The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2021!

Posted 26th December 2021 by Siavahda in Best SFF Of Each Year, Lists, Recommendations / 2 Comments

Whatever 2021 put us through, there is simply no denying that it gave us some seriously incredible SFF – I couldn’t narrow down my Best Of to less than 31 books, which is a big jump up from last year’s 21!

I’m sure there are even more books that would have made my Best Of if only I’d heard of them or managed to read them, but with that caveat: may I present to you, in publication order, THE TOTALLY DEFINITIVE BEST FANTASY AND SCI-FI PUBLISHED IN 2021!!!

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, sapphic love interest, queernorm world, F/F
Published on: 12th January 2021
Goodreads

A charming historical fantasy with a tender love story at its core, from the author of Unnatural Magic.

Hard-drinking petty thief Dellaria Wells is down on her luck in the city of Leiscourt—again. Then she sees a want ad for a female bodyguard, and she fast-talks her way into the high-paying job. Along with a team of other women, she’s meant to protect a rich young lady from mysterious assassins.

At first Delly thinks the danger is exaggerated, but a series of attacks shows there’s much to fear. Then she begins to fall for Winn, one of the other bodyguards, and the women team up against a mysterious, magical foe who seems to have allies everywhere.

CM Waggoner blew me away with the sheer delight of her debut Unnatural Magic, and her sophomore novel is easily as much fun (and set in the same world)! Deftly dancing between whimsy, humour, and serious or heart-wrenching moments, The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry absolutely lives up to its amazing title, with a main character who’ll steal your heart as neatly as she’d pick a pocket, a bodyguard-job that turns into a hunt for a murderer, and a necromantic mouse-skeleton who is equal parts unnerving and adorable! Waggoner’s prose is crisp and lovely, with a marvellous attention to detail, and a way of making you feel full of champagne bubbles the whole book through.

My full review!

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC and love interests, polyamory, M/F/F/M
Published on: 31st January 2021
Goodreads

A lyrical and dreamy reimagining of Dracula’s brides, A DOWRY OF BLOOD is a story of desire, obsession, and emancipation.

Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.

With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death.

A hedonistic, luxurious tale about revelling in your own monstrousness, A Dowry of Blood is a decadent retelling of the story of Dracula, as told by one of his wives. The prose is gorgeous and the storytelling is expert, the story itself subversive in the best, darkly feminist way. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t let you up for air once you’ve started – impossible to tear yourself away from. Even if you think you don’t like vampire stories, you need to read this one!

My full review!

The Library of the Dead (Edinburgh Nights, #1) by T.L. Huchu
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Black MC, secondary Black characters
Published on: 4th February 2021
Goodreads

When ghosts talk, she will listen . . .

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghost talker – and she now speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children – leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honour bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan . . .) as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets. And in the process, she discovers an occult library and some unexpected allies. Yet as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?

Opening up a world of magic and adventure, The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu is the first book in the Edinburgh Nights series.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a surprise this book was – almost everything l expected going in was wrong, in the best possible way. I adore books that turn the tables on me, that flip the bird to genre conventions and tropes and do entirely their own thing, and that is Library of the Dead to a T. 10 months later I’m still thinking about how one faux-casual detail, mentioned totally and sneakily blithely, ripped the carpet out from under my feet and upended everything I thought I knew about what this book was supposed to be. And this is without even touching on how much I loved Ropa herself as a protagonist. She’s simply awesome, in ways we don’t get to see that often – and if it’s something that matters to you, no, her age doesn’t make this YA.

The Velocity of Revolution by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MCs, brown cast, queernorm world, polyamory, secondary asexual character
Published on: 9th February 2021
Goodreads

From the author of the Maradaine saga comes a new steampunk fantasy novel that explores a chaotic city on the verge of revolution.

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi's skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália's presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion.

The Velocity of Revolution might have earned a spot on this list simply for the originality of its premise – magic inextricably intertwined with the science of engines! – but it’s also an incredible display of writing craft. The worldbuilding is incredible – unique and detailed – and the story is pulse-pounding, with so much heart. I’ve genuinely never read another book quite like it, and don’t expect to in the future. This is a standalone you really can’t stand to miss.

My full review!

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4) by Becky Chambers
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Secondary nonbinary character
Published on: 18th February 2021
Goodreads

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

The Wayfarers books are justifiably lauded in every corner, and The Galaxy, and The Ground Within is a more than worthy conclusion to such a beloved series. Chambers’ signature thoughtful softness is on full display, weaving together wildly disparate perspectives into a wonderful story about pauses and community, rest and fear and the strangeness of strangers – and all the ways in which strangers aren’t strange at all.

My full review!

The Black Coast (The God-King Chronicles, #1) by Mike Brooks
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary PoV character, queernorm culture, nonbinary-norm culture, background M/M and F/F, NB/M
Published on: 18th February 2021
Goodreads

The Black Coast is the start of a series filled with war-dragons, armoured knights, sea-faring raiders, dangerous magic and battle scenes.

When the citizens of Black Keep see ships on the horizon, terror takes them, for they know who is coming: for generations, Black Keep has been raided by the fearsome clanspeople of Iwernia. Saddling their war dragons, the Naridans rush to defend their home only to discover that the clanspeople have not come to pillage at all. Driven from their own homeland by the rise of a daemonic despot who prophesies the end of the world, they have come in search of a new home. Meanwhile the wider continent of Narida is lurching toward war. Black Keep is about to be caught in the cross-fire of the coming war for the world – if only its new mismatched society can survive.

With The Black Coast, Brooks sweeps in with an epic fantasy that completely bucks all expectations – in that, rather than being about conflict, it’s primarily focussed on what it takes for very different cultures to learn how to co-exist, and maybe even merge, without either side giving up what makes them them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Brooks is a master worldbuilder, who uses relatively small details to create wide-ranging ripples across his world and story.

Also, the dragons have feathers. That’s kind of all I need to hear!

My full review!

Transgressions of Power (The Broken Trust, #2) by Juliette Wade
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, polyamory, secondary F/F/M, secondary F/F, secondary bi/pansexual character, secondary gay character with OCD, queernorm castes
Published on: 23rd February 2021
Goodreads

The second book of The Broken Trust continues a deadly battle for succession, in this sociological sci-fi novel where brother is pitted against brother in a singular chance to win power.

To marry into the most powerful family in Varin is to step into a trap. Della has spent thirteen years under the scrutiny of Pelismara's political elites, supporting Tagaret in a dangerous pretense as his brother Nekantor's closest ally. In secret, however, they've planned to escape, and to break down the restrictions of Varin's caste society. When Nekantor offers to send them to Selimna, the city where their caste experiments can be carried out, how can they not accept the opportunity?

But ever since Nekantor seized power as the Eminence Herin's Heir, he's wanted to keep power in the family, and that means his eye is on the children--especially their thirteen-year-old brother Adon. In their absence, Nekantor begins to execute his own long-schemed plan, and soon Della realizes they've unwittingly become a part of it.
How far does Nekantor's influence spread? How much will he seek to control? And how can she save Adon from falling into his snare?

The second book in Wade’s The Broken Trust series is, impossibly, even better than the first book was! Beautifully unique and intricately detailed worldbuilding combines with a flawed, wonderful cast of wildly different people to create an un-put-downable story of social reform and deadly politics. Intense, diverse, and packed full of twists and turns, I am so in love with this series and cannot wait for book three!

My full review!

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Published on: 23rd February 2021
Goodreads

Gene-edited human clans have scattered throughout the galaxy, adapting themselves to environments as severe as the desert and the sea. Atuale, the daughter of a Sea-Clan lord, sparked a war by choosing her land-dwelling love and rejecting her place among her people. Now her husband and his clan are dying of an incurable plague, and Atuale’s sole hope for finding a cure is to travel off-planet. The one person she can turn to for help is the black-market mercenary known as the World Witch—and Atuale’s former lover. Time, politics, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted desires stand between Atuale and the hope for her adopted clan.

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has all the wonder and romance of a classic sci-fi novel, with the timelessness of a beloved fairy tale.

There’s an incredible amount expertly woven into this concise, powerful novella, which is a little bit Little Mermaid retelling and a lot pure original brilliance. Stunning prose and incredible worldbuilding, combined with characters I would read a 9-book epic series about? All the yes!

Paladin's Strength (The Saint of Steel, #2) by T. Kingfisher
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 28th February 2021
Goodreads

He’s a paladin of a dead god, tracking a supernatural killer across a continent. She’s a nun from a secretive order, on the trail of the raiders who burned her convent and kidnapped her sisters.

When their paths cross at the point of a sword, Istvhan and Clara will be pitched headlong into each other’s quests, facing off against enemies both living and dead. But Clara has a secret that could jeopardize the growing trust between them, a secret that will lead them to the gladiatorial pits of a corrupt city, and beyond...

I think it might be an unwritten rule that there must be at least one T. Kingfisher book somewhere on everyone’s Best Of lists – last year, this year, every year! Paladin’s Strength is the second book in the Saint of Steel series, and you can already nab book three, but of the two, Strength absolutely stole my heart. Which is only appropriate, because it’s as heartfelt as all Kingfisher’s books, ridiculously funny without skimping on the deep, meaty stuff – and I’m not sure anyone writes characters that are as completely and utterly human as Kingfisher’s!

…Even if one is a were-bear.

Bear shapeshifter.

Bear nun. Which is, indeed, the best!

The Councillor (The Councillor, #1) by E.J. Beaton
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, past F/F, secondary M/M, queernorm world
Published on: 2nd March 2021
Goodreads

This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar's quest to choose the next ruler of her kingdom amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination.

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

The intricate, sex-positive queer political fantasy you’ve been looking for! Beaton’s prose is gorgeous and the worldbuilding is fantastic, and the story has so many facets and layers to it. Also, it’s been described as Machiavellian pretty much everywhere, but as I said in my review, it would be more accurate to call it Machiavellian if Machiavelli wasn’t a dick. I am so very here for twisty queer scholars taking the power dropped into their laps…and setting out to use it to make the world better.

My full review!

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, #2) by Arkady Martine
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, sapphic MC, F/F, queernorm world
Published on: 2nd March 2021
Goodreads

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Desolation is going to be on everyone’s best of 2021 list, and rightly so; although very different from the first book in the duology, A Memory of Empire, Desolation is just as epic, baroque, and mind-blowingly gorgeous as its predessesor. This time the aliens the characters have to deal with are actual not-human aliens, not just humans from a very different culture – massively expanding on the themes of personhood, and the different ways of being a person, that were present in the first book. It’s an absolute knock-out.

My full review!

Gifting Fire (Stealing Thunder, #2) by Alina Boyden
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Desi-coded cast, hijra/trans woman MC, multiple hijra secondary characters
Published on: 13th April 2021
Goodreads

The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning.

Although at long last Razia Khan has found peace with herself and love with her prince, Arjun, her trials are far from over. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia made a deal with the devil--her father, the Sultan of Nizam. Now the bill has come due.

Razia must secure the province of Zindh, a land surrounded by enemies, and loyal to a rebel queen who has survived her father's purge. But when her old tormentor Prince Karim invades her new home and forces her into a marriage alliance, Razia finds herself trapped in the women's quarters of a foreign palace, with her beloved Prince Arjun exiled from her side.

Now, in order to free herself, and her province, from Karim's clutches, she must call upon all of her training as a royal princess, a cunning courtesan, and a daring thief to summon new allies and old friends for a battle that will decide her fate, and the fate of an empire.

The sequel to last year’s amazing Stealing Thunder, Gifting Fire turns the dial up to 11 and doesn’t let up for a moment. You absolutely cannot read this before reading book one, but once you’ve read Stealing Thunder, there is no way you can’t read Gifting Fire. Boyden’s character-work and worldbuilding are both incredible, and every page is either ripping your heart out of your chest or has you gasping – Boyden plays the reader’s heartstrings like a master harpist. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire novel; there are so many twists and turns that you can never take anything for granted, or be certain any of the characters you love (or hate) are going to get what they deserve!

My full review!

The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: MC of colour, queernorm world, minor nonbinary characters
Published on: 13th April 2021
Goodreads

A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.

In a daring and deadly heist thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power—the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.

Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.

It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

You go through phases of thinking you’ve seen everything the genre has to offer… And then a book comes along to (rightfully!) remind you that no you have not! Helm of Midnight surprised me with really unique worldbuilding and magic systems, and a twisty story that replaces the unreliable narrator trope with an unreliable narrative. (That’s probably not the best way to put it, but what would you call it when it’s the world lying to the characters, not the characters lying to the reader?)

