I believe this is new for our “Best Of” week, but I challenged each of our reviewers to pick their favorite release of 2020, whether they reviewed it or not. Some of them weren’t too happy they had to pick just one, though this place would be absolutely lawless if I didn’t make rules!
Here are our favorites of the year! We’d also love to hear about your best read of 2020!
The Hidden Moon
A well-bred lady and lowly street hustler team up in a historical murder mystery set during China’s glittering Tang Dynasty. Part of the best-selling Lotus Palace series.
Impetuous and well-educated, young Lady Bai has always been the forgotten daughter between two favored sons. However, when Wei-wei’s older brother is tasked with investigating a high-profile assassination, he turns to his clever younger sister for assistance.
Gao is a street-wise scoundrel with a checkered past and a shady reputation. He knows better than to set his sights on the high-born Lady Bai, but when she asks for his help, he can’t refuse.
As the unlikely pair chase down a conspiracy that reaches from the gutters of the capital to the imperial palace, Wei-wei is intent on seeing justice done, while Gao is determined to solve the mystery just for her – even if the attraction between them can never be more than a moment’s longing.
Aarya: I want it known that I rebuke the concept of choosing ONE favorite book of 2020 (I read nearly 200 books this year! This selection is a special exercise in torture). Since I’m under duress, my pick is The Hidden Moon by Jeannie Lin (*sighs sadly in the direction of Rebecca Roanhorse, Sarah Hogle, and Milla Vane*). I first glommed the Pingkang Li Mysteries and Lin’s other historicals during a frenetic weekend a couple years ago. After reading the 2016 novella The Liar’s Dice, I was devastated to realize Wei-wei’s full-length romance with the scoundrel Gao didn’t exist. At the time, I sent the author fanmail and inquired about Wei-wei and Gao’s book; she replied that she dreamed about writing their story, but was uncertain if it would ever come to fruition since they were an “impossible pairing.” I was crushed. I wanted Wei-wei’s story right in that second. Imagine my surprised delight when Lin announced The Hidden Moon in August 2020. Just when I had lost all hope! The Hidden Moon met my ridiculously high expectations, and is the perfect illustration of why Jeannie Lin is one of my favorite authors. I loved a lot of books this year, but this has a special place in my heart.
You Should See Me in a Crown
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?
Amanda: I was really waffling back and forth on what to pick, but I decided going with the fluffier option is probably for the best. We all need more feel-good, charming reads and this YA debut fit the bit. It’s bubbly and effervescent with a delightful, tenacious heroine you root for right from page one.
The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Released: October 13, 2020 by Redhook
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Carrie: I found this book about sisters and female power, set in a fantastical USA in 1893, to be immersive, suspenseful, and inspiring. There were other books I reviewed this year that got higher grades from me but this book, with it’s challenging narrative and impeccable language, has stuck in my head in a “this book changed me for the better” way.
Or What You Will
Author: Jo Walton
Released: July 7, 2020 by Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Or What You Will is an utterly original novel about how stories are brought forth from Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jo Walton.
He has been too many things to count. He has been a dragon with a boy on his back. He has been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. He has been dream and dreamer. He has been a god.
But “he” is in fact nothing more than a spark of idea, a character in the mind of Sylvia Harrison, 73, award-winning author of thirty novels over forty years. He has played a part in most of those novels, and in the recesses of her mind, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.
But Sylvia won’t live forever, any more than any human does. And he’s trapped inside her cave of bone, her hollow of skull. When she dies, so will he.
Now Sylvia is starting a new novel, a fantasy for adult readers, set in Thalia, the Florence-resembling imaginary city that was the setting for a successful YA trilogy she published decades before. Of course he’s got a part in it. But he also has a notion. He thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of mortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.
Catherine: Like Aarya, I reject the very idea of choosing ONE book to rule them all this year. I read so many novels that I absolutely loved. But I keep finding myself mentally going back to Or What You Will, I think because I read it at a time when things were feeling very bleak here in Melbourne, and it both held my attention and took me completely out of myself. Everything else I’ve enjoyed this year has been very fluffy, which this is most certainly not, but it felt like the holiday I really needed, and Walton’s Firenze/Thalia, with its incredible food, and its genderbending social mores and its Shakespearean characters who are not quite as we know them from the plays is still taking up space in my mind five months after reading it. (And yes, I really did buy seven copies of it as Christmas presents.)
The Lord I Left
He’s a minister to whores… She’s a fallen woman…
Lord Lieutenant Henry Evesham is an evangelical reformer charged with investigating the flesh trade in London. His visits to bawdy houses leave him with a burning desire to help sinners who’ve lost their innocence to vice—even if the temptations of their world test his vow not to lose his moral compass…again.
As apprentice to London’s most notorious whipping governess, Alice Hull is on the cusp of abandoning her quiet, rural roots for the city’s swirl of provocative ideas and pleasures—until a family tragedy upends her dreams and leaves her desperate to get home. When the handsome, pious Lord Lieutenant offers her a ride despite the coming blizzard, she knows he is her best chance to reach her ailing mother—even if she doesn’t trust him.
