This year saw a significant shift in my reading, triggered by the fact that I published my debut science fiction novel, The Wall, and spent most of the year working on its sequel. Being a genre writer shapes your reading preferences in a very specific way: you begin to actively look out for, and read, novels that share the stylistic or narrative commitments of your own, and you also find yourself reading more broadly in the genre, to gain a sense of what it looks like. So, in 2020, a large part of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and I feel it ended up becoming a little too skewed. That’s something I’ll try to correct in 2021. Because of writing commitments, I also read less than in previous years, and hardly blogged all year. With the sequel – and the duology – set to be completed in ten days, that’s another thing to correct in the coming year.
Here, as always, the books I read this year, with the usual flawed rating system. I’ve talked about my SFF reading separately as well, in my Slack newsletter. You can find links to all the books on my Goodreads Page.
- Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (****): A memorable and haunting re-telling of the WW2-era Ethiopian war of independence from colonial Italian rule, from the perspective of its women participants.
- Jennifer Makumbi, The First Woman (*****): A beautiful and searing coming-of-age story set in 1970s Uganda, following its protagonist, Kirabo, as she makes her way through childhood, school, and then college, in a changing and often hostile world. One of the stand-out reads of the year.
The Middle East
- Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (****): Hammad’s novel takes us to pre-nakba Nablus, and is a very vivid story about Palestine in the 1920s – an era that has been relatively unwritten about.
- Ibtisam Azem, The Book of Disappearance (****): Azem’s novel – in which all the Palestinians presently living in Israel and Palestine literally vanish overnight – could also be called speculative fiction, but I’m including it here to avoid front-loading that category even more.
- Adel Kamel, The Magnificent Conman of Cairo (***): The title is a good guide to the novel. This is a classic of Egyptian literature. It didn’t always land for me, but there were moments of darkly comic brilliant, and you can see why it was as influential as it was.
- Victor Serge, Conquered City (***): I love Victor Serge to bits, but this one – about a Soviet city torn apart very soon after the revolution – just didn’t do it for me. I felt bogged down at various points, and the momentary flashes of brilliance didn’t make up for that.
- China Mieville, October (****): Mieville’s fictional reconstruction of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of spectacular – this is thrilling narrative prose, brilliant characterisation, and a deeply moving ending.
- Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, My Father’s Garden (****): A deeply enjoyable and humorous set of three inter-connected short stories, set in small-town India, with its protagonists coming to terms with the world, and with their own sexuality.
- Pyotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution (*****) : The legendary anarchist’s look back at the French Revolution, a hundred years on, is a ride and a half. His acerbic, drily witty style is an absolute delight to read, and his central thesis – that the revolution’s radicalism was repeatedly betrayed by an ascendant middle class – holds up well.
- Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution (****) : I am a long-time fan of Hazan – his political-geography Paris books were my guides when I was in the city – and this is a characteristically excellent account, albeit far too easy on Robespierre.
- Kavita Punjabi, Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement (*****): A brilliant feminist oral history – in the mold of Alessandro Portelli – of the forgotten Tebhaga movement, where – at the cusp of independence – farmers in Bengal demanded two-thirds of the produce. Another stand-out of the year.
- Nazik al-Mala’ika, Revolt Against the Sun (trans. Emily Drumsta) (*****): I’ve loved Nazik al-Mala’ika ever since I read the poem Love Song for Words, and here, finally, is a collection of her translated poems. Emily Drumsta’s Introduction is a jewel – she contextualises al-Mala’ika’s life, her poetic and political preoccupations, and the larger context of a woman writing poetry in Iraq in the mid-20th century. The Introduction also does to a tee what all great Introductions do: it makes you understand and love the poems even more.
- Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago (***): In my early 20s, I probably knew entire dialogues from GGK novels by heart. It’s probably a sign of how much taste can change that his latest – which, in theory, I should have loved, as it took us back to the same setting as the brilliant Tigana – did very little for me. Nothing wrong with the novel – it’s vintage GGK – but I guess I’ve just moved on.
