This is, quite simply, a selection of books that have brought me joy over the last year or so, a time when I particularly appreciated daring, hopeful speculative fiction. These books all have the sense of wonder that I love in the fantasy genre, whether that wonder comes from whisking you off to a new world or from making it feel like magic is just in your peripheral vision, waiting for you to recognize it. In addition to a strong sense of place, these stories feature characters that embrace their identities and forge connections and community. I hope that they continue to bring joy to new readers.
After a run-in at a coffeehouse, Guet Imm, a devotee of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, decides to join a company of bandits—regardless of what the bandits think of this idea. The world of this wuxia story, inspired by Emergency Malaya, is clearly vast and complex. Cho, however, cleverly zooms in on this group of characters. There is a charm and lightness to her prose that she uses to weave between banter and explorations of identity. The result is a character-driven story that reveals new layers to its protagonists through their developing relationships.
No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater
In World War II-era New Zealand, Dorothea “Tea” Gray arrives at a remote farm to work for the Land Service, where young women take on the jobs of men who have gone off to fight. As she gets to know fellow farm workers Izzy and Grant—who both worked with Tea’s brother before he shipped off to war—Tea starts to realize that the uncanny experiences she’s had on the farm speak to a magic within her. Tea’s magic, developing relationship with Izzy, and concern for her brother weave together into a moving conclusion that centers queer and indigenous identity.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, illustrations by Rovina Cai
It is such a joy to pick up a book and be swept away by a unique voice, which was precisely my experience reading Elatsoe. In a slightly more uncanny version of our world, Ellie, an asexual, Lipan Apache teen, investigates the murder of her cousin. As her investigation unearths the secrets of a seemingly perfect town, she must discover the truth and protect her family. I love the portrayals of community in this book: Ellie’s family and the way they retell their stories; her comedic, nerdy banter with her best friend; and her bond with her pet, the ghost of her childhood dog. Rovina Cai’s chapter illustrations tell a beautiful story that runs parallel to the text.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I finally picked up not one, but three of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books in 2020. I enjoyed them all, but Gods of Jade and Shadow was my favorite, with a Jazz Age setting that reflects its explorations of tradition and change. In it, Casiopea Tun inadvertently pricks her finger on a shard of bone and frees the imprisoned Hun-Kamé, a Mayan god of the underworld. Bound together, they depart Casiopea’s home in the Yucatán and travel through Mexico as Hun-Kamé seeks to regain his former power. This book reads like an original fairytale and left me with a sense of beautiful melancholy.
The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk
Beatrice Clayborn’s family is counting on her making an advantageous match this Bargaining Season, but that would mean abandoning her secret study of magic. Then she meets the Lavan siblings, catching the eye of handsome Ianthe. A lesser story might let Beatrice simply accept marrying for love, but Polk’s narrative takes a more nuanced route as Beatrice seeks a way to embrace her magical identity. This delightful fantasy romance blends Regency-style courtship (the costumes! the dances!) with magic and the fight for women’s rights. Polk is another author I kept returning to this past year, and I recommend their Kingston Cycle just as highly.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a queer, anti-imperialist pirate story with sweeping adventure and lyrical romance. Flora has been sailing aboard the Dove as the pirate Florian. Evelyn’s imperial family has sent her away to marry an unknown man. When their paths cross, Florian and Evelyn not only fall in love, but also begin to reframe their views of themselves and their world. On their journeys, they encounter mermaids, magic, and lost memories. I adored so much about this book, from its queering of the “girl disguised as a boy” trope as an exploration of gender identity to its personification of the sea itself.
Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian in Boston, Massachusetts. On any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers Circle.