The Worst of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… And here we’ll focus on the worst 😉 Or, to be more fair, just on the most disappointing for us personally, for as you will see, most of the works mentioned below enjoyed quite a lot of acclaim and following.

To be true to our title, we should probably start and stop this post at COVID-19, the wellspring of our woes (though there are a few hopeful signs along the way, from the evidence of effective and efficient trust-based cooperation above the national level to the human-caused limitation of greenhouse gases emissions). But as this is predominantly a book blog, with a small but significant addition of comics, TV series and movies, we feel we need to elaborate a bit and avoid easy finger-pointing.

As in the previous summary post, we wanted to divide our choices into a few categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Comics, TV Series; but as Non-fiction this year proved to be a major hit without any misses (YAY!), we’ll omit this category.

Ola’s Worst of 2020 in Fiction

Here the choices are easy, at least for me – though for many might seem quite controversial, as some of these books seem to have become fan favorites ;). But what can I say? By now you really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this 😛 So without further ado, here it is:

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

That’s the only book on this list that I wrote a review of; I felt this instant favorite of the bookish community deserved a critique, and whether I achieved the goal of making it measured and not just scathing, it’s for you to judge. So let me just quote the crux of my review here:

Nanking Massacre was a truly horrible event, an atrocity for which there can be no excuse. The world should learn more about it, so that it stops being a footnote in history books. But using it in a fantasy book as a plot device designed to further the main character’s evolution into a vessel for a demonic/demigod entity and as a rationale for her own acts of genocide seems beyond bad taste.

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The Best Of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It’s becoming a tradition that we can’t fit all we want to write about in our end-year post, and again we had to divide it into two. Before Christmas we wrote about the blog and stats, now we want to share our favourite – and least favourite – books and shows, consumed in this fateful year.

Ola: Well, say what you want, but for me 2020 turned out to be a good time for reading ;). As last year, I decided to divide my best reads into three categories, Fiction, Non-fiction, and Comics. With so many books read, my The Best Of criteria had to be very harsh, so below are the best of the best of the best, which means a very impactful, thought-provoking and delightful read, as well as the even rarer 10/10 rating :).

Ola’s Best of 2020 in Fiction

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

This was truly one of the very best reads of 2020 and one of the very best SF reads ever. Stephenson’s love letter to Western philosophy and science is pure perfection, and his decision to wrap it into a hero’s journey through a world as like and as unlike our own was a masterstroke, allowing the readers an incredibly immersive experience. The prose is dense, ambitious, unforgiving, but given a chance it shines with amazing clarity and emotion. I owe big thanks to Bart, who recommended Anathem to me; Stepehenson’s Seveneves is good, especially the first part dealing with orbital mechanics, and would’ve been even better if the last part didn’t exist, but Anathem is a masterpiece, clear and simple. If you haven’t yet, read it!

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (2020)

The grand finale of the critically acclaimed Cromwell trilogy doesn’t disappoint. It may be more meandering and more sentimental than the naked blade of Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s to be expected since it deals with the final years of Thomas Cromwell, whose tragic history is inextricably linked with that of Henry VIII. A historical novel with grand ambitions, a deep psychological portrayal of human vices and virtues, of naked ambition, egotism and the pitfalls of power, The Mirror & the Light is astonishingly modern, significant novel; a mark of true classic, its contents equally relevant in times of Henry VIII and our own.

Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

I’ve written all I could about this quirky, thought-provoking read. I loved Lee’s bold, utterly brilliant mashup of Korean mythology and political anti-utopia clad in military SF accoutrements and wrapped up in a stolen identity mystery happening in the middle of a galactic war. Ninefox Gambit is wonderfully ambitious, broad in scope, and lyrical. I’ve read the remaining two books in the trilogy, but sadly, their quality seemed to be deteriorating with each installment, and by the end turned into a political treatise focused on gender issues while what I was expecting was an all-out AI revolution ;).

