It was a rough year between the ongoing pandemic and then being evicted, buying a home, and needing to do lots of work on said home, and I didn’t write nearly as many book reviews as I would have liked. (And a few of those I did write were catching up on books I’d read in 2020 and struggled to review because of, well, 2020.)

But it was a great year in other ways. Women in SF&F Month 2021 was fantastic, and it featured the following guest posts (which are eligible for nonfiction/related work awards):

It was also an amazing reading year: even though I’ve read more books during other years, I’ve rarely read so many books I absolutely LOVED in a single year. Maybe it’s because difficulty concentrating during the pandemic forces me to be pickier if I’m to read at all, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten better about just not finishing books that aren’t working for me, but I ended up with 6 books that I not only found absorbing from start to finish but also found memorable after reading them. (Actually, 9 books since these include a series omnibus.)

So for 2021, I did something a little different with this list: instead of ranking books, I divided the books mentioned above into 2021 Books of the Year and Books of the Year Published Before 2021. As usual, I wanted to add all the books I found especially notable, so I also added some Additional Favorites and Honorable Mentions. These are the books I recall quite fondly but had small issues with (basically, these are about 4 star reads for me).

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2021 Books of the Year

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri - Cover Image

The Jasmine Throne (Burning Kingdoms #1) by Tasha Suri
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Jasmine Throne, inspired in part by Indian epics like the Mahabharata and a conflict for the throne during the Mughal period, is epic fantasy following multiple characters—and one of the best of these I’ve read. It has gorgeous prose, exquisite worldbuilding that makes both the fantastic and social aspects vividly real, and memorable characters. As I wrote in my review:

The Jasmine Throne is largely about different characters surviving and influencing their world despite the perils of the Empire, with a heavy emphasis on the additional obstacles of patriarchy for the women who are the heart of this story. It’s about the dangers of underestimating these women, even—or maybe especially—when they appear to have been stripped of their power. It’s about the different, subtler ways they navigate their world and how they can use being underestimated to their advantage: whether they are a maidservant, an imprisoned princess, or a wife and mother-to-be with a reputation for being gentle.

I loved everything about this novel, and I am in awe of Tasha Suri’s ability to craft books like this: immersive stories filled with complexity and poetic, quietly sharp introspection that cuts deep. (I also loved both of her previous novels, Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash.)

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #3) by K. S. Villoso
My Review
Read an Excerpt
Read K. S. Villoso’s Essay on Queen Talyien

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng is a phenomenal conclusion to the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy (following The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon). K. S. Villoso ramps up the complexity with new revelations galore in this final installment, making this entire series a memorable, heart-wrenching epic fantasy with some of the best characterization I’ve encountered. Queen Talyien grapples with a lot throughout this trilogy: being a queen, mother, and her father’s daughter; deciding who she wants to be and forging her own identity apart from her father’s ideas of who she should be; and trying to create something better despite the mess her predecessors made. (Oh, and a powerful mage, monsters, and dragons, too.) By the end of the trilogy, she is a more knowledgeable, thoughtful person than she was in the beginning, and I love how this is reflected in her voice as she tells her story. This entire series is superb—one of the best I’ve read—and this conclusion ranks among the best final installments I’ve read as well.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan - Cover Image

She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Read an Excerpt

Shelley Parker-Chan’s excellent debut novel is a reimagining of the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu Chongba is destined for greatness—but he dies young without having done anything of note, and his sister takes his name and decides she will have his great destiny for herself as well. This historical fantasy in a low-magic setting (at least, so far) follows Zhu and a foe of hers, a general captured and made a eunuch by the Mongols—and the last of his family. Their stories hooked me immediately, and I loved this novel’s exploration of gender and two enemies who could see some of themselves in each other. Gorgeously written with hard-hitting betrayal, She Who Became the Sun devastated me in the very best of ways. (In fact, I bought the hardcover when I saw it in the bookstore recently because I want to be devastated by this book again someday.)

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker - Book Cover Image

The Hidden Palace (A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni) by Helene Wecker
John’s Review of The Golem and the Jinni
Read an Excerpt (with Author Interview)
Read Helene Wecker’s Essay on Writing a Sequel

This sequel to The Golem and the Jinni captivated me immediately, just like the first book about these characters (which was also one of the more notable books I read in 2021, although this one stuck with me more). I love the way Helene Wecker melds folklore with history by exploring immigrant life in New York City in the late 1800s/early 1900s through the eyes of a golem and a jinni who live there: the former a baker who pursues a degree in Domestic Sciences, and the latter a tinsmith and artist. The Hidden Palace introduces another golem and another jinni, and it delves more into the main characters’ relationship with each other, showing how their time among humans gives them a unique understanding of the other despite their differing natures. Like all of my selections for Books of the Year, I absolutely loved this book.

