Let’s face it: a ton of books come out every year, and it’s impossible to give every one of them the love and attention they deserve. In 2020 in particular, a lot fell through the cracks. Some of the most underrated books of the year never even made it onto people’s TBR shelves!
Before 2020 is officially over, here are six underrated books you won’t want to miss.
Providence by Max Barry
The Providence is a vast, impressive ship run by an all-knowing AI. Her crew of four is there to fight against an alien species known as the Salamanders; however, they have no control of where the ship goes next. Instead, they mostly provide sound-bites and social media posts for the folks back home as a sort of reality-tv series.
Providence is much more than a humans-vs-aliens adventure. The novel has a lot to say about the truth and irony of war. There’s an incredible and interesting disconnect between each character’s understanding of what’s going on as opposed to the reality of their situation, adding a lot of dimension to seemingly familiar tropes.
This was my first book by Max Barry, so I had no idea what to look forward to going in. I was instantly hooked, and I’m excited to read more of his work in the future.
The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso
Throughout her life, Ryx has known one thing: nothing must unseal the Door. A social outcast due to her powers, she spends her days as Warden of Gloamingard, a largely ceremonial title thanks to her malfunctioning magic. When diplomats descend on her home to negotiate peace, two terrible accidents occur. Ryx unintentionally kills one of the diplomats, at the same time activating a mysterious, and apparently dangerous, artifact. As Ryx realizes that her family — and maybe the world — are at stake, her only allies might be a team of spies that investigate and resolve magical threats.
Back at the end of 2019, I didn’t see this book on a single list. I found it on my own, on one of the “new” shelves at my library, and I’m so glad I did. Despite the story’s high stakes plot, it never loses sight of the importance of the individual and the connection between others.
The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
Captain Nia Imani is a woman outside of place and time. Her crew travels through space in pockets of time; mere months pass on the ship while decades go by on the planets below.
The Vanished Birds is so much more than its description. It seems like conventional science fiction, featuring a spaceship, a mysterious boy and the powers-that-be hunting them down. However, it’s ultimately a deeply personal story about love, identity and home. There are so many types of love present in this novel — platonic, romantic, unrequited, familial — and the crew of Nia’s ship truly becomes a family over the course of their open-ended mission. The novel is gritty and intense, and very rarely happy or uplifting. Despite this, it’s beautiful and heart-wrenchingly human and well worth your time.
This was one of my favorite books of 2020, and it only came out in January! The writing is truly beautiful and the story is both a mystery and a love story that spans centuries.
The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood
If you’re looking for a completely original novel full of portals, necromancy and gods on earth, then The Unspoken Name is perfect for you. Csorwe, an orc priestess, was raised as the sacrificial wife of the Unspoken One, an ancient god living within the earth. Before she can be ritually killed, she’s snatched away into a new life with a powerful wizard. In a journey spanning nearly a decade, she becomes his spy and assassin.
Author AK Larkwood said of the inspiration behind her debut, “The Unspoken Name grew out of my long-standing curiosity about villains’ sidekicks: what might it take to stay loyal to a boss who is clearly bad news? What do you owe to someone who saves your life, and what do they owe to you?” (Tor.com) She uses fantasy as a way to get a new angle on things that are supposed to be inhuman and abnormal and turn them on their heads.
The Seep by Chana Porter
The Seep is beautifully weird, and a story that means so much more than it initially seems. It opens with “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” and continues with the gentlest alien invasion ever by an entity called the Seep. They infect humans through the water, getting them high so they don’t resist but also giving them the ability to modify their bodies. People can give themselves animal-like features, alter their genders or ethnicities and even take on the faces of people they know. Through this conceit, The Seep digs into what identity truly means when a person can literally become anything. The narrator and the reader are constantly unsettled by the ever-changing situation, questioning everything that happens.
This quick read is perfect for fans of Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado and Bunny by Mona Awad.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
This slim novella follows Chih, a cleric and historian, on their way to the capital to visit with the new Empress and her Dragon Court. On the way, they meet Rabbit, once a servant of the late Empress and now an exile. Rabbit lives in the old Empress’ former home, now full of dust and discarded artifacts, from clothes and playing cards to star charts and spices. She recounts her story to Chih who, although they’re not sure they understand everything, faithfully records it.
At barely over 100 pages, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a short read; however, it carries a lot of weight. It may be quiet, but the novella draws attention to the important stories under the story you expect. When Rabbit recounts the Empress’ slow takeover of the empire, it isn’t through battles or grand schemes but the lives of the hidden people, the servants and the overlooked, who make change possible. This is a quiet fantasy, one that will stay with you for a long time.
Did your favorite underrated books of 2020 make the list? Let us know below!
This article was originally published on 12/9/20