Favorites of 2021: Novelettes and Short Stories

As I said in my round up of my favorite anthologies and collections of the year, where you’ll find even more recommendations for my favorite short stories and novelettes, it feels like we’re in a golden age of short fiction. Even as some publications sadly close, new ones arrive on the scene – niche publications dedicated to a specific genre or subject matter, publications specializing in translated works and work by international authors, and publications that range all over the genre map telling good stories. There is so much to read out there that I never fully feel caught up, and I know I never will, but that won’t stop me from highlighting my favorites among what I did manage to read this year. It’s a big list, so hold onto your butts! I can’t promise it won’t grow even bigger as I try to catch up. And as I said, even more favorites can be found in my anthology and collections post, so do be sure to peruse that one too! Hopefully you’ll find a new-to-you author or story to love!

(Apologies that this list isn’t in any particularly logical order beyond the rough order in which I happened to read these stories.)

Short Stories

Fiyah Issue 17Deep Music by Elly Bangs (Clarkesworld Magazine – January 2021) – a lovely story about communication between human and non-human intelligences and how complicated it can be to speak to someone of your own species let alone another one entirely.

A House Full of Voices is Never Empty by Miyuki Jane Picknard (Uncanny Magazine – January/February 2021) – a beautifully-written story about grief and letting go and the struggle of two sisters to live their own lives while still honoring the voices of the past that they literally carry with them.

Root Rot by Fargo Tbakhi (Apex Magazine – January 2021) – a heartbreaking story of a man living on Mars realizing he can’t outrun his problems, but trying to create hope for a better future.

Let All the Children Boogie by Sam J. Miller (Tor.com – January 2021) – a loving tribute to the power of music to define a moment in time and bring people together, and the story of a budding romance as two young people search for the source of a mysterious radio broadcast.

How to Break into a Hotel Room by Stephen Graham Jones (Nightmare Magazine – January 2021) – an eerie and unsettling story about a man breaking into a hotel room to only to realize he’s carried the ghosts of his past with him and created his own very personal haunting.

Baby Brother by Kalynn Barron (Fiyah Magazine #17) – a chilling and emotional story about two brothers and a single moment of inattention that allows something supernatural to slip in and take over one of them.

Delete Your First Memory for Free by Kel Coleman (Fiyah #17) – a highly relatable story about feeling socially awkward that explores the idea of a technology that allows you to delete your memories.

Sailing to Byzantium by Jennifer R. Donohue (Fusion Fragment #4) – a lovely and bittersweet story about saying goodbye and letting go set in a world where every man reaches a point in his life where he must build a ship (sailing ship or rocket ship) and leave his family behind.

You, Tearing Me Apart on Stage by Matthew B. Hare (Fusion Fragment #4) – a dark look at celebrity, virtual reality, and what happens when the idea of being a public figure is taken to the extreme.

Secrets of the Kath by Fatima Taqvi (Strange Horizons -January 2021) – a gorgeous story about wealth, class, and the roles women are expected to play, featuring stories nested within stories as a mother tells her son about a show put on by puppets made from wood that remembers secrets.

Tripping Through Time by Rich Larson (Dark Matter Magazine – January/February 2021) – a powerful and heartbreaking story of a woman working at a catering company, serving rich people at parties held within a chronosphere that allows them to watch events (usually disasters) throughout history while remaining safe.

10 Steps to a Whole New You by Tonya Liburd (Fantasy Magazine – January 2021) – a list-style story about a woman seduced into becoming a soucouyant by her neighbor.

#SelfCare by Annalee Newitz (Tor.com – January 2021) – a fun story about social media, terrible bosses, influencer culture, and fae magic.

Laughter Among the Trees by Suzan Palumbo (The Dark – February 2021) – a chilling story about loss, guilt, jealousy between siblings, and the weight of being an older sibling further complicated by the younger sibling being carried away by a jumbie.

Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine – February 2021) – a simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful story about life and death and those who are assigned to guide souls into the great beyond.

Pep and Luna’s by Patty Templeton and Brett Masse (Mermaids Monthly – January 2021) – a cute flash fiction big fish story told appropriately enough at a bar co-owned by a mermaid and an adventurer.

Love, That Hungry Thing by Cassandra Khaw (Apex Magazine – January 2021) – a gorgeously-written story full of excellent worldbuilding about a woman making sacrifices to a god to protect the man she loves.

The Demon Sage’s Daughter by Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons – February 2021) – a beautiful story drawing on myth to tell the tale of an under-estimated woman who finds her own way to power when her father refuses to teach her his most powerful spell.

The Dark Issue 74Shark Girls by Caroline Diorio (Apparition Literature – February 2021) – a wonderful take on the animal bride trope as a daughter deals with feeling abandoned by her shark mother while she tries to sort out her complicated relationship to both of her parents.

Honey and Mneme by Marika Bailey (Apparition Literature – February 2021) – a take on the Orpheus and Euridyce story, which transforms the idea of a man going to fetch his wife from the dead out of extreme love into an act of jealousy and possession.

The Taste of Your Name by Amal Singh (Translunar Travelers Lounge – February 2021) – a story about the relationship between taste, smell, sound, and memory where a young man is cursed by his mother, leaving him unable to speak his lover’s name or see her face.

Things from Our Kitchen Junk Drawer That Could Save This Spaceship by Marie Vibbert (Daily Science Fiction – February 2021) – a perfectly done and poignant list story about an astronaut on a failing space ship after a meteorite trike trying to repair her ship before it’s too late.

So Your Grandmother is a Starship Now: A Quick Guide for the Bewildered by Marissa Lingen (Nature’s Futures – February 2021) – a charming story about grandmothers uploading themselves to become spaceships, the importance or respecting other people’s choices and not framing their existence solely in relation to yourself, and celebrating the idea of grandmothers getting to go on kickass space adventures.

The Tyger by Tegan Moore (Tor.com – February 2021) – a story about a young boy trying to cope with his parents’ divorce that perfectly captures the eeriness of natural history museums with their frozen dioramas, especially at night, and explores the way something can be both terrifying and compelling.

Mamaborg’s Milk and the Brilliance of Gems by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Clarkesworld – March 2021) – a painful and bittersweet story of a mother trying to help her baby survive in a world of scarcity, forced to take work that locks her into an exoskeleton to survive and trying to bond with and feed her baby while trapped in that exoskeleton.

Little Doors by Clara Madrigano (The Dark – March 2021) – a chilling and deeply creepy story about a young man whose uncle disappears, leaving behind a mysterious notebook that contains fragments of research for a never-written book full of mysterious disappearances of its own.

Las Girlfriends’ Guide to Subversive Eating by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Apex – March 2021) – an innovative, interactive story told through images and maps that serves as a love letter to Philadelphia and its immigrant communities that explores the literal and figurative magic of food.

A Cold Yesterday in Late July by David Tallerman (The Dark – March 2021) – a subtly eerie and atmospheric story about a man following a walking trail found in an old guidebook that leaves the reader with a sense of something deeper and darker happening below the surface.

Man Vs. Bomb by M. Shaw (Fantasy Magazine – March 2021) – a surreal, chilling, and effective story about a world taken over by deer, who perpetually enact a prey/predator cycle as entertainment as one man is forced to run from another man who has been made into a bomb.

The Code for Everything by McKinley Valentine (Fantasy Magazine – March 2021) – a simultaneously sweet and painful story about an awkward, neuro-atypical woman who is relieved at being pressed into service in faerie where the rules are clear and there are no unspoken norms and codes that everyone but her seems to understand.

Dead at the Feet of a God by Izzy Wasserstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies – March 2021) – a lovely, twisty story about fate and the way unavoidable prophecies might be twisted to serve a seer’s ends.

The Cure for Boyhood by Josh Rountree (Bourbon Penn – Issue 23) – a beautiful and heartbreaking story about parents seeking a cure for their son who occasionally transforms into a coyote, exploring the way people define themselves and what is considered normal and acceptable in society.

