Standing on the shoulders of giants, am I right? Like last year, the Asylum ladies are sharing their top 10 reads of 2021 in a sequence of 3 posts. Today I close the curtain on this spotlight but check out Timy’s top 10 and Jen’s top 10 for more bookish temptation.
It’s downright cruel to make me choose only 10 books out of what was an amazing reading year, so I sneaked one more in there as an act of defiance (but er, I’m still team long live the queen, ok? Please don’t whip me). Even though I read less due to personal issues and dealing with a lot of grief, I still managed to reforge my love for science-fiction and fantasy by reading amazing books that had me really excited about the future of the genre.
You’ll notice some of these books weren’t actual 2021 releases, as the only rule we had for our top reads was that we had to have read them in 2021, regardless of their release date. Because it’s never too late to discover a favorite or a genre-behemoth you are just now learning to love.
Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
The first book that came to mind should come as no surprise. I loved how Son of the Storm completely turned the hero trope on its head, giving us an MC that started off as confident and clever, only to realize how directionless and unsure he was when faced with the real world. It also featured another MC who is the queenpin of morally gray women.
In the ancient city of Bassa, Danso is a clever scholar on the cusp of achieving greatness—only he doesn’t want it. Instead, he prefers to chase forbidden stories about what lies outside the city walls. The Bassai elite claim there is nothing of interest. The city’s immigrants are sworn to secrecy.
But when Danso stumbles across a warrior wielding magic that shouldn’t exist, he’s put on a collision course with Bassa’s darkest secrets. Drawn into the city’s hidden history, he sets out on a journey beyond its borders. And the chaos left in the wake of his discovery threatens to destroy the empire.
Ringlander: The Path and the Way by Michael S. Jackson
The Path and the Way was a lesson learned in judging books by their covers. Most times, looks will trick you, but some sneaky bastards are beautiful inside and out. This book follows complex journeys and characters through a multi-storyline narrative that wraps up beautifully in the end. The tension and politics set the stage for a really interesting world where conflict is just beginning to shape the world.
Holes between worlds are tearing through Rengas. Firestorms are raging as multiple realities battle for control of the elements. Even the Way, the turbulent channel that separates Nord, Határ and Kemen, the lifeblood of the city of Tyr, has turned.
Kyira’s search for her missing brother draws her away from the familiar frozen lines of Nord and south into the chaotic streets of Tyr where games are played & battles fought. As reality tears Kyira must choose between her family or her path before the worlds catch up with her.
“The Path and the Way blends the throes of war, rich worldbuilding, and alternate realities bleeding into one other (to remind us that in the end we are but specks of dust? I appreciate that) into a cracking concoction of storytelling done right.”
Nightwatch on the Hinterlands by K. Eason
Nightwatch on the Hinterlands was a bit of a gamble, but damn, am I glad I took it. I hadn’t read the other books in the Rory Thorne universe, but I couldn’t pass up a sci-fi murder mystery, one of my absolute favorite (sub-sub?)genres. I figured that if this one was a sort of standalone off-story, I would be fine, and I was. This book is like an urban sci-fi fantasy steampunk, a Hellboy Golden Army meets nothing I’ve ever read before. One of my favorite things about it was the magic system, which neatly threads the line between science and magic.
Set in the universe of Rory Thorne, this new standalone sci-fi mystery follows an unlikely duo who must discover the motive behind an unusual murder.
THE TEMPLAR: When Lieutenant Iari hears screams in the night, she expects to interrupt a robbery or break up a fight. Instead she discovers a murder with an impossible suspect: a riev, one of the battle-mecha decommissioned after the end of the last conflict, repurposed for manual labor. Riev don’t kill people. And yet, clearly, one has. Iari sets out to find it.
THE SPY: Officially, Gaer is an ambassador from the vakari. Unofficially, he’s also a spy, sending information back to his government, unfiltered by diplomatic channels. Unlike Iari, Gaer isn’t so sure the riev’s behavior is just a malfunction, since the riev were created using an unstable mixture of alchemy and arithmancy.
As Gaer and Iari search for the truth, they discover that the murderous riev is just a weapon in the hands of a wielder with wider ambitions than homicide–including releasing horrors not seen since the war, that make a rampaging riev seem insignificant…
“Nightwatch on the Hinterlands is a murder mystery about a law enforcer specializing in multidimensional rifts and an alien spy ambassador with a secret mission.”
The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson
The Forever Sea caught my eye with its stunning cover art but it was the promising blurb that reeled me in. It sounded like a dark reimagining of some of my favorite childhood stories, a grim adult twist on the realities of life, walking hand in hand with its many dreamlike qualities. Its unique magic system, clever environmental metaphors, complex MC, and mystifying writing style topped it off as an unmissable addition to this list.
The first book in a new environmental epic fantasy series set in a world where ships kept afloat by magical hearthfires sail an endless grass sea.
On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother–The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper–has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.
But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.
To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.
Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything–ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun–to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.
“Johnson transports us to an intoxicating adventure of Ghibli-esque atmosphere and unceremoniously plunges us into a world that feels as fantastically imaginary as it does familiar.”
The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter
I’d had my eye on Marina’s Noumenon series for a while but gladly welcomed the opportunity to read her latest book first. The Helm of Midnight excels at worldbuilding, building a dark and rich world around a tense story that makes great use of the multi-POV, multi-timeline tool, fascinating you with its magic system and characters.
A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, 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.
“Part horror, part dark fantasy, The Helm of Midnight combines the best of fantasy fiction—detailed lore, unique magic system and mythology, quests of self— with the heart-pounding anticipation of a thriller filled with monsters of every kind.”
The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas
I picked up The Moonsteel Crown because I can’t resist a good heist story but I couldn’t possibly have prepared myself for how fucking cool this book is. I cling heavily to worldbuilding, but the outstanding character work in this book is to die for. It’s just such a well-told, fun, creative story that really stands out among its genre.
The Emperor of Aria is dead, and three junior members of a street gang are unwittingly caught up in the ensuing struggle for the throne, in the first epic adventure in a new fantasy world from a master of the genre.
The Emperor of Aria has been murdered, the Empire is in crisis, and Dead Men walk the streets…
But Myla, Fings, and Seth couldn’t care less. They’re too busy just trying to survive in the Sulk-struck city of Varr, committing petty violence and pettier crimes to earn their keep in the Unrulys, a motley gang led by Blackhand.
When the Unrulys are commissioned to steal a mysterious item to order, by an equally mysterious patron, the trio are thrust right into the bitter heart of a struggle for the Crown, where every faction is after what they have.
Forced to lie low in a city on lockdown, they will have to work together if they want to save their skins… and maybe just save the Empire as well.
“A fun as hell adventure of betrayal filled with murdering bastards, dead men, and lots of chaotic stabbing, shrewdly disguised as a royal corruption story. With dry dark humor that cleverly analyses the grimness of class disparity, rival gangs, luring dark magic, and lots of unpredictability. You just can’t miss this one.”
Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov
Tower of Mud and Straw started off a year of surprising reads that blew me away. I picked up this novella on Netgalley because the cover was beautiful and the steampunk-ish, gothic-y atmosphere of the blurb sounded right up my alley. Was kinda proud of my instincts because this book is gorgeous, with a kind of magical writing style and so many interesting elements put together.
THE QUEEN RUINED HIS LIFE. HE WOULD DO ANYTHING TO RECLAIM IT… OR SO HE THOUGHT.
Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.
He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he’d rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.
Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.
“Shea Ashcroft’s honesty and sensibility will pull in anyone who loves a good reluctant hero thrown into a world of magic, secrets, and myth. Within it, the novella explores the fear one has of things they don’t quite understand, as well as what it takes to confront the past.”
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
I always have a hard time choosing favorites among favorites but if I was painfully coerced into choosing a favorite favorite read of the year, it would be this one. This was my first Tasha Suri but by gods, this book is beautiful in every way. From the worldbuilding to the pacing to the characters, I couldn’t find one flaw in it. This is absolutely one of my favorite books of all time.
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.
The Pariah by Anthony Ryan
The Pariah was one of those books that took me by surprise. I picked it up because I’d heard a lot about Anthony Ryan‘s work, and I love me a good fantasy book with a scholarly archetype protagonist. But I really wasn’t expecting all the twists, pain, and turns. This book is magical from start to finish and so very well written.
Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army.
Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
I haven’t gotten around to reviewing The Deep because I honestly find it hard for my words to do this book justice. It takes such a creative and cathartic look into its themes, I was glued to every word and absolutely devoured it.
The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future in this brilliantly imaginative novella inspired by the Hugo Award nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’ rap group Clipping.
Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
I feel like 2021 was a fantastic year for SFF novellas and Fireheart Tiger an unmissable one. This story goes by so fast yet it tugs at your heartstrings for a long time. I still think about how the book subverted my expectations and gave me a better story than I could have imagined. It’s a fantastic exploration of abuse and growth that everyone should read.
Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
“In a fantastic use of the craft, Aliette has written a story of both inner and outer conflict, beautifully exploring her character by reflecting her in the setting. Fireheart Tiger is a heartfelt, vibrant story with lots of magic and betrayal, dealing with abusive relationships, filial piety, and colonization, even as it bursts with a tender, romantic relationship that unfolds throughout.”