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.

120 thoughts on “2021 Recommended SF/F List

  1. Any Way The Wind Blows, by Rainbow Rowell

    Novel (YA, 3rd in a trilogy)

    In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong. In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward.

    If you spent the whole of your high school years in a pitched battle against magical evil, then afterwards … you would be seriously messed up. The conclusion of Rainbow Rowell’s trilogy once again does a deep dive into that concept, continuing the examination of the aftereffects on the former Chosen One, the former Damsel-In-Distress Love Interest, the former Talented Best Friend, and the former Plotting Teen Rival (if those sound familiar, they’re supposed to.) This book does, I think, spend too long on Simon and Baz’s problems forming a healthy relationship, and I more than once found myself wishing the narrative would return more quickly to Penelope and Shepherd, or Agatha — who was more interesting this time around — and Niamh. But I enjoyed it overall, and there’s a scene with a demon that is simply amazing.

  2. Short story

    “Moose Trap,” Rich Larson, Daily Science Fiction, 9/14/21

    Rich Larson is one of the best short story writers today, as he proves again with this chilling climate change flash story.

    Novel

    The Second Rebel, Linden A. Lewis

    This is the second book in the First Sister trilogy, which will be the knock against it for some: you need to read the first book to understand what is going on. Having said that, this is a better book, with deeper characterizations and an improved and confident writer. This is a space opera with three factions of humanity fighting it out over the inner solar system and the asteroid belt, and the machine/AI Synthetics holding court at Jupiter’s orbit and beyond. It’s a similar setup to The Expanse (minus the protomolecule). Not as good, of course, but I still really enjoyed it.

  3. Best Novel
    The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson.
    The sea in this book isn’t made of water; it’s made of grass. Ships sail across this endless prairie, using magical fires to keep themselves afloat. But something is causing the grasses to die, a power-hungry merchant is trying to exert greater control over scarce water supplies, and pirates from the legendary Once-City keep attacking. As if this wasn’t enough to keep apprentice fire keeper Kindred busy, her grandmother has disappeared. I love the magic, overlapping mysteries, and complex interpersonal relationships in this book.

  4. Richard Powers. Bewilderment. Novel.

    This one mashed all my feels. It’s as if Olaf Stapledon decided to write a book for Oprah’s Book Club. There’s nothing new for habitual sf readers, but it does present hugely important ideas to a mass audience as well as I can imagine it being done.

  5. The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik

    Novel (YA, second in a series)

    At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year — and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules…

    The second book in the series deepens the themes, the characters, and the world (and presents better explanations for a few, although not quite all, of the more implausible aspects of the setting.) I think it’s pretty safe to say that if you liked the first book, you’ll like the second. I did, very much. And the ending is… well. That’s a heck of an ending to a book, that’s all I’ll say.

  6. The Hollow Heart, by Marie Rutkoski

    Novel (YA, second in a duology)

    Nirrim offered up her heart to the God of Thieves in order to restore her people’s memories of their city’s history. The Half Kith who once lived imprisoned behind the city’s wall now realize that many among them are powerful. Meanwhile, the person Nirrim once loved most, Sid, has returned to her home country of Herran, where she must navigate the politics of being a rogue princess who has finally agreed to do her duty.

    A solid ending to the duology, but it didn’t have quite as much impact as the first book did for me. The addition of Sid’s point of view to the book is welcome, and the changes to Nirrim are appropriately horrifying. The gorgeous prose that characterized the first book is still present, if not quite as ubiquitous. But the mysteries were a little too easy to figure out, and Sid’s parents were a little too understanding to account for Sid’s actions in the first book (Sid’s parents are, apparently, the main characters of a previous trilogy by the same author, and I do wonder if I might have gotten more out of their appearance if I’d read it.) Nonetheless, I can’t say I’m disappointed; this was a good sequel to a great book, and that’s far from being a bad thing.

  7. Novel

    Shards of Earth, Adrian Tchaikovsky

    I’ve read several books by this author, but I think this is the best. It’s an epic space opera about humanity on the brink of extinction, and deals with trauma, PTSD and our treatment of refugees, against the backdrop of excellent worldbuilding where the extinction-eventers are known as the “Architects”–moon-sized beings that carve up planets into beautiful and terrible works of art.

    What makes this stand out to me is that the author has leveled up his characterization compared to previous books. There are fewer non-human characters (and no spiders or octopi, although one character is fairly described as a giant crab) and multiple points of view, but we spend the most time in the head of Idris Telemmier, the “Intermediary” who fifty years previously was able to persuade an Architect to abandon its target and leave. He has since fallen in with a cranky found family aboard the salvage ship Vulture God, when one of their jobs turns up signs that the Architects are returning.

    I loved this. My socks are still in orbit, bouncing around somewhere in the dark.

  8. The Wisdom of Crowds, by Joe Abercrombie

    Novel (3rd in a trilogy, 9th in an overarching series)

    Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds. The banks have fallen, the sun of the Union has been torn down, and in the darkness behind the scenes, the threads of the Weaver’s ruthless plan are slowly being drawn together…

    The end of the Age of Madness trilogy is full of reversals and twists, changes and revelations. Some of them I could see coming from quite a long way away, some of them came as complete surprises, but with one exception (an… exceptionally poor character judgement from someone notable for never making poor character judgements), all of them worked excellently within the story. Abercrombie continues to exemplify his style of thoughtful grim fantasy, this time looking closely at the meaning of being a hero and being a villain. The end sets up further stories, and I will await them eagerly.

