A Speculative Fiction Expert’s Year of Escapist Reading

Posted by Cybil on December 9, 2020
Kerine Wint is a software engineering graduate with more love for books than for computers. As an avid reader, writer, and fan of all things content-related, she has found joy as a freelance writer and reviewer of speculative fiction for publications including FIYAH literary magazine and Publishers Weekly. Through her reviews and community on Instagram, she has made a hub of bookish content for herself surrounded by book lovers alike.  

If she's not converting people to audiobooks or making all sorts of content, she's probably too busy getting lost in a story.

2020 is the year that has made having an escape a necessity. Between all the desserts I've baked and the obscure hobbies I've tried, reading has continued to be one of the best getaways. Luckily for me, the entire household got sucked into reading more; everything from novellas to Goliath-like tomes (500-plus pages). The best surprise of quarantine was learning how much, and fast, my mother reads and how good she is at writing reviews, too. Even though we all have different tastes, a lot of SFF books, maybe on account of what I do, have made their way onto our TBRs.
I've always found that speculative fiction is a genre that is more than ready to draw us in. It's a vehicle that shows us so many new worlds, allowing us to view and understand ourselves and others unlike us. This year is no exception, but rather proved to be exceptional. There were no shortages of adventures, commentary, and even some eerily on-the-nose books released.
As for my picks, I kept an eye on creators and publishers known for their own SFF expertise to see what books were actually on people's list. And from these, here's a list of ten 2020 releases that hit the mark!

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P. Djèlí Clark is a master at writing alternate-history, speculative fiction. And for fans of novellas, he crammed a rich, complex, and fully fleshed story into less than 200 pages. Taking place in 1922, with chaos and bigger evil afoot, Maryse Boudreaux not only has to face a world-altering choice, but also the trauma she's tried to hide. Ring Shout exemplifies the complexities that can be found in speculative fiction even in a shorter form.

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This queer, cross-dimensional, multi-verse science-fiction novel tackles classism, exploitation of the poor, and abuse of power. Micaiah Johnson blesses us with fantastic writing, twists, and even humor that brings Cara’s adventure to life as she traverses the social and economic disparities that persist in society regardless of advancements and evolution. Even as it explores human injustices in a future world, I guarantee you won't feel lost.

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Reading about an epidemic during a pandemic isn’t for everyone, but if you can stomach it, I have to suggest The Down Days. Branded for fans of The Book of M, this was a no-brainer for me. What starts with us following a laughter epidemic in Africa becomes a chance convergence of various, contrasting characters, with surprising supernatural elements woven throughout. It's an ambitious debut that will keep you turning out of sheer curiosity.

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YA fantasy can sometimes get a bad rep for its recycling of tropes, but you won’t have that problem with Raybearer. With the lucid West African–inspired world and a wonderfully diverse cast, Ifueko gives us a coming-of-age, found family, magical revenge plot that delivers everything you want in a fantasy. As far as series go, this first installment doesn’t hold back, giving us a story that feels wholly complete but, luckily for us, has more to come.

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Jones is a writer you have to check out if you want something more…inventive in your horror reads. I initially wanted to go with Night of the Mannequins, but this might be an easier sell. With a focus on dissecting friendships and familial ties, commenting on existing in and outside of one’s cultural identity, and mixing folklore—all from his own identity as a Blackfeet Native American—this book gives you a much deeper tale. It gives you the slasher vibes you want and the vengeful elk you didn’t know you needed.

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Lyrical and eloquent writing is not amiss in speculative fiction, and if you wanted a heavily character-driven narrative, laced with mysticism, this is for you. This book is told in three parts from three perspectives—all from people of color—navigating the racial oppression of the 1930s whilst battling their own sense of morality to survive in this world. Demanding of attention and a reader with intention, this story carries a girth that will satisfy literary and historical fiction readers alike.

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A murder-mystery fantasy in an alternate reality with paranormal and magical beings based in Indigenous traditions. A mix of gripping storytelling and exploration of Native American history and the impacts on its descendants. Even with more somber themes of grief and death, this is a breeze to read, giving you characters and world-building that’ll make you feel good.

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I couldn’t leave out a short story collection, and A Phoenix First Must Burn is a great mix of fantasy and sci-fi with a diverse variety of stories from authors such as Elizabeth Acevedo, Justina Ireland, and the aforementioned Alaya Dawn Johnson. These stories are refreshingly diverse (featuring gender nonconformity and other LGBTQ+ representation), exploring love, betrayal, strength, and resistance in imaginative ways.

