Best Books of 2021

Books

It’s been a difficult year for the publishing industry, as global supply chain issues, as well as labor and paper shortages, have led to delays. But many wonderful and nerdy books have made it over those obstacles to make it into the world and into our eyeballs and brains. As we reflect back on 2021, here are 20 books—from horror to fantasy to science fiction—that meant something to Den of Geek staff and contributors over the past year.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

2021 has seen something of a slasher renaissance in film, with the Fear Street Trilogy, Candyman and Halloween Kills—and, true to form, the book world is right on trend. Grady Hendrix’s latest (he’s the author of the excellent novels Horrorstor, My Best Friend’s Exorcism and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires) focuses on a group of women whose lives were changed in their teens when they became the focus of real life serial killers. This is “real life” in Hendrix’s novel’s world, though each killer is inspired by the tropes of classics from the 70s, 80s and 90s from Halloween, to A NIghtmare on Elm Street to Scream.

This is a meta romp, packed with black comedy as well as Hendrix’s distinctive compassion for his characters. He’s proven time and again how adept he is at writing women and this group of dysfunctional, damaged former final girls are no different. What happens to you if the most significant event in your life occurs in your teens? And how would you react when the killings start all over again? A zippy, clever, funny book that’s a must-read for slasher fans everywhere. – Rosie Fletcher

The Liar of Red Valley by W. L. Goodwater

This urban horror fantasy is a masterwork of world building that manages to make its small American town of Red Valley both instantly recognizable and unsettlingly “other.” Flirting with the YA genre (though at the violent and scary end of that spectrum), our protagonist is Sadie, a young woman whose mother has just died suddenly from a very fast acting cancer. Sadie’s mother was the titular ‘liar’ a magical role the town has always had, and that duty now falls to Sadie. With an offering and a sacrifice, the Liar can make your lies come true. But it’s a curse as much as a blessing. 

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A tale of monsters and magic, superstition and tradition, Red Valley is pleasingly grounded in reality, with the California town troubled with poverty, racism and addiction, while ostensibly under the protection of the elusive “King” who keeps the residents safe from the monsters that lurk outside “The King’s Peace.” Red Valley has its own share of horrors, not least the drug addled “laughing boys” one of the most chilling (and tragic) creations we’ve read in a while. “Do Not Trust The Liar, Do Not Go In The River, Do Not Cross The King” run the rules. But Sadie is on a mission to uncover the real truth. Great for budding horror fans who enjoyed things like Cuckoo Song and Half Bad, and a riveting page turner for all. – RF

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Another example of a modern slasher, Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel is a dense literary horror packed with social commentary as well as a love letter to stalk and slash movies and final girls through the ages. Our heroine, Jade, is a Blackfeet Indian (like Jones) who hides from the harsh realities of her life with her deadbeat dad in the comfort of horror movies. But Jade is anything but a Final Girl (so she thinks), instead becoming obsessed with wealthy, graceful and resourceful Letha Mondragon, who is new to the area and lives on the affluent side of the lake that marks the centre of town. Jade thinks she sees the signs of an incoming massacre – if Letha is to be the savior Jade needs, she’s going to have to educate her in the rules of slashers asap.

A careful, beautifully written picture of disenfranchisement vs privilege which packs an emotional punch while managing to maintain a steady, building tension, it’s a sophisticated slow-burn which rewards patience.– RF

When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired By Shirley Jackson, Edited by Ellen Datlow

This compilation of short stories features some of the best contemporary horror authors around. Each tale is inspired by the essence of Shirley Jackson’s work (her best known pieces include The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle) but isn’t derived or spun-off – these are original standalones which share Jackson’s themes and ethos – ghostly encounters, domestic unrest, female solidarity and dysfunction and more. It’s a packed collection and the standard is high across the board but there are standouts. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Take Me I’m Free” is a brittle snap of heartbreak, while Cassandra Khaw’s “Quiet Dead Things” explores an uncomfortable small town mentality in a nod towards The Lottery. Laird Barron’s “Tiptoe” takes the prize for the most unsettling story of the lot, following an annual camping trip that reveals something deeply unpleasant and ends with an image it’s impossible to shake, while Stephen Graham Jones’ “Refinery Road” is more quietly devastating. The longest and most cinematic of the lot is Benjamin Percy’s “Hag”, a folk fable set on a remote island with a strong narrative pull, while  Genevieve Valentine’s “Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive Home” is a series of vignettes around the female experience of driving. All the stronger for the different flavours, this is an absolute treat whether you’re a Shirley Jackson nut or not.– RF

