After compiling my Top 20 books in 2020 list, I’m looking to 2021 for more worlds to escape into. Most of the books in this list are science fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic, or folklore related, as that’s the sort of escapism I’m enjoying at the moment (as well as enjoying reading in the genres I’m writing!) I’ve also found several of these books via Twitter, whether through recommendations or connecting with the authors there – another benefit of being part of the online writing community! I have no doubt missed loads, so if you know of (or have written) books coming out in 2021 that fit these genres I’d love to hear about them. I might even update this post as I find new reads.
21 books in 2021, in order of UK release date
Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan – 14th January
Synopsis: The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret.
I love to find books with familiar settings, so this speculative-sounding historical one in Edinburgh was an instant must for me!
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden –28th January
Synopsis: Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.
Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity.
This sounds an intriguing and unique speculative read, plus I can always rely on Canongate to publish excellent books!
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell – 2nd February
Synopsis: While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control. But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.
With it being compared to Ancillary Justice, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this romantic space opera about space princes in love.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna – 3rd February
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.
But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the colour of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death. Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her…
The concept of this first in a series sounds super interesting added to a classic YA set up. I’ve also read some great reviews already!
The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers 4) by Becky Chambers –18th February
Synopsis: With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop…
I absolutely love Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series – filled with compelling stories and expertly drawn characters, amidst intelligent and inventive worldbuilding. For anyone new to space opera, I’d highly recommend starting with this series. Can’t wait for book 4!
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex – 4th March
Synopsis: They say we’ll never know what happened to those men. They say the sea keeps its secrets… Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Inspired by real events, this story sounds like just the sort of dark suspenseful mystery I’ll enjoy, maybe with a touch of the supernatural…(and, lighthouses and the sea, I’m sold!)
Bitterhall by Helen McClory – 4th March
Synopsis: Bitterhall is a story of obsession told between three unreliable narrators. Daniel, Órla and Tom share a flat and narrate the intersections of their lives, from future-world 3D printing technology to the history of the book, to a stolen nineteenth-century diary written by a dashing gentleman who may not be entirely dead. A Hallowe’en party leads to a series of entanglements, variously a longed-for sexual encounter clouded by madness, a betrayal, and a reality-destroying moment of possession.
I’ve read a couple of Helen McClory’s short story collections ‘Mayhem & Death and ‘On the Edges of Vision’ (published by 404 Ink), and the stories are compelling, visceral, fantastical, unsettling and beautifully written, so I’m looking forward to reading a novel-length work.
The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston – 9th March
Synopsis: In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her.
In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget…
This sounds like a beautiful and fantastical fairytale – I first heard about strigas in The Witcher series, so I’m looking forward to reading a different representation of this story!
Birds of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead – 16th March
Synopsis: This is an adult fantasy about the Biblical Adam recovering the lost pieces of the Garden of Eden. Many millennia after the fall of Eden, Adam, the first man in creation, still walks the Earth – exhausted by the endless death and destruction, he is a shadow of his former hope and glory. And he is not the only one. The Garden was deconstructed, its pieces scattered across the world and its inhabitants condemned to live out immortal lives, hiding in plain sight from generations of mankind. But now pieces of the Garden are turning up on the Earth. After centuries of loneliness, Adam, haunted by the golden time at the beginning of Creation, is determined to save the pieces of his long lost home. With the help of Eden’s undying exiles, he must stop Eden becoming the plaything of mankind.
An interesting premise, with a book described as American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia – and by one of my favourite publishers!
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward – 18th March
Synopsis: This is the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street. All these things are true. And yet they are all lies… You think you know what’s inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you’ve read this story before. That’s where you’re wrong. In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, lies something buried. But it’s not what you think…
I’ve seen a few early reviews come in on this which convinced me to add this to the list – a gothic-sounding story full of twists and intrigue. Sounds right up my street!
Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker – 13th April
Synopsis: Set in a society where self-preservation is as much an art as a science, Composite Creatures follows Norah and Arthur, who are learning how to co-exist in their new little world. Though they hardly know each other, everything seems to be going perfectly – from the home they’re building together to the ring on Norah’s finger.
But survival in this world is a tricky thing, the air is thicker every day and illness creeps fast through the body. And the earth is becoming increasingly hostile to live in. Fortunately, Easton Grove is here for that in the form of a perfect little bundle to take home and harvest. You can live for as long as you keep it – or her – close.
Another book by an author whose short stories and poetry I really enjoy – and this sounds like an intriguing and dark premise.
Sistersong by Lucy Holland – 15th April
Synopsis: Three siblings. Three deadly sins. In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, King Cador’s children inherit a fragmented land abandoned by the Romans. Riva, scarred in a terrible fire, fears she will never heal. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, when born a daughter. And Sinne, the spoiled youngest girl, yearns for romance…
Sistersong is a retelling of the folk ballad, ‘The Two Sisters’, to include the perspective of the sibling ‘that time forgot’. Pitched as a delight for fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted – both of which I loved – I can’t wait to read it!
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart – 20th April
Synopsis: Their order divides them. Their revenge will unite them. Iraya has spent her life in a cell, but every day brings her closer to freedom—and vengeance. Jazmyne is the queen’s daughter, but unlike her sister before her, she has no intention of dying to strengthen her mother’s power.
Sworn enemies, these two witches enter a precarious alliance to take down a mutual threat. But revenge is a bloody pursuit, and nothing is certain—except the lengths they will go to win this game…
With magic, betrayal and intrigue, this Jamaican-inspired fantasy sounds like an excellent read.
Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee – 22nd April
Synopsis: They only want a kindness, but beware, for if you have no coin, they will curse you black and blue. Spring of 1620 in a Lancashire fishing community and the memory of the slaughter at Pendle is tight around the neck of Sarah Haworth. A birthmark reveals that Sarah, like her mother, is a witch. Torn between yearning for an ordinary life and desire to discover what dark power she might possess, Sarah’s one hope is that her young sister Annie will be spared this fate.
This has been pitched as for fans of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave which was one of my absolute favourite books last year – I also love anything that touches on magical realism and the occult. Another one I’ve seen a few early good reviews for too!
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – April 29th
Synopsis: In this retelling of the Greek Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Ariadne, Princess of Crete, is at the centre of the story. The Minotaur – Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods, drawing their attention can cost you everything.
Have I already mentioned how much I love retellings of myth and folklore? Ariadne is such an interesting character in Greek mythology (I’m excited to have an Ariadne and Theseus story coming out in an anthology next year), so I’m delighted there’s soon going to be a whole novel to get absorbed in!
The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec – 4th May
Synopsis: When a banished witch falls in love with the legendary trickster Loki, she risks the wrath of the gods. Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love…
I love retellings and I love Norse mythology (with a soft spot for Loki) – so this novel from the lesser told perspective of Angrboda’s story is an easy yes from me.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – 4th May
Synopsis: Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
From the author of The Martian, this sounds like an excellent claustrophobic scientific mystery set in a nearish future world.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon – 6th May
Synopsis: Vern―seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised―flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world. But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman.
I love books set in forests as there is always a certain darkness and magical quality to them that makes for a compelling setting. This sounds like it could be magical realist or speculative (or both!) so I’m looking forward to diving in.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho – 11th May
Synopsis: Family, ghosts and gods collide in this Malaysian-set novel. Her grandmother may be dead but she’s not done with life…yet. As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans.
This sounds like a fun and fantastical story, with an intriguing protagonist.
The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente – 20th July
Synopsis: The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time. But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend and a terrible secret.
This novella sounds like a great dystopian sci-fi with some comedy thrown in.
(Me) Moth by Amber McBride – 17th August
Synopsis: A debut YA novel-in-verse that is both a coming-of-age and a ghost story. Me (Moth) features Moth, the granddaughter of a Hoodoo root worker, who thinks she is invisible, and a Navajo boy named Sani, who is the only one who really sees her, and what happens when they take a road trip and discover that their families were connected long before they were born.
I really enjoy reading novels-in-verse, so I’m intrigued to see how this will work in a YA story. (Plus ghosts…!)
I’d love to find more 2021 releases to add to my reading list, so please do comment any below that sound like they might fit with the above.
Happy New Year – may it be filled with lots of reading and beautiful books!