It’s been a fabulously varied and interesting year of reading for me, and I couldn’t be happier to share some of my absolute favourites. There’s definitely a bit of a theme – despite reading more widely than I have in a long time, all of my favourites are the kind of myth and magic fuelled retellings that ask questions about where we come from, where we’re going, and what makes us who we are – and most of them are queer, too. I love things that play with tropes, that stretch the boundaries of or straight up refuse to be confined to genre, and anything that can keep me guessing. All of these books have those elements, and yet some of them are so different they’re incomparable. I gave up on giving them any kind of order because ranking them seemed impossibly unfair!
Anyway, this is my best of 2021. And in no particular order, here we go:
Storyland might be the best collection of British myth and legend I have ever read. Amy Jeffs did a PhD in Art History at Cambridge, because of course she did, and she brings all of her enthusiasm and expertise to this glimmering collection. Bloodied and beautiful, these are tales of exile and belonging, destiny and destruction, love and loss – they are, essentially, ancient stories that contain everything we look for in modern fiction.
Mythology has always walked the line between fiction and non-fiction, and that’s exactly where this book dwells, and joyfully so; half of it is the tales themselves, blisteringly and beautifully retold for a modern audience, and the other half is author’s notes on the origins of the stories, their different versions, and their place in history and the modern day. It’s a rich, sumptuous collection of tales that stretches across the world in its telling, and I absolutely adored it. I thought I’d grown up with all the myth and legend that England and Wales had to offer, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be wrong.
Among my personal favourites are the tales of Albion being founded by thirty exiled Assyrian princesses (oh painful irony), Havelock the Dane (although really it’s the story of his canny and compelling wife Argentille) and Bladud the necromancer and founder of Bath. That’s definitely not something we put on the postcards, and I do wish we did! The inhabitants of Bath between our beloved Romans and Georgians were just as colourful and complicated as humans have always been, and their stories reflect that.
It’s astonishing to me how relevant these tales are to modern times, and yet echo with the voices of ancient humans. Storyland caused me to re-evaluate the way Britain sees itself as a nation today, and remember how varied and mobile and connected the people of Britain have always been. And of course I can’t talk about Storyland without mentioning how beautiful it is. The whole thing is illustrated with stunning lino-print art, so much so that shelving it seems a shame!
Beautifully told, illustrated and contextualised, these are tales that I was astonished that I didn’t know and thoroughly enjoyed discovering.
You can also watch our Box O’Teeth interview with Dr Amy Jeffs on our YouTube channel here.
Ah, Becky Chambers is bliss. A balm for modern life and a comfort in the harshest of times. This neat little novella definitely isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me it’s leaning into what I love best about Chambers’ sci-fi. Gently philosophical, daringly optimistic, and incisively, astonishingly human, Chambers captures the struggle of the human spirit in a book that is admittedly expensive for the number of pages, but far cheaper than therapy.
In concept, this is a book about a future world split into the human and non-human. A world that has survived environmental collapse and enforced equilibrium. It is told by a tea-monk who sets out into the wild and becomes the first human to meet a robot in living memory, after robots gain sentience and leave humanity behind. In actuality, it’s a book about what life is, what it means to be alive, and if it matters.
In an era where we face ecological crisis and existential dread on a daily basis, Chambers brings calm and hope where it is most needed, and achieves it in a grounded, unerringly logical and touchingly tender story of two beings who couldn’t be more different, and yet face all the same questions. This is why she’s one of the only sci-fi authors I come back to again and again. This is not an epic tale of star-bound ships and empires at war. It’s a story of everyday lives, of everyday people and their struggles, and explores what that might be like in entirely plausible futures that aren’t all doom and gloom. It’s a considered and intelligent thought experiment by someone with no delusions about the terrible things humanity is capable of, yet still writes with incredible hope and empathy.
I have raved about this book before and I will rave about it again and again. This is fantasy as you’ve never seen it before. It’s the story of an heir born female and raised a boy, and very subtly named Silence, in an era of myth and magic, castles and crones, dragons and darkness. It’s based on a medieval chivalric fable and retold for a modern audience, and brings the absolute best of both worlds. The drama, the high stakes, the honour and cruelty of an ancient epic, infused with nuanced character growth. The beauty and poeticism of the historical and romantic style, blisteringly modernised in its form and philosophy.
It’s a subtle, thoughtful and beautifully-written character piece that follows the circumstances of Silence’s birth right through to their adulthood, and it’s more than that too; it’s a story about where fiction influences history, about who gets the power to tell a story and why it matters.
This is the kind of book that changes history. It feels like a classic already, and every time I give it to someone in the shop I beg them to come back when they’re finished so I can talk about the ending with someone.
I think that’s what really elevated this book for me from good to fantastic. We all want to be reading books that stick with us, that leave a lasting impact – maybe not all the time, sure. But that’s what I loved about reading as a kid, and it’s much rarer for a book to re-capture that pure, lasting enthusiasm in me as an adult. The Story of Silence is a book I will never forget, and I don’t want to. I only wish I could read it for the first time again!
You can also read my original review of this book in the July edition of the Rainbow Roundup here.
I read a lot more non-fiction than I used to nowadays, and I doubt I’m the only person who’s found their reading tastes have changed since last March, but despite how fascinating I find them, I never expected a non-fic to make it onto my all-time favourites. Pandora’s Jar, however, knocked me off my feet.
