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!

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex