It’s been a year of years, friends.
Whatever 2020 looked like for you, and wherever you find yourself at the wee dawn of this new year, I hope you’ve found some warmth and comfort in the little places in your life. It’s been a terrible few months all around, so I hope (and Sprout hopes!) that you’ve been treating yourself gently too.
Amidst a lot of personal turbulence in the past year (between online college and some bad mental health days), fiction was a constant that I returned to over and over again whenever I needed grounding—the stories I experienced were both escape portals and anchors in my day-to-day life. It is perhaps no surprise that I ended up reading double the amount of books I set out to read in my 2020 Goodreads goal; the achievement feels a little bittersweet, but it’s a victory nonetheless! It brings me a lot of joy today to be rounding up all of my favorite books that I read this strange, strange year, and I hope they bring you some solace too.
But first, some stats!
Sprout’s 2020 Reading Stats
I started tracking my reading this year using a Google spreadsheet I adapted from my friend Fadwa @ Word Wonders’ template, and honestly just the motions of filling it in and watching the charts populate have brought me an inexplicable sense of fulfillment. Here’s a slideshow of the most interesting data I’ve collected over the year:
- I apparently read a pretty equal amount of YA and Adult, which surprised me! I thought I was much more of a YA reader, but upon reflection I’m definitely more drawn to Adult SFF than I am to like, YA contemporaries. Though RIP my MG book count.
- Ah, I like keeping track of how diverse my reading is, so I know what kind of books to focus on next! From this current chart I can see that I definitely need to get reading more Latinx and Indigenous American-authored books—I’m thinking of getting through my backlog of Anna-Marie McLemore books soon, but if you have recs you think I’ll enjoy, absolutely feel free to leave them in the comments!
- My reading count skyrocketed in February because I discovered the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire around this time, and I binge read so many. novellas.
- I read so many of my books digitally, dang. My Kindle has been such an important investment.
- My most read genre across the board is SFF, and this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Fantasy will always be my favorite genre, I think, but it’s been fun to branch out a little into gothic and soft sci-fi this year too!
- Queer rep in the books I read is… okay. I read a lot of sapphic books, apparently. Hoping to lessen the books I read that have no queer rep at all this year, though.
- The last one outlines the types of books I read, and I’m honestly delighted to see comics coming in second after full-length novels? I love comics, friends.
All in all, I do love being able to look back at my year in reading like this—I feel like the charts really help to clarify the kind of reader I am and the types of stories I enjoy, as well as where I can do better to be inclusive in the authors I choose to read!
Okay, onto the main event. Understand that this list was extremely hard to pare down; I read an honestly staggering amount of excellent fiction in 2020! But ordered by sequels, and then by age category, here are the absolutely unforgettable books I read in 2020:
Honorable mentions: sequels I adored
Iron Heart by Nina Varela
The sequel to Crier’s War (2019).
Crier and Ayla are on the run as fugitives—Ayla to the neighbouring queendom of Varn, where revolution is brewing in response to Automae rule; Crier to the wilds, anywhere that isn’t her wedding to Scrye Kinok. As the war between Automae and humankind looms on the horizon, they must uncover the dark secrets belying the Iron Heart, the source of all Automae fuel, as well as their tangled histories in order to save the world—and each other.
This was good. This was so good.
This was perhaps one of my most anticipated books of the year simply by virtue of being the sequel to one of my favorite books from 2019, and it lived up to all of my sky-high expectations and then more. The series is very much an exploration of war, conflict, and what it means to find something worth fighting for—but it’s also about two girls hopelessly wound around each other. They were foes on opposing sides of a brewing conflict in Crier’s War, but in Iron Heart they’re allies—a good part of the book is lovingly dedicated to how tender these two girls can be when they don’t have to be enemies. Nina’s prose soars here, and it was such a thrill to bear witness to the conclusion of Crier and Ayla’s intertwined stories. I’m so glad to be able to shelve this series now as an all-time favorite.
Unravel the Dusk by Elizabeth Lim
The sequel to Spin the Dawn (2019).
Maia Tamarin, royal tailor and now the emperor’s bride-to-be, wove the dresses of the sun, moon, and stars—and it has cost her everything. Her sacrifice has landed her in a dark place: a demon now threatens to take over her soul, the boy she loves has fled the palace, and the lands around her are on the brink of war. How much further will Maia have to go to defend her home, her beloved, and her very humanity?
