Favorites of 2021: Novels and Novellas

Neon Hemlock Novellas 2021It appears I’ve read 60 books this year, which might be a new record for me, and I might even manage to sneak in one or two more before the year is done! As with the past several years, I want to highlight some of my favorites reads, starting with novels and novellas. (I’ll put together separate posts for collections and anthologies, and short stories and novelettes – they deserve their own space to shine!) But to kick things off, in no particular order, here are my favorites of 2021!

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

The story takes the basic premise of a wife discovering her husband having an affair, but throws in a speculative twist by having the other woman be her clone – not just genetically, but also secretly developed from her research. A few of the early story beats felt somewhat predictable, but the story ultimately went in unexpected directions, providing a satisfying and unsettling exploration of identity and self-determination, and a look the chilling mindset of a person who feels entitled to be the center of another person’s world. Evelyn is an excellent character, flawed and spiky, and Martine has a wonderful arc as she grows from a clone to become more fully her own person.

Dealbreaker by L.X. Beckett

A sequel to Gamechanger, one of my favorites reads last year, which picks up several years later with many of the same characters while introducing new ones and vastly expanding the world. Beckett’s writing is smooth, their plot satisfyingly twisty, and they strike a perfect balance between carrying forward familiar elements from the first novel and making everything feel so much bigger, upping the stakes by introducing alien races to the already fraught situation on Earth as humanity continues it recovery from near environmental collapse.

The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler

You’ll see Neon Hemlock’s titles turn up several times on these lists, and with good cause – they are absolutely killing it with their publications! I adored all four of the novellas they published this year, starting with The Necessity of Stars. Tobler’s prose is always lush and gorgeous and sweeps me up. The opening paragraph of this one took my breath away and I pretty much stayed breathless until I put the novella down. It’s a first contact story, as the main character discovers an alien in her garden, but it’s also a story about aging, memory, perception, seeing and being seen. The idea of who we see and who we value as a society, as well as the things we refuse to see, is threaded throughout the story, which manages to be quiet and lovely and vast and cosmic all at once.

A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed

A sequel to Beneath the Rising, another one of my favorite reads last years, rejoining Johnny and Nick shortly after the events of the first novel as they’re thrown back together by the fresh threat of cosmic horror. The stakes and scope of the threat are ramped up here to feel more global, with additional tension caused by the fallout from the first book between the characters. I’m a sucker for good cosmic horror (no pun intended), which this is, and the characters are a joy to spend time with.

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

The novel looks at the impact of a new technology meant to help people focus and be a better version of themselves on one particular family. Pinsker does an excellent job with small-scale and personal stakes, showing the human side of a life-changing technology through characters the reader immediately cares about. The conflict between the members of the family feel real, relatable, and is very well done, and the novel also takes time to examine some of the larger social issues like who has access to technology, who gets left behind, and the ethics (or lack thereof) of corporations, while never losing sight of the characters at the story’s heart.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

The novel opens as main character Vern escapes from the cult-like commune where she was raised and goes on the run with her newborn twins. The story takes several unexpected twists as Vern builds a new life for herself, getting progressively weirder in the best of ways. The slow introduction of the more fantastical and supernatural elements is incredibly well-done, and the writing is powerful, painful, and lovely as the story explores gender, relationships, the reclamation of one’s self, found family, evolution, and transformation.

All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

This is another novel that to my mind took several unexpected turns and went in directions I didn’t predict, but ended up in a highly satisfying place. Slatter blends a Gothic atmosphere and set up – a lonely house, an orphaned young woman, an unwanted marriage, dark secrets – with a fairy tale feel as Miren uncovers the truth behind the legends passed down through the generations about her family’s wealth and their bond with the sea. The stories nested within the novel add to the overall richness, making the world feel deeper and more lived-in, while also adding to the feeling of reading a fairy tale.

Engines of Oblivion by Karen Osborne

A sequel to Architects of Memory, which deals with the fallout of the first book, and like the other two sequels mentioned here so far, vastly expands the world of the first novel, digging further into the interstellar war, greedy corporation, and shadowy factions moving behind the scenes. The writing is sharp and evocative, and Osborne doesn’t pull punches, putting her characters in increasingly brutal situations that never feel gratuitous, but rather an inevitable reflection of the unfair world they inhabit. While the world may be grim, her characters never cease fighting, and they do the best with terrible situations, giving the novel a grace note of hope.

