by Kris Vyas-Myall
2021 has been a bit of a strange year for us. It started with us having our baby. Continued with us trying to navigate the pandemic. And ended with us dealing with trying to get someone in to repair our house. Needless to say, it has not been the easiest 12 months and our reading (or writing) speed has not been at its highest rate.
That is not to say I have not managed to read some great books and comics. Here are some of my favourites I read in 2021:
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Starting with one of the most literary and boundary bending novels I read this year. At once a very dark piece of crime fiction but also a tale of fantasy as a way of understanding the horrors of the real world and dealing with the loss of innocence. Not an easy book but a thoroughly worthwhile one.
The Book of Disappearance by Ibtisam Azem (Translated by Sinan Antoon)
Continuing the boundary bending theme, Azem’s novel starts with a shocking premise, what if all the Arabs in Israel and Palestine one day vanished. But it does not seek to explore the reasons why that happened, rather it is to question what this situation would actually mean and the effect it would have. A surprising and powerful book.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
I am a sucker for a good bit of court intrigue at any time, and this managed to excel at it. Combining conflicting motivations, great characters, and brilliant world building. An absolutely fabulous time.
Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown
From one R. Brown, to another. Rosel was one of the greats of mid-century science fiction but her career was cut short and is often overlooked compared to many others of the 50s and 60s. One of her only novels is amazing and the titular character (to quote a contemporary review) “is the swingingest mama since – well since.” Still as fresh as when it came out.
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Talking of greats, one that should require no introduction is Octavia E. Butler, very possibly my favourite writer of all-time. With her having only written a dozen books, I am trying to pace myself with reading them. That way I can savour, appreciate and, most importantly, recover from each one. Here we have the continuation of the Earthseed story, even more harrowing than in Sower but also deeper, more complex and thought provoking.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
I have also been working my way slowly through Angela Carter’s back catalogue (although with much more mixed results than Butler’s) and came across this bizarre gem. Her final novel and one of her most interesting, it is a tale of magical realism where I am never entirely sure what is actually happening and what is imagined.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
From backlist to a long-awaited recent release. I think many people reacted badly to how different Piranesi is to Clarke’s Strange & Norrell but I love the direction she went in. It is not even so much fantasy as strange uncanny speculative fiction, with a real sense of mystery and wonder.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
One of the best debuts of recent years, taking the tropes of magic school and college dramas and using them to tell a tale that subverts them as well as telling a fascinating story of racism and cultural appropriation.
The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
A beautiful fantasy graphic novel telling a queer fairy tale. I was at some points uncomfortable, but I believe that was intentional and added to the atmosphere.
Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto & Ann Xu
Talking of beautiful graphic novels, this is one at the other end of life, where an old woman is trying to trap death as she tries to live independently away for her kids. Not something I expected but marvellous.
The Testament of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
I enjoyed but was not blown away by The Gospel of Loki but was curious to try to see where the series would go after having dealt with canon of Norse myths. It turns out the present day, involving multiverses, runes and computer games. Strange and marvellous.
Far Sector by N. K. Jemisin & Jamal Campbell
I have found myself wandering away from mainstream superhero comics over the last few years. Many of my favourite characters were disappearing and few of the stories did something new. One exception is this marvellous series by Jemisin, looking at a Green Lantern on a distant world. As would be expected both strange and relevant, managing to show there can still be new life in these kind of tales.
Zed by Joanna Kavenna
I always enjoy a good piece of cyberpunk, but often feel they can lean too heavily on the cyber aesthetic and not have the punk themes. This one definitely has the latter in spades. Telling a very important story of the dangers of automation in detailed fashion which never becomes dull.
The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
I delayed reading this second volume, even though I adored the first. The reason being that I felt like The Poppy War had such a good structure and ending, wouldn’t I just be disappointed by another story in the same world. Thankfully this was not the case here. It manages to keep up the ambiguity of its predecessor whilst also expanding the scope of the world.
When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai
I had been wanting to read some Larissa Lai for a while, so I am glad I got to get this. It has everything I want in a book, lonely immortals, explorations of identity, weird fantasy, lyrical prose and some lovely queerness. Brilliant.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam
I find it is rare nowadays for me to be bowled over by a space opera but I definitely was. For me this is everything I wish more science fiction would be. Character led, political, brilliant prose, combining scientific ideas with strong plotting. Just all around marvellous.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
I am not directly plugged into the YA or Middle Grade Graphic Novel market, so when one crosses over to my attention it is often very good. Snapdragon is no exception. A magnificent piece of fantasy that explores identity and growing up.
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
One of those SF classics I often see mentioned but had yet to get around to reading. Semi-magical journeys across a post-apocalyptic landscape are nothing new (they have been around basically as long as SF has), what makes this special is that it has a much more mature handling of tough issues and the brilliant voice McIntyre gives to Snake.
Out of Bounds by Judith Merril
Judith Merril was a huge talent and a massive influence on 60s and 70s science fiction. Yet with only 4 novels and a couple of dozen short stories (all sparsely reprinted) she is nowhere near as recognized as she deserves. This collection (her earliest) showcases why. We get her unique takes on space opera, telepathy, war and more.
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
Talking of underrated, the more I read of Elizabeth Moon, the more I realize what an underappreciated talent she is. Every book of hers I read is brilliant in a different way. Remnant Population is a brilliant take on colonisation, the dangers of corporatisation and pseudo-scientific categorisation of people. Really amazing
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
This is an incredibly tough but also worthwhile novella. A brilliant example of how the fantastic can be used by skilled authors to highlight important issues and really make the reader reflect.
Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey
I have seen this classified as a romance but that is too small for what is doing. In this, the two main characters find themselves living their lives again and again but where they mean completely different things to each other. Together they have to unravel what is happening to them.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Beautiful. That was my main reaction upon first finishing this novella. Vo’s skill as a writer is such that I just myself sitting in awe. That is not to say the characters and world are not brilliant too but if you want a master class in storycraft, you can do a lot worse.
Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958 to 1963) by Various (ed. By Gideon Marcus)
Finally, a marvellous collection of some of the best forgotten short fiction of the late 50s and early 60s, highlighting the marvellous range of women writing in this period.
I discussed each story at Young People Read Old SF.
So that is a wrap for 2021. Hope you all had a happy new year and let us see what comes in 2022.