First, I must confess that a major change in my personal life – working full time in a business not connected to publishing – cut into my reading (and reviewing and editing) in 2021. Luckily, most of what I did get to read was outstanding.
Like most folks, I loved Arkady Martine’s first Teixcalaanli novel, A Memory Called Empire (Tor), an imaginative blend of space opera, murder mystery, and interstellar politics. I waited impatiently for the second book, A Desolation Called Peace (Tor), to come out in 2021. It is just as good as the first, and now I’m eager for the third.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (MCD) crosses several genres and science fiction might be one of them. Devastatingly dark, this fierce, entrancing novel marks Solomon as a fictional force to be reckoned with.
Although it is not exactly SF, there’s enough of a technological premise in the also very dark The Bridge by J.S. Breukelaar (Meerkat) to appeal to SF lovers. It’s something of a challenging read but well worth sticking with till the end.
On the fantasy (and, yes, dark) side, All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. (Angela) Slatter (Titan) is the author’s first novel-length work set in the world of her acclaimed Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible. Delicious gothic trappings and prose as lustrous as jet beads against black silk.
Fantasy Black Water Sister by Zen Cho (Ace) is a suspenseful modern-day ghost story, but it also deals with how culture and family haunt the protagonist as she discovers herself. Cho’s richly evoked Malaysian setting makes the reader feel as if they have lived there.
I’ve loved Peter Pan as long as I can remember, and A.C. Wise has added splendidly to the mythos with her debut novel Wendy, Darling (Titan). It is a darkly beautiful story that is as memorable as – and more meaningful than – its inspiration.
I was disappointed back in 2014 when I learned Katherine Addison (pen name of Sarah Monette) would not be writing another in the world of her novel The Goblin Emperor (Tor). I am now thrilled that we finally got to return there in The Witness for the Dead (Tor). Monette has a deft hand with mystery (check out her Kyle Murchison weird detective stories for some very different examples) and her talent shines here along with adroit characterization and political intrigue.
Nghi Vo audaciously revamped F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with The Chosen and the Beautiful – and I much prefer her sorcerous queer version (told from Jordan Baker’s point of view) to the original. As fantastical as it is, the novel offers an incisive look at societal issues.
I’m a flat-out fangirl for P. Djèlí Clark, haven’t read a word yet that I didn’t like. A Master of Djinn (Tor), his novel debut, is set in the world of his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and short story ‘‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’’. It’s magical, mysterious high adventure with deep meaning.
In 2021 Stephen Graham Jones followed up his horror masterpiece The Only Good Indians with a novel based in slasher flicks, My Heart Is a Chainsaw (Saga). Even though I don’t care much for such movies, I cared about this novel.
Despite a track record that can’t be beat, Joe R. Lansdale added to his achievements with Moon Lake (Little, Brown). His unique mix of piquant banter, wry humor, folksy phrasing, immense originality, and immaculate prose combines with a look at relations between the races and the general Texas cultural milieu to serve the novel well.
Nnedi Okorafor continues to amaze with her Africanfuturist fiction. This year she had two meritorious SF novellas, Noor (DAW) and Remote Control (Tordotcom), as well as YA fantasy Akata Woman, third of the Nsibidi Scripts (Viking for Young Readers).
I didn’t read much fiction for younger readers, but of what I did manage I highly recommend Root Magic by Eden Royce (Walden Pond). It’s a story of family love, legacy, and strength; of finding oneself; and preserving a connection to the past. Intended for ages eight through 12, the book can be thoroughly enjoyed by adults.
Small Beer Press offered an astonishing four truly fine single-author collections in 2021: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, Big Dark Hole: and Other Stories by Jeffrey Ford, Reconstruction: Stories by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Never Have I Ever: Stories by Isabel Yap. Other exceptional collections from the year included The Tallow Wife and Other Tales by Angela Slatter (Tartarus), The Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes (Tordotcom), In That Endlessness, Our End by Gemma Files (Grimscribe), The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson (Coffee House), and Danged Black Thing by Eugen Bacon (Transit Lounge). And career retrospective The Best of Elizabeth Hand (Subterranean) was definitely among the best.
Finally, it was a somewhat slow year for anthologies, but there were still good ones. Ellen Datlow’s When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson (Titan) was the best all-original anthology of 2021. Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices edited by Swapna Krishna & Jenn Northington (Vintage) featured reinventions of Arthurian legends. It was a mixed bag, but still of interest. In reprint anthologies, Datlow also did well with Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror (Tachyon). A welcome and excellent entry to the ‘‘year’s best’’ anthology lists was The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2020) edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (Jembefola Press). It deserves attention.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
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