best of 2021

The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the Year (So Far)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Courtesy of the Publishers

For those still looking to escape into other worlds because the burdens of our own remain too heavy — or just for us nerds who find narratives more interesting with futuristic tech and otherworldly magic livening up imagined universes — 2021 has bestowed many gifts. Already, this year has given readers a slew of exciting, provocative, and delightful new sci-fi and fantasy books. From the latest releases of celebrated authors Kazuo Ishiguro, Nnedi Okorafor, and Andy Weir, to debut novels from rising stars Namina Forna, Genevieve Gornichec, and J.S. Dewes, these are the best science-fiction and fantasy books of 2021 so far.

All books are listed by release date in reverse chronological order. 

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Sona is a Valkyrie, an elite soldier who uses cybernetic enhancements to command giant mechanized weapons for the tyrannical Godolia. Eris is a Gearbreaker, a young rebel who leads her eccentric crew on missions to destroy these mechas from the inside. After Eris is captured by Godolia soldiers, she assumes Sona is yet another heartless enemy on the other side of this deadly war. But after Sona reveals her secret — that she has always plotted to take down Godolia from the inside — the pair begin working together to end Godolia’s militarized reign… and start falling for each other along the way. Gearbreakers is a brutal and commanding debut from Mikuta, a 21-year-old college student who began working on the YA novel when she was only 17. A story about the reclamation of self and the devastating impact of war, Mikuta has delivered an extraordinary novel that perfectly balances high-octane action with intimate character development and tender hope.

After refusing her emperor brother’s order to be “purified” through death by fire, Malini is imprisoned in an ancient temple until she accepts the pyre as her fate. The one tasked with looking after the ruthless princess during her captivity is the tenderhearted Priya, who will happily do any task as long as it doesn’t threaten the anonymity she’s cultivated to hide her secret past. But when Priya unintentionally reveals her long-repressed, forbidden powers in front of Malini, it sets off a chain of events that irrevocably bind their fates together — and may just reshape the entire empire. This thrilling start to Suri’s new epic fantasy trilogy immerses readers in an intriguing new world inspired by India, complete with fascinating political intrigue and seamlessly built out cultures, religions, and nature-based magic system. This cutthroat and sapphic novel will grip you until the very end as it follows Priya and Malini’s campaign to claim their power and get their revenge on the society that wronged them.

Future Feeling, by Joss Lake
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Photo: Publisher

Future Feeling is a genre-defying trip into a futuristic world where everyone’s emotional frequencies are monitored through Bio-meters and a semi-omnipotent trans health-care agency, the Rhiz, beams Operatrixes into homes to provide aid. However, some things in this surrealist world remain the same: Social media still holds the power to make you feel like shit. When discontented, trans dog-walker Penfield channels his Gram-fueled resentment into hexing the picture-perfect trans influencer Aiden, he accidentally winds up cursing Blithe, another trans man that Pen has never met. As a result, the Rhiz assigns Pen and Aiden to work together on guiding Blithe out of the Shadowlands, a manifestation of the darkest, most painful parts of transitioning. Lake’s vivid prose provides potent emotional weight and wry humor to this captivating debut novel, which details these men’s messy, chaotic journeys toward self-actualization.

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Ghosts. Gods. Gangsters. Black Water Sister has it all. Jessamyn Teoh is an aimless, broke, Harvard grad who was already dreading moving with her parents back to Malaysia, particularly since her secret girlfriend was still in the States. And when Jess realizes she’s being haunted by the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, upon arrival, things take a turn for the worst. Ah Ma is determined to use Jess to settle a score against a local gangster who offended the Black Water Sister, the god Ah Ma served as a medium during her life. As Jess attempts to juggle all the various stressors in her life — while doing everything she can to avoid burdening her already overwhelmed parents — Cho superbly documents how each obstacle Jess faces leaves a lasting impact on her, ultimately helping shape how she identifies with her family and herself. It’s a wildly entertaining coming-of-age story for the twentysomething set, with a protagonist who is almost painfully relatable at times.

In Son of the Storm, Okungbowa delivers a wholly original story set in a bewitching and brutal universe inspired by pre-colonial West Africa. The novel follows a trio of central characters: Danso, the frustratingly naive but good-hearted scholar who dreams of finding a place he fits in; his intended, Esheme, a ruthlessly ambitious young woman determined to rise above her mother’s station in the Bassa empire; and Lilong, a member of an island population long thought to be dead, who has the power to wield the magical mineral ibor. As the characters contend with fantastic creatures, cunning revolutionaries, and their own differing objectives, Okungbowa builds up the culture, politics, and history of this world in stunningly rich detail. The book’s complex examinations of caste systems, imperialism, and the subjectivity of truth force characters (and readers) to confront their own relationship with power and historical narratives, while also delivering a spellbinding adventure that will leave you counting the days until the sequel.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the standout protagonist of this steampunk procedural set in an alternate 1912 Cairo, where djinn and mechanical angels live alongside humans. The youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, Fatma is assigned to investigate the murders of a secret cult dedicated to al-Jahiz, the legendary man who opened the veil into the magical realm 40 years prior. But this sharply dressed loner is thrown when she learns she’ll have to work the case with a new partner, the enthusiastic rookie Hadia. Also joining her for this adventure is her enigmatic girlfriend Siti, whose dedication to the old Egyptian gods conflicts with Fatma’s Muslim faith — and who is hiding several secrets of her own. Tackling themes of colonialism, religion, gender, and class, all within its crime mystery framework, A Master of Djinn is an ambitious whodunnit set in a world you’re not sure you ever want to leave.

Set in a Norse-inspired world where the gods once ruled — but now their human descendants are hunted down — The Shadow of the Gods is a commanding start to Gwynne’s new series. The expansive scope of the world is quickly established, as the story vacillates between three main characters: Orka, a retired warrior who is forced to take up arms once again to save her son; Varg, an escaped slave who finds purpose in the famed mercenary band the Bloodsworn; and Elvar, a young warrior seeking to make her own name among the war band the Battle-Grim. Meticulously plotted, The Shadow of the Gods takes its time setting up the overarching mythology and connective threads between the different storylines. But while Gwynne is in no rush to unveil the driving plot, there is not a dull chapter in this fantasy epic. As tension mounts with each passing page, Gwynne delivers exhilarating fights and gruesome battles with such vivid prose the choreography jumps off the page — even if you occasionally need to pause to google words like “holmgang” and “seax.”

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Photo: Publisher

When Ryland Grace wakes up, he has no idea what he’s doing in space or why he’s the sole survivor on a ship several light years from Earth. As his memories slowly start to return, Ryland begins unraveling the mystery of his identity and assignment, both of which prove key to a pressing quest to save humanity from extinction. But how Weir manages to make pages and pages of scientific problem-solving so exhilarating is a mystery all its own. Like The Martian, Project Hail Mary leans into the scientific theories and formulas Ryland uses on his mission, making for an incredibly nerdy read. However, Project Hail Mary is also a dazzling thriller with a lot of humor and wit that will appeal to anyone interested in questions of what might exist beyond our solar system.

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After running away from the Black separatist cult where she was raised, the teenage Vern attempts to raise her newborn twins in the woods, free from the constraints and dangers of society. But as Vern continues to be hunted by Cainland and as her body undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis, she realizes it isn’t so easy to break free from the group’s hold. Forced to fight for herself and her family, Vern uncovers the harrowing truth of Cainland and its ties to the history of American violence against the Black community. Sorrowland is a lyrical, visceral tale that defies categorization, blending elements from Gothic horror, science-fiction, fantasy, and romance into an evocatively unique tale that welcomes repeated readings to fully appreciate the depth of Solomon’s craft.

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This page-turning space adventure follows the crew of the Argus, a ship of misfit soldiers standing watch for an alien threat at the very edge of the universe. But when the universe begins to collapse, commanding officer Adequin Rake must figure out a way to save her crew — and humanity — from the rapidly encroaching edge of existence with limited resources and no aid from the empire she’s dedicated her life to. The novel’s richly drawn band of unlikely heroes, tightly plotted, relentless action, and inventive yet accessible scientific speculation combine to make one of the most stunning sci-fi series debuts of recent years. Fans of the genre — and particularly those already mourning the end of The Expanse series later this year — don’t want to miss out on this nail-biting space epic.

