What a year 2021 has been! Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this year is over similar to the majority of all of you. However, this year was an extremely productive one for me: I published my first essay, I graduated from graduate school (again) and I started a new job, and, thanks to all of you, more people have been reading my content. Plus, by some miracle, I was able to read enough books this year in order to compile this list which feels like an actual one (20 books)!
Here are my favorite speculative fiction books, released in 2021, of 2021.
#20: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara
This book was an interesting read because if you didn’t read the synopsis of the story, then you would believe you were reading the beginning of an epic fantasy story. Instead, we have a group of protagonists who believe they are meant to save the world only to learn it was all a lie. What happens when everything you were taught and were meant to do with your life no longer exists? I argue K.M. Szpara wanted to make his readers question the reality of the narratives they’ve immersed themselves into and whether or not someone would take those same narratives and twist them in order to dominate other individuals. And, does magic exist in our reality?
#19: The Divide, #1: The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes
This is a fun space opera debut novel which serves as its own script for a future adaptation. The first sentence in this book makes you realize this story is not about a crew exploring the universe, but are serving a sentence for their previous actions at the edge of the universe. Plus, some of what occurs at the edge makes you want to read up on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s theories about astrophysics. This is the first book in a new series with very promising followups to come.
#18: Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
This Southern Gothic debut novel was an excellent story about the beliefs of the supernatural and the unspoken issues of graduate school. In addition, the author gives a very realistic look into what grief can do to anybody and how some individuals learn to live with it. Readers who stuck with the story were rewarded with a twist which leaves you wondering whether or not certain things are worth the trouble.
#17: Tower of Mud and Straw by Yarosalv Barsukov
Sometimes accepting a request for a review can lead to an interesting experience; and, I’m not only talking about the story. This urban fantasy with an steampunk setting follows a protagonist who believes in the greater good over royal decree. Unfortunately, this leads to his punishment which is to oversee the completion of a tower with tools the protagonist knows from experience is not safe for use. If you were lucky enough to read this novella at the beginning of this year, then it should not come as a surprise it received a nomination for the Nebula Award.
#16: Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire
This entry in the Wayward Children series delves into themes of girlhood, gender identity, destiny, and horses. Yes, this is an homage to My Little Pony and you recall quickly all of the mythical equine creatures you wished were real. Similar to the previous books in the series which focuses on the character(s)’ journey through their Door, the reason the protagonist, Regan, leaves is just as heart-wrenching as the other ones.
#15: The Murderbot Diaries, #6: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
I still need to read Network Effect, but this novella takes place after the events in Exit Strategy, which works well for me (and for anyone else in the same situation). Nevertheless, Murderbot remains its quirky self while working to protect the humans he doesn’t care about from another group of humans who are trying to kill them. Just another day for a SecUnit.
#14: The Final Architecture, #1: Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This is the first book by this author I finished reading (I’m still reading The Tiger and the Wolf) and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this trilogy. This book takes the concept of alien invasions and transforms it–literally–into something scary. There are a few soldiers who survived the last war and who fear the threat is returning. This time, they are right; and, the question is why did they leave in the first place?
#13: The Protectorate, #3: Catalyst Gate by Megan E. O’Keefe
I’m glad I was able to catchup on this series because this space opera was entertaining and informative with fight sequences, nanotechnology and spaceships. The protagonists live up to their responsibilities to their colony which matches the way the narrative lives up to the expectations of the readers. The final book in this trilogy wraps up all of the plot holes from the beginning of the series and answers all of the questions we–the characters and the readers–had from the aftermath of the Battle of Dralee.
#12: Empire of the Vampire, #1: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
This book reminds me of Black Sun in which everything you believe can happen within the story happens, which leaves you wondering: what’s going to happen in the next book? The vampires are violent and merciless and only half-bloods, such as the protagonist, can defeat them. The narrative is written similar to The Name of the Wind with the author’s style his fans have grown to expect and to love. Themes of family, religion, honor and duty are grounded to the point where we are left asking ourselves some of the same questions are Gabriel de Leon.
#11: Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1: The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley
I have to thank Petrik Leo for convincing me to read this book and it was an entertaining read! And yes, I learned after reading this book I should have read the previous books in this fantasy world (it’s not necessary), but it did NOT hinder my reading experience and it won’t hinder yours. This story follows a disgraced soldier, a priest who preaches pacifism in a violent society, and a monk who is a con artist. These 3 protagonists are at one end of society find themselves at the other side. Will they survive?
#10: The Witch’s Heart: A Novel by Genevieve Gornichec
Norse retellings continue to be a growing trend, but this debut novel focuses on one of the immortals who does not receive the credit she deserves for her influence on the culture. This novel follows Angrboda, Loki’s first wife and the mother of his children who will bring about Ragnarok, as she goes from victim of Odin’s brutality to a fierce mother who will sacrifice everything in order to protect her children. This narrative offers a different perspective on what could have happened before, during and after the end-of-the-world.
