The Best Of 2020

So long, 2020, and good riddance! The year is finally coming to a close and hopefully, 2021 will be better in many regards. But, there are a few things left to do before we can put the nail in the metaphorical coffin, like talk about the best books of the year. This year we managed to collectively read over 100 books published in 2020. From that large number, we have identified our top 20 reads of the year. This was the year of novellas for us, with a number of standout shorts deeply impressing our review team. So much so, that we decided to make a separate top Novellas list which will be coming next week (12/8). In addition, the competition for the top ten spots was extremely tight. There were a ton of absolutely stand out phenomenal books this year, but we did think the average quality of books overall in 2020 felt a little lower compared to previous years. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2019 into this list, and December 2020 will roll into 2021’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best stories of 2020.

the-doors-of-eden-hb-cover20) The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky – As always, Tchaikovsky surprises and delights with his interesting take on how life evolved on Earth. The Doors of Eden is packed full of imaginative Earths, creative species, and clever science that asks many interesting questions. On top of a lot of scientific answers, the book also is full of fascinating people. The characters, and their relationships, provide a relatable canvas on which to project yourself. Finally, Eden’s unique narrative structure tickled our fancy with its alternative timelines and clever ideas about how they might work. If you are looking for a story with both brains and heart, you need not look further. You can find our full review here.

51rxroewdxl19) Noumenon Ultra by Marina J. Lostetter – A fitting end to a wildly imaginative and deeply thoughtful trilogy that should be getting more eyes than it has. Lostetter has clearly grown as a writer, bringing an impressive sense of scope and even stronger theming. Her writing is heartfelt and really conveys a strong sense of character and humanity even through her vignette narrative style. As a finale, Ultra is a blast and does everything you would hope by pushing the envelope, and tying up remaining threads. I anticipated this book greatly, and Lostetter sailed past those expectations. Seriously, if you haven’t picked up the series yet, you’re missing out and should really get to it for this wonderful sunset. You can find our full review here.

81h7env6hl18) Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – A strange and quiet novel about a man stuck in a maze, Piranesi evokes the same calm feeling I get when standing on a beach and looking out to sea. Much like the ocean, it’s tranquil yet thrilling, beautiful yet scary, and much deeper than it looks. Piranesi has both an interesting narrative structure and a strong opinion on the best way to go through life. It argues that we owe it to ourselves, and the world around us, to take more time to connect with the places where we live. This theme is very compelling, and after finishing Piranesi I found myself staring into the night sky wondering if I was really living my life to the best of my abilities. Any book that can give me an introspective doom spiral is a winner in my opinion, A+. You can find our full review here.

unspoken-gld-t117) The Unspoken Name by A.K. LarkwoodThe Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. I read The Unspoken Name back in January, and I still remember a number of scenes, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. We already praised the book as one of our top dark horse debuts of 2020, and the hype for the sequel is big. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into that reader’s psyche. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you to, you should do so now. You can find our full review here.

4908867716) How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It by K.J. Parker – I am always looking for fantasy books that feature heroes with atypical skills and strengths. Anything to get away from the standard formula of “hero who is great with a sword/magic.” Parker manages to scratch that itch for a second year in a row with his Siege series. The first book makes a war hero out of an engineer, and this second one does it with an actor. On top of having original characters, the themes of How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It all delightfully revolve around the theater and acting. The fantasy genre would be a better and brighter place if we had more books like this pushing the imagination of who or what heroes are. If you are looking for a fun and humorous novel off the beaten path, look no further. You can find our full review here.

4875417415) When Jackals Storm the Walls by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Well, here we are – my annual “scream at the sky about Song of Shattered Sands” event. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out thanks to the release of When Jackals Storm the Walls) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. When Jackals Storm The Walls once again delivers a lovingly written epic story that never lets up and doesn’t let you down. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era of fantasy. You can find our full review here.

docile14) Docile by K.M. Szpara – How much more can I say about this book that hasn’t been covered in the review and not one, but two, dark horse spotlights. Szpara is incredibly good at characters and really sells you on who they are before they are ground up by the system and re-molded. He wields subtlety with panache and expertise, knowing when to show you where he stabbed you in the heart, and knowing when to hide what he stabbed you with. I honestly can’t get the romance between these two broken men out of my head. Szpara shows how anyone can fool themselves into thinking they are behind the mask, when in reality there is only the mask. I’m ready for more romance, especially in Szpara’s deft hands. You can find our full review here.

81llcanwmul13) How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge by K. Eason – Last year I screwed up by letting Eason’s How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse slip by without a review. If I had read it, it definitely would have made our top books of the year. So I made sure to prioritize reading the sequel this year, and I was rewarded for my efforts. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic follow-up that takes the foundation that book one built and uses it as a jumping off point to expand the scope of the story. All of the things I liked about book one are still here, with a bigger cast and more character growth. If this book had been a little bit bigger, longer, or more comprehensive, it would have easily cracked our top 10 of the year. But, even with its shorter story, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is one of the best books of 2020. You can find our full review here.

978125031322512) Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn MuirHarrow the Ninth is a stunning and impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. In her second book, Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure, and yet both styles had excellent prose. This prose and style change is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can find our full review here.

41hu2u1muhl11) A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik – What do a protagonist who is so overpowered she somehow loops back to being weak, a Hogwarts that feels like it was designed by Lovecraft, and a frightening amount of exposition dumps all have in common? They apparently make up the ingredients for a fantastic story. A Deadly Education wins major points from me for two core reasons. One, it’s a story about a magical school with a lovable cast of students and eldritch horrors that will give you nightmares. Two, it tells its story in such an unconventional way that despite the fact that it is borrowing a number of time-tested fantasy/horror elements from popular series, it still feels incredibly fresh and original. In addition, while I have always enjoyed Naomi Novik, she seems to be only getting better. The prose and pacing in A Deadly Education are on point and seem noticeably better than other novels of hers I have recently read. All of this comes together to make an incredible package that almost any reader will love. You can find our full review here.

51iik4c-6gl10) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Bennett is a regular staple on our top books of the year lists, and 2020 is no exception. Shorefall is a wonderful, scary book full of beautiful moments, happy and sad. The protagonists are clever people that I never get tired of. They are such an interesting mix to read about and their problem solving is a proxy for Bennett’s wonderful ideas and a hopeful future for humanity. Shorefall is also the fastest paced book of the year. The action is invigorating, as the cast you love pits their wiles against an eldritch god with little chance of victory. Events bombard the reader as they struggle to cope with what is happening, and Bennett never gives you enough time to truly recover from his latest reveal before he hits you with another one. Shorefall is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it. You can find our full review here.

Hench9) Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots – If you’re bored of superheroes, you have two choices in front of you: move on from the genre or embrace supervillains. Luckily, for those who chose the latter, Walschots has the perfect novel for your super powered woes. There are so many beautiful layers within Hench it’s really hard to pick the ones to highlight, but if I had to choose one, it’s character. Anna Tremodolov’s journey from temp hench to dreaded right hand woman of the most feared supervillain is an absolute delight. Walschots is incredible at making events in Anna’s life feel important to her growth, and her quest for accountability. While Anna is the bright sun at the center of the system, the characters that revolve around her are titans in their own right, imbued with a certain je ne sais quoi that made my heart sing. I mean from name and power reveals to standout character moments to highlighting the strength of normal people in their fight against the heroes that have destroyed their lives through collateral damage, Walschots makes it look easy. Not only that, she makes being bad look good, and I’m here for it. You can find our full review here.

41d26na70kl8) The Light of All that Falls by James Islington – While The Light of All that Falls was technically published in 2019, it came out in December and I refuse to miss an opportunity to talk about this incredible epic fantasy. It’s the third and final book in a fantasy trilogy about time travel, and it’s so cool! Light does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor books, and has a strong plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture. I realized as I read the ending of the book that Islington must have started there, and built the rest of the book around where he wanted to end. There are so many well laid plots and plans that come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. The series also has some really interesting ideas around time travel and spends a good portion of the story debating which theory of how time travel would work has the best merit. The Licanius Trilogy manages to be something very new and different while hitting every note that an epic fantasy lover would want in a story. It is no surprise to me that Orbit picked up Islington after he self published book one of this series. It has been clear from the start that he is going places and his books are ones to flag for your to-read pile. You can find our full review here.

