Well, it is that time of year.
Here’s my reading breakdown for 2021:
- 136 books read
- 104 were SFF
- 32 were nonfiction
- 67 were self-published
- 76 books reviewed
You can see the books I’ve read here. (Please note, this is not actually all the books I read. I forgot to track some, and I haven’t listed all the books I’ve edited either, mostly because I forgot.)
Here’s my BEST BOOKS OF 2021 list. As always, these are listed in no particular order. Enjoy!
I loved Comfort Me With Apples. I can already feel myself aching to re-read it so I can catch all the subtle clues I missed on my first read-through. I think it will likely take its place on my shelf next to Six-Gun Snow White as a book I re-read about once a year just so I can study how she uses words, and so carefully unfolds her story. Valente is one of those authors that I admire so much, not just for how she tells her stories, but for the substance of the stories she tells. This might be a novella, but there is a lot happening here, a lot to unpack, a lot of deep themes about personhood, and independence, about relationships and life itself, all written in a dreamy, almost fairytale way.
If you’re looking for a quick-ish read that defiantly deviates from expected fantasy norms, this is your book. Valente is daring and bold, with a grasp for prose, characterization, and story that just wows me every time. She does things with narrative voice here that astounded me and left me reeling. The story itself was a delight, and I didn’t mind a bit that I had to figure things out as I went and wasn’t always completely sure what I was reading. That’s part of the delight of Valente’s work: the exploration, the quick turn off the well-trodden path into a place that blends pure artistry and genius storytelling.
I could rave about how much I love Valente’s work for years.
Suffice it to say, Comfort Me With Apples is exactly my kind of weird. It’s going to be a re-read for me. Over and over again.
Olson has a gift for writing. Her prose are fluid and effortless, never purple and never too dry. She has a knack with hitting the exact tone each scene needs to make it land the way it needs to land. Her world comes to vibrant, blazing life, and so do her characters. Mix that dollop of humor in there as well, and you’ve got this brilliant blend of elements that transported me almost instantly out of my body and into Mildred’s world. I could see the landscape, and the people, and smell the food. Olson is one of those authors I read as much to admire her prose and appreciate how she uses words, as to immerse myself in her stories.
I’ve said a few times that this book is empowering, and it really is. Mildred learns to accept and love herself. In spite of outside forces, of the hijinks and the shenanigans that ensue throughout the book, it’s the love story of a middle-aged woman learning to accept herself that really spoke volumes to me. It’s something, I think, I needed to read, and I was left after finishing the book feeling like this is a story a lot of us need right now.
Ultimately, Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide left me feeling like I’d just experienced the warmest of hugs. Flawlessly written, enchantingly told, with an unforgettable protagonist and a relentless plot, reading this book was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.
This is a gothic novel, and I’d like to emphasize the gothic. Purcell’s writing is both understated and incredibly effective. The haunting feel to this book is so pervasive it almost becomes a character in its own right. I don’t think I’ve read a book that has utilized atmosphere this well, and this cleverly, before. It was something that seemed to transcend the book, and now, I still feel it when I think on The Poison Thread. It lingers.
‘Her corset,’ I said honestly, ‘is like a graveyard.’
I absolutely devoured this book. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. The ending left me shocked, and the characters seem to be haunting the hallways of my mind. Purcell is an incredible author, who knows how to use words and atmosphere to their greatest effect. The Poison Thread might be one of the biggest, best surprises I’ve come across in a while.
I enjoyed the deeper themes the author was playing with, about the often-conflicting desires of familial obligation and personal autonomy, and often the emotional tribulations involved in being at the center of such a tug-of-war were well handed. This book is, quite honestly, steeped in empathy, not just with this particular point, but with literally everything. The author genuinely cares, and the reader can feel that on every page.
All in all, Witchmark blew my socks off. It was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I needed and wanted to read. Absolutely spectacular writing, superb characterization, brilliant romantic notes, and detailed worldbuilding that made the story so real it breathed both on and off the page. This wee book packs a powerful punch.
From the fascinating world building, to all the different layers of literally everything, to just the story itself and the characters that fill it, I couldn’t stop reading. I devoured this book.
Honestly, I sat down to read a chapter or two, and I’m pretty sure I blazed through the entire thing in about two days and ended up putting off some editing in favor of reading (I shouldn’t admit that, but here we are.). That’s how into this book I got. I was just completely and absolutely hooked. Absorbed. Subsumed.
Chasing Graves is amazing, full stop. It’s a delicious mix of grimdark, horror, mystery, and mythology, and what can only be considered Ben Galley. It all mixes together to make this read truly one of a kind. Fantastic writing, superb characters, and—seriously, I cannot hammer this hard enough—one of the most unique books I have read in a very, very long time.
What a strong start to an absolutely incredibly series.
I mean, this sucker starts going and it just does not quit until the end. And then… that ending! I was left reeling, and I instantly sent an email to Hutson, “Please, for the love of god, tell me THERE IS MORE.”
If you’ve read Hutson’s previous work, expect the same high quality, but that is just about where similarities end. There’s nothing about The Shadows of Dust that is like anything else on the market, and that’s only part of what makes it such a strong work. There’s vision here, scope, fantastic writing, a shocking amount of depth, and a relentless plot that grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. The Shadows of Dust was one of the best books I have ever edited. It really knocked my socks off. I spent most of my time working on this book reeling, because the entire thing is just so POWERFULLY UNIQUE.
I am always looking for a book that is truly in a class of its own. I long for the stories that are different in just about every respect. Give me space mercinaries on flying telepathic turtles. Give me lich armies. Give me ancient magic and long, lost civilizations. Give me ghosts, and clashing empires on some oddball planet. Give me a plot that refuses to let go. Give me dynamic, nuanced characters.
Give me The Shadows of Dust.
If you know anything about me, you’ll know that my favorite books are the ones that make me feel, and this book actually had me wiping away tears in a few parts. It isn’t often that a book I’m editing makes me cry, and when that happens, I tend to really savor the moment…
The ending is bittersweet and perfect for the story being told. Friends, the ending made me feel that burning deep inside, that sort of keening, hollow ache. Why? Because it was over, and I just wasn’t ready yet. I’m still not ready, truthfully. I want to go back and read this book for the first time all over again. I want to experience the highs and lows of Edda’s tale with eyes that have never seen it.
It’s the kind of book that amazed me so much, it took a long, long time for me to move past it. In fact, I edited this book months ago, and I still find myself thinking about it. Just the other day, I was cooking dinner and the random thought, “I wonder what Edda is doing right now” popped into my head. I mean, that’s how real this book was. I edited it, and I lived it, and I breathed it, and now I’m still not quite okay with it being over.
His world is sprawling. Fans of his books will know he is working with a scope and depth that very few other authors out there attempt. Each of his series twists mythology and history just so, and each of them weave together in surprising ways. I can’t imagine what his worldbuilding and outlining must look like. Just attempting to even think of the breadth, scope, and detail he includes in his books gives me a headache. And yet he manages it, and he does so flawlessly.
The Valor of Perseus is an absolutely fantastic book, furthering the story of Pandora in surprising ways, while showing a bit more about how all of this connects together. Not just regarding his characters, but the larger world as well. You’ll find people and creatures from mythology in this book that you’ll recognize, and yet you won’t at the same time, because even with familiar elements, Larkin manages to surprise readers by doing unexpected, delightful things that keep you on your toes.
The Valor of Perseus is an amazing book, in one of my favorite series. I’ve got book three sitting on my laptop right now, and I can’t wait to start working on it. If you’re a fan of mythology, you really need to check out this series.
Olsen spares no detail, and under her hand, life in this remote Alaskan landscape burns bright. I could almost smell the forest and feel the cold. I could feel the mosquitos as well. The wild is both untamed, and yet I felt a very deep respect for not only these places, but for the people who lived there and made it their home, coexisting with nature and striking a delicate balance I doubt many of us will ever fully understand. I loved the details woven throughout the book, of how food was stored, and hunted, and how people worked together, how the salmon were used throughout the year, why animal fat was necessary… it was all there, and it was fascinating. It was one of those rare books where I feel like I not only read a really good story, but I learned some important things as well.
Mythology and lore are woven expertly throughout the story. They are always present, because it’s part of everyday life, but it’s also different than anything I’ve read before, and it’s beautiful. When it all came together in the end, I was left with this overwhelming sense of having gone full circle, but not just that, it was the right way for the book to end as well. It was the perfect finale to a story that really knocked the air out of my lungs. When I was done reading it, I was left with a unique sadness, because I’ll never get to read this book for the first time again.
Do I really need to summarize this review? It should be clear by now. I adored Falling Through Stars. Fans of books based on mythology need to pick this one up. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read all year.
The book itself is relentless and unforgiving. There is always something happening somewhere, and Auric, at times, seems impossibly behind the curve. It looks hopeless, it feels hopeless, and since it’s personal, that mattered to me. I genuinely wanted Auric to succeed and thrive. The book does sort of take time to warm up. Some readers might find the start a bit slow, but from the midpoint on, it’s like a boulder rolling down a mountain: unstoppable.
Aching God snuck up on me. I honestly went into this expecting to read another epic fantasy that was entertaining but nothing that really stuck to my ribs. I was pleasantly surprised. There were so many things here that I didn’t expect, from some unusual spins on typical tropes, to an obvious passion for the story being told, to Auric himself. Furthermore, the writer/editor side of my brain was obsessed with HOW Shel chose to tell his story, and how those decisions impacted the whole.
In summary, reader, I should not have waited so long to read this book.
I want to say this is a slow moving book, but I also want to say I almost wish it moved slower so I could have savored it more. I had a really, really hard time becoming okay with the fact that The Wolf in the Whale had an ending. By the time Omat met Brandr, I was so engrossed in the book I couldn’t pull myself away for all the money in the world. The way the two managed to form their own unique kind of relationship, with language and culture standing in the way, was absolutely engrossing. And wolf pups.
bangs hand on table WOLF. PUPS.
The Wolf in the Whale was the kind of fantasy book I live for. Subtle, slow, gorgeous, and thoughtful, this one absolutely blew me away. It’s not a book I will forget anytime soon. My only regret is that it ended.
Klara is an interesting voice to throw into this changing and evolving stew. Klara, being what she is, is unchanging, and in many ways the love and kindness she bestows upon those around her are far more pure than anything a human could muster, and due to that, the moments of realization feel that much more emotionally impactful because such pure selflessness is at the heart of every part of this story. While the world changes around her, Klara remains the same and it feels like there is a message in that, and also a certain marriage of hope and sorrow that went right through me. Perhaps it says something that the person in the novel who impacted me the most was the one who was not, in fact, human.
Klara and the Sun has a huge emotional impact, as all of this author’s books do. However, instead of breaking me down into buckets of tears, like Never Let Me Go, the emotional impact of this one was just as profound, if not quite as obviously so. The well this draws from is deep, but different, a kind of simmering below the surface rather than an outpouring. This book made me think, and haunted me long after I finished it.
Klara and the Sun was a delight I lost myself to, and just like Ishiguro’s other work, it’s one that has me looking at love, and kindness, and what it means to be human in a completely new light.
The Lord of Stariel is one of those books that’s hard for me to put my thumb on. The world feels like it’s a half-step from our own, which was a lot of fun. It’s both familiar, but with enough unique to it to make it feel other. The magic system, because of this, felt natural, and I had a lot of fun imagining how some of the skills and abilities presented in the book would impact life in our world. In fact, as I read this book, I often found myself wandering down pathways of “what if”. I was surprised by how engaged I was, and how easy it was for me to visualize these characters, this magic, this world, outside of the setting in the book…
The Lord of Stariel isn’t for everyone. If you’re a blood and guts fantasy reader, you’ll probably want to steer clear. However, if you’re in the mood for something that feels just a half-step away from our world, full of characters that breathe on and off the page, a romance that hits all the right notes, and a plot that keeps you engaged, then you’ll want to check this out. Fae magic, weird family dynamics, heartwarming points, and mystery… what more could you possibly want?
I will absolutely continue reading this series.
First of all, just look at that writing. The entire book is written like that. The mark of a truly good book, for me, is one that is written with both a gripping story, and prose you can just get lost in, and that’s what I found here. The story itself is fascinating. A sort of clash of cultures, and three religions converging in one place. Plenty of action and adventure and lots of twists and turns you absolutely cannot look away from, but over all of that is this writing that is positively dipped in gold. Every word chosen with care. Every phrase doled out exactly when and how it needs to be, for maximum impact. The settings he describes, the personal journey, the emotional tapestry is all so vivid and stunningly crafted, it is impossible not to feel as though you are transported through the pages and actually there…
The Lions of Al-Rassan was an absolutely fantastic book that is as emotionally intense and real as the world itself. The characters are larger than life, and absolutely unforgettable. While the conflict in the book is obviously based on historical events, it is different enough to feel solidly secondary world. Guy Gavriel Kay is an author who, deservedly, is highly respected, and this book is a fantastic example of why. He is a giant showing a new way to tell stories.
The magic system, as I’ve mentioned above, is one of my favorites I’ve come across in a while. It’s both subtle and extremely powerful. Dealing with something as fundamental as personality and memory, this magic system has the capabilities to alter the bedrock of a person’s personhood, and it can be flipped on and off like a light. Once I understood the magic system, and the ramifications of something like this, both for good and ill, I was basically obsessed. A good magic system needs to have an even balance of positives and negatives, and the ones the authors thought of here were nothing short of genius, and fit so well in a world this complex, real, and gritty.
I’m afraid to say more about it lest I spoil the book for others. Suffice it to say, it’s amazing. Trust me.
So, where does this leave us?
Norylska Groans is a book that hits you like a sucker punch to your solar plexus. Then, it sort of wraps one fist around your throat and one around your heart and squeezes just enough to make you pay attention. It’s uncomfortable, dark, and more real than real. Reader, this book hurts, but it’s the kind of pain I just couldn’t get enough of.
What I loved about this book was how the author managed to humanize all these characters who are, by definition, somewhat beyond humanity. Suddenly, under Walschots deft hand, they are just people doing what people do. The office workers required to back these supers up, the muscle that fights for them, the people who fill these jobs are just humans. They worry about rent, they worry about bills, they go to temp agencies to try to find jobs so they can make ends meet. The superheroes/supervillains do not look so glamorous after reading Hench. They seem, if anything, like CEOs of companies more than anything else.
The ending of the book was fantastic, as was everything else. Unexpected and a (sort of) win for the people I was hoping would come out ahead. However, my one disappointment was that the book ended. I was having so much fun with Anna and her crew, I didn’t want to leave them.
Hench was an unexpected delight. It was funny and thought provoking, and sort of flipped the script on supers in a way I truly enjoyed. More, I loved Anna. I mean, I truly loved this character. She just made the entire book, which was already good, positively glow.
Hench was a book I did not expect to like, but it ended up being one of the highlights of my reading year so far. I cannot recommend this one highly enough.
This was one holy hell of a debut.
The themes at the center of Youngest are love and family, which I really enjoy explorations of in the books I read. This is also, perhaps, where Moyer truly shines. Her ability to subtly play with emotions, her unflinching desire to look at both the dark and lighter emotions and the tangled webs we often find ourselves in truly makes Youngest a book I couldn’t put down. It’s so unflinchingly human. This is, perhaps, why I think this being a slow-burn novel was the best possible thing for this book. You can’t just rush a lot of these personal and emotional developments. Moyer savors the slow build of her characters, and as a result, I truly felt connected to them, to Etta and her complexities, how torn she feels, and how she finds solace in Wyatt, the man she has spent so long loving…
There are also outside events playing a part as well. Lumber barons, and a stalker, attacks from unknown sources, and people from outside are contacted to help, which only makes matters even more complicated. Not everything is good and wholesome. There is darkness as well, but the balance is cleverly struck, with as much of this inner-family and personal drama being balanced with a nice counterpoint of outside pressures as well.
And yet, the book never truly lost its magic and wonder to me. There are hints of a sprawling world, and more places Moyer can explore and expand if she chooses, and I genuinely hope she does. I’ve read all of this author’s books, and this one really hit the literary equivalent of the Goldilocks zone for me. Sweet and thoughtful, with characters that shine brighter than the sun and a story that became part of me, Youngest was an amazing read.
She Dreams in Blood takes all the good parts of Black Stone Heart, and builds on them by orders of magnitude. I honestly was wondering if Fletcher could top his previous book, but he did. This one is incredible. Unpredictable. Horrifying, and, more than that, human. These struggles, changes, the journey to understand both oneself and one’s past, is so incredibly human. And maybe that’s why this book works so well. It’s somehow manages to stay true to its fantasy nature with larger than life characters and gods, magic, and mystery while the people at the heart of this tale are so shockingly, painfully human despite their larger-than-life natures.
This series is all about hearts. It is fitting that She Dreams in Blood never loses sight of what makes a heart beat.
Fletcher is a master craftsman. It is honestly the highlight of my editing career to work with him, to see his books unfold, and to see how well received they are. He has taught me a whole lot about writing. More than that, his books are, in my estimation, some of the best fantasy out there. She Dreams in Blood is a magnificent edition to this author’s portfolio.
I cannot wait for all of you to read it.
Despite all their fantastic, divine aspects, their magic, their more-than-human qualities, they are, in the end, shockingly human and as their arcs begin to unfold, and you see which direction they are both traveling, you realize this really isn’t the story you were expecting. This is a story about obsession and self-destruction. It’s about two men who have these superhuman abilities, coming together in a clash that transforms both them, and their world.
This book, reader, is a glorious, unforgettable tragedy.
And oh, I loved it. I loved it so much, it hurt. I loved it so much, I read it about four or five times before I managed to send the edited manuscript back to the author.
There have been a few times in my editorial life when I’ve felt the need to stand on a mountaintop and pontificate to readers everywhere about this book or that book. I will say, Horns of the Hunter was one of those books that made me want to do just that. I’ve never read anything like this before, and that’s part of its charm. The truth is, what I found here was a story I didn’t expect, told with prose that were just beyond gorgeous. This book is a superb study in character evolution that you won’t get anywhere else.
Horns of the Hunter is, hands down, one of the best books I’ve read in a very, very long time.
I’m a sucker for details and I loved how Feli wove so many into this book. At the start of the book, Kalai has to take care of a dragon egg, and I loved how the author had so many details about the process woven into the narrative, from temperature, to timing between blasts of temperature, to how the egg turns… the whole thing. Kalai’s own cultural tidbits he drops throughout the book really give this world a feel of a much wider scope than just this city. It’s all subtle, but extremely well done, giving readers a feel that there is so much more…
The dragons in this book were absolutely wonderful, beasts that are so fundamental to the world Feli has crafted. They are essential for protection, and for so many other reasons, but things are going wrong, and now these big protectors are starting to turn into an unpredictable threat. As the book explores what is happening, and why, I realized how fantastic these dragons really are, and how interesting their relationships with humans were. Again, this is another aspect of relationships the author tackles and I truly loved it. I loved how the characters gained strength from their dragons, and how, despite how necessary these beasts are for this world, their wild unpredictability. They never quite lost the animal at their core. All in all, they were just beautifully done.
As you can tell, Wild Sky was a book that really wowed me. I loved every single aspect of it. Well written with amazing characters and fantastic representation, this book put Zaya Feli on my radar as an author to watch.
The supernatural elements of the book are another place I really need to give Slayton a standing ovation. Again, urban fantasy as a genre tends to be pretty formulaic, and while I did see some tropes, the way Slayton handled them, turned them all on their heads. Nothing ended up being what I thought it was, nor was it handled in the way I predicted. He has a deft way for setting up a scene, and then unmooring both Adam and the reader at the same time. There were quite a few occasions where I thought I knew what to expect from a particular scene, but left it wondering just how Slayton managed to flip the script as well as he did, and so deftly I didn’t even notice it happening until it had already happened.
My one complaint about the book as a whole is that it felt too short. I would have loved this to be longer, to really immerse myself in both Slayton, and this paranormal present day he’s crafted for his readers. I did feel, occasionally, that some events would have held more of an impact if they’d been given more time to the breathe. More, I just didn’t want the story to end.
At the end of the day, White Trash Warlock is the kind of urban fantasy I love to read. Surprising, well-written, with deep emotional notes that really worked for me. This book was a huge (pleasant) surprise. The Adam Binder series is now an auto-buy.
There is a lot of action in this book. There’s hardly a moment where Lance isn’t battling something, or making impossible, hard choices, or doing improbable things… or dying. It’s a dark book, epic fantasy in the fact that the battle is epic involving the world itself, and souls, and all that, but also horrific due to some of the creatures, moments, themes, decisions therein. Morality, and the decisions that define morality, play heavily in this book. And yet, Hall’s prose brings you through it with ease, painting vivid pictures of poignant moments, and making them matter. He never once loses that menacing undertone that threads the book, or the tension that seems to overshadow everything, or the religious, ardent zeal of Lance to save.
An Altar on the Village Green is an ambitious debut novel, full of layers and meaning, depth and texture, dark moments, and moral quandaries, all poised perfectly on a knife’s edge of grace.
This is unlike any fantasy you’ve ever read before.
Honestly, I think novellas are an underrated art. I really enjoy editing them almost more than anything else, and the reason is because I find them fascinating. I love to see how and author takes fewer pages, fewer words, and makes a rich, layered story out of them. We tend to believe that for fantasy to be epic, the book needs to be a doorstopper. A Brandon Sanderson-sized tome. There is a time and place for that, but sometimes a novella comes along that proves that sentiment very wrong. Epic fantasy isn’t about page count, it’s about story. When an author manages to take fewer pages, fewer words, and writes a story that’s every bit as epic as George R. R. Martin, I’m interested. My brain perks up, I start studying how the author managed to pack so much epic into so few pages. There’s an artistry here, and it fascinates me. Epic fantasy is not about page count. It just isn’t.
Epic fantasy is about story.
What you have in The Fall is an epic fantasy in every sense of the word. It’s a setup for the first book in Cahill’s The Bound and the Broken series, which I’m absolutely chomping at the bit to read now. It is every bit as epic as any other epic fantasy out there, despite its shorter size. Pitched battles, dragons, characters you love and love to hate, tension, complexities, and carnage, this book has it all. It truly shows what novellas are capable of. Cahill is an author to watch.
There’s a lot in Where Shadows Lie. I mean, this book has a ton going on, and it’s just relentless in every respect. It’s very obviously the first book in a series, where so much is being set up, and while there is resolution, there are doors open for expansion in the world, characters, and plot as well. It is epic in every possible respect. If I had to pick on any parts of it, I would say some of the dialogue felt a little cumbersome, and there were one or two shadowy figures who perhaps didn’t feel as fleshed out as the rest of the cast, but those are small potatoes. I had an absolute blast with this book and I really can’t wait to she where Pescatore takes the series next.
At the end of the day, it seems like Where Shadows Lie is largely an exploration of change, whether personally, socially, politically, religiously, or magically. Everything in this book seems to be in flux, and where Pescatore seems to find solid ground as an author is exploring how those changes personally impact the characters she’s chosen to experience it through, and then ripple from them into the wider world. It’s politically heavy and there’s a lot of intrigue here, but there’s also a lot of very quiet personal moments as well.
Where Shadows Lie was absolutely fantastic. From the first page, I knew this was a book I would love reading. It put Pescatore on my radar as an author to watch. I can’t wait to see where she takes this series next.
There were points when I was reading this book when I thought, “Nell really is having one hell of a good time writing, isn’t he?” I mean, I could practically feel how much fun he was having. The pace is pretty breakneck and there are some amazing action scenes, but beyond all that, the Dark Sea’s End is full of a sense of wonder, and curiosity that really worked for me. There’s something addicting about reading a book you know the author really loved writing. That passion is there, on every page and it made the book burn bright.
Different in tone from his previous work, yet no less wonderful for it, Dark Sea’s End is a brilliant start of a new series. No long expositions, or infodumps, this book might be a bit more accessible to readers looking for a fast-paced adventure story. Yet, there are deeper themes at play here as well. Superb character development and Nell’s incredible knack for prose that positively shine, Dark Sea’s End is a homerun.