Off The TBR’s Best of 2021

Hey. How are ya’ll doing? I thought I’d ask before I got into my “Best of 2021” list because this has been another crazy year and sometimes it is nice to just do a little check-in. Even more so this year since the dumpster fire that is the current world plague shows no signs of letting up anytime soon and from what I can see on social media most of us seem to be coping but it’s getting on our last nerves. So yeah, I thought I’d just do a little check-in.

Well now that we’ve got that out of the way how about something positive? It’s that time again…the time when all the book bloggers are posting their year end, best reads of the year. I like to wait for the year to finish out before posting my list just in case a last minute read squeaks its way in. 2021 (like 2020 before it) sucked in so many ways, but for me it was still a good year for reading. As usual I enjoyed the vast majority of the books I read, and there were only a very few I didn’t. I still feel like we are experiencing that new golden age of science fiction and fantasy with so many great books to choose from both in traditional publishing or from indie/self-published authors and I hope it never ends.

So here it is, my top reads of 2021. Note, this is my list of top reads of 2021, meaning it is a list of my favorite books I read during the year, not necessarily my favorite books published in 2021. I’ve intentionally left off any #SPFBO finalists I may have already read as the competition is still undeway and the judging team I’m a part of has not posted any of our scores as of yet.

I managed to read 37 books this year (exceeding my Goodreads Challenge) and this list comprises those I rated as 4.5 Stars or 5 Stars and even includes a short story. I’ve arranged them mostly in order they were read by rating.

4.5 Star Reads

Jade War
The Green Bone Saga #2
Fonda Lee
Orbit Books

In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

Goodreads Blurb

I returned to the world of Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga and let me tell you it was such a good experience! Jade War is just as engrossing as it’s predecessor Jade City, but now on a more global scale. I previously described Jade City as being a “vivid, gritty, gangster fantasy.” Well, Jade War doubles down on that description and throws in some serious character and plot development ensuring it doesn’t fall into that dreaded sophomore slump, but instead stands up and carries the torch for this series as it continues on to the next installment in Jade Legacy.

If you’re looking for an excellent modern fantasy series I’d highly recommend you check out The Green Bone Saga. It fits an number of sub-categories as well including East Asian Fantasy and Gangster Fantasy. Seriously, if you haven’t started this series you’re missing out. You can read my full review of Jade War here.

The Thirteenth Hour
The Cruel Gods #1
Trudie Skies
Indie/Self-Published

When the saints fail, the sinners step up.

Cruel gods rule the steam-powered city of Chime, demanding worship and tribute from their mortal subjects. Kayl lost her faith in them long ago, and now seeks to protect vulnerable and downtrodden mortals from their gods’ whims. But when Kayl discovers powers that she didn’t know she had—and destroys a mortal’s soul by accident—she becomes Chime’s most wanted.

Quen’s job was to pursue sinners, until the visions started. Haunted by foreboding images of his beloved city’s destruction, Quen hunts soul-sucking creatures made of aether who prey on its citizens—and Kayl is his number one target.

To ensure Chime’s future, Kayl and Quen must discover the truth of Kayl’s divine abilities before the gods take matters into their own hands.

For a city that bows to cruel gods, it’ll take godless heathens to save it.

The Thirteenth Hour is the first book in The Cruel Gods series—a gaslamp fantasy featuring magical portals, gothic cosmic deities, quaint Britishisms, and steampunk vibes. This is an adult book containing strong language and mature themes that some readers may find disturbing.

Goodreads Blurb

The Thirteenth Hour was my the final book in 2021 to qualify for this list, and it was such a good read. As I noted in my review The Thirteenth Hour surpassed my expectations and I expected to love it. This gaslamp portal fantasy has some great world-building, with both steampunk and gothic vibes. It’s at times light and funny and at others dark and heavy, but it never fails to deliver on its themes of salvation, love, passion, and devotion while questioning who deserves them and upon whom should be their focus of application and attention. It’s a story about living in spite of all the horrors and struggles of life.

If you’d like to read my full review you can find it here.

5 Stars

Kings of Paradise
Ash And Sand #1
Richard Nell
Indie/Self-Published

A deformed genius plots vengeance while struggling to survive. A wastrel prince comes of age, finding a power he never imagined. Two worlds are destined to collide.

Only one can be king.

Ruka, called a demon at birth, is a genius. Born malformed and ugly into the snow-covered wasteland of the Ascom, he was spared from death by his mother’s love. Now he is an outcast, consumed with hate for those who’ve wronged him. But to take his vengeance, he must first survive. Across a vast sea in the white-sand island paradise of Sri Kon, Kale is fourth and youngest son of the Sorcerer King. And at sixteen, Kale is a disappointment. As the first prince ever forced to serve with low-born marines, Kale must prove himself and become a man, or else lose all chance of a worthy future, and any hope to win the love of his life. Though they do not know it, both boys are on the cusp of discovery. Their worlds and lives are destined for greatness, or ruin.

But in a changing world where ash meets paradise, only one man can be king… The first installment of an epic, low- fantasy trilogy. Kings of Paradise is a dark, bloody, coming-of-age story shaped by culture, politics, and magic.

Goodreads Blurb

I sat down in my recliner next to the fire in early January to start reading Kings of Paradise. I was comfortable. I was calm. I was eager to see what this book that so many reviewers had already raved about had to offer. I read the first paragraph, closed the book, and set it down. I immediately posted to Twitter and Goodreads, “yeah that got dark real quick.” It isn’t often a book opens with a little cannibalism as a means to hook the reader and Richard Nell doesn’t stop there. Kings of Paradise is dark, it’s gory, it’s heavy. If you don’t like these attributes you probably won’t like this read. But if you do, well…I think you’ll love this read. It has opening page cannibalism, murder, suffering, injustice, and a boy who creates a world in his mind to house all the people he’s killed…you know, in order to help him be a better killer. Some of you are asking me, “why would I want to read THAT?” and my answer is some of you won’t and that’s all good. I would also answer that it is what Nell does with all the darkness, what he presents with the characters, the questions he poses with his themes, that make this such a compelling read.

If you’d like to read my full review you can find it here.

The Fires of Vengeance
The Burning #2
Evan Winter
Orbit Books

In order to reclaim her throne and save her people, an ousted queen must join forces with a young warrior in the second book of this must-read epic fantasy series by breakout author Evan Winter.

Tau and his Queen, desperate to delay the impending attack on the capital by the indigenous people of Xidda, craft a dangerous plan. If Tau succeeds, the Queen will have the time she needs to assemble her forces and launch an all out assault on her own capital city, where her sister is being propped up as the ‘true’ Queen of the Omehi.

If the city can be taken, if Tsiora can reclaim her throne, and if she can reunite her people then the Omehi have a chance to survive the onslaught.

Goodreads Blurb

Whenever I read a second book in a series I’m always a little concerned it will suffer from that dreaded sophomore slump. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a BAD book, just that it isn’t as good as the first. Often this is because it spends a lot of time serving as a bridge between books 1 and 2 and is really just developing character and narrative arcs for the big payoff in the final installment. This is nothing new to us who love to read fantasy and sci-fi series. I’d say we kind of expect it. So, when I sat down to read The Fires of Vengeance I expected a book I’d like, a book that would be entertaining, but a book that would ultimately get me from book 1 to 3 without wowing me. That isn’t what I got.

In The Fires of Vengeance, Evan Winter delivers a book that is even better than his first.

If you want the quick review of The Fires of Vengeance let me say I loved it; the action, magic system, and world building are still great, and the story just gets better. If you want the detail then check out my full review here.

Oh, That Shotgun Sky
Songs of Sefate #2
Sarah Chorn
Indie/Self-Published

Days after the Boundary falls, six strangers converge in a one-horse town, all of them on the run. Some from the past, some avoiding the future.

When men from Shine Company arrive to reclaim their own, these desperate travelers have to decide if they stand with the law, or against it.

Men pull the trigger and blood spills.

Fate pulls the strings and everybody dances.

Goodreads Blurb

Sarah Chorn has become one of my favorite authors. Her novel Of Honey and Wildfires made my “Best Of” list in 2020, and as you’ll see in a moment she has two books on this year’s list.

Do you ever read a book, series, or author because you intentionally want to be wrecked? That seems weird right? Like it’s one thing for a book to wreck you and to enjoy how good it was, and it’s another to seek it out because you want it. I feel like that with Sarah Chorn’s books. I know what to expect now and eagerly look forward to what they will do to me. I think that’s because Chorn writes about pain and emotion so well. She has a way of getting into the soul of her characters and into yours. And all the while she protects the reader so they feel safe on the journey. It’s a marvelous skill I’m not even sure she’s aware she possesses. Sarah Chorn is on my auto-buy list. If you haven’t started reading her books you should rectify that situation.

Oh, That Shotgun Sky is an exploration of fate through pain, emotion, and trauma…with a glimmer of hope and healing. It will move you, and maybe break you a bit. You’ll feel love and hate, joy and anger, pain and healing. When a book does that, and when a series does it multiple times, that’s a sign of something really wonderful. And I just feel the need to shout about it so others can experience it too.

If you’d like to read my full review of Oh That Shotgun Sky you can find it here.

Glass Rhapsody
Songs of Sefate #3
Sarah Chorn
Indie/Self-Published

Five years ago, the Boundary fell. Now the Union is coming to claim Shine Territory as its own.

But not everyone wants to live under their heel.

In a hidden town run by women with rough pasts, life remains untouched until greed paves the way for conflict. Faced with few choices, Grace Hart must stop the Union to protect the women under her care.

Elroy McGlover has spent the past five years running from what he’d done in Matthew Esco’s name. Haunted by ghosts from his past, he returns to where it all went wrong. Enlisted to help Arlen Hobson fight against Union control, Elroy soon finds himself in the middle of a war for the heart of Shine Territory.

In the fight for the soul of the West, no one is innocent.

Goodreads Blurb

I’m often at a loss when it comes to figuring out what I want to say in a review. This is especially true when a book and/or an author just utterly and completely wows me with story, and language, and craft. We’ve all been there right? Our minds firing off all these little snippets to use but you can’t string them together into anything coherent when the time comes to post a review. That’s been my experience with anything and everything I’ve read from Sarah Chorn. Glass Rhapsody is no exception to this phenomenon. As with the rest of the Songs of Sefate series, Glass Rhapsody gutted me….it continued to work away at a wound opened with Of Honey and Wildfires, but, it healed as well. It worked at that wound, cleaned it up, and let me recover. This series is an emotional experience as much as it is a story, one that carries you through the pain to redemption and recovery on the other side.

If you’re looking to be gutted and healed with a fantasy series I can’t recommend Songs of Sefate enough. If you like low fantasy and fantasy inspired by the American West this is a series you’ll enjoy as well. You can find my full review for Glass Rhapsody here.

The Ikessar Falcon
The Chronicles of The Bitch Queen #2
K.S. Villoso
Orbit Books

The spiral to madness begins with a single push. Abandoned by her people, Queen Talyien’s quest takes a turn for the worst as she stumbles upon a plot deeper and more sinister than she could have ever imagined, one that will displace her king and see her son dead. The road home beckons, strewn with a tangled web of deceit and impossible horrors that unearth the nation’s true troubles – creatures from the dark, mad dragons, and men with hearts hungry for power. To save her land, Talyien must confront the myth others have built around her: Warlord Yeshin’s daughter, symbol of peace, warrior and queen, and everything she could never be. The price of failure is steep. Her friends are few. And a nation carved by a murderer can only be destined for war.

Goodreads Blurb

K.S. Villoso is another author who has made it onto my fav list, and another who has two books in this year’s list. Her first novel in The Chronicles of The Bitch Queen made it onto my best reads of 2019 list and the next two made it onto this one.

Villoso keeps getting better with these stories. The writing, the characters, the worldbuilding, the tension, everything is getting better. The Ikessar Falcon is not just some filler book to get you to the final book in the series. It increases the stakes for everyone in the story and tosses in some major shifts in the plot. Villoso has givs us a protagonist who you’ll love despite all the ways she frustrates you because she’s believable. You may hate the decisions she makes and the tracks she takes but at the same time you’ll say to yourself, “yeah I get it.” Add to that significant mystery, danger, and action and you’ve just got a great story developing. Oh yeah…don’t forget dragons. I’m enjoyed the hell out of this series and I think you will too. You can read my full review here.

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng
The Chronicles of The Bitch Queen #3
K.S. Villoso
Orbit Books

Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Goodreads Blurb

I can’t believe this trilogy has come to an end. What started as a rich character driven Asian-inspired fantasy with The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, became more complex and intriguing with The Ikessar Falcon, has fully come together in The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng in what is hands down the best installment of the series. I just can’t tell you how much I loved this conclusion to Queen Talyien’s story. It is filled with twists and turns, complexity, action, and dragons! All of which is bound up in themes of identity and legacy that track from page one of book one all the way to the final page of book three. K.S. Villoso just has a tremendous talent for storytelling. This trilogy has found a place in my soul and Tali’s character will stick with me forever. So yeah, I recommend you read it and I hope you love it as much as I do.