My full review!

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley
Genres: Sci Fi
Published on: 6th May 2021
Goodreads

Mars, the Red Planet, farthest flung outpost of the British Empire. Under the benevolent reign of the Empress Eternal, commerce and culture are flourishing along the banks of the great canals, and around the shores of the crater lakes. But this brave new world is not as safe as it might seem. The Russians, unhappy that Venus has proved far less hospitable, covet Britain’s colony. And the Martian creatures, while not as intelligent and malevolent as HG Wells had predicted, are certainly dangerous to the unwary.

What, then, of the young girls of the Martian colony? Their brothers might be sent to Earth for education at Eton and Oxbridge, but girls are made of sterner stuff. Be it unreasonable parents, Russian spies, or the deadly Martian wildlife, no challenge is beyond the resourceful girls of the Crater School.

Sometimes ‘best’ doesn’t mean ‘sprawling epic saga with the fate of humanity at stake’; sometimes it can be a group of schoolgirls in a boarding school on Mars, having low-key adventures with Martian wildlife, twin-swapping, and Russians on the moon. Three Twins at the Crater School became an instant fave because it’s cosy and sweet and escapist; there’re enough drama and scrapes to keep you turning pages, plenty of moments to make you grin or laugh out loud outright, but you never have to feel sick and anxious, or face anything that might haunt you in the middle of the night. It’s gentle spec-fic, and you know, I think we could all do with a little more of that.

My full review!

The Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue, #1) by Christopher Buehlman
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 25th May 2021
Goodreads

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.

But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.

Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.
Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva's. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.

It’s been a while since I’ve come across quite so lovable an unrepentant scallywag as Kinch, the main character and narrator of The Blacktongue Thief. (And yes, his tongue is literally black.) Although I was initially put off by the cover – it gave me too many grimdark vibes – this was a ridiculous amount of fun: rather than grimdark, I think the term Beauty in Ruins coined, maturesmirk, fits it much better. There’s a quest of sorts, and all sorts of plots, and the world isn’t all sugar and rainbows but…there’s this irrepressible optimism running through the whole book nonetheless. And everything from the cast, to the worldbuilding, to the magic, is basically flawless.

Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, nonbinary secondary characters, sapphic secondary character, queernorm world
Published on: 27th May 2021
Goodreads

Power always wins.

Imagine Camelot but in Gotham: a city where knights are the celebrities of the day, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money.

Imagine a city where a young, magic-touched bastard astonishes everyone by becoming king - albeit with extreme reluctance - and a girl with a secret past trains to become a knight for the sole purpose of vengeance.

Imagine a city where magic is illegal but everywhere, in its underground bars, its back-alley soothsayers - and in the people who have to hide what they are for fear of being tattooed and persecuted.

Imagine a city where electricity is money, power the only game worth playing, and violence the most fervently worshipped religion.

Welcome to a dark, chaotic, alluring place with a tumultuous history, where dreams come true if you want them hard enough - and are prepared to do some very, very bad things to get them . . .

"A riveting tragedy of blood and desire - and the coolest thing you'll read this year" ― Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season and The Priory of the Orange Tree

"The boldest, smartest, most adventurous fantasy I've read in ages - and it's really f**ing fun" ― Krystal Sutherland, author of Our Chemical Hearts

"Arthurian legend meets urban fantasy in a brilliant, bloody wild ride" ― Jay Kristoff, No.1 New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author

King Arthur on motorbikes? Gimme! Blackheart Knights absolutely lives up to its amazing premise – in fact, it exceeded my every hope for it. Eve has created a wonderfully different London that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before, and I love, love, love what she did to the Athurian mythos. This isn’t nearly as simple as a retelling of the old stories in a new setting, but it manages to pay homage to the old legends at the same time.

My full review!

Water Horse by Melissa Scott
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual MCs, group marriage/polyamory, queernorm world
Published on: 1st June 2021
Goodreads

For the last twenty years, Esclin Aubrinos, arros of the Hundred Hills, has acted jointly with Alcis Mirielos, the kyra of the Westwood, and the rivermaster of Riverholme to defend their land of Allanoth against the Riders who invade from Manan across the Narrow Sea. He has long been a master of the shifting politics of his own people and his independently-minded allies, but this year the omens turn against him. The Riders have elected a new lord paramount, hallowed servant of the Blazing One, a man chosen and fated for victory.