This painstakingly quiet novel tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with an exceptional capacity for empathy and observation. After she is purchased by the young Josie, who suffers from a mysterious ailment, Klara finally ventures into the outside world she’s always been so curious about but knows so little of. As she bears witness to Josie’s complicated life and family dynamics, Klara relays her growing understanding of humanity through narration that is emotionally muted yet brimming with heart. There are no twists waiting here, like in Ishiguro’s beloved Never Let Me Go. But Klara and the Sun delivers a masterfully profound meditation on loneliness, love, and mortality — all told through the eyes of a captivating narrator whose unique perspective illuminates so many truths about what makes life worth living.

When a mysterious and dangerous alien armada appears at the edges of the Teixcalaan Empire, Lsel ambassador Mahit Dzmare is recruited to help lead translation and diplomacy efforts with this new species, whose means of communication seems to defy human understanding. While the first installment in the Teixcalaan series was told solely through Mahit’s perspective, in this novel Martine takes the opportunity to build out this already immersive world. We see the unfolding events not only through the eyes of Mahit, but also Three Seagrass, the Teixcalaan government envoy who orchestrated this reunion with the ambassador; Nine Hibiscus, the leader of military engagement with the aliens; and Eight Antidote, the former emperor’s young clone and imperial heir. A Desolation Called Peace also expands on the first novel’s themes of memory, imperialism, and cross-cultural communication by showcasing the various ways the book’s well-drawn ensemble of characters each define and fight for their individual identities within the shadow of the devouring Teixcalaan empire.

The mother of monsters gets a stirring reimagining in this debut novel. After being burned at the stake by Odin as punishment for refusing to share her prophecies of Ragnarok, the witch Angrboda has every intention of living a life of quiet solitude in the woods. But when the wiley god Loki visits to return Angrboda’s beating heart, the two fall into an unconventional, but deeply felt romance. Their union produces three strange children, each of whom has a role to play in what’s to come and whom their mother will do anything to protect. In the Witch’s Heart, Gornichec proves that Angrboda’s experiences with motherhood and reclaiming her own power is every bit as powerful as the gods’ adventures that typically dominate the world of Norse mythology.

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This sweeping feminist fantasy tells the story of 16-year-old Deka, whose life changes forever after her blood is revealed to run cursed gold on the day of her village’s purity ritual. Now seen as nothing more than a demon, Deka is tortured by the village elders until she’s rescued by a mysterious woman building an army made up of girls like her. Known as alaki, Deka’s new blood sisters share her superhuman speed and strength, along with the gift of near immortality — skills they must hone to take on the empire’s greatest threat, the monstrous Deathshrieks. The Gilded Ones is a provocative look at what it means to be a woman in a deeply patriarchal society, and Forna explores the impact of institutional and personal trauma on the alaki with heart-wrenching care. It’s an astounding start to what’s sure to be one of the most talked about YA series of this decade.

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Fatima is just an ordinary girl in near-future Ghana until a meteor shower deposits a mysterious seed in her yard — an event which ultimately leads to Fatima losing her name, her family, and any semblance of a normal life. Reborn as Sankofa, she discovers a newfound ability to emit a deadly green light and learns she’s unable to touch technology without destroying it. These powers earn Sankofa the nickname of “the adopted daughter of death,” and this gripping novella is her bittersweet coming-of-age saga, as Sankofa searches for understanding, closure, and control over her identity and powers. Like the mythology books Fatima loved reading as a child, Remote Control reads like an Africanfuturist legend, and one keenly aware of the way myths are as much built upon truth as they are lies. And at only 160 pages, Okorafor doesn’t waste a word in Remote Control, giving you just enough details to understand this world without undermining the story’s hypnotic ambiguity.

The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the Year (So Far)