Some of the Best Books of 2021: A Conversation

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Joe: 2021 was one heck of a year and sometimes felt like more of an extension of 2020 than its own distinct year. As someone who pays obsessive attention to the Academy Awards, the Oscar eligibility season was only ten months long rather than being a full year because the previous year had a 14 month eligibility window. I’ve long joked that the Hugo Award season is eternal, but 2021 legitimately had a twelve month experience with the awards just being given out a few weeks ago rather than a few months ago. That doesn’t even get into personal life stuff which will remain, well, personal.

On a typical year I would write up my Top 9 books of the year right around this time. I generally do a really good job staying on top of the genre and reading all the things. I still read all of the things last year, but some of the things I read were a lot more of the previous Hugo Award winners rather than the newest and shiniest books. I also caught up on a quite a few 2020 books that I had missed the first time around. It was a really good year for reading, but the end result is that I’m not quite up on all of the best of last year even for what is naturally a deeply personal list.

To that end, I’ve asked for a little help from my friends. Rather than doing a ranked list of some sort, Paul Weimer and Adri Joy are joining me to discuss a few of the books we loved last year and maybe put a quick spotlight on some books that we are still excited to read but just didn’t get to yet. There may be some overlap and that’s absolutely okay.

Adri, would you like to kick us off?

Adri: I’d like to kick off with Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (review), a big mashup of urban fantasy and science fiction tropes that tackles themes of family and belonging and finding the space to create, with a heavy emphasis on trans coming of age. It follows three characters: trans teen runaway Katrina Nguyen, violin teacher turned soul-broker Shizuka Satomi, and starship captain in hiding Lan Tran, as their lives intersect. Aoki’s narrative tackles some very difficult subject matter, particularly when it comes Katrina’s experiences of abuse, sexual violence and transphobia; even her “safe” landing with Shizuka is far from a true escape. Somehow, though, there’s a sense of gentleness and hope and individual goodness that shines through in Light From Uncommon Stars, and the result is a very powerful story.

The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark, had me rambling thirstily about cover art in my Strange Horizons review, and I wasn’t the only one: check the #TourainesArms hashtag on Twitter if you don’t believe me. (And thanks, Tommy Arnold, for the meal!) But this book could have been wrapped in the cover equivalent of a brown sack and I’d still want to rave about it, because it is probably the best take on colonial fantasy politics I’ve ever read. Taking inspiration from French colonisation of North Africa, The Unbroken stars Touraine, a conscript stolen from her home as a child and raised to be part of the colonial army, and Luca, a princess trying to cement her own power by crushing a rebellion – with Touraine as her proposed secret weapon. Full of conflicted loyalties and unwinnable scenarios, Clark’s debut also prominently features a ton of enemies-to-lovers romantic tension between its leads, which is the delicious icing on a many layered cake.

Jade Legacy, by Fonda Lee, wraps up the Green Bone Saga, a secondary world crime family saga that also demonstrates how the epic fantasy genre can totally work alongside late 20th and early 21st century tech and politics. At the centre of the Green Bone Saga is bioenergetic jade; when worn, it enables various superpowers like super strength, emotion reading and really cool jumps. Until the events of the trilogy, jade could only be worn by a few people from the country of Kekon, but when the technology arrives to enable its use worldwide, the Kaul family and their various rivals and allies find themselves playing a much larger political game to maintain their power and secure Kekon’s position in the world. Unlike its predecessors, Jade Legacy covers decades rather than years, and it’s a heart-poundingly, heartbreakingly successful conclusion to this intricate and wonderful series.

Also ending a brilliant trilogy on a high was Soulstar, by C.L. Polk, the culmination of the Kingston Cycle trilogy which began with Witchmark (review). Combining romance and a secondary world Edwardian-ish political adventure in a world where witchcraft has been banned but practiced in secret by an exploitative ruling class, Soulstar follows political activist and witch Robin Thorpe as she fights for widespread democratic reform following the moderate changes of the second book, and reconnects with her spouse after a long period of imprisonment. The queer and asexual representation in the romance is fantastic, but what really steals the show is the depiction of revolution: it’s a little hard to discuss without spoiling earlier books, but there’s a really satisfying story about political change of a kind which we don’t see often enough in fantasy. Read the whole trilogy to spend time with Miles and Grace Hensley and get the full effect.