The omens agree that Nen Elin, Esclin’s stronghold and the heart of Allanoth, will fall when a priest of the Blazing One enters its gates. Esclin needs a spirit-bonded royal sword, a talismanic weapon made of star-fallen iron, to unite the hillfolk behind him. But the same vision that called for the sword proclaimed that Esclin will then betray it, and every step he takes to twist free of the prophecies brings him closer to that doom.

Standalone Epic Fantasy is a rare and fabulous beast, and Scott honestly knocked it out of the park with Water Horse. Not only has she created a wonderful cast in a detailed setting, but the typical ‘us vs invaders’ story/trope is handled with a lot of nuance and food for thought, even as cultures are clashing, blending and evolving. It’s a beautiful book, with magic in harps and woods and waters, casually queer in a bunch of different ways, and a story I’m still thinking about six months after reading it.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC, lesbian Asian-American love interest, F/F or wlw, trans secondary character, Black secondary character, Jewish secondary character, secondary M/M or mlm, queer cast
Published on: 1st June 2021
Goodreads

*INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER*
*INSTANT USA TODAY BESTSELLER*
*INSTANT #1 INDIE BESTSELLER*

From the New York Times bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue comes a new romantic comedy that will stop readers in their tracks...

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges and swoopy hair and soft smile, showing up in a leather jacket to save August’s day when she needed it most. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her.
Maybe it’s time to start believing in some things, after all.

Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is a magical, sexy, big-hearted romance where the impossible becomes possible as August does everything in her power to save the girl lost in time.

"A dazzling romance, filled with plenty of humor and heart." - Time Magazine, "The 21 Most Anticipated Books of 2021"

"Dreamy, other worldly, smart, swoony, thoughtful, hilarious - all in all, exactly what you'd expect from Casey McQuiston!" - Jasmine Guillory, New York Times bestselling author of The Proposal and
Party for Two

If it has time-travel, it’s spec-fic, don’t @ me. One Last Stop is hilarious and thoughtful and super feel-good, with BIG found-family vibes and a genuinely breath-taking romance at the centre of it. I loved the reflections on queer history and how they interwove with the present, how delightfully (and humanly) WEIRD each and every character is, and how purely happy reading even a page or two of it always made me, no matter my mood.

My full review!

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Vietnamese bi/pansexual MC, secondary M/M
Published on: 1st June 2021
Goodreads

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society—she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice.

Vo’s inclusion on this list should surprise absolutely no one, because she has yet to write anything that is not searingly perfect. The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling of Great Gatsby, except magic exists and so does queerness and people who aren’t white! There are a lot of Easter eggs in the book for those who’ve read Gatsby, but you definitely don’t need to have read it to love Chosen. It’s decadent and thoughtful, deep even though Jordan does her best to appear shallow, and honestly you should read it for the prose alone, which is simply stunning.

The Jasmine Throne (Burning Kingdoms, #1) by Tasha Suri
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Desi-coded cast, F/F
Published on: 8th June 2021
Goodreads

Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri's The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess's traitor brother.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.

But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire.

Suri’s previous duology blew me away, and The Jasmine Throne continues her winning streak. It’s so unexpected, going in directions that traditional fantasy usually doesn’t – and I don’t mean the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, although that is wonderful. It’s a book about all the different ways women can be strong, but it goes about it in a way that’s both subversive and jaw-dropping. That, on top of brilliantly real characters and complicated politics? Hells yes.

My full review!

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Neo-gendered cast + world, group marriage
Published on: 8th June 2021
Goodreads

In the distant future somewhere in the galaxy, a society has emerged where everyone has multiple bodies, cybernetics has abolished privacy, and individual and family success within the rigid social system is reliant upon instantaneous social approbation.

Young Fift is an only child of the staid gender, struggling to maintain their position in the system while developing an intriguing friendship with the poorly-publicized bioengineer Shria–somewhat controversial, since Shria is vail-gendered.

