2021 was a big year for bookworms and writers alike; while readers had time to sit down and get stuck into our reading lists, authors were hunkering down with their editors and publishers to finalize and release their books to the world — and we’re so thankful they did!
Many of the great heroes of the past year have been published in the science fiction and fantasy genres — no surprises there. After all, these categories offer the reader unparalleled opportunities for both escapism and introspection. What better than being able to see fragments of yourself across countless different worlds and characters? The catch is, even with all the time in the world, it’s hard to know where to begin your reading. That’s why I’ve compiled my top five sci-fi and fantasy books from 2021 that I definitely recommend you add to your reading list this year. And, don’t worry if you’d rather listen, each of the following novels also has a highly-reviewed audiobook available to download!
1. Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The novel follows Klara, an ‘Artificial Friend’, born to look after whichever human purchases her. Through the loveable protagonist’s detailed and tender observations of the world around her, it becomes clear that she is insightful, and noble far beyond what her mechanical inner workings might suggest. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Klara, who doesn’t quite understand the human world she’s living in, as she sits on her store shelf observing the world around her. She hopes one day she’ll be picked as a Friend by a human; but, when her wishes are granted, she soon comes to realize that the promises of humans are never quite what they seem. In fact, humans themselves aren’t all she thought they’d crack up to be. Intrigued yet? I certainly was, and I definitely recommend it if you’re interested in seeing the potential fallout of our rapidly advancing society through the eyes of a unique (and unforgettable) narrator.
2. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Following the success of his previously best-selling novel All The Light We Cannot See in 2014, Antony Doerr released another prize-winning knockout in 2021: Cloud Cuckoo Land — a story spanning centuries, through the eyes of various characters, all of whom are connected by one book.
The name of this book in question? You guessed it, it’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, (as written by the fictional Antonious Diogenes in around the first century B.C., not Doerr himself). The fictional book follows a shepherd named Aethon, as he seeks a mythical city in the sky which — surprise! — is also named Cloud Cuckoo Land.
What follows is an intriguing string of intrinsically connected, yet separate, tales of various characters and how their lives have been affected by this book — for better or worse. We see stories about a young girl growing up within the walls of historic Constantinople; a village boy living on the outskirts with his cherished pet Oxen; and an eighty year-old living with a life-or-death secret in 1940s Idaho. There are plenty more unique characters, though to try to list them all would be a disservice to the surprises, twists, and turns in this novel — instead, I recommend you pick the book up and experience it first-hand.
3. The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna
If you like intriguing YA fiction with actually interesting female protagonists, then this is the one for you. The Gilded Ones is the first in what’s intended to become The Deathless Trilogy, and author Namina Forna certainly knows how to introduce a trilogy! The book follows sixteen-year old Deka as she’s torn between her desperation to fit in with her village and a chance to start afresh and gain acceptance elsewhere.
Following a coming-of-age ceremony that sheds light on the taboo golden color of her blood which drives her apart from the rest of her village, Deka knows the consequences are worse than death should she stay. Luckily, when a mysterious woman comes before her, our protagonist is offered a way out — but only if she agrees to join and fight somebody else’s war as part of an army of girls just like her. Of course, there isn’t much of a choice between unavoidable death and fighting to stay alive. The real intrigue comes when Deka discovers secrets beyond the walls that she can barely comprehend — will she get to the bottom of them?
See why The Gilded Ones made every book bloggers 2021 reading list, and why we’re all excited for the next of the series to be released in 2022!
4. The Shadow of the Gods, by John Gwynne
Established fantasy fiction series are well-loved (with The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time and The Witcher all respectively getting new TV series recently) but the spotlight seldom turns to newer releases — until now. Jon Gwynne’s high fantasy, Norse-inspired, world known as Vigrið instantly captured the hearts of both long-standing fantasy fans and readers new to the genre alike.
In a world suffering from the fallout of a war between gods, where jarls vie for power, monsters stalk the forests and roads, and the fallen gods still roam the land. You’ll experience everything from the eyes of the most unexpected characters: a mother-turned-warrior on the hunt to take revenge on her son’s kidnappers, a former slave and farmer also out for revenge, and a nobleman’s daughter seeking renown for her battle prowess. As you might imagine, the novel delivers high levels of tension — but, impressively, Gwynne’s attention to worldbuilding also provides adequate respite in between. This definitely isn’t a book to miss out on!
5. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
For fans of contemporary science fiction, it might not come as a surprise to see Becky Chambers on this list. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth installation in Chambers’s Wayfarers sci-fi series — but that doesn’t mean you can’t jump right in. While each book in the series is set in the same universe, they follow a different cast of characters and explore different places.
Chambers focuses on her characters — their development, interactions, psychology — above plot. This novel follows five characters from different alien species, including a character from an earlier book in the series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Following their chance meeting in a space station, we learn they are all notably different from what their appearances might make us presume. They befriend each other, talk, eat, laugh, and maybe even cry. So, if you fancy an emotional and spellbinding journey through space, I can’t recommend this novel enough.
So, now you know my top five favorite books from the past year, is there anything new you’ll be adding to your reading list? Or, perhaps you feel inspired to begin your own SFF manuscript — either way, I hope that I’ve helped you choose from the overwhelming lists of excellent fiction published in 2021; and, if you’re new to these genres, I hope I’ve helped you find a new literary love. Either way, happy reading!
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world's best editors, designers, and other publishing professionals.