2020 has been a LONG year and I guess we’re all glad it’s almost over. However, in terms of reading it’s been quite a good year for me. ‚Good‘ meaning ‚busy‘. I’ve read 116 books so far, which is…mad. And underlines how non-existent my social life has been for big parts of this year. But what else is there to do during lockdown? It’s either Netflix or books, and around May, I switched to books. And I read, and read, and read, and… well, you get the gist. So here are the books I liked the most this year – SO FAR, because I haven’t finished my December reads yet, including Mistborn, Jade City, Malice and the Poppy War. Which might all make this list cause I’ve heard lots of great things about them, but whatever. I’m not gonna spend Christmas making reading lists.
Regarding the technicalities: I looked at standalones and at entire series, re-reads not included. Otherwise, this list would consist of ten books out of three series. Basically, it’d just be a „I rate every book in series X“-list. Which I will probably do some time. But anyway, without further ado, here are my top ten reads of 2020!
#10: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Ninth House was Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel and I loved it. I am absolutely in love with her writing style and the tone of her books in general. The whole athmosphere of the Grishaverse just gets to me. Ninth House, however, was different. I still loved the writing, but Bardugo tried something entirely different here: not only did the ruling queen of YA Fantasy leave her realm to delve into the depths of adult writing, she also made this an Urban Fantasy taking place at Yale University. Alex Stern’s story is A LOT darker than everything Bardugo has written before, too dark for a lot of people. Not too dark for me, of course. I likeitlikeitlikeit. Very much. It’s hard to get into because she sort of throws her readers under the bus, just like always, but once you’re inside the story, you stay.
#9: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Over 1000 pages of the most intelligent Fantasy I’ve ever read. Strange&Norrell is a mixture between a Vicorian era-epic and an intriguing soft magic system, taking place at the start of the 19th century. While England goes to war against Napoleon, magic returns. Two very different men, Strange and Norrell, become the first real magicians after centuries and this book focuses both on their very different personalities and the time it takes place in. Plus, there are footnotes filled with made-up literary references to scientific writing regarding magic. It’s grand, opulent, magnificent, and complicated. Not an easy read, but amazingly well-written. The ending was a bit of a letdown – after 1000 pages of reading, I had expected something more epic/apocalyptic/awesome. Apart from that, reading this has been a joy.
#8: Herkunft by Sasa Stanisic
Winner of the German Book Prize 2019 – for a reason. This is an incredibly impressive memoir about the author’s life and his relationship with his deceased grandmother. It’s also an equally impressive depiction of immigration because the author’s family had to leave their home in Yugoslavia to flee to Germany, and it touches upon many topics that are still very important today. At the heart of this novel is a single question: What is ‚home‘? Is it a place, is it the people we love? Stanisic’s writing is chef’s kiss, on the money. He narrates his story non-linear, skipping between conversations with his grandmother and episodes from his family’s life, always underlined with fabulous irony and keen observations.
#7: The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo
Ladies and gentlemen, Bardugo hasn’t only written books, but also a number of short stories, and this is the best of them. It’s also the best short story I’ve ever read. Why? Because it contains everything that makes her writing so spectacular in a nutshell: the narrating is just beautiful, but what sets her apart is ATHOMSPHERE. The whole tone of a Leigh Bardugo story is just awesome. Basically, this is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, only different. This is truly Bardugo: magical tone, relatable characters, HUGE twist. Everyone should read this.
#6: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
This is the first Schwab I read, and after finishing it, I added all of her books to my tbr. Also definitely the best 2020 release I read, perhaps even better than my own debut (haha). There are mixed reviews for this: people either love it because it’s so friggin TOUCHING or they feel that the protagonists are somewhat bland. I belong to faction #1: I love this book with every fibre of my being. Of course, Addie and Henry aren’t the most compelling characters ever written. Of course, the devil should be a lot more evil. But, to be honest, I don’t care. Because this thing has managed to touch my cold, manly heart like few others have. For the story alone is so incredibly sad, yet hopeful: Addie LaRue trades in her soul for immortality, but of course, devil is a bitch. She becomes immortal, but nobody can remember her. As soon as she leaves the room, people forget her. Think about that. Slowly. If that isn’t heartbreaking, then what is?