In time, Fift and Shria unintentionally wind up at the center of a scandalous art spectacle which turns into the early stages of a multi-layered revolution against their strict societal system. Suddenly they become celebrities and involuntary standard-bearers for the upheaval.

Fift is torn between the survival of Shria and the success of their family cohort; staying true to their feelings and caving under societal pressure. Whatever Fift decides will make a disproportionately huge impact on the future of the world. What’s a young staid to do when the whole world is watching?

The Unraveling is for everyone who longs for boundary-pushing Sci-Fi, who wants to see wildly imaginative, really out there takes on what the future could look like! Rosenbaum has created a far-future society where everyone has multiple bodies, all of which are fully customisable, and scarcity and poverty don’t exist – but your social standing and privileges are defined by what’s effectively your follower count, and ‘gender conformity’ is very strict – even if the genders are no longer male and female, but vail and staid. It’s a world that’s simultaneously wildly free and incredibly repressive – and then the pressure bursts…

My full review!

Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii, #1) by Miles Cameron
Genres: Sci Fi
Representation: Brown MC, secondary nonbinary characters, queernorm world
Published on: 24th June 2021
Goodreads

Out in the darkness of space, something is targeting the Greatships.

With their vast cargo holds and a crew that could fill a city, the Greatships are the lifeblood of human-occupied space, transporting an unimaginable volume - and value - of goods from City, the greatest human orbital, all the way to Tradepoint at the other, to trade for xenoglas with an unknowable alien species.

It has always been Marca Nbaro's dream to achieve the near-impossible: escape her upbringing and venture into space.

All it took, to make her way onto the crew of the Greatship Athens was thousands of hours in simulators, dedication, and pawning or selling every scrap of her old life in order to forge a new one. But though she's made her way onboard with faked papers, leaving her old life - and scandals - behind isn't so easy.

She may have just combined all the dangers of her former life, with all the perils of the new . . .

What if humans spread across space, discovered starfish-aliens, and had a merchant fleet instead of a military? I’m pretty sure this is Cameron’s first sci-fi, but you wouldn’t know it from reading; Cameron anchors space ships and terraformed planets with a flawed heroine you can’t help but root for. And although there are space battles, Artifact Space is more concerned with economics and trade – specifically, trade in the alien-created xenoglas – than cinematic sequences, which is a really interesting change of pace and much more enjoyable than you might think! It’s fundamentally a story about people, and how most of them are basically good – and it’s also a swords-in-space book, which is always one of my favourite tropes.

My full review!

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
Genres: Sci Fi
Published on: 20th July 2021
Goodreads

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.The future is blue. Endless blue...except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. She's the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it's full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

The Past Is Red is so many things – a manifesto, a hymn, a howl – but most of all it’s a paean of hope and beauty and love-of-the-world. It’s wonky and weird and whimsical, hilarious and heartbreaking by turns, a slap in the face and an enormous hug. How can you not love a book where there are houses made out of candles and Oscar the Grouch has become a venerated saint? How can you not adore a heroine who simply refuses to stop falling in love with the world, who is always able to find something beautiful about her surroundings, her situation, even the people who hate her?

How can you not, if you haven’t already, go and buy this book immediately???

My full review!

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Asian-coded cast, nonbinary MCs who use neopronouns, disabled trans PoV character, sapphic PoV character, F/F or wlw
Published on: 31st August 2021
Goodreads

In the Watchful City explores borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella that melds the futurism of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station with the magical wonder of Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest.

The city of Ora uses a complex living network called the Gleaming to surveil its inhabitants and maintain harmony. Anima is one of the cloistered extrasensory humans tasked with watching over Ora's citizens. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from all harm.

All that changes when a mysterious visitor enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around the world, with a story attached to each item. As Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist, æ finds ærself asking a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?

A multi-faceted gem of a book, In The Watchful City mixes sci-fi with fantasy to create something genuinely magical. Lu’s prose is stunning, their imagination even more so – no matter what you expect of this book, it will still manage to take you by surprise. It’s intricate and twisty, beautiful and bitter, dancing from light to dark and back again. It feels like something small and precious you want to cradle in your hands and never stop looking at. There is awe and wonder here, and a book I won’t soon forget.

My full review!

