To find the most structurally daring, format-breaking novels of 2021, turn to the far-flung worlds of science-fiction and fantasy. From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, these books perfectly match form and function in their creation of universes both big and small.
Boasting immersive settings, delightful characters and all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny, lightening its sweeping supernatural and intergalactic symphony with notes that are all-too human.
Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, but it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recent graduate living with her parents.
Shelley Parker-Chan's gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Fans of epic fantasy and historical fiction will thrill to this reimagining of the founding of China's Ming dynasty.
From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, the 10 best science fiction & fantasy novels of 2021 perfectly match form and function.
We begin each new reading year with high hopes, and sometimes, when we're very lucky, we find our expectations rewarded. So it was with 2021.
It must be said that a lot of these books are really, really long. Apparently this was the year for total commitment, for taking a plunge and allowing ourselves to be swallowed up.
Also, it should come as no surprise that books-within-books frequently appear on this list. For all our attempts at objectivity within our roles as critics, we just can't help but love a book that loves books. Amor Towles, Ruth Ozeki, Jason Mott, Maggie Shipstead and Anthony Doerr all tapped into the most comforting yet complex parts of our book-loving selves.
But most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could've prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations, such as in Will McPhail's graphic novel, which made us laugh till we cried, and Colson Whitehead's heist novel, which no one could've expected would be such a gorgeous ode to sofas.
And at the top of our list, a book that accomplishes what feels like the impossible: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' epic debut novel, which challenges our relationship to the land beneath us in a way we've never experienced but long hoped for.
Read on for our 20 best works of literary fiction from 2021.
"There are few things more beautiful to an author's eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books," says a character in Amor Towles' novel. Undoubtedly, the pages of this cross-country saga are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by numerous gratified readers.
What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief? Ruth Ozeki explores these questions in her novel, a meditation on objects, compassion and everyday beauty.
Lauren Groff aims to create a sense of wonder and awe in her novels, and in her boldly original fourth novel, set in a small convent in 12th-century England, the awe-filled moments are too many to count.
A surrealist feast of imagination that's brimming with very real horrors, frustrations and sorrows, Jason Mott's fourth novel is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom and truth.
Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the layers of rottenness in New York City with characters who follow an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren't crooks or cynics.
From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story that encompasses not only a young Black woman's family heritage but also that of the American land where their history unfolded.
Most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could've prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations. Read on for the 20 best literary fiction titles of 2021.
Nonfiction is the broadest publishing category, with books that delve into the past, present and future of every aspect of our world. There are books that rifle through our innermost emotions and books that search the outer universe. Books that strike while the iron is hot and books that are cool and classic. You'll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.
We're calling it now: The mystery and suspense genre is on the cusp of a golden age. From psychological thrillers to procedurals to cozies, these books reached new heights and brought new perspectives to the forefront in 2021.
John Galligan's trademark dark humor and clear-sighted social commentary are in fine form as he follows Sheriff Heidi Kick, one of the most complex yet lovable heroes in current crime fiction, on her latest investigation.
The rom-com revival shows no signs of stopping, and some truly impressive follow-ups defied the sophomore slump in 2021. But one of the biggest takeaways from this year is quite unexpected: Is paranormal romance about to make a comeback in a big way? All we know for sure is that writers like Suleikha Snyder are using the subgenre to craft poignant political statements, and witchy romances are popping up like toadstools.
Bursting with heart, banter and a respect for queer history and community, One Last Stop proves that Casey McQuiston has no intention of resting on her laurels after the unprecedented success of Red, White & Royal Blue.
The best young adult books of the year offer nothing less than revolution—revolutionary ways of seeing, of writing, of imagining, of moving through the world. They've kindled our hearts and filled them with warmth and hope when we've needed it most.
A motley crew, their skilled leader and a living ship walk into a bar—and the bar explodes.
You Sexy Thing kicks off with a literal bang (and ends with one), but the rest of the story is dialogue and flashback-driven as Cat Rambo shifts perspectives and timelines to color in their cast of characters. Captain Niko Larson, her first mate, Dabry, and a handful of their fellow soldiers escaped their former Hive Mind overlords by declaring that their true calling lay in the culinary arts, not warfare. But when the space station that their restaurant is located on is attacked, they end up seeking refuge on the titular sentient bioship. Shenanigans including space pirates and galactic politics ensue.
