Before I tackle my Top 5 2021 Releases, I present to you my Top 5 Backlist Reads of 2021! Anything that didn’t release in 2021 is eligible for this list, though I have limited myself to one book per series to give more authors some air. These books are in no particular order – it was hard enough just narrowing the list to five!
I’ll link to full reviews below if you want more indepth thoughts, and the covers will link to Goodreads if you want to put them on your own TBR!
THE LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS by Joe Abercrombie
I finally read the entire FIRST LAW trilogy this year, and after some debate, chose book three for this list. A series that emphasizes characters above all else, it’s a grimdark tale that gets you to root for a cast full of characters you would be hard pressed to label “good” by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, AND YET, you sit there rooting for them, from the warrior Logen with his murderous past to the the completely-out-of-his-depth Jezal. THE LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS even has an ending that leaves characters with a murky, uncertain future, and I was still here for it. I was endlessly fascinated with these characters and their journeys and an author who refused to let you think anything in the world can be wrapped up in a nice, neat, happily-ever-after bow. Reading more in the FIRST LAW world is on the list for next year, and yes, I fully realize the emotional trauma I’m handing to myself with such a commitment.
HOLLOW EMPIRE by Sam Hawke
HOLLOW EMPIRE missed out on being in my Top Five 2020 list by a handful of weeks; it released in December 2020 but I didn’t read it until January. When I did, it instantly became a contender for this list. A sequel to another favorite, CITY OF LIES, it’s a fantasy espionage political thriller that follows a poison-taster and a spy as they work to prevent another attack against the city. Imagine, if you will, the equivalent of the Olympics being held in a fantasy city, meaning there are all sorts of visiting dignitaries and tourists, all potentially enflaming old rivalries during what is supposed to be a celebration of coexistence, if not outright peace. Kalina (the spy) has to navigate political channels and diplomatic events to figure out who might hold a grudge, while Jovan the poison-taster is trying to convince people there’s an actual threat and that he’s not suffering from paranoid delusions. It’s a tense and mysterious story, whose only real flaw is that it left me wanting more books in this world!
THE THIEF WHO WASN’T THERE by Michael McClung
I had a tough time choosing which Amra Thetys adventure to choose for this list, but I ironically chose the one that didn’t have Amra Thetys in it. At the end of the previous book, Amra goes missing, leaving her lover Holgren to figure out where she went and how to get her back. You know that trope about a mage who is so powerful they lose their empathy with fellow humans because they’re beneath them? Now imagine that as a POV character. Holgren has long professed to a dark past and that Amra grounds him, but this book shows the proof of that. Holgren absolutely does not care who gets hurt in his quest to get Amra back, making it for one of the darker morally grey books I’ve read in a long time. But this whole series has been a delight, and if you like fantasy thief tales, jump on board!
ILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
ILLUMINAE has long been one of those “someday” books that I hoped to put at the top of my TBR, and this was the year I finally tackled it! And I have to say, I was not prepared for the tense space thriller I got (which is fully to the book’s credit). Through the use of chat transcripts, emails, computer code entries, and more, ILLUMINAE deftly paints the picture of a handful of ships trying to escape a pursuing warship, only to gradually come to the realization that a more deadly enemy may lurk within the fleet itself. It’s a page-turner of a read with some very dark turns (especially for YA story), and I cannot wait to read the rest of the trilogy.
CROWNBREAKER by Sebastien de Castell
Last year, SPELLSLINGER was one of my top backlist reads, so it’s only fitting that the final book in the series closes out this year’s list. CROWNBREAKER was a satisfying conclusion that saw Kellan use all his skills and tricks to finally take down the mastermind who has been pulling all the strings since book one. It was one of those finales that brought back plenty of familiar faces from past adventures, all standing with Kellen for the final confrontation. If you like your adventure on the fun side (with an occasional splash of darkness), with a character forced to rely on his wits to outfox more powerful opponents than himself, you owe it to yourself to check out the SPELLSLINGER books.