of-the-year lists always flummox me, mostly because I never quite know what I’m supposed to write about. Should it be the big titles, the ones that made such a splash that you couldn’t help but notice them? Or should they be the smaller titles that only made a little ripple? That last group is full of the titles that make my reader’s heart sing because they show the writer’s personality as well as tell quirky, entertaining stories.
Take Kenneth Hunter Gordon’s One Bronze Knuckle. This book spent the better part of a year buried in my to-be-read stack, where it was continuously passed over for flashier titles. That is a shame because Hunter Gordon’s charming story about a vaguely Germanic, medieval-ish, high fantasy-esque town in a forest tells a familiar tale that is wonderfully fun. He skips and dances through the language in a Prachettian way that is heavy on the humor but light on the satire.
Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher (AKA Ursula Vernon) is set in a similar place and has a similar tone, but tells a much different story, this one about a young kid who does what needs to be done despite not really having the tools to do it. It’s a lovely story that both kids and adults will enjoy.
Two not-quite novel length stories from award-winning writers shouldn’t get elbowed out of sight by bigger, longer books. K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is about engineering in the same way that The Hobbit is about lunch. While the passages about those topics are deeply felt and explored, the larger story is about what a challenge to the engineer or eater reveals. Becky Chambers’s To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a puzzle box of a story, one that takes us into deep space and the adaptations humans need in order to survive such a hostile environment, as well as what those adaptations might mean.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two larger titles that don’t quite seem to be making as much noise as they ought. Ben Winters’s Golden State isn’t as flashy as his amazing Underground Airlines, but is no less powerful. His version of what a backlash to “truthiness” could look like reads like Raymond Chandler filtered through Philip K. Dick. While Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House isn’t the deep, stylistic masterpiece that Golden State is, this title is a great fun romp through an alternative Yale, one where the secret societies are built around dark magic as well as white privilege and an outcast is responsible for keeping the campus safe. It’ll be interesting to see what Bardugo does with the story in 2020 or 2021, as well as see what all of these writers come up with as the year rolls on.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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