The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Sapphic MC, queer cast, major nonbinary secondary character, major genderfluid/bigender secondary character
Published on: 7th September 2021
Goodreads

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade... but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

Cassandra Khaw’s debut novel is a page-turning exploration of humans and machines that is perfect for readers of Ann Leckie, Ursula Le Guin, and Kameron Hurley.

I’ve never seen anyone wield language like Khaw, all fast-furious-glorious poetry, with similes and metaphors so out-there yet so perfect that they blew me away. It is, in pretty much every way, a queer as in fuck-you book – and I mean that as a compliment. The prose is breathtaking, and the cast will steal your heart and break it into a thousand tiny pieces because they are all, themselves, so broken.

(And yet, still so glorious.)

My full review!

The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Andrew Garin
Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Asexual aromantic MC, asexual aromantic queerplatonic partner, secondary sapphic character, queernorm world, minor group marriage/polyamory
Published on: 14th September 2021
Goodreads

Skythulf wants to live. Raised in the fight pits, trained to kill or be killed, he yearns for freedom that's out of reach. He's a scythewulf: a wolf-shifter considered neither fully man nor beast, his life worth nothing to his keepers…until Brennus, knight-champion of Saorlland, rescues him from certain death and offers him a new life.

When he mistakenly kills a corrupted nun, Skythulf has one chance to redeem himself and restore his honor. He must run with the Wild Hunt: an age-old trial of blood and courage, where every step hides peril and carnage. If he survives, he will be pardoned. If he fails, Brennus will die brutally at his side.

Few have ever returned from the fae-haunted land, where horrors unnamed dwell beside the enchanted and the damned. There is no rest, no relent, and no mercy.
In the Wild Hunt, you run or you die.

A beautifully horrifying tale of dark magics and a platonic love strong enough to take on monsters you can’t even imagine, The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt is a Horror-Fantasy that is so worth the nightmares it left me with! Wolfmoor’s worldbuilding is superb, a deeply queer subversion of the typical Medieval-Europe-esque setting, and the horror elements stand out for being both unique and terrifyingly effective. The prose is distilled to perfection; the story fits into a novella instead of a novel because every word is more potent than pages and pages of another author’s writing would be.

My full review!

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Spoilers
Published on: 28th September 2021
Goodreads

Andrew and Eddie did everything together, best friends bonded more deeply than brothers, until Eddie left Andrew behind to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six month later, only days before Andrew was to join him in Nashville, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. He leaves Andrew a horrible inheritance: a roommate he doesn’t know, friends he never asked for, and a gruesome phantom with bleeding wrists that mutters of revenge.

As Andrew searches for the truth of Eddie’s death, he uncovers the lies and secrets left behind by the person he trusted most, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death. Whirling between the backstabbing academic world where Eddie spent his days and the circle of hot boys, fast cars, and hard drugs that ruled Eddie’s nights, the walls Andrew has built against the world begin to crumble, letting in the phantom that hungers for him.

Lush prose and street racing and so much yearning pack Summer Sons to the brim. Mandelo expertly guides their main character through his unravelling, while deftly, almost casually eviscerating everything from toxic masculinity to the racism endemic to the academic world. Somehow, it’s a book that manages to feel honey-drip slow and grenade-burst fast at the same time; the intensity dials up to 11 in the first pages and never comes back down. It’s Southern Gothic where the ghosts are really not the monsters you should be worried about.

My full review!

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2) by Naomi Novik
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Biracial MC, Desi secondary character, minor M/M
Published on: 28th September 2021
Goodreads

A budding dark sorceress determined not to use her formidable powers uncovers yet more secrets about the workings of her world in the stunning sequel to A Deadly Education, the start of Naomi Novik's groundbreaking crossover series.

