2021 was definitely a better reading year for me than last year, although I still had multiple dry spells due to, you know, the stress of living on this planet right now. I also felt pretty good about my writing and conference presentations this year; I’ve linked to my reviews below.

  • Reconstruction, Alaya Dawn Johnson
    Superb collection; explores some connected themes across a wide range of styles and genres. “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” is still one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. Reviewed at the CHIRB.
  • Afterland, Lauren Beukes
    Handmaidian story about a virus that kills most human males; follows a woman and her son in the aftermath. It was fine? Seemed like it was going to do more with gender presentation; didn’t. Left me, as most “the men are dead, oh no” stories do, begging people to research how easily current technology could keep reproduction going. Chicago Nerd Social Club read.
  • The Echo Wife, Sarah Gailey
    Cloning murder-mystery psychological-horror. Science is a bit hand-wavey but the moral ambiguity and Jackson-esque narrative control were very cool. Reviewed for ARB.
  • The Not Yet, Moira Crone
    Very strange, meandering, multi-faceted novel, post-sea-level-rise Louisiana setting. Didn’t particularly love it, but it was interesting. Think Galactic read.
  • The Memory Theater, Karen Tidbeck
    Kind of folk/fairy-tale-like story with big surreal ideas. Put me in mind of Gaiman and Link a bit. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez
    Adored this. Classic SF—felt like it was strongly connected to both Alfred Bester-esque stuff and more recent found-family space opera—but with a wonderful, thoughtful, literary bent. Really good.
  • Vita Nostra, Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
    Dark magic school. Didn’t love! The Russian background felt very real to me though. CNSC read.
  • The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders
    Enjoyed this even more on a re-read. Meta-messy, I dig the musings on time, and the “friends with weird aliens from the dark side of the planet” is a sci-fi vitamin my body constantly craves. TG read.
  • Machinehood, S.B. Divya
    Squicked out by the confused politics and assumptions in this one. Coupled with poor writing, didn’t much enjoy. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer
    Really quite liked this, as discomforting as it is. Brutal intersection of personal and planetary trauma, great paranoid espionage/noir voice. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Unconquerable Sun, Kate Elliott
    Was alright, I enjoy a big complex space opera. The gender-switched Alexander the Great retelling stuff was a lot less interesting to me than the weirder modified human stuff. CNSC read.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho.
    Surprisingly good—I don’t love regency-and-adjacent stuff, but this was fun. I was a little derailed by the ethics (or lack thereof) of the protagonist in the last section. TG read.
  • Oceanic, Greg Egan
    Whoof, this one. Superb entry in the “big but complex atheist feelings” SF.
  • The Witness for the Dead, Katherine Addison
    Quite liked this! I really enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, and this is dramatically stronger. I like the meandering flaneuriness of it, the well-digested Sherlockiness of it, and just a compelling character and world. Reviewed for ARB. CNSC read.
  • The City & the City, China Miéville
    Re-read for my ongoing “anti-fantasy” academic project. A damn classic, this one, can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • The Doors of Eden, Adrian Tchaikovsky
    Great fun! Alternate worlds and histories, evolutionary possibilities, supergiant superintelligent bug gods, sign me up. Tchaikovsky’s got a real gift for making big chonky doorstoppers into snappy, idea-rich page-turners.
  • The Unraveling, Benjamin Rosenbaum
    Argh this book, everyone read this book as soon as possible please. So terribly inventive and clever and good. Reviewed for CHIRB, and my pick for the ARB Notable List.
  • On Fragile Waves, E. Lily Yu
    “The book that knocked me over like a sneaker wave, 2021.” Barely know how to talk about this, still, without just shoveling descriptors at it: devastating, insightful, relentless, compassionate. A masterpiece. My pick for the CHIRB 2021 list.
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E. Schwab
    Everybody seems to be reading this book. I did not love it! Might have been a fun novella, but the central premise doesn’t hold up if you think about it at all; overall too cute for me. CNSC read.
