Best reads of 2021

The pandemic years have been, for me, good years for reading. While I’ve been very busy with my own work, writing, kids, and so on, when I do have some free time, reading is still one of my favorite things to do. Perhaps more than ever, since my phone is basically a doom machine beaming all the worst news into my brain every minute I’m looking at it.

Unfortunately, though, we moved midyear to a bigger town that somehow still manages to have a worse library. The old library–a small-town library in a deeply red county–somehow always had any queer speculative fiction I wanted. If there was a queer, scifi-loving librarian working there, I wish I’d ever met them. Might have made the place a little less isolating for me. But at least they knew a kindred spirit was sniffing out those books and checking out every single one.

Still, this town at least has a library system, so I can sometimes order things I want. And I did spend more money on books this year than in the past, thanks to my job.

In all that reading, I’ve found a lot to love. Also some books that disappointed me. I try to let myself not finish books I don’t enjoy, but when I had spent money I usually forced myself through, because that sunk-cost fallacy is powerful. Still, I’m not going to list books I didn’t like, because a part of me suspects that my brain just wasn’t in the mood for them, not that they weren’t good. My reading brain is a flighty animal; certain styles and structures just make it lock its knees and refuse to go on. That’s not the author’s fault, usually!

So, without further ado: a selection of books I rated five stars this year!

Dead Space, by Kali Wallace. Murder mystery on a space station, with deeply weird, ineffable AIs. Loved loved loved. Also there’s queer and nonbinary rep.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir. In which Andy Weir gets a little more speculative and finally writes a good character arc. With fewer science mistakes than The Martian! (Roasting Andy Weir is one of my hobbies, all in good fun.) There are two different kinds of alien life and I love both of them, for very different reasons. Aliens that are actually alien, I am always here for this!

Velocity Weapon, by Megan O’Keefe. This is one of those books where you think you know what’s going on, but there are Big Twists that keep you guessing. I like the AI. I always like the AI. I also read the second book, but I found that one kind of a mess. Felt like it was just an attempt to jam all necessary plot in before the series concludes with book 3. Still gonna read book 3 though.

Witchmark, by C. L. Polk. I just love fantasy that isn’t set either in the pretend Middle Ages or today. This one is in an alternate world reminiscent of WWI England. But gayyyyy.

Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden. Sometimes worldbuilding is the setting. Sometimes it’s an entire character, and important one. This one was all about the worldbuilding in the best way. Both the physical location (a living ship that’s a great beast) and the cultural context (matriarchal polygyny, Black heritage, whole societies of heartworkers and boneworkers and so on) were astounding. Again, I didn’t like book 2, though in this case I think it’s because most of the secrets of the beast’s innards were already revealed. TW for gross biology, I cannot stress enough: this book is all about gooping around in the guts of a giant space beast. If you didn’t like anat and phys you will not like this.

Sisters of the Vast Black, by Lina Rather. Again, living ships– though these are specifically bred for the job. Here the worldbuilding focuses mainly on the nuns. Because yeah, it’s Catholic nuns on a spaceship, who wouldn’t want that? I have nun-related baggage, but felt the nuns in here were exactly the best part of religious life . . . though not, of course, without some realistic convent drama. Picture Call the Midwife in the universe of Firefly.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alex Harrow. Possibly the best book I read all year? A beautiful braided tale with beautiful style and a lot of big reveals. January is an adventurous girl who is “tamed” by her millionaire benefactor, and it hit home a lot better than a lot of books that more explicitly try to talk about sexism. I want to read about how it gets in your head and changes you. Which this does. Though with a (mostly) happy ending, thank goodness.

I also read a lot of short fiction. Sadly, I kept no kind of track of it, and hence have no idea what any of it was called. I’m hoping to start keeping better track of the short stories I read, and blogging about them here. There is so much speculative short fiction available to read free online, the only real barrier is finding it.

Here’s to surviving to the end of 2021, and hopefully a better 2022. It can’t be worse, can it? Don’t answer that!

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