2021 Recommended SF/F List

By JJ: This thread is for posts about 2021-published works, which people have read and recommend to other Filers.

There will be no tallying of recommendations done in this thread; its purpose is to provide a source of recommendations for people who want to find something to read which will be eligible for the Hugos or other awards (Nebula, Locus, Asimov’s, etc.) next year.

If you’re recommending for an award other than / in addition to the Hugo Awards which has different categories than the Hugos (such as Locus Awards’ First Novel), then be sure to specify the award and category.

You don’t have to stop recommending works in Pixel Scrolls, please don’t! But it would be nice if you also post here, to capture the information for other readers.

The Suggested Format for posts is:

  • Title, Author, Published by / Published in (Anthology, Collection, Website, or Magazine + Issue)
  • Hugo or other Award Category: (Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Related Work, Graphic Novel, Lodestar, Astounding, etc)
  • link (if available to read/view online)
  • optional “Brief, spoiler-free description of story premise:”
  • “What I liked / didn’t like about it:”
  • (Please rot-13 any spoilers.)

There is a permalink to this thread in the blog header.

119 thoughts on “2021 Recommended SF/F List

  1. Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

    Oxygen, Netflix

    This is a taut, suspenseful puzzle box of a mystery about a woman who awakens in a cryogenic pod and has to figure out who she is and why she’s there before her oxygen runs out. Helluva performance by the lead actress. Content warning for the claustrophobic.

  2. Novella

    Defekt, Nino Cipri, tordotcom

    You can probably read this one without having read Finna, though it benefits from the background.

    I’m torn to say if I liked it more or less than the first, and there’s probably a sweet spot somewhere between the two. Finna sprawled a bit too much for its length, while Defekt has a closer focus and some great touches, but may need a bit more action.

  3. Novella

    “Philia, Eros, Storge, Agape, Pragma,” R.S.A. Garcia, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2021.

    This story has a complex structure–the author is juggling three separate storylines that eventually braid together towards the end. They’re clearly marked (in “Before,” “Then” and “Now” headings), but I had to read the story twice before I understood and appreciated what the author was doing. This is a tale of family, loyalty, and love, with the refreshing setting of a culture where humans are bonded to AIs at birth, with the protagonist’s “Sister” playing a major role.

  4. (Novel/Series)

    Angel of the Overpass, Ghost Roads series, Seanan McGuire, DAW

    More of an observation than a recommendation for most readers, given that this is the third in an series. But I imagine McGuire has hit the necessary word count with this one? Which is rather an achievement in itself, to have that many series ongoing at once.

    This series is in the same world as Incryptid, with I-think three elements of intersection. There’s more reference to Incryptid events in this book than the previous ones, as we’re seeing the aftermath of events from Antimony’s last book. If you’re a reader of Incryptid, this installment might be worth learning more about how the rules have changed. On the flip side, this is probably McGuire’s most folk-lore-y series, and so the tell-y-est.

  5. Novelette

    Also from Uncanny Magazine issue 39.

    Colors of the Immortal Palette, Caroline M. Yoachim

    The evolution of a model to a semi-vampiric immortal, and eventual artist herself. I recommend reading the author interview afterwards.

  6. A MASTER OF DJINN by P. Djeli Clark, Tor Dot Com
    Hugo or other Award Category: Best Novel
    Synopsis adapted from Amazon: Cairo, 1912: When someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world forty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

    ~~~*~

    OK gang I just finished reading A MASTER OF DJINN by P. Djeli Clark and it was fantastic! I love this alternate version of Cairo, the characters who are so much fun, seeing old friends in new places, and the laugh out loud moments!
    Seriously a wonderful book, and my socks have been blown off and are now in orbit around Jupiter.

  7. Short stories

    “Pining For My Demons,” Floris M. Kleijne, Daily Science Fiction 5/31/21. (This is a tale of demon possession, and what that power and the lack of it might truly mean.)

    “Shadows On a Brick Wall,” Tais Teng, Daily Science Fiction 4/23/21. (A clever twist on elves and Faerie on a modern polluted Earth.)

    “Best-Laid Plans,” David D. Levine, Clarkesworld Magazine May 2021. (This is a delightful story of genetically engineered mice on a space station.)

  8. Novelette

    Mayor for Today, Fran Wilde, Asimov’s J/F 2021 – podcast here

    A man get an unusual gig job. Complications ensue.

    Every Breath A Question, Every Heartbeat an Answer, Cat Rambo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 327, April 8 2021

    A centaur recovers in a hospital – enjoyed some of the (non-gory) medical details and world-building round the edges.

    Concerto for Winds and Resistance, Cara Masten DiGirolamo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 327, April 8 2021

    A mosaic story with characterization building to a climax.

