This week’s prompt was 10 Best Books I Read This Year – but I already posted about my favourite books of 2021. This, then, is a list of my top 10 reads of the year that weren’t published this year – backlist books! Some of the best books I read this year were published before 2021, and they absolutely deserve a spotlight shone on them!
Thus, excluding rereads – my Top 10 Read-But-Not-Published-in-2021!Susurrus on Mars by Hal Duncan
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
This novella-length collection of Erehwynan Idylls offers readers an indulgent and weird agglomeration of randy boys and revelations, as the embodiment of a small breeze--actually the gene-spliced child of the gods Zephyros and Ares--flirts and seduces fleshlings on a terraformed future Mars. Hal Duncan's acclaimed style is both alethic and erudite and offers a fresh telling of philosophical musings and classic Greek mythology for 21st century readers.
"This densely lyrical novella combines science fiction, Greek mythology, botany, philosophy, and erotica into a resonant whole..." - Publishers Weekly
Duncan continuously pushes boundaries and turns experimental, and it works beautifully in this novella set on Mars, where the Greek gods (well, a few of them) dance at the edges of humanity’s story. Long-term fans will recognise incarnations of familiar characters, but Susurrus on Mars is wholly a standalone, where the far-future escapades of two non-traditional families alternate with miniature essays on the (mythical) origins of various trees and plants – you might know the legend of Narcissus, but most of these will be new to all but the most hard-core mythology buffs. And of course, Duncan’s vision of the future is not just weird and wonderful; it’s also extremely queer. This is probably my favourite of all his works since the Book of Hours duet!In the Eyes of Mr Fury by Philip Ridley
Genres: Fantasy, Magical Realism, Queer Protagonists
On the day Concord Webster turned eighteen, the Devil died. The Devil's real name was Judge Martin, but Concord's mother called him the Devil. She said he boiled babies for dinner and made lampshades out of human skin. So why did she, who hated him so venomously, have a key to his house?
The key will unlock more than just Judge's front door. It will also unlock a multitude of stories - where magic children talk to crows, men disappear in piles of leaves, and James Dean lookalikes kiss in dark alleys - and reveal a secret history that will change Concord's life forever.
Philip Ridley's second novel (following the sexually charged tour de force Crocodilia) was an instant cult classic when originally published in 1989. Now, for this new edition, Ridley has reimagined the story, expanding the original novel into the world's first LGBT magical realist epic. A vast, labyrinthine, hall-of-mirrors saga, its breathtaking imagery and stunning plot twists - covering over a hundred years - reveal Ridley to be one of the most distinctive and innovative voices in contemporary fiction.
'Philip Ridley's stories compel attention.' - The Times (London)
'Ridley is the master of modern myth.' - The Guardian
'Ridley is a visionary.' - Rolling Stone
This is weird in a completely a different way than Susurrus is, but it’s still so good! In the Eyes of Mr Fury is a kind of magical realism/urban fantasy cross, where fantastical events – like turning memories into playable movie reels, and babies being delivered by crows instead of storks – take place alongside the unravelling of the secrets of one particular neighbourhood – one single street, even. It’s also a story of male queerness set in a time period that wasn’t exactly accepting of that, so I was pleasantly surprised that it managed to stay so…whimsically upbeat, even though it doesn’t flinch away from going to some heartbreaking places too.The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Brown MCs, sapphic MC, asexual MC, achillean MC, queernorm world
A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in this captivating debut of connection across space and time.
"This is when your life begins."
Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.
A boy, broken by his past.
The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.
For both of them, a family.
But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart.
I picked this up because I fell in love with the sound of The Spear Cuts Through Water (why, when the description is so short??? I don’t know, it just happened) and I wanted to see if the author had written anything else. And he had! It was scifi, not fantasy, but I gave it a go anyway, and, just…wow. Freaking wow. Jimenez’s writing runs like clear water, almost poetic and utterly gorgeous, and I fell so hard for the entire cast. The description doesn’t come close to doing it justice; it makes The Vanished Birds sound so simple, maybe even banal, and it’s not at all. This is classism and capitalism in a far-future universe run and owned by corporations; it’s about economics and trade and space travel; and most of all, it’s about how family doesn’t need to have anything to do with blood. This book made me glow with joy and sob my heart out by turns, and I recommend it to absolutely everyone.The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard
Genres: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Representation: Polynesian-coded MC, brown cast
An impulsive word can start a war.
A timely word can stop one.
A simple act of friendship can change the course of history.
Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth, the god.
He has spent more time with the Emperor of Astandalas than any other person.
He has never once touched his lord.
He has never called him by name.
He has never initiated a conversation.
One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.
The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.
Has anyone been able to describe this book in a way that does it justice??? Not to my knowledge, although Alexandra Rowland’s twitter thread about it is probably the closest anyone has gotten yet. The Hands of the Emperor defies description and explanation. It’s a saving-the-world story, in a way, but via impassioned bureaucracy, not a big dramatic quest. It’s huge and gorgeous and indulgent, incisive and thoughtful, passionate beyond belief. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, detailed and beautiful, but it’s very much the cast and their goals that make it shine. I had (happy!) tears streaming down my face in the final chapters; Goddard writes to give you chills and snatch your breath away, makes your heart swell so much inside your chest that you have to grow yourself a little bigger so it still fits.
Maybe that’s the best way to put it: Hands of the Emperor is a book that makes you grow, because it’s too full of hope and wonder and love and beauty for any one person to hold. It’s a heart-home book, one that picks you up when you fall, clear your eyes when you can’t see, polishes your hope and your strength when the world feels like it’s too much, when things feel hopeless, when the fight to make the world a better place feels unwinnable. It’s powerful and gentle, one of those books that changes you. The kind of book you never, ever forget.
There just aren’t words to do it justice. You’ll have to read it and see for yourself.Heart of Stone by Johannes T. Evans
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Achillean MC with ADHD, autistic achillean MC
The year is 1764, and following a glowing recommendation from his last employer, Henry Coffey, vampire, takes on a new personal secretary: young Theophilus Essex.
The man is quite unlike any secretary - or any man, for that matter - that Henry has ever met.
'Heart of Stone' is a slowly unfolding period romance between a vampire and his inimitably devoted clerk: lushly depicted in flowing, lovingly appended prose, we follow the slow understanding these two men grasp of one another, and the cross of their two worlds into each other's.
Henry Coffey, immortal and ever-oscillating between periods of delighted focus upon his current passion project, is charming, witty, and seems utterly incapable of closing his mouth for more than a few moments; in contrast, Theophilus Essex is quiet and keenly focused, adopting an ever-flat affect, but as time goes on, he relaxes in his employer's presence.
Craving resounding intimacy but with an ever aware of the polite boundaries for their situation, Coffey and Essex perform a slow dance as they grow closer to one another, and find themselves entangled.
This is a beautifully indulgent, Much Soft book about a vampire and his autistic secretary falling for each other. It’s soft and quiet and small-scale – no one needs to save the world here, and you know from the first pages that all is going to end well. And books like that are to be treasured just as much – if not more, maybe – as the books that are about defeating evil and saving the kingdom. I loved Heart of Stone to pieces, not least because of its subtle but clever worldbuilding and the diversity of the characters – I’ve already mentioned that Theophilus is autistic, but Henry is ADHD, too, and how often do we see that? Especially in SFF? Almost never. But Evans just writes it, and in really gorgeous prose, too, and if you want pining and slow-burn and sweetness, this is definitely a book you should not miss!The Philosopher's Flight (The Philosophers Series, #1) by Tom Miller
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Representation: Brown love interest, minor sapphic characters
A thrilling debut from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epic historical fantasy set in a World-War-I-era America where magic and science have blended into a single extraordinary art.
Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Though he dreams of fighting in the Great War as the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service—a team of flying medics—Robert is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, aids the locals.
