Once I’d reviewed my year of reading and discovered the books that most surprised me in 2021, I knew I had to talk about the books that most disappointed me next. With the marketing hype machines that are publishing houses and authors’ Twitter accounts, you never can tell which books will become soured by disappointment upon finally experiencing them, no matter how excited or hopeful you were for them.
It wasn’t that these books merely fell short of the mark; they were depressingly bad in ways that made me feel like the hype I had for them was silly and wasteful. Many of these books also debuted in 2021, and that in and of itself is a depressing thought. Are books getting worse? Or are my expectations as a reader becoming unwieldy and unrealistic? In an era where stories are becoming bigger and bigger franchises with over-the-top visuals, rehashed plots, and plot-disarming twists, can we be surprised by anything anymore? Have we seen it all?
I don’t think so. While an original story can be groundbreaking, any story that is well-told will travel farther regardless if we have seen its like before or not.
How, then, did the following books fail to live up to my expectations? Time to find out.
Most Disappointing Books of 2021
Persephone Station by Stina Leicht
Look at that cover! Isn’t it cool? Well, that’s all the cool factor you get with Persephone Station. I was promised a high-stakes adventure and space opera in the vein of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop with an all-queer cast. What I got instead was an incredibly dull 500-page slog with equally dull characters. Each character had a profession and sexuality assigned to them, and that was the extent of who they were. In addition, everyone’s relationships had already been formed before the novel, and nobody had friction with anybody. There was Some Evil Corporation the group had to overcome, but I never once was encouraged to care about it. I started off my 2021 with this book, so you can imagine how unenthused I was after the fact; that’s where Unsounded came in to save my life.
I mean, gosh, when are people going to learn? Never compare yourself to Cowboy Bebop; you’ll never be Cowboy Bebop.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
I had been so hyped for The Gilded Ones all 2020, and then the book got pushed back to release this year. I finally read an ARC for it, and wooooooow. Imagine someone putting all characterization, world-building, and plot in a magic eight ball, and then just shaking it frantically and writing down whatever nonsense the ball says to you. That nonsense was The Gilded Ones.
Namina Forna has a background in screenwriting, which showed in glaring ways that backfired horribly. The book was written more like a movie that showed the Big Moments but left all the necessary foundation-building between characters and the world on the cutting room floor. Nothing made sense, only the main character mattered and she decided to always develop off-page, and it was so horribly graphic and violent the entire time. In a YA book directed at younger POC audiences. I have no idea how the author or anyone doesn’t call the violence gratuitous because it definitely is. I’ve read and seen so many things with extreme violence in it, but this felt like non-stop torture porn.
But this was also another book that says at every turn, “Men are bad and evil always,” so maybe that’s why so many people liked it. People honestly think that’s feminism, and it isn’t.
Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft
I’m heartbroken that Down Comes the Night is on my disappointments list. It began so strong. Wren and Una’s friendship and doomed from the start romance gripped me. The world-building felt fresh and original. The way Wren’s healing magic was carefully and cleverly written, and I was so, so looking forward to the novel’s gothic vibes and Wren’s enemies-to-lovers romance with Hal.
Instead, the gothic vibes never arrived, and Hal was so boring because he wasn’t really a monster after all! Soft boy coming through, beep beep!
The mystery was also obvious from the get-go and quite flat. The ending confrontation with the story’s villain made me roll my eyes so hard because uwu heroines can’t hurt people who hurt them and others lest they become just as bad themselves uwu. Give me a break. In addition, once I discovered in the acknowledgements that this book might have very loosely been Naruto fanfiction, I kinda lost it. Look, I enjoy that anime; I was once ninja trash, but there’s something so jarring about that realization that made me lose what little regard I had left for the book because… I think the fanfiction might’ve been more interesting.
I will say, however, that Saft’s writing did impress me enough that I’m more than willing to give her a second chance with another novel. She has fantastic room to grow and develop as an author, so maybe in the end, this book just wasn’t for me.
Vengeful by V.E. Schwab
Me and Victoria Schwab really are parting ways, huh? I’m becoming increasingly less charmed by her recycled characters, writing, and plots, and that realization kind of slammed me in the face with Vengeful. She’s also becoming one of those authors who write far too many pages that say nothing at all. I loved the first novel, Vicious, because of Victor, Mitch, and Sydney along with the weird hero-villain struggle between Victor and Eli. Yet, the former three characters were barely in Vengeful, and the plot involving them felt so lazy and made up on the spot. I hear Schwab had to frantically rewrite almost the whole book, so maybe something was lost for me along the way of her meeting her deadline.
The rest of the book was about Eli, who without Victor I can’t stand, and new characters June and Marcella. June was just an Addie LaRue prototype, which isn’t a compliment, and I hated gaslight gatekeep girlboss Marcella. She’s the poster child of fake feminism, and I am not at all sad to say goodbye to her. I’m still debating on finishing the series when the third and hopefully last book comes out, but I dunno. Depends largely on Schwab learning how to grow as a writer and Victor getting the spotlight again. At least the cover slaps.
Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston
This one was just not good. I’m not sure if Ashley Poston will ever be up to par for me. I still think it’s funny that she made jabs at the Dune books when her writing is so basic in comparison. I still need to give Heart of Iron a chance, but if it’s anything like Among the Beasts and Briars, I will not get far with it.
This book was so clearly meant to be written as a new fairy tale, but it possessed none of the whimsical, dreamy, nostalgic feelings that fairy tales carry within them. It felt hollow and empty even by YA fantasy standards. At this point, I can barely remember what happened because few things made much of an impression. A young princess spends most of her time stumbling through the woods because cursed forest monsters are after here. She had a magical gift for gardening, I think, but I can’t for the life of me tell you why that mattered.
I remember the writing being very juvenile, and I especially remember there being a character who was a fox under a curse, who I wanted to love so much. I wanted him to be an attractive red-haired, fox-like trickster character because that’s a fun trope, y’know? But he wasn’t. He was very bland and forgettable.
In the Ravenous Dark by A. M. Strickland
The insane amounts of hope I had for In the Ravenous Dark! Ancient Greece aesthetics! A pansexual in a polyamorous relationship! Dark magic! Instead, it was a complete hot mess that tried to do far too much with a magic system and world-building that wasn’t at all cohesive because of it. The potential was there, but the execution was so far from being there, it took a vacation and never came back. The main character was plenty insufferable and stupid in the name of girl power, and I am so tired of that. Your Strong Female Character can think once before she acts, please, I’m begging.
The polyamorous relationship also wasn’t well developed on any character’s end, but then no character was well developed as characters. This was another book where only the main character truly mattered, and that’s becoming a bad YA trend lately. Love interests Ivrilos and Lydea were exceedingly boring, and I had to read a premature ejaculation scene. This… is what y’all want in YA? Unfulfilling sex? Oh, honey, no. You’ll get plenty of that in real life. In the end, it also wasn’t a polyamorous relationship. It was a reverse harem. They all aren’t dating each other, just the terrible main character.
Okay, I’ll say it, the way Japha—the only non-binary and asexual character—was treated was horrendous. Yeah, let’s kill them off and bring them back as a ghost because they don’t want to have sex anyway! Isn’t this wonderful? No, I think it’s extraordinarily dumb, along with the way the writer had to have the characters hold the readers’ hands to explain polyamory, asexuality, pansexuality, etc. like they were reading off their Twitter bios. In a fantasy setting, y’all, c’mon.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I still need to do a rant review for The Song of Achilles because whenever I think about it, I get so furious. It’s wild that Madeline Miller managed to write one of my favorite books of the year but also one of my most hated—and this one is considered the more popular of the two. A travesty, I say. It’s lucky I read Circe first because I never would’ve given Miller another chance after this poor excuse of a Greek myth retelling and romance novel.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a worst version of Achilles, one who is a complete sociopath who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. Yes, that includes Patroclus. The starcrossed, soulmate relationship they supposedly have is such a lie, and the novel proves it over and over again with hardly anyone realizing how utterly one-sided it is. It doesn’t even add to the tragedy this story is supposed to have, because there is nothing tragic about this retelling. Achilles never once cares for Patroclus for being Patroclus; he cares about Patroclus in relation to his legacy and that is all.
In addition, Achilles is point-blank told that if he goes to Troy he will die, and then does nothing to try and change his fate. Instead of his fate happening because of his actions, it happens because of his inactions, and that passivity isn’t compelling. It’s not how this story is supposed to go.
Instead of wondering what Achilles saw in Patroclus, I kept wondering what in the hell Patroclus saw in Achilles beyond him being beautiful, golden, and shining. Where was the yearning, the longing between them I was promised? These two were pretty much in a blink-and-you-miss-it instalove, and then Achilles was doing whatever Achilles wanted to do, and sure, Patroclus can follow, but his own relationships and wants don’t matter unless they’re about Achilles. All I wanted was for Achilles to finally die. He did nothing to deserve or warrant the title behind the novel, to say nothing of Patroclus’ devotion. He and Briseis deserved so much better.
I can see why this book was popular when it was published in 2011/2012. This was one of the first mainstream books that had a bisexual man and a gay man in a relationship in general fiction. But it’s 2021 now, and no one sees how wack it is for Miller to have emphasized over and over again how odd Patroclus and Achilles were for being two men in a relationship? In Ancient Greece?? Somehow, they were the only two queer men in Ancient Greece? I have so much to say about this book, and I need to stop, but the amount of narrative choices Miller made to ignore established mythology to make her story, well, not work exactly but function the way it did has now made me question how reliable her retellings actually are.
Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone
Lakesedge was another promised gothic romance YA novel that did not deliver on the gothic or the romance. The mystery is given away in the synopsis and reading further doesn’t broaden it any. The important brother and sister relationship so harped on in the first third of the novel vanishes with the brother’s significance. Once again, only the main character matters; even her love interest, Rowan, is pushed to the side despite how much the novel clearly needs him to have a plot.
I mourn Rowan’s characterization so much. He starts out delightfully rude and sharp, but he does a complete heel-turn when the main character shows vulnerability one time. He’s a soft boy after that who, you guessed it, isn’t really a monster! (I hope you’ve caught on to the things I hate about YA and promises authors don’t intend to keep along with the things I am looking for in a work.)
One of the few things Lakesedge did have going for it consistently was the death god, the Lord Under. He was excellent, unnerving, otherworldly, and hot for those out there who do love monsters, myself included. If he’d been in the book more, it might’ve saved it for me. His presence will be the only thing that convinces me to read any sequel that’s forthcoming, that’s for sure.
There were honestly more books that disappointed me this year, but I expected them to let me down, so they didn’t make this list in detail. But let’s give them a dishonorable mention regardless: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Blessed Monsters by Emily Duncan, All Systems Red by Martha Wells, and even to a certain extent books like Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao and Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. Even the last 50 pages or so of Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo left me feeling a way I didn’t care for.
But maybe 2022 will be better. I sure hope the books are.
Are there any books on this list that surprised you in being a bad experience for me? Have you had different experiences with them? What books left you feeling kinda meh in 2021?