  9. Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell

    Novel

    When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control. But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war.

    A queer romance space opera mystery thriller that examines the aftereffects of abusive relationships is very much my cup of tea. Of course, not every book with a winning combination of ingredients manages to mix them together successfully, but this is one that manages it with grace and charm. There are a couple of clunky debut novel moments, but overall it’s a solid story.

  10. Novelette

    Traces, A.E. Decker, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 328

    The servant to a great magician struggles to remember.

  11. Short story

    Best-Laid Plans, David D. Levine, Clarkesworld 176

    Bonnie already stole the word “delightful” up-thread to recommend this story. Read it.

    Dancing with Ereshkigal, Sameem Siddiqui, also Clarkesworld 176

    I’m primarily noting this one because, while I didn’t like it as much as his previous AirBody, it keeps him on my likely Astounding Award longlist.

  12. Novel

    The Assassins of Thasalon, Lois McMaster Bujold

    A satisfying installment with more plot-provoking thoughts on things to do with demons.

    Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir, Ballantine Books

    Basically The Martian dialed up to fifteen. Has a lot of fun points, needed more editorial control. Takes a “too far out to nit-pick” approach to a lot of the science – unlikely, but difficult to rule out completely.

    One telling difference for me is that my favorite of Mark Watney’s crises is the second- (third?)-to-last – I’m still interested in the problem even on a re-read. The last few crises in this book I just groaned, because they were keeping me from the book ending.

    I don’t regret the read, but it could have been a better book.

    The Witness for the Dead, Katherine Addison, Tor Books

    Quite a different book from The Goblin Emperor overall – it has more in common with The Angel of the Crows in structure and other ways, unsurprisingly given the times of writing. It’s interesting how much more magical Celehar’s world is than we saw in Maia’s.

    It’s a short novel of interlocking mystery threads, and I enjoyed it, but I think it will be an occasional re-read, not one I pick up at least every other year.

    Some spoilers that aren’t about the main plot in any way, but which TGE fans may be curious about the presence of:

    Qb jr frr Znvn ntnva? Prerqva?

    Abcr, naq abcr, naq abcr gb rirel znwbe naq arneyl nyy zvabe punenpgref, rkprcgvat bhe cebgntbavfg.

    Qb jr svaq bhg jung Znvn’f hc gb? Xvqf? Nalguvat?

    Zber abcr – V guvax gurer ner gjb tynapvat ersreraprf gung trg qrrcre guna “gur rzcrebe rkvfgf.”

  13. The Jasmine Throne, by Tasha Suri

    Novel (1st in a series)

    Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in an ancient temple. Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the temple every night to clean Malini’s chambers. When Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled.

    This book is a step up in quality for an author I already thought was excellent. Both epic in scope and deeply personal, and a more thoughtful examination of power and its costs than most fantasy novels choose to make. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series.

  14. Novel

    Dead Space, Kali Wallace

    Kali Wallace’s first novel, Salvation Day, came out in 2019. I really liked it, and this new book continues her tradition of SF mystery/thrillers. This one involves an eeeevil corporation, which is becoming a cliche, but she handles it okay and puts in some interesting backstory. The book is paced very well with a few clever plot twists, especially one at the end that absolutely sticks the landing. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  15. Novel

    One Last Stop, Casey McQuiston, St. Martin’s Griffin

    This is a time-travel romance marketed as such, with a love interest who disappeared in the 1970s and is trapped on a New York subway line. But the SFF content is there, in the Back to the Future-style time travel, and the meat of the story is in a joyous found family, not only the romance. Might be worth a look by a broader audience if that appeals.

  16. The Witch’s Heart, by Genevieve Gornichec

    Novel

    Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest.

    A solid retelling of the Norse myths that takes a close and narrow-eyed look at the behavior of the gods — and their horrible treatment of everyone who wasn’t a god, especially women.

    I don’t think the decision to make Angrboda into every witch and seer ever mentioned in the Eddas quite works in every single instance, but it works for the most part, and certainly enough to create a memorable version of the story that skillfully weaves a number of different mythical incidents into a single strong plot.

  17. I second “Winter’s Orbit”, by Everina Maxwell.
    It turned out to be a nice surprise since I went into it prepared to be irritated by it based on that very description of it as a ‘queer romance space opera mystery’.
    But it drew me in and kept moving along. To me it had a touch of the screwball comedy about it-which I loved.
    I was also pleasantly surprised by her handling of the romance aspect–it actually felt authentic.
    I liked the characters (especially Kiem) and would really hope that the author returns to them some time.
    I will admit, though, that I was hearing the Emperor’s voice as Meryl Streep doing Miranda Priestly at her most imperious.