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater (review) was my most unexpected surprise of 2021: a gothic fantasy set in a small, weird American town, Goodwater’s book centres around Sadie, as she processes the death of her mother (the titular Liar of Red Valley) and tries to take on her legacy. What follows is a really intriguing deconstruction of tropes around Sadie and her position in this town, and a story that balances the cynicism of the genre with a genuine interest in showing how people can change and be mobilised to do good, when given the right opportunities. An absolute page turner.

Finally, I want to shout out some novellas. Three of my favourites were, in fact by the same author: These Lifeless Things (review), The Annual Migration of Clouds (review) and And What Can We Offer You Tonight form a fantastic trifecta of stories from Premee Mohamed, all riffing off themes of survival under apocalyptic circumstances. They’re all very different: These Lifeless Things is about an alien invasion that appears to literally rip apart the fabric of reality, and is told by two protagonists separated by decades who never formally meet; The Annual Migration of Clouds features a woman yearning to escape life in a tiny post-apocalyptic settlement, and living with a parasitic infection that affects her cognition in strange ways; and And What Can We Offer You Tonight features a sex worker in a hugely unequal society whose friend is killed and then reappears under mysterious, revolutionary circumstances. If those all sound equally good, and you read just one, make it These Lifeless Things, which is strange and wonderful and centres a fragile, wistful connection between people that broke my heart in the best way.

Wow, this has been a very fantasy-heavy list. I’ll do some honourable mentions too: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (review), The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri (review), She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (review) and The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler (review) are all equally worthy of your time! But I am out of space to talk and will pass back to you, Joe.

Joe: Louise Erdrich has been on the edge of genre fiction for much of her career, depending on how you view her use of mythology and the supernatural in her fiction (and she did win a World Fantasy Award for The Antelope Wife in 1999). The Sentence is her latest novel. If we’re going for a genre connection seeing as this is a genre blog, the novel does feature a ghost. The Sentence is a novel very much of this moment. It is set, as many of Erdrich’s novels are, in Minnesota and in present day Minneapolis. The novel wraps itself around language, around books (it is set in Erdrich’s real life bookstore Birchbark Books), and while a significant portion of the novel is about understanding the haunting, it is also as much about understanding grief and love and trauma and identity and family and all of the stuff that goes into a major novel from a major novelist. But being a novel of this moment, except for a very small portion set a few years ago the novel begins in late 2019 and runs right through the first year of Covid, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the subsequent protests. In some ways it is almost too close, too raw and too soon. Like so many of Erdrich’s novels, the storytelling is wrapped up in the emotional immediacy of it all. The Sentence is just on the edge of being too much but it manages to be just write and one of the finest novels I could hope to read last year.

Readers really can’t go wrong with Sarah Pinsker, whether it is a shorter work of fiction or novel length. We Are Satellites (review) is Pinsker’s second novel and she is building a legacy of excellence.

We Are Satellites looks at the near future of technology, with an implant designed to improve the focus and an ability to functionally multitask. It’s such a boon to those who receive the implant, truly transformative except, no technology is perfect and there are always those left behind. Sarah Pinsker examines the social and personal consequences of such a transformative technology and how that technology is used by governments and countries. The scale of We Are Satellites is tight and personal to one particular family – and all of those dynamics are explored, but that family is used to widen the scope for so many permutations for how that technology can work and go wrong. We Are Satellites is really good, y’all.

I would be inclined to call 2021 the year of Seanan McGuire, but she is so prolific that many years could reasonably be called the year of Seanan McGuire (2019 was also particularly strong and 2022 is shaping up quite nicely). Be that as it may, I read no less than six new books from McGuire last year. There was a Wayward Children novella in Across the Green Grass Fields (review). One of my favorites was When Sorrows Come (review), the October Daye wedding novel filled with almost literal buckets of blood. There was an Incryptid novel, Calculated Risks (review), and then *another* Incryptid novel that was posted for patreon readers – Halfway Through the Wood. Staying in the same universe, Angel of the Overpass (review), the third Ghost Roads novel, was published and it was a doozy of a book. I can’t wait to see how that intersects back up with Incryptid again. And finally, a complete surprise to me was McGuire’s Dying With Her Cheer Pants on, a wonderful collection of linked short stories about cheerleaders taking on the supernatural and the world. Taken individually and especially as a whole, these have been some of my favorite reads of the year. Only Dying With Her Cheer Pants On stands alone, so if you’re not already into McGuire’s other series the other books listed here are probably not the best place to start – but if you’re a lapsed reader I’d definitely recommend getting back into them. Seanan McGuire’s fiction is pure joy.

Another don’t miss writer for me is K.B. Wagers. Out Past the Stars (review) is the sixth and, presumably, final Hail Bristol novel. It wraps up their Farian War trilogy and, ultimately, the overall story arc of Hail. Wagers goes hard with the Farian War novels, expanding the scope of what we know of this future galaxy and then leans in on the trauma, recovery, and found families. Wagers writes novels deeply laced with loyalty and compassion and filled with action and plotting Out Past the Stars is an excellent conclusion to the series. I would also talk about their novel Hold Fast Through the Fire here, but I’m not quite halfway through that second NeoG book and I won’t be finished by the time this goes live. But – I do heartily recommend both NeoG novels (A Pale Light in the Black (review) is the first).

Paul: I wondered what was going to attract my attention now. Plenty as it so happens. It seems that while I read (by my own counts) equal amounts of SF and fantasy, I leaned a little more toward fantasy this year. Maybe the whole Pandemic has led me a bit more toward fantasy worlds than SF worlds this year. I don’t know. Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (review) scratched a lot of itches, some of them long standing for me in dealing with the alternate history of a place I don’t know enough about–China. I know the broad strokes of Chinese history in some aspects, but, say, the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan started) is a complete mystery to me. Fortunately, in recent years, I’ve read works like The Water Margin and watched movies like Red Cliff, so I could see the Chinese traditions (as well as the Western) that the author is engaging in dialogue with, although I am sure my understanding of those former engagements is at a surface level at best.

Shards of Earth (review) is a big screen Space Opera from a writer who has dipped his pen into just about every subgenre of SFF out there: Adrian Tchaikovsky. Shards of Earth features a quarreling found family on an itinerant space ship, big dumb objects (transformed planets, including the poor lamented Earth), mysterious aliens, chase narratives, secrets, and intriguing worldbuilding. It *is* everything I want and love in Space Opera and written to a pitch perfect level.

Reset by Sarina Dahlan surprised me. On a lark I signed up for it to review not knowing all that much about it and the author,and I fell hard for it. It is a very character driven piece, and it asks intriguing and deep questions about utopia, dystopia, and the prices to pay for a happy and stable society. There’s a love story in there too, and heartbreak, and an emotionally colored and crafted world. I connected with the book on a deep level in a way that surprised me going in, and I still keep thinking about it to this day.

I agree with you, Joe, about K.B. Wagers. Wagers’ novels have been a delight ever since Hail Bristol first swaggered ‘onto the screen”. The Neo-G definitely has lived up to that initial delight.

Other books that got my attention this year include A Desolation Called Peace (Arkady Martine, review), Water Horse (Melissa Scott, review), The Mask of Mirrors (MA Carrick, review) and The Unbroken (C.L. Clark). I am going to have a heck of a time with my Hugo nomination ballot, I tell you.

Joe: The other half of putting together a list of some of the amazing books published in a given year is recognizing that we missed out on an equal or greater number of amazing books. Some we missed because we just ran out of time and there are too many books and too few days to read them, others we missed because we didn’t find out about them until just yesterday, and yet others we still have not heard about but we are quite sure we would love if only we knew to read them. Here are some of the books we do know about from last year and hope to get to in the relatively near future.

We’ll start with three books from Paul.

Paul: First up is Being Seen, Elsa Sjunneson. I especially should be reading Sjunneson given that she has won a fan writing Hugo. I don’t read enough book level or book length criticism and views of fandom and of genre fiction, and Being Seen definitely fits that bill.

Then there is Noor. Nnedi Okorafor’s work has always been solid for me ever since I picked up Lagoon and I just today saw a Gary K Wolfe review that makes me want to read Noor now now now (oh, Mount TBR). There are always unusual or seemingly incongruous elements in her genre work that somehow just WORK in the narrative and worldbuilding, that vibrance and sense of the unexpected is a joy to discover.

