We conclude our 2021 Favorites series with this list of books we loved this year. You might know this about us, but we read a lot. These were the cream of the crop.
My favorite book of the year was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. It’s not a sequel, not the start of a series. It’s a short, standalone novel about a man called Piranesi who lives in the most unusual of places: a house with an infinite number of rooms, all lined with classical statues. On the lower levels, the sea roars in, sometimes flooding entire sections of the structure. Birds occasionally fly in. Piranesi thought he was the only person in the world, until he met the Other. But there are also the bones of people who have perished in the house, which Piranesi looks after. How did this state of affairs come to be? And who is Piranesi, really? Is this all a metaphor for something, or is it real? All questions are answered, eventually. Sometimes in surprising fashion.—Jason Snell
The last installment of Becky Chambers’s loosely connected1 Wayfarers series, The Galaxy and the Ground Within was my favorite of the bunch. Five characters from disparate species who happen to be at the same space pit-stop are stranded together when a disaster hits. What follows is a lovely story of camaraderie, cultural exchange, and friendship forged in the darkest hours. One of Chambers’s strengths is the fully realized characters she creates, and this novel is no exception. You might even find yourself tearing up a bit. I hear.—Dan Moren
I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’s previous books, but Black Sun is the best of the bunch. It’s the first book in a series, and be warned: it doesn’t have an ending so much as a cliffhanger. It’s a fantasy story with lots of Mesoamerican mythological elements about an outlier priest in a sun cult who might just be a patsy for a revolution. Meanwhile, a mother turns her son into a tool to fulfill a prophecy—if he can just get to the sun cult’s city in time for the total solar eclipse. The captain of the ship tasked with taking him there is a lesbian pirate who might just have surprising magic powers. Everything comes together in the inevitably worst way. It’s a heck of a ride. I want the sequel now—but I have to wait until April like everyone else.—J.S.
Nightwatch on the Hinterlands
A fun, fantasy/sci-fi mash-up, with a murder mystery thrown in to boot. K. Eason’s Nightwatch on the Hinterlands continues in the same universe as some of their previous works, but you can get by just fine if you haven’t read any of them. The world was reminiscent to me of the Mass Effect series of video games, with a fun dynamic between the two main characters that feels like many of the cop/not-a-cop TV shows I’ve enjoyed.—D.M.
Divine Cities trilogy
After having Robert Jackson Bennet’s trilogy recommended to me by several of my friends, I used my local library to buy the first book in the series, City of Stairs. I couldn’t put it down, and quickly bought and read the other two books in the series. It’s an urban fantasy set in a crumbling city that was once the apex of civilization—until the people that civilization had subjugated for centuries turned the tables and killed all their gods. Now the tables have turned, and all the magic of those gods is supposed to be gone, but… maybe it isn’t? And what does that mean if your job is to hold an entire defeated empire in check? The whole series is atmospheric and gripping, with so many great characters that three of them take turns as protagonist.—J.S.
The Mask of Mirrors / The Liar’s Knot
Fans of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series will probably enjoy The Rook and The Rose, a fantasy series by M.A. Carrick, set in the complex city of Nadežra. Con woman Ren is infiltrating the wealthy Traementis family, but gets more than she bargained for when she discovers the family has troubles of its own. There’s magic, romance, secret identities, politics, humor, and swashbuckling. The books are long, but so immersive that you’ll quickly lose track of page count. And if you’re skittish about unfinished fantasy epics, don’t fret: The third and final installment is already written and will be released next year.—D.M.
Witness for the Dead
Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was one of my favorite books of the last decade. She decided to revisit that book’s rich steampunky fantasy setting with the standalone novel Witness for the Dead (now apparently the first book in a series!) featuring a minor character from the previous novel. But at its heart, this is… a murder mystery? The main character’s job is to talk to the recently deceased and put them at rest, but when a woman’s body washes up on the side of a canal, he’s duty bound to solve the murder. He’s basically Elf Columbo, aided by visions of the dead.—J.S.
After nine years, nine books, a TV series (now on its final season), and a handful of novellas and short stories, James S.A. Corey’s masterful sci-fi series, The Expanse, came to a close this year. Leviathan Falls wraps up the ongoing plotlines while also providing a satisfactory story in its own right, though the last three books definitely form a trilogy of sorts within the series itself. If you’ve been waiting to see how things shake out for Holden, Naomi, Alex, and everybody’s favorite sociopath, Amos Burton, strap in and turn on the juice; it’s going to be quite a ride. And the epilogue made me laugh out loud in delight.—D.M.
A Desolation Called Peace
Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire was my favorite book of 2020. This year brought its sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, and it delivered. It’s a wide-screen Space Opera about a galaxy-spanning empire—with our main character being an outsider who is close to the empire, but not a part of it. As a good sequel, it follows up on some of the threads left by the first book, while also introducing a new threat—an alien presence that the human empire doesn’t seem to understand. This is modern SF at its best.—J.S.
The Hidden Palace
I thought Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni was one of the best books of the last decade. Its sequel, The Hidden Palace, picks up right where the original left off, and continues the sprawling story of two nigh-immortal supernatural creatures among all the early 20th century immigrant communities in New York City. Since the first book was published, Helene has become a friend, and I was happy to interview her about this book and the process that led to it.—J.S.
The Quiet Americans
How did the CIA come to be what it is today? That’s the story of Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans, an exploration of the intelligence agency’s Cold War origins. Lawrence portrays the controversial organization’s rise through the lens of four influential figures in places from the Philippines to Berlin. It’s a collection of fascinating tales from the earliest days of the agency, when things often seemed to be run on a shoestring. I particularly enjoyed one operative in post-war Italy whose cover involved a non-existent movie studio.—D.M.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story
If I’m going to read a story about how messed up the response to the emergence of Covid-19, I want it to be Michael Lewis doing the storytelling. The Premonition is a short book about a complete systemic failure, making it a thematic follow-up to his previous book, The Fifth Risk. Lewis is the best at what he does. All his books are required reading, even—especially?—if the subject is as painful as this one.—J.S.