  18. Another vote here for:

    Defekt, by Nino Cipri

    Novella (second in a series, but works reasonably well as a stand-alone)

    Derek is LitenVärld’s most loyal employee. But after taking his first ever sick day, his manager calls that loyalty into question. To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing.

    This quick read shares many of the same strengths as Finna, from its quirky humor, to its decidedly queer perspective, to its support of individuality in the face of soul-crushing corporate demand. But it’s far from being a retread, and takes a look at the LitenVerse from a very different viewpoint, focusing on one of the most minor characters of Finna and letting them take center stage — a place that person is not at all used to being.

  19. Related Work

    True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, Abraham Riesman

    I know the Hugo definition of Related Work is currently in flux, but to me, scholarly nonfiction works like this one is what the award should be. This is a meticulous, well written and exhaustively researched record of Stan Lee’s life. He may have been a visionary in some ways, but in most others he was a compulsive bullshitter whose greatest accomplishment may have been the creation of “Stan Lee,” more of a character than an actual person. The book makes a persuasive case that he screwed over a great many people, including pioneering Marvel artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. This is not a fawning biography by any means, but all the same, the final chapter relating the last years of his life was terribly sad. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a fascinating one.

  20. Astounding Award

    Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko

    I recommended Drnovšek Zorko’s story from Beneath Ceaseless Skies up-thread, and that’s the one remaining on my short story longlist, but his Three for Hers at PodCastle has a nice folk-tale feel with elements of distinction. I’m interested in reading more from him.

  21. Short story

    Face Changing, Jiang Bo, translated by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld 177

    A story of government surveillance and cryptocurrencies, an accidentally timely English publication in view of recent Chinese actions relative to blockchains. It didn’t go exactly where I assumed it might be encouraged to.

  22. Novelette

    Bots of the Lost Ark, Suzanne Palmer, Clarkesworld 177

    It’s Suzanne Palmer and bots with attitude – do I really need to say more? How about a nice late-stage reuse of an apparent throwaway gag I’d forgotten about.

  23. Professional Artist
    Victo Ngai
    Full color dust jacket, end papers, and chapter head illustration for the Subterranean Press edition of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine which is coming out in October 2021. The cover art can be seen on the pre-order page.

  24. Strange Creatures, by Phoebe North

    Novel

    HIDDEN GEM ALERT!!! Wow. Just wow. A glittering jewel of a book, and one that takes an unflinching look at the tangled emotions of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood – as jagged, confused, vibrant, horrible, and sweet as they can be. I very much hope it finds its audience, because it’s one of those books that sits between the boundaries of genre. While marketed as YA, it doesn’t fit comfortably within its confines. The fantasy elements are subtle and highly ambiguous. The subject material touches on some very difficult issues. The Rift by Nina Allen is perhaps the closest equivalent, maybe with some shades of The Interior Life by Katherine Blake. But the book really stands unique on its own, and for those who have a fondness for stories that blur the boundary lines, this one is something special.

    Note: The content of this book includes sexual assault.

  25. Whoops, I was so excited about Strange Creatures that I forgot to post a plot summary! Here goes:

    From the moment that Annie was born, she and her older brother, Jamie, were inseparable. And when life became too much for them, they created their own space in the woods behind their house: a fantasy world, called Gumlea, where no one else could find them. And then, one day, Jamie disappears…

    Anyway, highest recommendation, five stars, seventeen thumbs way up, etc.

  26. Short stories:

    “The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century,” A.C. Wise,
    Apex Magazine March 2021. (This is a story of casting off the shackles society tries to put on you and claiming your power.)

    (Also, can I mention how glad I am that Apex Magazine is back?)

    “When You Came Back,” Lynette Mejia, Daily Science Fiction 7/14/21. (This razor-sharp flash story constructs a tense, brooding atmosphere and packs a helluva punch in just 800 words.)

    Also, I will add to Beth in MA’s praise of P. Djeli Clark’s A Master of Djinn above. This world and story has greatly benefited from expansion to novel length. The author’s insertion of the political and historical ramifications of his worldbuilding (that never overwhelm the story) adds depth and makes for a gritty, fascinating, lived-in universe. It’s steampunk fantasy, yes, but it has the same sort of logical almost-SF feel that I thought The Fifth Season also possessed. Anyway, it’s a helluva book and I really enjoyed it.

  27. Another rec here for

    A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

    Novel

    When someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, Agent Fatma is called onto the case.

    This is a book with a fantastic setting and great characters. If I have any complaints, it’s that it relies a bit too often on supposedly smart people failing to make obvious connections, but it’s able to overcome that, for the most part, on the strength of the other elements, which are very strong indeed.

  28. The Album of Dr. Moreau, by Daryl Gergory

    Novella

    It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects.