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars wasn’t written as a pandemic book, but for me, in the midst of a world filled with chaos and loneliness, ever-moving goalposts and inconsistent information, reading a book that touches on all of those things with a fully blossoming sense of hope was exactly what I needed. The story centers on violinist Katrina Nguyen, a young trans woman who runs away from home, only to realize that the friends she trusted to take her in aren’t reliable. She soon finds herself under the guidance of Shizuka Satomi, a violin teacher who sees her as a protege, when Shizuka meets her in the park and offers her a donut. Except that Shizuka sells the souls of her students to hell in exchange for her own freedom, and Katrina will be the final soul that fulfills her bargain. And the donut came from Starrgate Donuts, which is run by aliens under the command of Captain Lan Tran, building a stargate on Earth as they hide from the Endplauge.

The three women’s lives come together in strange, sometimes miraculous ways, and Aoki seamlessly weaves together two disparate genres like a master conductor directing the parts of a symphony. While selling souls, galactic pandemics, and the prejudice and dangers faced by trans women could have made this a grim, weighty novel, the story is infused with so much love, and a sense that there is meaning and value in life, that it left me feeling as though I’d listened to a life changing musical performance, complete with tears and laughter. – Alana Joli Abbott

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A Test of Courage by Justina Ireland

This was probably the first book I read in 2021, and it has remained a favorite not just because it was part of the launch of the new Star Wars: The High Republic initiative, but because I read it aloud with my kids. Our family shares a love for Star Wars—we watched all of Rebels and The Mandalorian together—but this is the first time I’ve shared my love of Star Wars in its written format with my children. The whole High Republic initiative is amazing, in that it’s fostering that sense of family reading, and Justina Ireland captures so much of what we love about the Star Wars universe in this first book. In the story, newly minted Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and three younger characters—Avon Starros, an eleven-year-old inventor; Imri Cantaros, an empathic padawan; and Honesty Weft, a twelve-year-old Ambassador’s son—are stranded on a hostile moon after an attack from the brutal pirates, the Nihil, destroys their starship. As the young characters deal with their grief, they must also find a way to survive—and warn the Republic about the Nihil threat.

I loved this book because, in addition to capturing the real space-fantasy adventure tone I love, Ireland so deftly engages with the emotional turbulence of her young characters. In the films, the Jedi frequently reject emotions like fear and anger, but Ireland gives the Jedi a more complex reading than that. My youngest reader, on the other hand, loved this book because of Vernestra’s fantastically cool lightsaber. The fact that the novel works on adult and kid levels—and that I could share my fan-love with my kids—makes this one of my top reading experiences of the year. – AJA

The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Some of my favorite books in recent years have featured main characters that hang in the balance between two cultures and nations—Kacen Callendar’s Queen of the Conquered and Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire among them. That perilous space of not quite fitting in, of striving to be something and never quite succeeding, is also key to C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken, a fantastic series launcher that brings readers to Qazāl, an occupied nation rebelling against the Balladairan Empire. Touraine is a member of the Colonial Brigade, conscripts stolen from the colonies as children and forced to serve as soldiers, now facing the job of peacekeeping people who look like them—people who might be related to them. Touraine stops an assassination attempt against Princess Luca, but things almost immediately go wrong when the rebels capture Touraine, and she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit. Saved from the rebels but faced with court martial, Touraine is only saved through Luca’s intervention. The princess takes Touraine on as an aide, knowing Touraine could be a valuable tool in forging a peace through negotiation, rather than war.

But of course, war and colonization aren’t simple, and Clark never lets the answers to any of the problems be easy, especially when Touraine knows the first soldiers sacrificed in any conflict are the conscripts, her first found family. The questions of whose loyalty is earned, who becomes your family, and what it means to exist in a space between two worlds are so phenomenally explored. The tension and connection between Touraine and Luca, who might have been friends or lovers without the huge power differential between them, and whose dynamic goes through a series of stormy changes, resides at the heart of the novel. With characters so easy to empathize with, even when they make regrettable choice after choice, a deeply textured world, and intriguing magic, this has me already eagerly anticipating the sequel.– AJA

Forging a Nightmare by Patricia A. Jackson

I stumbled onto this debut book through Patricia A. Jackson’s work, alongside her students, combating the book bans in the schools of York County, Pennsylvania. After following her on social media, I realized she was not only a teacher, but an author, whose first novel released in November. Though the opening of the story is on the darker side (I typically avoid novels with serial killers), it’s quickly evident that this is a novel steeped in Christian lore, and exactly the type of story that plays with and reinvents real-world legends in a way that transforms the familiar into something new. FBI Agent Michael Childs is tasked with solving the murders of several victims, all of whom were born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. His first solid lead, Anaba Raines, is a Marine who was killed in action. Now, she’s a Nightmare—a magic, demonic horse and the fusion of a damned soul with an archangel’s transformative will. And Michael, like the victims, is a Nephilim—and the murderer may be after him next.

