10 of the Best 2020 Under the Radar SFF Books
2020 was a banana year in every way, and when it came to publishing, some books that deserved more readers didn’t get the kind of press they would have in another year. I mostly read fantasy and science fiction, so I went over my favorite SFF readings from the year for those that had fewer than 1000 reviews. The first six on this list are less than 500 and the remaining four are less than 1000. I love these books as much as some of the bigger pressed books that have many, many reviews. In this list of SFF books for 2020 under the radar, visit fantasy worlds with talking tigers, climb a wall to a world as absurd as the one in Alice in Wonderland, or compete in an annual competition while you try not to be murdered. It is interesting to note that all but one of these books are by non-white and / or LGBTQ + writers. Do books by minority authors get less advertising funding than others? The hashtag “Publishing Paid Me” showed that non-white writers received less progress. Unfortunately, I suspect that this extends to marketing as well.
10 under-the-radar fantasy and science fiction books as of 2020
When the tiger from Nghi Vo came down the mountain
The second novella in The Singing Hills Cycle is smaller than the first book, The Empress of Salt and Happiness – but just as beautiful. It can also be read as a stand-alone document. Cleric Chih needs to cross the mountains for her next assignment, so they hire a mammoth and a guide, Si-Yu, to lead her over the mountains. When shapeshifters attack Tiger Chih and Si-Yu, Chih uses her storytelling skills to keep the tigers at bay. You tell the tigers a story about a scholar and her tiger lover, and the tigers who are familiar with that story have to make many corrections. The novella examines how stories can have different meanings depending on the culture and context. It’s a beautiful novel, as beautiful as the cover.
Critical point from SL Huang
Confession: This is the third book in the Cas Russell series, and I haven’t read the other two! I have a very bad habit of reading series in random order, but somehow it never seems to affect my opinion of the book. If you’re a stickler for reading in the right order, the Cas Russell series begins with Zero Sum Game. Cas has been genetically engineered to be a math genius. Cas’ memories were erased at some point, and in the process her moral compass was erased as well. She’s now a fraudulent private investigator who takes her moral clues from another private investigator, Arthur, and his two employees. She thinks they’re all friends. But when Arthur goes missing and it is up to Cas to find him, she discovers that they have all lied. I listened to the audiobook version and it was a great time. Now I have to go back and read the first two! Maybe I should go with the second book next? ????
The missing queen by Lisbeth Campbell
The Vanished Queen is a stand-alone epic fantasy novel that is more shaped by politics and feminism than magic. After the execution of her military father, Anza joins the resistance against a tyrannical king. Without a family, excellent training and archery training, she is an ideal candidate for the resistance. The youngest son of the Evil King, Prince Esvar, is the same age as Anza. His mother, Queen Mirantha, disappeared as a child and is believed dead, but he sticks to the morals she taught him. He despises his father and is determined to see his brother on the throne. The last POV is from Queen Mirantha’s diary, which Anza discovers hidden in the university library. The diary describes the king’s physical abuse, her efforts to raise her sons to be good rulers despite the king’s actions, and her doomed love affair with a priest. This slow burning political fantasy with a touch of romance has a very satisfying climax and conclusion. Content warning of sexual and domestic abuse.
The four deep tissues of RB Lemberg
This lyrical novella is Lviv’s first lengthy work, despite the fact that they previously published short stories in the Birdverse universe that stars The Four Profound Weaves. The novel alternates between two older trans characters (referred to as “changers”), Uiziya and an unnamed man named nen-sasair. Uiziya has trained three of the four in-depth weaves, but in order to learn the final weave and make a bone cloth, she must train with her aunt Benesret. Benesret lives as an outcast in the Great Burri Desert and makes bone cloths for the ruler of Iyar. The Nen-Sasair has only recently changed and has spent most of his life as a woman. In his gendered culture, his people struggle with his new male identity. Both Uiziya and the Nen-Sasair have a lot of regrets about their lives. This regret prompts her to embark on a quest that leads her to face the evil ruler of Iyar. Content warning in case of transphobia.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
This unique standalone takes place in a fantasy world reminiscent of Korea during the Japanese occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. The Ministry of Armaments hires the non-binary artist Jebi to paint magical seals on masks for the government machines. Her sister hates the conquering government, but Jebi, who doesn’t consider himself political, needs the money and sees no other way to get it. Jebi is not aware of anything that is not art. In the armory, Jebi befriends pacifist kite automatons, and her political reluctance slowly begins to shift. As their friendship grows and Jebi sees more of the inner workings of the Armaments Department, they decide to do everything possible to prevent the dragon from becoming a weapon. I liked the way the weirdness is normalized in the social fabric of the world that Yoon Ha Lee is building, as well as the focus on art and pacifism and Jebi’s slow character arc. Phoenix Extravagant is a fantastic standalone.
Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor
This Nigerian-based middle-class novel is about a 12-year-old superhero who tries to avenge his father’s death. Nnamdi’s father was a police chief who was investigating a criminal organization when he was murdered. One night, he comes across a magical object that gives him power – much like the super villains that plague his city – but the object tells him to use his powers only forever. With the help of his best friend Chioma, Nnamdi tries to protect his city, but vengeance is also on his mind. This is a delightful novel about emotion, loss, and heroism.
A pale light in the black numbers of KB Wagers
This super fun space opera has puzzles, LGBTQ + rep, competition and an amazing cast that I want to be BFFs with. Max Carmichael was recently appointed second in command of Zuma’s Ghost, part of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG). The NeoG patrols and protects space and is inspired by the US Coast Guard. The crew doesn’t welcome Max at first. Zuma’s Ghost is preparing for the annual board game competition and the crew is determined to win. A new crew member could affect their chances. Meanwhile, if someone starts targeting the occupation, a routine mission turns into a conspiracy, and if they don’t figure out what’s going on, they and thousands of others can die. This feel-good science fiction is a great way to escape the world.
Sia Martinez and the moonlit beginning of everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
This beautifully written, multi-genre YA novel blends Mexican folklore with telepathic powers and UFOs. Sia Martinez’s mother is believed dead. Deported by ICE several years earlier, her mother attempted to cross the Arizona desert to reunite with Sia and Sia’s father, but they never heard from her again. Sia struggles with her grief, especially as she goes to school with the police chief’s son, who makes fun of her Mexican heritage and her mother. But her best friend Rosa is a bright spot in her life, and a new boy in town – Noah – is also a distraction. Then one day she and Noah discover a UFO and their lives are troubled. The characters in this novel are delightful and despite the weighty themes, I couldn’t stop smiling as I read it. I listened to Inés del Castillo’s audiobook and I can only recommend it if you listen to audiobooks. Sexual assault and parental death content warning.
Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters
Shady Grove’s violin – inherited from her father – can evoke ghosts if played with enough sadness. When Shady Grove’s stepfather is murdered and her older brother Jesse is arrested for the crime, she decides to solve the murder of her stepfather with the violin and to prove her brother’s innocence. But every time she summons ghosts by playing folk songs on her violin, a dark, shady man appears and sometimes even controls her movements. Her friends and bandmates try to help her find other ways to help her brother, but the allure of the violin is too strong. In the meantime, she’s torn between her long-standing crush on Sarah and her new crush on Cowboy Cedar. This YA debut is a beautiful and eerie Gothic that perfectly captures life in a small town in the south. Content warning of child abuse.
Above the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker
A. Deborah Baker is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire. Over the Woodward Wall is a novel that the characters in Middlegame often refer to. So McGuire decided to write this novel, much like Catherynne M. Valente wrote the girls who circumnavigated Wonderland in their own ship after writing about it in her novel Palimpsest. As such, Over the Woodward Wall is a stand-alone novel, thematically similar to their Wayward Children series. It’s about two extraordinary children (because all children are extraordinary) who find a wall blocking their way to school and decide to climb it. Instead of being across the street, you are in a whole new world with completely different rules. The improbable is likely, strange creatures lurking at every turn and the two find themselves in the middle of a political battle that they can’t possibly understand. Their very different personalities initially brought them into conflict with one another, but in this unsettling and unknown world they can only rely on each other.
If you’d like to read more under the radar, check out my list of Reading Fairy Tale Retellings as well as Book Riot’s ongoing series, The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of.
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