    This premise of this novella makes it seem like the author had to pick three slips of paper randomly out of a hat, drew “Island of Dr. Moreau”, “locked room murder mystery”, and “boy bands”, and then had to write a piece based on those elements. Nonetheless, this offbeat mashup blends its elements well, relying on its interesting characters to drive the story. And it isn’t long before the premise feels natural, which given the premise is quite a feat.

  29. Short story

    In Good Taste, AE Smith, Daily Science Fiction 7/30/21

    You’ve surely read other stories around this longtime staple of science fiction, but the closing description is beautiful.

  30. A Dowry of Blood, by S. T. Gibson

    Novel

    Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, she begins to unravel their husband’s secrets.

    An evocative, atmospheric, and extremely well-written book that plumbs the emotional depths of a controlling, emotionally abusive relationship lasting hundreds of years. A fantastic piece of writing. Highly recommended.

  31. Hard Reboot , by Django Wexler

    Novella

    Kas is a junior researcher on a fact-finding mission to old Earth. But when a con-artist tricks her into wagering a large sum of money belonging to her university on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth.

    This novella isn’t likely to set the world on fire with its originality, but it’s a fun story and it’s got mecha gladiator fights. Sometimes, that’s all I really want.

  32. Reposting what I wrote about The Suicide Squad and The Green Knight in the Discon III Discord server:

    “The former is probably the freshest superhero film we’ve had in a while. Instead of GOTG James Gunn we get Super-era James Gunn with a budget. Great fun with some pathos and critiques of US foreign policy you don’t usually get in this genre.

    “The latter may take some time to warm up to for some, but stick with it and you’ll get a great surrealist medieval fantasy about the internal struggle about what it means to be a “hero”. Transfixing film.”

  33. Short story

    One Hundred Seconds to Midnight, Lauren Ring, Escape Pod, August 5, 2021

    A nice intimate kaiju story. While the tone isn’t the same, it might be a good read for people who loved the spreadsheets in Natalie Zina Walschots’ Hench.

    The Falling, M V Melcer, Clarkesworld 178

    Some of the equations are harder than others.

  34. Young Adult

    Chaos on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer

    This sequel to Catfishing on CatNet brings back our favorite A.I., CheshireCat, along with Steph and her mother. This is not a retread of the first book, however. It takes the story in some interesting new directions, commenting on religion, cults, the ethics and choices an A.I. is allowed to develop and make, and how the internet, apps and social media can be used to mislead and manipulate people.

    Novel

    The Fallen, Ada Hoffman

    This is another sequel, to The Outside, a far-future exploration of a humanity that has been conquered by its own quantum supercomputers. I know some may have been turned off by the Lovecraftian cosmic-horror aspects of the previous book. If so, that is dialed down considerably this time around, as this book deals almost exclusively with the consequences of the first. We get more backstory for the worldbuilding, and the portrayal of a frightened, fractured community pulling together to survive and fight back is quite affecting.

    Engines of Oblivion, Karen Osborne

    Yet another sequel, to last year Architects of Memory. This book picks up the story of humankind’s conflict with the alien hivemind Vai through the eyes of a different protagonist. The protagonist of the last book is still around, but the new POV character is well-written. The author has improved with this book, particularly in the characterization.

  35. Novelette

    I’m not sure if this is a strong year for novelettes, or if I’m looking harder, but it’s only September and I’ve got plenty to choose from on my longlist.

    The Witness Brûska Lai, Aaron Perry, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #333, July 1, 2021

    The titular character investigates a strange disappearance in a stranger setting.

    In the same issue:
    For the World’s More Full of Weeping, by Andrew Dykstal, has a nice variation on mortal/fairy interactions.

  36. Novella

    A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers

    I’m usually meh about Chambers’ stuff, but I really liked this. Maybe she’s better at novella length? The dedication for this story is “For anybody who could use a break,” and that’s exactly what this is: a quiet, calm, soothing story about a traveling tea monk (which sounds like a great job) and the robot they run across in the wilderness. There’s also a lot of complex, unobtrusive worldbuilding in the background, and the two main characters hold your attention throughout, even as they’re going through existential crises and discussing the purpose of life.

  37. Novelette

    +1 for Adam Stemple’s The Clock, Having Seen Its Face in the Mirror, Still Knows Not the Hour.

  38. Novella

    Noting these mainly against a potential Novelapalooza.

    What Abigail Did That Summer, Ben Aaronovitch, Subterranean Press

    A fun entry in the series, and probably a good sampling point for new readers, as the plot is self-contained and separate from the main series action, with a different narrator.

    The Serpentine Band, Congyun ‘Mu Ming’ Gu, translated by Tian Huang, Clarkesworld 179

    A longer development of a classic SF trope, in a very different context. I would have liked to see more of the full-fledged idea.

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