Top 10 Books Read in 2021

Back in Halfway Haverings, with a perfectly respectable draft Top 10 already extant off of 72 books, I said there was probably a reading lull coming.

As a forecast goes that was about as accurate as, well, every other type of forecaster going. There was a reading storm.

Now that I’m at 200 books – I might read a few more but they’ll be rereads and not admissible for the list – I find myself with quite a dilemma. There’s no way every book I really liked is fitting on. Not even in a top twenty. As such, I’ve implemented a new rule – no author can place more than once (although multiple books might be listed under their placing). It doesn’t make things much easier, but it does prevent a Top 10 made up of 50% Bujold books, which would be honest but no so entertaining.

I considered increasing it past 10 (and HMs) but I like the discipline, even if it means some remarkable books aren’t getting mentioned.

Enough guff. Here goes.

HMs: I dithered over putting all three of Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger, Nghi Vo’s Empress of Salt and Fortune, and John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting higher as in many ways I think they show greater writing and storytelling ability than a lot of the stories below. But when forced to pick, these got pushed out. The first two got pushed out by having less story to stick in my memories, and a preference this year for highly fantastical conceits. The Dragon Waiting got pushed out before there were a few times Ford’s narrative lost me, and two of them were the start and the end. From that angle it’s a miracle he got an HM!

They are still very good stories. Fireheart Tiger‘s emotional ferocity and poetic prose gives it some fantastic scenes – that chess scene is one of my favourites of the year – and a very strong ending.

Empress of Salt and Fortune packs a novel’s worth of arc into a novella in a supremely satisfying and clever way. In terms of sheer writerly skill it might be the best book I read this year.

The Dragon Waiting takes a fantastic conceit – the Byzantine aristocracy become Vampires and change the face of Europe – and some very lucid prose to create a narrative that can at times be enthralling.

10. Knight of Swords by Michael Moorcock

Elric’s the man that gets all the attention but I found myself enjoying the debut of Prince Corum more. A member of a dying elven race, he resolves to take bloody revenge after a barbarian attack – which is a lot easier said than done in a world of godlike malevolent creatures. It is the latter detail that gets me. It’s very weird and mythopoeic in a bloody-handed, cynical way, with just a hint of pathos and dark humour. It reads smoothly enough (which is why it’s here and not The Broken Sword) but it’s here because it caught my imagination just right.

9. Dying Earth/Mazirian the Magician by Jack Vance

Another triumph of the imagination. It is a crime to describe this book without using the word ‘baroque’. Vance’s world is breathtaking for the sheer scale and complexity hinted at, even when we only see small slices in the short stories and novella that form this work. The prose can be a little florid when it misses its mark, but wonderfully poetic when it does. And the narratives that form the work are beautifully unpredictable. All in all, a little gem that would have been a lot higher if it had been a single long form work with more character in it.

8. The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip

The short form description of this book is Earthsea + Faerie + Trippy As Balls. I try not to lean on the Ursula Le Guin comparison too much as it seems grossly unfair not to define McKillip on her own terms but it is just so apt. Let us say this is a tale of wisdom gained and failed, of understanding the past and knowing what can be mended and what can’t, all in the most sensuous and shifting prose; the mood of the castle kitchen is not the mood of the enchanted forest. At times it was a little too trippy for its own good and lost me but for most of the time, this was a fantastic read in every sense of the word.

7. Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

I was expecting plenty of dashing adventure, weird sorcery, and boisterous humour when I introduced myself to the start of Leiber’s iconic pair, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. And I got that. Leiber does those things as well as just about anyone. What I didn’t expect was such a sharp sense of character. This collection is essentially an origin story, and you get perfectly why they are who they are and do what they do. That extra dimension propelled this story quite a bit higher than I was expecting, and helped me see why Leiber had such a huge influence on the genre. Death to the Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar!

6. Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirrlees

I am not sure that the review I wrote of this book reflects its lofty position but as I said at the time, I didn’t know for sure how good it was. I know now. It’s good to read Lud in the Mist, very good, and even better to have read it. The wealth of worldbuilding, the power of its themes, the sly wit of its characters – these things have stuck with me very powerfully. If people are going to go around adapting every other fantasy book, I honestly think this book should get that treatment. Doing so would allow people to discover this story without the slight infelicities of narrative that keep it out of the top five here, and I don’t think the core of the story would take much work to be very meaningful and entertaining today.

5. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Another book that has grown in the memory. This has one of the best fantastical conceits I came across all year – apparently I’m a sucker for time travel and never knew it – and after a slow start, springs its surprises perfectly. The cast is intriguing, if not exactly characters who I fall in love with (which is what keeps it out of the next tier up) and what started as a book I enjoyed reading has once again become a book I’ve really enjoyed having read.

4. She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Here we reach the super-heavyweight tier of books that I seriously thought could be my book of the year. In a lot of ways, She Who Became The Sun might actually be the best of the lot here in terms of semi-objective quality but it’s low use of fantastical conceit wasn’t what I was looking for and so it slid behind the others. But how fucking good is it? The prose is so evocative and readable, and shifts shape for its purpose. I want to know everything about the characters; they’re fascinating. And the plot arc payoffs should be measured in megatons. I love this book and am mildly impatient about the sequel.

3. King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

The short version here is this is some of the most entertaining reading I’ve had in a long time. It was a compulsive page turner and flew by despite its size. Bardugo takes all the forms and archetypes of Epic Fantasy and turns them out, fresh and engaging. It’s full of memorable characters and absorbing scenes and big emotional moments. I don’t have as much to say about this as some other books as to a certain extent its simplicity is its greatness but rest assured, it’s very good.

2. Paladin of Souls AND Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Before anything else, a moment of silence for the four other Bujold titles I read this year that were a hair below these two but would have still stormed the top 10 without me changing the rules. The Vor Game, Shards of Honour, Penric and the Shaman, Penric’s Demon. These books have assured Bujold a place in my personal canon.

These two though. Wow. Paladin of Souls has what deserves to be considered one of the genre’s great heroines in Ista – so fragile yet so strong, so wounded yet so vital. It’s a wonderful mix of gothic tinged mystery, romance, personal journey, and action. Warrior’s Apprentice, the coming of age of Miles Vorkosigan, is no less. It’s a thrill ride, a character study disguised as a heist caper disguised as military sci-fi. The characterisation, the wryness and quality of the prose – Bujold could not have produced work better suited to my tastes if I’d dictated the ideas to her.

1. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

So you know how I prefer novels to novellas. And you know how I just put down four fantastic books I thought could be book of the year.

Welcome to the novella that beat them all.

It has a manic, chaotic energy yet the plot is a tight, tense mystery worth of Le Carre; the characterisation a rogue’s gallery worthy of any mob. It is at times laugh out loud; it has the sort of gallows humour that Odin himself would spout. Yet there’s no bathos. When the time comes to be serious about the tragedies going on, it’s heavier than Everest. It does virtually everything perfectly. And the high concept is perfect for me.

My only problem with this book is that my expectations for Kundo Wakes Up are just unfair. But I can well believe Hossain will be coming in with another bombtrack.

And this story is all of that.

That’s why it was my book of the year.

Agree? Disagree? Wish to insult my parentage for seven generations because I misplaced your favourite book? Let me know in the comments below…

9 thoughts on “Top 10 Books Read in 2021

  1. I’ve seen She Who Became the Sun on a lot of these lists (and had it recommended for my 12 Challenge). Will definitely give it a go this year. I am sure I will also pick up The Book of Atrix Wolfe one day… I’m always saying I need to read more McKillip 😛 And maybe…maybe this is my year for Lud in the Mist!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Earthsea + Faerie + Trippy As Balls” Lol! Yeah, I’ll try out “The Book of Atrix Wolfe.”
    And I’ll hop over to those Vorkosigan books once I’m done with the World of Five Gods ones.

    Liked by 1 person

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