Whenever I think about books that gave me the most heartache last year, this sequel looms huge in my mind. There was something inexplicably soul-wrenching about the journey that Maia goes through in this book, having made a bargain with a demon and slowly turning into one herself. I was reeling the whole day after I finished reading this. This is a much, much darker entry in the duology, as it rightfully should be, but underneath all the life-ending stakes and the torment still flowed the first book’s unwavering belief in the magical power of stories, of folklore and fairytales that are passed down from generation to generation, that hold strong even as fields turn to grass and back into gold again. I loved the beautiful lyrical, prose, and the ending was everything I needed it to be for the characters I had grown to love. All the stars.
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🌱 Sprout’s Top Ten Reads of 2020 🌱
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A Thai-inspired fantasy retelling of Les Misérables, about blessings, justice, and mangoes.
Ever since he was born, Pong has known two things: he is going to find a way out of Namwon Prison, the facility he has been confined to all his life, and that the lights of the city, all created by the Governor, are magical. When he finally breaks free one day, he is noticed only by the prison warden’s uptight but capable daughter, Nok, which starts off a chase between the two across all of Chattana. Along the way, Pong encounters monks, delicious food, and the beautiful lights—but the lights aren’t as wondrous up close, as he begins to discover that life outside of Namwon Prison is no fairer than the life he knew within it. As the root of Chattana’s injustice begins to surface through their adventures, Pong and Nok must face the darkness headfirst, or risk being swallowed by it too.
I have yelled incessantly about this book ever since I got to read an early copy, and I will KEEP YELLING until it gets the hype and recognition it deserves! This book is so good, friends—it’s now become one of my favorite middle-grades of all time! It’s a fantasy retelling of Les Mis brimming with heart, wonder, and revolution all set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world filled with magical lights. It’s truly still unlike anything I’ve ever read, and I genuinely think it has a lot of potential crossover appeal for younger YA readers as well. Even if you’re a little hesitant or don’t usually read MG, I promise you this book will be a good time.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
The Romeo and Juliet retelling of your dreams, set in 1920’s Shanghai between two opposing gangs—the Scarlets and the White Flowers—vying for power and autonomy within the growing city. A strange illness is spreading through the streets, affecting both Scarlets and White Flowers alike, and the star-crossed lovers-turned-enemies Roma and Juliette must set aside their personal histories to untangle the mystery sweeping their beloved city, before it gets them too.
A lot has been said about this book already, even here at the Pond, so I’m going to keep this brief: Yes, this book is currently extremely hyped, but it has every single right to be. It is aggressively good. I read an early copy way back in June–July as part of a buddy read where we were supposed to go through two chapters a day… and I tore through the entire thing in two days instead. Trust the hype, and trust everyone’s rave reviews of the yearning, the edge-of-your-seat stakes, the heartbreaking romance. This is a book and a love story for the ages.
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Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore
Born of starstuff from a meteor that collided with Earth, Lita Perez has never quite fit in within her small town of Meteor, New Mexico. She is too soft around the edges, too Latinx, too queer, and her ex-best friend Chicky Quintanilla no longer even talks to her—even though she, too, has always been a misfit like her. But when Lita realises that she is beginning to transform back into starstuff and that her time on the planet is limited, she sets out to do the one wild thing that she’s always dreamed of doing: enter the town’s annual Miss Meteor beauty pageant. The one problem: she is as far from a pageant winner as can be in the eyes of her prejudiced white community, and she needs Chicky’s help to prove that there is space in this world for girls like her.
I’m honestly really surprised by a YA contemporary winding up on this list, because I don’t usually gravitate towards the genre, but this book blew all my expectations completely out of the water and then wrapped me up in the warmest hug ever. At its core, Miss Meteor is a book about not belonging: Lita and Chicky each struggle to reconcile standing out because of their differences with their desire to be accepted for who they are. It’s a perfect cocktail of heartwarming lessons and small-town teenage drama, with just a dash of magical stardust. The messages it closes on are such tender ones too: our bonds are what keep us here and make us strong, and everyone deserves to be celebrated.
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Foreshadow edited by Emily X.R. Pan and Nova Ren Suma
A thrilling anthology of the best YA short stories by up-and-coming, trailblazing writers. Includes essays from the editors on craft, as well as writing prompts for the aspiring writer in all of us.
This anthology contains some of the best YA fiction I’ve read, period. The short stories are weird and twisty and whimsical, but they’re also heartfelt and intertwine with pressing real-life social issues. From my longer review: “There is so, so much to love in this anthology. Whether you’re here for the cute, contemporary romance, or if you’re here for the witchy horror and girls turning into lobsters, there is space here for everyone at Foreshadow‘s table. No matter what kind of reader you are, I’m nearly certain that you’ll find something to love and take home with you from this book.” I am so excited to see all the writers from this anthology continue to flourish in their writing careers from here on out.