The story soon brings in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all Hell breaks loose. (Rather, Michael breaks Hell’s sky and adopts the Leviathan as a pet. But details.) A war is coming, and Michael and Anaba are destined to play a much larger part. Jackson aces bringing in mythological and religious references to create a complex cosmology for her world, while also grounding the human characters through relationships that spiderweb out from the main cast. It’s an excellent debut that meshes crime fiction and horse novels with the apocalypse, and the ending promises more to come.– AJA

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Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko

Ifueko’s Raybearer was one of the 2020 reads I adored, so I had very high expectations for this sequel—which fulfilled every one of them. Redemptor picks up the story of Redemptor Empress Tarisai, who pledged to end a treaty that sacrifices children to the underworld to appease demons. Now those sacrificed children, the ojiji who appear as desiccated corpses, torment Tarisai, demanding that she do more, be more, and insisting that she is unworthy. To fulfill her promise Tarisai must bind the vassal royals of the empire’s nations to her magic; to do so, she must make them love her. Because she spent so long viewing herself as unlovable, as a monster, and because the ojiji are more than happy to reaffirm all her self doubts, navigating a path to the love of others is even more challenging. Meanwhile, she begins to realize just how much wealth the rulers of the Empire have been hoarding, and how many children have been sacrificed to the altar of their wealth, with no treaty to blame.

As she began with Raybearer, Ifueko continues her exploration of justice, deepening it into the cost of broken systems. Tarisai’s quest to use her power for the betterment of others inspires, and her constant doubts that she is ever doing enough resonate. Ifueko’s expansive cast is well managed, with clear frontrunners shining in the narrative’s spotlight without ever undermining Tarisai’s story. For much of the novel, Tarisai feels alone (an emotion all too easy to empathize with this year), and her triumph over those critical voices in her head (evil spirit or otherwise) hits exactly the right note. This is a perfect pick for anyone who has ever worried that they aren’t enough; Tarisai’s story will feel achingly, inspiringly familiar.– AJA

Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn

I love Zin E. Rocklyn’s short fiction, and I looked forward to her novella for months before it was released. I was absolutely not disappointed. In the story, Iraxi is pregnant, one of the few successful pregnancies of a people who live aboard an ark, fleeing the flooding of their homeland. But Iraxi doesn’t fit in among the refugees; her own people were reviled long before the flooding, and now Iraxi is treated with both contempt and hope, because she might bear a future for the people. Iraxi is no glowing pregnant woman. Everything about her condition makes her miserable, and everything about her current life, living in a decaying boat among a dying people who hate her, remind her of the life and family she lost. When Iraxi begins to see visions of sea monsters, it’s easy to question whether she’s a reliable narrator—and that uncertainty about Iraxi’s perspective is unsettling in all the right ways.

The book is a short 112 pages, but each page is packed with glorious description in gorgeous prose. Rocklyn’s poetic language doesn’t distance the reader from the horrors, both realistic and magical, that she describes, and the story is not for the faint of heart. But this story of anger is also one of transformation, and of survival, made haunting by its dreamlike telling.– AJA

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life by Linda H. Davis

Creepy? No. Kooky? Maybe. Linda H. Davis sees cartoonist Charles Addams as far more mischievous than mysterious. Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life is the only biography written about the creator of the perennially ooky The Addams Family, and does a wonderful job dispelling his personal mythology. Or does she? People think Chas Addams slept in a coffin, kept eyeballs in martini glasses, and showed up in a full suit in armor at non-costume parties. But these were isolated incidents blown way out of proportion. Addams hung out with Hollywood stars. He loved fast cars and beautiful women. He dated A-list actresses like Joan Fontaine, and President Kennedy’s newly widowed wife Jackie, but all three of his wives looked like Morticia Addams. Addams was the only The New Yorker magazine cartoonist whose mental facilities were questioned, and he did have vast eccentricities, but they were a delight, not a horror, and Davis brings it out in every page. – Tony Sokol

Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock by Lisa S. Johnson

Guitar geeks get their gear on in this coffee table photography book about celebrity axes. Famous guitars played by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Tom Petty, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, St. Vincent, Lita Ford, Susanna Hoffs, Nancy Wilson, Metallica, and Black Sabbath are ready for their closeups, and photographer Lisa S. Johnson snaps them in amazing detail. With a foreword by Peter Frampton, and an afterword by Suzi Quatro, every fret is beautifully rendered. 

Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock frames the guitars from over 150 rock icons with the stories of those whose fingers have picked, stummed, and shredded over them. Johnson manages to capture the instruments both in their natural settings, and their surreal appeal. Whether they are weathered instruments, with scrapes and gashes as big as an F-hole, or well-preserved works of sonic art, Johnson finds the sexy. Once you get your hands on this book, you will want to get your fingers on these strings. – TS 

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The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Thanks to the success of books like Madeline Miller’s Circe, it’s become somewhat trendy in fiction these days to wrestle with the way we’ve always been taught to think of the women whose stories have been forced to exist on the edges of a man’s in historical epics like The Odyssey. (This is not a bad thing, just to be clear and books like A Thousand Ships, The Silence of the Girls, and Ariadne are all very much also worth your time.) 

Genevie Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart attempts to do something similar with Norse mythology, reimagining the story of the giantess Angrboda in an entirely new and intriguing way. In the old tales, she is only briefly mentioned as the mother of the trickster God Loki’s three children – Fenrir, the wolf; Jorgamund, the Midgard Serpent; and Hel, the ruler of the realm of the dead. But Gornichec aims to change all that, crafting an empowering and tragic tale that blends a centuries-long quest with a surprisingly meaningful love story. (And one of most adorable oddball families primarily comprised of wolves and snakes you’ll ever see.) The Witch’s Heart is full of sly nods to other gods and their stories, even as it spins a necessary tale about a woman who may be fated for sadness, but who still manages to live a life of meaning along the way. A surprisingly gut-wrenching and deeply beautiful debut. – Lacy Baugher

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

If you’re looking to add more diverse fantasy to your bookshelves, you honestly can’t go wrong with Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, a queer, female-fronted Indian-inspired fantasy that is rich, complicated, and full of morally gray characters. An epic that includes half a dozen POVs, multiple kingdoms, complex magical and cultural systems, bands of rebels, interfamilial betrayal, and a fantastic slow-burn central relationship. But, at its heart, this is a story about power: Who has it? What does it cost to wield it? What is it worth sacrificing to keep it? And who is suffering under the yoke of the empire it creates?

The Jasmine Throne is precisely the sort of dense, immersive tale the fantasy genre was essentially built to tell, unfolding slowly and purposefully over a story that clocks in at over 500 pages (and is just the first installment in a trilogy!) but is so deftly told that you won’t feel most of them pass. Bring on The Oleander Sword– LB

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

Fairytale retellings are all the rage right now, but Hannah Whitten’s debut novel For the Wolf takes it to the next level, mixing folklore, horror, and a dark reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast to create something that feels entirely fresh. Set in a kingdom where the royal family’s second daughter is traditionally sacrificed to the Wolf of the Wood in return for the kingdom’s safety, it follows the story of Redarys, a girl who’s grown up knowing she was essentially destined to die. 

Only, she doesn’t die. And what happens next – from the monster she meets in the wood who isn’t a monster at all to the battle against dark magic and ancient gods at its center – will both surprise and delight you. The enemies-to-lovers romance at its center is rich and satisfying, as is the relationship between Red and the elder sister she left behind – whose determination to save sibling may end up dooming the world. Whitten’s lush prose makes her Wilderwood come alive, from its literally bloodthirsty trees to its constantly creeping shadows and rot, the sort of vivid fantasy storytelling that’s all too rare these days, and a true joy to read.– LB

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The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

It’s rare to find a story that can genuinely surprise you, but Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street does so in spades. The book centers on a lonely man named Ted, who lives in a boarded-up, run-down house, with his 13-year-old daughter, Lauren, and his cat Olivia, not far from a lake where young girls have been going missing. 