When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women.
Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young war hero turned political radical. However, Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.
In the tradition of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, Tom Miller writes with unrivaled imagination, ambition, and humor. The Philosopher’s Flight is both a fantastical reimagining of American history and a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
I’m still kind of outraged that I didn’t discover this series until 2021! Miller has done an amazing job with the worldbuilding of this alternate-history where
magic empirical philosophy is a real thing that allows people to fly, heal, and even teleport – and for some as-yet-unknown reason, women are much, much stronger philosophers. Quite a bit of the traditional gender roles have gone out the window, which delights me, and it was beyond fascinating to see the main character Robert navigate the women-dominated world of empirical philosophy. (I wouldn’t call it a matriarchy, since politics etc still seem to be run by men, and I still have questions about where nonbinary people fit in all this. I have my fingers crossed we’ll get answers on that eventually.) Robert himself is a wonderful narrator, and Miller even managed to make me sympathise – to a point! – with some of the enemies he faces in his studies; it’s too easy to understand why women would be jealously possessive of this one field where they have the advantage over men…although that doesn’t make how they treat Robert even vaguely acceptable. But Robert also has allies and friends, and I adored the entire cast of them, and honestly, Miller is just a really, really great writer; The Philosopher’s Flight pulls you in immediately so you just keep turning pages until you’ve finished. Put it down for breaks??? Not happening!
I really love this series SO MUCH and need everyone else to be reading it too!Sascha Stronach
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: QPoC cast, brown sapphic MC, F/F
A ship rolls through the fog, its doomed crew fallen victim to an engineered plague. Yat Jyn-Hok—disgraced cop, former thief, long lost love to a flame-haired street girl—stumbles across its deadly trail, but powerful men will do anything to keep it secret.
They kill Yat.
It doesn’t stick.
An ancient intelligence reanimates her, and sends her out to enact its monstrous designs. She has her own plans: to find her lost love, and solve her own murder before the plague tears the city to pieces. But what are the golden threads she sees running through the city walls? What does her inhuman saviour want from her? Why can’t she die?
Set in Hainak Kuay Vitraj—where lost gods live in the cracks in the sidewalk, where the miracle of alchemical botany makes flesh as malleable as clay—The Dawnhounds.
I bought this just days before it was taken down – because this edition was published by a micropress (effectively self-published), and then Stronach got a traditional-publishing deal! So this edition was taken off the market to make way for the new one. Which is not quite out yet! We have to wait until this summer, but it’s been expanded with a whole bunch of previously-cut content – which means there’s not much point in waxing poetic about the edition I read, I guess, because that one wasn’t the full, final story.
AND YET. IT FUCKING ROCKED. SO I AM VERY EXCITED FOR THE NEW EDITION. VERY EXCITED INDEED!Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Polyamory, genderqueer MC, bi/pansexual brown MC, M/M/F
“Gloriously dark and romantic.” —Roshani Chokshi, New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen
“An alluring and seductive fairy tale.” —Justina Ireland, New York Times bestselling author of Dread Nation
“Horrifying, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, a lush fairy tale rooted in a moral quandary.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An eerie, consuming tale of sacrifice and faith. Haunting and unique.” —Booklist
Once, a witch made a pact with a devil. The legend says they loved each other, but can the story be trusted at all? Find out in this lush, atmospheric fantasy novel that entwines love, lies, and sacrifice.
Long ago, a village made a bargain with the devil: to ensure their prosperity, when the Slaughter Moon rises, the village must sacrifice a young man into the depths of the Devil’s Forest.
Only this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early.
Bound by duty, secrets, and the love they share for one another, Mairwen, a spirited witch; Rhun, the expected saint; and Arthur, a restless outcast, will each have a role to play as the devil demands a body to fill the bargain. But the devil these friends find is not the one they expect, and the lies they uncover will turn their town—and their hearts—inside out.