Set in a far-flung future teeming with diverse alien life, Rambo's novel incorporates both magic and science in neat harmony. All denizens of this universe understand that magic and science both exist, and accept both in equal measure. You Sexy Thing's setting is rife with intrigue, but was clearly designed to accommodate character and plot, rather than the other way around. Which isn't to say that Rambo's world building is flimsy or thin, rather that their focus is firmly on their characters and the relationships between them.
With this commitment to character development above all else, You Sexy Thing's characters need to be engaging, and Rambo absolutely nails it. Captain Niko and Dabry are standouts, solid compatriots who are earnestly seeking both master chefdom and continued freedom from the Hive Mind. One of the greatest characters is the ship itself:You Sexy Thing is a living spacecraft that learns and adapts to its crew, and (not surprisingly) becomes a member of the crew itself.
Rambo does an impressive job of thrusting the reader into the middle of relationships with rich history. The dialogue always feels natural and avoids forced or excessive exposition. Instead, a new crewmate is introduced just after the first act, and her experience learning about the crew and their relationships serves to fill in the gaps for readers. Rambo describes and demonstrates all the unspoken communication between the crew, engendering a wholesome atmosphere suffused with the feeling of warm, deep trust among the closest of friends. There is very little conflict between the crew members and what conflict does spring up is resolved quickly.
You Sexy Thing is a fun start to a hopefully long-running series about the lives of a close-knit fellowship of soliders-turned-chefs-turned-adventurers. Readers will be immediately sucked into Rambo's light-hearted, camaraderie-filled space adventure and fall in love with their earnest characters.
Cat Rambo’s warmhearted space adventure is light on plot but overflowing with earnest and engaging characters.
When Robin Blyth arrives at his new position in the Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division, he's expecting a slightly overwhelming, but typical first day at a new job. What he's not expecting is to learn that magic is real, and that his predecessor might have been murdered. The deliverer of this news, magician Edwin Courcey, becomes Robin's guide to the magical underworld of Edwardian England. Freya Marske uses this imaginative framework to spin a tale of conspiracy and unexpected love in A Marvellous Light, first of a planned trilogy.
Congrats on such a splendid debut. When you think back to the original inspiration for this book, did Robin and Edwin's story turn out the way you expected? Thank you! A lot of the worldbuilding and plot events did change in the telling—more on that below!—but the emotional core of the story, Edwin and Robin and their romance, was the first part of the book to cohere for me. I knew who they were, and I knew why and how they would fall in love. That part barely changed at all between the initial inspiration and the final draft.
Edwardian England is rendered so vividly in A Marvellous Light. Did this story and its setting always go hand in hand when you were coming up with the concept? In a similar vein, what does this setting give to the story that other time periods might not? Somewhat hilariously, the reason I chose the Edwardian era is because of book two's story and setting being extremely intertwined. I always knew the second book would be set on an ocean liner around the time of the Titanic. But once I started poking around and researching the time period, the manor house party-setting of book one fell perfectly into place. And the greatest contribution of this specific historical setting turned out to be the Arts & Crafts movement, which not only gave me a lot of wonderful visuals but also helped to bring out one of the most important character notes for Robin: his appreciation for art.
What choices did you make spontaneously while drafting that added the most to the book? I think of myself as a kitchen-sink kind of drafter. I'll snatch at whatever offhand world building or character details drift across my mind, and shove them into the text, so that when I need a spanner to fix a plot problem later in the book I can turn around and say, "Well, I'm SURE there was a spanner back in Chapter Four." Anything that gets used stays in; everything else gets painfully pruned in revisions.
I wrote myself a spanner-detail about how a magical family makes a contract with their house and land, then found myself at the very midpoint of the book realizing that in order to be consistent with my own world building, I would have to allow a certain unplanned thing to happen. And this thing was so fun and interesting that I immediately stopped and gleefully reworked the outline to see what sort of ripple effects it would have. (Good ones, it turns out!)
When thinking back to the writing process, what passage or section do you most vividly remember? I don't want to spoil too much, but the hedge maze scene was definitely the one I had the most fun with. I got to experiment with some more horror-esque tension, which doesn't appear to a great extent anywhere else in the book, so that stretched some writing muscles for me!
