Most of what I read this year was SFF, so it’s hard to narrow down! I like to think that, in previous years, I enjoyed a nice balance of fantasy, mystery, and women’s fiction with some general fiction and science fiction thrown in, but I think this year (with the ongoing pandemic and now approaching 2 years of young kids doing school at home and online) my heart just decided to curl up in it’s happy space: fantasy.
But before I dive into what might be a long list of favorite SFF reads, I wanted to first mention one that I loved that won’t be appearing here. Why? Because it somehow fulfilled the bookish wish I laid out for myself at the beginning of the year! So, if you’re really interested to know my absolute favorite SFF read, check back on Friday.
And now on to the huge list of SFF I reviewed this year. No, I won’t mention all of them; just my favorites (15 out of the almost 90 books I read and reviewed over the past year, most of which were SFF) as I try to ignore all the others that I did love, but there was just one tiny thing that meant something else edged it out. Since this is my favorite genre and I want to mention all of my favorites, I’m going to discuss them one by one (in no particular order). Then we’ll get to my favorite of the bunch.
The first one I have to mention is one I still need to write the review for (I will, I promise). It’s lingered with me almost a whole year now as I started reading it very soon after Christmas. Quaking Soul by Jennifer M. Zeiger still blows me away with the attention to detail and the absolute love given to the natural world. Not only is Jennifer an absolutely lovely blogging friend, but she also writes with a gorgeous grace and reading Quaking Soul felt very close to reading magic. Everything about it held my attention and it was very difficult to pull myself away to take care of my family.
The Last Shadow Knight by Michael Webb was probably the biggest surprise for me. I expected traditional fantasy, but it turned out to be so much more than that. It features a young man who begins to train to become the last shadow knight in order to fulfill a Dream that a shadow knight will destroy the king bent on conquering all the countries. But it also has a unique take on world building: by focusing on business, commerce, and economics. I won’t pretend to understand all of it, but I absolutely loved every bit of it. It’s different and unique and sharpened the people and world into focus for me in such a fun and different way. I now need to know how business is done in every fantasy world I read from now on.
I’m a huge fan of fairy tales (can’t you tell by my fairy tale inspired Sisters of String and Glass?), but have found most retellings to just not be my cup of tea. In some ways Malice by Heather Walter isn’t perfect to me, but I love that it focuses on the villain, has a really sweet romance, and it managed to remind me of a favorite fantasy trilogy I read as a teen. Based on Sleeping Beauty, it felt a little constrained, but I really liked that I completely understood Alyce and why she did what she did. This is probably my favorite retelling I’ve read so far.
Speaking of retellings, I must spend a moment loving Miss Bennet’s Dragon by M Verant. Inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it also adds draca and lets the story run away. There’s a bit more focus on characters who were more on the periphery, but is still absolutely recognizable as Pride and Prejudice, even if more on the war with Napoleon was mentioned than in the original. While it’s not my favorite Austen novel, I loved just about everything about Miss Bennet’s Dragon. This is such a fun fantasy retelling of a classic and I loved that, halfway through, it took a turn and took on a life all it’s own.
Keeping with Napoleon, A Swift and Savage Tide by Chloe Neill is the second book in the Captain Kit Brightling series and is a wonderful mix of Jane Austen, regency romance, and Napoleonic era literature and almost feels like a guilty pleasure to me. It’s an historical fantasy retelling about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and has some really fun high seas adventures as the main character is the captain of a ship, and she has magic. This is such a fun, easy read, but offers so much adventure and romance.
Continuing with ships, the Tide Child trilogy by RJ Barker ended this year with The Bone Ship’s Wake. This book broke me. When I didn’t think it could possibly hurt any more after the second book, it proved me wrong in every single way. I cried at the end, I screamed how unfair it was. But it’s such an extraordinary ending. These characters definitely wormed their ways into my heart and it hurts so much to let them go, but, wow, what an ending!
The Legacy Trilogy by Matthew Ward was another one that concluded this year, with Legacy of Light. I was so conflicted about the second book as it felt like a third book, so I was a little apprehensive about what the actual third book would hold. At first, it felt like a really long epilogue, and then all the threads that had been so deftly woven in over the first two books suddenly came together. It was so beautiful that this was another finale that brought out the tears in me. The ending hurt so much, but I loved it all the same.
Let’s just keep the endings going. Hell’s Library by AJ Hackwith appears to have concluded with The God of Lost Words. I really loved this series, especially since it revolves around libraries, but not ordinary libraries. Centered around the Library of the Unwritten in Hell, it also explores other death realms and other library branches that hold different kinds of stories. This follows the librarians of Hell’s library: a deceased librarian, an exiled muse, a fallen angel, and a character from an unfinished book. The last book in particular really struck me to the core as a reader and lover of books. It felt both like an apt conclusion for the characters and the story as well as something of an homage or love letter to anyone who loves book and stories.
But let’s not let the conclusions outshine the starts of new series. The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick is one such that kicked off at the beginning of the year. And I’m so thankful I didn’t have to wait a whole year from the second book! Even though I was incredibly confused about the world, because this one really just drops you in, I loved the richness of everything about it, the strings that tied people together, and the masks they all wore. There’s such a complicated dance in this series and it’s all so masterfully done. I love that the world just seems to build up around me every time I open up the books. And the second book just came out earlier this month!
Snow Dust and Boneshine by Grendolyn Peach Soleil is the start to another series. As it’s self-published, I have hopes it’ll be more than a trilogy. It’s the first in the Chronicles of Granny Witch series. While I’m not at all a fan or even passing reader of Westerns, I adore Grendolyn’s writing so much that I’ll read anything from her. There’s magic spun into every single word and there’s just something so indefinably gorgeous about the quality of her writing. This was both magical and sweet, sad and tender.
And not to be outdone are the books that come in the middle of a trilogy. Requiem Moon by C.T. Rwizi is the second in the African-inspired Scarlet Odyssey fantasy series. It’s centered around a young man who essentially takes on a feminine role as someone who can use magic and who ends up being sent to the capital city on a mission for his Queen. Set in the capital city, this second book has so many things going on, so many strands that interlace and a great deal of danger for the main characters. The ending was shocking and more of a cliffhanger than I like, but I really do love everything about this series. It’s magical and has plenty of games being played.
Then there’s Headlines & Hydras by Rebecca Chastain. The second in the Terra Haven Chronicles, I’m dreading reading the last book. This series has everything I love: a spunky female lead who reminds me of Nancy Drew, magic, adorable creature companions, a sweet romance, and mystery. These books have been so much fun and this second one really homed in on the thread connecting all three stories.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho both took me to a place of familiarity and into the unknown for me. Set in Malaysia and focused on a Chinese family, I loved that some was recognizable to me, but there was enough of the unknown that I was really drawn into this world of ghosts. This is shorter than probably all the other books on this list, but I really enjoyed it and had a ton of fun reading it. The ghost was a lot of fun, and the grudge from beyond was incredibly entertaining. I loved how much trouble the main character got herself into, and her journey of figuring out herself.
Switching from family to friends, We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen feels like the definition of books about friends to me. I loved how a romantic relationship was established as being completely out of the question, so I really got to focus on the friendship that developed between two people who’d had their memories wiped: one turning out to be a superhero and the other the villain. This was sweet and beautiful and just makes me smile every time I think about it.
Lastly, I can’t go without mentioning the only science fiction, and dystopian as well, novel on my list. When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson is set in the future where only a country-size enclave of humans-only exists. The rest of the world is for the AI. This explores that difference between human and AI and how to integrate the two. But I love this one because it’s the first dystopian that gives me what I need to make it believable to me: I can see how we get from where we are to the future described in the book. This wasn’t perfect, but it made so much sense to me and just reeled me in.
And so I guess it’s time for me to reveal my favorite one of the bunch. Going through them all like this makes it incredibly difficult as they’re all stories I love! Do I choose the guilty pleasure? The one that broke me? The one that gave me a most surprising world? The one that made me love something I don’t normally love? The one that felt a little bit like home?
Seriously, how do I choose?
I’ve literally spent days trying to figure this out, but I’m definitely going with Quaking Soul. It’s literally the only one of the bunch I don’t even have to see the title or the book to just start thinking about it. My figurative jaw still drops when I think of how gorgeous the world is. Of course, I love the main character, Na’rina, as well, and it has the sweetest natural romance and I love the history built into it, but something about this book just makes me want to go out and worship nature. As someone who really feels earth as her element, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me by how much I adore this book.
What was your favorite fantasy and science fiction read of 2021?