41spd48rbal7) Network Effect by Martha Wells – Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels earns her top marks in our list this year. The entire Murderbot series is just great and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out. You can find our full review here.

The reviewers of The Quill To Live had a lot of debate over the placement of the top 6 books, but eventually settled on this order. Suffice it to say, all six of these books are incredible and there are strong cases for all of them to be book of the year.

517sguwkonl6) Ashes of the Sun by Django WexlerAshes of the Sun has enormous depth, and the book’s power comes from all the small details. Nothing about this book is surface level; everything has been meticulously considered and thought out, breathing a huge amount of life into the world and characters. The world is fascinating, the clash of magic and technology is easy and intuitive for the reader to grasp, and neither side is painted as a black and white villain. Every part of this world just aggressively pulls you in and makes you want more. My personal favorite thing about Ashes is our sibling protagonists, Gyre and Maya. Both are complex, relatable POVs that go through an enormous amount of growth, and you can very clearly understand how they were shaped by their different upbringings. Most importantly, their relationship with each other is complicated, interesting, and believable. Gyre and Maya have the perfect balance of love, respect, and distrust of one another and it’s like falling into an immersion riptide. I was a fan of Wexler’s older work, but Ashes is a noticeable step up in worldbuilding, characterization, and general prose. I have earmarked this as one of my most anticipated series in years and I highly recommend that you don’t sleep on this one. Come see what all the buzz is about in this climactic first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series. You can find our full review here.

97812503096795) Sorcery of a Queen by Brian Naslund – The excellence of Sorcery of a Queen is honestly flabbergasting. This book does so many things right that it straight up blew my mind. It has incredible characters, exciting action, deep and original worldbuilding, a gripping plot, a compelling antagonist, great themes, excellent pacing, strong character growth, and a level of polish and inclusivity that made me positively vibrate with happiness. Sorcery is the second book in Naslund’s trilogy, and I accidentally slept on his debut novel (Blood of an Exile) last year. After eventually picking the first book up, I realized what a colossal mistake I had made and jumped on Sorcery the second I could get my hands on it, hoping to find that lightning struck twice. Sorcery broke every single one of my high expectations to tell a story that was nothing short of wonderful. Usually, when I review a book I like to talk about if it’s best for readers who focus on characters, plot, worlds, or ideas. It is very rare that I come across a book that I can unilaterally recommend to all of those people, and this is one such occasion. You can find our full review here.

81mny8q7oll4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Once we finished T.J. Klune’s ultra-charming novel of found family, whether it would make this list was never really a question. Instead, we had to determine exactly where this near-perfect story belonged on our best of 2020 list. And in the top five feels like a perfect place for this heartwarming tale. Cerulean Sea follows Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. Linus is sent on assignment to an orphanage run by the eccentric Arthur Parnassus. Parnassus nurtures some of the strangest magical youth Linus has ever encountered, including a wyvern, a were-pomeranian, and the antichrist. The jarring synopsis threw me for a loop, too, but then I read the book. Cerulean Sea brought happy tears to my eyes on more than one occasion, and Linus’ journey of self-discovery as he “investigates” Parnassus’ home is just…beautiful. That’s the best word to describe this novel, earning it a coveted spot on this list. You can find our full review here.

screen-shot-2020-07-02-at-10.35.17-am3) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – If there has been a book that has occupied my thoughts ever since I read it this year, it has to be Unconquerable Sun. Its high concept premise of “gender bent Alexander the Great in Outer Space” is merely a crumb from the seven course meal prepared by Kate Elliott. I don’t think I was prepared for the abundance of detail, culture, character, politics, commentary, action and emotion that Elliott has wrapped up in this novel. Everything is turned to eleven in stunning glory, allowing the reader to become consumed by the heroism of Sun and her band of companions. If there were a memory wipe machine, I’d probably fry my brain using it so I could read this book with fresh eyes again and again. If you’re looking for a space opera epic that feels new and exciting and instills a sense of wonder and curiosity that is still willing to be fun and explosive, look no further Unconquerable Sun is calling your name. You can find our full review here.