Books of the Year Published Before 2021

Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler - Book Cover Image

Seed to Harvest (Patternist #1–4) by Octavia E. Butler
My Review of Patternist #1
Read an Excerpt from Patternist #1

Although this particular edition itself seems to no longer be published, Seed to Harvest is an omnibus containing the four Patternist books still in print: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. This collection has them in chronological order, beginning in 1690 and moving throughout the ages with the last book set sometime in the far future. When rereading Wild Seed (the only one I had read before this year), I was struck by just how true Octavia E. Butler’s imagining of an immortal like Doro seems: this 3700 year old being staves off boredom by traveling the world to find other people with special abilities and has embarked on the long-term project of trying to breed people to create more with specific strengths. This is how he meets Anyanwu, the other main character in the first novel, another immortal who can also shapeshift and heal herself—and how the telepathic patternmasters of later books came to exist.

The books in this series change characters and focus, but I was immediately riveted by each novel in this omnibus. I could hardly put this down at any point, even when reading Clay’s Ark, which barely seems related to the others until seeing how it fits in with the last book (and which is also an extremely disturbing story). Octavia E. Butler’s mastery of storytelling is rare and wonderful, and this series is now one of my favorites.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine Cover

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) by Arkady Martine
Read an Excerpt
Read Arkady Marine’s Essay on Motherhood in SF

Although the second Teixcalaan book did come out in 2021 and I bought a copy, I am slow and haven’t read it yet. But I loved A Memory Called Empire, a beautifully written science fiction novel about an ambassador sent to learn the truth about her predecessor’s death—and who finds herself more lost than she expected, given that the technology that was supposed to give her the previous ambassador’s memories isn’t working as it should. This is a story with exquisite details and politics, as well as one that brims with appreciation for words and literature. In addition to those elements, I was especially struck by how Arkady Martine captured the loneliness and complications of being an outsider who fiercely wants to belong.

Honorable Mention

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson - Book Cover

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Although I didn’t LOVE this the same way I did the other books previously featured, I have to mention another older book I read and enjoyed in 2021: Shirley Jackson’s classic Gothic horror novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This is a testament to the power of character and narrative in story, as this could be a rather mundane book given all the details about the main character’s everyday life. But noticing the way she phrased things early in the book made me pause and think “Oh no,” and it just became creepier and more unsettling, culminating in an excellent tale with stellar characterization. I can definitely see rereading this and gaining new appreciation for it.

Additional 2021 Favorites

The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Emperor (The Drowning Empire #2) by Andrea Stewart
My Review of The Drowning Empire #1
Read an Excerpt
Read Andrea Stewart’s Essay “Happily Ever Aftermath”

The Bone Shard Daughter was one of my favorite books of 2020, and although it took me a little longer to get into the sequel, I ended up enjoying it very much as well. This series is set in an archipelagic Empire with some of the most interesting (and creepy) magic I’ve read about lately: the Emperor’s bone shard magic, in which parts of creatures are sewn together and powered by bone shards with commands written on them. The Bone Shard Emperor reveals more about the world introduced in the first book, particularly the magical people the Emperor’s bone shard magic defeated long ago, and we also learn more about what creature the adorable animal companion is. Even though the second book in the trilogy didn’t hook me immediately like the first book, I could hardly put it down once it did and was more invested in all the point-of-view characters’ stories by the end.

Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat - Book Cover

Dark Rise (Dark Rise #1) by C. S. Pacat
Read an Excerpt

This first volume in a YA fantasy trilogy kept me reading in part to see if my theory about where it was going was true, and I was delighted that it was because I think it went in a rather intriguing direction. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss what I loved most about it in detail because of spoilers, but it also hooked me pretty easily (although there were some parts in the middle I found slow as well as one point-of-view character I wasn’t especially interested in). Yet I was invested in what happened to Will, the boy trying to hide from the people who killed his mother, and Violet, the girl he befriends—especially the latter, who was my favorite main character.

Honorable Mention

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick - Cover Image

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook and Rose #1) by M. A. Carrick
Read an Excerpt

The Mask of Mirrors, the first book in a fantasy trilogy by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, is an honorable mention because there were times I found it slow but there were also times I was REALLY into it—and I do find myself excited about reading the sequel that recently came out (The Liar’s Knot). I enjoyed Ren’s storyline about infiltrating a noble house by posing as a relative—and coming to actually like the people she’s planning to con—but I think I most want to read it because of Vargo, a crime lord with unclear motivations and secrets.