Our Editors’ Top 5 SFF (and Horror) Reads of 2021

12 min read

Our editors each chose five books they’ve read in 2021 (that weren’t necessarily written in 2021) that they highly recommend.

J. Florence Martin

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers – I liked this book so much, I read it twice in the same year. This short and sweet novella captures much of the warmheartedness that defines Chambers’ work, but what really makes it stand out for me is the theme encapsulated in the title: the vital importance of learning, and the pressing need amongst the characters that it not come at the cost of their subjects.

In The Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu – This novella is a collection of interwoven narratives, each a precious and complex gem. Lu brings unusual perspectives to themes of identity, sexuality, and surveillance through the perspective of its protagonist Anima, a protective agent of the all-seeing city in which æ resides. Full of subtle aftertastes, In The Watchful City has lingered with me all year.

A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – I’ve been hungry lately for stories that challenge the direness of our present and paint speculative ways forward, and this short story collection is exactly that, especially for American readers. A People’s Future calls upon some of the great speculative writers of our age, many of them queer people and people of color, to come together in that imagining. Every story in this collection is fantastic, but my favorites include “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders, “Our Aim Is Not to Die” by A. Merc Rustad, and “Attachment Disorder” by Tananarive Due.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson – This is the kind of book I found myself making playlists about so I could stay in its world just a little bit longer. I love Johnson’s worldbuilding, which provides the backdrop for a powerful examination of class and belonging, and the plot is ceaselessly compelling as Cara, fights, lies, and cheats her way to the dream of safety and security. I look forward to revisiting this one again soon.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – I am obsessed with the beautiful, intricate culture Martine has crafted in her titular Empire of Teixcalaan. Part space opera, part diplomatic thriller, this novel is a tapestry of imagery, poetry, and claustrophobia as the stakes rise relentlessly around Ambassador Mahit Dzmare. For anybody who has ever lived and loved a culture outside their own, especially as a minority, A Memory Called Empire is a needle to the heart.

Alexander Pyles

The Mold Farmer by Rick Claypool – I wrote a review of this novella earlier this year, but I have not been able to get it off my mind. Gross fungus horror? Check! Aliens who are virtually incomprehensible and parasitically enslave humanity? Check! A leftist critique of capitalism? Check! There is just so much to love and for such a brief book, it makes me hungry for more socially & culturally aware stories that reveal more of our world. Claypool proves that we need to allow fiction to transform our world in order to see it more clearly, reminding us that this is the true work of a writer.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro – I have been trying to get back to Ishiguro for years, but another book always pops up. I thought his latest release would the perfect opportunity and what a masterwork of inner life. Following an Artificial Friend, named “Klara,” we follow her journey as she is purchased by a family is tasked to be the companion to a girl who is very sick. The relationship unfolds and unravels from there. It was so startlingly beautiful, although somewhat painfully paced, it was one of the books that reminds you to be thankful for your humanity.

Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Reading a new Tchaikovsky is a no-brainer for me. A new space opera set in a brand new galaxy is just too exciting. Following a ragtag crew of salvagers, their pilot, Idris has one large secret. When they stumble onto a plot that may involve the world annihilating Architects, what Idris holds may be the only way to stop them. Tchaikovsky’s worlds are so detailed and well thought out, this one did not disappoint. I’m only sad that I read this so early, because I’ll have to wait for months before the next release in Q1 of 2022.

This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno – This was one book that I immediately fell in love with. I actually just finished this month, but it rocketed up to my favorites for the year. When a widower, still struggling with the fresh grief from his wife’s passing is haunted by his smart speaker, he packs up for a cabin on the side of a mountain. The only issue, is that these things aren’t left behind so easily. Moreno’s prose surrounding grief is some of the best I have read, even from nonfiction sources, and this is his debut novel no less! His protagonist’s cutting pragmatism and cheery cynicism made for an overall thrilling horror read that left me excited to see what is next for Moreno.

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones – This book is a little older, but after reading Jones’ The Only Good Indians last year, I needed to read more. I’ve always been partial to werewolves as far as monsters go and the take on them here is amazing. It feels like one of those genre straddling books, that sits in both horror and literary fields. Dealing with a small werewolf family and a boy who may or may not “have the blood” was so good. It is overall, a crushing depiction of individuals who live on the margins and do not have a future. It is honestly an uncomfortable read by the end, but it is clearly not meant to be comfortable.

Julie Rea

The Heavens by Sandra Newman (2019) – At the beginning of The Heavens, Kate lives in the first months of a twenty-first-century America that resembles our reality with significant differences—a Green Party candidate is about to be the first woman president, for example. Kate experiences recurring dreams where she lives in Elizabethan England. The romance between Kate and Ben progresses as the astounding dimensions of Kate’s circumstances—the significance of her strange dreams and their relationship to her current-day life—are revealed. Kate becomes trapped in the interplay between the existence of her dreams and her life in New York, leading her new love to believe she’s lost her mind. The reader knows that far more than Kate’s mental health is at stake. Come for the audacious premise; stay for a relationship that breaks your heart.

Trashlands by Alison Stine (2021) – Poet and Phillip K. Dick award winner Alison Stine creates this vision of a fragile existence at the end of human civilization, where Appalachia has become Scrappalachia. The book is set mostly at a strip club, the eponymous Trashlands, in a junk yard where people survive by salvaging plastic, eating crickets and ferns, and taking off their clothes for the patrons of the strip club. Despite the brutality of the setting, the novel is defined by the beauty to be found in love and art: those Stine depicts in the Trashlands community exhibit tenderness, a passion to create, and the willingness to heroically sacrifice as they eke out a living in the remnants of a broken society.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019) – In this seemingly eternal season of superheroes, Black Leopard, Red Wolf appears as the literary equivalent of Marvel. But not with any tired, overwrought flurry of action in familiar settings. Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes place in an alternative Africa filled with people with animal traits and magical gifts, monsters horrifying and strange, and mystical portals. The writing—a beautiful sort of hazy wonder, a kind of magic in and of itself performed by Booker-winner James—scares you and punches you in the heart.

Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (2015) – Traitor Baru Cormorant begins as a slow burn before it ignites into Baru’s rebellion and a completely stunning ending. Baru exists as a member of a clan that is oppressed by imperial rule, and members of her family suffer under the regime. Baru’s rise is precipitated by her mathematical skills, which allow her to achieve positions of power within the empire. She then schemes to bring down the empire from the inside, and it is not too long before questions of economics lead to armies in the battlefield. Baru sacrifices the deepest part of herself to achieve her goals of sabotaging the empire. The ending of this book tore me apart in a very specific and devastating way. The phrase “The Fairer Hand!” will make you feel many things as you reach the final pages.

American War by Omar El Akkhad (2017) – At one point in Macbeth, Macduff contemplates the sorry state of Scotland and says in despair, “O nation miserable” (4.3.105). O nation miserable, I think as I hear the latest news of my country. American War is as if someone breathed life into my nightmares about the increasingly bitter polarization in the U.S. Set in the near future, American War follows the life of Sarat, who begins the book as a young child in the South. In the opening chapters, she experiences the first of her many losses arising from the second American civil war. This book is about, amongst many other things, the generative power of violence, and the reader agonizes over what happens to Sarat and what she becomes because of her various traumas. The reasons for the war, such as debates over the continued use of fossil fuels, are only glancingly addressed. Instead, American War uses Sarat’s life to describe how a society can devolve into a mire of suffering and death. O nation miserable. This beautifully written book is not for the faint of heart.  

Olivia Hofer

Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Matar – Multifaceted and visceral are probably the two most accurate words to describe this SPFBO grimdark fantasy finalist. Brightwash offers a noir mystery, a tender romance, and an intriguing magic system all tied together by a healthy dose of political intrigue. It’s an impressive debut with incredibly well-developed characters, rich world-building and it asks harrowing ethical questions like, what if the law and everything you ever believed in was wrong? A tough yet satisfying read.

