Like last year, we once again decided to post 3 separate top 10 reads of 2021 lists instead of one mega-list or one with only a couple of picks each. Which, let’s face it, would be downright cruelty to ourselves. Our only rule was that any book on these lists has to be read during 2021, regardless of when they were published and by whom. And we had to love them, obviously. Maybe. I mean, when you keep shouting at the author in private for things they did, it’s surely a sign of love, right? Even if you call said author names… *ahem* Anyway next up is Jen with her Top 10 Reads of 2021!
Today is my birthday! To celebrate I am here to share with you my top reads of 2021!
This was a hard list to make. Harder than you would think when I only read 41 books in the whole year. But in that small amount of reading that I managed over this last year, there were a lot of great books so it was definitely a quality over quantity kind of year.
Just to note, after my top three choices there is no order to the rest of this list. It was more of me going down my list and saying ‘holy crap that was a good book’ and then trying to whittle it down from that list… these things are never easy, are they?
Ok, let’s get this show on the road!
A Fool’s Hope by Mike Shackle
A Fool’s Hope is a great example of some of my favourite kinds of storytelling. Mike Shackle doesn’t waste a word as he juggles world-building and character building into an action-packed story full of enough surprises that it had me blowing through the pages at an alarming rate. A Fool’s Hope hits all my fun-as-hell buttons pushing it to the top of my list for 2021.
War takes everything.
From Tinnstra, it took her family and thrust her into a conflict she wanted only to avoid. Now her queen’s sole protector, she must give everything she has left to keep Zorique safe.
It has taken just as much from Jia’s revolutionaries. Dren and Jax – battered, tortured, once enemies themselves – now must hold strong against their bruised invaders, the Egril.
For the enemy intends to wipe Jia from the map. They may have lost a battle, but they are coming back. And if Tinnstra and her allies hope to survive, Jia’s heroes will need to be ready when they do.
The sequel to the darkly fantastic WE ARE THE DEAD: with more unflinching action, A FOOL’S HOPE sees Jia’s revolutionaries dig in their heels as they learn that wars aren’t won in a day.
“A Fool’s Hope does not shy away from the nasty horrors of war; the utter chaos, starving, and just plain unfairness, or from the people who just don’t give a shit and are looking to cash in on other people’s sorrows. It proves over and over that this isn’t a world for the weak, only survivors willing to do what’s needed, have a chance of making it.”
Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J. Hayes
Pawn’s Gambit continues to build on and deliver that neat and mystical feeling world from Never Die but it was Daiyu The Art of War, a secondary character from that book that brought me to this book. And Hayes outdid himself with her story, quickly making Daiyu, one of my favourite women characters I’ve had the pleasure to read about in the last ten years.
Merciless gods, vengeful spirits, immortal assassins, and empires at war collide.
Five years ago, Yuu made a mistake that cost her everything. Once a renowned strategist and general, now she is on the run, royal bounty hunters snapping at her heels. But what if there was a way to get back what she lost, a way to bring back a murdered prince?
Once a century, the gods hold a contest to choose who will rule from the Jade Throne. Each god chooses a mortal champion, and the fate of heaven and earth hangs in the balance.
On a battlefield full of heroes, warriors, assassins, and thieves can Yuu survive long enough to learn the rules of the game, let alone master it?
Pawn’s Gambit is a stand alone story set in the award-winning Mortal Techniques universe. It’s a wuxia adventure filled with heroes, gods, spirits, and magic.
“Daiyu’s story is everything I wanted. Not only do we learn her background and how she became the Art of War. We also gain an understanding of her relationship with the Steel Prince and why she is still so tied-up in his loss, five years later. More than that, this story is a journey of healing for Daiyu. A coming to terms with her past, her present, and finding her center again. It’s a journey that can be painful, but the hard truths she has to face about herself and the awareness that comes, make it worth every page.”
A Gathering of Chaos by Cameron Hopkin
A Gathering of Chaos is a request that I picked up because the world sounded neat, a great choice on my part since this ended up making it to my top reads list. The world without metal has some creative solutions that the races have adapted to make society work but it was the interesting characters and choices for them that really grabbed my attention. Plus, this was just a fun adventure kind of read that gave me all the nostalgia of my first foray into the D&D/Forgotten Realms line of novels.
The world of Asunder is dying. Its gods are long fled, and they took all the world’s metal with them… but it all happened so long ago that not even legends remain. In the now, a country girl sails into port, the only survivor of a plague ship, and a scheming priestess takes charge of her. Far to the south, an aging warrior monk forcibly recruits one of the Beast Riders to be his tracker. A remarkable vision of a demon lord binds them all together, and they scramble to find a bit of Chaos, the raw energy of their world, to protect humanity against this new threat.
It’s too bad they’re only going to make things worse.