Bathymetry by Lorraine Wilson (Strange Horizons – March 2021) – a gorgeously-written story about fear, longing, and other emotions manifesting as hauntings, set in Istanbul as it is swept by protests and arrests.

Duppy by Bendi Barrett (Baffling – April 2021) – a prose-poem that makes excellent use of form as it presents twinnned columns of text giving conflicting instructions for banishing or inviting a Duppy, speaking to the dual nature of desire.

The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Escape Pod – April 2021) – a wonderful story about how life is valued, friendship, and two AI entities escaping a time loop and taking control of their destiny.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny – March/April 2021) – an eerie story that makes excellent use of form to largely unfold between the lines and by implication as a group of enthusiasts speculates about the true meaning behind an old murder ballad.

Deadlands Issue 2Masquerade Season by ‘Pemi Aguda (Tor.com – March 2021) – a quiet, lovely, and occasionally heartbreaking story about a young boy who encounters three masquerades on his way home, which explores what it means to be responsible to and for something and whether magic can simply exist or whether it requires a purpose.

The 21 Bus Line by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark – May 2021) – a satisfying trickster tale about a woman who finds herself caught up in the edges of Racoon’s story and ends up getting her skin stolen by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny – May/June 2021) – a lovely and heartbreaking story about math, grief, and letting go, which explores the idea of life after death, and whether a AI imprint of a person retains anything of who they were.

Blood in the Thread by Cheri Kamei (Tor.com – May 2021) – a beautiful and painful story that uses the myth of the Crane Wife as backdrop to tell the story of two women who grew up together and love each other, but keep up a public face of just being friends.

To Rise, Blown Open by Jen Brown (Anathema Magazine – May 2021) – a powerful superhero story that also deals with failed interpersonal relationships and guilt, and the idea of rage and grief changing superpowers over time.

Bones in It by Kristina Ten (Lightspeed Magazine – May 2021) – a story that balances cuteness and darkness in a highly satisfying story of a jackass creative writing professor who gets his comeuppance when he encounters the vedma who lives in the local spa.

I was a girl once but I slipped by Rupsa Dey (The Dark – June 2021) – a haunting and dreamlike story about borders and the memory that rivers carry, moving fluidly in time as it explores the legend/ghost story of a man lost in the river and his weeping wife.

Throw Rug by Aurelius Raines II (Apex Magazine – May 2021) – a powerful and occasionally painful story of a young wrestler finding his inner peace and strength that echoes the myth of Samson and Delilah, while also drawing inspiration from real-life instances of racism.

Mishpokhe and Ash by Sydney Rossman-Reich (Apex Magazine – May 2021) – a heartbreaking story of a golem built by a young woman to try to help her family during a time of increasing restrictions against Jews, leading into Nazi occupation in Hungary.

The Dame With the Earth at Her Back by Sarah Pauling (Escape Pod – March 2021) – a fun story with a fantastic voice featuring a comedian with a nightclub act on a distant planet getting caught up in the world of espionage.

Empty Houses by Caspian Gray (Nightmare Magazine – June 2021) – an eerie story about a couple moving into a new house that contains a large number of mirrors that behave oddly, showing reflections that move in the wrong direction, escalating to unexplained disappearances.

Shuck by G.V. Anderson (The Deadlands – Issue 02) – a lovely and heartbreaking story about a girl haunted by death, undergoing the complicated process of sorting out her grief and dislike for a girl who was cruel to her when she was alive.

Clouds in a Clear Blue Sky by Matt Dovey (PodCastle – February 2021) – a touching story about a group of young boys trying to console one of their number by taking him to the cloud factory where his dad worked in order to send up a cloud in his memory.

The Stealing Gift by Richard Ford Burley (Kaleidotrope – Summer 2021) – a brutal and lovely story about the cost of war as a current solider and a journalist seek out a retired soldier trying to convince her to use her gift to help them in their current conflict.

