The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2021 – The New York Times

From epic voyages to haunting folk tales, here are the highlights of an otherworldly year.
Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
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In the gray fog of an uncertain year, these books stand out in bright colors and floods of intense feeling. They’re organized only by the order in which I read them.
By Elizabeth Knox (Viking, 640 pp., $28)
There’s so much vast, sprawling, protean wonder between its covers that “The Absolute Book” could be a fantasy object in and of itself. What begins as domestic realism, exploring Taryn Cornick’s grief at the sudden, violent loss of her sister, spirals into thriller territory before tumbling into epic fantasy. Spanning the geographies of Canada, Britain and New Zealand and the cosmologies of fairies, demons and angels, the novel more than lives up to its name.
By E. Lily Yu (Erewhon, 288 pp., $25.95)
A tremendous and devastating work of witness, stunning and perfect. Firuzeh and Nour are siblings fleeing Afghanistan for Australia, enduring the hazards of crossing borders and oceans with only their parents’ love and folk tales to protect them. But when those stories wither in the misery of Nauru’s Regional Processing Center, the ghost of a drowned girl becomes Firuzeh’s closest companion, for better or for worse.
By Karin Tidbeck (Pantheon, 240 pp., $25.95)
A slender, extraordinary jewel of a book, like a scrimshawed murder ballad tucked into a timepiece. Dora and Thistle are siblings by choice and circumstance, trapped in a viciously cruel fairyland where immortal creatures torture stolen children for sport. But when an antique watch finds its way into their hidden wood, distorting the fairy world with the arrival of time, the children seize their chance to escape into even stranger stories.
By Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 400 pp., paper, $16)
A magnificent love song shouted to queer lineage, found family, Brooklyn and one’s early 20s. August Landry is an angry, cynical loner, raised in New Orleans by a bereaved mother to trust no one and keep to herself. She moves to New York for college, but just as she’s figuring out the city’s rhythms, she meets Jane Su: gorgeous, badass, amnesiac — and trapped on the Q train since 1976.
By Rivers Solomon (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 355 pp., $27)
Editors at The Times Book Review selected the best fiction and nonfiction titles of the year. Here are some of their picks:
Solomon’s most powerful work yet. Vern, a pregnant Black teenager, escapes the secretive compound of the cult she was raised in and gives birth to twins in the woods. Thriving there despite a sinister presence she calls “the fiend,” Vern becomes aware of something else growing in her body, unsettling its rhythms and forcing her to take her children on a long, difficult journey in search of support. Like its heroine, “Sorrowland” refuses comforting half-truths in favor of furious integrity.
By Angela Mi Young Hur (Erewhon, 408 pp., $26.95)
Dr. Elsa Park spent years being told that the women of her family are trapped in the patterns of tragic Korean folk tales in which girls are stolen, sacrificed, haunted or haunting. As an adult, Elsa chooses science over superstition — but while researching neutrinos in Antarctica, she succumbs to an old hallucination of ringing bells and sees a lovely woman with red ribbons in her hair out on the ice. Haunted now herself, Elsa struggles to find a way into — and more crucially, a way out of — her family’s tales.
By Marissa Levien (Redhook, 402 pp., $28)
A staggering, action-packed marvel set on a doomed generation ship the size of Switzerland. There’s a crack in the hull, widening, irreparable and kept secret; Myrra Dal, an indentured nanny, finds this out when her employers kill themselves, and does the only thing that makes sense to her: She takes the baby and runs.
By Lincoln Michel (Orbit, 356 pp., $27)
Timeless and original, blending noir, cyberpunk and sports. Though set in a disturbingly near future of extreme climate change and runaway medical debt occasioned by the gene therapies and cybernetic enhancements required to live, “The Body Scout” is mostly about baseball, family and doing the right thing even when it hurts (or risks getting your body parts repossessed).
By Cadwell Turnbull (Blackstone, 387 pp., $26.99)
Intimate and intricate, full of charismatic monsters and the dueling secret societies to which they belong. A pack of werewolves transform on camera, prompting hidden powers to rally for or against revealing the supernatural world of gods and monsters to the public. Mysteriously narrated and utterly riveting.
By Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom, 201 pp., paper, $14.99)
Lynesse is the fourth daughter of a queen: a minor royal with no purpose or prospects, living in a world of magic, demons, sorcery. Nyr is a scientist from another planet, isolated and alone, part of an abandoned anthropological survey gone wrong hundreds of years ago. Together, they’ll fight crime. An utter delight from start to finish, beautifully written and perfectly paced.
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