Like many others, I turned to books to escape the horror show that was 2020. And more than any other year of my life I found myself predominantly reading fantasy novels. This isn’t unusual because fantasy is my preferred genre. But with all of the uncertainty of everything happening in the world – and the fact that 2020 already felt like we were living in a dystopian sci-fi novel – meant that I turned to the genre that has always been a form of escapism and a source of comfort for me. Even the darker fantasy books still held more hope than our current timeline. So without further ado, here are our top 10 fantasy books of 2020 presented in alphabetical order (by author’s last name) because I can’t rank these books I loved so much (the alphabetizing is because I am still a bookseller at heart).
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi is an incredibly fitting novel for the year of the pandemic that forced us all into isolation. The book is many things, but part of that is a deep meditation on being alone. Author Susanna Clarke wrote this novel after a long illness that prevented her from writing for many years. In an interview with The Guardian, the author speaks to the foundations of the novel and also references one of my favorite graphic novel series of all time.
“Some ideas go into your mind and become part of the furniture,” she says. “I also remember reading in Alan Moore’s Promethea comics that ‘We’ve all had this dream of wandering in a great house’, and I thought yes, I do have that dream quite often! I was trying to conjure up an environment that is quite startling, but at the same time you think, ‘I’ve almost been here before.’”
The sophomore novel from the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was released an astonishing 16 years after Clarke’s first novel. The main character is the titular Piranesi (which may not be his real name) who lives alone in a House with endless hallways and mysterious statuary. Clarke describes the novel as being “about a man who lives in a House in which an Ocean is imprisoned.” The book is otherworldly and haunting, full of magic and mystery.
Trouble The Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Trouble The Saints is a little bit different from the others on this list, and that is a good thing. It is a standalone novel like some of the others, it is also a kind of alt-history period piece. But it is pure magic all the way through. The story follows three complicated protagonists who are entangled with a mob boss. Each of them is a person of color who has the power of the ‘saint’s hands’ that gives them unique supernatural abilities. The crime lord in question wants to utilize that power for his own gain, and each character has to deal with the horrors that they have inflicted (intentional or not) due to their abilities.
The novel is an intense character exploration, as each individual must process their internal struggles before addressing the external dramas. It builds a rich and evocative world that confronts headon issues like racism, xenophobia, and prejudice. A bold and extraordinary standalone novel from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
The Once & Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
In case you missed my glowing review of The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, you should know that I loved this book deeply. It felt like the book I had been waiting my whole life to read. It is a beautiful story about three sisters who strive to return witchcraft – along with women’s power – to the world. Overlapping with the suffragette movement of the 1890’s, it is an alternate history novel where witchcraft was once very real and powerful. A timely and timeless novel that also examines the complicated bonds of sisterhood, magic, and power. This book is absolutely one of my top 10 fantasy novels of 2020.
The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
The final chapter of R.F. Kuang’s epic Poppy War series. The Burning God has been hailed as a masterpiece and the best written book of the entire trilogy. (Full disclosure: I am still on the second book of this series, so I have to attempt to avoid spoilers while looking up details of this book.) The series is an epic fantasy that draws from real-world events in Chinese history including the Nanjing Massacre. Although the heavy source material and traumatic moments that happen throughout the series can be difficult to read, Kuang makes up for it with her beautiful prose and heartbreaking emotional beats. These books are complex and character driven, asking hard questions and not providing any easy answers. There is no binary battle between good and evil here, and that is part of the strength of the series.
The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
The Poet King by Ilana C. Myer
The Poet King is the epic conclusion to The Harp and Ring Sequence by Ilana C. Myer that began with her first novel Last Song Before Night. The first book was technically supposed to be a standalone novel, but I feel that this triptych is best read in order. The final book delves deeper into the eternal battle between good and evil with the fae-like White Queen and the Shadow King. Music and poetry are the heart of the magic in this world, and Myer utilizes these tools to great effect with her lyrical language. For more details on The Poet King, be sure to check out our interview with author Ilana C. Myer!
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is the first book in her Drowning Empire trilogy. And it does everything the first book in a trilogy should do, and more. It sets up all of our major protagonists, who don’t all meet up in the first book but we can’t wait for them to interact. Stewart builds a fascinating and evocative world with unique magical constructs. There is a magical creature as a companion for one of the main characters, and that’s something I really missed in recent fantasy novels.
The novel is about Lin, the daughter of the Emperor who must prove herself in order to become the true heir to the throne. But it is also about Jovis, a smuggler with a heart of gold who kind of stumbles into becoming a hero. And then there is Phalue and her lover Ranami, who find themselves embroiled in a resistance against the corrupt Empire. The characters are all well drawn and the world invites more stories that we can’t wait to dive into. If you’re interested in more about The Bone Shard Daughter and future books in the series, check out our interview with Andrea Stewart!
(Featured image: Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash)