I’ve had a great reading year, and there have been plenty of works of sci-fi/fantasy that I’ve rated at five stars (17+ on my 20-point scale). But it takes something truly special–something that’s worthy of my all-time favorites list–to register a score of 19 or 20. So let me share my absolute favorites of the year.
Four novels were worthy of 19 or 20 ratings from me this year, but every single one was a sequel–three were fourth entries in their respective series! So rather than take the time to pitch novels that you can’t read without significant backstory, I’ll share the four series that delivered those high scores.
The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
The opening book of this series was one of my highest-rated reads of 2020, and the third and fourth entries took it to a new level, with the finale being the only novel that garnered a 20/20 rating for me in 2021. It’s a slow-paced (albeit not long) series that introduces a number of very personal struggles with truly epic consequences. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy series with more relatable antagonists, and I adore the time skips between each entry that underpin the central conceit (the “long price”) of the series. The magic is both extremely powerful and extremely limited, so this feels somewhere in between the magic-rich high fantasy and the low fantasy that borders on historical fiction in a secondary world. But strong prose, excellent characters, and careful plots that introduce no obvious answers make The Long Price Quartet one of my all-time favorite fantasy series.
The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein
The Steerswoman Series opens as a fun-but-unexceptional adventure fantasy with plenty of trope subversion. But as the series progresses, it grows into something truly tremendous, with a scholar/warrior dynamic duo that constitutes one of my favorite female friendships in the genre, a delightfully sincere lead, and a fascinating and complex world revealed piece by piece over the course of the series. We’re still waiting for the final two installments, but book three secured its place among my favorite series, and reading book four–one of my 19/20 ratings this year–just felt like coming home.
The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft
Senlin Ascends, an adventure fantasy in a bizarre, wondrous, and often kafkaesque setting, is one of the triumphs of the last decade of self-published speculative fiction. As the series progresses, a slow-developing central plot joins the wonder and adventure, the cast expands to a true ensemble, and the thematic work deepens. Add some outstanding prose that feels classic despite publication dates in the last few years, and you have the recipe for a new favorite. The first three books garnered 18/20 ratings from me before the finale brought it all together for a 19/20.
The Ender Saga by Orson Scott Card
I don’t have a full series review here, but it was Speaker for the Dead, the second book in the series, that garnered a 19/20 rating. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a series that switches subgenres so radically from the first to the second book–although I can now see how it managed back-to-back Hugo Awards in 1986 and 1987–but the outstanding military academy story in Ender’s Game yields to an anthropological sci-fi about understanding the alien and incomprehensible in the sequel. They’re both wonderful, but the second is perhaps my favorite book to date about relating to an alien species. I don’t know that I’ll go on after book two, which gives a plenty satisfying ending, but I wholeheartedly recommend the first two books here.
Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
If I didn’t know better, I’d think this novella was written just for me. It’s an audacious and outstanding blend of sci-fi and fantasy, with the difficulty of communication across cultures a central theme and a dive into clinical depression to top if off. And the stylistic shifts as the perspective changes from one culture to another just provide the cherry on top. There may be a moment or two where I have to work to suspend disbelief on linguistic challenges, but honestly I’m not sure what more I could ask for in a novella.
STET by Sarah Gailey
I’m a sucker for experimental short stories with something to say and an emotional hook, and “STET” is exemplary on all three scores. The story consists almost entirely of an argument in the editorial remarks of a draft of a short article on self-driving cars. And it’s one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read all year. Absolutely outstanding in every respect. I can’t believe this didn’t win any major genre awards.
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker
Another experimental short story by an author named “Sarah,” this one is told entirely in the comments of a forum devoted to discerning the meaning of song lyrics–in this case, the lyrics of the titular (fictional) ballad “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” It’s atmospheric, gripping, and creative, and it’s easily my leader for favorite 2021-published short story.
Mono No Aware by Ken Liu
Ken Liu has an uncanny ability to stir the emotions, and this gorgeous reflection on the last spaceship to leave a dying earth is no exception. This one did win a Hugo, and it was well-deserved.