“I find there is always a little bit of a darker undertone to the D&D type stories but I thought A Gathering of Chaos, was balanced well with the darkness, humor, horror, and friendships, as each of these characters learn about themselves along the way and find inner-strength to accomplish their goals, and healing through their struggles.”
A Dance With Magic by Nancy O’Toole
I don’t know what it was about A Dance With Magic that hit all my buttons above the others I have read in this series of novellas, but this reimagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses had just the right combination of magic, creepiness, and haunting music, all rolled up in a quick little romance. I love fairytale retellings and this series has just been beyond fun.
The chance for freedom
Rebecca has lived a life of restrictions. Once a scared princess, ruthlessly controlled by her older brother, she now finds herself inheriting a kingdom that never expected to have a queen. Facing the possibility of engagement to a man she cannot stand, Rebecca takes her first chance of freedom: an enchanted masquerade located beneath a trap door.
The loyal soldier
Zahir has lived a life of loss. A peerless swordsman and trained fighter, he once fought for his country. Now he only raises his blade in defense of one: his queen and dearest friend, Rebecca. But secretly, his feelings expand beyond friendship. It will take all of Zahir’s skill to protect Rebecca from the true purpose of the masquerade, a force more sinister and older than either of them expect.
Or may be able to survive.
“I love how each novella is bringing a new element of lore to the world. In the first we learn about the countries, how the magic works etc, and how it can accumulate. In this volume of the series, we build on that, expanding our knowledge, making this world even more intriguing with each piece we learn.”
Grievar’s Blood by Alexander Darwin
I start a lot of new series every year that I don’t always get a chance to finish, but the Combat Codes Saga was one I made time for this last year. It featured such a unique world, great characters, and the fights were freaking amazing (if you didn’t know great fights are kind of my weakness). The second book did a lot of fun stuff as it veered off and spent more time with a minor character, Solara – giving us some great new friendships and of course, more cool fights.
In a world where single combat determines the fate of nations, the Grievar fight in the Circles so that the rest can remain at peace. But given the stakes, things are never so simple. The Daimyo govern from the shadows and plot to gain an edge by unnaturally enhancing their Grievar Knights.
Cego and his team enter year two at the world’s most prestigious combat school, the Lyceum. Though he’d like to focus on his martial studies, Cego feels the pull of his mysterious past and two missing brothers.
Solara Halberd, daughter of the fighting legend, embarks on her own quest to bury the past. She must utilize every lesson her father taught her to explore unknown lands where evil lurks in the shadows.
“The Combat Codes Saga has been such a readable series and as I said in the first book, it has so much heart to it. I love the friendships. I love the lessons. I love the characters. And I can’t wait for the next book. What a great follow-up, it makes me want to jump right in to the next book to see what interesting ways Alexander Darwin will take this story to its conclusion”
Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Matar
This finalist for the SPFBO competition is one I would like to think I would have read eventually since the buzz around it had me pretty intrigued. Legacy of the Brightwash is a gaslight fantasy that comes alive with its huge cast and beautifully crafted world. The characters were outstanding and every scene felt like you could walk out your door and be a part of their world. I am glad I had the opportunity to read it sooner rather than later.
Follow the law and you’ll stay safe. But what if the law is wrong?
Tashué’s faith in the law is beginning to crack.
Three years ago, he stood by when the Authority condemned his son to the brutality of the Rift for non-compliance. When Tashué’s son refused to register as tainted, the laws had to be upheld. He’d never doubted his job as a Regulation Officer before, but three years of watching your son wither away can break down even the strongest convictions.
Then a dead girl washed up on the bank of the Brightwash, tattooed and mutilated. Where had she come from? Who would tattoo a child? Was it the same person who killed her?
Why was he the only one who cared?
Will Tashué be able to stand against everything he thought he believed in to get the answers he’s looking for?
“Am I going to be able to root for this guy? But we are meeting him when he is finally starting to unfold from that rigidity and we do see a man who deeply cares for his son, while also learning about why and how things got to this point for him in his life.
A lot of that part of him we see through his friendships (I loved Ismael) and the beginnings of his relationship with Stella. She is the one that helped let me learn to love him. And their slow burn build of friendship to romance is a huge part of the story.”
I Am King by Damien Shillingford
I talked about this book a lot this year, it was such an enjoyable traditional fantasy feeling story with some lovely characters. The story eases you into this world and hints big that the follow-up will branch out farther to include a more in-depth look at other cultures as we bring our young king Beaumont back to his rightful throne. I am really looking forward to the next book.
Ten-year-old Prince Beaumont has lived a peaceful and secluded life, hidden from his enemies in Mount Hope, waiting for the day he can safely return to the Middle Islands and reclaim his father’s crown. With his faithful and loving cousin Julius by his side, he tried to learn everything he needs to know to be a great king.