You can read my full review here.

The Shadow of The Gods
The Bloodsworn Saga #1
John Gwynne
Orbit Books

Set in a brand-new, Norse-inspired world, and packed with myth, magic and bloody vengeance, The Shadow of the Gods begins an epic new fantasy saga from bestselling author John Gwynne.

After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið.

Now a new world is rising, where power-hungry jarls feud and monsters stalk the woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out.

Now, as whispers of war echo across the mountains and fjords, fate follows in the footsteps of three people: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who seeks vengeance among the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.

All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods . . .”

Goodreads Blurb

When I first received a copy of The Shadow of The Gods in the mail I can’t tell you how excited I was. I’d never read a John Gwynne novel before but I’ve seen pretty much nothing but acclaim for his work. And the reviews from those other books had me thinking any story by Gwynne would be right up my alley. Friends, those thoughts were not wrong.

The Shadow of The Gods is a violent, bloody, Norse inspired saga that I didn’t want to set down. I was disappointed at the end not because it was bad, but because I hungered for more. My tastes in fantasy vary, and I like to think they are wide ranging, but that gritty, battle filled epic is definitely a favorite of mine. I LOVED THIS BOOK…and if you want to know more about why then check out my review here.

The Pariah
The Covenant of Steel #1
Anthony Ryan
Orbit Books

From the international best-selling author of the Raven’s Shadow and Draconis Memoria series comes the spectacular first novel in an all-new epic fantasy trilogy.

Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army.

Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?

Goodreads Blurb

Sometimes a book is the perfect read that comes at just the right time. Anthony Ryan’s The Pariah was such a book for me. I’d been in a reading slump for weeks. I just couldn’t bring myself to read anything at all. The book I had been reading was really, really good, but every time I sat down I just couldn’t get in the mood. I finally finished it, took a couple extra days off from reading, then picked up The Pariah because I realized the release date would be upon me soon. I was riveted from page one! I read it in a matter of days, staying up late every night to finish as much as possible. I know there are a few months left, but let me tell you, there was no doubt The Pariah was one of my top reads of the year!

I love me some outlaw fantasy and that’s what this book is. Even when our protagonist is working from within the law and for a governing entity, there’s still this constant sense of rebellion about to break out. I don’t know what I like so much about this trope. Maybe it’s just the idea of sticking it to “the man.” But this isn’t Robin Hood. It isn’t stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This is self preservation in a place that doesn’t care about you. It’s about banding together with similar people in order to survive and then, even if by accident, forming stronger bonds of friendship, if not family, and creating something new in a world that would prefer you dead. And by the time you reach the end of the book you realize it’s a story with character and heart hidden in a narrative about bandits and outcasts.

You can read my full review here.

5 Star Short Fiction

“Mr. Death”
Alix E. Harrow
Apex Magizine 121 (Jan 2021)

I don’t read or review much short fiction and this year my only review was for “Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow. Many of you are familiar with Harrow’s novels (which are utterly fantastic btw) but I first found her through her short story  “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Short Compendium of Portal Fantasies” from issue 105 of Apex Magazine which also won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Harrow has written a number of amazing shorts which I think you should check out. But this one…reader I was not prepared…

Yeah…I was sitting in my reading chair with tears going down my face. Why? Why you ask? Well because Harrow wrote a story that will both squeeze your heart and have you begging her to stop writing as you cry tears of sorrow, then release it and and have you taking deep breaths as tears of happiness roll down your face. It runs the gamut of those emotions in just a few short pages.

Check out my full review here, or better yet go read the story and have a little sobbing cry yourself.

Well, that’s it. That’s my list of Best Reads of 2021. It really was a great year for books which is evident not just from my reads but all those I’ve seen the rest of you raving about on social media. I can’t wait to see what 2022 holds in store for us whether from the big publishing houses or from the ever incredible world of indie/self-publishing. I’m looking forward to the journey with you and all the opportunities we’ll have to shout from the rooftops about all of our favorite books.

-Jason

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