I read a lot this year. A lot. In fact, according to my read shelf on Goodreads I have read 200 books this year as of 7th December, and that doesn’t include the DNFs that I didn’t bother to track. It is probably worth noting that I read when I feel stressed about current events.
Moreover, I read some damn good stuff. The following list is thirty books and could be significantly longer. I decided not to add more than one book per author as a matter of self control, but just for the record, I have read multiple books by Talia Hibbert, Mina V. Esguerra, T. Kingfisher, and Melissa Scott this year, and I heartily recommend glomming their complete backlists.
This list is romance, fantasy, general fiction and a couple of non-fic, and these are the books I read this year, not necessarily recent publications. I am also including the absolute goddamn worst thing I read this year just for the sake of venting.
Top Ten SF/Fantasy
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed
A weird and haunting novella set in an alt-Britain with an Edwardian feel. The narrator is one of the only survivors of his regiment after his commanding officer’s calamitous incompetence got the rest killed; he is now living with the disgraced man’s family and haunted by his ghost. A wonderful story about wounds, kindness, cruelty, and how to go on living.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard
This novella will make a lot of lists. Set in a post-colonial fantasy alt-Viet world, where everything has been wrecked and twisted, with a slow burning romance between a young woman and the shapeshifting lady dragon who abducts her as a sacrifice. Packed with imagination and strangeness and thoughts about trying to live in an unhealthy world.
The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar
This blew me away. A weird and ghastly fable about a disgraced doctor attempting to run a clinic in rural India when a dead family arrive one night. They’ve been promised they’ll live again at dawn—but they need their wounds repaired first. Subsequent events mix clinical ghastliness with the mundane horror of a deeply corrupt system, and just enough hope to make it unbearable. Thought-provoking topics along with a compelling plot and superb writing. This is the Indian title: it’s getting a UK release as Night Theatre presumably for the usual inexplicable publisher reasons.
Blackfish City by Sam Miller
An intensely plausible post-climate-change dystopia set on a floating city in the Arctic waters. Another SFF, magic/technology combo, with people bonded to animals via both shamanism and nanobots, and a sexually transmitted disease that leads to people sharing each others’ memories. Absorbing, thought-provoking, haunting, and a rattling adventure plot with lots of drama and violence and queer romance.
Temper by Nicky Drayden
Indescribable. Absolutely extraordinary set up of magic, tech, religion, and fable that plays with some really wild ideas in a totally committed way without ever losing sight of the people at the centre of the story. There is no weird-ass plot turn that this author will not take, which makes for a spectacular ride if you’re happy to hang on. I can see how it would not be to everyone’s taste because bananapants; I absolutely loved it.
Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott
I adore the Astreiant series–it’s stunningly immersive, so fully realised and well drawn that it’s actually disorienting when you stop reading. Nico and Philip are terrific leads with their low key romance, the mystery in this has some spectacularly creepy horror elements, and there’s a real sense of doom. Fabulous, beautifully written fantasy mystery romance. This is #5; start at book 1 and prepare to glom. (I also read Scott’s The Order of the Air series written with Jo Graham and loved those too.).
Not So Stories by Cassandra Khaw et al
A fantastic collection of stories riffing off Kipling. Some are new stories in the Just So style like the brilliant Cassandra Khaw opener, or retellings of actual Just Sos; others are more loosely related. Pretty much all of them are about power and its abuse–male power, white supremacy, colonialism, slavery. Thought-provoking in multiple directions, blood-boiling, often hilarious, great writing, diverse casts, and there’s not a dud in the collection. Highly recommended.
The Devil’s Standoff by VS McGrath
This series deserves far more attention than it seems to get. A tremendous read: a brutal fantasy Western with complex magic, twisty plotting, flawed characters, impossible problems, and some spectacularly nasty meanies. Also doesn’t shy away from really gritty unpleasantness in the racism and colonialism on display. Hettie is a wonderful character and I am dying for book 3 (out soon!). Read in order.
Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw
An enormously enjoyable urban fantasy heavily based in period pulp (any book where Varney the Vampyre is back and has anxiety is all right with me). Greta is a lovely moral heroine, her gang of vampires are great fun, there’s a delightful slow burn romance, pacey adventure, and a gleefully crap modern edgelord vampire villain in body glitter. Humour, adventure, kindness, and fierce morality. Can’t wait for the next. Book 1 wasn’t as good and I’d basically forgotten the plot but had no trouble picking the story up, so jump in here by all means.
Swordheart by T Kingfisher
This could have gone in romance, it’s so lovely. A warrior’s soul was magically bound to a sword; now he’s a living immortal weapon bound to obey his wielder. Unfortunately, she’s a put-upon widow in a provincial village who just wants to avoid being forced to marry a cousin. Their subsequent adventures and romance save her self-respect and his humanity. Curvy mid-30s heroine, important nonbinary character whose identity and pronouns are never an issue, queerness unquestionably accepted. Glorious funny dialogue, intense but clearsighted compassion and humanity, a fair bit of highly enjoyable murder, and lovely well-developed world-bulding brimming with ingenuity. An absolute joy. I also read and adored the two-part Clockwork Boys story, set in the same world.
