The Best Books of 2021

Over the course of another very strange year, some rather special books came out. Join me as I discuss my ten favourite releases of 2021!

Doors of Sleep, Tim Pratt (Angry Robot)

Tim Pratt’s Doors of Sleep came out in January this year, but was read and reviewed at the tail end of 2020 after my earlier cutoff point for assessing books last year, meaning it just missed out on being eligible to be included back then. As soon as I read it, though, I knew it had to make it onto a top ten list. Doors of Sleep is an extremely satisfying slice of pure escapism, a dimension-hopping adventure across a dizzying selection of worlds, each one of which Pratt pulls out of his sleeve with a showman’s ease. These worlds are visited thanks to the mysterious ability of main character Zax, who wakes up in a new one every time he falls asleep, taking with him anyone he was in physical contact with at the moment he drifted off. But a dimension-spanning threat could spell disaster across the multiverse, and Zax and his allies will have to learn some new tricks if they’re to stand any chance of surviving. With a core of loveable characters and an abundance of imaginative worldbuilding, Doors of Sleep is an unadulterated joy. You can read my review here.

“Its relatively slim size belies just how much Doors of Sleep has to offer. It’s a well-crafted, entertaining slice of escapist science fiction with not a word wasted, an action-packed adventure across a multiverse that promises much and delivers on every count. Hugely enjoyable.”

Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Solaris)

What is there to say about Black Sun that hasn’t already been said? I mean, even by the time I got to it – which was as soon as I could, by the way – it had already been out in the US for some time, and was rightly being hailed as a hugely original slice of modern fantasy. Taking the pre-Columbian Americas as her inspiration, Rebecca Roanhorse spins a tale that’s an exciting and fresh take on epic fantasy. Multiple main characters inhabit a world that feels vibrant and exciting, and never feels novel for the sake of being novel. Cacao beans are traded as currency, powerful clans scheme to overthrow their rulers and a man with a dark destiny begins to come into his power. Meanwhile, Sun Priest Naranpa attempts to avert disaster as she’s forced to watch her own back, and sailor Xiala – mistrusted by men due to her kind’s magical power of them – desperately tries to keep her crew on course. Black Sun was a ray of sunshine during a pretty gloomy time (and not just seasonally). You can read my review here.

“It feels vital, technicoloured and alive, chock full of interesting characters with their own stories to tell and a rich history behind it all. Part two can’t come soon enough.”

Glow, Tim Jordan (Angry Robot)

 Sometimes, you read a synopsis for a book and you just know it’s for you. Nanodrugs, cyber nuns and void-birthed assassins. Ok, yes, these things all sound very cool, but a few cool concepts do not automatically result in a brilliant book. Happily, Tim Jordan has the skill to take all of his great ideas and wrap them up in a stylish, slick, cyberpunk package. This is a vision of the future that’s grubby without ever being overwhelmingly bleak – the mysterious titular drug ravaging the mind of Rex could make things just too sad, but the deadly Jett carving a path through the private armies stupid enough to stand in his way is very much the yin to his yang. Rex’s state of mind allows for deep dives on the subject of memory, while in the next scene Jett will be dodging bullets and turning people into their various component parts. It’s all very, very cool, and the news that there’s a sequel on the way makes me extremely happy. You can read my review here.

Glow is an immensely entertaining and hugely ambitious debut, a tale of technology running riot – quite literally, in some cases – that’s packed with interesting ideas and themes, not to mention visceral action perpetrated by morally grey characters. Tim Jordan has aimed high here, and it’s paid off spectacularly. One to watch.”

Birds of Paradise, Oliver K. Langmead (Titan Books)

Birds of Paradise was an extremely strange reading experience for me, one which I hadn’t had before. I am not a religious person, so it’s obvious that the fact that it got to me as much as it did was due to some kind of magic powers on the part of writer Oliver K. Langmead. I just felt like I had been spiritually laid bare by this book, in the best way possible. Set mostly in the UK, the novel sees the biblical Adam attempting to gather pieces of the Garden of Eden, helped along the way by some of the original wildlife of the garden – mainly the birds. All of Adam’s friends, feathered or not, have different personalities and abilities, as well as – for the most part – seeming to be considerably more “with it” than Adam himself is. As the avatar for all humanity, Adam has seen and experienced unimaginable cruelty and suffering, much of it written in scars across his immense bulk – he is a force of nature, equal parts destructive and tender, and his journey is unforgettable. You can read my review here.

“There is a poetry to not just the prose but the plot itself, the events which unfold memorably potent and incredibly moving. It is immensely readable yet packed with subtlety and sharply defined imagery, a mesmerising work of sorrowful beauty and uplifting joy.”

Composite Creatures, Caroline Hardaker (Angry Robot)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always get quite excited when I hear a poet is writing a novel. It’s bizarre really, because I don’t really read a lot of poetry, but I just feel like a novel written by a poet has lots of stylistic promise. My belief was borne out in Composite Creatures, Caroline Hardaker’s debut novel. In a vision of the future which looks from a distance very similar to our present, main character Norah has signed up to a controversial and mysterious medical programme. Hardaker teases out the details of this programme gradually, and the more we find out about it, the less we trust it. The world, meanwhile, is a toxic mess, our unchecked destruction of the environment not obscured by our artful attempts to make everything look normal – whether it’s with the arts and crafts style cardboard pine cones or the version of us we present to one another. You can read my review here.

“You can practically feel it clinging to you as you read, working its way under your skin insidiously on its way to total absorption. Its subtle wrongness is wonderfully unsettling, its mysteries engaging and enticing, with a main character who feels utterly believable. A dark delight.”

The Stranding, Kate Sawyer (Hodder & Stoughton)

2022 was yet another year in which you could be forgiven for thinking that nobody would want to read about the end of the world, but you would be wrong. Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding found plenty of fans, the Costa Award judges among them, as it has since made the shortlist for the First Novel Award. And with good reason. Main character Ruth finds herself in New Zealand as the apocalypse hits, surviving the firestorm by sheltering inside the body of a beached whale. With fellow survivor Nik, she struggles to survive in the desolate wasteland the world has become. Woven throughout this narrative is the one showing us how she ended up in this situation though – the relationship she was enduring rather than enjoying, her loving family, her home and friends, all of it totally believable and just as absorbing as her post-apocalyptic trials. A stirring and emotional debut which is more than worthy of your consideration. You can read my review here.

The Stranding is nothing less than a triumph – a beautiful story of love, family and friendship, told with real skill and empathy. This is the sort of book I would have no trouble recommending to practically anyone.”

The Fall of Koli, M.R. Carey (Orbit)

All good things must come to an end, and the Rampart trilogy was a very good thing indeed. Following the journey of young Koli as he makes his way across the war-wracked landscape of Ingland was an absolute pleasure in the first two books, and the stage was set for revelations and huge showdowns in March’s The Fall of Koli. M.R. Carey – unsurprisingly – did not disappoint, delivering a conclusion that was extremely satisfying and memorable, as well as packed with emotional payoffs. Koli’s unique narration is present once again in this final volume, as he desperately tries to save his people (even if they would sooner see him dead). With the mutated flora and fauna of this once green and pleasant land ever on the lookout for fresh meat, as well as some more traditional enemies on the warpath, this was always going to be epic. You can read my review here.

The Fall of Koli is as good a conclusion as you could possibly want to a series, an epic and emotional end to the journey of one of the most memorable heroes in recent years. Even after two previous books in the series, Carey still finds ways to not only surprise us, but to get us even more invested in the fate of this vividly realised world too. Consider this landing well and truly stuck.”

The Broken God, Gareth Hanrahan (Orbit)

It won’t be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly that I’m a huge fan of Gareth Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy series. No surprises for those regulars, then, that The Broken God makes the cut here, just as The Shadow Saint did last year. The third book in the series (with more to come) is as alchemically awesome as those which preceded it, although to stray too far into the plot would risk spoiling key events from the previous two books. Suffice to say – if you like the sound of an alchemy charged, steampunk world of warring, mad gods and the mortals who do everything in their power to really get up their divine noses, this is the series for you. It’s perhaps a cliché to say that the setting is another character in itself, but Guerdon really is in these books. The whole place drips with atmosphere and shines under a thick coating of muck and alchemical runoff, to the extent where you’ll find yourself checking under your fingernails when you put the book down. Cracking stuff. You can read my review here.

“Hanrahan continues to build on the impressive foundations laid by the two excellent previous books, expanding on a world which once again surprises and delights with its dark wonders and disturbing creatures.”

Kings of a Dead World, Jamie Mollart (Sandstone Press)

Coming out of nowhere – literally – Jamie Mollart’s Kings of a Dead World turned up at work one day, and my manager very wisely passed it onto me, correctly assessing that it was very much my sort of thing. In the distant future, a pocket of humanity that has managed to survive the climate crisis clings to life thanks to The Sleep. For three months out of every four, the city goes into hibernation, its residents sedated, while caretakers watch over them and gamble on the markets to try and increase the populace’s meagre resources. Petruzzi is one such caretaker, diligent to the core, until one night a fellow caretaker encourages him to see what lies beyond the boundaries of the city. With his head full of the mysteries of the world of before, his story rushes headlong beside Ben’s; an ageing resident, he’s forced to watch his wife’s condition deteriorate as she succumbs to the illness plaguing her. With harrowing visions of the decline of civilisation that feel all too plausible, Kings of a Dead World is an incisive and propulsive dose of dystopian cli-fi. You can read my review here.

“With its frightening future Britain and original dystopian ideas, Kings of a Dead World feels both visionary and vital. Its literary merits also make it an easy recommendation for fans of the likes of Ben Smith’s Doggerland, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and J.G. Ballard.”

Shards of Earth, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Pan Macmillan)

In the year in which I discovered Adrian Tchaikovsky (I use the word “discover” very lightly, I’m pretty sure some other people have heard of him), he released a frankly ridiculous number of books. Two novels and three novellas, I think? That’s more than some writers manage in their entire careers! Anyway, as I’ve decided that this list is all novels, not novellas, the very funny and excellent One Day All This Will be Yours can’t make it on here. Shards of Earth, however, most definitely can. In the aftermath of a war that humanity was very much on the losing side of – until their opposition, the Architects, just upped and disappeared – Idris plies his trade as an Intermediary, one of the rare breeds of humans able to navigate unspace and ferry his crew across the galaxy while they sleep. But the mysterious Architects, long thought vanished, might be making a comeback. Featuring the most motley found family crew you could hope for, tons of action and mind bogglingly inventive worldbuilding, Shards of Earth was a delight from start to finish. You can read my review here.

Shards of Earth is more than just a promising opening salvo – it’s an all guns blazing, no holds barred adventure across space, with large scale action set pieces, frantically paced skirmishes and likeable characters. It’s a high bar to set for the first part of a trilogy, but if anyone can clear it with books two and three, it’s Adrian Tchaikovsky.”

So there we have it, my top ten books released this year. Have you read any of the ones that made my list? Are you tempted to now? And what were some of your favorites? I’ll stop bombarding you with questions now, and just wish you all a happy new year!

5 thoughts on “The Best Books of 2021

    1. It really was! There’s plenty that I didn’t have chance to read too, which I’m looking forward getting to (Bear Head, The Swimmers, The Second Rebel, others). I have some catching up to do!

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