Finally, Far from the Light of Heaven. Tade Thompson is a strong voice and the concept behind his Space Opera, an escape room mystery, feels like a potential peanut butter and chocolate combination for me.

Adri: Oh no. This list. I do not want to think about it. One thing which happened to me last year was a total inability to read advance copies in time for publication and review, so I have an uncomfortably large folder of ebooks which I have obligations around. And I want to read them! I will read them! It’s just… complicated.

Anyway. let’s start with a non-SFF title. Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a fascinating-looking noir by a must-read author for me, and yet… still it waits.

Anarchist publisher AK Press has started Black Dawn, a new speculative fiction series, and its first two titles are both waiting for me. One (A Country of Ghosts, by Margaret Killjoy), is a reissue, but Grievers, by adrienne maree brown, is a 2021 publication and looks excellent. Set in Detroit, it follows the path of a mysterious illness which instantly sends people from normal functionality to a nonresponsive state, and whose roots lie in the city’s history of loss.

As for other things on the shelf: The Actual Star (review) by Monica Byrne sounds totally bananas in the best way, telling three stories separated by millennia from an ancient Mayan story to a post-apocalyptic civil war. I’ve literally just started reading A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark, and I already suspect if I’d read it earlier it would be on my first list. This is Our Undoing by Lorraine Wilson got basically hand sold to me by a friend at Fantasycon (hi Womble!) and I’m always down for some apocalyptic UK. The Memory Theatre by Karin Tidbeck looks like a kind of reverse portal fantasy, with children from a mystical and dangerous land called the Gardens setting out to our own world to find someone who can help them escape the fate that awaits them if they dare to grow up. Um, yes please.

Finally, let’s talk sequels. The Veiled Throne by Ken Liu is roughly the size of a breezeblock, which is why I haven’t got to that yet. I adore almost everything about The Dandelion Dynasty (aside from the first book taking its sweet time to introduce more than two female characters), a fantasy riff on classical Chinese storytelling, and I’m really interested to see where Liu takes his characters (and their airships!) next. I also have not yet read The Bronzed Beasts by Roshani Chokshi, which is astonishing given it’s on my shelf and the last novel ended on a heck of a cliffhanger. And Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, by Kwame Mbalia, makes me tear up a little bit every time I think about that title and the characters and everything poor Tristan has been through – so I should probably find out how that one ends soon too. All in good time.

Joe: The list of 2021 novels that I haven’t read yet is long and distinguished and my saving grace for not having read them yet is that I’ve got some truly fantastic books left to catch up on. I won’t lean too heavily on not having read Fonda Lee’s Jade Legacy or the final Expanse novel, Leviathan Falls since both were published pretty late in the year. I’m absolutely going to get to them as soon as I can, but that’s less of a miss than it is that they’re so new.

After eagerly anticipating Helene Wecker’s follow up to The Golem and the Jinni for years now. With the “expected” publication date pushed back several times now I somehow missed The Hidden Palace’s release this summer. That first book was spectacular.

My biggest regret, such as it is for not injecting a book directly into my face the moment it was published, is for Savage Bounty, by Matt Wallace. We loved Savage Legion (review) here at Nerds of a Feather. It made my best of the year list for 2019 and was very well reviewed by Paul. I’m a huge mark for Matt’s writing. His Sin du Jour series of novellas is straight up one of my favorite things ever and Savage Legion fulfilled every promise made by the idea of an epic fantasy written by Matt Wallace. I’m long overdue to read Savage Bounty.

I could list another dozen books that I wanted to read and just didn’t for a bunch of different reasons (Black Water Sister and Chaos on CatNet both look really great, and I just got The Wisdom of Crowds from the library), but I think the most significant of the books I missed out on last year was She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan – which should be evidences by both Paul and Adri discussing it as among the best books *they* read last year.

There are obviously far more spectacular books than we mentioned here but any “best of” list should not be considered exhaustive because it is inherently subjective to what we’ve actually read, the vagaries of our taste, and our understanding of the impossibility of reading enough. Which is why we wanted to highlight some of the books we missed. This was another excellent year of science fiction and fantasy and we’re happy to have shared some of it with you. 

Joe Sherry – Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him

Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

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