2021 Fantasy Bingo Card (Hard Mode)

My second year of completing an r/Fantasy Book Bingo card was also my first year of recording a card that hit Hard Mode for every single square. As with last year, I’m finishing with a ranking of the books I read this year, along with some mini-reviews, and a brief note on how bad the cliffhanger was (Fantasy Bingo prohibits using the same author twice on a single card, so it doesn’t exactly encourage diving straight into sequels). This is all in good fun, and keep in mind that books ranked near the end are not bad books. If I’ve read multiple books that hit a single square, I’ll take the one I liked more–after all, Bingo is a chance to show off a year of great reads–so this list is heavily biased towards my favorite books of the last twelve months. And the ordering is a snapshot of how I felt when writing this post. There were a lot of tough calls, especially in the middle and I wouldn’t put too much stock in the difference between 12th and 15th–or even 12th and 20th. 

So let’s take a closer look at my card! I’ve listed all categories that I could’ve used a book for, with the actual category used in bold. Hyperlinks in the titles go to my full reviews. 

1. The Best of R.A. Lafferty by R.A. Lafferty.

Categories: Short Stories (hard), Comfort Read.

Mini-Review: An utterly unique prose style and a willingness to flout narrative conventions may make Lafferty a love-it-or-hate-it sort of author, but you can put me firmly in the Love It camp. His creativity is hard to match, and there isn’t another author who gives me the same kind of joy from reading the individual sentences. Lafferty is an experience. For those unfamiliar, I do recommend starting with something like “Seven-Day Terror” to get a sense of his style. 

Rating: 20.

Cliff Severity: Short stories may have ambiguous endings, but they don’t tend to end on cliffhangers. 

2. Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Categories: Comfort Read (hard), Published in 2021, Genre Mashup.

Mini-Review: Elder Race is an inventive novella that takes the “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” conceit and cashes it out in a fascinating way, alternating chapter-by-chapter between a style befitting a fantasy epic and a more intimate, first-person perspective that is undoubtedly science fiction. Add in a remarkable exploration of depression, and there are just too many reasons to love this story. 

Rating: 20.

Cliff Severity: Hey, a standalone novella! Maybe the cliffs won’t be so bad this year?

3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.

Categories: Comfort Read (hard), Book Club (hard), New to You.

Mini-Review: I’m not sure I would’ve picked up Piranesi if it hadn’t been a Hugo finalist, and I ended up voting it to win. It’s an epistolary novel with stylized prose—both of which can be hit or miss for me—but with a delight of a lead character and a setting full of mystery and wonder. Suffice to say this one was a hit. 

Rating: 18.

Cliff Severity: Starting with three standalones in a row, maybe this year should’ve been called “So Long and Thanks for Actually Not So Many Cliffs As All That.” 

4. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.

Categories: Genre Guide (hard), Revenge (hard), Asian Setting (hard), Found Family, New to You, Debut (hard).

Mini-Review: What begins as a dark military/magic school novel turns into a much darker war story inspired by real-life atrocities in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Bingeable prose draws engagement early, and tortured characters wrestling with last resort magical defenses and their devastating consequences make it well worth the read. 

Rating: 18.

Cliff Severity: Closes a major plot arc, but there are capital-C Consequences waiting for book two. 

5. Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham.

Categories: Revenge (hard), X of Y

Mini-Review: If you enjoy slow-paced, character-driven epics featuring marginalized characters who find themselves in the middle of events beyond their ken, you’ll not find much better than Age of Ash

Rating: 18.

Cliff Severity: There are gaps in the plot, due to the main characters being outsiders, but Age of Ash delivers a pretty full arc with a satisfying conclusion. There are two more books to come, but you could stop here and be satisfied.

6. The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo.

Categories: Book Club (hard), Asian Setting (hard), X of Y (hard), Trans/Non-binary Character (hard), Genre Guide (hard), Found Family (hard), New to You, Debut.

Mini-Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune tells a series of small stories about the history of objects found in the late Empress’ former home. It makes for a quiet, oblique narrative that the reader may not realize until halfway through is an epic in disguise. It may take some patience in the beginning, but the story comes together very nicely, and patience is a relative term when we’re talking about novella-length work. And the prose is exceptional. 

Rating: 17.

Cliff Severity: Reads like a standalone, but there are other stories in the universe. 

7. Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson.

Categories: Mystery Plot (hard), Published in 2021.

Mini-Review: The marketing leads you to expect a whodunnit in space, and that expectation is bound to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a heart-pounding survival tale with hints of mystery, mysticism, and even space opera? You won’t go wrong with Far From the Light of Heaven. 

Rating: 17.

Cliff Severity: Thompson leans into too much weirdness to tie everything in a neat bow, but I believe this is planned as a standalone, even if there are some potential story threads remaining.

8. In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu.

Categories: Published in 2021 (hard), Trans/Non-binary Character (hard), Asian Setting (hard), New to You (hard), Debut.