51wgb7eeel2) The Worst of All Possible Worlds by Alex White – The quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. The Worst of All Possible Worlds is a finale that any writer could envy and delivers an explosive knockout punch to any reader who picks it up. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse. Also, the emotional payoff in Worlds is like winning a feeling lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series. I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. I said way back in my review that I was sure this would be one of the best books of the year, and I was right. You can find our full review here.

abercrombie-trouble1) The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie – While there was some fierce discussion over these top six slots, there was one book we could all agree on that was a stand out masterpiece. While our choice makes us feel like a very basic b*tch SFF site, sometimes things are popular for a reason. The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie is the Quill to Live best book of 2020. As I originally mentioned in my review (where I correctly guessed that this would be the best book of the year), I don’t want to say too much about Trouble as it’s best to read it, and all of Abercrombie’s work, with as little knowledge as possible. What you should know is the book emotionally feels like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had. The characters are masterpieces of writing that feel so very alive. You want to help them, you want to solve their troubles and keep them safe. But you can’t, nothing can keep them safe from the horrible events that Abercrombie takes them through. The Trouble With Peace is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is the best written and most powerful book I read in 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins. You can find our full review here.

-A note from the QTL team: Happy 2020! We wish you the best of all holidays from our families to yours. We typically do not ask our readers for assistance in promoting our work, but as we spend an enormous amount of time working on our end of year wrap up, any shares and posts of this list are greatly appreciated if you liked it. We hope you have a wonderful 2021 and we look forward to showing you our new list next year!

Dark Horse Roundup – 2020

IT’S THE MOST WONDERFULLLL TIME OF THE YEARRRRRR. Namely, the time when we get to discuss our Dark Horse books. This year, each of us picked six to ten debuts to read, and if you caught our H1 round-up, you’ll know we did a pretty good job of keeping up with 2020’s veritable onslaught of debut books.

But instead of an H2 round-up, we’re closing out our 2020 Dark Horse initiative with a list of our favorite debuts of the year. We each picked two debut titles that stuck out from the rest. If you are looking for fresh new content, ideas, and faces for 2020, this list should provide you with the authors that really made an entrance this year.

Andrew – My dark horses were a real mixed bag this year. Some of my picks ended up being my most disappointing reads of 2020, but there were also a few that made it to my top echelon of the year. Of the eight dark horses I read, The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, and Nophek Gloss, by Essa Hansen, were the two that rose to the top.

unspoken-gld-t1The Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. While the pacing was a little uneven, it was definitely one of the most memorable books I read in 2020. I read The Unspoken Name back in January and I still remember a number of senses, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. The series also feels like it is going somewhere and did book one a great job of building up excitement for the sequel novels. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into your reader. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you too you should do so now. You can find our review here.

51z7qpojazlNophek Gloss was also super fresh. Clearly, there is a theme on why I liked certain debuts this year. But, while Gloss definitely did a great job of throwing some fun new science fiction concepts at me, it was the characters and their story that brought me around. I have always been a huge sucker for beautiful, quiet, personal journeys in a science fiction setting. Essa Hansen’s book shows us that we are more than our trauma. Gloss is such a weirdly hopeful story, despite the fact that it is painted with a profound amount of tragedy and loss. It reminded me that I am kinda tired of reading about these dystopian futures and that reading a story with a light at the end of the tunnel does a lot for someone who is living their own dystopia. Nophek Gloss is a beautiful book, check it out. You can find our review here.