  • The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley
    Time-traveling, hallucinogenic riff on Starship Troopers. I dig the critique but the coolest parts felt like they were left off the page.
  • Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather
    Very fun novella, a stock “space opera corporate government is evil” plot, but the details—well-sketched nuns wrestling with faith and pragmatism, giant living slugships—were excellent.
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson
    Another very fun novella, time travel and body modification and some interesting future generational philosophy stuff.
  • The Odyssey, Homer, Emily Wilson translation
    Superb, extremely readable. Not the riot that Headley’s Beowful is, but so clear and graceful that I felt like I could simultaneously be absorbed by the story and note a lot of the weird differences in cultural/moral assumptions.
  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
    Re-read for Witness review. Quite good. Could not help thinking about this as a fantasy version of Dave (1993).
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
    the best book I read this year. Was ready to hate it; it won me over within pages. Astonishing mastery of voice. CNSC read. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg
    Interesting novella; maybe a little imbalanced in terms of figuring out the world in a short work, but with some insightful, joyous stuff about identity. TG read.
  • Rimrunners, C.J. Cherryh
    Every time I read this, I’m increasingly sure it’s her best novel. Maybe tied with Gehenna. Space combat setting with high physical and psychological realism, memorable protagonist.
  • Downbelow Station, C.J. Cherryh
    Re-read for conference paper. It’s good, but really not the Cherryh I’d suggest people start with. Some parts are excellent, the Downers are not great, and the overall brutal reality-portraying feels vaguely like Russian literature.
  • In the Watchful City, S. Qiouyi Lu
    Feels more like a fix-up—a couple short stories stitched together—than a cohesive single story. Some interestingly disturbing ideas, but on the whole I found it fairly weak. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Blindsight, Peter Watts
    Just felt like a re-read for some reason. Remains unmatched for high-concept space horror, and it’s just a treat to read.
  • Echopraxia, Peter Watts
    Only suggested if you just need more Blindsight. Loads of interesting ideas but it just doesn’t cohere the way its predecessor does.
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar
    Olondrian novels are turning into an annual read for me. Aching, lovely, graceful book, can’t say enough about it.
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo
    Gobsmacked by this; a top contender for best book of 2021. If you’re not into Gatsby, I still highly recommend this; what Vo is doing with style, imagery, and theme, within her chosen limits, is breathtaking.
  • When the Sparrow Falls, Neil Sharpson
    Was ready to be underwhelmed by this (dystopian AI stuff) and was instead quite charmed; Vonnegut-ish, with unexpected and effective resonance with works like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Milosz’s The Captive Mind. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Hellboy Vol. 1, Mike Mignola
    Had been wanting to read this for a while. What a treat! Just fantastic. Among many other things, left me thinking about the balance of irony and seriousness that, for instance, the MCU can’t maintain.
  • A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine
    Adored this; has rather a lot going on but I was practically saying “yum” after every chapter. Interstellar/interspecies diplomacy and translation stuff, intrigues and weird tech, great characters. Very much feels like the modern heir to Cherryh & related SF. Still waiting on a few big loose threads to resolve, which is awesome.
  • Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch
    Finally read this. Fun, light, maybe a little too cavalier/plucky for me; this kind of urban fantasy often lands wrong for me but this was enjoyable enough.
  • Bitter Root Vol. 1, David Walker et al
    Strikingly, startlingly Ring Shout-esque; art and ideas are great but this reminded me of why I don’t read many comics. TG read.
  • We Have Always Been Here, Lena Nguyen
    Some promising elements here, but I was extremely disappointed by this on several levels; nail in the coffin was the snake-oil quantum quackery endorsement. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers
    This was all right, and lacked most of the bad science that often distracts me in Chambers, but just not really for me—I’m intrigued by the gentle/no-stakes aesthetic, but need a little more going on.
