Every year since 2016, I have participated in the Goodreads reading challenge. To participate, you set a goal to read a certain number of books per year, then log each book you read throughout the year for it to count toward your goal. Each year, I always read at least one or two books that affect me deeply, but I’ve never commented on them before. I’d like to change that this year by sharing with you, my readers — and the Internet at large — my favorite books of 2019. I present them in the order I read them. Maybe my thoughts and reflections will encourage you to read them, too. And if you’ve already read them before, I encourage you to leave your own perspectives in the comments.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I started the year with this depressing, existential novel set in a future United States following an apocalyptic event. The event itself is unsensational; unlike post-apocalyptic stories featuring zombies or other fantastical elements, the event that brought on the world in The Road is quiet, so quiet. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a major part in the story, though. The protagonists’ struggle against the very environment brought on by their apocalypse is front and center in this book. I appreciated the somberness and deadliness of it.
The Road is a nightmare. More than once, I would sit apart from the book, but my mind was still dwelling on the contents I had just read. Some of it is so harrowing that I still feel sick to think about it months later. The dreadful reality of the encounters in the book make me wonder what I might do if I ever found myself in such a post-apocalyptic scenario. I like to think I would survive, and survive well, but that is a romantic notion. The truth is likely darker and more horrifying than I can imagine.
Yet I could not put the book down until I had finished it. Despite the bleak and terrible story, despite the horrors described in the text (nothing was implied), I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It may be strange to say this, but the cold, dark dread of it was exactly what I was looking for in a story at the time. The Road was a reminder of the reality of a struggling humanity, and it lay the groundwork of understanding for all the other post-apocalyptic stories I read — and played in — during the rest of the year.
The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
So many people I know read The Broken Earth trilogy by Jemisin and loved it. They would not stop singing its praises. I have an automatic reaction to such extensive praise of any kind of media: doubt. Surely, I thought, people are hyping up this story too much. While it might be good, it certainly couldn’t be that good.
Or so I thought.
How can I put into words the things Jemisin made me feel while reading her story? I was heartbroken, regularly and thoroughly. There is so much hope amidst so much loss, so much love amidst so much trauma. I despised characters, and later I cheered for them. Jemisin’s writing by itself is exquisite; her pacing is phenomenal and her ability to weave together three different points of view is a masterwork in itself. All of her characters felt like real people, each complexly shaped by the tragedies of their pasts.
The Broken Earth is groundbreaking in so many ways. It is the story of ordinary people who go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals, selfishly, selflessly. It is a story about how love drives humans to do both terrible and wonderful things. It is a story about destroying shackles, building trust, and fixing a broken world.
A Million and One Gods by Page DuBois
Representing the non-fiction genre this year is DuBois’ treatise on polytheism — specifically, that polytheism persists in the modern world, even in the West. I know this, of course. As a Heathen, I am part of Contemporary Paganism and am quite familiar with polytheism. And DuBois’ research was nothing new to me, either: she presented arguments I have already considered and discussed with my peers.
But what I did not expect was for A Million and One Gods to inspire me. DuBois’ words filled me with an acute sense of pride in my beliefs, in my very being. I felt emboldened. I wanted to reiterate to the world just what my beliefs are: Yes, I defy the Christian overculture. Yes, I believe in and pray to many gods. I am here, vibrant and loud, among the rest of you. I shall not hide this part of me away in shame.
By itself, A Million and One Gods is not an especially revolutionary document. There are more crucial arguments one could make, such as what John M. Greer writes in his book A World Full of Gods. But there was something empowering about DuBois’ writing. Something that, for a time, stripped away the embarrassment one feels to be a minority in a society. Something that made me prouder than usual about who, and what, I am.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
In terms of fiction, this post may seem like I have a preference for dark, gritty, hard, heartbreaking stories — and it’s true, I do. So it should not surprise those who have read The Traitor Baru Cormorant to see it on this list. Unlike N. K. Jemisin’s trilogy, I have not heard many people speak of Baru. It seems largely unknown and unread, and when I skimmed the reviews, it seems polarizing as well: people either love it or hate it. But my friend Saskia read it and loves it, and I trust her taste in all things.
Baru’s story affects me in a way I should have expected when I first read the summary. My people were colonized, their language overwritten, their religion made illegal, their culture consumed. So I feel for Baru, even though I did not directly suffer from the colonist’s arrival like she does at the start of the book. And the more I read, the more I empathized with her moments of internal conflict.
But the more I read, the more the book asked me: Would you ever go this far? Would you pay such a price as Baru does?
Betrayal is obviously the theme of the story. I thought I knew the lengths a person in Baru’s position might go to achieve her goals, but I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it. This story doesn’t pull any punches. It is a tragedy at its finest. It is where all other hopes go to die as a sacrifice for the only hope that matters.