Greek Myth is the in-thing at the moment, and this is the trend in its prime. If you haven’t listened to the podcast Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics then you are, officially, missing out. This book is the perfect accompaniment and is exactly the same flavour of hilarious and feminist, whilst also having the page time to do the deep-dives that there isn’t time for on-air. Medea, Medusa, Penelope – I didn’t even know who some of these women were but Haynes does a brilliant job of explaining the original stories, and you end up so invested in all of them and the way their stories have been told through the centuries. Haynes writes with such obvious fascination and enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to be caught up in it.
Usually reading non-fiction takes me a lot longer than fiction, but I absolutely flew through Pandora’s Jar. The only thing that could make me stop was looking up the references to some of the paintings – something which, to my shame, I can’t ever remember bothering to do with other non-fiction (look, they print the pictures in the book itself if they’re absolutely necessary). I am thoroughly looking forward to re-reading it, and now that I’ve read it cover to cover, I’m inclined to dip back in and remind myself of jokes and factoids every now and then, just to amuse and invigorate me.
So I read Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb this year for the first time ever (I know, I know, but cut me some slack, it did come out before I was born).The thing about reading that book was that I could see exactly how it has influenced fantasy and fantasy writing for the last twenty-five years. Reading ‘She Who Became the Sun’, I felt like I was reading the book that will shape the next twenty-five. And I could not be more excited to see that happen.
It is, quite genuinely, one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. It’s framed as a fantastical retelling of the rise of the Ming dynasty and begins with an unnamed girl, scraping to stay alive during a famine in Mongol-occupied China. Her elder brother, Zhu Chongba, is prophesied to achieve greatness. The girl’s future is nothing. But then Zhu Chongba dies. And so the girl resolves that if he can take her destiny, then she can take his. From then on she is Zhu Chongba, and she will do whatever it takes to survive.
Fast-paced, breathlessly tense, epic and savage and unpredictable, this book is utterly absorbing. I read it in two sittings, and I would have read it in one if my partner hadn’t realised that I was beyond the reach of time and needed to be poked by the real world if I was going to go to bed before 2am. Threats of confiscation were made (and might admittedly have been necessary, but are yet to be forgiven). The ending left me reeling, riding the high of it for honest-to-god HOURS after I’d turned the final page.
If it isn’t a film or TV series just as epic as Game of Thrones in ten years’ time I will have to buy a hat specifically for the purposes of eating it.
You can also read my original review of this book in the September edition of the Rainbow Roundup here.
I read this one way back in the summer, on a wobbly chair in the garden in a desperate attempt to get in some much-needed vitamin D and reading time simultaneously. The reason I remember that so clearly is that it was a fatal mistake – I was so absorbed in the book that one of the plot-twists caused me to physically jump, and I spilt hot tea all over my copy, and our already-struggling lawn.
I have always loved Natasha Pulley’s writing, and every book is, impossibly, better than the last. In many ways this is a departure from the familiar for her, but it still has many of her hallmarks; twisty, mysterious, and fantastically original, this is an alternate history where nothing is quite as it seems. It asks the question ‘what would have happened if Napoleon won at Waterloo’? But also, ‘how come Napoleon won at Waterloo’?
Joe Tournier gets off a train at Gare du Roi in London, and can’t remember how he got there or, other than his name, who he is. Diagnosed with a form of epileptic amnesia that is affecting a huge portion of the population, he turns out to be an English slave to a French master. Two years later he has earned his freedom, has a daughter, and yet never feels settled and is plagued by dreams of a man standing by the shore. But he must go on living his life, and so he does – until he gets a postcard from a lighthouse built just six months earlier, that has somehow been waiting to be delivered for 91 years.
Not a single sentence of this book is wasted space. It will keep you guessing, keep you caught up in anticipation and crossing your fingers for everything to work out and so tense that the slightest thing might make you jump and spill your tea.
You can also watch our Box O’Teeth interview with Natasha Pulley on our YouTube channel here.
I loved Alix E. Harrow’s previous book (The Ten Thousand Doors of January), but my god, if this is how much she improves between book one and book two, I cannot WAIT for book three.
The basic premise of The Once and Future Witches is an alternate history in which witches were very much real. Taking place at the turn of the century and at the start of the American Suffragette movement, this is nevertheless a crushingly relevant book. It begins with a girl called June who steps off a train in a town called New Salem and sees a wanted poster of her own face. Her first thought? She hadn’t burned the house down properly and they’ve found the body. So when she’s approached by a member of staff she panics, casts a spell on him, and runs away.
For real, this book has no breaks and zero chill.
It interweaves the narratives of three estranged sisters with quite frankly obscene dexterity, balancing each sister’s story and character development against a fabulously tense plot that still somehow makes space for absolutely beautiful fairy tales from this alternate universe. I was so emotionally invested I had to stop and remember to breathe. (If you read it after this or have read it, please join me in starting a Cleo fan club).
It’s a fantastically original and deeply resonant book about what it means to be a woman and a woman with power. Although not always the most subtle, there’s no way in hell I would trade the big bad magic misogynist off for the catharsis it gives the ending.
So there we have it! I actually read far less this year than I usually do, possibly because I read so much more non-fiction and it takes me so much longer. But the books that I have read have been fantastic!
You can see the whole list here.