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2020 r/Fantasy Bingo Challenge: Conclusion and Thoughts

Like every year since the beginning of the challenge, I aimed for the full card in 2020 as well. It seemed easy enough, no real curveballs in terms of squares. Then  I entered the Great Big Reading Slump of 2020, stopped reading SFF for months, and whether I’d manage to complete it suddenly seemed much less certain.

But, in the end, I did it, and I was very surprised to learn that despite all my troubles, I finished earlier than last year – March 7th compared to March 12th.

Statistics

  • In the end, 12 (48%) squares qualify for hard mode. Since I never try for hard mode, this is entirely incidental.
  • 12 (50%) books were by female authors, 8 (33%) by male authors, 2 (8%) by non-binary authors, 1 (4%) by a mixed gender team, and 1 (4%) by an unknown author. Out of the 5 short stories, 4 were by female authors and 1 by a non-binary author.
  • This year, only 6 (24%) squares were the same as in the original plan. I think this is a new record.
  • 4 (16%) of the books were self-published. This is more than last year.
  • 7 (28%) books were novellas and 1 (4%) was an epic poem. The rest (apart from the short story square, obviously) were novels.
  • Since I kept doing basic ratings, 7 (18%) squares were rated MEH and the others were rated YAY. There was no square rated BOO.

Translated: Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley

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goodreads

Hard mode: Since the author is unknown and the hard mode is “written by a woman”…maybe? Who knows.
As planned: Nope. Wanted to use Daughter from the Dark by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko.

More or less an incidental pick. I was reshuffling my card close to the end, trying to figure out alternatives to my original choice, then one of the fellow mods pointed out I had already read this one and that was that. I was quite excited for this translation, since it seemed like a more fun, readable, modern take – and it’s indeed good and flows very well too – but I still couldn’t get over my usual difficulties with reading long-form poetry. I’m simply not used to having to pay attention to every word.

Features Snow, Ice, or Cold: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

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Hard mode: All of the book takes place in the Himalayas, so yes…?
As planned: Nope. Originally meant to read Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg.

An emergency last mintute substitution, when I realised my original pick (that I still intend to read someday!) was too long to read as close to the end as I was by then. In short, I enjoyed it very much – the setting is original and I loved the sheer amount of chaos the djinn was intent on causing. As a book I never would have read if not for the Bingo, I feel like it’s very much in the spirit of the challenge too.

Optimistic: Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep. Not Becky Chambers.
As planned: Yep.

One of the themes I enjoy reading about are consequences of a big conflict, books that focus on rebuilding after the sort of calamities that tend to be the plot of most epic fantasy books. Unfortunately, this one disappointed – I found the plot incredibly tedious and repetitive.

Features Necromancy: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry

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goodreads

Hard mode: Maybe? One of the POV characters is a necromancer, but I’m not sure if they qualify as a protagonist.
As planned: Nope. Originally meant to use this book for Politics and The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco for Necromancy.

Now that’s the kind of book that my 18th-century-obsessed self can’t help but pick up. I never gave it a full review because it seems to follow historical events very closely and I didn’t know enough at the time to be able to judge that (now, the most I can say is that it does a reasonably good job when it comes to the French revolution), nor did I feel like I can do it justice without at least some commentary on that. Regardless, I enjoyed it well enough.

Ace / Aro: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

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Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Mindtouch, but the ace rep wasn’t great, so I swapped it over to School Setting and picked this for ace.

I was very excited for this one, especially when the hardcover arrived and I saw how gorgeous it is, but in the end, it was just not my thing. No complaints whatsoever regarding the worldbuilding and the rep, mind, that’s excellent, but it read far younger (almost middle grade) than what I prefer (adult or sometimes the older end of YA).

Features a Ghost: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

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Hard mode: Nope. Protagonist is not a ghost.
As planned: Yep.

Given that The Winged Histories is my second all-time favourite book, I had this lying on my shelf for far too long. And though A Stranger in Olondria is pretty good, it does not, all considering, live up to its sequel in my opinion. It’s beautifully written, sure, but I found it to be a drag in the middle and the traditional novel structure doesn’t work as well compared to the more experimental one in The Winged Histories.

Novel Featuring Exploration: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

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Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Yep.

Another one I had on my physical TBR since forever. Unfortunately, it was a rather bad time for it – by the time I finally picked it up, I was sick to death of alternate England as a setting and the obsession with young women having to marry that’s so frequently a plot point. I might still continue the series, but not anytime soon.

Climate Fiction Non-Fantasy (2016): Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford

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goodreads

Hard mode: Nope. It’s a swap.
As planned: Nope. Initially planned to read Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, not replacing the square.

Last minute swap because I wasn’t in the mood for climate fiction but…let’s be honest, also very much an excuse to squee about my favourite nonfiction book of 2020. It’s not perfect, it’s somewhat dated (though not as much as you’d expect for something from 1957!), but god damn, it brought me so much joy. It’s gossipy, absolutely hilarious, and filled with various kinds of ridiculousness, attention whoring, print wars, and assholery that make for an extremely entertaining read and demonstrate perfectly why I have such a fixation for the 18th century (drama, it’s the drama). I laughed, I facepalmed, I couldn’t resist the temptation to share the most farcical of the anecdotes, many a “oh for fuck’s sake” was uttered, it was an absolute riot.

Novel with a Colour in the Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Yep.

A perfect 2020 antidote. This is just so cozy and fluffy and yes, a bit saccharine, but it was perfect at the time. It reminded me quite a bit of a lighter The Gray House and I loved how it went against the common fantasy trope of people being born with a certain unchangeable destiny.

Book Club / Readalong Book: The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Tentatively planned Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw. But since I wanted to participate in a current book club, this was more of a failsafe.

As I write this, several months after reading it, I have to admit I don’t remember as much as I would have liked. But I know I enjoyed it, I know it was a fast read, and I know I have the sequel waiting on my shelf. So this will have to do.

Self-Published: Heart of Stone by Johannes T. Evans

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goodreads

Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Legacy of Ghosts by Alicia Wanstall-Burke.

As soon as I heard of this book, I knew I’d have to squeeze it in somehow. Slow-burn, 18th century romance seemed exactly up my very specific alley. But unfortunately I discovered there is such a thing as too slow of a burn and due to how drawn-out it was, I didn’t really enjoy this at all.

Chapter Epigraphs: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett but I didn’t feel like reading it.

Now this was amazing. I rarely see a truly well-paced novella and this is definitely among them. Every chapter is structured the same, which works really well, and I’m a huge sucker for anything that uses the framing device of the MC either learning or telling the true story of what happened. The prose is beautiful, t00.

Published in 2020: The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

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goodreads

Hard mode: Nope. Not a debut.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee, then read The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison and used that, then replaced it with a book I actually liked.

The Seventh Perfection shot up straight to my favourites. It’s incredibly well-written, and even though the base story is nothing earth-shattering, it’s told in such a unique way that it instantly won me over – through the eyes of everyone except the protagonist, whom we never see speak. I like experiments, and I love experiments done well. And I love unreliable narrators and stories you have to puzzle together yourself most of all.

School Setting: Mindtouch by M.C.A. Hogarth

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller, then had to switch this book to another square from Ace/Aro.

Left me with a lot of conflicted feelings. I love fluffy slice of life and I love well done school stories. I enjoyed it very very much just for that. What I didn’t like as much is that there just had to be an “explanation” for a character’s asexuality (genetic engineering) because I’m sick of how often it’s implied that asexuality is something artificial or unnatural rather than just another sexual orientation.

Book About Books: Knox by K. Arsenault Rivera, Brooke Bolander, Gabino Iglesias, and Sunny Moraine

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goodreads

Hard mode: Probably not?
As planned: Nope. Originally planned The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, but couldn’t get into it.

Another one I read outside of Bingo first, then crammed in when I panicked because I couldn’t read the book I originally planned. As a lovecraftian noir, this is a little outside of the usual for me. I decided to say yes to the ARC and give it a try because I wonered if I could enjoy a noir if it was free of the usual sexist baggage. And I did like it…aside from the horror elements, which were a little much for me. But this is not really the fault of the book.

Made You Laugh: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

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goodreads

Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland.

Yep, you guessed it, another last minute novella substitution. It was a quick read and a lot of fun (of course, just look at the square name), even if most of the worldbuilding and cultural references went over my head. And I love found families. If I have a complaint, it’s that it ended a little too abruptly, but perhaps there will be a sequel.

Five SFF Short Stories

Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope, I planned to read that year’s Hugo nominees. I did not.

  • To Balance the Weight of Khalem by R.B. Lemberg (read here)
  • An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands by Fran Wilde (read here)
  • A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (read here)
  • Do Not Look Back, My Lion by Alix E. Harrow (read here)
  • So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer (read here)

Big Dumb Object: The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman

goodreads

Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Yep.

I’ve been dying to read The Breath of the Sun for years, so it was great that I could squeeze it into my bingo plan, especially what would otherwise be such a difficult square. Sometimes, I have a feeling a book will be perfect for me, and such intuition is never to be ignored. And I mean, concept-focused, queer literary fantasy with lovely prose, is there a more me kind of book? Once again, I was correct: it ended up being another all-time favourite.

Feminist: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

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Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Last of the last minute novella swaps. Needed a feminist novella and this looked good. Plus, I’m a sucker for westerns. Even if some of the worldbuilding broke my suspension of disbelief a bit, I still liked it a lot overall and would recommend it.

Canadian Author: The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming by Sienna Tristen

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Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff.

Not much of a story behind this square. Planned a book, then I heard of something better mid-Bingo and used that. It’s a lovely book about anxiety and a journey during which a character learns more about himself. It’s rather slice of life and strangely written, but it resonated with me enough at the time, that I almost hesitate to talk about it or recommend it.

Number in the Title: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone.

Switched because it was a bookclub pick for that month and I intended to participate (I’m not sure if I did, in the end. But I wanted to.) and why waste a perfect book for a square. Especially if it’s short. And I liked it too – it was immersive, a lot funnier than expected, and I love seeing bureaucracy in fantasy books.

Romantic Fantasy / Paranormal Romance: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

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Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera but wasn’t in the mood for epic fantasy.

I have a note that this was recommended to me as ” what if a very depressed queer version of Tom Bombadil living in a beautiful creepy magical wood was also a monster hunter and then he fell in love.” Unfortunately it did not quite live up to the amazing pitch. My biggest issue was the pacing, which was all wrong. I might have liked it more if it was a novel with more space to develop characters, but as it is…nope.

Magical Pet: Take a Thief by Mercedes Lackey

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Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned Jhereg by Steven Brust.

I abandoned my original plan as soon as the Valdemar group read started. They are perfect, nostagic comfort reads for me and this is one of the many I haven’t read when I first read them as a teen (really, I only read Talia and Vanyel’s trilogies), so, safe to use. All in all, I liked it well enough – especially since it’s one of the rare classic medieval fantasy books that actually shows how the lower classes live for most of it, which I feel is something that’s often absent. But I did feel that some of the misogyny was a little needless.

Graphic Novel: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (read here)

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Hard mode: Yep.
As planned: Yep.

I tend to go for new webcomics for this square and On a Sunbeam is one I heard a lot about. I loved the art and even though most of the characters seemed like assholes initially, it slowly grew on me. It also has an interesting gimmick: there are no men in the story, only women and non-binary people. Which I honestly probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t told.

Features Politics: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

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goodreads

Hard mode: Nope.
As planned: Nope. Originally planned A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, then A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians before shifting it to Necromancy, then Congress of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis, before this grabbed my attention.

I don’t think I did quite as many switches for any square as I did here. But 18th century, not set in England, and featuring a Prussian spy…I felt the pull. It’s not perfect – there are too many characters and POVs for such a short book, a lot of which could have been cut or merged (and my disappointment when the Prussian spy turned out to be almost completely irrelevant was immense) – but it’s well-researched and exactly what I craved.

Plus, historically accurate masquerade ball crossdressing!

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