#5: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Welcome to the top 5, everyone, and welcome to Lord Grimdark. This was not insta-love for me: I read another Abercrombie before, Half A King, and gave it three stars because it lacked interesting characters and was too fast-paced. I rated the first book of this trilogy three stars because while the characters were original and interesting, the plot was non-existent. And then came book two of this series, Before They Are Hanged, and oh, boy, did I love it. The characters! The development! The whole athmosphere! And it even had a plot! Abercrombie has written some of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered, his character work is truly outstanding. More outstanding than Hermione Granger’s OWL results. The final, Last Argument of Kings, was just as awesome. The ending was a bit of a letdown for me, because I expected a huge battle, and while there was huge battle, it wasn’t as HUGE as I wanted: not Mage Bowl, Khalul vs Bayaz. But I’m not gonna complain a lot, since this means there are books set in this world. Which I will all read in 2021.
#4: Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
Ta-daa: the best standalone I read this year. This is a German historic fiction about the 30 Years War, with Tyll Ulenspiegel at its heart: funny, witty, and truly extraordinary told, also in terms of narrating style. For while Tyll is present either physically or as a subject of conversation between others in every chapter, we get only one chapter from his own perspective. He’s clearly the protagonist, but he isn’t a narrating protagonist and that’s a writing technique I’m totally in love with (see my #1). We only see him through the eyes of his contemporaries and so, chapter by chapter, the image of him is painted on the wall. And Kehlmann’s writing is just…awesome! I’ve also read Measuring the World by the same author which was a meeh book for me, but this one is perfect.
Okay, we’re entering the podium, and at this point I’d like to emphasize that while #10-4 are all fantastic books, #3-1 are in a league of their own. They’re better than everything else because out of the four major aspects books consist of (characters, worldbuilding, plot, writing), they get five stars out of five stars in every single category. And they do more then that: each of these series has one (or more) features that is just galaxically good. Here they come:
#3: The Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel
Historic fiction about the life of Thomas Cromwell, the most important political figure of Henry VIII.’s reign. Basically, that’s the plot. It can be summarised in a single sentence, hundred of fiction and non-fiction books have been written about this period in English history, and most of them paint Cromwell as the villain. This one doesn’t. It doesn’t ommit his crimes, but what this book does so incredibly well is that it makes you believe that Cromwell was exactly like this. Because, if you look at the bare facts: this man was born the son of a blacksmith and died as supreme advisor to the king, having made more ground-breaking changes to society and politics of England than anyone else since the Norman Invasion five hundred years before. The reign of Henry VIII. is perhaps the most fascinating reign of any ruler because there were so many people rising and falling throughout it, each a titan of his own: Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Cromwell, it truly changed SO MUCH, and most of it is thanks to Cromwell.
So, this guy must’ve been an extraordinary person. And he is just that in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. We witness his life in high politics, his rise to power, and his hard fall on Tower Hill, and throughout all of it, we keep thinking: this man is extraordinary. He’s special. Mantel’s Cromwell is a protagonist you’ll never forget. And her writing is OH.MY.GOD. It’s so brilliant. The way she narrates this story from Cromwell’s perspective, yet not, it’s just just absolutely brilliant. The interior monologue is pure perfection. All of it feels so real that once you’ve finished one of these books, you expect to be in 16th-century England when you look out of the window. It drags you in and doesn’t let go. The middle book is the best one in my opinion, the last one is a bit too full-packed with plot, but the whole series is just impressively… impressive. The special thing that makes it unique? The perspective. It meanders between interior monolgue and distant observation, hovering around Cromwells shoulder. Love it.