#9: Burning Kingdoms, #1: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
The Books of Ambha is one of my favorite fantasy series in recent years; and, the new series by Tasha Suri is a strong followup to her debut works. One of the “Sapphic Trifecta” follows two young women–a princess and a priestess–who are confined within their society due to the power they possess. The princess must find a way to escape her brother’s prison in order to save the empire from religious zeal; and the priestess must find a way to obtain the power once denied to her in order to save the same empire from a different threat.
#8: A Chorus of Dragons, #4: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons
This is the second to last book in A Chorus of Dragons. And, after the ending in the previous book, readers were left wondering where the narrative could go next. It turns out the magic is stronger and the characters’ ongoings are more relevant to the upcoming final battle than we all realized. All of the characters going back to the first book in the series return and the remaining protagonists must piece together all of the information they gather in order to help their friend defeat 2 adversaries. However, is the world as it is worth saving?
#7: Rook & Rose, #1: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick
This novel was my “Surprise Book” of this year. I didn’t know what to expect beyond the Prologue besides a “trope-filled” con artist/thievery fantasy heist story. This book is so much more than that with both an intricate magic system and elaborate world building which works their way into the plot of the book. To top it off, the revelation at the end of this book makes you crave to know what happens in the next one!
#6: The Radiant Emperor, #1: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
The next book in the “Sapphic Trifecta” is a gender bending retelling of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. Only this time, Zhu is a female who steals her brother’s identity and destiny after he steals hers. The narrative follows Zhu’s life up to when she joins the rebel army. At the same time, readers learn what is happening within the Mongolian forces and how they try to defeat the one who has “the Mandate of Heaven.”
#5: Deathless, #1: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
While this book was written for a YA audience, it can be and should be read by adult readers as well because the message in this book is both historical and ubiquitous. Deka is a young girl who wants to fit into her village. In order to do so, she must prove her “purity” in a ritual all girls throughout the Empire must participate. It is what happens to those who are NOT pure which makes this fantasy story more realistic towards several societal and sexist issues. All of the “impure ones” are given the ultimatum to become warriors to fight off the demons which terrorize the Empire, or die. The dauntlessness of the characters and the direction the narrative keeps you immersed in the story from start to finish.
#4: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
I said it once and I’ll say it again: this book is WAY BETTER than Ready, Player One. The main reason for this praise is because this dystopian novel delves into the corruption of corporation in both the real world and in the virtual world. The majority of the population does NOT have access to water! And yet, they are expected to follow the laws set by two domineering corporations otherwise, they’ll be erased. Not to mention, the twist the protagonist uncovers about herself makes you question your “odds for survival.”
#3: Fractured Fables, #3: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
Fairy tale retellings and fractured fairy tales have had more influence on human history than we know, and yet it is this retelling of Sleeping Beauty which had me enjoying fairy tales as much as I did when I was a child watching Disney movies in theaters. This is the latest variant of our favorite fairy tales which blend fantasy, folklore and modernity into an entertaining read. I hope there will be more than 2 books in this series.
#2: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner
This book is a strong followup to a lovely debut novel. The tone of this novel presents the common tragedy many Jewish communities faced throughout history. 3 sisters who live a privileged life with a powerful lineage must conceal their identities and their gifts after tragedy and death strikes their community. When it seems life starts anew for them, each sister must choose whether or not their heritage is worth their life. This book provides a powerful look into the history and the possibility of what occurred in the past, and a strong hope for the future.
#1: Magic of the Lost, #1: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Once again, a debut novel is my #1 book of the year. The 3rd book in the “Sapphic Trifecta” has several of the components the other historical fantasy novels had and made it more personal and more relevant towards the story being presented. Both protagonists are on opposite sides, literally and figuratively. One is the crowned princess of the empire who believes a compromise will prove her to be an eligible ruler. The other is a soldier stolen from her family who was forced to serve the empire which enslaved hers. Circumstances bring both young women together and both are willing to work together as long as they get what they want from the other one. In recent years, there have been other speculative fiction works which have similar plots and themes of colonization, slavery, rebellion, culture clashing, etc., written into their narratives, and The Unbroken presents the brutality of both sides leading readers to the conclusion there are no innocent victims in such a conflict.
We are living in an era in which fans and readers of speculative fiction can select which books they read next. This means my list is different from yours and other book bloggers of the same genre. However, means we can read (or listen to) all of these amazing narratives at one time and let everyone else know which books they should consider and why. These are the books I suggest you read in 2022. Which books from 2021 were your favorite(s)?