An Altar on The Village Green by Nathan HallAs an avid fan of Bloodborne, this was one of the best books I’ve read in 2021. The prose is truly exquisite, and the world-building—while definitely inspired by the Dark Souls franchise—is unique. Whether you’re a fan of the Souls games or just like dark atmospheric fantasy, An Altar on the Village Green is worth a read.

The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies – Skies created a stunning and unique world in this self-published gaslamp fantasy and the care and love that went into creating this book drips from every single page. The writing is devilishly charming, filled with British humour and the characters are loveable yet flawed. The Thirteenth Hour offers a truly unique read that I hope to see adapted for television one day.

The Iron Crown by LL MacRae – I worked on this SPFBO finalist as an editor, and it was an absolute treat to dive into this classic adventure fantasy. As a lesbian who grew up in the early 90’s, back when we seemingly didn’t exist, at least not in popular entertainment (and when we did exist, we usually died), I never learned to seek out fiction with gay characters, but I love, love, love, stumbling upon one by accident. The Iron Crown offers a diverse cast, a new spin on dragons, and is a delightful adventure you don’t want to miss.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard – This romantic fantasy novella is set in an intriguing world based on pre-colonial Vietnam. It’s a sweet, heartfelt read with beautiful prose and a sapphic romance, and I desperately wished it was longer.

Ana Childe

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (2013) is the latest in the Gentlemen Bastards series and a riot. As a reader who is finally caught up on this fantasy series and waits impatiently for the next instalment—coming 2022, fingers crossed—I consider this one the lightest of the bunch even if it starts with Locke on the brink of death. We finally learn more about his long lost lover, the much alluded-to-in-the-previous-books Sabetha. While they collide as opposing forces in a high-stakes election, we also take a peek into their shared past with the Gentlemen Bastards. The lighter tone comes from the parallel between the scam the teenage thieves-in-training pulled off together as a theatrical troupe and the electoral games the two parties play on each other led by Locke and Sabetha’s devious instructions. However, unease lurks in the background—the vengeful magi pulling strings and Locke’s origin casting a dooming shadow on their reunion. It is a welcome comic relief from the previous books but hints at much darker things to come.

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (2021) is everything a YA space opera should be: super heavy on the feels and stakes the size of the Milky Way. We follow the members of Aurora Academy’s outlawed Squad 312 as they each play their part to try and stop an ancient species from taking over the galaxy. In order to succeed they have to convince everybody to work together—even the worst ones of them like the Starslayer—otherwise they are doomed. It’s a heck of a read to find out if they get out of this one. Not familiar with the science behind it all but it does make sense.

Truelife (2020), the conclusion to Jay Kristoff’s YA dystopian Romeo and Juliet reimagining, follows all parties involved (robots, AI, lifelikes, mutants, deviates, humans) as the final show-down between the last two Mega Corps of the Yousay takes place. New alliances are forged, old and found families choose sides and make their stand whether it be for the future of mankind or against it. We watch the plot unfold from multiple POVs and, though we are invested in each and every friend and foe’s story, we cannot help but see the bigger picture, a not-so-improbable future based on humanity’s track record in handling climate change and nuclear power. It is an unflattering dive into humanity’s flaws but hopeful on our ability to learn from our mistakes. Here’s to hope, Mister Kristoff.

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris (2019) is bound to stir some complex feelings in readers of all ages. This book brings us back to the little village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and its mixed palette of inhabitants. Vianne, who was rejected by this community years ago, is now strongly embedded in it. Her chocolaterie is like any other business in the town square. But the wind brings changes, upsets the balance she has achieved, and makes her do things she would have thrown back in other people’s faces a long time ago. Harris, a master of magical realism, manages to keep us totally enthralled and intrigued until the very end.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames (2017) felt like much needed fresh air in the epic fantasy world. It’s not the original world building or the monster slayers portrayed as rock stars. It’s the wondrously flawed heroes that we end up rooting for and suffering alongside that keep us reading. Following the reunion of this disbanded group of monster slayers we see through their mature eyes a superficial world that puts accent on all the wrong things and realise what is more important than fame and fortune: forging real connections and family based on blood and otherwise. Plus the humour is out of this world.

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