Every week here at Romancing the Gothic, we have a reading group. We read a mix of novels, novellas, short stories, graphic novels and web comics, throwing in some tv shows and podcasts in and among! We also like to play the odd role-playing game as a group. We like to mix it up!
This year I thought we’d put together our TOP TEN 5-star ‘reads’. Each of these novels/series/novellas or short stories comes with the Romancing the Gothic seal of approval and multiple recommendations from group members. Some are old, some are new, all are great. We hope you enjoy!
The list is in backwards chronological order (i.e. the top of the list takes its entries from our December reads and we go backwards in time down the page)
10) Whyborne and Griffin series by Jordan Hawk
Because we are very normal, reasonable people, we decided to read the ENTIRE Whyborne and Griffin series for our last book group of the year. The series is a firm favourite with us (we read the first book in the series, Widdershins, a while ago) although we have reached almost no level of agreement as to favourite books in the series. Book 6 Hoarfrost was a favourite for a few of us. It sees our dashing detective (Griffin) and his long-term love/philologist/sorcerer/sea-monster (Whyborne) going to Alaska. The whole series is a queer Lovecraftian series of adventures but this one is, for me, the turning point where the series really flips the underlying narratives of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds and unsettles some of its characters’ (and its readers’) assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, the series does that from the start but this book really ups the stakes, causing you to go back and reread earlier books with slightly different eyes. We also get more time with Christine who is high on everyone’s favourite character list. Also, look out for the cult of librarians lodged in the library of the Widdershins’ museum and who are always ready, dictionaries in hand, to fight off creatures from the outside and any other threats to the town. We’ll be seeing them again later on this list…
9) The Magpie Lord – K J Charles
K J Charles is another Romancing the Gothic favourite and we’ve been looking forward to this read for a while! Be warned, it’s the first of a three part series (with some additional short stories! and a related series!) so you’ll probably find that this one book alone isn’t enough. If the idea of ‘gay Victorian Gothic romance’ (Marnie) steals your heart, this might be the one for you. If you throw in a whole ton of magic, some legitimately horrifying moments and some great central characters, it’s the perfect winter (or any season) read. Stephen Day is a practitioner (magic user) with a grudge but an inconvenient sense of duty and responsibility. Lord Crane is the black sheep of the family Stephen Day has every reason to hate but comes to him in dire need of magical assistance with a mystery in his back pocket. If you like your protagonists with a ruthless streak a mile wide, your magic distinctly dangerous and your spice rating high, this is the book for you.
8) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
For a Gothic romance oriented reading group, you might be wondering why we hadn’t read this before. ‘It’s a massive tome’ is the answer you’re looking for. However, this year, because of an incredibly intense schedule, I was looking to double up on some of my work reading and my book group reading and I was teaching this twice so… I just dragooned everyone into reading 500 or so pages in a week. This is the book that probably saw some of the most divided opinions and liveliest debate in the group. There’s plenty to critique but for some it’s an old favourite, a gateway to the Gothic and ‘so intensely Gothic from the start’ (Amanda) that it’s always going to get a group like ours diving in head first. It’s a fascinating read with so much to discuss with the ‘relationship between Jane and Rochester’ offering an ‘extreme level of fascination’ (Jupiter) as well as questions of context, history, psychology and more. I have to read this book at least once a year for teaching purposes but this was the read through that found my love of the book again. Discussing all its angles (and having lengthy arguments about it) were the best way to read it, whether you want to throw Rochester off a convenient cliff or swoon gently in the background.
7) Vagabonds by Eloghosa Osunde
Every now and again, when I’m being particularly organised the book group read matches up with our weekly talk. This was one such read! Vagabonds was recommended by our speaker Helen Nde (you can see the talk here). The book is something of a collection of fragments and stories bound together by a guiding narrator Tatafo, minion to Eko the spirit of Lagos. We enter the world of the city and explore the lives of those who live (or die) in the margins. It mixes the supernatural and the modern city, focusing on queer lives, with some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read in a long time. Read it for ‘beautiful language and rich story-telling’ (Marnie) which more than one of us ‘wanted to reread the second it was over’ (Jupiter). This is the book that most frequently appeared in people’s ‘top 3’ lists so it comes heartily recommended but brace yourself for an absolute rollercoaster of emotions.
6) The Red Palace – June Hur
Every now and again, we enjoy a lovely murder mystery and this was our collective favourite of the year. The novel takes us back to 18th century Korea, where palace nurse Hyeon and the new police inspector Eojin are thrown together to solve a mystery amid court intrigue. It’s an ‘enjoyable, well-crafted mystery’ (Jade) which draws on some fascinating history. It goes into some of the history around Crown Prince Sado and if you don’t know the history already, you will absolutely be drawn down into the rabbit hole that most of us fell down. Somehow, despite all the murders and mayhem, some of us found it ‘cosy’ (quote from Amanda, sentiment from most of us) but that probably tells you more about us than it does about the book!