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (2005)

The second installment in the Saxon Stories series, popularized by the Netflix’s TV series Last Kingdom (very good, actually, though I haven’t seen it past season 1 as I want to read the books first ;)) is impeccably written, heart-rending, thoroughly researched, and simply riveting. The first book is good; but only in The Pale Horseman Cornwell achieves the psychological and societal depth to make his work outstanding. Many thanks to Sarah, who recommended this series to me. A review will come one day, I promise 😉

Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

I was really surprised by this little novella; its impact on me was far bigger than I’d expected judging by its length and the misleadingly obfuscating beginning. But this tiny bit of a book is simply amazing, turning midpoint from a slightly generic fantasy into a Kafkian treatise on the nature and limits of power. I absolutely adored every aspect of it, from the stunningly apt use of the second person perspective to the impeccably structured journey – inward and outward – of the protagonist.

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Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Saga (2012-present)

AN EPIC SPACE OPERA ABOUT WARS, STARS, AND PARENTHOOD. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, SAGA.

Piotrek: Brian K. Vaughan came to my attention years ago, with his Y: The Last Man series, an very original and altogether excellent comic book series from the early 2000s.

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It tells a story of the last human male on an alternative Earth, where all the mammals with Y chromosome died suddenly in 2002. The mechanics of this event were, to me, a bit disappointing, but the series was exciting, full of action, romance, and politics. I’ve heard great thinks about Runaways, but haven’t read that. When I’ve read about his new series, Saga, I was pretty sure it’s going to be great. I’ve read the first volume, and it confirmed my suspicions. It was great! But, I didn’t want to wait anxiously for each volume. I bought the first deluxe hardcover, and the second, and the third, and never read beyond volume one.

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There’s quite a lot of violence, and sex, but probably the most controversial thing is that they dared to put a boob on the cover!

I have to say the series shines not only in the script department, but is also beautifully illustrated. Fiona Staples definitely is a co-author of this experience, and I mention her after my paragraph about Vaughan mostly because it was my first encounter with her work. Exactly how splendid that work is, will tell you in the review itself.

Recently, I learned the series is on hiatus, and we will have to wait a good while to see its second half. Saga also popped up, now and then, on many of the blogs I follow. I decided to finally read it, and I wolfed down all three 500-hundred-page volumes within a week. It was so good!

Ola: And I read it all once Piotrek had his shiny hardcovers 😀 Oh, the joys of borrowing books ;). I’m not a big fan of Runaways, and Y somehow never got to the top of my TBR, but I can fully confirm Piotrek’s opinion on Saga – it really is a very good, stunningly illustrated story. Hats off to Fiona Staples, because without her art the story wouldn’t be half as good, or half as crazy. And while the main characters hold the majority of readers’ attention, it’s the side characters that add that elusive secret ingredient that makes Saga such a memorable read. By now The Lying Cat has probably more fans than Marko or Alana 😉

Saga Lying Cat

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Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, A Study in Emerald (2018)

A Study in Emerald

Author: Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque

Title: A Study in Emerald

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 88

Right in time for October spookiness, Gaiman’s cheeky and heartfelt tribute to both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is a lovingly crafted mystery clad in horror. Gaiman’s short story won 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette, and had been adapted to the comic book medium by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone,  and Dave Stewart over a decade later.

I must admit I did read the short story back in the time, but the comic book adaptation somehow made a much greater impression on me. Maybe it’s the Lovecraftian vibes, which so greatly lend themselves to the dark, shadowy frames filled with menacing tentacles and splotches of vivid green, or maybe it’s the structure of the story, beautifully misleading the readers, throwing red (or rather emerald) herrings left and right, only to reveal its true nature to the careful reader (and indeed, half the pleasure from reading Gaiman’s take on the world’s best detective stems from knowing all necessary facts about Sherlock Holmes ;))

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Mark Millar, Leinil Yu, Superior (2013)

Superior

Author: Mark Millar (writer), Leinil Yu (penciler)

Title: Superior

Format: Paperback

Pages: 200

What’s happening, another comic book review in a row? And what is that exactly, a love child of Superman and Shazam???

Well, to an extent ;). Though the fruit of Millar and Yu’s collaboration reads like an unabashed love letter to Superman, it had actually been published by Marvel. This comic is one of the more vivid examples of the blurred lines between what exactly in the superhero world is a property of one or the other powerhouses – and a solid reminder that ideas cannot be owned :).

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