As civil war wages in the Middle Islands, a high-ranking member of the rebels is captured and through torture reveals that the prince is alive and in hiding. Nisila, a warrior and member of the rebel faction supporting Beaumont’s claim to the throne, travels to the realm of Hattan with her ever-ready raven companion Shadow-cry, to rescue her prince. Enlisting the help of the New Brotherhood guild, she is granted an escort and protector, Gavin, a cynical war veteran, to aide her in her quest.
Meanwhile, the usurper’s assassin, Royce, has also arrived in Hattan, hot on Nisila’s trail. Once a member of the rebel faction, Royce was forced to change his allegiance when his family was captured by the new King Rancine. With his family held under threat of execution, Royce has no choice but to capture the prince at all cost – or risk losing everyone he loves.
As danger looms near, Beau quickly realizes that everyone in Dacoynis has an agenda of self-preservation.
As young Prince Beaumont struggles to find his confidence and come to terms with his new life, he must also navigate the conflicting agendas of everyone around him, a tall order for a ten-year-old boy. Will Beau fall victim to these challenges or will he rise above them and one day become the King he was ordained to be?
Join Prince Beaumont and his beloved cousin Julius as they brave a foreign world, trying to get back to their homeland in the Middle Islands, and its capital, Aiti.
If you enjoy epic adventure, mythical creatures, majestic lands, heroic warriors, and the ultimate battle of good versus evil, then this book is for you. Enough said, let the journey begin!
“I knew within a few chapters it was going to be right up my alley.
It has a very traditional fantasy feel with a young prince and only heir that was sent away years ago after the king is killed. The boy is now being retrieved to claim his throne after his whereabouts were revealed. The journey to that throne isn’t an easy road and we are only a portion of the way there by the end of the book.”
The Conjuring of Zoth-Avarex: The Self-Proclaimed Greatest Dragon in the Multiverse by K.R.R. Lockhaven
Comedy fantasy can be very touch and go with me but The Conjuring of Zoth-Avarex was just a lot of fun with its wisecracking dragon, hilarious situations, and little nods to geek culture… I pretty much smiled through the whole story.
Kept hidden by the United States government for decades, the Site is a place where magic is real. But that doesn’t mean that everything happening there is sparkly. Soul-sucking policies and layers of stifling bureaucracy threaten to take all the fun out of magic.
Harris, a newbie Conjurer, starts his first day of work at the Site bursting with excitement: he’s been brought on for an extremely big project happening the very next day. In a triumph over its habitual inefficiency, the Site manages to carry out its plan and conjure an actual dragon to be used by the military.
The dragon (Zoth-Avarex, the self-proclaimed greatest dragon in the multiverse) immediately eats the person next to him, snatches a “princess” from the ranks of the Conjuring Department, and flies away to the Space Needle. There he manipulates the media, outwits the Site’s bumbling management, demands sixty-three billion dollars’ worth of treasure (because Smaug was said to have had sixty-two billion in his hoard), threatens to destroy the city—and installs a couple of food trucks.
While this book skewers the same fantasy genre it gleefully inhabits, it also pokes fun at corporate culture, today’s obsession with wealth and celebrity, and our denial that life is anything more than meets the eye. Hapless Harris, believing in magic all along, learns to apply what he’s picked up between the pages of fantasy literature.
“This book tickled me to no end. I swear I am going to have to eat my words because I always say I don’t care for comedy/fantasy books, but this was just so delightfully charming with a bit goofiness rolled in.”
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
A buddy read with my daughter (which I failed at spectacularly) we both were huge fans of The Martian, and this was just as much fun. Weir’s work has that 80’s movie-feel to me, lots of fun, friendships and danger, that mostly all works out in the end, with this nice uplifting ‘we are all in this together and nothing can stop us when we unite in our love of the world and others’ feeling. (or was it early 2000’s? haha)
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.
Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.
“At its core Hail Mary is a buddy story about friendship, redemption, and of course, science. Weir has a way of making science accessible to people like me, while giving us a relatable main character to root for, which is a lot of what makes his books so much fun.”
The Silence of Bones by June Hur
A little outside my normal fantasy reading I took a genre break and read June Hur’s Silence of Bones, a moody Joseon era sleuth story. The book features a twisty murder mystery, a likeable lead in Seol, and a lovely setting that was just a huge highlight for me. I am looking forward to Hur‘s newest book The Red Palace, coming out this January.
I have a mouth, but I mustn’t speak;
Ears, but I mustn’t hear;
Eyes, but I mustn’t see.
1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.
But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.
“I really enjoyed the setting. It was beautifully done. The history, the people, clothes, buildings, food – it was all there. It grounded the story never letting it feel like it was a stage but threading through the murder, the historical timeline, and the loss of Seol’s family, adding layers to the story while linking it all into one lovely cohesive package.”
And that concludes Jen’s part of our Top 10 Reads of 2021 series. Keep an eye out for Arina’s list next week, our check out Timy’s Top 10 Reads of 2021!