This year we read tons of books. Whether we bought a hard copies at the local bookstore or checked out audiobooks from a library app, or consumed them via e-reader. Lots new authors wrote fantastic debuts in 2021, while many of our favorite authors continued their sprawling series — ones we were extremely excited to jump back into.
If you love books then you know: They aren’t just escapism, they also inspire introspection, making us think harder about the world we live in. This is precisely the promise of great science fiction and fantasy — categories we’ve chosen to consider in a list together, as fantastic books continue to blur the line between the two speculative genres (and besides, we love to read them all). These 20 books span genres and perspectives — from space operas, to Norse mythology retellings, to romances with a dash of time travel. But all of them gave us something new to consider.
In a year with so many incredible choices, it was hard to narrow down the list. So we’ve also included some of our favorite runners up.
If you’ve read the Wayfarer series, then you know Becky Chambers has a talent for creating hopeful scenarios, despite characters facing down harrowing odds. A Psalm for the Wild-Built has a similarly comforting spirit. The novella is set in a world where robots developed agency — and so humans allowed them to form their own communities.
A human named Dex decides to become a “Tea Monk,” traveling from city to city, offering weary people freshly brewed tea and a listening ear. Their wanderlust leads them to meet a robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a “Wild-Built” who was created from parts spared from other robots. They form an odd friendship, as the two compare the realities of their day-to-day with the pursuits that fill a life. From its dedication — “For anyone who could use a break” — to its meandering spirit, the novella is a perfect read for anyone who wants to slow down a bit.
Black Water Sister is a contemporary ghost story, using the supernatural to weave a tale about intergenerational trauma and the Asian diaspora. Jessamyn Teoh is in the process of moving back to Malaysia with her parents when she starts to hear a voice in her head. But it’s not her own; it’s that of her estranged grandmother Ah Ma. Zen Cho’s portrayal of Ah Ma’s ghostly voice is halfway between chiding family member and portentous spirit — and she uses Jess as an avatar to meddle with family affairs. She hasn’t moved on, thanks to some unfinished business in the mortal realm. These themes are woven together to tell a suspenseful coming-of-age story, as Jess navigates adapting to a new culture and surviving family secrets, as well as her queer identity.
The Bronzed Beasts (The Gilded Wolves #3) by Roshani Chokshi
Roshani Chokshi brings her opulent, 19th century fantasy-heist series to a bittersweet conclusion in The Bronzed Beasts, which begins after Séverin seemingly betrays his friends to chase godhood. Because of the resulting rift, the book is missing a lot of the charming teamwork, trust, and banter that was so core to the previous two installments.
But Chokshi’s refusal to give readers exactly what they want is precisely what makes The Gilded Wolves series so compelling. Plus, all of the heart-wrenching interpersonal angst and introspection doesn’t get in the way of the treasure hunts and puzzle solving that we’ve come to love and expect. Watching the team relearn how to work together after all they’ve been through provides a fascinating new dynamic, as they race against the clock to discover how to save Laila’s life — and figure out whether this found family can ever be put back together again.
Leviathan Falls (The Expanse #9) by James S.A. Corey
The final book in the Expanse series has been a long-time coming (10 years, to be specific) and it is well worth the wait. What started as a geo-political power struggle between residents of Earth, Mars, and the Belt — told as an action-adventure set in the cold vacuum of space — has evolved into an all out fight to save humanity.
The series’ huge questions are finally answered: Who are the ring builders? How, if at all, can we defuse the massive threat they represent? How does the protomolecule play into all of this? The Roci crew has changed over the many years that span the Expanse, and in Leviathan Falls their story comes to a satisfying, bittersweet end.
The Last Watch (The Divide #1) by J.S. Dewes
Adequin Rake is the commanding officer of the Argus, a run-down ship stationed at the edge of the universe, tasked with watching out for the potential return of humanity’s alien enemy the Viators. Rake’s crew of Sentinels is made up of the military’s dregs — criminals, misfits, exiles, and anyone else the government would rather forget about, including a disowned prince.