A book that’s almost impossible to explain without spoiling one of its many twists, it’s equally difficult to categorize (Is it a horror story? A mystery thriller? A straight-up tragedy?) and features multiple lead characters who may or may not be entirely trustworthy.  And yet, Needless Street is also one of the most emotionally affecting novels that hit shelves this year, an exploration of loss and obsession that subverts many of our preexisting expectations of what a horror story is supposed to be and do. (Even as it counts on us understanding those same tropes to misdirect and occasionally mislead us.)  Plus, there’s the presence of a very religious talking gay cat, truly the best supporting character in fiction this year.– LB

A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

The fifth book in Sarah J. Maas’s  A Court of Thorns and Roses universe, A Court of Silver Flame is the first in the series to focus on a character other than original leading lady Feyre, now High Lady of Prythian’s Night Court. Instead, it follows the story of her elder sister, Nesta, a furious ball of rage still struggling to process the trauma from the events of the previous four books. Silver Flames also marks a graduation of sorts for this series: Whereas the earlier ACOTAR novels are more easily classified as YA fantasy, this sequel marks a clear step into the more adult contemporary genre occupied by Maas’s Crescent City series, and the story is all the better for it. Now featuring darker themes, a whole more violence, and, yes, some rather explicit sex, A Court of Silver Flames is largely a story about pain: How to carry it, how to process it, how to accept help because of it. 

A more complicated and often less likable heroine than her sister, Nesta’s bottomless rage and sharp tongue make her occasionally hard to root for. But Maas works hard to ground her anger as an understandable reaction to the trauma she’s experienced and allows Nesta to explore her fears and grief with a group of new characters who have all undergone similar horrors. (People may recommend Maas’ work for her swoony, sexy relationships, but she’s one of the best at writing complex female friendships working today, and that talent is on full display here, as she crafts new bonds that are ultimately a more important part of Nesta’s journey to recovery and self-acceptance than her romance with the hunky Cassian. Silver Flames may be a fairly massive tome, but it’s a great example of why Maas remains so popular as an author – and why this series is going to go on for as long as she wants it to.– LB

A Fan Studies Primer, edited by Paul Booth & Rebecca Williams

Fandom is a global force for good, bad, and everything in-between, but the academic study of it is relatively new and often underfunded compared to other disciplines. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still vital work being done in the field, as academics across the country and world work to create and articulate helpful frameworks for understanding how forces of fannishness work, and the best ways to study them. A Fan Studies Primer: Method, Research, and Ethics attempts to give teachers a resource for shaping their own fan studies curriculum and studies, especially as fandom becomes increasingly transnational and multinational, and media begins to wrestle more seriously with questions of diversity, representation, and inclusion. This might seem like a niche book recommendation for a nerd site centered more on media analysis than fandom analysis, but it’s a great read for any nerd looking to understand their own fannishness and the fannishness of those around them a little better. – Kayti Burt

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Xiran Jay Zhao offers up a vibrant, wildly entertaining debut with Iron Widow, a speculative fiction reimagining of the rise of China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian.

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In the patriarchal sci-fi world of Huaxia, 18-year-old Zetian is part of the mecha military system that killed her older sister. In Iron Widow, teen girls and boys are paired up to pilot giant magical robots calledChrysalises, used to fight the mecha aliens that live beyond the Great Wall; however, while boy pilots are revered as hero-celebrities, the girl pilots are seen as concubine, and often die from the mental strain of the piloting process. When Zetian turns the tables, psychically killing her boy co-pilot, she is paired up with Li Shimin, considered the strongest male pilot in the fleet. But that’s just the rough premise.

What follows is a queer, polyamorist romance filled with giant transforming robots and giant transforming feelings. A love letter to East Asian cultures, anime tropes, and the fight against misogyny, Iron Widow was one of the most rewarding reads of the year. – KB

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

If you haven’t encountered Mo Dao Zu Shi in some format, then you probably haven’t been on the internet in the last few years. The Chinese-language web novel, also known as The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, was published online from October 2015 to March 2016, and became very popular, spurring several adaptations across different mediums, including audio dramas in multiple languages as well as manhua and donghua adaptations. In 2019, Tencent adapted the story into a live-action drama called The Untamed, which has racked up literally billions of views across the many platforms it has been available on. Starring pop idols Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo in the central roles, The Untamed took off internationally when it was made available on Netflix in October 2019. Two years later, the original danmei finally has an official English-language edition, complete with new illustrations.

The first of three planned volumes of the English-language The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation hit bookshelves earlier this week. The Chinese xianxia fantasy novel follows cultivator soulmates Wei Wuixan and Lan Wangji fighting injustices in a fantasy version of ancient China, and it’s great. The new edition is from Seven Seas publishing, and features cover art from Jin Fang, interior illustrations from Marina Privalova, and translation by Suika with Pengie as editor. The time and care that went into translating this novel into a new edition is apparent in every page, and every word choice. In a year in which American consumers were more open to foreign-language and foreign-made content than ever, an official English-language translation of this beloved fantasy romance feels like a major moment.

What were your favorite books of the year? Let us know in the comments below.

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