5) Unhallowed – Jordan Hawk
A second Jordan Hawk entry on our list. We don’t often read one author multiple times in a year but we couldn’t resist! Unhallowed is set in Widdershins 8 years after the Whyborne and Griffin series and we dive straight into the world of everyone’s favourite cult – the librarians! We read this early on in the year and perhaps we did things in the wrong order (theoretically). It was the ‘first time reading Jordan Hawk’ (Charlotte) for some so we introduced things backwards but it did lead to the idea of the Whyborne and Griffin marathon at the end of the year so no regrets! This novel moves away from the world-ending drama of Whyborne and Griffin and takes us into the world of cursed books, binders and library secrets. It is always a joy to spend more time with the delightfully creepy Mr Quinn (who dreams of cursed books appearing in the library). The books introduce a host of new primary characters including our central couple chief archivist Sebastian Rath and new binder/eldritch be-tentacled love interest Vesper Rune. Vesper’s brother Noct and Sebastian’s sister Bonnie widen out the series into something of a family affair. Don’t tell anyone but a few of us might even love this series and its new characters more than the original!
4) The Worm and His Kings – Hailey Piper
This year we read a few works by Hailey Piper. She took part in our author roundtable at the 2022 conference (My Wild Heart Bleeds) dedicated to Carmilla and female and/or queer vampires. For that, we read ‘Queen of the Cloven Heart’ (which almost made this list and was one of my own personal top reads this year) but we started our Hailey Piper journey with cosmic horror The Worm and His Kings. If you like your cosmic horror with cults, timey-wimey stuff, giant worms, betrayal and underground lairs, this book has got you covered. We follow Monique as she treks through the underground of the city in search of her missing girlfriend Donna. The one image that sticks with me and haunts what’s left of my dreams is the choir that sings people apart. Give it a read and you’ll see what I mean.
3) When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain – Nghi Vo
This is a short bite-sized nibble of a read so if you’re looking for something quick to pick up and absolutely dive into, this is a top recommendation. It’s a ‘love letter to story-telling’ (Jade) in which the cleric Chih, a collector of stories, finds themself and their companions in danger threatened by a group of weretigers. The books unwinds the complex stories of a weretiger and her human lover with competing narratives and different systems and forms of communication and meaning. This is part of a series so don’t stop here, keep reading!
2) A Snake Falls to Earth – Darcie Little Badger
We’ve been Darcie Little Badger fans for a while now, starting with short stories and reading Darcie’s first novel Elatsoe almost as soon as it released. We were very excited by the chance to read this newest novel and it ended up on some personal ‘best of the year’ lists (Caro) as well as our group list here! This novel draws on Lipan Apache story-telling and tales. We follow Nina (in our world) and the cottonmouth kid Oli (in the spirit world) as they follow their own quests and come together to save something worth saving… The book is magical and the writing beautiful. Enjoy (and then go back and read everything Darcie’s written).
1) Gay for the Pirate King – Oliver Darkshire
This wasn’t technically a read. Every now and again we play a game together. We started off playing the Fighting Fantasy games (which come in book form) but we moved on to one-shot rpgs and Gay for the Pirate King was one of our favourites. It’s always a ‘lovely time’ (Melissa) and ‘fun’ (Jade) to play together, we ended up with some… very interesting stories. You might end up fighting to the death, seducing a pirate or sailing off into the distance with your dreams mostly intact. Oliver writes a lot of these one-shot games and they’re fun to play so go and check out the patreon!
I’m cheating, I know but we had 5 more texts with exactly the same number of votes (for a 5 star rating) as Gay for the Pirate King. It got the vote because it appeared on the most people’s ‘Top 3’ lists but it felt wrong to leave the others out, so you get them together as honourable mentions!
I Am Stone is an excellent collection of late 19th century weird and Gothic tales from writer Robert Murray Gilchrist and edited by Daniel Pietersen. Reading it is like ‘discovering a lost treasure’ (Melissa)
The Feast of the Innocents – Colin Harker. This was my top read of the year (seconded by Amanda) and definitely put the author on the ‘read everything by them’ list. If you like 18th century style Gothic with queer vibes and scenes of nerve-shredding terror as well as supernatural excess… you’re going to love it.
Pet – Akwaeke Emezi. A story about friendship and trauma with a heavy dose of the supernatural. There are meant to be no monsters but Pet has come hunting one…
Gogol – TV Series. This was our first watch this year and it comes heartily recommended. A Russian language Gothic horror set in the 19th century. Visually stunning.
Ghosts – BBC Series. We theoretically just watched series 1 of Ghosts together but most of us ended up watching the whole thing. What happens if the ghosts don’t leave and they just have to sort of… live with each other?