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
Tiến loves his family and his friends…but Tiến has a secret he’s been keeping from them, and it might change everything.
Real life isn’t a fairytale.
But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?
Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?
This book represents the absolute best of comics written for teens. The art is intricate, dreamy, and absolutely breathtaking, and I was so captivated by the tenderness of Tiến’s story. His struggle to communicate his queerness to his family is interwoven with his mother’s own tale of immigrating to the US, as well as the fairytales that they read to each other at night. Through all of these narrative threads runs a thematic undercurrent of both displacement and belonging, of languages and how we communicate love to the people we hold dear. I would give anything to be able to experience this book again.
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The Poppy War (trilogy) by R.F. Kuang
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away…
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity… and that it may already be too late.
I’m going to cheat a little here and use this slot to refer to the entire Poppy War trilogy—I read all the books this year, so it’s still technically within the parameters of favorite 2020 books, yes? :] This series has a bit of a reputation for tearing out the hearts of its readers before crushing them whole, and I’m delighted to report that it’s all true: I type this post here from the afterlife with a hole in my chest. This is maybe one of the most intense stories I have ever read in my life: the stakes are astronomical, the world is cruel, and Rin never catches a break. Perhaps this is a little counter-intuitive to say of such a dark and bloody series, but the reading experience made me feel like I was a child again: anxiously turning every single page and getting so deep into the story that the world around me just started falling away. A devastating trilogy.
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Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
“The improbable road spools onward, and outward, and the journey continues from here.”
No thoughts, head empty. This book is too galaxy brain for me to even attempt to describe. My Goodreads review for this book reads: “Maybe one of the most ambitious and absolutely bonkers books I’ve ever read—I feel like i’m staring into an afterimage of a supernova, and the back of my eyes are burnt, all burnt. This book is an experience.” McGuire is already an exceedingly competent writer of fantastic narratives, but this book takes every single incredible thing about her writing, dials them all up to a hundred, and spits them out into a heart-wrenching narrative about twins and dualities and the nature of the universe we know. I was never the same after finishing this book, and I’m grateful for it.
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This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.
Ah, this one is a curious entry! I initially just rated this just 3.5—rounded up to 4—stars on Goodreads when I first read it because although I loved the romance, I felt like the plot was too abstract for me to grasp. A lot of references definitely went over my head (which wasn’t inherently the book’s fault, but I wished I had a stronger sense of the little inside jokes that Red and Blue made to each other in their swoony correspondence). But the book has lingered at the back of my mind for the entire year. Every so often I would go back and reread quotes I’d highlighted, like:
“Hunger, Red—to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth—is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out? Sometimes I think that’s what I have instead of friends.”
And I would fall into heady love all over again. I’ve since decided to go back and rate this a full 5 stars. It deserves a place among the very best.
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The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
I can’t believe this was a debut! Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that this book contains: curses and dark magic, plagues (think Moses and the Israelite exodus from Egypt), Biblical allegories, a haunted, singing forest, a religious and puritanical cult, and a brilliant discussion of how power systems disenfranchise women out of fear and the need to control. This book is dark fantasy horror at its finest and most macabre. If you’re at all interested in the darker, bloodier variety of witches: you absolutely have to pick this up.
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The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn’t remember who he is, where he’s from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power.
In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it’s as if the paint is literally calling to her.
In Brooklyn, a politician and mother finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels.
And they’re not the only ones.
Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
This book was… an experience. I really, really like gothic and eldritch horror—the bone-chilling terror that can only come from facing primeval, cosmic entities too vast for the human mind to comprehend—but I’m also frustrated that so much of the genre is bogged down by racist allegories from the legacies of writers past. This book allayed all of my fears with a truly searing story about a New York that is alive—like, literally alive! Think of bridges as limbs, as connective tissue, imagine the cars on the roads as blood cells carrying oxygen in and out of the body—and the guardians that rise to protect it from a malicious oncoming invader. The prose is so engaging and liquid-smooth, and it reads very obviously as a devoted love letter to New York—to its charisma and velocity, as well as to the diverse communities that call the flawed, radiant city home.
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Whew! We made it to the end. What a year in reading it’s been! Thank you so much for sticking with us throughout the turbulence of the past year, and here’s hoping 2021 will be a more restful period in all of our lives, filled with even better books that bring us warmth and joy. Cheers, friends!
- Have you read any of the books on the list?
- What were your personal favorite books of 2020?
- What has your year in reading been like in 2020? Any particular triumphs you’re celebrating?