I spent 2019 and 2020 serving on award juries, and as a result I read nothing but new SF, fantasy, and horror (in staggering quantities). This year, I eschewed all such responsibilities, and as a result my reading was more scattered, and included older books and lots of work outside the genres we’re covering here. I feel less informed about the field as a whole than I did in my last couple of essays, but I easily thought of ten books I loved, and I can talk about them on an individual basis, anyway.
My favorite science fiction of recent years is the Murderbot series by Martha Wells, and given her recent twin Hugo Award wins for Best Novel and Best Series, I’m not the only one. Her latest, Fugitive Telemetry (Tor) delivers all the signature Murderbot delights: wry observations about the absurdity of human nature, a dollop of mystery, and a lot of inventive and exciting action. I’ll keep reading these as long as she keeps writing them.
Over in fantasy, I was very excited for The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (Del Rey), since prior volume A Deadly Education was one of the most enjoyable books I read in 2020. I was thrilled to spend more time with snarky El, student of destruction magic, and her classmate/golden boy/love interest Orion Lake. The tension really ratchets up here as the specter of graduation from Scholomance looms (think Hogwarts, with a much higher death rate). I’m looking forward to the final volume.
Juniper Wiles by Charles De Lint (Triskell) is a return to the author’s long-running Newford setting, this time following the title character, an actor who used to played a teen detective on a TV show, à la Veronica Mars. When a man approaches Juniper in a café to ask for her help, apparently confusing her for the character she played, Juniper becomes embroiled in an actual murder mystery… and discovers the existence of magic in the process. It’s a fun, fast-moving story, with a number of beloved Newford characters appearing in supporting roles.
In darker fantasy, The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie finished up the Age of Madness trilogy, the latest set in the world of his First Law trilogy and various excellent standalones. This is ‘‘First Law: The Next Generation,’’ basically, following the adult children of major characters from earlier books as their world of fading magic goes through its own versions of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, all rolled into one. I didn’t find this volume as strong as the first two, but it was still compulsively readable, and I’ll miss (most of) the characters. Maybe we’ll see the ones who survived in future books, older if not wiser.
Over in the horror realm, I enjoyed Later by Stephen King. Like his other novels for Hard Case Crime, this is a relatively short volume focusing on criminal matters, but this one has a major supernatural element: the narrator can see dead people (‘‘But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis’’). Those dead people often want his help to clear up unfinished business, which is hard enough, but things get worse when an NYPD detective discovers his gift and drags him into a dangerous case.
King published another crime novel in 2021, Billy Summers (Scribner), and that’s even better, a twisty thriller about a hired killer who gets double-crossed by his employers – classic crime tropes, sure, but King makes them fresh and keeps the reader guessing. (There’s even a smidgen of the supernatural, and a few references to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, to justify its inclusion in a genre wrap-up).
My favorite debut of the year was The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum (Erewhon). I’ve been reading Ben’s stories for 20 years (and even published some in a ’zine I edited long ago), and when I heard he had a novel coming out, I could not wait to see what he’d do with a little room to stretch out. The result doesn’t disappoint – this is an ambitious, challenging, mind-bending book set in a far future where humans inhabit multiple bodies and have eschewed our gender binary… in favor of a totally different gender binary. It’s about love, family, and what it means to be a person in society. The novel is thought-provoking and delightful, even if I only understood what was going on about 80% of the time.
I love short stories, and one of my favorite practitioners of the form is Brian Evenson, who mostly writes weird literary horror. The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House) has too many great stories to mention, and he’s adept at turning genre tropes to new purposes. My favorite is ‘‘Leg’’, about a starship captain who acquires a sapient prosthetic leg after crashing on an alien planet, and it only gets weirder from there; she reappears in the collection’s title story, too. Every piece here is surprising and worth reading.
I’ve been impressed by many of Erica L. Satifka’s stories over the years, and liked her novel Stay Crazy, so I was delighted to read collection How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters (Fairwood Press). Full disclosure: I was asked to blurb the manuscript, and I did, but I only blurb things I really like. Here’s what I said: ‘‘The stories in Satifka’s debut collection are inventive and gritty, bleak and satirical, hilarious and horrifying. Her work is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick at his best in revealing the struggles and resilience of everyday people caught up in the machinery of the future.’’ I especially loved ‘‘Where You Lead, I Will Follow: An Oral History of the Denver Incident’’, about a wildly popular augmented reality game that has horrifying consequences.
Finally, a late-breaking recommendation. One of my holiday gifts this year was American Christmas Stories, a Library of America volume edited by Connie Willis, and I’ve been dipping into it with delight since I tore off the wrapping paper a couple of days ago. Willis is famous for her own SF and fantasy holiday stories (get collection A Lot Like Christmas if you don’t know them), and there are plenty of magical tales in this sprawling volume, including work by Willis herself, Shirley Jackson, Nalo Hopkinson, Steve Rasnick Tem, and Gene Wolfe. If, like me, you hate to see the festive season end, pick this one up, and keep Christmas a little longer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a whole new year of books to read my way through….
In addition to being a senior editor and occasional book reviewer at Locus, Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, most recently space opera The Wrong Stars, first in the Axiom series. His short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He lives in Berkeley CA with his family. Every month he writes a new story for his Patreon supporters at www.patreon.com/timpratt
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