#2: The Gentlemen Bastard Series by Scott Lynch
My favourite Fantasy series EVER. Period. And I so hope that 2021 will be the year that Thorn of Emberlain finally gets published… anyway. As of today, three books in this series have been released, and I read all of them this year. Book three was a bit of a letdown, but the first two are literary brilliance. So what is this? It’s a fantasy series with very few fantastic elements, rather focusing on the characters and their interactions. And these characters, the Gentlemen Bastards, are thieves. They act like thieves, they think like thieves, they talk like thieves. And I love it. The dialogues in these books are the gold standard of dialogue. This mixture of swearing, banter, and witty sarcasm captures you from page one. And the characters, OHMYGOD, these characters, each of them is a shining piece of brilliance. This series also includes the best friendship ever written in the history of literature, so if you like that in a book, this is the series for you. Also, it’s ruthless. Scott Lynch has zero problems with killing off favourite characters in the middle of the fucking book, and that’s just what I want. I love the high stakes, I love the twists, I love the heists, I love the audacity of it all. If you want more gushing about about these books, watch Merphy Napier’s reviews of them on Youtube, she says it better than I ever could.
So what’s the special thing that makes this series unique? Actually, it’s two things. Thing number one is the setting: it’s completely new in every book. In each book, the protagonists find themselves both in a new city and in a new layer of society. While book one is thieves in Camorr, book two is basically a pirate adventure and book three is politics and election. This way, it’s always fresh and intriguing. There’s always more to discover. Thing number two is the real deal, though. Because we witness these aweseome characters growing up, something that happens in a lot of fantasy books. Something that also is a bit tedious in a lot of fantasy books, because you spend a lot of time watching the hero growing up and doing not much noteworthy because, well, they’re still kids. AND THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN HERE! Because Scott Lynch is an incredible genius. Scott Lynch gives us one chapter from the childhood, and then a chapter from the heist they’re attempting in the present. These two time levels keep taking turns throughout the entire series, and at first I was sort of irritated a bit – then I realised: this has a purpose. Because every lesson these kids learn in their childhood affects what’s happening in the next chapter from the present. It’s brilliant. Just brilliant. Please, publish the fourth book!
#1: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
Did anyone not expect this to be number one? While Wolf Hall and the Gentlemen Bastard series play in their own league, The Lymond Chronicles is a sport of its own. This is perfection poured into writing, brilliance embodied and cast into the world: this is the biggest achievement of humankind since the discovery of fire. These books are what books should be: challenging, funny, surprising. The series follows its protagonist, Francis Crawford of Lymond, through all of his escapades in the middle of the 16th century. Lymond is con man, traitor, enfant terrible extraordinaire. He is everything. We observe him through the eyes of a different (slightly naive) follower in each book: his drinking, his intelligence, his reckless wit. And all of it is absolutely unparalleled. These books contain the brilliance in perspective of Wolf Hall, the awesomeness of the dialogue of the Gentlemen Bastards, and the fascinating characters of Joe Abercrombie’s writing. And they’re just as ruthless and full of twist like The Lies of Locke Lamora: beloved characters die, BOOM, in the middle of the book, right when you don’t expect anything to happen. PERFECTION. And the climax of it all (for now, I will read the final book over Christmas) is the chess scene in book four, Pawn in Frankincense, the best book ever written. Nothing tops this scene, the epicness of it, the ethical dilemma, the incredible stakes. And if you need a villain to like a book, then read books 3&4 of this series, because that villain is THE villain.
Then why haven’t you heard of these before? Let me tell you, people. Because they’re not easy. These are the hardest, most intelligent books I’ve ever read, filled with intertextual references to classic writing in about ten different language. Especially the first book is full of them, and if you don’t know about European history of the 1550s and Greek/German/various other mythology, you probably won’t understand a lot of these references and be like: wtf is happening right now? Even then, these books are still the coronation of what literature can do, but as I said, they’re challenging. And I love them with every fibre of my sorry being.