I know everyone else has already posted their best books of the year, but I wanted to wait until the very last moment to make sure that I was taking in all the books I read in 2021. I got more than 500 books under my belt this year, so I’m very pleased I managed to winnow this down to a top 20 with only a few hours’ tricky wrangling (with just a couple of series cheats). They’re in no particular order – I separated out the top five, but they’re not in any order amongst themselves, either.
So, do you want to see my very favourite books I read this year?
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This little novella had a huge impact on me. I’m still thinking about it months later. It’s fairly different from Chambers’s Wayfarers series, which I think is what everyone knows her for (and which I love), but it’s just so beautiful, philosophical, and human. It made me cry tons, and I know I’ll be rereading it often.
Voidbreaker by David Dalglish
I already reviewed this in some detail, so all I’ll say here is that this is a phenomenal finish to a trilogy that was an incredible surprise to me. I am SO glad I read this – wonderful character arcs, interesting magic, and pacey, dark-but-fun plot that feels like an RPG game, and it all pays off amazingly here. I adore Adria and her story. A must-read for fans of Dragon Age – it just has really similar vibes!
The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller
This is sheer delightful YA fantasy fun – a ruthless heroine takes on court intrigue and tries to avoid falling in love with the prince. It’s frothy, fast, and has an immense amount of fun with all the tropes of the genre. I loved the romance and the heroine’s voice; I actually borrowed this from a friend and immediately knew I had to get my own copy!
Spellbound by Ophelia Silk
Switching gears abruptly, this is a soft, sweet, slowburn f/f fantasy romance, with a prickly witch love interest I adored and a story of a young woman developing her own personality after years of oppression. It’s gorgeously cottagecore and very realistic in its depiction of character growth and relationship building. As I said in my review, if you’ve ever wanted to date Morrigan from Dragon Age, you need to read this.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
If you need me to tell you about this m/m fantasy romance, you’ve probably been living under a rock, because it’s been the darling of the book community since its release, I’m pretty sure. But it’s on this list because I genuinely loved it – it’s exactly the kind of heartwarming, gentle, loving read I needed amidst a lot of stress. It’s just lovely.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
I think this is the only contemporary book on here, and one of the very few I read! Again, you probably don’t need telling what this incredibly popular m/m romance is about, but I had such a great time reading it that I ended up staying up til about 3am to finish it in one sitting (which I regretted physically the next morning, but not emotionally). The dialogue and character arcs in this one are just great.
The Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick
A late addition to the list, because I only just finished this in December! This is exactly the kind of fantasy I love – con artists, fashion, old families full of secrets and alliances, different kinds of cool magic, culture clash, a city setting that feels like a character in its own right, more flirting than you can shake a stick at… Fantastic. I can’t wait to read the sequel.
A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith
This feels like exactly the kind of fantasy I want to write: fun, frothy, and feminist twists on the classic idea of a princess. I loved every moment. There’s romance, etiquette, balls, and a smidgen of adventure – it’s just delightful!
Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I still need to write up a proper review for this novella but it’s so clever. Riffing on the idea that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, this follows an anthropologist stationed on a medieval-alike world who’s become the subject of legend and is believed to be a wizard, and it’s got so much to say about language, culture, and humanity in a tiny little package.
Swordheart by Ursula Vernon
Completely delightful fantasy romance between a middle-aged woman and the magic sword (complete with immortal swordsman) she inherits. It’s funny, sweet, romantic and exciting; the perfect example of how small-scale fantasy can be just as entertaining as grand epics (if not more so) when the characters and narration are so good. It’s a little dark in places but for me, so cosy.
Our Beautiful Game by Lou Kuenzler
This is the only kids’ book that made it into the top 20 this year, and it’s not even fantasy! This story of a young female footballer in the First World War was a total surprise to me – I was blown away by the rich historical detail and the emotional depth. One for older readers, probably 10+, but beautifully pitched to be simple yet impactful. I won’t forget this one easily.
The Bachelor’s Valet by Arden Powell
I read this entire novella with a smile on my face. It’s a fun and funny m/m historical fantasy romance that is just such a sweet and lovely read. You don’t have to squint hard to see the traces of Jeeves and Wooster in the set up (nice but dim aristo and his extremely capable gentleman’s gentleman), but the way it develops from there, and the female secondary characters absolutely make this up to brilliance. While it just missed out on the top 5, this is probably the book I’m going to be recommending the most in 2022.
The Witness for the Dead by Katharine Addison
I was apprehensive about going into this companion to The Goblin Emperor, as I always am about follow-ups to my favourite books, but I needn’t have worried, because this is the sweetest, kindest, most relaxing book I read this year. My full review has more details, but if you need something cosy to read, try this!
Spectred Isle by KJ Charles
This is a bit of a cheating one, because I read a lot of KJ Charles this year – I count fifteen of her books in my list – and it was all amazing. I picked Spectred Isle for the list purely because it’s the most recent one, although it deserves it as much as any (and also a little bit to hint that I would really, really like her to write the sequel).
How to Lose an Earl in Ten Weeks by Jenni Fletcher
Again, I read a lot of Jenni Fletcher’s books this year and I recommend them all, but her first foray into YA, which I reviewed recently, is just so delightful – so it had to make the list! This is fun, laugh-out-loud Regency rom-com at its best.
And here we go, the top five…
Little Thieves by Margaret Owen
I’ve been losing patience with YA fairy tale retellings for a long time, so I wasn’t expecting to love Little Thieves – but I absolutely did. It’s wonderfully voicey, with a fantastic flawed, realistic heroine, a fabulous set of secondary characters, some great worldbuilding and an immensely satisfying plot. I still need to get around to a detailed review, but honestly, this is one of the best retellings I’ve ever read!
The Black Coast by Mike Brooks
Technically another cheat, because the sequel The Splinter King belongs here too, but the first book is here because it surprised me so much. As I said in my full review, this is epic fantasy but centred on kindness and learning, not violence. Full of linguistic and cultural depth, it’s a worldbuilding nerd’s paradise, and the multiple storylines are all really compelling and human. I wish more fantasy was this well-constructed.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Gay space princes in an arranged marriage – what more do you need to know? Well, the fact that as well as an incredibly fun plot of intergalactic politics, this is a really nuanced depiction of imposter syndrome and recovery from an abusive relationship and learning to let people love you. It’s incredibly well-balanced: I remember this as super fun, but I know it made me cry. Just brilliant.
Half A Soul by Olivia Atwater
Yep, the very first book I read this year has made it to my very favourites – and it’s standing for the companion novel, Ten Thousand Stitches, too, which was my 500th book this year, as both were amazing. Regency fantasy romance with a hot grumpy wizard boyfriend and a large dose of social issues that manage not to be preachy. Pure fun mixed with wonderful character work.
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
I know I said these were in no order, but maaaaybe if you pushed me, I might admit this could be the very top of the list. I’ve read some wonderful books this year, but I think A Marvellous Light is the one that blew me away the most. As I said in my review, I loved this so much I ended up talking to it as I read, and having to stop and explain to my husband what was going on in the plot and why I was cackling so much. It’s funny, sweet, exciting, and emotional; the characters are so incredibly believable in every single action that I am desperate to reread it and see everything I missed before I learned their backstories. I just adored it.
So there you go – my top 20 books of 2021. Do we match on any of them? Link me up if you’ve done a favourites post, I’d love to see!