Despite the chaos of the past year I managed to read a decent number of novels. While I didn’t have as much time as in the past to write in depth reviews I wanted to sit down and recommend my favorites. My taste in fiction is chaotic, I often randomly pick novels based on whatever mood I happen to be in jumping across genre, style, and theme. Of course if you are reading TheDacian you probably share some of my eccentricities and will find my recommendations suitable.
I went through my journal, every man should keep a journal, and narrowed my list to ten novels or short story collections that left an impression on me. This task was a lot more challenging than I expected because this year I read a lot of fantastic novels so narrowing it down to ten was difficult. 2020 was also interesting for the fact that my reading habits changed and I focused mostly on classics and literary fiction with strong distinctive style.
The ten novels listed below were written between 1859 and 2019, some of them are well know classics while others are independent works, all of them are written by men. I guarantee that if you randomly pick any of the ten you will not be disappointed but at the bottom of the list I will recommend my top two.
1. AMERICAN PSYCHO by Bret Easton Ellis. A modern masterpiece that I finally got around to reading in 2020. Bret Easton Ellis is one of my favorite writers and his mastery of voice and style is unmatched in modern American writing. American Psycho is a violently disturbing look into the sick ennui of 80s consumer culture that feels more appropriate and insightful in our day than it did in 1991 when it was first published. I recommended this novel to Alexander Hellene and he wrote a great in depth review at Amatopia.
2. THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN by Gene Wolfe. One of the most acclaimed masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy Book of the New Sun belongs on every shelf next to Herbert’s Dune and Simmons’s Hyperion. The story of Severian, an apprentice in the Torturers Guild, set in the unfathomable future where the sun is dying and man has returned to a state of near barbarism. BotNS is a complex and difficult book filled with Biblical and literary allusions and allegory, Kafkian moods, and an unreliable narrator but once read it will reward you unlike any other science fiction novel. If you enjoy science fiction and fantasy Book of the New Sun is a must read.
3. A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens. I read this classic during the first week of June. In between chapters I was checking up on the news and following the George Floyd riots that exploded across the United States. It was terrifyingly appropriate that I was reading a book about the evils of a country in the grip of ideological mobs while liberal mobs, spiritual descendants of the French Revolution were setting fire to our cities. A Tale of Two Cities is a classic and I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already been said except that I think Madame Defarge is one of the most terrifying villains in all literature. I recommend the Penguin Classic edition.
4. DEMONS by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Another novel that is pertinent to our current situation and it gave me chills comparing the raving murderous nihilism in the book to the rants found in contemporary progressive journalism. Demons is a novel about a group of Russian revolutionary anarchist and the moderate permissive society that encouraged them into murder and self destruction. Along with A Tale of Two Cities, Demons should be mandatory reading for everyone in our cultural climate. I recommend the Richard Pevear translation, when it comes to Russian literature do not opt for the cheaper older editions.
5. LAURUS by Eugene Vodolazkin. One of the two novels I absolutely recommend. Laurus is a modern Russian masterpiece, a novel that is unmatched by anything being written in the West. I predict this novel will be considered alongside Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as one of the great novels of all time. Laurus is the story of Arseny, or more precisely the hagiography, a medieval healer, monk, saint, and mystic. I wrote a more in depth review here.
6. JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT by Louise-Ferdinand Celine. 20th century stylistic masterpiece. I know I’ve said that a bout almost all of the novels but Celine is a master and this novel, while not for everyone is unmatched in style. A dark, pessimistic, nihilistic, trip through WWI, colonial Africa, and finally a decadent intra-war Paris, Journey is a work of literary genius. If you love language and style Celine is a must read. But, I will note that I while I really enjoyed this novel I don’t recommend it for everyone. Journey is dark and pessimistic often falling to exquisite levels of despair and nihilism. I tend to enjoy wallowing in emotional misery so I find Celine’s writing and his modern descendants, Bret Easton Ellis and Houellebecq(I enjoyed Seratonin) appropriate. Consider this a warning for readers of more fragile sensibilities.
7. SONGS OF THE DEAD DREAMER by Thomas Ligotti. Every so often I come across a writer that I should have known about and feel embarrassed of my ignorance, Thomas Ligotti is one them. If Lovecraft and Poe had a literary heir it would undoubtedly be Ligotti. This collection of short stories perfectly captures the unnatural pessimistic nightmarish horror in our nihilistic age. Nothing means anything, the universe is vast and doesn’t care about you, and there’s beings beyond human comprehension and morality. Some of the finest horror writing I’ve ever read. Ligotti is a horror writer that understands the depth of Lovecraft, unlike so many modern hacks who paste tentacles on clichés, he understands the abyss. Excellent short story collection with a side note that Ligotti’s writing is one of the main inspirations for my favorite show, True Detective.
8. ENDLESS SUMMER by Misha Burnette. One of my favorite independent writers, Misha is a master of fantasy and science fiction. I firmly believe that if SFF awards were an honest assessment of talent and quality instead of in-group popularity contests Misha would be a multiple award winning writer. “Endless Summer is a collection of strange and chilling tales of Mankind’s future, near and distant, from tomorrow until beyond the mark of history, through Civilization’s zenith, decline, destruction, and ultimately, Mankind’s rebirth!” I read the whole collection in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down.
9. THE EYE OF SONNU by Schuyler Hernstrom. If Ligotti is heir to Lovecraft and Poe, Hernstrom belongs to the line of Howard and Vance. The Eye of Sounnu is a perfect short story collection, every single piece captures Hernstrom’s unique style and takes you on imaginative adventures, an outstanding collection, from prehistoric cavemen fighting grotesque lizard-man aliens to space wizards controlling crystal ships with their magic, every story delivers. Hernstrom writes like a savage clone abomination of Robert Howard and Jack Vance. Barbarians, reptilians, shamans, witches, walking dead, and all sorts of dark gonzo madness fill the pages of this collection. I did a fantastic interview with Schuyler here at TheDacian and also wrote up a more in depth review.
10. THE MAGUS by John Fowles. A colossal masterpiece, complex and erudite, hands down my favorite read this year and easily one of my favorite novels. The Magus and Fowles enjoyed significant popularity in past decades but seem to have fallen into disfavor in the last twenty or so years which is a shame. The Magus is an existential work about a troubled young British teacher with pretentions towards poetry who takes a job on a remote Greek island. On the beautiful but sparsely populated island he comes across an eccentric old millionaire who ensnares him in a complex psychological game that has both the character and reader questioning every detail and event. Part mystery, part thriller, part psychological horror, part existential philosophy, The Magus is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. If you read only one novel on my list I highly recommend this one.
I hope that everyone coming across this list will pick up and read some or all of the above novels. Out of the ten Laurus and The Magus are my favorite. If you decide to read any of these on my recommendations or have already read them please let me know what you think in the comments. Also, please share this list with as many people as possible so we can all share and discuss great work.