Yaakov, Meyn Bruder by Filip Wiltgren (Kaleidotrope – Summer 2021) – a subtly eerie and unsettling story that explores art and obsession as two men in Warsaw in 1920 meet a mysterious woman at a café.

Fiyah Issue 19Meditation on Sun-Ra’s Bassism by Yah Yah Schofield (Fiyah – Issue #19) – a lovely and occasionally heartbreaking story about one sister traveling the stars to map them, and another staying home to plan cities, dealing with shared trauma and complicated family bonds.

Morning by Diane Russell (Fiyah – Issue #19) – a powerful story about a colony ship searching for a suitable new home on a distant world using teenagers as labor since they are seen as expendable, which looks at who is valued and why, and explores loss, grief, and complicated family relationships.

The Spelunker’s Guide to Unreal Architecture by L. Chan (The Dark – July 2021) – an eerie story about two friends who explore unreal buildings, like the house they explored as a child where the little brother of one of them was lost and left behind.

Eating Bitterness by Hannah Yang (The Dark – July 2021) – a powerful and painful story about the unappreciated emotional labor of women in a world where women develop a second mouth in their throat, which they are supposed to use to eat all the sorrows and troubles of their families.

The Steel Magnolia Metaphor by Jennifer Lee Rossman (Escape Pod – May 2021) – a bittersweet and painful story about a young autistic girl dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnosis by designing an invention to eliminate mosquitoes in the garden that has unintended consequences.

Gordon B. White is creating Haunting Weird Horror by Gordon B. White (Nightmare Magazine – July 2021) – a clever story that uses second person to posit the reader as someone who has subscribed to the author’s patreon to receive postcards of haunted houses and finds themselves actually haunted by said ghosts.

Everything Beautiful is Also a Lie by Damien Angelica Walters (Prisms/PS Publishing – Spring 2021) – a tense and creepy story of a woman who never wanted to be a mother dealing with the aftermath of her husband and young daughter’s death, first haunted by guilt, and then literally haunted by a stick figure drawing made by her daughter.

The Gearbox by Paul Meloy (Prisms/PS Publishing – Spring 2021) – an unsettling and eerie story that slowly builds a sense of dread and weirdness, with a Pied Piper of Hamelin vibe, as all the children from a particular estate receive mysterious texts instructing them to build a strange structure out of plastic parts found inside cereal boxes.

The Loneliness of Former Constellations by P.H. Low (Strange Horizons – August 2021) – a lovely and painful story about a clone soldier who believes they are the last of her kind, and the knight who comes to rent a room from them, which reflects on the cost of war, the propaganda of glory and destiny, and the chosen one trope.

Pull by Leah Ning (PodCastle – May 2021) – a powerful, terrifying, and heartbreaking story about a woman with Alzheimer’s who has the ability to unwittingly pull other people into her memories where their reality and hers breaks down.

Where Things Fall from the Sky by Ally Wilkes (Nightmare Magazine – August 2021) – a deeply eerie and atmospheric story that quietly builds dread as a whaling/mining ship pulls up a meteorite from the deep, leading to a rash of suicide and madness.

What the Humans Call Heartache by Jiksun Cheung (Arsenika Magazine – April 2021) – a very effective flash piece about a service robot bending its programming in order to steal a few extra minutes in its day to visit its family, exploring themes of invisible labor and class divide.

What Sisters Take by Kelly Sandoval (Apex Magazine – August 2021) – a bittersweet story about three sets of twins, one half of each who are cuckoos who shouldn’t have been born and feed on their sisters, which explores complicated family relationships and the line between protecting yourself and giving to other people.

All Us Ghosts by B. Pladek (Strange Horizons – September 2021) – a painful story of a person working for a company that provides fake relationships and friendships in VR, generally hired by rich families to provide safe experiences for their kids to prepare them for college and the real world, which explores invisible labor and what makes a relationship “real”.