  9. Another vote here for

    The Fallen, by Ada Hoffman

    Novel (2nd in a series)

    The laws of physics acting on the planet of Jai have been forever upended; its surface completed altered, and its inhabitants permanently changed. The artificially intelligent Gods that ruled the galaxy, fearing heresy and chaos, have become the planet’s jailers. Hunted by the Gods, and Akavi, the disgraced angel, Yasira and Tiv must delve further than ever before into the maddening mysteries of their fractured planet.

    The second book in this series is less of a personal story than the first book, and spreads the narrative out among a larger group — which is very appropriate, considering that the story is ultimately about large-scale protest, rebellion, and the necessity of mass effort to effect change. The plot is slower paced; less happens, and more time is spent examining motivation. Overall, I’d say it didn’t have quite the same feel of something new and important on the SF scene that the first book did, but it’s nonetheless a strong entry in a fascinating ongoing story.

  10. Novelette

    Dog and Pony Show, Robert Jeschonek, Clarkesworld 180

    “People say the needles of a dog are a boy’s best friend, and I believe them.”

    I’ve gone back and forth on whether to recommend this – I like where the language takes him, but half of the audience should ask themselves “Nz V n ‘qbrf gur qbt qvr’ crefba?” and if the answer is yes, they have a very solid chance of hating this story violently.

    The Winter Garden,” Regina Kanyu Wang, translated by Emily Jin

    An alternate-dimensions story with some good late imagery of the consequences.

  11. Novella

    A Spindle Splintered, Alix E. Harrow

    This fierce, beautiful, subversive reimagining of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty in the multiverse has Harrow’s trademark gorgeous prose and her usual running theme of the power of stories. This could easily have been a full-length novel, but the narrative never feels overstuffed. Hey, when a story is this good, I’ll take it, at whatever length.

  12. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 4th edition

    Best Related Work

    At 6 million words, it has more than doubled in size since the 2011 edition (stats), which I believe makes it eligible again. The loss in sponsorship from Gollancz resulted in the move to a new server and edition.

    What I like about it: I’ll just link this Tor.com post. Each of the previous editions won a Hugo, which may deter some from nominating it again – but I think the continuous and substantial additions merit another nom. There’s really nothing else like it on the Internet; Wikipedia frequently cites it as a source. It’s also quite opinionated, and fun to read even when you disagree with it.

  13. At last, I’m able to recommend something that isn’t a sequel, for the first time since (checks) August:

    The Past is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente

    Novella

    Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time. Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her.

    While it’s surprisingly optimistic for a story about a social pariah living on a post-apocalyptic trash heap, The Past is Red is also a keenly written parable about self-delusion, greed, and the tragedy of false hope. (And of course, like many post-apocalyptic tales, it serves as a warning about what could come if we continue unchanged on our present course.) As usual, Valente impresses me with her skill as a storyteller and her thoughtfulness as a writer.

  14. Novella: A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

    Chambers seems to be quite popular here, so I imagine most Filers have read this already, but in case you haven’t: Dex is a tea monk who finds that their work is no longer as fulfilling as it once was. Making a sort of pilgrimage into the wilderness, they encounter one of the robots who left human society generations ago. That robot is honoring an old promise to “check in” on humans. Together, they find that the answer to the question, “What do people need?”, is a lot more complicated than either of them expected.

    This is a lovely story that definitely qualifies as a comfort read. I think the word I’d use to describe it is “gentle.” There’s no fearsome Big Bad, the fate of the world isn’t at stake, but it’s still compelling. It’s a book that makes you feel like even fairly humble individuals matter.

  15. Sea Wolf, by Anna Burke

    Novel (2nd in a series)

    In the year 2514, the only thing more dangerous than the seas is those who sail them. Life aboard the mercenary ship Man o’ War is rarely dull, as hurricanes, swarms of jellyfish, and man-eating squid pose daily doses of danger. As intrigue and subterfuge from enemies old and new begin to surround its captain, the infamous Miranda Stillwater, even an uncanny sense of direction won’t be enough to help Rose navigate these dangerous straits.

    Sea Wolf takes a closer and deeper look at the world, the characters, and the relationships introduced in Compass Rose. The reasons behind what happened in the first book turn out to be more complex than they at first appeared, in a number of ways. This is very much the middle book of a series — little is resolved, and far more dominoes are set up than are knocked down. But I very much want to know what happens next.

  16. Switch, by A. S. King

    Novel (YA)

    Tru lives in a world that has become trapped in a fold in time and space, where “real” time has stopped but humanity continues to mark artificial time based on a website called N3WCLOCK.com. Tru lives in a house that has a switch at its center. No one knows what the switch controls.

    I think this is going to be a marmite book — people are either going to really like it, or be really turned off by the writing style. You can count me among those who liked it. It is not a book for people who like logical explanations for things that happen. But for those who enjoy books where events reflect emotions and move with the abstract narrative of dreams, this is a good one.

  17. She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

    Novel

    In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

    A great start to a series; I’ll definitely be picking up the next book when it comes out. I particularly liked its approach to the “Chosen One” narrative, and its way of looking at fate, desire, and choice.

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