While 2020 has been a challenging year, it has been a rather fantastic year to read/catch up on the seemingly never-ending TBR (to be read) list. And though I read and listened to many books this year, to review all of them would take quite a while, so I narrowed them down to my top five. Before any major spoilers, I will give a warning before they begin, just in case you haven't read the books yet, as well, I will write in bold and with asterisks to indicate the spoilers' ending.
Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with these authors and have written this as a fun way to contribute to the reading/writing community. This list is in no particular order, nor will I be ranking them. This is just what I thought and what I liked/disliked about them. Although most of what I read is in the fantasy/sci-fi or otherwise fiction genre(s), I also read a couple of non-fiction books this year that are simply too good not to talk about. If you want me to do top-five fantasy novels I read/listened to in 2020, let me know, and I will happily type one up.
Rhythm of War: Book Four of The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (Listened)
Genre: Adult Epic Fantasy
*Spoiler Warning for Stormlight 1-3. If you haven't read those yet, you may want to avoid this review.
First off, let me say that listening to an audiobook is not always a fantastic experience. So much depends on the author, true, but with a book like Rhythm of War, it's hard to go wrong. However, if the narrator is monotonous, odd-sounding, or just all-out dull, the audiobook is a bust. That is not the case for Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, who also teamed up to narrate The Wheel of Time series. In most if not all the Stormlight books, Sanderson has mentioned that they are his favorite narrators, and I can see why. Both do an excellent job of bringing all the many characters on Roshar to life and the narration. They do an excellent job of conveying the emotion surrounding the moment/scene.
Now, onto the book itself. The fourth book in a ten book series did not need to be this good, but it was. Sanderson has always done an epic job of showing. But not just the actions his characters are doing, or the emotions, but even in mental health and sexuality. He has definitely come a long way since he first started and is continuously honing his craft in this aspect. His characters like Shallan (who, in my opinion, has always been a little harder to like) really shine in Rhythm of War and have an entirely unexpected character arch. *SPOILER AHEAD* Throughout the book, Shallan is battling to keep her personalities in check, especially a new one called, Formless. Near the end, Formless takes over Shallan's body so she can finally be a part of the Ghost Bloods and leave Adolin behind. However, Vale helps her realize that Formless hasn't taken over, and Vale sort of dies as one of Shallan's personalities. *END SPOILER* Not only could Shallan overcome so many of her problems, but she was also able to do so in a way that was true to her character. This allowed me to respect her character and begin to like her character more than in the past.
With so much going on in the Rhythm of War, nothing was more surprising than having the flashbacks be from Venli and Eshoni, two of the Listeners (Parshendi) and enemies to the humans. As I like to go into Sanderson's books, knowing almost nothing about them as I can enjoy the ride far more that way. Not only was it a breath of fresh air, but it also gave me (the reader/lister) perspective into the enemy's purposes as to why the Listeners started the war in the first place by having King Gavilar assassinated. All of this on top of so much of the Cosmere (finally) tied into Roshar. *SPOILERS AHEAD* With references to Scadrial, Harmony (Sazed), that Damnation is actually another planet, Wit's (Hoid's) real name! *END SPOILERS*
There's so much more to love about Rhythm of War, and I can't wait for you all to dive into it/the rest of the Stormlight Archive if you haven't already.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (read)
Genre: Adult High Fantasy
I picked up The Broken Earth Trilogy on a recommendation from my friend and book coach, Dani Abernathy. She thought it would help me with a character I was writing who had flashbacks as her memory was slowly being restored. I eventually decided to scrap that idea, as it became more of a gimmick than an actual plot point. However, before I threw out that plot, I read the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy called, The Fifth Season and continued to read the other two books throughout the year. But, because I have not yet finished the third installment, I will be focusing solely on The Fifth Season because of how thoroughly I enjoyed the first.
The book takes place in a world known as The Stillness. A name ironically given for the supercontinent is in a state of constant seismic ruin. There is rare magic (usually) passed down genetically through Orogenes who can control seismic and geological activity. Unfortunately, the Orogenes are hated among most humans and are often killed as soon as their powers manifest. Why? Imagine a child having a temper tantrum and causing a 9.0 earthquake because of it.
The story starts with Nassun, an Orogene, finds that her son (also an Orogene) has been killed by her husband because he found out about the boy's powers. After which, he kidnapped his daughter for the same reason. Nassun takes it upon herself to hunt him down and--hopefully--save her daughter from him. Each chapter follows the perspectives of two other characters, Damaya and Seyenite. Each one at a different age and stage in learning to control orogeny, and the trials, both physical and emotional, that come with it.
As a black female author, N. K. Jemisin does an exceptional job showing the pain that social injustices bring through her writing. The text itself is full realism in the sense that seemingly no matter what we do, social injustice, racism, prejudice of any kind is nearly an unstoppable force, but there is hope. The story is dark and gritty, and it doesn't shy away from topics like others might. In fact, it was such a heavy read that between each book, I had to read something that was far more light-hearted. And by the time I was done reading a Witcher book or a Louis Lamour western, I was more than ready to get back into the Broken Earth. If you believe that racism is a problem in our society (and I certainly hope you do), I highly suggest you pick up The Broken Earth Trilogy this year and start reading it. And if you don't believe that racism or other social injustices are that big of a deal, or if you are somewhere in the middle, then I definitely suggest you read these as soon as you are able.
