It’s gift-giving and last-minute-shopping time. And if you’re looking to get something for the bookworm in your life, a perfunctory “Gifts for book lovers” Google search will undoubtedly feed you a deluge of bookish trinkets and products. But here’s the thing. The best gift for a bookworm isn’t some fancy bookmark or library scented candle. The best gift you can give to your SFF-obsessed friend is a hefty tome they can enjoy. And lucky for you, we’ve assembled a quick ‘n’ easy gift guide for your book-loving friends and relatives.
But first, here’s our Best of 2020 list. If you have a bookworm on your list, here’s a sampling of the latest and greatest in the SFF genres. If that doesn’t scratch the itch, just keep on reading for some “books-as-gifts” recommendations.
This is for the friend who needs a good ole fashioned space fight, with a dash of heroism and intrigue. It moves fast, and doesn’t let the reader breathe, so they’ll be glued to the page just like they’ve always wanted.
This one is for the folks who just love people, no matter who they are or how they live their life, they just love meeting people. Unfortunately, the people in this book don’t talk back and will most likely make them cry, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
What’s that, you have a friend who likes politics with their politics, and with a side of more politics with a dessert full of intrigue? Give them Too Like The Lightning. they probably won’t be quiet about it, but hey, it’s a good story about the evolving nature of political systems.
For murder mystery buffs: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
A mysterious death. Native American magic. Ghost dogs. Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe has it all.
For your “I want to read the book first” friend: Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s a flagship sci-fi novel, but the movie is delayed to 2021. Perfect time for your cinema-buff friend to catch up on Frank Herbert’s masterpiece.
You don’t often hear this series mentioned next to Game of Thrones, Kingkiller Chronicle, Gentleman Bastards, and the like…but you should. Bradley P. Beaulieu crafts a sweeping adventure that any epic fantasy fiend will devour.
For people looking to explore a magical school other than Hogwarts: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Don’t beat a dead horse. Revive it and make it ten times cooler than it was before. Enter Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. Oh, you thought the well of magic school content had been tapped dry? Think again.
For someone who wants to feel all the feels: The Divine Citiesseries by Robert Jackson Bennett
These books will make you laugh, cry, gasp, sigh, and everything in between. Simply put, some of the best fantasy we’ve ever read. Also, there’s Sigrud. You’ll thank us later. We linked the first book, City of Stairs, but don’t sleep on City of Bladesor City of Miracles. They’re all amazing.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen is a beefy, 10-book epic fantasy of gargantuan proportions. And the series ended, as in the author finished it, in 2011. Be careful who you buy it for, though, Malazan is one of the biggest pillars of fantasy you can find. It’s an undertaking, and your friend may need this primer.
For someone who loves superheroes: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
They might not like you for giving them a book that makes them unironically like the supervillain and want to see them win, but they’ll at least love the book.
For someone who loves fairytales: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
The world’s sexiest man uhhhhh Henry Cavill uhhhhh Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, fights monsters and explores twisted versions of popular fairy tales in this collection of stories from Andrzej Sapkowski.
For someone who wants to go on an adventure: Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell
If your friend’s idea of a good time is getting involved in a fight they have no particular right to be in, that allows them to piss off people in power for the heck of it, and having an absolute blast doing it, this is the book for them.
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.
20) 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.
19) 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.
18) 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.
17) The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood – The 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.
16) 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.
15) 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.
14) 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.
13) 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 Revengeis one of the best books of 2020. You can find our full review here.
12) Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Harrow 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.
11) 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.
10) 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.
9) 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.
8) 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.
7) 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.
6) Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler – Ashes 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.
5) 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.
4) 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.
3) 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.
2) 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.
1) 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!
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.
The 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.
Nophek 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.
Cole – Man, 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.
Elatsoe 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.
Nick 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.
I 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.
Oh 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.
I have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.
The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.
It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.
After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.
Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.
Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.