As usual, Earl Grey Editing will be shutting down over the Christmas break. I’ll be on holiday from today until 4 January.
Since this is my last post of the year, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite reads of 2020. This comes with the usual caveat that these are not books that were necessarily published this year, just read by me this year.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. When a postgrad student in computer game narrative discovers a mysterious book in the university library, he finds himself caught up in a battle to save a strange and magical refuge. This book was quite divisive in my book club and I was in the minority of those who loved it. I found it to be a beautiful tale crammed full with symbols and stories. The structure is twisty, switching back and forth between the main plot and several interconnected stories; I wouldn’t recommend listening to this one on audio. The pace might strike some as slow in places, but I thought it did some very clever things in relation to time–which is a key theme… or character. I also liked the inclusion of a queer romantic plotline.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. When the Emperor calls the heirs of the nine houses to a trial of necromantic skills, Gideon finds herself dragooned into serving as a cavalier to her most hated enemy: the head of her house. I was a bit dubious this would live up to the hype, but while I knew it was something akin to lesbian Warhammer, no one told me it was actually a manor house murder mystery in disguise. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. An ambassador to a powerful empire investigates the death of her predecessor while navigating the intricacies of foreign culture and politics. This won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year and deservedly so. Mahit is very relatable as she tries to stay alive long enough to figure out who to trust. The book balances intrigue and action in a satisfying way, while delving into issues of identity and colonialism.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The youngest, half-goblin son of an elvish emperor inherits the throne after an accident kills the emperor and his heirs. I’m very late to the party on this one, to my regret. This is a very gentle story with a sweet protagonist who is just doing his best to deal with the overwhelming obligations he’s suddenly inherited as well as the trauma of his upbringing.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. A ghost hunter strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier to go into the underworld and find his partner. I found it bleak to begin with, but got sucked in by the relationship between Wasp and the ghost. It was refreshing to see a strong platonic friendship between a man and a woman. The worldbuilding was also a great mix of fantasy and science fiction, which I adored. And the ending was pitch perfect.
Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer. Steph and her mum have been on the run for years. Her only friends are a chat group in an online community called CatNet. Unbeknownst to Steph, the group is run by a sentient AI who goes by CheshireCat. When danger threatens Steph and her mum, CheshireCat steps in to try and help. This was such a great story. There’s a wonderful feeling of found family, particularly as the members of CatNet come together online (and, later, in person) to help Steph. CheshireCat reads convincingly as young, despite being an AI–their intentions are good but the actions they take have ramifications they haven’t predicted. In addition to the romantic interest, the queer vibes are somewhat reinforced by CheshireCat’s “coming out” as an AI. It’s an action-packed story with a bit of violence; people with sensitivities to stalking and domestic abuse should tread carefully.
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri. The illegitimate daughter of a governor comes to the attention of the Emperor for her magic. She is married off to one of the Emperor’s mystics as a way of enslaving her powers. A brilliant book. Mehr is a racial minority in the territory governed by her father, but protected by his position. I loved that this privilege is shown as having pros and cons. On one hand, she hasn’t had to worry about her safety or comfort. On the other hand, her sheltered ignorance puts her in danger. The story also comes with a deliciously slow-burning romance. The sequel, Realm of Ash, was equally brilliant, sealing Tasha Suri as an author I’ll be following in the future.
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings. A young lady in a rural Australian town goes searching for clues about the disappearance of her father and brothers. Delightfully atmospheric, with a very poetical turn of phrase. I loved seeing scraps of fairytales and folklore be twisted into something new and Australian flavoured. The structure was also clever, involving one overarching story containing several other stories which can be read discretely, though as they are all set in the same region we also get to see how they influence the overarching story in subtle ways.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. In 1920s Mexico, a poor young woman accidentally frees the Mayan god of death. She must set out on a road trip to collect his missing parts before he drains the life from her. This was a brilliant story, full of nuance. The balance between the romance elements and Casiopea’s independence was deftly handled. Her antagonistic cousin was shown as having understandable motives, while not letting him off the hook for his actions. Highly recommended.
Just go ahead and assume I’d include on this list pretty much everything Courtney Milan has ever written. But for a representative sample:
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan. A duke incognito returns to the village he used to visit yearly in the hopes he can convince the woman he’s in love with to marry him. The characters were adorable. I found Chloe’s preoccupation with her lists and ambitions very relatable.
Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez. Takes an accessible look at the gender bias in design and data collection, and the ways this ripples outward to affect every part of society. Well worth reading.
A is for Arsenic: The poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. An examination of fourteen of the poisons used in Christie’s novels, detailing the origin and history of the poison, how it affects the body, known cures, real-life cases and how they were used in the novels. I’ve not read any of Christie’s stories, but I still found this utterly fascinating.
Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Pretty much what it says on the cover. I have a soft spot for nature poetry, and Le Guin, of course, has a way with words.