What’s a love-triangle when – spoiler! – it ends with all three together? Gratton is one of my favourite authors, and Strange Grace didn’t disappoint even a little – it’s queer and strange and feral, with monsters and sacrifices, witches and saints. I loved how it consistently bucked expectations, refusing to be pinned down or predictable, both with regards the romantic arc and with the dark-magic-and-blood plotline. I fully approve.
This isn’t the book I’d give you as an introduction to Gratton’s work – I’d definitely hand you Night Shine first – but it’s still a fantastic standalone that straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror, YA and Adult, strange and lovely. Strongly recommended!Ember Boys (Flint and Tinder, #1) by Gregory Ashe
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC, achillean MC, M/M
Published on: 12th August 2020
Emmett Bradley thinks his adventures are over. Together with his friends, he stopped an ancient evil and lived to tell about it. But life as a survivor, even as a survivor of a victory, isn’t easy, and when Emmett runs away from Vehpese, Wyoming, he takes a few things with him: a battered ego, a broken heart, and his addictions. He’s lucky that Jim Spencer, his former English teacher, happens to have ended up in the same small, coastal town. He’s even luckier that Jim is doing everything he can to help Emmett hold himself together.
When Emmett’s parents commit him to the psychiatric ward of an infamous hospital, though, Emmett finds himself struggling day to day to remember that the life he’s lived—a life with monsters and psychics—is real. Every day, he finds himself a little less certain that he can trust any of his memories.
A chance encounter with a strange girl, though, forces Emmett to confront the possibility that things around him aren’t quite what they seem. The hospital may not actually be a hospital. His adventures may not be over. And the ancient evil he stopped in Wyoming might have been only one strand in a larger web.
Then Emmett is attacked by a dead man, and he realizes that he’s caught up in a war he doesn’t understand. He must hurry to learn the truth about what’s going on, and he’ll need Jim’s help to do it. He just has to convince his old teacher that things between them aren’t too complicated already—but first, Emmett will have to convince himself.
Note: Emmett has previously appeared in the Hollow Folk series.
Ember Boys is the first book in a new series set in the same world – and featuring a few of the same characters – as the Hollow Folk books, which, if you’ve been hanging out here a lot, you know are some of my favourites in all the world! But it’s very easy to love Ember Boys for its own sake, even if you really do have to have read the previous series to to fully appreciate everything it does. There are FEELS and ANGSTING and also SUPERPOWERS, and I lost my damn mind over the worldbuilding and the new ship! I can’t believe Ashe managed to convert me from my OT3 to a new OTP, but I am not complaining!Victoria Goddard
Representation: Minor achillean characters
Magic is out of fashion. Good manners never are.
Jemis Greenwing returned from university with a broken heart, a bad cold, and no prospects beyond a problematic inheritance and a job at the local bookstore.
Ragnor Bella is a placid little market town on the road to nowhere, where Jemis' family affairs have always been the main source of gossip. Having missed his stepfather's funeral, he is determined to keep his head down.
Unfortunately for his reputation, though fortunately for several other people, he falls quickly under the temptation of resuming the friendship of Mr. Dart of Dartington, Squire-in-training and beloved local daredevil. Mr. Dart is delighted to have Jemis' company for what will be, he assures him, a very small adventure.
Jemis expected the cut direct. The secret societies, criminal gangs, and illegal cult to the old gods--to say nothing of the mermaid--come as a complete surprise.
Book One of Greenwing & Dart, fantasies of manners--and mischief.
After reading Hands of the Emperor, I obviously went to check out Goddard’s other books…and fell head-over-heels into the Dartwing & Green series! It’s incredibly different to Hands – it’s much more whimsical, occasionally a little silly, much lighter fare even when something fairly serious is going on. Fantasy of Manners is an amazing subgenre when it’s done well, and it is absolutely done well here. The Dartwing & Green series was an amazing escape for me this year – when I was going through a rough patch, mentally and physically, these were absolutely the books I needed, and they were perfect, and I’m still so grateful.
Plus, I cannot wait to dive into book six, which just released earlier this month!!!