Books of 2021

As always, I try to write my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, while still giving a blurb of the premise and the way the story made me feel. Some of the later reviews are more condensed because I recently started posting blurbs on my Instagram account right after finishing a book, and there is less space for words there, so my summaries are sparser (which actually helps with the spoilers). I will continue reviewing books on Goodreads and Instagram, but I will also be redoing this website sometime in the near future, so this may be the last big book list I have on here, at least in its current form. Without further ado, here are the books I read this year…

Lady Astronaut 1: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In an alternate history of the 1950’s, a genius math wiz pilot and her rocket engineer husband escape the destruction of a meteorite. They are faced with the practical and emotional aftereffects, including working with the NACA to enable space colonization as soon as possible in case the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Because of her gender and Jewish background, as well as the diversity of her friends, the protagonist must deal with sexism and racism in the workplace as well as her own personal relationships, including her relationship with herself. This book is very character driven and the sci-fi aspect is realistic for the time period, yet based on its alternate history it feels like the series will get a little more “out there” in the near future.

Lady Astronaut 2: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In an alternate 1950s and ‘60s history in which a meteor threatens the continued existence of humanity on Earth, the space race is accelerated in hopes of colonizing other planets. A female astronaut and her husband work together and with others on the newest project – a trip to Mars – yet there are other forces to be reckoned with, including civil rebellion, racism, and their own emotions. This story is character driven and beautifully written, a what-if story that feels so real. I loved it.

Lady Astronaut 3: The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In the same alternate history as the previous Lady Astronaut books, this edition takes a bit of a genre-turn into mystery and political thriller. Coinciding with the second book, this book is about a simultaneous mission on the moon which is threatened by a terrorist group’s attempt to sabotage space travel in order to bring more attention to the difficulties on Earth. Our new protagonist must deal with a number of disasters as well as her own personal struggles. Like the other books in this series, this one explores issues of race, mental illness, relationships, and religious ideologies. It relies a lot on an elaborate plot, which may be quite long for some, but does not detract from the emotional impact of the characters.

Savior Series 1: The Savior’s Champion, by Jenna Moreci
Novel, fantasy/romance, contemporary

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s definitely a little cliche and predictable, but I think that’s part of the draw. It takes place in a fantasy world resembling ancient Rome and revolves around a deadly competition between several chosen men to win the hand of the Savior, the ruler of the realm. The protagonist enters, not because he has any interest in the Savior or being king, but to help his struggling family. There are a lot of tropes in this book, but they are executed in a fun and engaging way. Some may find it too cliche or obvious, while others will revel in the creativity of the details. There are also a lot of really good characters that elicit strong emotions, whether positive or negative. The love story starts out subtle and then progresses into something intense, all the while weaving itself through this gory adventure. This book isn’t for everyone, but it was just the right balance of depth and fluff that I needed when I read it.

Savior Series 2: The Savior’s Sister, by Jenna Moreci
Novel, fantasy/romance, contemporary

Book 2 in the Savior series, it covers the same timeline as its companion, but this time from the perspective of the female protagonist. While a couple dozen men compete to the death for the prize of marriage to the queen, a young woman investigates a plot to murder her. If you like trials and tribulations, lots of curse words, and steamy romance of course, then this book is for you! (but read book 1 first)

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

In an eastern European-like city, a group of thieves are hired to break a criminal out of prison. That is the basic premise, but there is a lot more to the story, for each one in this group of six has their own backstory and motivations. The nationalities within this world have clashing cultures, warring ideologies, and of course those who possess magic are massacred or used as slaves, lest they become too powerful. Overall, an interesting way to weave together what would otherwise be just a heist to make the real purpose of the story more about the people. It introduces a world that feels like it’s a lot bigger, and will expand with the other books in the series. This story had the opportunity to be a lot more graphic, but the author kept it a bit more wholesome instead.

Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

Picking up where its prequel left off, this book starts out as a rescue and weaves through the characters as a sort of revenge tale. Each of the main characters has their own trauma and motivations that affect their actions. Though it does at times feel like the story is more complicated than it needs to be, and that plot sometimes happens because it’s convenient or to make the stakes seem more dire, there are also scenes that are picturesque, gripping, and make the route to get there worth it.

Red Rising 2: Golden Son, by Pierce Brown
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

The second installment of this series was not as entertaining as the first… at first. There is a time skip between the end of the last book and the beginning of this one, which threw me off a bit (especially since it had been over a year since I had read the first one). The story takes place in the distant future when colonization of other planets has led to a dystopian society in which races are distinguished by colors and roles. A young man from the most disenfranchised of these is disguised as one of the most powerful, and with the help of his misfit friends and political allies, he seeks to cause a civil war. The first half of the book, though it did have some action sequences, felt more political and less emotionally engaging. By midway through I got into the flow of the different relationships, and I actually really enjoyed the last quarter. There were some intriguing twists and turns, but you have to be following closely to keep up.

Red Rising 3: Morning Star, by Pierce Brown
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In the third edition of this fantasy/sci-fi series, all the drama and scheming of the first two books culminates in a war against a dystopian society – for the hope of a better future. The protagonist and his friends must overcome their own doubts, egos, and grief while navigating through threats to their rebellion. Tensions are high, emotions complex, every action significant, and the resolution is totally worth it. I cried and smiled and my heart hurt in a good way.

The Band 1: Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

This book is about a band of mercenaries who had broken up years ago, but reunited for an epic journey to save the front-man’s daughter. Yes, this may be a band of mercenaries in a fantasy world, fighting monsters and outsmarting cunning antagonists, but the characters and tropes are parallel to a hard rock band from the 70’s. It’s fun, adventurous, and often humorous. Though told from the perspective of one of the members (who I imagine would be the bassist in a musical band), each of the main characters has their own personality, strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities, and it’s a good time getting to see them all play a part in the story, all for the pursuit of a noble goal.

The Band 2: Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

Sequel to “Kings of the Wyld”, with just as many clever references to real-world rock and pop music, this novel tells the adventures of the greatest mercenary band in this fantasy world, as seen through the eyes of their new bard. The dream of joining her favorite band comes true, but with it comes danger, the unveiling of flaws in people she once thought were perfect, and even higher stakes than the last book. Eames does a great job of being entertaining and fun while maintaining a realness in his characters.

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In this modern sci-fi novel, a scientific accident results in an evolutionary experiment of monumental proportions. Meanwhile, all that is left of humankind struggles to make a new home worlds away from Earth, across time and space. In this book, Tchaikovsky takes themes of biology, anthropology, philosophy, and engineering and creates a thrilling story of survival and hope. It is the perfect blend of science and fiction.

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

This hard sci-fi sequel to Children of Time explores the possibilities of evolutionary biology in the far future, if humans were able to merge with other species in a variety of ways. Attempts to make peace with eight-limbed creatures, originally from Earth but advanced thanks to human experimentation and adapted to new planets, are complicated by an alien parasite whose desire to be one with humans could lead to their downfall. An intelligent, speculative take on evolution and what makes humanity – or even other creatures and AIs – human.

The Locked Tomb 1: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
Novel, science fiction/fantasy, contemporary

This book is basically a murder mystery in one of the oddest, most unique worlds of dystopian cult necromancy. A tough and sarcastic indentured servant is resentfully convinced to be the bodyguard for her house’s best necromancer while the latter endeavors to become a warrior for the emperor. This quest involves overcoming challenges along with other contestants, and trying to decide whether or not to work together to reach their goals. It is dark, darkly humorous, atmospheric, and action-packed. Overall lots of fun for those who like this kind of thing (like me!).

The Locked Tomb 2: Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
Novel, science fiction/fantasy, contemporary

Though absolutely dependent on the first book, “Gideon the Ninth”, if you got through that one and want more, this sequel will throw you back into this weird world with a wild story that is incredibly confusing and totally fun and awesome (if you like this kind of thing, which I do).

The Magicians 1: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

This book is about a depressed youth who dabbles in stage magic and longs to escape his mundane life and live in a magical world. Seemingly by accident, he stumbles upon an entrance exam into a college for real magic and befriends other magicians throughout his education. I really like the beginning of this book, and the ending, but the bulk of the middle was less engaging to me. The characters are not particularly likable as people, and though they could be likable as characters, I felt like the pacing of the book was too quick and jumpy for me to really get to know them. The author appears to simultaneously reverse and parody many familiar fantasy tropes — in many cases he does this very well, but at other times it feels a bit too convoluted. Aspects that would have been enjoyable lose some of their spark, and whatever remains isn’t quite enough. Yet eventually it all comes back together in ways that feel intentional and even exciting, opening up for the possibility of more (and perhaps a more enjoyable) story in the subsequent volumes.

Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo
Novel, fantasy/mystery, contemporary

A thrilling dark fantasy novel in which a delinquent turned college student is tasked with protecting the secret societies of her new institution. Meanwhile, she discovers more about her own special abilities while helping to solve a murder mystery. This book is angsty and adventurous with ancient magic used in modern contexts. Though sprinkled with humor and a few popular tropes, it is also incredibly dark in a lot of real-life ways, so trigger warning! But if you can get through it, it’s a blast.

The Rise and Fall 1: Nolyn, by Michael J. Sullivan
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

This prequel of Riyria and sequel of Legends of the First Empire perfectly fits into the world Sullivan has built – that classic fantasy style with such a personal touch. The “elves” and “humans” struggle to live together while “goblins” threaten them all, and other ominous forces seek to gain rule. Language is changing, and the stories of the past seem too fantastic to be true, yet they linger in memory. The characters we follow are so wonderfully strong and simultaneously flawed, it makes them feel real. They must decide what is most important to them as they carve their own future.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Novel, dystopian, classic

This book takes place in a speculative future – a fanatical religious organization takes over the government and creates a dystopian society in which women are basically slaves. Infertility has increased, so breeding becomes a crucial aspect of a woman’s role in society. This story is told by a woman who remembers the old days, even tried to escape her fate of servitude, but ultimately becomes indoctrinated and has difficulty separating her true wants and needs from her conditioning. Told in fragmented scenes that bounce back and forth in time, this novel is masterful at encapsulating the effects of such a situation. Though at times disturbing and uncomfortable, it totally drew me in and made me want to discover how we got here and what would come of it.

One Piece Vol. 1: Romance Dawn
Manga, fantasy

A funny and adorable beginning to what promises to be an epic series of adventures! The first volume in this manga is about a silly boy who dreams of being a pirate. The accidental gain of a unique and invaluable power, plus help from some unlikely mates and his unshakeable determination, helps him get started on his goal, and make some enemies along the way.

Scholomance, Book 2: The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

The 2nd edition in this smart, fast-paced dark academia fantasy series in which a headstrong protagonist and her clever friends try to figure out what to do about their monstrous magical high school. As graduation approaches, our protagonist knows that it’s a matter of life and death. Together with the other students, they prepare for the challenge, but maybe, just maybe, there is an alternative to mass destruction? I like this book, though not quite as much as the first. Its pacing is quick and we get to see more of how the school works – and doesn’t work – to move the characters toward their goals of survival.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
Novel, fantasy/romance, contemporary

This novel is a historical fantasy about a Golem with the shape and mind of a young woman, and a Jinni in human form. Though both from the middle east, they find themselves, and eventually each other, in New York City, and bond over their similarities while wrestling with their differences. This story is like a fairy tale but also such a genuine portrayal of human character in all its beautiful imperfection. All the stories weave together so harmoniously, yet it does not feel contrived. I really fell into this story so easily, could see the scenes so vividly in my mind. The characters drove it forward and they are all so exquisitely written. This book is a real gem.

Escapists 1: The Sanctuary Children, by Alicia Marguerite (me!)
Novel, dystopian/science fiction, contemporary

Though this is not a published book, I am including it because it is technically a novel, and I did read it aloud to my boyfriend this year. In a war-ravaged world where religious and non-religious factions compete against one another for followers and resources, a teenager becomes a young woman while struggling to survive among the different factions. The story jumps around in time a lot, but the timelines eventually fill in, creating a complete history of her life from age 12 to 26. You’ll have to ask one of my beta readers for their opinion – I obviously think it’s pretty rad.

Skyward, Book 3: Cytonic
Novel, science fiction, contemporary

In book 3 of this YA sci-fi series, a teenage pilot travels to unknown realms to save her people from a government bent on destroying them and the imminent threat of mysterious inter-dimensional beings. Meanwhile, the protagonist must deal with her own internal conflicts between what she wants and what she needs. It’s got robots, pirates, and allusions to some of our most beloved childhood stories.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
Novel, fantasy, classic

In this edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, two of the Pevensie siblings and their annoying, haughty cousin get swept into a sailing adventure with a Narnian prince. The book is less a single arc and more a series of mini-adventures as they search different lands for a group of lost lords. Each adventure introduces a new problem or set of characters and is ultimately resolved in some funny or enlightening way. This book is rife with obvious religious symbolism, but is still dressed up well as a creative children’s novel that is nonetheless entertaining.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Novel, romance, classic

This classic romance is about a young lady in Regency England along with her parents and four sisters. Since the family is made up of all girls, they need to marry into wealthier families than their own in order to be supported. Fortunately, there are a few decent prospects that come along, but none are satisfactory to the main heroine, who is more concerned about marrying for love to a good man, or not at all, than for money to a rich one. A series of circumstances weave the plot together with humorous dialogue and what feels like the 19th-century equivalent of high school drama. Though the plight of the characters may seem trivial nowadays, in that era it was quite a concern. Yet the writing seems to be aware of the frivolity while still giving the characters themselves the story they deserve. I honestly enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected to, and may read it again someday. I had only read one Jane Austen book before, Sense and Sensibility, which I also enjoyed, but now I want to read them all.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austin
Novel, romance, classic

A sweet yet slightly clueless girl lets her imagination get carried away, which causes just as many problems in her social life as her inability to recognize the blatant realities before her. This classic Regency England novel feels just like a high school romance. It has Austen’s wit and cleverness, with slightly less cliche than her more famous works. Despite there being premises and moments that strive to elicit emotion, it felt too rushed to have the same impact of some of her other books.

The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Novel, science fiction, classic

This is a strange sci-fi novel that tells the story of an extremely rich man who is invited to travel to Mars by a clairvoyant gentleman. From there, much disaster and distress befalls this man, Mars, and Earth, with the wake of an interplanetary war. The once rich man has a single goal, but will fate allow him to reach it? And how much of what happens is by his own choice, how much is fate, or is he just a pawn in some larger plan? Though the plot itself is relatively simple, this book has an array of complexity in its world and the flow of time from one chapter to the next. It also deals with themes of free will versus determinism, luck, peace and violence, and — in a somewhat odd way — family. It also has a dry, satirical sort of humor that may amuse both the cynic and the idealist.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
Novel, fantasy, classic

This book is a classic yet unique fantasy story all about the power of imagination. To me, it felt like two books in one – the first half a portal into a new world as a boy discovers a book about Fantastica and gets lost in the stories therein, the second a new adventure that explores the world even deeper and brings up new challenges. The end, however – for though the story may not end, the book, sadly, must – brings it all full-circle in a literary ouroboros, which is itself symbolically significant. If this sounds like a convoluted review, just read the book! For an idea that stems from children’s fairy tales, this book has depth and complexity beyond its years.

Piranesi, by Suzanna Clarke
Novel, fantasy/mystery, classic

What a fantastical mystery of magic and the mind! This story takes place in a gigantic mansion by the sea. This is the world, and the only two living people who inhabit it are working to discover and record as much as they can about it. Through a series of unlikely yet inevitable events, the protagonist begins to discover that there is more to this place, and perhaps himself, than he has known. His understanding starts to crack and unravel as the mystery unfolds. Though the plot itself is not particularly unique, the presentation certainly is. The prose is beautifully written, eliciting emotions that allow the reader to fall in love with the journey.

Mirror Mirror, by Gregory McGuire
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

Part fairy tale, part historical fiction, this intelligent version of Snow White borrows a couple duplicitous characters from history and makes them the villains of the story. McGuire’s verbose writing, blending apocryphal realism with earthly fantasy, lends a slightly bitter yet rich flavor to the classic tale.

Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle
Novel, science fiction, classic

As a student of anthropology, I had very mixed feelings about this book. On its surface, a typical classic sci-fi that explores speculative “what if” questions with lots of drama and thrill, plus smatterings of philosophical, political, and sociological commentary. In some fairness, this book was published in 1963 and both science and language have evolved since then. The speculative nature of the premise, as well as the twist at the end, have allowed me to enjoy this book as purely fiction, just as the book itself seems to highlight in its own nature. Which honestly is very clever! However, the deeper themes of intelligence, intellectualism, animal behavior, and slavery bothered me, not to mention the excessive use of the word “monkeys” to describe apes (not sure how the translation from French played into this). While apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas could technically be categorized with monkeys within an evolutionary tree, under this precept, so could humans! And yet humans are separated from the apes/monkeys as if they are supposed to be considered more intellectually advanced, despite the story reverses the roles. Perhaps that is, in part, the argument the Boulle is introducing, though his intent is unclear. For such a short book, there is a lot of material for discussion and debate. But if you just want a fun jaunt in sci-fi land, it can be that too.

11/22/63, by Stephen King
Novel, science fiction/thriller, contemporary

In this historical sci-fi thriller, a man is pulled into adventure by his dying friend in an attempt to change the course of history… literally! Full of suspense, drama, romance, and high stakes, this book took a while for me to get through but it was worth every minute.

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune
Novel, fantasy/romance, contemporary

Death, love, tea… A not very nice man finds himself stuck in a new and strange place that may just be the worst and best thing to ever happen to him. This adorable, quirky story gets surprisingly heavy at times, but maintains a heartwarming tone, like drinking a hot cup of peppermint tea.

Cascarones, by Sylvia Sanchez Garza
Novella, memoir, contemporary

This short novel reads more like a memoir. Each chapter is a vignette of life in the Rio Grande Valley for the narrator, Suzy. Going back and forth in time from the 60’s to the turn of the century, the narrator looks back on her childhood while paralleling, and often contrasting, her experience with that of her own children decades later. Sprinkled with the occasional Spanish word or phrase, the stories explore matters of familial and cultural significance. In fact, they feel so genuine they could be true, and the writing style has a wholesomeness that may welcome nostalgia for some and simple enjoyment for others.

Gert and the Sacred Stones
Graphic novella, fantasy, contemporary

Such a sweet, magical tale! The creators have taken the classic story of vengeance and redemption and constructed their own world to tell it in. For how short it was, the worldbuilding and lore are impressive. The illustrations are clear and vibrant, with a good balance of youthful and intricate. The message is a timeless one of peace, love, belief in oneself and the goodness of others. It may be a bit predictable in general, but it has some of its own unique flair that was a pleasure to experience.

The Original, by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal
Novella, science fiction, contemporary

A thrilling murder mystery of sorts, but with a twist. From the beginning, the protagonist struggles with lapses in memory and is tasked with a mission she is not sure she will be able to, or even wants to, carry out, though it may be her only means of survival. This novella has an “original” take on a bunch of classic sci-fi themes, including cloning, augmented and virtual reality, meaning and identity.

Word Puppets, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Short stories, science fiction/fantasy, contemporary

A collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories by a wonderfully creative writer. Legends, magic swords, robots, clones, puppets, astronauts, wine, aliens, fairies…in her fantastical stories, Kowal shows the more intimate, human side of these epic genres.

Blurbs from some of the stories in Word Puppets:

  • Chrysalis: A documentarian writes journal entries about her job recording the actions of humanoid insects as they have an existential debate with one another regarding their evolutionary transformation.
  • Body Language: A virtual puppeteer tries to rescue a kidnapped child by taking control of a copy of his robot dog.
  • The Consciousness Problem: A woman scientist tries to tell the difference between her husband and his clone.
  • American Changeling: A teenage fairy who has grown up in the moral world faces a threat to herself and her family when they are attacked by religious fanatics and other fay.

The Sandman Act II, by Neil Gaiman
Audio graphic novel, fantasy, contemporary

This radio play really does feel like a graphic novel in audiobook form. It’s not a single story arc, but more a series of vignettes, some connected and others not, but all featuring the Lord of Dream, a powerful antihero with a dark personality and reaches in various myths and realms.

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

In this charming children’s novel, a boy who lives with his parents in a smugglers inn plays a game with his new friend to investigate a mystery involving the suspicious new patrons. This book has storytelling, role playing, clues to solve, interesting characters, even danger!, and a snowy wintery landscape that makes it a great cozy read that will warm your heart.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

I reread this book this year, but I’m not going to review it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
Novel, fantasy, contemporary

I reread this book this year, but I’m not going to review it.

I have also reread half of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling and half of Dune, by Frank Herbert.

And now for a reflective questionnaire!

How many books did you read this year? Did you meet your goal?
42… my goal was 30, so yes.

Most read genre?
Fantasy… though I did read a lot more sci-fi this year which was another goal, so I’m proud of that.

Favorite book published in 2021?
Cytonic

Favorite debut book in 2021?
I don’t think I read any of those, unless you count my own (which I don’t, because it’s not published yet).

Favorite book not published this year?
Haha, mine? Just kidding… The Fated Sky

Least favorite book you read this year?
The Magicians

A book that lived up to the hype.
11/22/63

A book that did NOT live up to the hype.
The Sandman 2

Book that felt like the biggest accomplishment?
Children of Ruin

Favorite character?
M-bot (from Cytonic)

Least favorite character?
Lee Harvey Oswald?? (from 11/22/63)

Most shocking book/moment?
The last 3rd of Morning Star… thanks for messing with my emotions, Pierce.

Favorite couple/OTP?
Elma & Nathaniel (Lady Astronaut)

Favorite book cover of the year.
Harrow the Ninth

What book made you cry the most?
The Fated Sky

What book made you laugh the most?
Haha, maybe Romance Dawn

A new favorite author you discovered this year.
Mary Robinette Kowal

Favorite book you re-read this year.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

What is the best non-fiction book you read this year?
Haha, I didn’t read any non-fiction books this year… oops.

What are you reading now?
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten – which happens to be a debut novel that was published in 2021! Also, The Invisible Life of Addie Larou, by V.E. Schwab. And still working on the second half of Prisoner of Azkaban and Dune.

That’s all, folks! Happy New Year and happy reading!

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