2020 by Alex Brown

Alex Brown (by Henrik Meng)

2020 has been a hellish year for so many reasons, but one of the few bright spots has been the mass of absolutely incredible fiction that managed to get published. Usually I’m able to read a good chunk of new books, particularly young-adult speculative fiction, but what with – waves hands dramatically – everything, my reading this year took a sharp left into romance fiction. It’s become my main reading genre at this point, which hasn’t left much room for anything else. However, a few books of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror persuasion have squeezed through the crush of bodices and meet-cutes. Fortunately for me, most have been so good that I inhaled them each in a few sittings. What follows is a long, rambling list of some of my favorite young-adult speculative fiction books from 2020.

Out of all the speculative YA that came out in 2020, I will never stop shouting about The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, and Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia & Anna-Marie McLemore. Each do different things with the medium, but each are perfect and powerful. Clarke takes the common trope of teen witches and imbues it with layers of diversity. They’ve crafted a fiercely feminist tale of four young women who fight back with rage and power and blood. Legendborn also twists a trope (the King Arthur myth) by dropping a Black girl from North Carolina into a centuries-spanning secret society of wizards and demons, and I loved every page. Also taking on the patriarchy, as well as racism, sexism, misogynoir, white supremacy, and police brutality, is A Song Below Water. The book happened to come out in June right as the nation was (temporarily) rallying around BLM. Given what Effie and Tavia, the two Black girls living in a magic-filled version of Portland OR go through, the timing couldn’t have been better. In their first team-up, Latinx literary rockstars Mejia and McLemore tackle similar social commentary with their quietly charming story, Miss Meteor, in which Chicky and Lita explore the boundaries of friendship and the boundlessness of identity.

Looking for a book with all the highs of a magic school series by She Who Must Not Be Named but without all the problematic baggage? Romina Garber has you covered with the thrilling Lobizona, about Argentinian teenagers learning to become brujas (witches) and lobizones (werewolves) and the girl who breaks the rules and takes on the system. Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older finally sees Sierra at full power, but in this rousing series-ender she must defeat the white supremacists hounding her friends and the prejudices running through her own family tree. The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee also had the bad luck to come out in what feels like a decade ago, even though it was only January. Like Sierra, Genie learns the limits of her powers and then reaches beyond, while also dealing with college apps, graduation, and a boyfriend who happens to be Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. It’s funny and earnest and everything you never knew you wanted in a contemporary YA built around Chinese mythology. Julia Ember’s Ruinsong, loosely inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, came out after most of the end-of-the-year best-of lists dropped, so a lot of people missed it. That’s a shame because it’s a complicated queer story in which a girl is forced to torture people with magic until she befriends another girl for whom she must risk everything in order to stop a violent dictator.

Many of the YA books I read this year dealt specifically with gender identity and queerness. Anna-Marie McLemore is getting their second shout-out here with Dark and Deepest Red, a novel that paints a layer of magical realism over the story of the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 and the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale The Red Shoes. Split between the 16th century and the present, two sets of teens confront oppression through self exploration. McLemore is always the best, and their latest is no exception. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall knocked the air out of me, it was so good. Tokuda-Hall cuts down to the quick with her sharp commentary on colonialism and the patriarchy. A lesser author would’ve tripped on any number of gender-related pitfalls, but she deftly balances the fluidity of gender with the messiness of identity. A.R. Capetta & Cory McCarthy closed out their take on King Arthur with Sword in the Stars. Jumping between the distant future and the ancient past, their wild crew of space teens and grumbling mages fold timelines in on themselves to create a truly epic found family.

As I said earlier, there were a lot of 2020 books that are going to have to wait until 2021 before I have a chance to read them, but four of them sound so interesting I’m going to talk about them anyway. I hate that I haven’t gotten to Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas yet. How can I not want to read a book about a trans brujo and the cute ghost bad boy he accidentally summons? I adored the first book in Kat Cho’s Gumiho series, Wicked Fox, and I cannot wait to read the sequel, Vicious Spirits. In it, Cho blends the fantasy of Korean mythology with the high-octane emotions of K-dramas. The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow, about a teen bookworm living in a post-alien-invasion world and the lab-created alien boy she befriends, is high on my TBR list, and for good reason. Not only do I love me some alien YA, but I get grabby hands for ownvoices demisexual fic. Speaking of acespec goodness, Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe has me vibrating with anticipation. Indigenous! YA! Murder mystery! Magic and mayhem! Ace rep! Yes please!

There are also a few adult fantasy books whose praises I want to sing. Most of the big names I loved are surely going to be singled out by other reviewers (The Once & Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson, and The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk), so instead I want to focus on three books that didn’t get as much attention as they deserved. Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was a compelling wuxia-drenched novella about queer monks, full of action and adventure and romance. Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlan was an unexpected treat. I didn’t know anything about it or the author when I picked it up, but the story is so entertaining and Harlan is such a great writer that it became one of my favorite novellas of the year. Kacen Callender is an auto-buy author for me. When King of the Rising dropped in December, I immediately picked it up, desperate to know how they would resolve the story begun in 2019’s Queen of the Conquered. The series is a challenging one; Callender cuts no corners and pulls no punches. It’s devastatingly good.

Whew, what a list! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some 2021 books to dive into.

Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.

This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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