Truth be told, 2020 was not the easiest year for concentrating on reading (or writing for that matter, which is why it took me so much longer than usual to get this post together). But it was a year filled with AMAZING books, and I am so grateful to every author on this list for their work, as well as many others whose stories helped me get through this year.

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Favorite Books of 2020

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover The Ikessar Falcon by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover

Books of the Year
1–2. The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1–2 by K. S. Villoso
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon
My Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
Read Excerpts: Book One | Book Two

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon were both re-released by Orbit Books in 2020 after having been self published, and the first book in this series was my absolute favorite book of the year until I read the phenomenal sequel, which is even better.

Set in an epic fantasy world whose “worldbuilding is a love letter to the Philippines,” the series is narrated from the first-person perspective of Queen Talyien, who has one of the best, most vivid, distinct voices I have ever read. Her personality shines through every page, bringing the world and events to life, and her opening line hooked me immediately:

“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Alternating between a fast-paced main story and eloquent introspection, Talyien’s tale explores her past and the events that shaped her—primarily those set in motion by her father, a warlord whose civil war ended with his newborn daughter’s betrothal to her enemy’s young son—and the impact they had. Talyien has always carried the weight of being her father’s daughter and shouldered the burden of those duties, and I really loved how I kept wondering just how self aware she truly was as she told her story, both because it added character-focused suspense and seemed fitting for a protagonist who never got to just be herself.

As wonderful as The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is, The Ikessar Falcon takes the series to the next level (and I have been having the hardest time writing a review of it because it’s so amazing I don’t know how to even begin to properly do it justice). It expands on the world and characters, it’s better paced, and it has more magic, adventure, dragons, and revelations. I think this series is epic fantasy at its very best, mainly because of Talyien, a complex character who seems real. Even when I wanted to yell at her for her decisions, I wanted to cheer for her author because the ways she frustrated me felt so very true to Talyien.

For more about Queen Talyien, you can read K. S. Villoso’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month essay on her.

Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud - Cover Image

New Release of the Year
3. Court of Lions (Mirage #2) by Somaiya Daud
My Review of Mirage
Read Excerpts: Mirage | Court of Lions

Court of Lions was one of my top anticipated 2020 releases after reading Somaiya Daud’s excellent debut novel, Mirage, and I loved it every bit as much—maybe even a little more. This Moroccan-inspired science fiction duology follows Amani, a young woman the Emperor has taken from her home and family due to her uncanny resemblance to his heir. She is then trained to be the princess’ body double, and while she experiences the cruelty that made her father want someone to pretend to be her during public events, she also comes to understand her struggles and vulnerabilities as she walks in her shoes. Amani realizes the princess’s demeanor does not necessarily reflect her heart and that it may still be possible for her to decide to be the better version of herself and work toward being better than her father.

Both Mirage and Court of Lions are thoughtful, beautifully written books with a lot of depth. The writing and characterization are superb, particularly how they intertwine to create a lyrical voice perfectly encapsulating Amani’s insight, empathy, and poetic soul. She has compassion, inner strength, and determination, and she considers potential outcomes before taking risks—and decides that the good she can do with her unique position is worth the potential danger of joining the rebellion against the Empire. But it’s a delicate dance as she also comes to care for the Emperor’s heir, a lonely young woman unsure of who she is as a daughter of both the conquered and the conqueror, and begins to develop a complicated potential friendship with her. This relationship is the heart of the books, and I loved how well-developed both characters were—and how the princess became more dimensional, sympathetic, and likable without brushing away her worse actions.

Court of Lions is a fantastic conclusion that continues to explore this dynamic and expands on the world’s history and lore, particularly by revealing more about the tesleet birds. This duology is something rare and special with its gorgeous prose and richly developed characters and setting.

For more about why she used a futuristic setting for this story, read Somaiya Daud’s 2019 Women in SF&F Month essay titled “Ideologies of Space.”

The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso - Cover Image

4. The Obsidian Tower (Rooks & Ruin #1) by Melissa Caruso
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Obsidian Tower is the first book in a new epic fantasy series set in the same world as Melissa Caruso’s Sword and Fire trilogy (The Tethered MageThe Defiant HeirThe Unbound Empire). All three of those books were among my favorites during their respective publication years, and once again, Melissa Caruso has written one of the most absorbing books I read over the course of a year—and one that is especially notable for managing to thoroughly hook me during one of the times I’d most been struggling to read during the trash fire that was 2020.

Set about 150 years after the previous books, The Obsidian Tower follows Ryx, the granddaughter of a powerful Witch Lord. Given her heritage, Ryx should have awe-inspiring, life-sustaining magic like others in her family—but instead, she has to steer clear of plants, animals, and people because her power kills all that she touches. When she came of age, her grandmother made her the Warden of her castle with its Door to the mysterious black tower that tradition says must remain sealed, but everything goes wrong when a guest ambassador sneaks in, opens the Door, and dies by direct contact with Ryx when the latter tries to prevent her from further meddling.

This became one of those books that I could hardly put down—and better yet, I kept pondering the mysteries surrounding the Black Tower and Ryx’s magic and questioning which characters were trustworthy after I couldn’t avoid putting it down. The Obsidian Tower is an incredibly fun story with entertaining banter, plenty of family drama, and heartwarming friendships-in-the-making (and how I loved Whisper, the castle’s resident fox-like chimera).

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse - Cover Image

5. Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Read an Excerpt

Black Sun, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas, shows what led to momentous events that took place in the holy city of Tova on the day of Convergence, when the winter solstice coincided with a solar eclipse. Though it’s not linear and does delve into previous years, it primarily focuses on the days nearing Convergence and follows four characters: a man whose mother told him he’d become a god, a sea captain with an affinity for water and a Song that can calm it, a Sun Priest in the midst of political intrigue and on the brink of betrayal, and a member of the Carrion Crow clan who has a giant crow companion.

Black Sun is fantasy storytelling at its best. It’s not fast-paced as it leads up to a big finale, but it’s an immersive book that had me riveted from start to finish. It’s a novel that feels much longer than it is, and I mean that as a compliment: there is so much worldbuilding and characterization packed into its pages that it’s awe-inspiring to realize it’s not a massive tome. As a corvid fan, I also loved that there was an avatar of a crow god and a crow rider, but my favorite character was the sea captain. (I knew I would be fond of her from her introduction, in which she woke up in an unfamiliar place and came to realize she was in jail…again.) This is an amazingly vivid book with a world and characters that feel real, further aided by details like the wonderful epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter.

The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty - Book Cover

6. The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S. A. Chakraborty
Read an Excerpt/Listen to an Audio Sample

The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in the Daevabad Trilogy, was one of my favorite books of 2019 (and remains my favorite book in this series), and I also very much enjoyed the series conclusion. The trilogy starts with a con woman living in Cairo in the eighteenth century, not knowing why she has unusual healing abilities and can understand languages she’s never studied. Then she accidentally summons a djinn who recognizes her as a member of the powerful family he served and informs her she’s only half human. He brings her to the djinn city of Daevabad, which was ruled by her ancestors until they were overthrown by the current royal family, where she meets the only other character to have a perspective throughout all three books: the younger of the king’s sons, an idealistic warrior who is usually either ardently admired or ardently despised for his deeply held principles.

I love the blend of history and myth and how real the author made both, from the practice of non-magical human medicine to the politics and factions within Daevabad, and the characters and lush writing are fantastic. The relationship between the two primary characters is well developed whether they’re currently on friendlier or rockier terms, and the vivid yet accessible prose pulled me into their stories and the entertaining family drama. The Empire of Gold is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy, and it continues the trend of avoiding expected paths for characters in certain situations as it explores redemption and looking toward a more just world.

Omake by Karin Lowachee - Cover Image

7. Omake: Stories from the Warchild Universe by Karin Lowachee
My Review of Warchild (Warchild #1)
My Review of Burndive (Warchild #2)
My Review of Cagebird (Warchild #3)

Karin Lowachee’s Warchild series is character-driven science fiction at its very best, and it was wonderful to return to this universe and read more about these characters (and get a sneak peek at the next novel, Matryoshka, which focuses on Cagebird protagonist Yuri’s brother). Although a few of these stories are set before the novels, it would be best to read the previously published books first since these are largely character studies, many of which will not have the same impact without context. Karin Lowachee masterfully creates deep characters with distinct voices who have been through a lot of trauma—usually related to the war between humans and aliens and/or space pirates—and the worst of their experiences tends to be left unsaid in this collection, though understanding what they’ve been through helps understand who they are. I cannot recommend this series highly enough to fans of character-driven stories (but with the caveat that these do explore the effects of war on young people and content warnings include violence, sexual assault/rape, and child abuse/grooming).

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Book Cover

8. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Silvia Moreno-Garcia intertwines Mexican history with the supernatural in her standalone Gothic horror novel following Noemí, a university student living in Mexico City in the 1950s. Noemí visits a mountain town inspired by the British-influenced town Real del Monte to check on her recently married cousin after she sent a letter rambling about poison, ghosts, and whispers in the walls of her new residence. There, Noemí finds herself staying in a creepy old mansion inhabited by a creepy family—both of which only become creepier the more time she’s in their presence.

Mexican Gothic keeps increasing the stakes with each chapter, growing more and more disturbing as Noemí learns more about the family her cousin married into and begins having strange visions and oddly realistic dreams herself. But as haunting as her experiences are, the revelations about how those horrors came to be are even more so, given that they were created because of an all-too-familiar disregard of others and their humanity. Mexican Gothic and its resourceful, loyal, determined heroine stuck with me and piqued my interest in reading more Gothic horror.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Book Cover

9. The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in an Asian-inspired epic fantasy trilogy, follows five different characters in an archipelago ruled by a mad-scientist-like Emperor who practices bone shard magic. His subjects are required to give him pieces of their bones that are then used to animate his constructs, creatures made from various sewn-together animal parts that follow his commands and help him run the Empire.

The five perspectives, which range from that of royalty to that of a bookseller who grew up on the streets, merge to show a bigger picture of what life is like in the Empire and the ill treatment of the common people. The Emperor’s daughter tries to regain her memories and uncover the secrets of her father’s bone shard magic while the bookseller gets herself and her girlfriend, a governor’s daughter, entangled in a revolution. Meanwhile, a woman awakens from a fog to wonder why she has no memories of life before the island she’s been living on with a group of people doing the same things every day, and a smuggler inadvertently gains a reputation as a legendary rescuer of children after he does so one time—and keeps agreeing to do so against his better judgment, largely due to the urging of the otter-kitten-like mystery animal he also rescued.

The opening lines of The Bone Shard Daughter made me want to read more, and I really appreciated how most of these stories did not feel like a beginning: these characters were already in the midst of interesting stories, and their situations just became more compelling from there. Although I also very much enjoyed the story of Lin sneaking through the castle and discovering the Emperor’s creepy secrets, my favorite story was that of the smuggler and the adorable animal companion who ends up bringing out the best in him—but in general, it follows characters who are trying to do their best and learn to do better in the process.

For more about the already established relationship between the governor’s daughter and the former street orphan, read Andrea Stewart’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month essay, “Happily Ever Aftermath.”

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood Book Cover

10. The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates #1) by A. K. Larkwood
Read an Excerpt

A. K. Larkwood’s debut novel, The Unspoken Name, is about an orc who was raised to be sacrificed to the Unspoken One—but when she’s about to meet her fate, a mage convinces her to come with him and live despite her concerns about upsetting the god. She trains as an assassin and serves the powerful, power-hungry mage who gave her a choice other than death, particularly by aiding him in his obsessive search for an artifact that would allow him to attain great knowledge.

The Unspoken Name drew me in immediately with its atmospheric depiction of life in the Shrine of the Unspoken One, and the different worlds explored via Gate-travel and the sweet romance that developed between the orc and a priestess were also highlights. But my favorite parts of this novel were the interactions between characters—particularly the dynamic between the main character and another one serving the mage, who despise each other but are often forced to work together anyway—and the frequent entertaining line of dialogue or narrative.

For more about why she chose to write about a non-human protagonist in The Unspoken Name, see A. K. Larkwood’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month guest post.