Often I have trouble narrowing down which titles should appear on my favourite books of the year list. It says something about the mediocre year of reading I’ve had that out of 63 books read, I could really only come up with 12 contenders. There are a few more that I heartily enjoyed and recommend, I could discuss my pleasant surprise at some great Canadian science-fiction this year, like Kelly Robson’s deservedly Hugo nominated novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach and L.X. Beckett’s technologically adept Gamechanger, how much I enjoyed Taylor Jenkins-Reid’s ode to a fictional 70’s band, Daisy Jones and the Six or how I appreciated Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik putting a feminist spin on fairy tales, but ultimately there were really only twelve books that I seriously considered for this list, so I’ve written up the two that fell just short as well.
12. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
“I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?”
“I think it doesn’t matter because we get to decide what our bodies are or are not,” he answered.”
Unsurprisingly, Rivers Solomon’s debut novel about the journey of the HSS Matilda, a space ship organized much like the antebellum South, is an uncomfortable read. It’s unflinchingly graphic in its depictions of violence and unsubtle about the way that dark-skinned sharecroppers from the low-deck slums, like protagonist Aster, endure brutal treatment, deplorable living conditions, and pervasive casual cruelty (including misgendering) from white upper-deck “owners”. Yet this sci-fi treatment of American slavery is grounded by exceptional world-building and its characters, who are unique, diverse, and full of heart, even as they wrestle with the collective trauma of their people. As a queer, autistic, and black character, Aster is still all too rare a protagonist to come across and I loved watching the connection between Aster and Theo, another nonbinary character grow. The exceptional characters and worldbuilding are let down by a meandering plot and an ending that doesn’t feel earned, but it’s a promising debut and an inventive, sobering look at slavery through a science-fiction lens.
11. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
“You couldn’t spell obligation if I shoved the letters up your ass.”
“I gotta say, I don’t think that would help,” said Gideon. “God, I’m glad you didn’t teach me my spelling.”
I really wanted to be one of those bloggers screaming to the rafters about this book and forcing it into the hands of everyone they meet, but I never quite reached that point. Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed the book – it’s only just shy of my ten favourite reads this year – but it was more of a 4.25 star read for me than a glowing 5 stars. The premise is fantastic; gothic lesbian necromancers in space? Sign me up! and ultimately it’s the uniqueness that kept me hooked, but the execution of Muir’s vision didn’t always work for me. I could tell that she had thought through the nuances of her magic system, yet it wasn’t explained well on page and I found the world-building lacking. Some pacing issues also held this back from being the grand slam that it could potentially have been, but despite these issues I loved this weird little book and I fell in love with Gideon and Harrow and their complicated dynamic. I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like Gideon the Ninth before and the ending left me itching for book two. Bring on Harrow the Ninth!
10. The Deep by Rivers Solomon
“One can only go for so long without asking ‘who am I?’, ‘where do I come from?’, ‘what does all this mean?’, ‘what is being?’, ‘what came before me and what might come after?’. Without answers there is only a hole. A hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities.”
Based on a song by experimental rap group Clipping (which counts rapper/actor Daveed Diggs among its members), Rivers Solomon’s novella is spun from the darkly unique premise of an underwater society descended from the offspring of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard during The Middle Passage. The trauma of their pasts is too great to be remembered regularly, so Historian Yetu alone holds the memories of her people, but the burden is too great and when she has the chance to be free, she flees to the surface. Solomon’s prose is dreamy and lyrical as they reveal a richly imagined and completely alien undersea civilization. Although the themes are weighty, as The Deep considers the broken identity that results from a loss of cultural knowledge and history, and explores diaspora, and the impact of generational trauma on a people, I found the novella ultimately uplifting and hopeful. A moving and raw examination of how to learn to live with the pain of generational trauma on an ongoing basis, and the importance of companionship and finding strength in others like you.
9. Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard
(translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)
“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”
No one could have predicted that I would love this as much as I did. Not Rachel, whose review alerted me to its existence in the first place, and not me, expecting it to end up somewhere in the four star rating range. Yet something strange happened when I picked up this odd little novella – I fell in love. The rich historical detail played a role. The spare, carefully crafted, yet dreamy prose so reminiscent of what I loved about Sarah Winman’s Tin Man (my favourite read last year) had something to do with it. The ‘what if’ premise that imagines how things may have played out if Michelangelo had accepted a commission from the Ottoman Empire to design and build a bridge across the Golden Horn was certainly a factor. Yet the most likely reason of all is simply that it’s so emotionally charged. I went from being interested and invested in the outcome, to overcome with pangs of emotion by the end. I wouldn’t recommend Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants to absolutely everyone, but in the hands of the right reader (who may be someone completely unexpected) this novella is an absolute gift and the sort of book that stays with you long after you’ve closed the pages.
8. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”
Unlike Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, expecting a Leigh Bardugo book to win up on my favourites list is a pretty safe bet. To each their own, but I’m honestly a little baffled at why this book has been so polarizing a read as the goodreads ratings suggest it is. Personally I loved it! Bardugo’s first foray into adult fiction introduces Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a former drug addict, sexual abuse survivor, and high school dropout who is offered a second chance – the opportunity to attend Yale University on a full-ride. The catch? She’s tasked with monitoring Yale’s secret magical societies, whose occult activities are more sinister than she could have imagined. Alex is a prickly protagonist, but I fell in love with her and with her mentor, the affable Darlington, and assistant Dawes. I found Ninth House an intelligent, atmospheric, and entrancing read that was well paced and left me hungry for more. At times it is as dark as advertised, with the book engaging directly with themes of sexual abuse and abuse of power so I advise heeding the trigger warnings if that’s something that concerns you.
7. Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger
“Escape now, feelings later.”
Getting personal for a moment, 2019 was a pretty dark year for me. I struggled a lot with mental health issues brought on by professional frustration and I fell into reading slumps more frequently, which is why books that I couldn’t put down, that let me escape into another world meant so much to me. Steel Crow Saga was one of those books. Despite its length, Steel Crow Saga is an action-packed, swift-paced book that hooked me immediately. Set in a mid-20th century fantasy version of Asia, where the Tomodanese (Japanese) have the ability to bond with and shape metal and the Sanbuna (Filipino) and Shang (Chinese) people can create a soul bond with an animal, it’s very clear what nations are represented by their fictional counterparts and Krueger uses this understanding to explore the tensions between these Asian countries and the impact that colonialism has had on each of them. As a non-Anime watcher, the comparisons to Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender were more of a deterrent than a draw, but if you’re also not a big Anime person and are considering this book, let me just say that yes, Steel Crow Saga is a lot of fun, but it also tackles serious themes, albeit while retaining a hopeful buoyance about the future. The novel’s four viewpoint characters (soldier, prince, detective, and thief) each have a clear voice and motivation and I loved them all so much! I love that there is such an excellent standalone fantasy novel out there, but how bittersweet that there aren’t more stories to read about these fantastic characters and the fascinating politics of the world they live in!
6. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
“The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”
Speaking of fun and reading the right book at the right time, there’s this gem. Often I reject these kinds of books as too fluffy for me, but once or twice a year (see my love last year for Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda) a book sneaks in with just the right balance of humour, heart, angst, a pinch of snark, and a winning romance. I started off skeptical but was quickly smitten by this charming self-aware tale of bisexual disaster Alex, the First Son of the United States, falling in love with Henry, the Prince of Wales. The relationship between the characters, though quick moving, avoids feeling like instalove because we’re let in on the emails and other communications between the characters when they’re apart. Although the writing didn’t thrill me, I found the chemistry between Alex and Henry believable and I enjoyed most of the secondary characters. It’s very definitely a book written by an American and I had trouble getting my head around the English monarchy being completely different (and undeveloped beyond some pretty cringy conservative tropes) while the American presidency seems to just go AU after Obama. The writing is also somewhat uneven. There are some beautiful romantic lines and bits of dialogue that made me laugh out loud, and I loved the allusions to queer history, but some lines do seem to be trying too hard. It’s not objectively one of the best things I’ve ever read, but I devoured it and then devoured it again before I had to return it to the library, and then bought a copy to re-read in the future. It’s not perfect, but I loved it anyway and it made me feel all of the feelings.
5. Regeneration by Pat Barker
“But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.”