ColeMan, I picked some stinkers this year. Thank goodness for Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe and Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars (Honorable mention to Shveta Tahkrar’s Star Daughter, a fun YA adventure chock-full of Indian mythology). They were easily my two favorite dark horse picks, rising above the other four on my list. Both books have me giddy at the prospect of more writing from these fantastic new authors.

elatsoeElatsoe emerged as my favorite dark horse of the year. Darcie Little Badger’s magical murder mystery tour (as I lovingly called it in my review) tells an intriguing tale that falls somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Protagonist Ellie (short for Elatsoe) sets out to solve her cousins murder using her unique ability to commune with the spirits of the dead. There’s a whole lot to love about Elatsoe, but my favorite aspect was the constant presence of Native American mythology. Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she brings elements of her culture to life through her prose. She has experience writing for Marvel, and Elatsoe shows she’s got long-form fiction chops, too. I can’t wait to see where Little Badger takes us next. You can find our review here.

screen-shot-2020-08-17-at-5.46.42-pmNick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars reads like a video game speed run. Just as you’ve surpassed one checkpoint, another passes in a blur as antihero Michael Kingman navigates the treacherous political landscape of this unique fantasy world. Indeed, the speed can at times be a hindrance in Kingdom, but the story is well-suited to a quickfire pace, and jumping from one event to the next at lightning speed emulates the scattershot magic of Kingman’s world, where overusing spellcraft can eliminate some of your memories. The Kingdom of Liars is an all-around solid debut (praised by Brandon Sanderson himself), and the follow-up is slated for 2021. Martell is one to watch. You can find our review here.

Alex I don’t want to brag or anything but I was incredibly pleased with most of the debuts I read this year. Not only were their first books a treat to read, but all of those authors have an abundance of potential to keep readers hooked for years to come. I for one will be picking up the future works of Micaiah Johnson, Lindsay Ellis, and Premee Mohamed with absolute glee. Honestly, there was only one bad book out of my picks, and I’d rather not relive that experience if I can avoid it. The following are two of my favorites from 2020.

docileI have never read a romance book, or a book where the romance was the central storyline. Thankfully, Szpara’s Docile was able to lure me with the promise of analyzing the effects of capitalism through the main relationship. Quickly though I became enthralled with the romance and very much wanted these two men to work out their issues and find some humanity within each other. Szpara is an enchanting writer that knows when to be subtle and knows when to sound the air horn when it comes to his characters’ relationship with the themes he wishes to tease out. Even though it feels like I read it two years ago (thanks 2020), it still sticks with me and I can’t wait to see what Szpara has in store for us. You can find our review here.

HenchOh my god, did Natalie Zina Walschots blow me away with Hench. There are a few decent deconstructions of the superhero genre out there, but it is rare that it is done with such love and passion for the supervillains. Walschots offers a fresh look at a genre that is growing increasingly complacent and repetitive, and delivers it with a poignant passion. The writing is top notch, making the characters come alive in human and fantastic ways. Walschots ingrains you in Anna’s life, following her from her lowly days as a temp hench to the right hand woman of the top supervillain and it’s glorious. Spreadsheets as a superpower never looked so good, and felt so fun and powerful. The action scenes are few, but impactful and extremely character oriented. If you love superheroes, or are tired of the genre and want a fresher look, this is the book for you. You can find our review here.

The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.

From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”

The Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

Docile – It Will Bring You To Your Knees

If you have read a lot of my reviews in particular, you might have noticed that I enjoy reading books from the perspective of an individual’s relationship to society. So when offered the chance to read a book with the tagline “there is no consent under capitalism,” you can imagine the inhuman sounds of excitement that spawned within my mouth. Not only does it scratch the aforementioned itch, but I get to think about capital “C” Capitalism too? Sign me up, I’m ready to report for duty. Fortunately, for people who are not me, K. M. Szpara’s debut novel Docile, is not quite the screed I was looking for. Instead, Szpara delivers an intelligent, emotional and deeply human exploration of how society, economics and power can affect those struggling at the bottom, as well as those who rest at the top. 

Docile is the story of two men, Elisha and Alex, in a near future Baltimore where trillionaires reign supreme. The state of Maryland enacted a law in which debt is shared by members within a family, but can also be sold to those with the means, for years, even lifetimes, of servitude. Luckily, for those willing to sell their debt, there is Dociline, a drug that inhibits the short term memory of the user and turns them into an effective automaton, allowing them to serve out their term in relative “peace” and ignorance. Elisha’s family is millions of dollars in debt, and he takes it upon himself to sell it and serve so that his younger sister has a chance at life. Alex is a trillionaire and heir apparent to the Bishop Family, the makers and distributors of Dociline. After a recent breakup that makes the board question his abilities, Alex purchases Elisha’s debt and takes him on as a Docile, as part of his plan to prove the effectiveness of a new version of Dociline. Alex’s plans are thrown to the wind when Elisha refuses the drug, creating new terms for their relationship. What follows is a story of sex and abuse as the two men try to discover who they are to themselves, and each other. 

