My 21 Favorite Reads From 2021

2021! What a year…and that’s all I have to say about that. Between my last winter vacation in college, my last semester of virtual classes, and *ahem* a bit of reading-as-escapism — 2021 was a record year for me! I finished out the year with almost 250 books read (to be fair about 50+ of those reads were manga volumes so take it with a grain of salt). As you can imagine, picking out my favorite reads of the year was a bit tough! However, there were some standouts and I eventually narrowed down the list. So, without further ado, here are the books of 2021–in no particular order—that had me crying, laughing, and (metaphorically) throwing the book across the room.

***Please note that I didn’t add individual CW/TW on every book (I did add reminders on some of them that I remembered either didn’t include an author’s note or were more graphic) since this post already took a loooong time, so please look those up and read what’s good for you ❤

1. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

First on the list is this dystopian YA that I listened to on audiobook, and that absolutely gripped me. I read this several months ago, but I’m still thinking about it — which is always a sign for me that it’s a good book™, given my usual state of being is Zero Thoughts, Head Empty. In this novel, Jam lives in a utopia where there are no more “monsters,” until she accidentally awakens a hunter who’s looking for one. A compelling and raw narrative that asks hard to answer questions: what makes a monster, and how do we recognize them?

2. How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Racquel Vasquez Gilliland

This YA contemporary is every bit as gorgeous as its cover — and do I really need to say more than that? YA contemporary is something I’ve been reading/enjoying less over the past couple of years, but I was absolutely in love with this one.

Moon unexpectedly ends up as a “merch girl” when her influencer sister scores a spot on a cross-country tour over the summer. Moon will have to fight to find herself within her sister’s shadow, while flirting fighting with her new bunkmate and nemesis, Santiago. This book made me cry, gave me hugs, and made me cry again. Such a beautiful exploration of self, the world, and the experiences of young girls navigating their relationship with their bodies, religion, and sex. Full of family drama, road trip mishaps, and the magic of the world around us—and inside us.

3. Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Book number two that’s as gorgeous as its cover—I mean, look at it. Absolutely insane. Anyway this felt like such a unique read; it definitely is a great book to crossover from YA to Adult fantasy if you’re looking to ease into it. I actually can’t believe how many things happened in this book, but it never felt too rushed or confusing. It’s a retelling of Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, and this book follows Xingyin as she tries to free her mother as well as fight for her own future.

The prose was lush and captivating, the world-building was vast and full of magic, and the action had me on the edge of my seat. And I haven’t even mentioned the romance! There was a love triangle which I don’t usually ~love~ as much, but,,,,,in this case I was convinced and I’m definitely not complaining about the levels of Angst and Yearning that ensued because of it.

This book just felt epic in myriad ways: Xingyin felt like a warrior heroine out of myth, the action scenes were the thing of legends, and the emotional and romantic aspects of the story were at times achingly tender, heart-wrenching, and overwhelmingly beautiful. (cue me waiting miserably for the sequel).

4. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

This is based off ancient Chinese history, and is a super amazing queer fantasy following a monk who takes her brother’s name after his death and follows her rise to power. The world-building was a lot for me to grasp at first since there’s a lot of build-up of politics and such before the action really kicks off, but the angst and action really build together in an explosive way that was addictive to read.

Not saying in anyway that the plot of the book isn’t standout, but what put this one on my list of favorites for the year was the way the author plays with gender and queerness within this setting. I’m still thinking about it, and writing this now is making me want to read it again….sigh. The dynamics between not only our favorite Murderous Monk but also the other main characters (Read: He’s Gay, Hates Women, and Maybe Loves His Best Friend Whose Father Murdered His Father), are an absolutely captivating and complex portrayal of queerness in a genre where we don’t typically see that as much. There’s also a fisting scene if you’re into that.

5. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

You might wonder how a runaway trans girl, an alien intergalactic refugee, and a violin maestro who sold her soul to the devil can all fit into book but somehow they do, and they fit in wonderfully strange and beautiful ways. If you’re looking for a queer book that doesn’t shy from uglier truths but also makes you believe in the fundamental beauty of life and the joy of being loved and finding your family?? Look no further!

Katrina is a runaway trans girl who enters into a not-at-all-shady deal with Shizuka, a master violinist, to teach her how to play like a master herself. The slight catch might be that Shizuka made a deal with a demon a while back, and owes one more soul to the devil — a soul Katrina can offer her. The only thing standing in her way is Lan, an alien running a donut shop who might just remind her of the magic of music, love, and good donuts. Please look up the trigger warnings before forging ahead with this one, but it’s an absolutely gorgeous novel that’s defiantly joyful, hopeful in the face of darkness, wonderfully queer, and absolutely unforgettable.

6. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Let’s stand for the return of the Girlboss YA heroine!!! Wu Zetian is one badass bitch out for revenge and hungry for power — and she’s willing to burn down anyone standing in her way. Full of mechas, epic fight scenes, simmering romance, and a wonderful examination and exploitation of the patriarchy and gender binaries in this explosive sci-fi adventure that’s inspired by China’s only woman to be Emperor. I will bow down at the feet of Xiran Jay Zhao for bringing the freshest take on a YA love triangle (hint: polyam relationship) featuring both a himbo bf AND a nerdy bf, along with their girbloss gf; their epic debut is not one you want to miss!

7. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Ahhhh, In Other Lands my beloved…I’ve read you twice in the past four months and I dare say I’ll read you again before the end of 2022. Meet my newest comfort read! (If my comfort reads make me ugly cry every time that’s between me and god). For fans of the magical boarding school trope—and especially the ones who want it to be Gay—make sure you pick this one up.

We meet Elliot at 13 years old, and god what a menace, what a brat. Over the course of the next four years we follow Elliot on a journey of (some) growing up maturing, finding and losing love, making life-altering friendships, avoiding and winning wars and doing it all with a never ending stream of snark and sarcasm. This is a satirical, yet utterly genuine fantasy adventure full of magic and the occasional mermaid, deconstruction of fantasy’s favorite tropes, and epic hugs.

8. Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Yet another stunning debut from 2021 that’s absolutely unmissable if you’re a romance fan. It took me a minute to sink into the writing style of this book, but once I did I was basically lost at sea. An incredibly tender story about burnout, feeling lost in your 20s, loneliness, AND was also swoon-worthy and filled with so much love and friendship.

Honey Girl follows Grace, a Black woman in her late 20s, as she struggles to see what comes next after getting her PhD and faces the racism prevalent in academia, along with the mounting pressure and exhaustion she feels daily. Not to mention a night in Vegas meant to let off steam and celebrate her PhD leaves her with an accidental marriage to a woman whose name she doesn’t even remember. A gorgeous blend of beautifully raw romance and friendships melded with the often painstaking and painful journey to find your place in the world.

9. Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

You know those books that mess you up just a little bit — not in a bad way — but haunt you still? Yeah, this book was that good. A lyrical and moving story of family secrets and history, a slow-burn ~something~ between best friends, and full of shocking twists.

Danny is set to go to college for art next year, but he feels adrift imagining a future without his best friend by his side and when Danny discovers something about his parents’ past he’ll be set on an oftentimes confusing, heartbreaking, and heartwarming adventure of self-discovery.

This was a backlist find for me, and it’s definitely an underrated YA contemporary that I’ll be recommending for a while because it was so stunning and was such a memorable read.

10. A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

Okay it’s officially time for my first “if you liked this Taylor Swift song” recommendation on this list lol. So, A Dowry of Blood. I devoured this book in one tear-filled night, and a few weeks later, when Red (TV) was released I was instantly pairing this with the dynamics from All Too Well (10 min version), but adding in a splash of horror.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer reimagining of Dracula and his brides across the decades and it’s everything you could want from gothic horror: a powerful story about love in its best and worst forms that’s entrancing, bloody, and tangled up in passion and hate, power and control.

Constanta is the first of Dracula’s brides, but eventually he’ll find more, and the twisted bond that holds them all together just might break as Constanta fights to reclaim her power and identity and protect those she loves. (Once again, please check TW for this one).

11. Sadie by Courtney Summers

Murder mysteries and true crime—especially about missing girls—are typically Not My Thing. However, after hearing so many good things about this one I decided to give the audiobook a go, and it turns out it was every bit as anxiety-inducing, heart-pounding, and haunting as they say.

Sadie seems like it was made to be read as an audiobook and I’d recommend reading it that way if it’s accessible for you. The story is split up into two POVs: Sadie’s, as she narrates her journey hunting down the man she believes to have murdered her sister, Mattie, and West McCray, a radio personality who begins a podcast after stumbling upon Sadie’s story. The timeframes are different; when we begin the story Sadie is missing and while we hear Sadie’s narration of her journey we also follow McCray as he chases down after breadcrumbs and clues Sadie’s left behind.

I won’t say much more than that about what happens to Sadie, what McCray finds, or whether Mattie’s killer is found—but the hunt for answers is just as thrilling as it is disturbing and chilling. I appreciated this story just for how glued to it I was, but also because of its indictment of the people and systems that perpetuated the abuse and situations Mattie and Sadie were exposed to. I also thought the podcast was such an interesting method of storytelling, especially along with questioning the motives and enjoyment behind true crime podcasts. (Yet another one I strongly recommend checking the TW for before reading).

12. Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo

Sometimes a family is an undercover spy Dad and a highly trained assassin Mom in a (fake) marriage of convenience, and their mind-reading adopted daughter and clairvoyant dog! And it’s so important to me, personally! Full of satirical humor and numerous spy-movie references and puns, action-packed fight scenes, and totally charming (fake)family bonding moments, Spy x Family is just an absolute blast to read and I’ve fallen in love with the Forger family.

I’ve read through the current volumes out so the whole series is worth checking out, but the first one kicks off with a bang and is one of the funniest and cutest volumes to date. Even more exciting, it was recently announced that the manga is being adapted into an anime, so it’s a great time to pick up this series before it hits your t.v screens.

13. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

I adore Arthurian legend retellings, and this! one! A fantastic blend between Arthurian legend, Southern history and dark academia, and paranormal fantasy. This one feels hard to review or sum up because there’s so much going on, but one of the main reasons I loved it is how Bree is centered within the story: she’s grieving the loss of her mother and is allowed to be sad, angry and messy; she’s falling for a boy and gets to have big, fluffy Feelings, and she’s given room to be (rightfully) angry about the secret society that’s elitist and racist that’s she’s determined to take down.

Bree is a character written with so much love and is given space in this book to feel so much—and also kick ass—and I could just feel that as a reader which made it so enjoyable to read. There is, of course, an action-filled plot with lots of twists, and Sel, resident bad boy, is fun as a foil to sunshine boy Nick (and I of course adore his emo ass). I’m so excited for the sequel, Bloodmarked, to come out this November!

14. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Singing Hills Cycle…no one is doing it like you!! This series features novellas that can be read in any order, and this is the second installment and my (current) favorite. I recommend checking out The Empress of Salt and Fortune as well since it’s also incredible, but this one is my beloved. (There’s also a third one coming out that I can’t wait to read!) This series follows Chih, a cleric who travels the empire of Ahn gathering stories and histories.

The way this series plays with truth, history, and stories is so incredible and captivating. In this story, Chih encounters three shape-shifting tiger sisters and—while trying to avoid getting eaten—they share their version of the story of the human scholar and the tigress that fell in love with her, while the tigers share *their* version of the same tale. Lush and stunning prose carries the story and fills it with profound yearning and love (and some of my favorite quotes of all time), and it’ll be a compelling, if unique, love story you won’t soon forget.

15. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

TIHYLTTW is an electrifying sci-fi adventure melded with an unexpectedly exquisite sapphic romance and I’m still so obsessed. Enemy agents Red and Blue are endlessly entertaining foils who seek to one-up each other in a centuries long game of cat-and-mouse. What they couldn’t predict…the fragile love that begins to bloom when they begin a correspondence.

THEY INVENTED ENEMIES-TO-LOVERS, ACTUALLY! The way they play with each other, tease one another, using wordplay and wit while they orchestrate entire wars against each other…*chef’s kiss* oh my GOD. Did I understand what was happening for like 90% of this??? NO! Did I need to??? Absolutely not! What I did get was what mattered — these two write the most achingly, devastatingly romantic love letters I will ever read! The plot-twists….I was YELLING. It’s just all So. Good. okay? God, writing this makes me want to read it again.

16. Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

This was a retelling of my favorite obscure fairytale (The Goose Girl) so I was already excited about that, and THEN it’s also from the villainous maid’s perspective, so basically this book was made for me and I was destined to love it…which I did. 

Vanja was raised by her godmothers Death and Fortune, so she’s got a lot going on from page one. Then she gets cursed, and needs to break it if she doesn’t want to turn into precious jewels. But, to break it, she has to make reparations and give back what she stole—not just jewels, but trickier things, you know, like the girl whose identity she took, too…

Funny and heart-breaking in equal measures and filled with heists, sleuthing, and even a bit of romance (a romance with characters on the ace spectrum no less!!), Little Thieves was a masterclass in world-building, snarky characters, and the occasional splash of emotional devastation thrown in for good measure. Supported by a wonderful cast of our main Bad(ass) Girl, the “human embodiment of a pocket ledger,” a sarcastic shape-shifter, and more, there’s really nothing *not* to love in this dark fantasy.

17. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

2021 was the year of graphic novels and manga for me, and this is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read to date, and extra exciting to me since it was published by a local Mpls author ❤

This graphic novel follows a young teen as he struggles with how to tell his mother that he’s gay—is there even a Vietnamese word to describe what he’s experiencing? The storytelling and art of this novel are stunning, and I was especially captivated by the illustrations of the fantasy side of the story; Tien reads stories with his family from books borrowed from the library and we get to see the illustrations for those stories along with Tien’s reality in a gorgeous juxtaposition. A memorable story about identity and belonging, family and how we communicate and relate to one another, and a little bit of magic.

18. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Everybody clap for the multiverse! (We love Spider-Man: No Way Home in this house) In this multi-verse dystopian adventure, Cara can travel to worlds where her mirror selves no longer exist. Cara has already died on 372 worlds and she’s fighting to prevent herself from becoming number 373 as she uncovers conspiracies about the traversing system and finds her past and present colliding. I listened to this on audiobook and was absolutely fascinated by the story; voiced beautifully by Nicole Lewis, the audiobook brought to life this mind-bending story that holds a powerful examination of identity and privilege.

This was one of those stories where I couldn’t predict what would happen next, and even the general sense of where this story was going was cast in shadow. This made for such a fun experience though, and the world-building was just. insane. There’s sapphic romance, heart-pounding fight scenes, and so much more packed into this sci-fi/dystopian adventure.

19. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

To preface, I LOVE a good romance—whether it be a romance novel or within a fantasy novel or some other genre. With that in mind, the reason I loved Radio Silence was because it was very decidedly Not about any specific romantic relationship. (There is a demi character in a relationship but that’s not about the Plot at all).

Radio Silence follows Frances, a girl who’s academically driven, and has Plans For The Future. She begins to feel more herself, and find herself, after beginning a friendship with her neighborhood friend, Aled.

However, there is of course drama…Aled’s sister is missing and Frances might know something about it, Aled and Frances’ friendships hits speed bumps, and Frances is for the first time in her life unsure about what to do next and who she is.  I just really adored this story because it was vulnerable and genuine, and it really captured that teenage (and adult) sense of feeling lost and confused, as well as the beauty of finding an affirming and loving friendship. So all in all, just a gorgeous YA novel that focuses on self-discovery and friendship in a super precious way. (Also, I cried a lot). 

20. Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

So I’m kind of cheating by including both Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country here since I read them both this year, but the sequel was my favorite. This duology has an atmospheric story with a folklore feel and I adored both books. Silver in the Wood follows Tobias, the “Wild Man” of the Greenhollow wood. He’s tethered to the forest, unmoored in time, and living a simple life taking care of his cottage, his cat, and his dryads. That is, until young, handsome, and too-curious-for-his-own-good Henry Silver moves into Greenhollow Hall and everything changes. Old secrets are unburied, and dark magic is awake in the woods.

This duology is so quiet and understated, it’d be easy to let it slip under your radar. However, just like ivy, it has a way of creeping its way into places and I promise it will sneak right into your heart. The first book is from Tobias’ POV, and the second one is from Silver’s POV. Though I loved both books, I have a soft spot for Silver, with all of his angst and drama, and that’s why the sequel — Drowned Country — is my favorite of the two. It might be odd to describe a fantasy duology as “magical,” but this duology captures and embodies “magical” in that folklore sense of wonder, cottagecore-if-it-wanted-to-kill-you way. There is such a sense of timelessness, wonder, and a feeling of unchartered territory that’ll be forever unknowable.

The books are understated, yet completely captivating and unique. I felt swept away by both novels; they’re filled with such tenderness (if it wasn’t made clear, Tobias and Silver have A Thing going on) even in a world filled with dark magic and dangerous creatures. At the same time, the world is filled with a sense of curiosity and beauty and love for the world and all its magic — good or bad. The characters are full of individuality and personality that makes them impossible not to love in all their imperfection, the worldbuilding is ethereal, and the duology is, as a whole, utterly enthralling and delightful.

21. Displacement by Kiki Hughes

The first graphic novel I read in 2021 was this gem, and I’m glad to bring it back up again since it was such a beautiful one! Displacement follows Kiku as she’s unexpectedly pulled back in time to the same internment camp her Grandmother was forcibly relocated to during WW2. 

Not only is Displacement visually stunning, using a color scheme that evokes the imagery and scenery of the American west where the story takes place, the story is compelling and moving. Kiku experiences life as her Grandmother did, delving into a history oft-forgotten and purposefully hidden.

Kiku travels in time several times, ultimately creating a narrative about intergenerational trauma, family history and healing, and how the scars of the past ripple forward. A strong indictment against xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes, Displacement parallels the past to the present, framing the story of Kiku and her family within a broader narrative about community, civil liberties, and resistance.

Sooo….that’s all 21 books! (Everybody clap for me actually managing to finish this post because I was reallyyy starting to think I wouldn’t). I hope you get a chance to read some of these gems, and I’d love for you to share with me some of your favorites from 2021!! Thanks for reading 💕

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