As is usual with these end-of-the-year columns, I’m not sure what the best approach would be, particularly given that my 2021 standouts are mostly continuations or conclusions of long-running series. Maybe, first, then, Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, the one book that stands alone.
Doerr is a known entity in literary fiction circles. His All the Light We Cannot See ran the table of celebrity book clubs and award slates. His newest, however, takes a turn into genre, with a subplot involving a generational space ship that intertwines with a very smart computer program that leads one character into the truth of the world around her. Doerr’s prose is clear but the ideas contained within are complex – and this is a captivating book aimed at anyone who has experienced how storytelling can pull us out of wherever reality puts us.
Speaking of reality, 2021 was a grind, at least in my part of the world, which is why I found myself turning to comfort fiction more than ever this year. Fortunately, two of my favorite creators did not face supply chain disruptions. Becky Chambers closed out her Galactic Commons universe with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, which takes place on a travel plaza of a planet where a diverse set of travelers is forced to interact when their trips are delayed. Not much happens and everything happens in this quiet, humane hug of a story. T. Kingfisher (AKA Ursula Vernon) knows that her Paladin series of fluffy (for relative definitions of ‘‘fluffy’’) romances is a balm to many. This year’s installment, Paladin’s Strength, only builds on the goodwill the previous two titles established. You know that everything will turn out OK by then end – but things are going to get mighty weird on the way there.
And speaking of mighty weird, Naomi Novik’s second book in her Scholomance trilogy, The Last Graduate, moved El through her final year at a school for magical children that has no problem killing any of its charges who aren’t sufficiently alert. And, as she did with A Deadly Education, the first book in the trilogy, Novik changes the game again with Graduate’s last paragraph. It’s hard to judge the whole story from its middle part, mind, but I am itching to find out how both Novik and her main character stick the landing.
With A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine’s conclusion to A Memory Called Empire, she proves she’s one to watch when it comes to immersive science fiction that invokes that old-time sensawunda in a new-school style. In a perfect world, there would be a new Martine title to write about every year I’m asked to put an annual review together. For now, however, I’ll content myself with the wonders this year brought.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
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