Talk to me about the magic system. Were you inspired by any systems from other works when coming up with your own? As someone with a methodical mind myself, I've always been drawn to magic systems that have an element of the academic to them: those that require study, and patient learning, and don't come easily. (I'm a sucker for any book featuring a magical school, library or university.) Edwin as a character embodies that kind of magic. At the same time, I wanted this book to have a balance of logical magic and the wilder, more numinous, less explicable magic that lives in fairy tales. The kind of magic that upends an ordered life, just as Robin does for Edwin.
Some say that comedy is the hardest dialogue to write, but I imagine romantic declarations can be just as difficult. Do you have any tips for creating romantic moments that feel real and truthful? A good love story is unique; It should feel like it could only arise between the two (or more) unique individuals within it. For me, the romantic moments in fiction that feel the most authentic are those that are also the most specific. What are the small details that one character is noticing about another, and how do those details become building blocks in the romance? What are the small things they can do for one another, or say to one another, that make the characters feel seen for who they are, and loved in their flawed entirety? Once you know those answers, you can write a line that shouts I love you! as loudly as if the words were spoken.
What work did you have to put in for this book so that the next installments would have a solid foundation to stand on? When I got to the end of the first draft, I looked back and thought, "Oh—THAT'S what the theme of this trilogy is! And THIS is how it will play itself out in the other books!" Then I hopped on video chat with an author friend who patiently asked me questions while I wailed and gnashed my teeth until I'd properly worked out the backstory of certain characters and the solid bones of the magic system. The first and largest revision included a lot of careful work to lay the foundations for books two and three.
I also made sure to introduce one of book two's main characters; ditto for book three. The further you get into a trilogy plot, the less room you have for leisurely character introductions. I want my readers to be able to hit the ground running in the later books, and to have the protagonists feel like existing acquaintances they're keen to know in more detail.
Horrible families are fun as heck to read. I'm definitely fishing here, but will we see more of that in book two? Horrible families provide a convenient way for a central couple to be drawn together in a you-and-me-against-the-world sort of way. Robin and Edwin are marooned in a book full of human monsters. However, I wrote book two during 2020, and for some reason I had the urge to escape into a fun romp of a book, full of basically decent people. It still has its nasty villains and its amusing assholes—and the two protagonists are definitely still products of less-than-ideal families—but the family setting itself is much less prominent.
Looking back on both the writing and the editing process, what parts of creating these characters and this story are you most proud of? I'll be frank: This is only the second novel I ever wrote, so I'm pleased as hell that it even exists. I'm proud that it has a coherent shape, a coherent aesthetic, a heady combination of all my favorite things (magic! murder mystery! sex!), and characters who are vivid in my mind. I've spent countless hours of drafting and revision with them, and I'm not sick of their company yet. I hope I never will be. And I'm more than ready for the world to meet them too.
Author Freya Marske shares how she brought a resonant, magical romance to life within the buttoned-up world of Edwardian England.
Freya Marske's A Marvellous Light takes us to Edwardian England, where manners are surface-level, magic is real and mysteries abound around every cobbled street corner. Robin Blyth takes a mysterious job in the government's Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division. In his rather baffling first 15 minutes on the job, Robin meets the somewhat awkward and brisk Edwin Courcey, who informs Robin that magic is real and that his predecessor was murdered by magical means. Though Robin and Edwin would each prefer working with someone else, it's up to the two of them to find out what happened to the man Robin replaced, revealing a conspiracy that threatens all magical people in England. Come for the incredibly rich setting, stay for the romance: Robin and Edwin's relationship anchors the narrative, and the way that they challenge and then question and then accept each other is captivating. Marske deftly contrasts the couple's affection with the stuffiness of the world that surrounds them, making their love all the more resonant.
If you haven't yet had a chance to experience Nnedi Okorafor's singular voice, take the plunge now. In her sci-fi thriller Noor, Okorafor's unique perspective is on full display. Anwuli Okwudili is a Nigerian girl who was born with deformities in her legs and one of her arms, intestinal malrotation and only one lung. After a car accident further limits the use of her legs and gives her debilitating headaches and memory issues, Anwuli gets a whole raft of biomechanical body enhancements. Viewed as half human and half machine, she flees her village after killing several men who attacked her. While on the run, she meets a shepherd called DNA (short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu), who is also on the run from the law. In a world where cameras track your every move, Anwuli and DNA try to stay ahead of a reckoning they know is coming. A leading voice in the subgenre of African futurism, Okorafor's power on the page is confident, vivid and uniquely her own. This story is tight, violent, uplifting, damning and thoughtful all at once. Okorafor's examination of technology's influence on health, nature, local communities and so many other parts of life is as precise as it is disturbing. Noor is a cautionary thriller, told with exuberance and conviction.