Mini-Review: A series of short stories sharing little but theme and setting (broadly construed), tied together in a relatively robust frame narrative. The quality of the stories vary, and they tend more than a little toward the dark end of the spectrum, but the storytelling is consistently beautiful.

Rating: 17.

Cliff Severity: The world is available for more stories, but the frame narrative is resolved.

9. Appropriately Aggressive by Krista D. Ball.

Categories: Self-Published, SFF-Related Nonfiction (hard).

Mini-Review: Many of these are on Reddit, and some are a snapshot of r/Fantasy as it once was more than as it now is, but there’s plenty of insight into representation and writing that had me screenshotting passages all over the place. If you enjoyed the Stabby-winning “I Want My Girlfriend to Read Fantasy,” you’ll probably get a lot out of this. 

Rating: 17.

Cliff Severity: It’s non-narrative nonfiction, although the Girlfriend post could serve as a sequel of sorts. 

10. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

Categories: X of Y, Cat Squasher (hard), Found Family.

Mini-Review: If you’re here, you probably know the popular wisdom on Brandon Sanderson, and it’s pretty accurate: mediocre prose pairs with meticulous worldbuilding and plotting that brings every character’s climax together in an avalanche of a finish. The weaknesses hold me back from truly loving it, but I’m a sucker for an underdog story, and The Way of Kings has a great one at its heart. Combined with a big finish and some intriguing twists, it was a real winner. 

Rating: 16.

Cliff Severity: Every major perspective character undergoes a significant plot arc that gets to a satisfying stopping point. But the overall series plot has miles to go, and those series-starting arcs deliver no lack of sequel hooks. 

11. We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker.

Categories: Found Family (hard), Published in 2021, Trans/Non-binary Character.

Mini-Review: A messy, character-driven near-future sci-fi explores how ubiquitous new technology affects those on the margins. Some of the individual vignettes are stunning, and it comes together for a thrilling finish, but it seems unsure of whether it wants to linger in the uncertainty of hard questions or paper over the details for a clean ending. 

Rating: 16.

Cliff Severity: Standalone!

12. The Last Shadow by J.D. Robinson.

Categories: Self-Published (hard), Mystery Plot, New to You (hard).

Mini-Review: What starts as your standard “grizzled detective takes on one final case before retirement” grows into a fascinating mystery that leans into the weirdness in a way that reminds me a bit of an episode of Fringe

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: Another standalone!

13. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin.

Categories: Chapter Titles (hard), Found Family (hard), Book Club (hard).

Mini-Review: Jemisin’s prose has an impressive combination of quality, rawness, and readability, and it is all on display here. There isn’t a hint of subtlety, with abundantly clear real-world analogues to the villains, but that doesn’t stop The City We Became from being a gripping story. The biggest flaw is that it introduces some devastating moral complexity and never really follows it up in the way it deserves. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff-Severity: There’s a relatively satisfying ending, but there is room for more story, and I believe more are planned. 

14. No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull.

Categories: Trans/Nonbinary Character (hard), Found Family (hard), Published in 2021, New to You.

Mini-Review: A veritable tapestry of perspectives, all fully realized and written with such care as to feel like their own short stories. Add in excellent prose, and this was one of my favorite books of the year, on a chapter level. But the convergence didn’t quite bring it all together. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: Honestly, it’s hard to say. There was plenty of resolution, but it does look like the series will continue—hopefully to tie the various subplots together in a more satisfying way. 

15. The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst.

Categories: Book Club (hard), Forest Setting (hard), X of Y, New to You, Backlist.

Mini-Review: The elusive 100% Forest Setting delivers a dark YA plot with a beautiful backdrop and a bingeable style. Some of the side characters are a bit flat, and I’m not sure that all the magical problem-solving works quite so well as it’s meant to, but if you enjoy good-hearted protagonists searching for non-violent solutions where it seems none can be found (and where often it’s true that none can be found) and don’t mind some YA tropes and an unusual level of darkness, it should be a winner. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: The main plot resolves, but there’s at least one obvious thread left dangling for the next book. 

16. Day 115 on an Alien World by Jeanette Bedard.

Categories: New to You (hard), Mystery Plot (hard), Self-Published.

Mini-Review: A murder mystery on a colonizing mission to a barren planet, Day 115 on an Alien World struggles capturing realistic dialogue, which can make some side characters feel like caricatures, but the central mystery is well put-together and makes the book almost impossible to put down after the first third. I read a lot of books that were nominally sci-fi/fantasy mysteries this year, but this one felt the most like a classic whodunnit. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: The main mystery is solved, but there is a sequel hook and more books in this setting. 

17. A Night in Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny.

Categories: Genre Mashup (hard), New to You, Chapter Titles (technically hard).

Mini-Review: A Night in Lonesome October is split up into 31 chapters representing 31 days of the month. That makes it perfect for annual rereads, but does make for some odd pacing at times. But the canine lead’s narrative voice is really excellent, and there’s plenty of humor as well. On the whole, it’s a fun one. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: Standalone. 

18. Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.

Categories: Backlist (hard), X of Y, Asian Setting, Revenge (hard).

Mini-Review: A pure political scheming novel, with a lead character unexpectedly thrust into leadership of her House and who must become ruthless to keep it afloat as enemies circle. The storytelling tends toward the episodic, but the prose is good and the episodes are interesting. The main character does come off perhaps a hair too clever (or perhaps her enemies not clever enough), but the book doesn’t shy away from hard consequences. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: The episodes are all resolved, putting the main character in position to face even more conflict in the next two books of the trilogy. 

19. Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko.

Categories: Revenge (hard), Book Club (hard), Debut (hard), Found Family (hard), New to You.

Mini-Review: A YA novel about a girl trying to break free from a magical compulsion to kill the Crown Prince she’d rather befriend, and simultaneously to right the societal wrongs fostered by the royal family. Hits a lot of heavy themes and does them well, although I didn’t totally love every aspect of the resolution. 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: We get a major climax, but it leaves plenty of work to do in a sequel.

20. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.

Categories: Asian Setting (hard), Published in 2021 (hard), Revenge (hard), Debut, Chapter Titles, New to You (hard).

Mini-Review: Billed as feminist rage and giant mech battles, and that’s pretty much what it is. The description of the misogynistic society and the gradual unveiling of its secrets is excellent. The action scenes are a bit less so, and I tend away from total “burn it all down” protagonists (I admittedly say while having The Poppy War in the top five—but that one spent a lot more time reckoning with the horrors of burning it all down). 

Rating: 15.

Cliff Severity: We get a major climax with significant plot movement, but there’s one heck of a sequel hook and a whole lot to do in the sequel. 

21. Harvest by Olga Werby.

Categories: First Contact (hard), Self-Published (hard), New to You (hard).

Mini-Review: Harvest is the sort of story I wouldn’t expect to see from a traditional publisher. Imagine a first contact book that spends relatively little time on conflict with an extraterrestrial race, rather spotlighting the group of subject matter experts frantically debating and theorizing about what they can deduce about the aliens from the basic facts known before the contact. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of true horror and a conflict that opens up fascinating questions with no easy answers. But a lot of it reminds me of…well, of listening to actual academics in passionate discussion about their field. Which works for me—even if I didn’t 100% connect with the prose—but I imagine it will make this a polarizing choice. 

Rating: 14.

Cliff Severity: We get a resolution, but it sure is messy. I believe this is meant as a standalone. 

22. Reclaim the Stars by Zoraida Córdova.

Categories: Short Stories (hard), Latinx Author (hard), New to You.

Mini-Review: A short story collection featuring YA-leaning sci-fi and fantasy from Latin American authors that’s perfectly enjoyable but doesn’t have a lot of wow factor at the top end. The highlight for me was Isabel Ibañez’s piece about a girl opening a magical paint shop and facing down the hostility of her new neighbors. 

Rating: 14.

Cliff Severity: Short stories still generally stand alone. 

23. The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies.

Categories: First-Person (hard), Self-Published, Revenge (hard), Found Family (hard), New to You (hard).

Mini-Review: This is one of just two instances where I chose to include a book on my bingo card over a good fit that I’d rated higher. The worldbuilding in The Thirteenth Hour bothered me a bit—particularly the religion feeling like it was attempting commentary on real world religions in ways that didn’t make a lot of sense in-universe—but the storytelling was compelling, the two lead characters were well-drawn, and the ending was excellent. There’s so much to like here, and I thought it worth highlighting for readers who may not share my idiosyncratic hang-ups. 

Rating: 13.

Cliff Severity: There’s closure on so many of the big questions, but they really only open up bigger questions to be answered in the sequel. 

24. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

Categories: Gothic Fantasy (hard), Genre Mashup (hard), New to You, Debut (hard).

Mini-Review: The notoriously meme-heavy prose that worried me was actually fantastic—it fit the lead character perfectly and remained smooth and immersive. Unfortunately, the book backloaded basically every interesting element, so that by the time it got to the (very well-done) finish, I had been forcing myself to keep reading for at least a hundred pages. There’s a lot to like here, but the structure holds it back quite a bit. I would replace it on my card with The Devil in Silver, which would’ve vaulted all the way into my top ten, but I’m not sure that title has enough actual fantasy to justify inclusion here. 

Rating: 13.

Cliff Severity: As has been a theme in the back half of my list, a main plot resolved but left plenty for the sequel. 

25. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas.

Categories: Witches (hard), Book Club (hard), Trans/Non-binary Character (hard), Latinx Author, New to You 

Mini-Review: A fun central romance is enough to overcome uninspired prose and a hackneyed plot to get this one up to three stars. The representation is enough for this book to mean a lot to a lot of people, but the storytelling isn’t good enough to recommend it unless it is exactly what you’re looking for. 

Rating: 12.

Cliff Severity: This easily works as a standalone, and I believe it is intended as one.

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