He has the power to destroy her… She has the power to undo him…
As they struggle to travel the snow-swept countryside, they find their suspicion of each other thawing into a longing that leaves them both shaken. Alice stirs Henry’s deepest fantasies, and he awakens parts of her she thought she’d foresworn years ago. But Henry is considering new regulations that threaten the people Alice holds dear, and association with a woman like Alice would threaten Henry’s reputation if he allowed himself to get too close.
Is falling for the wrong person a test of faith …or a chance at unimagined grace?
Claudia: Perhaps it is not surprising this was an early 2020 read; later in the year, several books definitely deserved more attention than I could give them. I enjoyed the funny and tender moments in this book and it had some of my favorite setups in romance.
The Silence of Bones
June Hur’s elegant and haunting debut The Silence of Bones is a bloody YA historical mystery tale perfect for fans of Kerri Maniscalco and Renée Ahdieh.
I have a mouth, but I mustn’t speak;
Ears, but I mustn’t hear;
Eyes, but I mustn’t see.
1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.
But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.
Ellen: Anyone keeping up with my reviews probably won’t be surprised by this pick, but this layered, poetic historical mystery has stuck in my mind for months. One of the most moving, thought-provoking, and well-crafted books I’ve ever read.
Amarrah Brewer is desperate and grief-stricken.
For ages, the town of Bitterburn has sent tribute to the Keep at the End of the World, but a harsh winter leaves them unable to pay the toll that keeps the Beast at bay. Amarrah volunteers to brave what no one has before—to end the threat or die trying.
The Beast of Bitterburn has lost all hope.
One way or another, Njål has been a prisoner for his entire life. Monstrous evil has left him trapped and lonely, and he believes that will never change. There is only darkness in his endless exile, never light. Never warmth. Until she arrives.
It’s a tale as old as time… where Beauty goes to confront the Beast and falls in love instead.
Elyse: This is hands down my favorite adaption of Beauty and the Beast. It keeps all of the elements I love–like the library and the Gothic castle, but gives the heroine far more agency.
He’s awkward. He’s adorable. He’s alien as hell.
Zylar of Kith Balak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he’ll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This ‘human being’ is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.
She’s frazzled. She’s fierce. She’s from St. Louis.
Beryl Bowman’s mother always said she’d never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn’t know what the hell’s going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.
They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.
Maya: Ann Aguirre party!!!! I just read this and I love it so much. I also met a dog right after I read Strange Love that reminded me of the dog in the book. Much like the doggy in the book, he is the sweetest boy!! But anyway, a love story about two individuals whose strengths were not recognized as being valuable by the societies they came from, but were immediately seen by their partners as being wonderful was really reasonate for me. Also, I loved the side story of REVENGE.
Author: Martha Wells
Released: May 5, 2020 by Tor.com
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5
You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.
I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.
When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.
Drastic action it is, then.
Sarah: Given how many times I’ve re-read the series and this book, this is not a surprise. Murderbot got me through 2020, no question. And as Hapax pointed out in the comments, this is indeed an aromantic asexual romantic suspense novel. With aliens. And snark.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown
Talia Hibbert returns with another charming romantic comedy about a young woman who agrees to fake date her friend after a video of him “rescuing” her from their office building goes viral…
Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.
When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?
Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his… um, thighs.
Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?
Shana: I’m extremely glad this book exists. It’s sweet. It’s charming. It likes to replay as a movie in my head (why has no one optioned it yet?!?!)
The Duke Who Didn’t
Miss Chloe Fong has plans for her life, lists for her days, and absolutely no time for nonsense. Three years ago, she told her childhood sweetheart that he could talk to her once he planned to be serious. He disappeared that very night.
Except now he’s back. Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, has returned to the tiny village he once visited with the hope of wooing Chloe. In his defense, it took him years of attempting to be serious to realize that the endeavor was incompatible with his personality.
All he has to do is convince Chloe to make room for a mischievous trickster in her life, then disclose that in all the years they’ve known each other, he’s failed to mention his real name, his title… and the minor fact that he owns her entire village.
Only one thing can go wrong: Everything.
Sneezy: This book made me feel seen and transcendent in a way few books do. It reflected my experiences with culture, place, and being racialized. I especially appreciated how delicious the food was, and how it was used in the story. This story was incredibly sharp, gave all the catnip and none of the trite grit, and flounced with effervescent glee away from the typical romance plot line.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
A desperate orphan turned pirate and a rebellious imperial daughter find a connection on the high seas in a world divided by colonialism and threaded with magic.
Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian.
Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.
Tara: I am joining Aarya and Catherine in their protest, since there were four books this year that were standouts for me. However, rules are rules, so I’m rolling with the one that I gave the highest grade. The Mermaid, the Witch and The Sea does so many things well. I love how queer it is with lesbians and nonbinary characters (and even more than one way to be nonbinary!). The world-building is spectacular and I especially love the central message that we all get to write our own stories.