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.

Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole