Best books of 2021

This year was a bit of a weird reading year for me. I didn’t write a lot of reviews, for one thing, and I went through a big reading slump in the summer. I stuck to my lanes for the most part, reading books I was pretty sure I would like or that were recommended by friends whose taste I trust (thank goodness for my good friend Kristen of Kristen is Fully Book’d, because we generally love the same things). And there were a lot of rereads/comfort reads. At the same time, I did read widely within fantasy, such as with my Aarhus-based book club. When it came time for me to list my favourites, though, it was a bit of a struggle. That’s why this list is a little shorter than usual.

The Mask of Mirrors, M.A. Carrick

This one was recommended to me by Kristen, and the only question I have is how I waited a few months to read it! It was her favourite from last year and it definitely lived up to everything she said.

It follows Ren, a street urchin in the colonized city of Nadezra, who escapes her cruel thief overlord as a child. She returns to the city to pull a long con as Renata, the “long lost relative” of a struggling noble household. In a world where legal registers matter more than bloodline, if Renata can just get her name inscribed in the registers, she’s set for life. But she gets mixed up with local politics, a crime lord named Vargo, a mysterious conspiracy, a policeman whose friends with the family, and the mysterious Rook, a masked vigilante who hates the nobility.

One of the big reasons to keep reading is the central mystery of who the Rook is. But as engaging as that was, I found myself really drawn into Ren’s struggle to keep her identities straight and her con going. On paper, she’s not the sort of character I love. But the authors (it’s a duo) managed to make her sympathetic and likeable, someone who isn’t only out for themselves. The story is multi POV, though Ren takes central stage, and Grey (the policeman) and Vargo (the crime lord) are two of the standouts of these POVs. I never had trouble remembering who was who (though there’s a handy dramatis personae). The story itself is fast paced and compelling, though it suffers a bit from an extended dream sequence in the middle.

The worldbuilding is excellent: it captures the feel of a colonized city very well, and it’s clear the authors have some historical and cultural knowledge (apparently they’re both anthropologists). There are three different magic systems, but it’s not the sort of thing where you need to know lots of rules. In fact, the magic systems work best when you think of them as a reflection of the cultural influences in this colonized city: the original culture vs the imperial occupier, represented by a sort of tarot magic and a inscription-based magic, respectively. The third is a more universal craftsman magic.

Overall, a highly engaging read! I also have already read the second, The Liar’s Knot, which will definitely be appearing on my best of 2022 reads.

Little Thieves, Margaret Owen

This! Book! Was! So! Much! Fun! It’s a very loose retelling of the Goose Girl fairytale, where the (anti)heroine is the evil maid. Here, her name is Vanja, and she’s the goddaughter of Death and Fortune. With the aid of some enchanted pearls, Vanja has stolen the identity of the princess she grew up serving and is out to rob the rich to feed… herself, and then some. She wants a certain sum to be able to escape her godmothers’ demands and expectations and to avoid ever having to serve someone else again. But things get complicated when an investigator is sent to find out the thief’s identity and when Vanja is cursed by a god for her greed. Is Vanja a nice person? No, but she’s still sympathetic. She’s also clever and quick-witted and willing to use a sausage to her advantage.

It’s set in a very fun German-inspired fantasy world with lots of Low Gods and enchantments, and it manages to ride that difficult line between too much and too little worldbuilding: for me, it feels fleshed out but without unnecessary ponderous explanations of things. Some of the plot hangs on interpretations of certain laws, but even that is explained in a way that never felt boring.

It is YA in the best ways: light, quick read, and fun. It was a little dark at times, but never in that depressing Hunger Games way. A few YA fantasies I read this year didn’t work for me because they didn’t hit the right-for-me balance of stakes and buildup, feeling either Too Dramatic and simultaneously Too Easy. (I realize this is incredibly subjective and also I am an adult reading stories written for teens).

I didn’t remember some of the allusions to the original fairytale (in the original, there is an annoying boy called Conrad; in this one, the investigator is Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad) but I did somehow remember that the princess’ horse was named Falada.

I’m already looking forward to the sequel!

The Defiant Heir and The Unbound Empire, Melissa Caruso

For some reason, it took me a while to get back to this trilogy (the first one was one of my favourites of 2019). That was foolish, because I absolutely loved the continuation of Amalia’s storyline. The third book did something I didn’t love but which undoubtedly deepened the tensions, but the second I love unreservedly.

Overall, the sequels broaden the strong worldbuilding, bringing in more of the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, while forcing Amalia even further out of her comfort zone. They also have honestly the best love triangle of any book ever, where you somehow want her to be with both of the love interests, because they both complement different sides of her personality and offer different futures. And yet sex is not the focus; the romance is more intellectual than physical. The difficult friendship between Amalia and Zaira is at the heart of the book’s conflicts and personality.

Although Amalia doesn’t always do the right things, she always tries and learns from her mistakes. Honestly, she’s one of the most likeable protagonists I’ve ever encountered and I loved watching her grow into herself over the course of the books.

I feel like this trilogy doesn’t get enough love! I have really enjoyed them and highly recommend them. They fit perfectly into that “crossover” genre, where the story is less tropey and the characters and worldbuilding more fleshed out than a lot of YA, but without a lot of the sex and gratuitously described violence in some (grimdark) adult.

The Councillor, E.J. Beaton

The Councillor is a fantastic foray into political intrigue and mistrust that somehow manages to stay on the less depressing side of grimdark, despite being described as “Machiavellian”. It starts a little slow but builds steadily throughout until I couldn’t put it down.

The main character, Lysande, is appointed to choose the next ruler after her friend the Queen is poisoned. She must choose from among the four city-state rulers – including the very suspicious Luca Fontaine, whose butt looks great in a pair of tight riding pants. The hitch is that she’s pretty sure one of them murdered the queen.

I actually reviewed this one for Cannonball Read, so you can read more about it here! For lyrical writing and solid intrigue (plus some sexual tension), you can’t go wrong here.

Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay (and Lord of Emperors)

The absolute best historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire and the reign of Justinian, except it’s actually fantasy. Kay’s works have been utter delights to explore the past few years, and this is one of his best, reminding me of Lions of Al-Rassan in its beautiful worldbuilding and intricate maneuverings.

As usual, Kay follows someone on the periphery of power, in this case, Caius Crispinus, or Crispin, a mosaicist summoned (sort of) to the imperial court of Valerius II of Sarantium, to decorate the grand new temple (i.e. the Hagia Sophia). There are a scattered collection of others, both in power and outside it, from Alixana, the Empress of Sarantium (Theodora) to Kasia, a slave girl of one of the northern tribes (Goths?) who is about to be given as a sacrifice to an ancient god.

As usual, I’m deeply impressed with Kay’s worldbuilding, how the fantasy elements draw so deeply from history yet create something new. I never expected to be so engrossed in chariot racing, but the fervor for the sport and the importance of its factions is a vital element of the narrative. But it was religion at the fore of this book as much as art and politics (and entertainment). I don’t think you have to be Christian to appreciate the Jad of these books, the god who suffers for humanity in the darkness of each night. For that matter, you probably don’t need to be a historian to appreciate the levels of heresy the characters discuss over the course of this book and its sequel, from the forbidden worship of Jad’s son to the debate over religious images.

Kay’s books are love letters to civilization, which can both force a distance between the reader and the characters and somehow make everything more poignant. Nothing ever happens quite as I expect, and yet every event seems meaningful and inevitable.

Sailing to Sarantium is technically a duology, but in truth, Lord of Emperors is less a sequel and more the second half of the book. And it was just as poignant, if not more so, than the first.

The Cousins, Karen M. McManus

Although none of (the enviably prolific) McManus’ books have lived up to the can’t-put-it-down readability of her first, One of Us is Lying, I really enjoyed The Cousins. At its heart, it’s a book about a really dysfunctional family, and that’s always my jam. The premise is that four rich kids were cut off by their widowed mother with only the cryptic message “you know what you did”. Twenty or so years later, the three teenage children of these disinterested heirs are invited back to the rich tourist island their grandmother basically rules. But nothing is as it seems to be when they get there, and they all have secrets to hide – their own and their parents’. There’s a dual time-line thing going on, so the mysteries of past and present unravel as the plot progresses.

In the Woods and The Likeness, Tana French

I’ve come across recommendations for Tana French off and on and picked up the first book, In the Woods, when I needed a break from fantasy. I expected a fun thriller. I didn’t expect it to be so slow and deep and heart-breaking, with some really gorgeous writing. It doesn’t give a pat satisfying ending, but one that lingers.

The Likeness was in some ways better (a more likeable protagonist) and in some ways worse (the central premise of impersonating a PhD student just didn’t work for me, who knows how much PhD talk gets thrown about amongst grad student friends)

I don’t want to say too much more about these, except that I loved that they’re set in Dublin, because I think with many mysteries and thrillers it’s better to go in knowing as little as possible. But if you want something a little deeper from your police procedural, look no further than Tana French.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo

My fantasy book club read Shadow and Bone in advance of the show coming out. I didn’t love it, but I still gave Six of Crows a try. And wow, I’m glad I did. I can really see why it got the hype it did. It was so much fun, with compelling and conflicting characters and secrets abound. Do the characters read more like 20 than 17? No doubt, but that is probably for the best.

I also really enjoyed that this was a duology instead of a trilogy (the second duology on this list). It kept the story from getting bogged down too much, and in fact Crooked Kingdom did feel like the second half of a larger book than its own narrative.

I doubt I’ll read more in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but I’ll probably check out more of Bardugo’s books – Ninth House has been on my radar for a while.

Reads I’m looking forward to in 2022

Because I’m so late on getting this post up, I’ve already read a few of my most anticipated reads, including The Liar’s Knot and Lord of Emperors, as well as the newest from Laura E. Weymouth, A Rush of Wings. All were amazing and will definitely be on my best books of 2022 post (although Lord of Emperors is, in its essence, discussed above). I’m also excited to read:

  • The Obsidian Tower, Melissa Caruso (a new trilogy)
  • NONA THE NINTH, Tamsyn Muir (don’t expect to see me for at least three days in October while I’m reading this)
  • The Crows Duology, Margaret Owen (another duology, yes)
  • A Consuming Fire, Laura E. Weymouth
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Mad Ship, Robin Hobb (I enjoyed Ship of Magic this year, the first Hobb I’ve read, but not enough to put it on the list. Still interested in the sequels, though I’m not sure if I’m up for reading the whole of the Elderlings books)
  • The Winds of Winter, George RR Martin (hahaha just kidding, I’ve pretty much given up hope now)

And just a few on my general TBR…

  • Empire of Sand or The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri
  • Traitor’s Blade, Sebastien De Castell
  • Jade War, Fonda Lee
  • Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton (which I started an embarrassingly long time ago and was really enjoying but haven’t finished)
  • The Devil and the Dark Water, Stuart Turton (author of Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which was bonkers and I loved it)
  • A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik
  • Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn
  • These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong

Let’s see how many of these I actually read…

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