- Nancy Kress, Sea Change (***): An interesting cli-fi novel(la), focused on the agribusiness and food security aspect of it; the heavily US-centric nature of it was probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I otherwise would.
- Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (*****): Yes, I finally read this. What else is there to say?
- Fonda Lee, Jade City (****): The first book in the Green Bone saga, centred around the clash between rival clans for control over jade, and its political economy. Jade City has received rave reviews across the board, and it is a very solid work of fantasy – world-building, pacing, characters, action sequences – all of it is delivered with great competence.
- Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (*****): I waited far too long to read this book, and when I did, it went straight to the top of my all-time list. I’ve raved about this everywhere, but one final time: epic fantasy focused on the political economy of colonialism and empire, and featuring the best darn slow-burn romance you will ever read.
- Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant (*****): The sequel. See above.
- Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (****): Book 3 kinda slipped in parts, but the ending was solid enough to get things back on track and set up a spectacular finale.
- Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (*****): Another extraordinary novel, the kind that comes along rarely (and I read Baru and Gideon back to back). “Lesbian necromancers in space” is how it’s billed, but of course it is a lot more than that – I think it’s the sheer, unabashed wickedness of the writing that really gets you.
- Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth (***): I’ll be absolutely honest and admit that I did not understand what was happening in the sequel.
- Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits (****): A best-of-all-possible dystopias with a sliver of hope, set in a near-future Delhi (always a draw!).
- Berit Ellingsen, A Tale of Truths (****): A fun fantasy novella that involves the discovery of the heliocentric model of the galaxy!
- Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and other Stories (****): A collection of excellent short stories from Ken Liu that shows why he continues to be one of the most highly-regarded voices of the genre right now.
- Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagant (****): I am a huge fan of Lee’s Hexarchate SF series. Phoenix Extravagant is an altogether softer novel, and its fantasy, loosely modeled on the Korean/Japanese war. I especially loved how art – and artists – were at the centre of this novel, something you don’t always see in fantasy.
- Yoss, Red Dust (****): Yoss is back! The Cuban biochemist punk rocker SFF writer – and an eternal favourite – has another crazy romp through the galaxy, and you can bet that biological absurdities abound in this book whose main character is called… Raymond Chandler.
- Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (****): Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, a compulsive read (finished it in two 3AM sittings), and excellent military SF all around.
- Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline (****): A really unique time-travel novel where the central premise involves rescuing women’s right to abortion.
- Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (****): Dark-ish fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, and involving a lot of god-like stuff. The prose style – a kind of Gothic with a LatAm touch – was especially compelling.
- Iain M. Banks (***): The opening novel of the Culture series is probably also my least favourite. Incredibly tedious in parts, brilliant in parts.
- Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Analogue/Virtual (****): A set of inter-connected vigenettes set in a dystopic near-future Bangalore divided into its two halves, the virtual and the analogue.
- R.B. Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves (****): A delightful little novella with an atmospheric prose style, featuring trans elders and weaving.
- Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (****): A book that’s polarised opinion. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The middle part was outstanding. The beginning and end were a little… unintelligible.
- Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden (*****): Possibly the best genre novel I read all year. The novel is lyrical, haunting, and has an arc that literally spans the universe. Read this.
- Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun (****): A solid and enjoyable fantasy novel set in pre-Columbian America.
- Essa Hansen, Nophek Gloss (*****): A pretty scintillating hard-SF debut, set in a deliciously imagined multiverse, and featuring a truly memorable protagonist.
- Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (****): The third Culture novel. It starts to get better.
- Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Donald, The Dominion Anthology: Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (****): A solid collection. Some familiar names, some new ones, and some of the stories – like Eugen Bacon’s – will stay with you for a long time.
- Andres Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers (****): My last read of 2020. I have many mixed and complicated feelings about this novel, a German SF classic. You’ll hear about them in the newsletter!
Have a happy 2021, filled with books!