The World Wars hold little interest for me, so I rarely pick up books set during this period, yet a select few have been so well-written and affecting that they are among my all-time favourites: Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Wein’s Code Name Verity, and now Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Confronting the psychological effects of World War I, the first book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a slender but powerful read. Told through clear, sparse prose, the novel focuses on treatment methods during the war, but its primary focus is Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated English officer (and lauded poet) who, in 1917, was sent for treatment in a war hospital by pioneering psychologist W. H. R. Rivers after sending a letter to the Times declaring his disillusionment with the war. Barker begins her novel with this declaration, a scathing condemnation of those involved that begins, “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” As both Sassoon and Rivers are historical figures, what happens to each of them is already known, it’s the psychological drama behind the action that concerns Barker and that makes Regeneration such a compelling read. Barker deftly weaves in themes of class, politics, masculinity, and homosexuality, as she explores the psyches of both the soldiers and of their psychologist. The conversations between Sassoon and Rivers are particularly riveting. I can’t wait to find time to read the rest of this series in the new year because Regeneration was a knockout and a new all-time favourite of mine that I would recommend to just about everyone, though be warned there are some graphic depictions of the symptoms of shellshock as well as treatments for psychiatric disorders.
4. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,00 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”
My favourite discovery of 2019 was the Murderbot Diaries, a set of four novellas (with a full-length novel to be released in 2020!) told in the first person by a snarky, self-deprecating, agender security unit that thinks of itself as “Murderbot”. Murderbot would like nothing more than to half-ass its job and be left in peace to binge-watch its favourite shows, but when things go awry, Murderbot chooses to use its proficiency to keep the human explorers it has been assigned to watch over alive. The key word here is chooses because Murderbot lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property, owned by a corporate entity that leases security units out for contracted work. Its hacked governor chip offers the character the chance to make choices but not the freedom to do so openly, so it has shut itself off from humanity by pretending not to feel. Over the course of the series, Murderbot reluctantly takes steps towards exploring its humanity as it sets out on its own and must adapt to escape discovery. Murderbot is one of the most relatable characters I’ve encountered all year and I’ve been more or less shoving the first novella (All Systems Red) at people and telling them to read it all year. Gloriously snarky, intelligent plotted, and well-paced, I would recommend these novellas even to those who don’t normally enjoy science-fiction. Like many of the best stories about non-human characters, the Murderbot Diaries are, at their heart, about what it means to be human, particularly in a world where you’re seen as something less than.
3. The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
“I am a witch,” said Vasya. Blood was running down her hand now, spoiling her grip. “I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”
Two of my favourite series wrapped up this year and as you can see by their placement on this list, they both stuck the landing! The Winter of the Witch brilliantly concludes the story of Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Having experienced grief and hardship and been tested, Vasya matures into her powers to become a formidable woman and witch. It’s a transformation that feels earned, but that is also empowering. I wasn’t fully on board in earlier books, but the realization of Vasya’s slow-burn romance with Morozko, The Winter King, finds a new tenderness here and, through Vasya’s growing strength, becomes a true match of equals. Like the previous books in the Winternight Trilogy, The Winter of the Witch is immersive and atmospheric, told through Arden’s evocative, graceful prose. I loved the realistic moral ambiguity of the world, the fact that nothing is strictly black or white, good or evil as it initially appears to be and the fact that every choice has a consequence. I definitely shed a few tears over this one, and while I do have some quibbles about uneven pacing, I absolutely loved this book and the series it concludes.
2. Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly
“Small lies,” he said. “Do you promise?”
When I first read the blurb for Amnesty, the final chapter in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series my heart stopped. Promising the return of a departed and much missed (by me anyway) character, I began counting the days until its release and yet I worried. Was there hope that the characters I loved so much could both face the consequences of their actions and survive the book? Would they ever be able to find peace after what they’d done? Would the ending feel earned? I needn’t have worried. Amnesty gives its characters room to breathe as they come to terms with the changes both in the world they inhabit and in each other. Characters take the first tentative steps towards putting the past behind them, yet Donnelly never hand-waves the trauma that they have experienced or belittles the choices that have led them to this point. Few things appeal more to be as a reader than a realistic exploration of trauma and the long and arduous, but not impossible, path that leads, if not to recovery per se, than at least forward. Amnesty tackles this beautifully and concludes in a bittersweet, and yet perfectly fitting finale. I was profoundly moved and cannot wait to re-read.
1. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”
Was there ever any doubt that this would be my book of the year? Since I read Say Nothing in March I have been thrusting it at everyone I’ve ever met and insisting that they have to read this stunning book. At least a few have. Both of them have loved it as much as I did. I very rarely read nonfiction, but this narrative nonfiction work about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, during the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles” was so engaging that I had trouble putting it down. One of the most unsettling and informative books I’ve ever read, it contextualizes the events of the Troubles and the day-to-day existence and trauma of those who lived through this period. Needless to say, this book left quite an impression on me and I know it will haunt me for a long time to come.