2020 has been a bananas year in every way possible, and in publishing, some books that deserved more readers haven’t received the kind of press they would’ve in another year. I primarily read fantasy and science fiction, so I combed through my favorite SFF reads from the year for the ones that had less than 1000 ratings. The first six on this list have less than 500, and the remaining four less than 1000. I love these books just as much as some of the bigger pressed books with lots and lots of ratings. In this list of 2020 under-the-radar SFF books, visit fantasy worlds with talking tigers, climb a wall to a world as absurd as that in Alice in Wonderland, or join a crew in an annual competition while trying not to get murdered. It’s interesting to note that all but one of these books are by non-white and/or LGBTQ+ writers. Do books by minority writers receive less publicity funding than others? The Publishing Paid Me hashtag showed that non-white authors receive smaller advances. Unfortunately, I suspect this extends to marketing as well.
10 Under-the-Radar Fantasy and Science Fiction Books From 2020
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo
The second novella in The Singing Hills Cycle is smaller in scope than the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune—but it’s just as beautiful. It can also be read as a stand-alone. Cleric Chih needs to cross the mountains for their next assignment, so they hire a mammoth and a guide, Si-Yu, to lead them across the mountains. When shapeshifting tigers attack Chih and Si-Yu, Chih uses their storytelling skills to keep the tigers at bay. They tell the tigers a story about a scholar and her tiger lover, and the tigers, familiar with this tale, have many corrections to make. The novella explores how stories can have different meanings depending on culture and context. It’s a lovely novella, as beautiful as the cover.
Critical Point by S.L. 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 order, the Cas Russell series begins with Zero Sum Game. Cas has been genetically engineered to be a math genius. Cas’s memories were wiped at some point, and in the process, her moral compass was erased, too. She’s now a rogue private detective who takes her moral cues from another private detective, Arthur, and his two employees. She thinks they’re all friends. But when Arthur goes missing and it’s up to Cas to find him, she discovers that they’ve all been lying to her. I listened to the audiobook version, and it was a blast. Now I need to go back and read the first two! Maybe I should go with the second book next? 😉
The Vanished Queen by Lisbeth Campbell
The Vanished Queen is a debut, standalone epic fantasy novel steeped in politics and feminism rather than magic. After her military father’s execution, Anza joins the resistance against a tyrannical king. With no family, an excellent education, and archery training, she’s an ideal candidate for the resistance. The evil king’s youngest son, Prince Esvar, is the same age as Anza. His mother, Queen Mirantha, disappeared when he was a child and is assumed dead, but he clings to the morals she taught him. He despises his father and is determined to see his brother on the throne. The final POV comes from Queen Mirantha’s diary, which Anza discovers hidden away 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-burn political fantasy with a touch of romance has a very satisfying climax and conclusion. Content warning for sexual and domestic assault.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
This lyrical novella is Lemberg’s first longer work, though they’ve previously published short stories in the Birdverse Universe where The Four Profound Weaves takes place. The novella alternates between two elderly trans characters (referred to as “changers”), Uiziya and a nameless man called nen-sasair. Uiziya has trained in three of the four profound weaves, but to learn the final weave and create a bone cloth, she needs to 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 lived most of his life as a woman. In his gender-divided culture, his people struggle with his new masculine identity. Both Uiziya and the nen-sasair regret much about their lives. This regret prompts them to pair up on a quest that will lead them to confront the evil Ruler of Iyar. Content warning for transphobia.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
This unique standalone is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of Korea during the Japanese occupation of the early 1900s. The Ministry of Armour hires nonbinary artist Jebi to paint magic sigils onto masks for the government’s automata. Their sister hates the conquering government, but Jebi, who doesn’t consider themself political, needs the cash and doesn’t see another way of acquiring it. Jebi is oblivious to anything that isn’t art. At the armory, Jebi befriends a pacifist dragon automata, and their political reluctance slowly begins to shift. As their friendship strengthens and Jebi sees more of the inner workings of The Ministry of Armour, they decide they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the dragon from becoming a weapon. I loved the way queerness is normalized in the social structure of the world Yoon Ha Lee builds, 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
Set in Nigeria, this middle grade novel is about a 12-year-old superhero trying to avenge his father’s death. Nnamdi’s father was chief of police investigating a criminal organization when he was murdered. One night he comes across a magical object that gives him power—much like the supervillains that plague his city—but the object charges him only to use his powers for good. With his best friend Chioma’s help, Nnamdi tries to protect his town, but revenge is on his mind too. This is a delightful novel about emotions and loss and heroism.
A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers
This super fun space opera has mystery, LGBTQ+ rep, competition, and a fantastic ensemble cast I want to be BFFs with. Max Carmichael has recently been assigned as the second in command on Zuma’s Ghost, part of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, or NeoG. The NeoG patrols and protects space and is inspired by the U.S. Coast Guard. The crew doesn’t initially welcome Max. Zuma’s Ghost is preparing for the yearly Boarding Games competition, and the crew is determined to win. A new crew member could put a kink in their chances. Meanwhile, a routine mission turns into a conspiracy when someone begins targeting the crew, and if they don’t figure out what’s going on, they and thousands of others might die. This feel-good science fiction is a great way to escape from the world.
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
This beautifully written multi-genre YA novel entwines Mexican folklore with telepathic powers and UFOs. Sia Martinez’s mom is assumed dead. Deported by ICE a few years earlier, her mom 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 since she goes to school with the police chief’s son, who mocks 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—provides some distraction as well. Then one day, she and Noah spot a UFO, and their lives are upended. The characters in this novel are delightful, and despite the weighty topics, I couldn’t stop smiling as I read. I listened to the audiobook read by Inés del Castillo and highly recommend it if you listen to audiobooks. Content warning for sexual assault and parental death.
Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters
Shady Grove’s fiddle—inherited from her father—can call up ghosts when played with enough sorrow. When Shady Grove’s stepfather is murdered and her older brother Jesse is arrested for the crime, she decides to use the fiddle to solve her stepfather’s murder and prove her brother’s innocence. But every time she calls up ghosts by playing folksongs on her fiddle, a dark, shadowy man appears and sometimes even controls her movements. Her friends and fellow bandmates try to help her find other ways to help her brother, but the allure of the fiddle is too strong. Meanwhile, she’s torn between her long-time crush, Sarah, and her new crush on cowboy Cedar. This YA debut is a lovely and eerie gothic that perfectly captures small-town Southern living. Content warning for child abuse.
Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker
A. Deborah Baker is a pen name for Seanan McGuire. Over the Woodward Wall is a novel the characters in Middlegame frequently reference, so McGuire decided to write that novel, much like how Catherynne M. Valente wrote The Girls Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making after writing about it in her novel Palimpsest. As such, Over the Woodward Wall is a standalone novel, similar in theme to her Wayward Children series. It’s about two exceptional children (because all children are exceptional) who find a wall blocking their path on the way to school, so they decide to climb it. Instead of finding themselves on the other side of the street, they’re in an entirely new world with entirely different rules. The improbable is probable, strange creatures lurk around every turn, and the two are in the midst of a political battle they can’t possibly understand. Their very different personalities at first set them at odds with one another, but in this unsettling and unfamiliar world, they only have each other to rely on.