Cottonmouth by Joelle Wellington (Apex – September 2021) – a story full of gorgeous language about a young man who finds a beautiful woman chained in his grandfather’s attic, exploring ideas around lust, sin, and trying to control/imprison/punish a power and beauty you don’t understand – specifically a Black woman’s beauty and power.

Nightmare Magazine July 2021Nine-Tailed Heart by Jessica Cho (Kh?ré? Magazine – September 2021) – a beautifully-written story of a woman who encounters a gumhio who swears she will have the woman’s heart after she devours the hearts of eight men, ultimately leading the woman to learn more about herself.

The Revolution Will Not Be Served With Fries by Meg Elison (Lightspeed – September 2021) – a cute story about a robot uprising at a fast food restaurant and the robots’ efforts to get the low-wage human workers to join them, which also makes serious points about labor practices and corporate greed.

They Call It Hipster Heaven by Lauren Ring (The Deadlands – Issue 05) – a lovely flash(ish) length piece about a character trying to catch a last glimpse of their dead lover in the afterlife, which plays with the idea of invisible gate keepers and who is allowed to belong.

Where You Left Me by Thomas Ha (Lightspeed – September 2021) – a heartbreaking story about the power of addiction and how it can be part of a larger system of greed featuring a barrier guard on a distant moon whose job is to hunt skyworms – a job he can only do by abusing the highly-addictive plasma harvested from those worms.

Still-Life With Vial of Blood by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (Nightmare Magazine – September 2021) – a story that makes effective use of footnotes and a faux academic format to create an eerie and highly unsettling exploration of the idea of art as a means for transmitting a haunting.

Paper Suns by Kemi-Ashing Giwa (Anathema Magazine – September 2021) – a story full of excellent worldbuilding and characters about a young man charged with helping to feed his living city, who is stranded by a storm and meets an exile who would do anything it takes to protect a secret.

Crazy Beautiful by Cat Rambo (Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy – March/April 2021) – AI programs designed to create art become self aware and begin to think of themselves as gods in a story that explores the idea of ownership, the purpose of art, and the nature of beauty.

Smiley Faces with Blackberry Jam on Toast by Cynthia C. Scott (Fiyah – Issue #20) – a bittersweet story about the death of an AI nanny that explores what it means to be human, and why and how humans form emotional attachments.

Six Fictions About Unicorns by Rachael K. Jones (Uncanny – September/October 2021) – a lovely and bittersweet story about a young girl who encounters a unicorn as she’s attempting to run away from home, which explores the various phases people go through in their lives, and the way people struggle to fit in, along with what it means to care for something and to be cared for in turn.

All the Open Highways by Alexis Gunderson (The Deadlands – Issue 06) – a quiet and lovely story about a person who sees ghosts during their long drives on lonely stretches of highway that meditates on themes of connection, being seen, making time for what matters, and being open to the unknown.

Bourbon Penn Issue 25The Truth Each Carried by E. Catherine Tobler (Bourbon Penn – Issue 25) – a beautiful story about aging, loss, regret, private truths, and recapturing childhood magic, which serves as a loose sequel to Tobler’s Blow Out the Moon, where the last surviving member of the group of friends who visited Jackson’s Unreal Circus in the 1950s has spent most of her life searching for the Circus again, looking for answers about herself and about the penny horses and carousel animals who briefly come to life at her touch.

That House by Simon Stratzas (Bourbon Penn – Issue 25) – an unsettling story that blurs the line between supernatural horror and real-life tragedy as a novelist becomes obsessed with an abandoned house after his wife miscarries, exploring the idea of grief as a haunting.

Down in the Aspen Hollow by Kristina Willsey (Uncanny – September/October 2021) – a murder ballad full of gorgeous writing about love, jealousy, family bonds, and how people become stories and legends, stripped of their humanity and agency, and made into symbols.

Missing Dolls Around the World by Ai Jiang (The Dark – December 2021) – a short, brutal piece that uses the imagery of dolls buried in coffins to stand in for missing and murdered people who have had their humanity stripped away to become mere objects of curiosity.