Chosen and the Beautiful CoverThe Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

A take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which introduces magic to the glittering high society world in a way that makes it feel as though of it always should have been there. Multiple forms of power are explored, along with the question who has access to it, and all the machinations that go into maintaining it. Vo’s version of the novel focuses on Jordan Baker instead of Nick Carraway. Brought to America by a missionary as a very young child, she remembers almost nothing of her home. Raised in wealth, almost as a sister to Daisy Buchanan, she has all the privilege and access money can buy, yet her race still sets her apart, adding a further layer of depth to her character as she struggles with her identity, where she belongs, and where she wants to belong. The voice of the novel is perfect and Vo captures the feel of the original while making it wholly her own. The writing is gorgeous and the characters are all spot on with their conflicting desires, their struggles to define themselves, the bits of themselves they show to the world, the bits they keep private, and all the spaces in-between the two where they risk losing themselves.

And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

I mentioned that Neon Hemlock is killing it with their releases this year. So is Premee Mohamed. In addition to releasing A Broken Darkness, she also released three novellas this year, and while I haven’t had a chance to read These Lifeless Things yet, I adored And What Can We Offer You Tonight and The Annual Migration of Clouds (which I reviewed here.) And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a beautifully-written story of a murdered brothel worker who returns as a ghost seeking revenge on the client who killed her. It looks at the way money and power allow certain people to commit violence without consequences and how lack of access to justice, resources, and many other things the wealthy take for granted, can in itself be a form of violence. It also provides a powerful look at the idea (and idealization) of victims of violence and the question of who is allowed to be angry and seek revenge, versus who is expected to be passive, pure, “rise above it” and “not sink to their level”.

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Can a novel both exist within a genre and be a love letter to it? Yes. Much like the original Scream helped reinvigorate the slasher genre, while poking fun at it, being a loving homage to it, and being a satisfying slasher movie in and of itself, My Heart is a Chainsaw is a tribute to the genre, a stunning example of it, and moves beyond the borders of the genre as well. Jade is a super horror fan, the weird kid who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t really care to either. She knows the rules of slasher horror inside and out, and when a mysterious death occurs in her town occurs, she’s thrilled, certain her purpose is to help the new girl in town realize her destiny as the final girl who survives the horror and faces down the killer. Jade is a wonderful character, the deep-dive into slasher lore is highly satisfying, and the slow reveal of information and the uncertainty maintained until the end is incredibly well-done. The novel also manages to be heartbreaking and poignant on top of everything, and I can’t wait for the sequel due out next year!

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig

It’s a classic trope of the horror genre to have a character move back to their small hometown and face a dark past or an ancient evil. (In fact, you’ll see it show up at least twice more just on this list, and it’s done incredibly well each time!) The cyclical nature of evil, inter-generational trauma, the idea that we carry our ghosts with us and can never outrun our pasts is a staple of horror, and Wendig adds an extra level of weirdness here, setting the trope askew in a way that makes it feel completely fresh. The book is fast-paced, full of eerie imagery and ideas, and all the unsettling threads and questions about what’s really going on in the small, unnaturally accident-prone town Nathan Graves returns to with his family are expertly woven together, building to a satisfying conclusion.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

I knew very little about this book going in other than that it was a highly-anticipated, much buzzed about horror title. Based on the cover alone, I expected a haunted house story. In a way, I was right, though not at all in the traditional sense. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t say more, other than I thoroughly enjoyed the read and the exploration of characters dealing with trauma, healing, and horror centered around the unsolved mystery of a child who disappeared years ago.

Summer Sons CoverSummer Sons by Lee Mandelo

I promised the trope of a character revisiting their traumatic past and coping with personal hauntings would return. Here, the haunting is very personal indeed, intimate almost, as Andrew follows his best friend Eddie to Nashville after his apparent suicide and tries to piece together what happened in the last months of his life. As children, Andrew and Eddie experienced something inexplicable, which linked them to the world of the dead. While Andrew tried to leave it behind, Eddie delved deeper, making it the focus of his graduate research. The novel is a slow burn, a deeply atmospheric Southern Gothic, and gloriously queer. Tension of multiple sorts simmers under the surface throughout, the characters are wonderful, and the ending is perfect – realistically messy and showing the lasting impact of hauntings and horror rather than tying up everything in a neat bow.

