1. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
This 600-page gothic is the last novel published by the author of Jane Eyre before her death in 1855. It’s moody, atmospheric, and full of restrained longings, as you might expect, but Brontë also makes time for surrealism, tear-inducing tragedy, and a touch of caustic social critique. Following a young Englishwoman who takes a job at a boarding school across the channel, the novel plays its heroine beautifully off of her coworkers, superiors, and students, making use of everything from personal power dynamics to the maybe-paranormal for a deliciously complex, one-of-a-kind treat. (Bonus points for a well-earned yet utterly devastating ending.)
2. A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi
Set against the fierce and magical Tournament of Wishes, Roshani Chokshi’s lyrical, mythology-infused fairy tale lacks nothing. A thorny tenuous-allies-to-lovers romance sweeps the pages like a storm. A vibrant cast of supporting characters––and creatures––brings her vivid worldbuilding to life. Her prose, though, is queen of them all: if extended metaphor and flourish-heavy turns of phrase are your thing, this book and its companion novel, The Star-Touched Queen, are an addiction you should’ve developed yesterday. Every page is a lyrical treasure, and it makes for a crushing loss when there are no more of them left to turn. (Reviewed here.)
3. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
I won’t shut up about Naomi Novik’s gorgeous, Eastern-European-inspired retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and for good reason. It’s a work of fantasy with every trick up its sleeve, opening with a thoughtful look at antisemitism and its devastating personal consequences, and closing with a brilliant reinvention of the original fairy tale. As erudite as it is enchanting; as sweeping in scale as it is singularly concerned with every detail, Spinning Silver is a shining example of a fable re-sewn. Novik’s writing is meaty and absorbing, her worldbuilding is textured and considerate, and her love stories are impossible not to love. With all three combined, the result is pure magic. (Reviewed here.)
4. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Following Bree Matthews as she investigates the likely-magical death of her mother, Legendborn is Arthuriana fused with contemporary fantasy as I never knew I desperately needed to see it. In this brilliant take on the legends, the Round Table’s descendants are university students in a secret society, and they fight invading demons at a terrible human cost. But Deonn’s mythos goes deep, and there’s far more to this than meets the eye: a grizzled history entwined with systemic racism. A repressed form of magic whose power the knights’ heirs have failed to recognize. And the key to their future held in the last hands they’d expect. Alongside its heavy, and necessary, subject matter, though, Legendborn is thrilling, fast-paced, and addictive. Its 500 pages read like 250, and stick with you long after you’ve raced through them to the end.
5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Of the three Dickens titles I’ve now read, Great Expectations is the comfortably-won favorite. It’s home to a zany and memorable supporting cast (Miss Havisham!), full of excellent setpieces, and occasionally even laugh-out-loud hilarious. The book’s endearing main character, Phillip Pirrip, or ‘Pip,’ is such a moving depiction of how status and its lack capture and obsess a young mind to the point of harm, and I found myself rooting for him even when it was clear he was setting himself up for pain. (And not just because of our shared nickname!) What’s most impressive, though, is how Dickens manages to honestly show a fundamentally flawed society while also making ample use of the nostalgic warm fuzzies: Great Expectations as a book is warm and welcoming, even if its setting is very authentically not.
6. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
This stunning work of high fantasy and its superb sequel, The Shadowed Sun, are vast epics of genuinely jaw-dropping vision. Set in a secretive priesthood that uses the magic of dreams to heal (or destroy), N.K. Jemisin’s sophomore duology offers delicately-crafted political intrigue, arresting visuals, and a far-ranging exploration of war and occupation. As is becoming a theme on this list, the prose is dense, rich, and infinitely rewarding, but the setting it’s calibrated for does you one even better. It feels like Jemisin left this world out to mature for a few thousand years, then decided to put it to use in her story. The City of Gujareeh is filled with history and brimming with organic tension, and it feels anything but invented.
7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
If you’re familiar with The Secret History, If We Were Villains has a similar setup: an intimate and obsessed group of young scholars (Shakespeare, this time, instead of classics), a murder, and an extremely culpable institution of higher education. What Villains offers, though, and uniquely, in my opinion, is an understanding of the fact that vulnerable artists act to protect one another where directors and administrators fail. That’s the animating factor in the central tragedy: very much in Shakespearean fashion, this condemning, bloody deed is yet an act of love. Largely because of this, but also because it’s bolstered by a compelling ensemble and a superlative use of the Bard’s tragedies, If We Were Villains is a god-tier work of dark academia.
8. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor’s 2017 Strange the Dreamer is an exquisite enough series opener on its own. Muse of Nightmares, its follow-up, is just showing off on Taylor’s part, honestly. Now that its lead, the subdued librarian Lazlo Strange, has found the lost city of Weep, his lifelong obsession, it would’ve been all too easy for the sequel to sputter out in the absence of its starting conflict. What steps up to replace it, however, is doubly good: Taylor’s use of the distant past in creating a dire present is skillful and satisfying, and her ability to craft a jaw-dropping setting continues to amaze.
9. Gilded by Marissa Meyer
This dark retelling of Rumpelstilskin (yes! another!) is a surprising new direction for the author of such romps as The Lunar Chronicles, and, most recently, Instant Karma, but, owing to its delectable wickedness, folkloric edge, and bracing sense of danger, it’s a promising one. Gilded is a tribute to fairy tales that has what our contemporary understanding of them often lacks: a starring role for fear. In Meyer’s dark forest, we feel every bit of the terror that bids her characters to shut their doors and bar their windows every full moon, and when her lead, Serilda, falls into the grasp of the terrifying Erlking, no punches are pulled in our introduction to her best villain yet.
10. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White
The first two books in Kiersten White’s Arthurian trilogy, The Guinevere Deception and The Camelot Betrayal, are engrossing for their big questions: if our heroine, who’s taken the “real” Guinevere’s place as Queen, has no memory of her past, what secrets is it hiding? In the war between magic and order, who is right? The Excalibur Curse answers them in a way that’s likely to be divisive, but as a trilogy finale, it’s all the more admirable for the risks it takes in this department. White’s take on Arthur and his quest is substantial and nuanced, and her take on Guinevere herself more than once moved me to actual tears. I keep returning to Arthuriana often, and this series, full and gratifying in its now-completeness, is an exemplar as to why.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you had an excellent year for books, and I most definitely want to hear about all your favorites, in the comments below: