Most Surprising Books of 2021

You never can foresee how a reading year will go. There’s nothing that can truly predict what books will surprise you, how they will fulfill some part of you and occupy your thoughts well beyond their end. Or how they will just plain entertain and delight you.

2021 was such a roller coaster for so many, and that notion was definitely reflected in my reading. I didn’t get to nearly as many books as I hoped I would. While I participated in book clubs and reading challenges, I still don’t believe I made a dent in the books I actually owned. Despite all that, I discovered stories new and old to love, characters and worlds that will continue to shape me as a creative, and ideas that challenge my way of thinking. Some of these books, I wrote reviews for, extolling their virtues and being forgiving towards any vices. I wish I had reviewed all of them, but sometimes that’s not in the cards—so spotlighting them here feels all the more important.

But enough waxing poetic. Let’s highlight some all-star books I didn’t expect to love as much as I did because they absolutely deserve the praise.

Most Surprising Books of 2021

Unsounded by Ashley Cope

A few friends have threatened bodily harm upon me for years to finally read the webcomic Unsounded, and this year, I finally did—and became instantly obsessed. Ashley Cope’s wonderful art style and bold storytelling consumed my early months of 2021 as I raced to catch up to the ongoing series, first with the three published volumes and then continuing with the online chapters. I even wrote a fanfic for Cope’s between-chapter hiatus contest, which ended up winning based on popular vote, and I still haven’t gotten over that.

Mouthy rogue Sette Frummagem and undead zombie Duane Adelier lead a sprawling cast of morally gray characters who all claim directly-at-odds religions and nations from each other. Everyone you meet has an agenda or several, everyone has messy family ties, and everyone has messier opinions about everyone else.

If you like political high fantasy, intricate magic systems, witty dialogue, and diverse casts (and weird countries with weird systems, including a caste system), then Unsounded is the comic you’ve been waiting for. It’s currently ongoing with Cope having full creative control to tell her story, and when I tell you that I trust her implicitly, that is not me making a statement lightly. I can’t say that about many creators, let alone someone who can do art and story both. Cope’s art and storytelling only improve, and she is so conscious of her characters and their motivations. If more creators were like Cope, we’d all be the better for it.

Go read Unsounded.

The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din

Ana Lal Din’s debut novel, The Descent of the Drowned, was invigorating in its willingness to never flinch away from hard topics. Per the author, “it is set in a colonised Indo-Persian world and draws from South and West Asian, Middle Eastern, and ancient Arabian sociocultural and political issues like caste system and sacred prostitution.” Another heavy topic that inspired the novel was the persecution and slaughter of the Rohingya People.

As a result, we have a character-led, dark fantasy YA novel, which honestly reads more adult fantasy to me or at least lends itself to a level of maturity not often seen or allowed in YA. Honestly, more books like this in YA, please. Roma’s story of sexual trauma was so poignant because she didn’t simply wallow in it and then magically got better, through sex or otherwise; no, the plot and her own strength of will has her doing so many interesting things, and I want more people to meet her. She’s one of the few recent revenge-driven female characters that I actually believe because it doesn’t feel like empty girl-power/girl-boss nonsense. Also Leviathan is called a monster and then is allowed to live up to the name! No secretly good soft bois here! Possibly enemies to lovers between them as well? Possibly?

I utterly love this book, and I can’t sum up how much in so short a time; fortunately, I wrote a review about it. This book deserved to be nominated for the Debut Novel category with the Goodreads Choice Awards, but it wasn’t, and that’s how you know those awards are fake. Please read The Descent of the Drowned and mind the trigger warnings if you do.

The Captive Prince Trilogy by C. S. Pacat

The way Captive Prince and its next two novels over-delivered for me. The way I sat down for a crust of bread and a glass of water and was served a feast of fine-cut meats and full-bodied wine. Captive Prince is the sexy, political adult fantasy of my dreams that I thought I would never be allowed to have. Anyone else who says they’re writing enemies to lovers from now on has to read this trilogy first, so they can learn the blueprint and understand the assignment. Because many really don’t!

I mean, seriously. You have two princes from warring nations. Prince Damen killed Prince Laurent’s older brother in battle years ago, then gets betrayed by his own half-brother and sent as an anonymous pleasure slave to Laurent, and no one has a good time. Except me! I had an amazing time, and that’s just the beginning! If Damen and Laurent’s strong yet equal characterizations and slowburn romance don’t live in your head rent-free yet, then what are you waiting for? I haven’t talked enough about this trilogy, but I fear I will never talk enough about it.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Right off the bat, A Deadly Education wasn’t my usual fare with Naomi Novik. I love her adult fantasy romances so much, and A Deadly Education is a lot more adult contemporary in comparison. It’s also written in a first-person, stream of consciousness style where El, the main character, is carrying on a conversation with the reader the entire time.

Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Novik can just write a book, and I always appreciate the density of her prose and how she never relies on the overdone, flowery language of her peers that ultimately doesn’t say much. Instead, A Deadly Education brought me a new, dangerous magic school; logical and vibrant magic rules; and a constant discussion about educational, social, and income inequality. How “leveling the playing field” never actually happens when people come into a situation with clear-cut advantages over others. Squid Game also talked about this in how the games were giving people second chances based on complete fairness, but you, the viewer, know that each player is capable in different ways, and therefore nothing is actually fair. So enters the diverse students of the Scholomance.

The novel also delivers on believable female friendships and the complicated relationship between mother and daughter when the two of you are so opposite. Each of these relationships gradually unfold and becoming clearer to the reader because El is so starved of normal human relationships and believes she’s not worth liking, let alone loving—but not in a pathetic way. She’s delightfully snappish and acerbic at every turn while hiding a soft heart underneath. I love El and her unfortunate name. I devoured this one and its sequel The Last Graduate with extreme vigor, and I highly recommend it to anyone missing the magical school setting.

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes

Anyone else begging for Dragon Age 4 news? Well, I am, and I only got to these games during the pandemic, so I can’t imagine how older fans feel. I grabbed The Masked Empire because it covers Empress Celene and elf rebel Briala’s relationship and how it becomes the tumultuous one we see in Dragon Age: Inquisition. They fascinated me, and the novel never once disappointed depicting the two of them (Briala, being Celene’s personal handmaiden and lover? Scandalous). But I also adored Gaspard and Michel, all the political digs and maneuverings. Oh, and learning how the Orlesian Civil War started, let’s not forget that.

But the most important aspect of The Masked Empire was meeting Felassan, my latest elf lover. Every word out of his mouth is gold; everything about him is perfection. I need more people to experience Felassan and be in this prayer circle with me to get him into DA4 as a romanceable character, guys, please! Patrick Weekes said that if enough people care, it could happen!

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

If I had a nickel for the number of contemporary Malaysian novels with ghosts in them I’ve read, I would only have two nickels, but I love that it’s happened twice, first with The Night Tiger (aaaand technically The Ghost Bride, but that’s not contemporary), and now with Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister.

When you have a young, closeted lesbian woman suddenly possessed by the spirit of her opinionated grandmother, you know you’re in for a whirlwind of a story. Tack on a family mystery, a capitalist gang boss, and a vengeful deity, and now it’s an extravaganza. Jess is such a necessary female character for this day and age; I loved the strength behind her voice and actions along with appreciating the many ways she struggled with her family and her future.

Don’t pass this one up if you’re looking for a contemporary book with a magical and spiritual spin focusing on Chinese Malaysian mythology. If you need more info, check out my review.

The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg

Someone else can write fae other than Holly Black, and it’s Charlie N. Holmberg! The Will and the Wilds had everything I could ask for in a fae story: dangerous bargains, mysterious woods, fearsome monsters, and an unwise romance with a being that doesn’t think or feel like humans do. After a summoning gone wrong, Enna and Maekallus, our main characters with great names, must find a way to break the spell binding Maekallus to the mortal realm, or Enna’s soul will be lost as Maekallus is consumed.

The novel was on the shorter side, but it succinctly told the story it needed to tell with no sidetracking. The emphasis on folktales and folk remedies also made me smile and lended The Will and the Wilds a similar feeling that The Bear and the Nightengale and Uprooted gave to me. Also, Maekallus wasn’t Nice, and I appreciate that in a fae so much. I desperately want more fairy books like this one to be written, so I can write more reviews like this.

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was hoping to like Circe by Madeline Miller, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. Miller’s writing definitely matured here as she told Circe’s story. What does it mean to be born an unimportant daughter in a world of gods and monsters? And how are those in power threatened when an unimportant daughter does possess power that can create gods or transform them into monsters?

I enjoyed this character study with a minor goddess, one who comes to love the mortal and fleeting when she is immortal and never-changing. The cast of gods and mortals around her was also interesting, and Miller successfully changes our viewpoints of these characters throughout the novel, even if the viewpoint is only nudged slightly to the left. Circe’s relationships with others were so varied, never fitting to any one mold, and that choice carried much of the story.

I read this with a book club, so there were plenty of fun discussion questions we all had to chew on, and I think the experience enriched the book for us. Universally, we agreed that the first half of the book was more interesting and seemed like a different book from the other half, but overall I enjoyed what Circe accomplished.

A shame I can’t say the same about Miller’s first novel, but don’t worry. I plan on talking about my most disappointing books of the year next.

Have you read any of these books, and if so, how did you like them? What books surprised you the most this year in becoming favorites?

3 thoughts on “Most Surprising Books of 2021

  1. I WILL… read the rest of the books on this list. I trust Naomi Novik. And your tastes, of course. I’m so glad that some books did treat you well this year.

    Liked by 1 person

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