Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2020

Adrian Liang on November 23, 2020

New book club must-reads

I admit, I had some qualms about 2020 when we were about, oh, three months in. And I still have qualms, but absolutely not about the books that were unveiled this year, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy world.

In June, the Amazon Books Editors named N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became as the best science fiction and fantasy book of 2020 so far. A fantastical love letter to the city of New York and its varied (and sometimes magical!) denizens, the novel is filled with not just deep thoughts but cinematic action scenes. A main character even rides down the highway while standing on top of an old-timey cab holding a magical, monster-killing umbrella. (Yes, the book is fun.)

Typically our team picks a different book in November from what we picked in June—after all, six months’ worth of new books have landed in our hands by then, and we all know that new and shiny is the most exciting. But this year, The City We Became hung onto our hearts and our souls and wouldn’t let go. (Much like a certain thing in the book itself, in fact, which I won’t talk too much about because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t yet cracked the book open.)

That said, it was a great year for books, from beginning to end. Here are 10 of our top picks, and you can see the full list of all 20 books at the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Year.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin brings her reality-ripping storytelling skills to her own backyard of New York City in this vivid series starter. In The City We Became, few people realize that Earth’s grandest cities—London, Hong Kong, São Paolo, and others—are alive. When New York City tries to join that select group, five people in the city unexpectedly become the living embodiments of each of the city’s boroughs and must fend off an ancient enemy that has successfully killed cities before. Fortunately, the city’s avatars also discover that with great responsibility comes great powers. Paranormal battles on top of cabs, hidden subway stations, New York City politics, and local artists’ galleries thread through each other in a live-wire love letter to the city and its diverse denizens. While Jemisin has won awards with her previous novels and novellas, this one may be the most likely to win readers’ hearts.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

A caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), Linus Baker investigates orphanages that care for magical youth to make sure that the children are safe. But he does everything completely by the book, and once he makes his recommendations about the children, the orphanages, or the people who run them, he doesn’t look back. When Extremely Upper Management sends Linus on a top-secret trip to a “non-traditional” orphanage that houses six children of various abilities, Linus expects the month-long investigation to be straightforward. But he soon learns better. A heartwarming story of finding and making one’s family in the most unlikeliest of places, The House in the Cerulean Sea is like a much-needed hug, at the end of which you’ll utter a happy sigh. (Fun fact: TJ Klune also nabbed spots among the Best Romances of the Year and Best Young Adult Books of the Year—all for different books!)

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Those who wondered why parents continued to send their magical kids to Hogwarts will really wonder about the parents in A Deadly Education. Every single day at the magical high school called the Scholomance, El has to fight for her life, whether she’s walking to class, getting lunch in the cafeteria, or browsing the library. (Though no one really “browses.” That’s a fast way to get yourself dead.) But being tough is how she’s going to stand out when it comes to making alliances during the final years of school, so having her life saved multiple times by Orion doesn’t make El grateful—it makes her mad. Naomi Novik (Uprooted) is clearly having a great deal of fun with El, this horrible school, and the even scarier world outside, even as she thoughtfully tackles trauma, privilege, loneliness, and true friendship.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia cleverly doubles down on the gothic’s overwrought reputation by setting Mexican Gothic in the 1950s and putting a young socialite in the starring role. Unsettled by a strange letter, Noemí leaves cosmopolitan Mexico City to check on her newly married but naïve cousin, who now lives at a remote estate called High Place. Noemí—who smokes cigarettes, drives a convertible, and knows her mind—discovers that High Place lives in the past: mold runs across the wall paper, the electricity barely works, and the servants don’t speak. Plus the ancient English-born master of the house has a thing for eugenics, and Noemí’s cousin is clearly losing her mind. And then Noemí herself begins to hear voices.… Put plenty of me-time on your calendar, because you won’t want to stop for breaks while you race through Moreno-Garcia’s creepy, glorious read that is pitch-perfect for today’s audience.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I think I spent the first quarter of Harrow the Ninth trying to figure out just what the heck was going on—but that just kept me turning the pages even faster and staying up even later. Muir proved in Gideon the Ninth that she can put together a heck of a puzzle. That puzzle continues as Harrow is trained by the undead Emperor to fight a planet-eating monster that desperately wants to eat the Emperor as well, but visions of a dead woman and mysterious letters Harrow apparently wrote to herself make Harrow wonder what is real and what is not. Necromancy galore, missing memories (lots!), and a centuries-long conspiracy spin up into a jaw-dropping revelation. Bring on Alecto the Ninth!

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas, Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning) sets three protagonists on a collision course—a spiritual leader struggling to connect with the disillusioned people, a blind man with otherworldly powers and who is destined for greatness, and a ship captain whose skill upon the waves will make or break the future. Roanhorse’s fantasy gives a new mythology an intimate and familiar feel, even as she propels the reader to flip madly through the pages to find out what happens next.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Everyone’s favorite part-human, part-machine security unit is back in the fray with a full-length novel, accompanied once more by ART, a “research vessel” that carries a remarkable assortment of armaments. Murderbot’s parenthesis-within-parenthesis thought processes feel a bit unruly in the beginning, but soon the action fires up and Murderbot does what it does best: delivers a rip-roaring adventure punctuated with humor and explosions. Happily, the next Murderbot novel is already scheduled for spring 2021.

Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie

Orphaned by the seizure of his planet by the Umber Empire, Ettian sees the Umber military academy as his way to putting the past firmly behind him and living a pilot’s existence untroubled by hunger, fear, and bad dreams. But when his roommate, best friend, and secret crush, Gal, is targeted for assassination and then revealed to be the heir to the empire, Ettian finds that the past he’s tried to keep buried won’t stay put. Fast-paced, fun, and sweetly vibrating with longing, Emily Skrutskie's SF adventure delivers a humdinger of an ending that will have readers lining up for book two in the series.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Paolini—best known for his fantasy series that began with Eragon—steps into the world of adult sci-fi with this tense story of an alien encounter. When Kira discovers an alien artifact on a planet being prepped for colonization, protocol demands that everyone aware of the artifact be temporarily cut off, so the aliens cannot trace signals back to humanity’s home worlds. A good plan in theory… but the reality gets far more complicated. And bloody. Paolini does an excellent job of heightening the tension with each page, even as he gives the reader some mental breathing space with moments of humor.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

There’s something about Schwab’s newest novel that reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The scope, I think, and the way it convinces you that a heck of a lot more is happening behind the scenes than you ever dreamed of. Amazon editorial director Sarah Gelman has been a big champion of this book, and she says, “In the 1700s, Addie LaRue makes a deal with the devil—she will live forever, although her immortality comes with the curse of being forgotten by everyone. Addie moves through time and across continents; she learns to survive and even leave her mark on the world. Then one day she meets a man in a bookstore who remembers her name, and suddenly everything changes. This deeply satisfying and cinematic novel rivals contemporary classic The Time Traveler’s Wife in concept and scope.” Readers of Schwab’s Shades of Magic series will be wowed again by how Schwab makes the fantastical seem real, while newcomers will likely deem her their new favorite author by the final pages of this book.

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