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Another anthology by an author considered one of the masters of the short story form (new to me, but now forever on my list). From distant future advancements to Chinese folktales, he brings his prowess in writing vividly and descriptively to near-tangible characters with unexpectedly provocative themes and questions for the reader. The volume of the collection is intimidating but totally worth it.

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An early 2020 debut release that shook me to my core with how Echo Brown uses fabulism to tell a raw, vulnerable account of her life in this autobiographical story. Framing young Echo as a wizard, this book will take you into the uncomfortable spaces of a young Black girl who learns to cope with the “disadvantage” of her sheer existence. This is admittedly a difficult read, but the prose, structure, pacing, and overall uniqueness in storytelling make this a book worth recommending.

There are quite a few gems on my 2021 radar, including:
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

See more Reading Year in Review book recommendations in the following genres: Mystery, Literary Fiction, Romance, and Young Adult.

Fellow fans of science fiction and fantasy, what are some of your top reads of 2020? Share your picks with us in the comments.

Check out more recent articles:
Goodreads Staffers Share Their Top Three Books of the Year
Goodreads Members Suggest: Favorite Winter Reads
Readers' Most Anticipated Books of December

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Kiki (new)

Kiki Obviously the best list to ever list on Goodreads. I can't wait to read Trouble the Saints and Elatsoe! Currently reading Ring Shout and it's changing my life.

message 2: by laura (new)

laura I have Trouble the Saints on my TBR because of you and you KNOW how I felt about the Only Good Indians 😘

message 3: by Joan (new)

Joan He thank you so much for the shoutout <3

message 4: by Fenris (new)

Fenris Definitely not going for "Down Days". I am sick to death of this so-called "post truth" society and I personally do not need to read about yet another PANDEMIC. I don't care if it might be a fabulous read, it's too much by now.

message 5: by Luann (new)

Luann I'm rereading all of Dean Kootnz' novels, Anne Bishop, Mercedes Lackey, and other upbeat writers (you know, the ones whose books leave you happy at the end).

message 6: by OwlsRmine (new)

OwlsRmine Gould Speculative fiction and mysteries are the only genres I've had success finishing during this pandemic. Thanks for the list! I'm especially looking forward to Elatsoe.

message 7: by Elin (new)

Elin What a good list! More than half went straight to my TBR.

Stephen Willetts I'd rather read My little pony

message 9: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Great list, looking forward to reading a few of these! Speculative fiction hits a part of my brain that I find of great interest and I like getting these suggestions.

message 10: by joyce ☾ (new)

joyce ☾ 100% of this list is in my TBR list, not even joking. Just added the ones that weren't before. Thanks for this list!

message 11: by Silvrix (new)

Silvrix Great list! So much to read...

Another great spec fic book this year was Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed, with the sequel A Broken Darkness being released in 2021.

message 12: by Jasmine99 (new)

Jasmine99 Hi fellow readers! Doesn't Goodreads have free ebooks? I wanted to read but unfortunately no free books. I am from a small country in the Pacific. If there would be any suggestions, I would gladly appreciate it. Merry Xmas by the way and thanks for the list but too bad I can't view.

message 13: by Isa (new)

Isa King I really hope this will get more people to read Trouble the Saints, because it is hands down my FAVORITE book of the year.

message 14: by Lisa Lynn (new)

Lisa Lynn aka Carole Lisa Lynn Gilbert How would I go about getting a book considered for the list? I have a new release coming out January 1, 2021.

message 15: by Ria (new)

Ria what a woke list.

message 16: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Jasmine99 wrote: "Hi fellow readers! Doesn't Goodreads have free ebooks? I wanted to read but unfortunately no free books. I am from a small country in the Pacific. If there would be any suggestions, I would gladly ..."

Goodreads isn't a site for getting free books. It's for talking about books.

message 17: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Carole “Lisa Lynn” wrote: "How would I go about getting a book considered for the list? I have a new release coming out January 1, 2021."

Get lots of people to read it. If more people in general read it, the odds are better of getting it on a list of good books on Goodreads.

message 18: by Eliacquatico (new)

Eliacquatico Thanks for this! Such faboulous suggestions!

message 19: by David (last edited Dec 21, 2020 06:29PM) (new)

David I re-read Narnia and The Dresden Files this year as my escape. Thank god for books. Might I suggest to anyone feeling really down, go re-read a book or series you loved. Has a much higher success rate of good feels than picking something new off the shelf, or at least that's been my experience this year.

message 20: by Hilary (new)

Hilary The Space Between Worlds was exceptional

Aaterclapsexcellent awesome

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