Szpara accomplishes an incredible amount within Docile and interweaves so much of it together that it’s very hard to separate and highlight the strengths of the individual parts. Fortunately, I do not have to break that much down to really get to the good stuff. The characters are honestly the star of this book, and I owe that to Szpara’s attention to baseline emotions, deterioration of said emotions, and the internal monologuing he provides for Elisha and Alex. Both characters are written in incredible detail but not in a way that overwhelms the reader. Their transformations through the book are gradual, aided in part by time skips that feel natural as the characters follow the emotional paths their decisions set them down. Elisha’s journey of defiant and somewhat naive farmboy to cowed subservient plaything was as heart wrenching as it was believable. In turn, Alex’s transition from uncertain scientist to a domineering and demanding master was cleverly executed through his understanding of playing the role, and yet he still becomes the mask. 

Much of the excellent characterization is highlighted by Szpara’s efficient and descriptive writing style. He is straight-forward and not ambiguous in his descriptions of character’s feelings, sexual acts being performed, or societal roles being played. It is a raw and unflinching look at power dynamics from an economic, social and personal level. That is not to say however, that morality shines through every step of the way through the book, with Szpara highlighting what is wrong in every situation. Instead, Szpara questions the systems at play through the character’s own inner monologues, following their own trains of thought after they did something they found distasteful. Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms. It pulled me in while allowing me to think about the things Szpara’s characters were dealing with. 

The lynchpin argument of the book is right there on the cover – “There is no consent under Capitalism.” If this feels daunting and in your face, do not be alarmed. Szpara’s handling of that thesis is more human and intimate than I expected. Instead of a sweeping system wide exploration of all the different ways big and small people are affected, the whole of Docile is focused on a single pair of men, one with power and privilege, the other without. Szpara goes to great lengths to paint this relationship with as many colors of abuse and intimacy as he can, highlighting the lack of choice, and the gap between Elisha and Alex. The author also emphasizes how the economic system bleeds into every aspect of life, every interaction is tainted in some small way, that it’s impossible to know where the system ends and one as an individual begins. Szpara surprised me most with his exploration of Alex, and his role within the system he was perpetuating. The small amounts of maliciousness that start to get infused in his daily life as he “trains” Elisha to prove to the company board he is a stable and productive member of Elite society. How he, along with Elisha, become the embodiment of his theme of “you change a little bit every day,” until they both become unrecognizable. It was cleverly and masterly handled. 

Lastly, I just want to commend Szpara for writing a dystopia that in its bones, reflects the material conditions of now, instead of just the worries and anxieties of where we as a culture might be headed. I think there is a tendency to slip into “the worst possible scenario,” and, to me, it feels like the author avoids that here. Instead, Szpara tries to highlight what is already concerning today, with a slight step up on the absurdity scale. Instead of billionaires there are trillionaires. Instead of working your whole life to pay for debts incurred in order to participate in life, you sell your debt to become a docile and take a drug to ease the pain. The questions that characters ask themselves do not just relate to their specific situation but highlight general concerns that then branch into other questions. On top of that Szpara avoids spiraling, and digging too deep where everything feels hopeless, choosing to focus on what’s important: the people who inhabit their/our lives and who we choose to be around them. It was an incredibly touching revelation. 

Overall, Docile, is an incredibly fascinating read, with wonderful characters and a world that feels all too real. Unfortunately, some may be put off by the incredibly vivid and descriptive sex scenes, or the large amount of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on display. However, if that is not a hindrance to you as a reader, this is definitely worth your time. Rarely has such a monstrous world felt like it was dealt with in such a human fashion. I definitely recommend it, and look forward to more of Szpara’s work. 

Rating: Docile – 9.0/10
-Alex