Top Ten Romance
A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert
Honestly I could have filled my top ten with Talia. A hero who is kind, considerate, consensual, reasonable. A heroine who’s prickly and angry and allowed to be. A joyously life-enhancing plot, a bad guy who is bad without overshadowing the book, a love that heals people in the way happiness does. Written with exuberant confidence and humour so it whips along gorgeously. Might be my best of the year, although if you want a howl-with-laughter romance try her Mating the Huntress. Or anything else of hers, come to that.
Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder
An exuberant novella featuring a desi woman dragged back to her miserable US small town by family obligation, and the bad-boy-made-worse in a motorcycle gang (not actually a racist thug). This is breezily done, with the concentration very much on the thoroughly enjoyable romance which manages to be low angst despite the set up thanks to the hero’s cinnamon-rolldom and the heroine’s tremendous self-possession and common sense. Sex positive, full of funny lines, and with a gorgeously warm heart.
House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Regency. Marie-Anne is a marvellous heroine: French immigrant, super sex positive, loves her food. She lives fully and enthusiastically, and with her own personalised, clearsighted morality. Her romance with Mason, an eight-years-younger American con artist, is lovely, sexy, and very much led by her. Very funny and extremely lighthearted, with a strongly Heyeresque feel to the subplots–the heroine must sort out the inappropriate romances of three sisters–and despite the house party setting, has the sense of a diverse larger world so often lacking in Regencies. A gleefully feelgood read.
Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch
A terrific paranormal historical. The opening is terrifically creepy and compelling, the magic system is really unusual and intriguing–John’s magic is gloriously inventive in particular–the romance is emotional and hot, the setting is Gothically vivid, and the author manages, extraordinarily, to make me absolutely desperate for a sequel starring a character that we haven’t even seen on page. Highly recommended. (Disclaimer: I edited this just so you know.)
Something Human by AJ Demas
Set in an alt-Mediterranean sort of world, with a Germanicish tribe at war with Greekish colonisers. Two enemy soldiers save one another post battle then hole up in a temple to recuperate, falling in love on the way. Beautifully written, with fascinating worldbuilding that supports the characters, a lovely romance that manages to be both moving and unsentimental, and lots of chewy and intriguing thoughts. Plus, it pulls off the rare trick of making you feel better about people. I read it in a sitting and enjoyed every minute.
Snapdragon by Kilby Blades
An absolute stormer of a sexy romance. Doctor daughter of a Republican scumbag politician meets supersexy high flying architect and they agree on a no-strings no-stress sexual relationship. Yeah right. It’s well written, at points very funny, hot, lot of dark undercurrents without plunging into excessive angst. NB this is book 1 of a two-parter so you don’t get your HEA yet; Chrysalis, the second half, is also fab.
Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins
I read a lot of Ms Bev’s backlist this year but this was my favourite. Teresa July, outlaw bank robber, is fresh out of jail on parole, and forced to live with a do-gooder to reform. She must learn manners and ladylike ways to avoid going back to prison. Ahahaha no, she remains 100% hard-drinking leather-wearing and gun-toting, just acquires more wardrobe options and a hot city banker with a past. Bliss.
Fail Seven Times by Kris Ripper
Justin, a prickly, self-loathing jerk, is in love not just with his bi best friend Alex but with Alex’s girlfriend Jamie. He loves them; they love him and want him to join them in bedwith hope of a proper relationship. The entire conflict lies in Justin’s horrifically aggressive-defensive personality and terror of vulnerability, which causes him to deflect, push away, walk away, and screw up. It’s very hard to pull off a totally convincing romance where all the conflict is internal and based on such a frustrating person, but we see Justin starting to open his mind and heart in multiple directions to get the HEA and it works magnificently. A glorious, affirming book of happiness achieved in the teeth of a lot of stuff. I cried several times.
What Kind of Day by Mina V. Esguerra
I have glommed this author’s entire backlist. Esguerra’s writing is always terrific–vividly realised characters, well drawn settings–and this one works particularly well. Slightly older characters with very relatable career and family and life issues. More steam than usual for her. Mostly a really convincing romance because it shows marvellously how the right person can turn a bad day good, but never falls into the trap of suggesting that love can fix things. Ben and Naya can help one another, but they don’t turn their connection into a HEA till they’ve both got a grip on their own lives. A marvellous romance.
I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif
Rich jetsetting Palestinian Tala, on her fourth engagement, meets middle class British Indian Leyla who works in her dad’s insurance company but wants to be a writer. They fall hard; now both have to come to terms with their sexuality and also with the different cultural pressures. It’s hugely readable, fantastic storytelling, with a lovely soap-opera compulsive-reading quality and a lovely glow of hope. Also absolutely hilarious at points, I laughed out loud. Shoddy editing but I enjoyed it too much not to rec.
Top Ten Other
The Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas
I’m cheating, sue me. But the three books are very tightly linked and I’m glad I read them back to back. A wonderful riff on Holmes, with sharp writing and plotting and enormously engaging characters. Also a real Victorian London feel. Glom them all.
Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
This mystery series gets better with every book. Brilliant at evoking the feel of the last years of the Raj and the 1920s Indian atmosphere; mystery plots deeply rooted in the history, which makes them work terrifically. Sam Wyndham is a great character, a decent and progressive Englishman of his time, yet so much unconscious racism and assumed cultural superiority is revealed in his narrative. A really superior read.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Yes I am late to this party. A gigantic epic sweep over India since Partition as told through a Hindu gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a Sikh policeman present at his suicide, Sartaj Singh, plus side stories of a huge cast of minor characters. It’s brutal, tender, funny, hopeful, despairing, filthy, religious, political, violent, divided, diverse and pretty much everything else you can get into 800 pages. Which is a lot. I am glad I read it on holiday so was able to glom it over three days, as the stories interweave over a very long stretch and it would be easy to get lost. A hell of a ride.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
A Japanese combini worker loves her job because the strict rules tell her exactly how to behave in a bewilderingly incomprehensible world. But the pressures of society force her to attempt a stab at being ‘normal’ by letting a dreadful misogynist parasite of a man into her life. This book is a paean to being yourself, whoever you are, and watching our heroine regain her balance and reclaim her niche in life is wonderful. Immensely enjoyable, funny, and surprisingly uplifting.
The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain
The story of a Bolton boy growing up gay in the 1980s, and his parallel journeys through uni and work; through internalised homophobia and self-destructive hedonism to self-acceptance; and through Madonna’s discography. It’s really lovely. Charlie’s main struggle is learning to accept and love himself, and the overall arc of the book is triumphantly upward, full of promise, hope, and joy. There’s plenty of snarky humour, mostly at his own expense, but also of his various milieus (Cambridge, crap TV, life in Bolton), and one of the joys is how the many minor characters move from entertaining stereotypes to rounded deeper personalities as Charlie’s own understanding and self-obsession change. I was happy-crying like a baby reading this, in public. A glorious, warm, funny, lovely read.
What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Staggeringly good collection of short stories. Beautifully written, moving, thought provoking, every one with as much meaning and insight into human relations and thought and emotional heft as you might hope to find in a novel. I haven’t read anything this good in a while. Honestly exceptional, not surprised it won prizes, and even if you don’t like short stories or read literary fiction, you want to make an exception for this. Stunningly good.
The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla
A really engrossing family saga. It’s split into four stories of a Kenyan Asian family come to the Midlands in the 80s and coping with hostility in the immigrant community as well as racism from outside. The synopsis sounds really depressing (racism, cancer, failure and death) but it isn’t depressing because it’s so real and human. The little connections, the moments of happiness, the real love among flawed people all come through strongly and make this a story of hope and endurance and survival, and making the most of the life you’ve got. A hugely engaging read and very well written.
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
A marvellous book about a bizarre job. Skaife is a Yeoman Warder and in charge of the Tower ravens because if they ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. (He actually shows that to be a relatively recent myth, but that doesn’t make it any less true IMO: every story has to start somewhere.) This is very much a book of stories, one of those reads that feels like you’re in the pub with a really interesting bloke. Chatty, discursive, a lot about the life that brought him to this point, and loads about the ravens he adores.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury
I did not expect a book about wildlife gardening to make me cry. This is extraordinary: the tale of a woman, a decked, concreted, crappy patch of worthless city garden, and her mission to bring it back to life by attracting bees, birds, insects and wild plants. It’s not the usual gardening writing when everyone plans stuff and has magic perfect soil and twenty acres and an unlimited budget. This is the kind of gardening you do when you’re drunk, or you decide to randomly scatter seed like a rebel and then have no idea what you grew, with plants that die and mistakes and looking like a scratty mess. No spoilers but when a particular kind of bee finally arrived I broke down into sobs. A polemic and a lament and a song of praise in one.
The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Absolutely astonishing history of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and the search for causes. It’s extremely well written and intensely, compellingly readable, with some pretty terrifying details, and completely clear even for this scientific illiterate. Mukherjee never loses sight of the humanity of researchers or patients, which helps us understand decisions, responses and deductions that look pretty shonky from the outside. Seriously informative; a real tour de force of popular science.
And One Bloody Awful Book
The Way of a Man with a Maid by Anonymous
I write sexy historical romance, which requires reading period erotica. The goddamn things I do for this job, because this Edwardian “erotic classic” (says the hell who?) is perhaps the single worst book ever perpetrated, combining a spectacularly gross rape/torture/humiliation/forcedincest/male gaze lesbian voyeur fantasy with a bizarre, cloying tweeness that makes you wonder if AA Milne had a weird secret life. I mean, the narrator calls his rape/torture chamber “the Snuggery” and I think we should all pretend this never happened.
Feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like a lot of recs. I got ‘em.
My own new books this year were:
The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp with swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder, skulduggery, and bonking in shiny boots)
Unfit to Print (upright lawyer and downright rascal rekindle a romance in the murk of the Victorian porn trade)
Band Sinister (Regency with a hellfire club, a bastard baronet, and an innocent country gentleman)