The Deer Kings by Wendy N. Wagner

The theme of excavating one’s past and coming face-to-face with old ghosts continues in The Deer Kings as Gary returns to the small town where he grew up, and to which he swore he would never return. As a child, Gary and a group of friends made an appeal to the Deer Saint to protect them from their violent and terrifying new neighbor. As an adult, Gary discovers that the mysterious Deer Kings club his parents were a part of seems to have grown and morphed into something (even more) sinister, leaving the whole town under its sway. The appeal to power by a group of innocent children parallels nicely with the appeal to power from a group of the town’s adults, showing the way intention and desire can twist a “haunting” that is neither good nor bad into something either good or evil. As frequently turns out to be the case – it is humans, not the supposed monsters, that are the problem. Along the way, the novel looks at themes of faith, sacrifice, and friendship, and the way each can shift with perspective and time. I’ll also throw in a bonus shout-out to Wagner’s novella, The Secret Skin, another Neon Hemlock novella, which sees a character return to their family home to confront old secrets, and blends a small town Gothic feel with hints of cosmic horror.

& This is How to Stay Alive by Shinga Njeri Kagunda

This gorgeously-written novella expands the author’s short story by the same name, published last year in Fantasy Magazine. Following her brother Baraka’s suicide, Kabi is given a potion that seemingly allows her to travel in time. Initially, she believes it will allow her to save Baraka, but she grows increasingly frustrated as it appears she isn’t able to shift events at all. The poetic, flowing nature of the language here is perfectly suited to the dream-like feel of a story that is both disconnected from time and deeply immersed in time s a cyclical concept. Memory, story, grief, art, how we act towards others when they’re with us and when they’re gone, what we carry forward into the future, and what we carry with us from the past, are all at play here in an exploration of what it means to be alive.

The Death of Jane Lawrence CoverThe Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Starling takes on tropes from Gothic romance and horror in this novel and flips them around. The story begins with Jane Schoringfield, a very practical and pragmatic woman, proposing marriage to Dr. Lawrence as a pure business arrangement. When he reluctantly agrees, Starling does a wonderful job with her first flip of the script, putting the marriage up front while maintaining a sense of sexual and romantic, will-they-or-won’t-they, tension between her characters. A dark past and family secrets are at play in Dr. Lawrence’s crumbling family estate, and Jane is determined to uncover the truth of what happened despite the lies, the obfuscation, and the doubt constantly thrown her way. The uncertainty over whether she can trust her own senses allows Jane to be both the mad woman in the attic and the new bride threatened by said mad woman at various points in the novel. Starling adds an extra element to the classic Gothic with the introduction of magic. Jane is a wonderful character, and the doubt cast on the truth of what’s really going on is incredibly well-done, carrying the suspense and mystery through to the very end.

Submergence by Arula Ratnakar

Published online at Clarkesworld, this novella explores the ethics of experimenting on living creatures and using them to medically benefit humans, as well as looking at the idea of memory persisting beyond death. Nithya is submerged in the memories of a woman named Noor in the course of investigating her death. The technology was originally designed to let people relive their own memories, meaning that in essence, Nithya becomes Noor when she is inside the memories, allowing the story to also explore questions of identity, self, and free will. It’s a fascinating look at medical and scientific ethics, while also being a satisfying science fictional mystery.

Arisudan by Rimi B. Chatterjee

Another novella published online, this time at Mithila Review, Arisudan is full of deep worldbuilding and has an epic feel as it moves backward and forward to visit multiple points in its characters’ lives, centered around a disaster on a submarine and the question of whether it was an accident or something more sinister. The story explores the idea of heroism and characters struggling to do the right thing according to their personal code and their understanding of the world. At the same time, it looks at corporate greed, humanity’s impact on the environment, and the weight of both societal expectations and family expectations, especially when it comes to gender. The novella packs in a lot, but does it effectively, and it’s an excellent read.

The Giants of the Violet Sea by Eugenia Triantafyllou

This was a great year for novellas published online. This one, appearing in Uncanny Magazine, shares some common themes with the Clarkesworld and Mithila Review novellas, including deep and evocative worldbuilding, a science fictional mystery, and an examination of humanity’s impact on the environment. In this case, the environment happens to be an alien planet, which adds an extra layer to the story’s depth. A sister returns home to unravel the mystery of her brother’s death and spend time with her mother, despite their fraught relationship. The story touches on complicated family relationships, the expectations parents put on their children, the expectations children can put on themselves, and how all those expectations can lead to resentment, sibling jealousy, and feelings of not belonging. With its setting, the story also touches on issues of colonization, humanity’s impact on the native life of a colonized planet, and the way colonists with the same roots can diverge into vastly people different peoples with different traditions in a short period of time, ultimately leading to tension and distrust.

So there you have it, my favorite novels and novellas published in 2021.But of course, I can’t leave it with just that, so I’ll close out with a few honorable mentions (aka non-genre works and works published prior to 2021):

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Lacey Lamar and Amber Ruffin
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Deep by Alma Katsu

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