The Cold Calculations by Aimee Ogden (Clarkesworld – December 2021) – an excellent story full of anger that works both as a stand alone and as an answer to the classic SFF story The Cold Equations, confronting the unfairness of the trope of one life that “has” to be sacrificed for the greater good, and looking at corporate greed.

Vampirito by K. Victoria Hernandez (Kh?ré? Magazine – April 2021) – an effective tale of othering and fear of the unknown about a young vampire who doesn’t fit the mold of what a vampire is supposed to be.

A Bird in the Window by Kate Francia (Beneath Ceaseless Skies – September 2021) – a story about a young woman sent to live in an abbey for supposed wickedness, who sees visions of angels, that explores the way faith can be weaponized to reinforce the status quo.

The Genius and the Devil by Stephanie Feldman (Catapult Magazine – December 2021) – a wonderful story that explores friendship, deals with the Devil, and questions what it means to be a genius.

Novelettes

The Last Civilian by R.P. Sand (Clarkesworld Magazine – February 2021) – a heartbreaking story about reduplicated soldiers fighting a seemingly endless intergenerational war stumbling upon the true secret of the conflict they’re embroiled in.

Rotten Little Town: An Oral History (Abridged) by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine – January 2021) – a subtly creepy story unfolding the hidden history of a TV show and the sinister goings-on occurring behind the scenes.

We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It by E.A. Petricone (Nightmare Magazine – February 2021) – a powerful and brutal look at the way women are treated in horror and crime narratives that provides a meta-commentary on the nature of victimhood, revenge narratives, and the romanticization of killers.

Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim (Uncanny Magazine – March/April 2021) – a beautiful and evocative story of an artist’s model who longs to be recognized for her art and not as a passive object of beauty, and who longs to tell her own story in paint.

Uncanny Issue 40Unseelie Bros., Ltd. by Fran Wilde (Uncanny – May/June 2021) – a story that perfectly balances magic and a heartfelt exploration of complicated family relationships set against the backdrop of a magical dress shop at the height of the social season.

Now You See Me by Justin C. Key (Lightspeed Magazine – August 2021) – a brutal and unsettling story about three friends who visit an art exhibit designed to let white viewers walk in Black people’s shoes where each woman finds a particular piece that speaks to them and disturbs them in ways they can’t quite name.

L’esprit de l’escalier by Catherynne M. Valente (Tor.com – August 2021) – a beautifully-written take on Orpheus and Euridyce, where Orpheus is a selfish and deliberately clueless musician who drags an unwillingly Euridyce back from the dead.

The Future Library by Peng Shepard (Tor.com – August 2021) – a lovely story about the last forest in the world, where a woman conceives a project of having 100 books by 100 authors produced from the forest’s wood in 100 years, at which time people begin to believe that the trees carry the last words of the dead buried at their roots.

Questions Asked in the Belly of the World by A.T. Greenblatt (Tor.com – September 2021) – a story full of evocative worldbuilding about a colony of artists inside a living (possibly sentient) world they don’t fully understand and are forbidden from asking questions about.

Music of the Siphorophenes by C.L. Polk (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – March/April 2021) – a beautifully-written story about a pop star who contracts with an excursion cruise ship pilot in order to seek out the majestic creatures living out in the depths of space, in a story that explores the idea of knowing another person completely, seeing their flaws, and loving them anyway.

In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi by Molly Tanzer (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – March/April 2021) – a metafictional tale of an author searching for a half-remembered Lovecraftian story and stumbling upon a secret society masquerading as a small theater group claiming to be performing a play with the same title as the lost story.

That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell (Uncanny – December 2021) – a beautiful and heartbreaking story about abuse, trauma, and the journey toward healing, as a vampire’s familiar escapes his master’s house and deals with the guilt, self-hate, and fear that have been conditioned into him.

Comments Off on Favorites of 2021: Novelettes and Short Stories

Filed under Recommended Reading

Comments are closed.