If British history (and the mythology that surrounds it) sets your heart ablaze, then Lucy Holland's mystical Sistersong is the book for you. A story of family, magic, romance and betrayal, Sistersong lingers long after its final page. Britain in A.D. 535, recently relieved of Roman rule, is full of many independent kingdoms. One of these, Dumonia, is home to three sisters. Each sister yearns for something: Riva for a body healed from the fire that disfigured her, Keyne for a place at her father's side in battle, and Sinne for her true love. But it's a tumultuous time for Dumonia. A Christian priest seeks to rid the kingdom of the old gods, the Saxons begin their invasion of Britain and new, unfamiliar faces appear at court. The sisters have to choose whether to take matters (and magic) into their own hands or let their kingdom fade into the past as a new Britain rises. Holland nails an early Middle Ages aesthetic, using it as the backdrop for some intensely personal storytelling. Be prepared for triumph and tragedy, fantasy and folklore, might and magic.
Think “Downton Abbey” would have been better with magic? Then this month’s SFF column is for you!
In last year's The Frozen Crown, Greta Kelly set up Askia, the exiled Queen of Seravesh, as a confident leader struggling to survive amid the schemes and machinations of the Vishir court. But during what should have been her triumph, a political marriage to the Emperor of Vishir, she was kidnapped by Emperor Radovan of Roven. During the attack, the emperor and his senior wife, Ozura, were murdered, but not before Ozura pledged her soul to Askia's service. For Askia is not just royalty: She is also a death witch, a rare magical talent who can both commune with and command the dead. Radovan intends her to be his seventh queen, to seal her magic in an Aellium stone with their wedding vows and then to kill her and take her power for his own, as he has done six times before. But Askia has no intention of going quietly.
In Kelly's follow-up, The Seventh Queen, Askia has morphed into a ruthless manipulator, willing to use any hint of leverage to save her own life and to prevent her world from falling under the dominion of the power-hungry Radovan. While this characterization is something of a leap from the prior book, it suits Askia's nature as a doggedly competent survivor. Kelly's incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess, renders such narrative discontinuities forgivable.
One of the highlights of The Seventh Queen may be Radovan himself. In the prior book, he was a sinister yet distant threat, easily dismissed as the inevitable emperor motivated only by the bottomless quest for power. Here, Radovan is revealed as an odd sort of failure, a capricious dictator who began by genuinely trying to right the world's wrongs. Kelly's world is one dominated by magical elites, and Radovan is one of the only characters who questions this status quo.
Radovan is much more compelling than when he was a remote evil, but the treatment of his character is also indicative of the loss of the moral complexity that made The Frozen Crown such an interesting take on fantasy. The Seventh Queen dismisses Radovan's actions as those of a simple madman whose policies are only twisted parodies of true reform, refusing to admit that there was any merit in his initial crusade and uncomplicatedly championing its aristocratic, magically gifted protagonist. While there is plenty of dramatic tension, the most surprising part of how Kelly concludes her duology is how closely it hews to the standards of high fantasy and abandons the thematic ambition of The Frozen Crown.
While not truly groundbreaking, The Seventh Queen has a compelling villain and an unusual focus on courtly maneuvering for a fantasy novel. It is a wholly satisfying conclusion whose only real shortcoming is its inability to fully realize the ambition of Kelly's debut.
The Seventh Queen is a wholly satisfying conclusion whose only real shortcoming is its inability to fully realize the ambition of Kelly’s debut.
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Do you love a dash of magic in your fiction? Are you bored with garden-variety sword-and-sorcery fantasies? If you’re ready to take a dive into a different kind of spellbinding story, check out some of our recent favorites. From flying women to futuristic crime families who trade in drug-aided magic, we’ve got a little something for every kind of reader.
Taking obvious cues from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and postmodern tech thrillers, Marie Lu presents an exciting, immersive world with interesting and developed characters the reader will care about. While definitely a can’t-miss for fans of Lu’s Young Elites series, Warcross offers something for readers across all genres.