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal
    Ironically, I think this might be the strongest entry in the “Lady Astronaut” books, but it’s not different enough from previous entries to really stand out in my head. Also, and this is not Kowal’s fault, but the “Earth is doomed, flee rather than invest here” idea has been rather well tainted by awful billionaires since the series began. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Two Truths and a Lie, Sarah Pinsker
    Great, goofy, creepy story. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • The Inaccessibility of Heaven, Aliette de Bodard
    Pretty good noir-ish tale; was intrigued to see what looks like the “Fallen” universe in a modern setting. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super, A.T. Greenblatt
    I have a weird and unfair-to-them ambivalence about “low superhero” genre stories, where I will watch/read them but feel kinda conflicted about how much I care, because the core idea of superhero-dom is not one that resonates for me. This is a pretty good entry though. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Helicopter Story, Isabel Fall
    Great story, loved the neurotech and voice; a lot of tragic drama around this story, unfortunately. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Monster, Naomi Kritzer
    Nice, polished CRISPR-thriller. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • The Pill, Meg Ellison
    Wow, this story: Ellison is one to watch. Potent, cutting, makes the obvious fresh and goes beyond it to less-obvious places. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Come Tumbling Down, Seanan McGuire
    Just gotta be honest, this series does nothing for me. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
    Fun re-appropriation of the Western for queer, anti-fascist ends. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark
    Smashing fun; fairly light but with a great setting (alt-history Cairo) and a rollicking pace. CNSC read.
  • Cyteen, C.J. Cherryh
    Re-read for a conference paper. Whew, Cyteen; to be clear, I’m the biggest Cherryh nerd you’re likely to meet, and I have to say, even though they’re the Hugo winners, Cyteen and Downbelow Station are so not the ones you should start with. Cyteen in particular is a troubling, problematic, claustrophobic work—it is among her most important, but very far from most enjoyable or approachable. Reading it this time, I couldn’t help thinking how some drastic edits—just cutting a few big chunks—would have made this more effective by upping the ambiguity and centering the perspective more firmly on Ari II. Cherryh’s grasp on the potentials and limits of genetic and psychological manipulation remains breathtaking—she takes as basic and foundational what most SF writers decades later haven’t quite got their heads around.
  • Regenesis, C.J. Cherryh
    …and then there’s this, the decades-later sequel, which attempts to retcon, sanitize, and disambiguate Cyteen in very disappointing ways.
  • Exhalation, Ted Chiang
    Oy, so good. Maybe not as 100% slam-dunks as his previous collection, but every story here is great; the title story and The Lifecycle of Software Objects are top-tier (for Chiang and SF as a whole). TG read.
  • 40,000 in Gehenna, C.J. Cherryh
    “The good one.” Shows in miniature what Cherryh normally needs multiple books to showcase: the “future historical” mode of storytelling, societal changes, the profundity of the alien other. I really think this should go on more “feminist SF” lists. Needs to be reissued with a non-terrible cover.
  • Summer Sons, Lee Mandelo
    Extremely good, somewhat messy mystery/ghost/gay-coming-of-age story. CNSC read. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Vox, Christina Dalcher
    Extremely Trump-era Handmaidian story; one can agree with its general politics and still note the weirdness of the fantasy. Wasn’t very impressed with this.
  • Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi
    Good, challenging, angry book. TG read. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Mordew, Alex Pheby
    Ugh, did not like. Not sure why I finished it, but I did. Reviewed on blog.
  • Persephone Station, Stina Leicht
    Heavily Star Wars-y, Firefly-y shoot-em-up caper. Barely stayed in my brain after I closed it.
  • Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
    Finally got around to reading this. It’s good! Does what it says on the tin, though in retrospect the plot is weirdly distanced from Mexican cultural influence. I’m gonna knock off a couple points for “giving a complete and naturalistic explanation for the supernatural bits”: it kind of closed off any lasting creepiness at the end of the book.
  • Even Greater Mistakes, Charlie Jane Anders
    I like Anders’ novels but I love her short work, and this is a tour de force collection. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • Light Chaser, Gareth Powell & Peter Hamilton
    I almost wrote a longer review of this just to work out how much I didn’t like it, but I think this brief one will do. Unintentionally but personally offensive (I’m offended!) in how poorly it thinks out its core premise.
  • Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky
    What a lovely, balanced, delight of a novella, light and lively but with some serious and interesting depths. Fantasy quest with SF trappings, commenting on genre, intercultural assumptions, and mental health. Blurbed for IndieBound.
  • Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick
    Just felt like a re-read. Love this book, wish more short novels aspired to this level of allusory and thematic richness.
  • The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie
    Re-read for club, gosh I like this! To steal a blurb, “The story of Macbeth as told by a rock who is a god.” Weird pitch but dang this is good, smart and surprising and interesting on several levels. TG read.
  • My Heart is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones
    Slasher homage, quite good. I think it was maybe a little too frenetic, a little too kitchen-sink in its approach, but that might speak to how well it dives into its teenage protagonist’s head.
  • After the Dragons, Cynthia Zhang
    Gentle novel about dragons and a queer romance, quite nice. CNSC read.
  • The Actual Star, Monica Byrne
    A lot of thoughts and feelings about this one; this is a big, ambitious novel with a lot going on. The utopian future timeline feels like a spiritual successor to Piercy’s Mattapoisset, which: stick it in my veins.
  • Femlandia, Christina Dalcher
    Another Handmaidian, this one more awash than usual with problematic white feminism. Deeply squicked out by this one, did not like. Reviewed for CHIRB.
  • 16 Ways to Defend a Walled City, K.J. Parker
    I was so incredibly taken with Prosper’s Demon that I’ve been meaning to explore more of Parker’s work. 16 Ways is a medieval-ish secondary fantasy world, with an engineer unexpectedly thrust into the position of protecting a city from an invading army. Unexpectedly (and I think unintentionally), it rides right on the edge of being real uncomfortable race-wise (it’s a “pale-skinned minority” setup). Witty, snarky, and full of delightful snippets and observations. A little bit like Dickinson crossed with Pratchett.
  • Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, Lina Rather
    Disappointing follow-up to a book I quite liked; none of the elements that worked so well in the first quite came off here.
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells
    Had to re-read because, while I am absolutely certain, in my soul, that Murderbot is the best, I couldn’t actually remember the plot of this until I came back to it. ARB Hugo Guide.
  • Hench, Natalie Walschots
    Another “low cape” story, about a henchperson who becomes a supervillain in her own right (of course, the villain/hero dichotomy is heavily criticized from page one). As I’ve said, mixed feelings about this genre, but this was excellent, really well done and fun on a number of levels. Solidarity with my fellow Excel-using supervillains. TG read.
  • Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson
    Big feelings about this big ol’ book; expect an essay from me about this (at least partially) in the next month or two. This is probably Stephenson’s most readable since Seveneves, leaning into the competent techno-thriller, this time thinking about geoengineering to lessen the blow of global warming. If you like Stephenson, this is him at his strongest—giant book that reads page-a-minute, strange asides, big ideas, wikipedia-style infodumping that he makes really entertaining. If you don’t like Stephenson: stay clear!
  • The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
    Yep, re-read, yep, depression. I meant to write more on my read-through this year and some reflections on “fate” and “foreknowledge”; may still.
  • Spear, Nicola Griffith
    Already an extremely strong contender for best book of 2022; I’m not sure what’s coming out that might challenge it. Holy heck is this good, queer Arthurian retelling that leans into the Welsh. The language and structure here is outstanding. Cannot wait to talk more about this book with people.
  • The Once and Future Witches, Alix E. Harrow
    I was pretty meh on this, a little too predictable & sloggy. Would have been twice as good at half as long. CNSC read.
  • Dead Silence, S.A. Barnes
    Awful lot of space horror for me this year! This was okay; I wasn’t blown away by it, and was pretty disappointed by how it tried to combine supernatural and technological horror.

That’s it! Have a couple in progress that I suppose I’ll keep to next year’s list. And, whatever other horrors it probably holds, I’m already excited about some of the books coming out in 2022. If you’re interested, you can also see my lists for 2020, 2019, and 2018, before which I apparently did not keep track.