five brilliant reads of 2020 ft. queer magical books (part one)

Image: cottonbro

So here’s the thing – 2020 has been a rough year for all of us and I know at this point that it just goes without saying. But here’s what I’ve been holding onto – my love for stories in every shape and form. Books are what keep me going. Especially all the brilliant queer books published in the past two years.

This is the first half of an abridged list of 2020 faves. I hope you find something that makes you smile. And if you’ve read these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Greenhollow Duology by Emily Tesh

“Do you know what that’s like—when the impossible becomes true right before your eyes?”

Well. I do now. I listened to the audiobook that combines these two novellas and it was brilliant. The narrator has this soft, melodic, voice that instantly immersed me in the story. I picked up this series because Naomi Novik (my favorite author!?) blurbed it and of course I’m going to read anything that she says is “deep and green and wonderful.” Honestly, what more do you need to know? These novellas are based on the Green Man myth and have gay immortal men, a magical wood and romance!

“He knew it the same way the woodsman knew it, because he knew trees: but he also knew it with the knowledge of the Wild Man of Greenhallow, who felt every slow green beat of the forest’s heart.”

From a writer’s perspective, I’m obsessed with how Emily Tesh builds her characters. She shows you who they are through these really simple descriptions that effectively contrast how they see themselves vs how the world sees them vs who they really are. There are so many layers there and it’s a delight to watch those unravel as the story progresses.

In Silver in the Wood, Henry Silver is this bright, light, energetic man. He rambles a lot and he’s so hungry for stories. I felt a bit like a mirror had been held up to my soul because I, too, would badger a kind stranger living in the woods to put together pieces of ancient folklore. Or maybe I wouldn’t be half as brave or foolish as Silver. He tends to blunder into trouble headfirst and that’s when his mother shows up. Enter Mrs. Silver! She’s a no-nonsense woman with courage to spare and so fierce, she could probably make mountains move with her will.

“You’re another folklorist,” said Tobias, trying to keep up. “A practical folklorist,” said Mrs Silver. “Vampires eliminated, ghouls laid to rest, fairies discouraged, and so on.”

Tobias Finch, meanwhile, is the opposite of Silver. He’s quiet and thoughtful and very private. Unlike Silver, he doesn’t often express his emotions or even appear anything other than perfectly calm. Finch has this rich deep relationship with the wood and he’s very aware of his surroundings. You can see how powerful he is but also that he is very intentional about how and when he exercises that power.

Arguably one of the best parts of these novellas is how tangible the setting feels – as if there’s this forest springing up around you while you’re reading. I would be remiss if I also didn’t note the fairytale-quality to these stories – it makes everything feel familiar while logically, you know you’ve never read anything quite like this before.

“The Green Man walks the wood,” he tried explaining. “But the wood remembers.”

The second novella, Drowned Country, is all about Silver and oh he’s an adorable hot rambling mess who is most definitely sulking but refuses to admit it. Silver can be very selfish sometimes but I related to his depthless loneliness – that feeling of not belonging and not knowing quite what to do with yourself or how to pass the time. He’s changed and he’s trying to re-learn himself like slipping on a coat that doesn’t quite fit except he wants it to fit really badly.

Listening to Drowned Country was downright painful at times because it didn’t feel like there was a happy ending guaranteed – in fact, I couldn’t even predict any of the twists that Tesh wrote into the story. But it was exciting too to dissect these characters and their interactions again – to understand them better and absorb more of Tesh’s exquisite prose. Silver and Finch felt like old friends by then and I would gladly have read a hundred more stories about them.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I am so late to the party with this book but in my defense, I was saving it for a rainy day and…oh it was absolutely pouring this year so I busted out the audiobook. It was around eighteen hours of bliss and feeling amused over the number of times the narrator read out ‘Zachary Ezra Rawlins.’ This is by no means a criticism since all the narrators for this audiobook were incredibly talented and this complex, layered, exquisite book is worth all the time I spent on it and more.

“We are all stardust and stories.”

From the first mention of it in the text, I ached to visit the Starless Sea. It’s an underground library of sorts but far grander than anything I have ever imagined. It’s a haven for readers and writers and all you need to do is step through a door. The right door. Like all good books, there are stories within stories and Erin Morgenstern really weaves a tangled web with this one. We learn about secret societies, strange rituals and characters who fall in love as they meet outside of time. And time itself isn’t linear in this book – it moves swiftly in some places and sluggishly in others.

“This is a rabbit hole. Do you want to know the secret to surviving once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole?”
Zachary nods and Mirabel leans forward. Her eyes are ringed with gold.
“Be a rabbit,” she whispers.”

I was also delighted to discover Zachary is gay and his romance with a certain somebody was my personal highlight of the story. While this is slightly random, I also related to the scenes at the beginning of the book when Zachary is living on campus and frequenting the library. It reminded me so much of how I felt last year, curling up with hot chocolate after making a trip in the cold to borrow more books.

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

I think I’ll stop here for now..I don’t want to include too much detail as I wandered into this book barely knowing what I was getting myself into (which is only advisable when you’re reading of course).

i’ll be posting the second half of the list sometime next week but for now, i would love to hear your thoughts on these books. and also, how have you been? what (or who!) has brought you joy recently? what are some of the best books you read this year? and what are you looking forward to in the new year?

stay safe & take care, my dear friends.

30 thoughts on “five brilliant reads of 2020 ft. queer magical books (part one)

    1. Oh how come? Is it all the hype? Well I hope you still like it nevertheless. Thanks Karla! I appreciate all the thoughtful comments you’ve left me. Have a lovely day. ❤

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  1. The Starless Sea was utterly enchanting and I’m so glad 2020 was the year I read it. I don’t think any book can top it for vivid imagery and description unless it is The Night Circus or any other future book to be written by Erin Morgenstern.

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  2. I haven’t read any of these yet (The Night Circus is waiting patiently on my TBR lottery before I add The Starless Sea), but you make them sound so good!

    My dh recently got a new job (after 8 months of unemployment) so that has brought me joy recently. Getting back to a normal routine is heavenly.

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  3. i really need to finish reading the starless sea! i picked it up earlier this year because i got it for christmas last year but i never made it past the first 100 pages 😭 and i’ve been hearing more and more good things about the greenhollow duology and i’ll definitely have to check it out! i’m happy you enjoyed both of these <33

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    1. Yes, I think Starless Sea is definitely worth checking out! If you like fantasy or magical/surreal books, I think you’ll love it. It is a book with many layers and I was listening to the audiobook so I had to pay careful attention at times to make sure I was following along. But I prefer to think of it as more immersive than overwhelming and I think you’ll quickly get caught up in the story if you give it a try. Thank you for dropping by. Enjoy your reading!

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