Is it just me or do others also feel that 2021 was an amazing year for great science fiction and fantasy? I don’t do that many list posts, but it’s especially interesting to look back over a year’s reading to put things in perspective. And yes, I do believe this was an incredible year. My version of 10 great SFF books of 2021 necessarily omits a lot of wonderful fiction I just couldn’t get to, but what I did read still resonates in my mind.
Here are some of my favorites in no particular order – listed this way because I don’t like to pit one book against another. I learned much that was unique and wonderful from each of these and could have extended the list, but this will have to do for now. My 10 favorite SFF books of 2021 are:
Pacific Storm by Linda Nagata
As I said in my review, I put off reading this novel because I was so infatuated with Nagata’s far-future Inverted Frontier series that I just wasn’t looking for a near-future story about a storm. But I’m so glad I got into it. For me, Pacific Storm is as close to a perfect piece of writing in SFF thriller mode as I’ve encountered. That was the same feeling I got when reading her first military scifi novel, Red. I couldn’t put it down. To quote my review: “Pacific Storm has that feel-it-in-yours-bones tension that pushes you toward its resolution with the literary equivalent of hurricane-force winds.”
Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky has been turning out wildly inventive books at a terrific rate, and there is already a sequel to this first book in the Architects series in press. The terrifying Architects are a mysterious species that appear over planets suddenly in moon-sized ships and proceed to turn them inside out, destroying all the inhabitants. Arrayed against this seemingly unstoppable power are an assortment of species including surgically altered humans who have mental abilities that may be able to deter the Architects. Shards of Earth is exciting and brilliant from beginning to end.
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
The second book in her Teixcalaan series, A Desolation Called Peace takes a much different but no less brilliant approach from Martine’s debut, A Memory Called Empire. Rather than narrating from a single point of view, Desolation develops four point of view characters. This enables a much more complex story to unfold, yet for me its best moments are all about the frustrated relationship between Mahit, the Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan and narrator of Memory, and Three Seagrass, who started out as her Teixcalaan liaison but became a more powerful figure in her own right. It’s a richly rewarding novel on many levels.
Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North
In a broken Europe ravaged by the massive burning caused by the previous era of exploitation, two spies find themselves in a race to see which will be exposed first. Ven works for the Temple and the Council that is trying to unifying the surviving countries under a philosophy that eschews the old forms of exploitation. Georg is part of an effort to overthrow the Council and restore a power-based politics and human domination of the environment. The characters and ideas are complex but flow naturally in an intriguing story. By far my favorite Claire North novel.
The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar
I never know what to expect from a Lavie Tidhar novel, except that it will be dazzling. The Escapement starts quietly enough: A man who has been sitting with his very ill son in a hospital room steps out for some fresh air and notices a small red flower by the sidewalk. Then we see that flower through the eyes of the Stranger in a surreal, barren landscape. We are off on a brilliant and unpredictable tour of a world only Tidhar could imagine. With his six-shooters, the Stranger rides his horse on a quest for a healing flower. This novel is a strange mix of darkly comic violence and the quiet devotion of a father’s love for his son.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Never having read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, I picked up her Piranesi with no preconceptions about the sort of book it might be and promptly fell in love with it. It’s a masterful fable about life in this world that introduces us to the mind of a narrator who proclaims himself to be one of only two living people in a fantastic labyrinth. Piranesi raises profound questions of memory and consciousness, of identity and the way people experience their environment and themselves. For me, it’s one of the genuine masterpieces of recent speculative fiction.
Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds
I waited a long time to get back to the heart of the Revelation Space universe, the series of books that really hooked me on science fiction. Here at last in Inhibitor Phase is a book that links directly to all that future history and delves into questions I’d always been curious about. That said, (though I’m not the best judge) I believe anyone new to this universe can read Inhibitor Phase as a stand alone adventure. Reynolds has pared down his style, introduced new characters and provided all the necessary background tightly integrated into the new story. It’s a great book.
These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed
Premee Mohamed published three remarkable novellas in 2021, and, while I wish I could pack them all in this spot, These Lifeless Things struck me most deeply. She manages to challenge basic ideas about story-telling and belief while delivering a brilliantly written and unforgettable tale, one that grows on me after I put the book down. All that in a short novella. Mohamed is an absolutely astonishing writer. If you haven’t read her work before, this is a fine place to start.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
From the brilliant opening of Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control, when we meet the confident Sankofa, just fourteen, walking a road in rural Ghana (“Small swift steps made with small swift feet”) the hints of her extraordinary power are everywhere. She is a subject of rumor, people hide from her approach, she wears adult clothes though she has the frame of a ten year-old, a strange species of red fox follows her everywhere, and she knocks on the door of a wealthy family’s house, saying “Death has come to visit.” This is a great short novel that should not be missed.
The Fallen by Ada Hoffman
As the second book in Ada Hoffman’s The Outside series, The Fallen picks up where The Outside left off but is less concerned with a continuing adventure than with deep probing of all the major characters. There is plenty of action as well, but I was totally absorbed in understanding the minds and backgrounds of the extraordinary and mostly neurodiverse people who were deeply affected by the extradimensional force known as the Outside. You can read The Fallen for its own intrinsic interest, but naturally it becomes all the more resonant if you first read The Outside.