Last year I started my best-of list hoping that 2021 would be a better year for all of us in many regards. That, unfortunately, did not materialize; and we hope you are all doing well despite the circumstances. But, we did get some good books. As usual, we managed to collectively read over 100 books published in 2021, and from that large number, we have identified our top 21 reads of the year. If I am being honest, this was not fantasy’s year. There were a number of stand-out hits, but the general quality wasn’t as high as usual. However, into that power vacuum science fiction flowed. This is the largest number of high-ranking science fiction books we have had since starting the site, and all of them are worth your time. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2020 into this list, and December 2021 will roll into 2021’s list (I am looking at you, Leviathan Falls). Without further ado, let’s dive into the best stories of 2021.
21) Black Water Sister by Zen Cho – Gangsters, ghosts, and gods. That’s what you’re up against in Black Water Sister. Zen Cho’s standalone story is a brilliant blend of reality and the supernatural set against the vibrancy of Malaysia. The setting in this story was so unique and truly brought this story to life. The book explores identity, family, and pervasive pasts through the eyes of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. Jess is living dual lives while stumbling through a country where the lines are blurring between the traditional and modern world. It’s a fascinating place that remains rooted while shifting forward at the same time, and it’s the perfect backdrop for Jess who also weaves in and out of different worlds of her own. Jess as a character is a fascinating element of this story, especially as we see her struggling with her many identities. Cho does a masterful job of intersecting Jess’ real-life struggles and supernatural ones, making each one feel weighted and real. Black Water Sister is an exciting blend and Cho’s masterful storytelling is on display. It’s such a strong standalone you will wish there was more story left to tell. You can find our full review here.
20) The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick – Mask is a part political thriller, part heist novel, part superhero origin story, and all glamorous outfits all the time. This book has an innovative and fun take on a heist with a sort of Russian nesting doll of trickery abound that makes things delightfully complicated. It creates a huge number of chances for character growth and depth and Carrick capitalizes on those opportunities. The joint writers did such a fantastic job blending their styles that I could never tell them apart. But that might have to do with the fact that the entire book is just so amazingly good at making you care about the authors’ passions. Mask is stuffed with things that the authors clearly care a lot about on a personal level. There is so much detail and page space devoted to describing the outfits that characters are wearing – and it absolutely works. There is clear importance of dress woven into the narrative like a thread that makes all the details about lace and sleeves feel exciting. Carrick’s passion for clothing is also infectious. I found myself thinking about throwing out some old ugly sweaters on multiple occasions and started browsing expensive suits even though I have nowhere to wear them thanks to the COVID plague. Some of the other passions of the book involve tarot, masquerades, bureaucracy, dreams, masked vigilantes, and mercantile negotiations. All of these will haunt your mind and imagination as you read Mask as Carrick’s passion pulls you into a riptide of empathy. You can find our full review here.
19) Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund – I am honestly a little surprised how far down this list Fury of a Demon ended up given that the book is phenomenal. It just goes to show you how many great books we got this year. Naslund has rapidly become a top author to watch at The Quill to Live. With Fury, Naslund rounds out his first trilogy with a nice bang. This eco-fantasy feels like a pioneer in the next wave of fantasy stories influenced by the new context that surrounds the genre in an ever-changing world. Naslund definitely sticks the landing to give us one of the best fantasy trilogies in years. The Dragons of Terra is my new sleeper recommendation when I want to give someone a surefire hit that they definitely haven’t heard of. Now that you know my secret, the least you can do is pick yourself up a copy of this wonderful series and help me spread the word. I will have you converted to a Naslund Evangelist in no time. You can find our full review here.
18) The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft – 2021 was a year of finales with a number of major series coming to a close. I am happy to report that all of these endings were delivered with fantastic fanfare befitting their series, with The Fall of Babel being no exception. The Fall of Babel takes everything that the series evokes and opines in its four books and distills it into an ending that represents the best of Bancroft’s ideas. Mysteries that have haunted the reader the entire series are finally answered, to great satisfaction. But they also lead to new questions and enigmas that just extend the chain of confusion past the last page. Its pages are brimming with mystery and friendship and the story is a treasure map that shows the way to important questions and priceless ideas. This is a series that has absolutely earned its status as a modern classic. You can find our full review here.
17) A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Here we are again with another gigantic book by Bradley P. Beaulieu – filled with wonderful prose and thrilling worldbuilding set in an original Arabian-inspired world. This is my final plea for you to go check it out. But, now there is an added incentive: the series is finished with A Desert Torn Asunder and the ending was great. There is now a full six-book epic fantasy in its full glory awaiting you. What is stopping you from picking up this great set of books? Go get them. There are very few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as The Song of the Shattered Sands. The worldbuilding is phenomenal – ending the series with an extremely well fleshed-out set of countries, multiple deep original magic systems, and nuanced culture that varies by region and class. This is a world that is easy to slip into and hard to leave. It has rarely seen motifs around parenting and has a robust cast of deep and complicated characters set in a world very different from your classic fantasy fare. Don’t let this gem pass you by. You can find our full review here.
16) Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit surprised me in a lot of ways. For starters, it is one of our Dark Horses for 2021, so I knew almost nothing about it other than its plot synopsis. It contains a lot of story elements I don’t particularly gravitate towards (romance, trauma, and arranged marriage to name a few). But when I dug in I found myself reading a book about characters that anyone can relate to, a story that is as clever as it is entertaining, and a novel that is one of the strongest debuts of the year. The characters are relatable and complex, the romance is different and compelling, and the world and politics are imaginative and fun. There is tons of chemistry among the cast and the rich setting of the world creates interesting angles to explore new ideas in science fiction romance. Cast aside any hesitation you have about this romantic story and give it a spin. I guarantee you will find yourself over the moon with joy. You can find our full review here.
15) Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur – Folklorn is a story that caught me off guard and it had a hold of me before I could realize its teeth had sunk in. Angela Mi Young Hur tells a beautiful and disturbing story of a woman confronting her past and the family secrets, racism, and mental illness that has plagued her life. The poignant and powerful moments are framed beautifully through the eyes of the main protagonist, Elsa. Hur’s writing style produces an enchanting and haunting effect, weaving deep themes amidst a hallucinatory tale that makes it hard to determine what is and is not real. Even though the book wasn’t as focused on the fantastical as I originally thought, I was still captivated by the human experience shrouding the mystical elements. This is a story that definitely stands out from the typical Fantasy TBR. The story’s impact is both devastating and hopeful and has the potential to stick with you for a long time after you close the back cover. You can find our full review here.
14) Under The Whispering Door by T.J. Klune – T.J. Klune graces our best-of list for the second year in a row. This time around, he tackles death, regret, and grief in the beautiful Under The Whispering Door. Loathsome lawyer Wallace Price takes a sick pride in his aggressive persona. Nothing matters more to him than work—not even his employees. When Wallace suddenly dies (no spoilers, this happens in chapter one), he’s forced to contend with the choices he made in life before he can “move on” into the unknown. Klune showcases his writing chops once again in this book, much as he did in last year’s The House in the Cerulean Sea. The author excels at creating warm, welcoming environments where his characters can be comfortable asking tough questions and diving deep into personal issues. Whispering Door meets you, the reader, on your terms, nudging you to deal with death and grief in your own way and on your own time. It’s a wonderful outing from start to finish. You can find our full review here.
13) The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman – The Blacktongue Thief is the first book in the Blacktongue series and a book that left me with a profound sense of deja vu. It is a book that I felt I had read before, yet is bursting to the seams with originality and authorial flare. It’s crammed full of some of the most fun and iconic tropes that many readers like to see in a fantasy novel, but all of them are distinctly off. Buehlman is a master of using your expectations to surprise and delight you, while also telling his own magical story set in a memorable world with a colorful cast of characters. It’s also based on the fantastic premise of ‘what if student loans existed in a magical world’, so there is a lot going on here. Its plot and characters sunk their little goblin teeth into me and wouldn’t let go, and now I am anxious for the sequel after its cliffhanger of an ending. I thought the book’s commentary on debt and what it does to people added a little depth to an entertaining story. It’s grimdark, it’s witty, and it’s a mess in the best way possible. You can find our full review here.
12) The Veiled Throne by Ken Liu – With the fourth and final book of The Dandelion Dynasty coming out in the near future, there has never been a better time to read Ken Liu’s silkpunk epic. This series is criminally underread and the third installment in the quartet, The Veiled Throne, is one of the best books of the year. Throne had the unenviable job of building back up a story that had just been broken down. It succeeded at this difficult task beyond my wildest imagination, becoming in my mind the strongest entrant of the three books in the series currently out. The wonderful deep themes, the powerful character stories, and the unconventional plot subjects (like a cooking competition) all came together to make The Veiled Throne stand out as one of the most thoughtful books of the year. Throne is the first of many thematic books with a heavy atmosphere that graces the top of this year’s list. Although it is certainly work, I recommend you make time for this well-written and under-read series. The generational character development is in a class of its own and there are very few things as mechanically well written that came out this year. You can find our full review here.
11) The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers – There is nothing quite like an emotionally devastating science fiction slice of life with small stakes and a lot of heart. The one and only Becky Chambers has published her final installment of The Wayfarers. It was sad to see the end of one of the absolute favorite series of The Quill to Live, but all good things must end. Although Galaxy didn’t quite achieve the level of splendor that book three, Record of a Spaceborn Few, did, it was still a masterpiece of storytelling. Although it will hit you with a few heavy blows to the heart, Galaxy is a book best described as low-key. The book is nicely paced, like a wonderful lazy river after a hot day in the sun. The characters are impossible to dislike, and the story is a perfect mix of breezy, warm, and provocative. It is a perfect swansong to the series and felt like a much-needed de-escalation from the high intensity and stress that came with 2021. Chambers is one of the best writers in the genre right now and I positively cannot wait to see what project she has in store for readers next after sticking the landing with this cannot-miss series. You can find our full review here.
10) When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson – When I read When the Sparrow Falls earlier this year I mentioned that this topical sci-fi spy thriller was a shoo-in for our best-of list, and I am glad I was correct in my prediction. The writing is excellent, the plot is thrilling, it’s extremely emotional, the characters are great, and the themes provide smart and insightful commentary on our current political landscape. It does all of this in a relatively small package of about 300 pages. Many of the themes surround the purpose and effect of human suffering, the nature of religion and god, the responsibility and effect of government, and the nature of humanity. These themes are presented in a fantastically compelling manner, and I found myself thinking about the points of the book every time I set it down. When the Sparrow Falls is an absolute home run of a book that succeeds on every possible metric I review books by. Its poetic writing and sharp observations will make you think, while its thrilling nature and great characters will keep you engrossed. You can find our full review here.
9) Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy cemented Thompson as a must-read for me, and Heaven only distinguishes this feeling more plainly. It’s a standalone locked room murder mystery set on a spaceship full of travelers in cryosleep, what more can you want? Well, how about stakes that are well-realized, characters that fill their tropes to bursting, and all gorey gooeyness that Thompson perfectly captures with his sharp writing skills. The main story is tightly focused, delivering a cascade of bad news as the mystery unfolds. Thompson’s choice to include storylines outside of the bottled mystery deepened the need to solve the mystery without artificially inflating the ramifications. It’s a fun time that takes its idea seriously without sacrificing its entertainment value. If you want a thrilling science fiction horror set on a spaceship, look no further. You can find our full review here.
8) A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine – The sequel to Martine’s explosive debut, A Memory Called Empire delivered everything I wanted and more. A tightly interwoven plot, told from four different perspectives that involve first contact, the ascension of a throne, and the budding relationship between two women? Count me in! Whereas the first book dealt with identity in the face of overwhelming force, Peace explores the liminal spaces of unknown territory. Places such as a friendship that could be more intimate, the story of a spy/diplomat returning to a home that no longer views them as one of their own, and an unfathomable alien threat on the frontiers of the empire. Martine handles it all so deftly, making each storyline feel momentous and carry appropriate weight, intertwining them to build a steady tension that grows tauter with each chapter. And when she pulls the final thread, Martine reveals a beautiful tapestry that feels earned and rewarding. You can find our full review here.
7) The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw – Khaw’s science fiction foray is a real barn burner. Who can resist a tale about an infamous gang of cloned female outlaws getting back together to attempt the heist that broke them? I certainly couldn’t, and I won’t forget it either. Khaw’s use of language to tell the ferocious story of the group’s attack dog trying to force the group together is an emotional journey that literally rages against the machine. Sure it’s filled with more uttering of the word fuck than your average adult film, but it’s bombastic and earned. The friendships these women experienced, and attempt to rekindle are forceful and display the full spectrum of emotions one would expect. If you can get past all of the cussing, and don’t mind a bit of hyperviolence, this story of broken women learning to heal their past grievances is one for your shelves. You can find our full review here.
6) A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske – A Marvellous Light is utterly delightful and is one of the most perfect stories I’ve read in 2021. Freya Marske conjures all the right stuff, from the thoughtful characters, unique magic system, and intriguing plot. There’s a lot that makes this story good, but the characters are what makes it great. Edwin and Robin are gems that steal the show immediately with their endearing cat-dog dynamic. Their interactions are compelling, and I was engaged beyond measure every time the two of them shared a room. Marske did a fabulous job bringing these characters to life in real ways that established deep emotional connections with the reader. The book also explores a complex magic system within society and family which brings about interesting implications for the duo who are also hiding their true selves as gay men in the early 1900s. The story is engaging, the magic is inspiring, and Marske will quickly enrapture you with her awe-inspiring tale while pulling all your heartstrings. You can find our full review here.
5) Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler – Wexler has a few projects ongoing currently, but the one I love most at the moment is his Burningblade and Silvereye trilogy. The first book in the series, Ashes of the Sun, was one of my top picks for 2020 and now the second book, Blood of the Chosen, has followed in its footsteps. The sibling dynamic in this story is everything I want and the worldbuilding has created a dystopian hellscape that is both terrifying and a place I would love to explore. Chosen is a fantastic trilogy bridge book that managed to take the explosive start gifted by Ashes of the Sun, run with it, and perfect the baton pass to set up the final book with high stakes and complete reader buy-in. The action is awesome, with several moments of the story still playing over in my mind many months later. There is levity, trauma, humor, emotional devastation, and powerful group chemistry that keeps the reader turning page after page. This series is a modern classic in the making and I am sure that the third book in the series will grace one of our future best-of lists. You can find our full review here.
4) Requiem Moon by C. T. Rwizi – Every so often I stumble across a fantastically wonderful new series that is flying under the radar. These are always my favorite moments as a reviewer because it means I get to stand on my little pedestal and become a town crier for a new series worth your time. Requiem Moon is one such book. Moon is a story that is categorically punching above its weight class for its page length. The depth of its culture, characters, and plot all defy its 500-page size, and feel like you are reading a much larger science fantasy epic. The story is mysterious, packed to the brim with adventure, and has a world and magic system that pulls from African lore. It tackles very interesting thematic subjects, like the nature of suffering and the effects of the forced isolationism and retardation of Africa by outside powers. Throughout all of this, Rwizi’s prose reads like he is here to have a good time with a blockbuster story packed with action and magic, but there is real depth underneath it. The core cast is made up of a foursome of characters who end up on this quest together. Salo is the main voice and he feels rich and deep. He has clear strengths and weaknesses in character and his companions help him confront and improve his issues. This great treatment is applied to all of the companions as well with all of them are having a coming-of-age journey that mirrors their collective pilgrimage and is poetic. The chemistry of the group is fabulous. On top of all of this Requiem Moon is a book that feels incredibly fresh, with new ideas and new characters with substance and complexity. This is one of my favorite discoveries in the last few years. You can find our full review here.
3) Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer – The perfect swan song to an astonishing series, Perhaps the Stars is a wonder to behold. It’s a challenge to read and utterly unique. Ada Palmer pulls out all the stops in her gripping finale, unveiling a cascade of revelations amongst some truly breathtaking battles. Again the story is told using her signature reliably unreliable narration that switches between linguistic styles on the fly. It’s filled to the brim with anxiety, intrigue, and good old-fashioned enlightenment philosophy. Palmer captures the terror of war in a world without borders that has not seen war for nearly three centuries. It feels like you’re reading history from the future which only strengthens Palmer’s conversational tone. Palmer cleverly doles out the reveals to many of the series’ built-up mysteries throughout the book, giving it a steady pace for fans. But don’t worry, it’s still the challenging work that you’ve come to know and love, but the effort and the wait is more than worth it. Perhaps the Stars cements the Terra Ignota quadrilogy a piece of the science fiction genre that will be talked about for years, a one-of-a-kind experience that you should try as soon as possible. You can find our full review here.
2) Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky – The three pillars of success that hoist Shards of Earth into my top books of 2021 are storytelling, characters, and worldbuilding. The fantastic concepts of the book are well-realized through Tchaikovsky’s great plotting and experience-enhancing prose. Shards is a new take on the idea of dealing with cosmic entities beyond our comprehension, and they are overwhelmingly terrifying and alien. Tchaikovsky beautifully captures the emotional impact of living like your world could be obliterated at the drop of a hat by an entity completely out of your control, and it works very well as one of the major themes of the story. The plot has fantastic pacing, moving quickly from set piece to set piece and telling a story that exists both as to its own self-contained tale and sets up future plotlines for the larger series. It is the exact sort of big storytelling, with high attention to detail, that I love to see in my space operas. On top of this, the cast is amazing. There is a core crew of space adventures on a ship, as well as a number of POVs from rival factions, antagonists, and everything in between that go the extra mile to build out the world and paint a vivid and deep universe around the story. The different worlds and factions contribute to worldbuilding that begs to be expanded upon and explored. The “parts” of the book are broken into a focus on different planets that the protagonists spend time exploring, and each of them had a very unique feel and style that enhanced the feelings of adventure in the story. It felt like Indiana Jones in space and I could not put Shards of Earth Down. I loved the cast, the world, and the story. It is one of the sure-fire wins of the year. You can find our full review here.
1) The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie – Well this is a first. A round of applause to Abercrombie for the back-to-back first-place book, in the same series no less. The Wisdom of Crowds is a masterpiece, and one of my favorite books of all time. As usual, I don’t want to say too much about Wisdom as it’s best to read it, and all of Abercrombie’s work, with as little knowledge as possible. This book has spawned an endless conversation about its themes and ideas among our reviewers. It has the powerful ability to make you step outside your life and question your preconceived notions about how the world works. Abercrombie is likely the best endings writer I have read, and the finale of his newest trilogy is no exception. The end of each character arc in this story stays with you. These people, who feel like real individuals, not fictional beings, sit in your heart and mind and suffuse you with emotions. Abercrombie’s trifecta of endings, characters, and action make his books one of a kind. Wisdom manages to be fun, deep, gripping, exciting, thoughtful, and traumatizing all at the same time. The man sat down and wrote a book that can do it all. For those of you who haven’t read this legendary author, I recommend you go pick up The Blade Itself. For a long time, I had a strict rule about explicitly recommending Abercrombie because it’s hard to explain why he’s a great author without spoiling some of his brilliance. There is nothing quite like reading an Abercrombie novel for the first time and he is one of the few authors I wish I could read fresh again. But, since his books have been number one on our list for two years running, and all his other works rank among our top picks ever, I think it’s safe to say that we recommend him. The Wisdom of Crowds is The Quill to Live best book of 2021 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You can find our full review here.
A note from the QTL team. Happy 2021, and we wish you the best of all holidays from our families to yours. We typically do not ask our readers for assistance in promoting our work, but as we spend an enormous amount of time working on our end-of-year wrap-up, and shares and posts of this list are greatly appreciated. In addition, if you would like to purchase any of these titles from a store that does a better job supporting authors than Amazon, please use the bookshop link above. We hope you have a wonderful 2022 and we look forward to showing you our new list next year!