Best of 2020: Notable Debuts

Yep, it’s that time of the year again! Starting this week I’ll be making lists…lots of lists. All of it will culminate into an end-of-year roundup post with my favorites and best-ofs, but in the meantime there also other categories I’d like to explore, like notable debuts. Each year, I’m always excited to have discovered new authors who have broken onto the scene for the very first time, and 2020 was no exception. So let’s shine a spotlight on these rising stars whose first novels really made an impression on me this year.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

This fantasy debut simply struck all the right chords for me—natural and easy to fall into, but neither uncomplicated or too predictable. I loved the story and the setting and the characters in equal measure. Lightly inspired by Asian culture, this opener to the Drowning Empire trilogy follows the perspectives of a group of disparate characters all trying to make their way through a world made up of innumerable floating, shifting islands. Together, they make up the broader narrative of an empire in transition, of an empire teetering on the verge of great change. In a word, reading The Bone Shard Daughter was simply breathtaking. First of all, the world-building—I am absolutely floored. From the floating islands of the empire to power of bone shard magic, I was utterly enchanted and blown away by the ideas in this book. I could hardly believe the level of detail either, yet Stewart somehow always manages to rein it in just enough so that it doesn’t become an overwhelming deluge of information. And then we have the characters, whose threads gradually came together and intermingled, each perspective maintaining its own style and tonal differences. The hype is real, folks, and I heartily recommend this novel to any fantasy fan who craves great storytelling and originality in world-building. (Read the full review…)

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

It’s probably no surprise that The Kingdom of Liars was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2020, with a premise that promises magic, intrigue, and adventure. While the novel did falter slightly at times as debuts often do, I nonetheless found it to be an excellent and compelling read. The protagonist of the story is Michael Kingman, son of the most notorious traitor the Hollows has ever seen. But while David Kingman was put to death for murdering the child prince nearly a decade ago, his wife and children are still suffering for his sins, scorned and mistrusted by their noble peers. Still, how far does the apple really fall from the tree? As the novel begins, Michael is being held prisoner, awaiting his trial and execution. His purported crime? For killing the king. The story then flashes back to recent events as Michael begins to recount the harrowing journey which led to his arrest and current situation. Over the years, I’ve read a great number of books involving unreliable narrators, but this one might be one of the most intriguing ways of handling the concept that I’ve ever seen. In many ways, The Kingdom of Liars reminded me very much of the early works by Brandon Sanderson, such as Elantris or Mistborn—just a tad unpolished and slightly rough around the edges, but the story and the concepts themselves are solid. Nick Martell is poised to become a promising and inspiring powerhouse in the fantasy genre, and I look forward to reading more of his work for years to come. (Read the full review…)

You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce

Boy, I loved this book. Though if you’re considering it, my advice is not to put too much stock in its synopsis, which severely undersells what it’s actually about. This is no mere crime drama or murder mystery, for its true nature defies genre labels and encompasses so much more. At the heart of this tale is Cassandra Tripp, a 74-year-old romance author known for her steamy novels and the fact she was the main suspect at the murder trial of her husband almost forty years ago. Although she was acquitted, many questions related to the case were never solved, and now Cassandra is missing, leading police to believe that her disappearance may be linked to her dubious past. As more than a year has passed since she vanished, the authorities have reason to believe she is dead, thus putting in motion the procedures stipulated in her will regarding her sizeable estate. In life, Cassandra was an eccentric prone to flights of fancy, so it was no surprise to anyone that her last wishes were filled with bizarre conditions. Her beneficiaries were instructed to read her final manuscript, a tell-all style memoir in which they will find a password that can be used to claim their inheritance—that is, should they decide they still want it after they are done reading. As you’ve probably guessed, You Let Me In is this manuscript, revealing Cassandra’s troubled childhood and what psychologists would call a long history with mental illness. But to Cassandra, her experiences were very real, and it all began with her relationship with the monstrous faerie-like creature the Pepper-Man, who is nothing like a child’s typical imaginary friend. (Read the full review…)

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Welcome to Sunder City, a dreary home to a desperate populace doing whatever they can to get by now that all magic in the world is dead and gone. Six years ago, the human army, hungry for power, had sought to harness magic for themselves but instead destroyed it at its source, causing an apocalyptic event known as the Coda. From that moment on, everything that was fueled by magic failed or began its decline, and now a former human soldier turned PI-for-hire is trying to do all he can to atone for what he felt was his part in the disaster. Meet protagonist Fetch Philips. When he’s not drowning his guilt and sorrows in cheap booze, he’s offering his services exclusively to non-humans as a way towards his own redemption. When the story begins, he has just been hired by his latest client, the principal of a cross-species school who wants Fetch to find their missing professor. It is a peculiar case in many ways, and not least because the victim is an elderly vampire—literally a dying breed since the Coda. And when further digging leads to more missing people and several close calls for Fetch, it’s clear something a lot more dangerous and complicated is going on. Even with a light and familiar premise at its heart, The Last Smile in Sunder City was a surprisingly good read from Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. What the book does well, it does extremely well—namely, the world-building is clever and superb, not to mention the character development is to die for. (Read the full review…)

The Return by Rachel Harrison

As the story begins in this horror debut, our protagonist Elise appears to be the only one unconcerned when she hears that her friend Julie is missing. Even when her other two besties, Mae and Molly, are devastated and a funeral is held a year after the disappearance, Elise is convinced that Julie is still alive and will one day come back. Then one day, out of the blue, it actually happens. Julie shows up on her own porch, with no memory at all of the time she went missing. Her friends, however, are just happy that she’s returned. In order to reconnect, Mae arranges for the four of them to spend a long weekend at a swanky new hotel that just opened in the mountains, called the Red Honey Inn. For the exorbitant cost, Elise is unimpressed by the gaudiness of its themed rooms and frigid halls, though she’s excited to be spending time with Mae and Molly again, and they’re all hoping Julie will open up about what happened. Their friend has been acting very strangely since her reappearance, like the fact she used to be a strict vegetarian but now she can’t seem get enough of meat—the rarer the better. She’s also not looking too well these days: skin dried, lips cracked, hair and teeth falling out. As the weekend wears on amidst the growing tensions and the increasing dread, it’s clear they’re dealing with something much worse…and not at all natural. The horror sequences were all very well done and fantastically described, so if what you want is a chilling read, this book will certainly not disappoint you. (Read the full review…)

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

A solid if unevenly paced fantasy epic by A.K. Larkwood, The Unspoken Name is a brilliant injection of new ideas into the genre and a stunning effort in world-building. This is the tale of an orc woman named Csorwe, following her journey from acquiescent priestess to ruthless mercenary after she turns her back on her god. As the book begins, our protagonist is a young girl sequestered within the House of Silence, destined to be an eventual sacrifice to the Unspoken One, whom her people worship. On the day she is fated to die, however, a mystery stranger named Belthandros Sethennai swoops in to her rescue, whisking her away from the temple to reveal so much more to life than the only one she’s ever known. But of course, her savior has his own agenda. Sethennai informs Csorwe that he is a wizard in exile, cast out by his archnemesis. In order to reclaim his home, he must retrieve a legendary artifact known as the Reliquary of Pentravesse, which would bestow anyone who possessed it with extraordinary knowledge and power. To do so, he would need Csorwe’s help, thus beginning her training as a spy, thief, and killer—honed to become a wizard’s sword. While this plot features the classic fantasy quest narrative almost as old as the genre itself, to Larkwood’s credit, her creative handling of familiar tropes makes this one an invigorating read with a lot of fresh takes. The overall themes also shine through with their heartfelt messages of loyalty, friendships, love, and of not accepting things as they are but instead pushing to make your own choices and fulfill your own goals. All this is certainly a solid base upon which to build a series. (Read the full review...)

No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez

In a word, No Bad Deed was wild. So wild, it admittedly required a fair bit of suspension of disbelief, but I do so enjoy books like these that are full of twists and high stakes. It all started one rainy Halloween night, while diving home from work, Cassie witnesses a man brutally beating a woman at the side of the road and stops to intervene. That’s how she first meets Carver Sweet, a convicted murderer, who leaves his victim broken and bloody in a ditch, warning Cassie: “Let her die, and I’ll let you live.” Then he steals Cassie’s idling car, along with everything in it—including her her keys, wallet and driver’s license. With that, a dangerous criminal now knows everything about her, including her name and where she lives. Still, Carver’s words be damned, Cassie calls the cops and saves the injured woman’s life. But later that night, her husband Sam doesn’t come home from trick-or-treating with their six-year-old daughter, who had been left in the care of a neighborhood woman. Worried and confused, Cassie can’t help but think her husband’s disappearance has something to do with Carver Sweet’s threat, but there is also the dreaded possibility that he had left on his own. Still, Cassie can’t believe Sam would have walked out on his beloved children, and she intends to find out the truth, especially when it becomes clear that everyone close to her will remain in danger until she does. Whew, I definitely needed a moment to catch my breath after this book! One of the most exhilarating and compulsive thrillers I’ve read this year. (Read the full review…)

A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

A Queen in Hiding is a solid novel, but it is also very clearly just the opening chapter of a much bigger, more comprehensive, powerful and important saga. After all, Tor Books chose to publish all four installments of this series in quick succession, over a period of a few months. While this book’s description focuses on Cérulia, Princess of a land called Weirandale, the story actually begins with her mother Queen Cressa and the events that lead to her eventual exile. Throughout history, the women of the royal family have always been gifted with a “talent” by the spirit worshiped by the people. This typically manifests as a supernatural ability well before a girl turns eight, which is why Queen Cressa is growing frustrated and concerned because it appears her young daughter has yet to display any powers. However, the truth is, Cérulia does have a talent—a very rare and useful one, which ends up saving Cérulia’s life and her mother’s one day. The incident is a wake-up call for Cressa, who realizes war has come. She decides to flee the country, but not before hiding her daughter with a family of peasants. For now, the safest place for the girl is in hiding. All great intros should leave you excited and impatient to know more, and this was definitely the mindset A Queen in Hiding put me in. (Read the full review…)

A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers

I really enjoyed A Witch in Time, but I’ll say this right off the bat—it’s not going to be for everyone. First of all, if you’re looking for a “witchy” book, with magic and spells and all that jazz, well…this is not going to be it. What we have here is more like a love story, and it’s a strange one at that. Delving into the concept of past lives and predetermined fate, this novel follows three characters and their various incarnations going back for more than a hundred years. Essentially, what we get are four stories, each featuring different settings and characters, but they are all trapped in the same pattern cursed to repeat forever. It’s a bizarre structure, but somehow it worked. With each remembered past life, the details are wildly different. There’s also a strong thread of romance here, which culminates into a love story at the end, but it would still be extremely tough to categorize this book. Bottom line, I thought A Witch in Time was refreshingly different—a somewhat unusual but interesting read. I had a good time, which surprised me, since I’m not normally one for stories that are made up of smaller parts stitched together. It’s not one I would recommend to everyone, but I do urge you to give it a try if the synopsis grabs your attention. (Read the full review…)

Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare

Clown in a Cornfield was certainly different from the usual run of YA I’ve been reading—a very good, exhilarating kind of different. But first, readers should be forewarned this one falls squarely in the “slasher horror” category, and that it can get pretty brutal. As for what the book is about, I’d say it’s pretty self-explanatory. We’ve got creepy cornfields and killer clowns, and of course, a group of dumb teens to be used as murder fodder. The story stars Quinn Maybrook, who has come to the small, sleepy midwestern town of Kettle Springs with her dad to start a new life. Little does she know though, the town is slowly dying, as its major employer, the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory, has recently shut down, taking the town’s economy with it. A group of local high school kids, bored and irreverent, have also taken to harassing the residents of Kettle Springs by livestreaming their silly pranks and other dangerous antics to social media. With no inkling of any of this, Quinn unwittingly falls into this clique of troublemakers, roped into their inner circle. And just like that, the “new girl” has also painted a target on her back, for a town already stretched to its limits can only take so much. Someone has finally gotten fed up with the problems caused by the raucous teens, deciding to take matters into their own hands. Dressed as Frendo, the Baypen clown mascot with the creepy mask and pork-pie hat, this homicidal maniac starts picking off the kids one by one, with the intent to rid Kettle Springs of their scourge once and for all. (Read the full review…)

28 Comments on “Best of 2020: Notable Debuts”

  1. Hmmmm I didn’t read a whole lot of debuts this year. Still haven’t gotten around to Bone Shard or Kingdom of Liars even. And I absolutely will NOT be reading Clown in a Cornfield 😂

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  2. I haven’t read any of these.. But I really want to read The Bone Shard Daughter and Clown in a Cornfield!

    (www.evelynreads.com)

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  3. I have been keeping my eye on both The Bone Shard Daughter and The Unspoken Name but so far have not managed to add them to my TBR, so I hope that 2021 will be the year I finally can put both of them under my proverbial belt 🙂

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  4. I loved The Bone Shard Daughter. Really easy to get into.
    I wasn’t a huge fan of No Bad Deed, but Winter Counts, You Let Me In and Seven Lies were fun debut thrillers. I love trying new thriller authors. 🙂
    Adam Cesare is not really a debut author, but Clown certainly got a lot more attention than his other books. Samhain had a pretty good horror lineup.

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  5. I love seeing strong debuts with all the hope it creates of what amazing stories the author can create going forward. I hope to try several of these. Glad to see it was a good year for new authors.

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  6. Great list! I haven’t read any of these! Early in the year I was trying to concentrate on my backlist so I missed a lot of 2020 SFF books. I really hope to get to The Bone Shard Daughter soon though. 🙂

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  7. I might have to check out Last Smile in Sunder City, I somehow had never looked at the premise until now, and it definitely seems intriguing! I really enjoyed The Bone Shard Daughter and am so curious to see where events go after the end of book one!

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  8. Pingback: Best of 2020: New-To-Me (Non-Debut) Author Discoveries | The BiblioSanctum

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