At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year--and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

Praise for A Deadly Education
"The scholomance is the dark school of magic I've been waiting for, and its wise, witty, and monstrous heroine is one I'd happily follow anywhere--even into a school full of monsters."--Katherine Arden, New York Times bestselling author of The Bear and the Nightingale

"Novik deliciously undoes expectations about magic schools, destined heroes, and family legacies. A gorgeous book about monsters and monstrousness, chockablock with action, cleverness, and wit."--#1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black

"A must-read . . . Novik puts a refreshingly dark, adult spin on the magical boarding school. . . . Readers will delight in the push-and-pull of El and Orion's relationship, the fantastically detailed world, the clever magic system, and the matter-of-fact diversity of the student body."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

I never imagined I’d be using hopepunk as a descriptor for any book in this series, seeing as how the previous (and first) book Deadly Education was super dark and fairly bleak – but The Last Graduate is indeed a hopepunk novel, and one that’s utterly un-put-downable. It’s basically impossible to talk about, especially if you haven’t read the previous book, because most of the most-awesome stuff comes from twists and turns that definitely count as spoilers. All I can say is, if you enjoyed Deadly Education even a little bit, you should definitely get yourself a copy of Last Graduate, because it is simply incredible.

My full review!

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater
Genres: Horror
Published on: 28th September 2021
Goodreads

The highly-anticipated paperback release of our lead title for Fall 2021 - a fresh, rich, American Gothic "yarn" with a highly relatable female lead.

Don’t trust the Liar.
Do not cross the King.
Never, ever go in the River.

In Red Valley, California, you follow the rules if you want to stay alive. But they won’t be enough to protect Sadie now that she’s become the Liar, the keeper of the town’s many secrets. Friendships are hard-won here, and it isn’t safe to make enemies.
And though the Liar has power — power to remake the world, with just a little blood—what Sadie really needs is answers: Why is the town’s sheriff after her? What does the King want from her? And what is the real purpose of the Liar of Red Valley?

Besides the brilliant premise, what makes The Liar of Red Valley so special is how effectively Goodwater merges the supernatural with the mundanity of a certain kind of small town – the result is something that feels very grounded, and so real you could touch it…but which is also dark and bizarre and packed full of very original magics and monsters. You will definitely not see the twists coming – TALK ABOUT MIC DROPS! – and Goodwater has pretty much nailed every aspect of human behaviour. (I sincerely believe that most people, when faced with the supernatural, would ultimately shrug their shoulders and get on with things rather than Make A Fuss.) (…except for the ones who will, when pushed, Make A Very Big Fuss Indeed.)

The Fox's Tower and Other Tales: A Collection of Magical Short Stories by Yoon Ha Lee
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi, Science Fantasy
Representation: Queer MCs
Published on: 5th October 2021
Goodreads

“Locus Award winner Lee (Phoenix Extravagant) takes on the folktale form in a collection of 25 gorgeous, magical stories, tiny jewels of worldbuilding that tap into mythic themes to feel somehow both ancient and delightfully fresh… The result is breathtaking in its playful grace." —Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review

Enter a world of magic and myth, where foxes fall in love and robots build their own dragons. In The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales, New York Times bestselling author Yoon Ha Lee crafts together short and moving stories of love, adventure, magic, and nature. With poetic language and intricate world building, readers will be whisked away to a different adventure with every new story. Full of fascinating creatures and LGBT+ romances, this flash fiction collection combines the classic with the contemporary in Yoon’s captivating style.

Maybe this is cheating – The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales was first published back in 2015. But it was released in a new edition this year, so I’m counting it! Because this is an utterly breathtaking collection, unexpected and whimsical, deep and playful; tiny stories that each shine like jewels. Lee’s imagination is only matched by his prose, both of which dance and shimmer and warm something deep inside you. This one’s precious.

Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente
Published on: 9th November 2021
Goodreads

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.
It's just that he's away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.
But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband's face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can't quite meet her gaze...
But everything is perfect. Isn't it?

Just including Comfort on this list is a spoiler, and there really isn’t anything at all I can tell you about the story without giving it all away. Comfort is a book you need to go into blind – although you might put the clues together a little faster if you’re familiar with a very particular corner of a particular mythology (no, I’m not telling you which one!) This is a thriller and a mystery, and I would consider it horror too, or at least horror-adjacent; it’s a little bit Bluebeard, except not really; it really taps into the eerieness of American conformity as manifested in gated communities and home owners’ associations. The way the dread builds page by page, the way the layers pull back bit by bit, the way suburbia unfolds into something else is just… Wow.

So there you have it – the 31 books that are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the very best Fantasy and Sci-Fi of 2021!

Here’s to all the amazing books this year – and to all the ones to come in 2022!

2 responses to “The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2021!

Leave a Reply