Maus by Art Spiegelman (Read)
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Format: Graphic Novel
One heavy book after another, I suppose. Heavy, in the sense that you need to be ready to go through many depressing pages to get to something lighter, and even then...
Maus is one of the few books I was assigned to read for a class that I ended up really (and I mean really) enjoying. It was brutal, honest, emotional, and complicated in the ways that a graphic novel about the Holocaust can only be. The two main characters, Artie and Vladek, are son and father, in that order. Artie is making his graphic novel about Vladek's experiences during WWII as a Polish Jewish person. Artie's perspective occurs during the modern-day of which he is writing the graphic novel while dealing with his father's inherited trauma(s). So much of Book 1 is focused on Artie's wish that he had the diaries of his mother, Anja, so he could add another perspective to his father's account. However, his mother's journals are in storage after moving so many times, and no matter how much they've looked, they can't seem to find them and seem to be lost to time. These scenes eventually lead up to one of my favorite locations, which I will not discuss here as it contains major spoilers, and I don't think it's appropriate to have spoilers as I did for Rhythm of War.
Vladek's experience in the concentration camps is heartbreaking, but it also shows how he survived. Vladek's trauma from saving so many things is carried on into his later years as a hoarder. Something that Artie has to deal with and doesn't exactly cope with it very well.
The idea that Spiegelman had to draw out his characters as mice for Jewish people, cats for the Nazis, pigs for the Polish, etc., was very controversial during the time of him writing it and still is for some today. However, I don't think he could have written it any other way while still carrying the same weight. The fact that cartoon mice had been mostly depicted as characters such as Mickey Mouse until that point and then as dehumanized Jewish people during the Holocaust really shows the amount of trauma carried through the generations.
Sorry, this is starting to sound like an analytical essay. But that's what happens when you write three essays for one book in a semester.
I love this book, and if you have ever thought about reading it but haven't done so, what are you waiting for?
11-22-63 by Stephen King(Listened)
Genre: Historical fiction with some fantasy
Have you ever finished a Stephen King book and thought, "Well, that ending was weird."? Yeah, so have most of us. For some reason, King seems to have a problem with satisfyingly ending his books. However, the novels he does finish satisfyingly are the best. The first book I read by him was Pet Sematary, and that had such an abrupt ending that I really didn't know how to feel about it. Then I read The Outsider and listened to IT (Narrated by Steven Weber and my favorite audiobook of all time) and loved the endings.
So, if you're worried about the ending of 11-22-63, let me assure you, it is easily one of the best and one of my favorite Stephen King endings.
If you're familiar with the year 1963, then you know that it's the year that JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In this book, the main character, Jake Epping A.K.A. George Amberson goes back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald and change the events of history. But history doesn't want to be changed, "The past is obdurate." is the central theme throughout the book that is continuously trying to stop Mr. Amberson from changing events. The bigger the event, the more obdurate the past is in fighting back.
I won't spoil this book too much other than the obvious that has been stated about JFK's assassination. However, I will say that if you have read IT, there are several fun easter eggs in the book that even non-readers of IT may understand.
If you like history and/or time travel, 11-22-63 is the book for you. Not only is it a fantastic novel about Jake Epping's adventure and struggles, but again, Stephen King has portrayed humanity in the way that only Stephen King can. By getting into the minds of his characters and allowing them to be human, and showing their flaws and strengths. If you're thinking about getting into Stephen King, and you haven't yet, this is the book for you.
Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski (Read)
Genre: Adult Epic Fantasy
This is technically book two in The Witcher series. However, it would not say so on the cover, nor anywhere else within the book. Instead, Sword of Destiny is the second collection of short stories all surrounding Geralt of Trivia, the one before that is The Last Wish. The Witcher series has mixed reviews, as far as the books go, but the first two that Sapkowski wrote are easily his best. Sword of Destiny's compilation of somewhat interconnected short stories, mostly through Geralt's memories of the events in earlier stories. Each tale is in chronological order as Geralt tries to decide whether or not he wants to continue fighting his destiny (Princess Cirilla), his so called "child surprise," or accept her as his daughter.
I loved how much was shown through Geralt's eyes. Not only for how he viewed his destiny but for his relationships with characters such as Yennifer of Vengerburg or Dandelion the bard, changed and grew more or less complicated depending on how he fought with his destiny.
Bonus: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (read)
This book was a surprise to me. I didn't expect to like it that much because, as with Maus, I read it for a class. Mostly as research for how to write non-fiction, but I ended up loving it. With quotes such as, "In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, should they immediately fail, they had better aim at something high." "Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads." and, my personal favorite, "Let everyone mind his own business and endeavor to be what he has made." Thoreau'shoreau'shoreau'shoreau's business to go out, leaving his personal belongings behind, and finding enlightenment and share his thoughts about nature, God, and people in such a prolific way really opened my eyes this year.
His sass, as well, I think, is often overlooked when we put such a man on a pedestal as high as his. But his idea that old people don't know as much as they think they do could not be overstated.
Thank you so much for joining me on this little journey through my 2020 book list.
Adam J. Sherman