But when the universe begins collapsing, this band of rogues becomes the last line of defense between humanity’s survival and total annihilation. With no aid coming, tensions are high as the Sentinels have to figure out how to use their scant resources to not only outrun the encroaching edge of the universe, but figure out a way to stop it from collapsing any further. The Last Watch is a thrilling adventure that leans heavily on speculative science and humor, and Dewes’ experience as a cinematographer shows through in her ability to to translate the complex visuals and action onto the page.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a history-spanning tale about storytelling, following the perspectives of five characters in three different eras: an orphan and an outcast in 15th-century Thrace and Constantinople, an ecoterrorist and an octogenarian in 2020 Idaho, and a young girl on a 22nd-century spacecraft. Each of the novel’s vividly drawn characters is connected through the way stories have impacted their lives, particularly a fictional Greek tale about a fool’s quest to reach the mythical utopia Cloud Cuckoo Land.
With its spectacular world-building, rhythmic prose, and deeply empathetic character development, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a remarkable celebration of the comfort, magic, and connections to be found in books, as well as the stewards who preserve and nurture these tales across time.
Fans of Circe will find a lot to love in The Witch’s Heart. Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel is a stirring and heartbreaking reimagining of Norse mythology from the perspective of the witch Angrboda. After being burned at the stake by Odin for refusing to share visions of the future with him, she begins a life of solitude in the woods where the vengeful god can’t find her. But when she meets the trickster god Loki, the pair begin an unconventional marriage and family, setting the world on a path that ultimately leads to Ragnarok.
The Witch’s Heart is a tragic tale about a beautifully complex, resilient woman who is willing to go against the gods and fate in order to protect her children, no matter the cost. And even though you may know how this story turns out, don’t be surprised to find yourself weeping when Angrboda’s story comes to an end.
300 years after the gods went extinct, their human descendants are hunted down and enslaved, while their bones are highly sought after by anyone desperate for riches or power. The brutal, Norse-inspired story follows three characters making their way through this dangerous land, and Gwynne is largely unparalleled when it comes to writing battle scenes. Despite featuring things like deities, ice spiders, and twisted tooth fairies, there is a sense of authenticity in The Shadow of the Gods thanks to the detail Gwynne puts into his world-building. Though he takes his time revealing where the three, largely disparate storylines are headed, by the time you reach the book’s nail-biting climax the slow burn more than pays off.
British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro is hard to pin down, but who would want to? The stylistic and conceptual gap between his mannered historical novel The Remains of the Day, his dystopian science fiction novel Never Let Me Go, and his melancholy Arthurian fantasy The Buried Giant is vast, and each new Ishiguro novel winds up as a surprise.
But those books all connect around the pain of loss and the pressure of societal expectations around it. That builds context for Klara and the Sun, a mournful science fiction novel that starts out feeling like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and gradually becomes something more like a dreamy fable. In a future where the well-off buy android companions (or “Artificial Friends”) for their kids, Klara is an AF who becomes obsessed with her companion Josie, whose health is deteriorating due to genetic tinkering meant to improve her intellect.
Ishiguro filters everything through Klara’s imperfect understanding of the world, giving readers a sense of Josie’s relationships with other people, while Klara’s limitations cause her to miss key cues. It’s a book full of constant, unexpected turns, but the distance between what Klara sees and what readers will intuit is masterfully handled, melancholy, and tense, to the point where this feels as much like constrained horror as science fiction.
Paladin’s Strength (The Saint of Steel #2) by T. Kingfisher
T. Kingfisher loves her paladins. Ursula Vernon’s books under the Kingfisher pseudonym (to separate her adult novels from her several children’s series) have always focused on fantasy characters with an innate practicality and selfless determination. While the paladins in Clocktaur duology and the Saint of Steel books (currently a trilogy, projected as a seven-book series) are defined by their nobility and self-sacrifice, in the Saint of Steel series, they’re also defined by the death of the god they served, which has left them all purposeless and on the brink of madness.
The first three books in the series (Paladin’s Hope also came out in 2021) are all mysteries and romances, each focused on a different protagonist. Paladin’s Strength is the story of Istvhan, a bear of a man who’s navigating the same despair and hopelessness, but still doggedly trying to help people.
He gets diverted by meeting a nun whose order has been kidnapped. Clara’s nature, hinted at in the margins throughout the book, is clear enough, but it’s worth not spelling out, for the fun of the reveal. As in previous books, Kingfisher highlights the protagonists’ mutual longing and misunderstandings, making this a sort of fantasy rom-com, but it’s also built around berserker violence, horrific monsters, and a kind of comforting humor that’s one of Kingfisher’s best stocks-in-trade. The book can be read as a standalone or an introduction to the series; Kingfisher’s unique style and worldview makes for compelling reading. —TR
The second installment in Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series is somehow even better than the first. A Desolation Called Peace finds Mahit Dzmare traveling to the edge of Teixcalaanli space to find a way to communicate with an encroaching alien fleet — a difficult task made more challenging by the fact Mahit is still navigating her bond with Yskandr, as well as working out where her loyalties and home lie after her experiences on Teixcalaan.
The novel switches between the perspectives of Mahit, Three Seagrass, Mahit’s former envoy and the new Undersecretary to the Minister of Information; Nine Hibiscus, the captain of the fleet charged with fostering diplomacy with the hostile aliens; and Eight Antidote, the young clone of the former emperor. Martine’s astounding prose weaves together explorations of cultural identity, communication, imperialism, and identity in a tightly plotted story that burrows deep under your skin.
For those who prefer romantic comedies with a science fiction leaning, Casey McQuiston’s newest romance absolutely delivers. After a life of failing to lay down roots, August moves to New York for a fresh start. She meets Jane, the mysterious woman who is always on the subway at the right time, sporting the same well-loved leather jacket. As August falls for her, she realizes Jane has been trapped on this line since the 1970s — and August is determined to set her free.
Come for the sapphic romance, and stay for the queer found family, late night diner runs, and 70s music references.
The Last Graduate (The Scholomance #2) by Naomi Novik
If you’re a fan of magical boarding school stories, you might have noticed a theme: these schools are incredibly dangerous for the students who attend. But fantasy books don’t usually acknowledge it — focusing, instead, on the wonderment of becoming a witch or wizard. In Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, this violence is fully a part of the plot. Even making it to graduation alive is part of the challenge as the school is bursting with Malificers, deadly creatures that are hungry for students.
The Last Graduate is an energetic follow-up to the excellent A Deadly Education. El is a senior now, intent on translating the Golden Stone sutras and navigating the attention of numerous enclaves, which have finally caught on to her immense power. But will she and her friends even make it through graduation?
This novella is short, but it packs one hell of a punch. In Remote Control, a young girl becomes the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. With the new name of Sankofa, and the power of death in her gaze and touch, she travels from town to town with only a fox companion. The novella feels part folk tale, part technology-driven science fiction.
Like most of Okorafor’s work, Remote Control explores “Africanfuturism,” rather than the “Afrofuturist” label that is often applied to her stories. In a blog post, she explains: “Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.”
She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
A queer reimagining of the story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, She Who Became the Sun is a lyrical exploration of gender, identity, and the cost of desire set against the backdrop of war-torn 14th century China. The brutal historical epic begins when a young peasant girl destined for nothingness takes on the identity of her late brother, Zhu Chongba, who was fated for greatness. At first, living as Zhu is only a means to survive, but over time it transforms into an all-consuming need to claim Zhu’s fate for their own. As Zhu works their way from being a novice at a monastery up through the ranks of the rebel army, they dedicate themselves so fully to being Zhu, even in their own head and heart, in the hopes that doing so will fool Heaven into believing they’re the one destined to achieve the unthinkable.
Teenager Vern is seven months pregnant when she finally escapes the cult she was raised in, and the abusive husband who led it. As the denizens of this compound, Cainland, chase her down, she gives birth to two children, Howling and Feral. Together, they survive in the woods, before a mysterious growth and her own need to survive force her to find refuge in other places.
This incredibly compelling, terrifying, and genre-defying book makes commentary on misogyny, racism, religion, and motherhood through its haunting prose. Rivers Solomon continues to be an absolute force.
Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
In the far-future, humanity is fighting an antagonistic, god-like alien presence called the Architects, capable of obliterating entire planets. Only “intermediaries” can reach through the void of space, making a connection in the vain hope of telling the Architects to stand down. That’s exactly what Idris, a human engineered into an intermediary, did to stop the war 50 years ago. He hasn’t slept a blink since. In the intervening years he’s worked as a contractor on a salvage vessel, the Vulture God — but he’s spurred into action as it looks like the Architects might be coming back.
Shards of Earth is Tchaikovsky’s take on a space opera, full of intergalactic action and geopolitical conflict. The world is as unique and detail-filled as his spider civilization opus, Children of Time. Fans of The Expanse and Mass Effect will have lots to chew on here.
The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker
It’s been eight years since Helene Wecker’s stunning fantasy debut The Golem and the Jinni, and her fans were about ready to give up on her promised sequel. But The Hidden Palace takes up the story seamlessly, and brings back all the elements that made the first book so indelible.
In turn-of-the-century New York City, a genie escaped from captivity and a golem whose master has died fumble through understanding themselves and their relationships to humanity. In The Hidden Palace, they become lovers, but the creation of a male golem and the arrival of a female jinn remind both protagonists of their own natures, and highlight their differences and their dissatisfactions with the world.
With this sequel, Wecker moves the story rapidly forward in time, showing New York’s evolution and highlighting the characters’ unaging bodies and difficulty integrating with a human world. Those are just a few of the many, many threads she juggles in a rich literary novel that digs into what it means to be human, by setting up a series of meaningful contrasts from characters who aren’t.
With Project Hail Mary, Weir is back in full Martian mode, telling a story about a man trying to survive in space through scientific improvisation and experimentation. Project Hail Mary goes much further into speculative science fiction than The Martian — it has the same focus on real physics, chemistry, and the scientific process, but its premise includes a single-celled organism that’s eating the sun, pushing humanity toward extinction.
The protagonist, former junior-high science teacher Ryland Grace, wakes up alone in a spaceship, traveling toward a distant star, with no memory of how he got there. Bit by bit, he has to reassemble his own past and define his future, and Earth’s. The book goes to startling places that shouldn’t be spoiled, and it gets a lot wilder than The Martian, but it keeps the science accessible and thoughtful as a grounding tool. Not quite a Stephen Hawking universe-explainer, and not quite a zippy beach-blanket adventure book, it has some of the best aspects of both.
Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao
In order to fend off the alien Hunduns, Huaxia’s military fight in Chrysalises, massive mecha built from Hundun corpses that are powered by the qi of two people: the male pilot, who controls the Chrysalis, and the female concubine-pilot, who acts like a qi battery until her lifeforce is completely drained. When Zetian’s older sister is killed by a pilot, the peasant girl enlists as a concubine-pilot in order to get close enough to assassinate the man responsible, and enact vengeance on the entire system. But when it’s discovered that Zetian’s willpower is strong enough to drive the Chrysalis and subsume the male pilot’s qi, she becomes a feared Iron Widow, avoiding a military death sentence by being paired up with another criminal pilot. Never one to be cowed by authority, Zetian becomes the biggest threat to the Hunduns and to Huaxia’s patriarchal society in this action-packed story about a woman determined to manipulate, destroy, and rebuild the system to get justice for silenced and sacrificed women.
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Rule of Wolves (King of Scars #2) by Leigh Bardugo
How to Talk to a Goddess (The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic #2) by Emily Croy Barker
The Fall of Koli (Rampart Trilogy #3) by M.R. Carey
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4) by Becky Chambers
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
Future Feeling by Joss Lake
The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
The Veiled Throne by Ken Liu
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor
Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat
Breeder by Honni van Rijswijk
Vespertine (Vespertine #1) by Margaret Rogerson
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Fugitive Telemetry (Murderbot #6) by Martha Wells
Hard Reboot by Django Wexler