It’s that time again: here are my top ten favourite books of the past year. In 2021, I managed 51 books, 23 of which, I rated five stars. So, it was no easy task limiting the list to ten. I’ve managed to keep books published in 2021 as the majority, but a few holdovers from the previous year and some older titles were simply too good to exclude. Long-time readers may notice there are more Fantasy titles on the list and less horror than usual. Fantasy might just be my first genre love, but lost its spot to horror a number of years ago. However, the need for more upbeat fare in these pandemic times has made me rediscover it. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of dark fiction if that’s what you’re looking for.
For a complete list of the books I’ve read and my full reviews, visit my Goodreads account.
Also note, the books are displayed in order read, not by preference.
I don’t tend to read much from the Thriller genre, but any new book by C. J. Tudor is an instant buy. In her latest, she weaves a tale of paranoia that delves into the haunted past of both the main character and the town she moves to. Toying with elements of ghost stories and folk horror, the real terror in this novel is people and the parts of themselves they hide from others.
2. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019)
Ninth House is pretty clearly Urban Paranormal, but there are enough ghosts, demons, and unbelievably sinister magic to give any horror fan a thrill. I loved the premise of a woman steeped in the rough life of the streets being dropped into a magical society at an ivy-league college. As terrible as the people and forces of evil she faces are, it always feels like she’s brought a gun to a knife fight–no one is prepared for how she’ll react or what she is capable of, and her ability to turn situations on their head provides lots of satisfaction.
3. The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (2020)
I discovered the horror of T. Kingfisher this year (she also rights fantasy for younger audiences) and read both this book and her The Twisted ones. I could easily have picked either (or both) as favourites. The Hollow Places just narrowly edged into top place because I loved the dynamic between the two main characters and there were a few scenes that will terrify me for years to come. What I keep saying about Kingfisher is she wonderfully meshes snarky humor with pure nightmare fuel as no one else can!
Like T. Kingfisher, I read both of Harrow’s novels in 2021. Although I greatly enjoyed The Once and Future Witches (2021), it was this novel that captured my heart. It is a modern fantasy where stories are spells and every door could lead you to another world. Despite all the characters’ struggles and some truly evil villains, I found this refreshingly hopeful and uplifting. It hit me just the right way when I needed it most during some of the darker days of being locked-down last winter.
The first of three short story collections on the list, Side Roads explores the nuances of broken people through numerous forms of dark fiction. This unspoken theme of individuals struggling with both past and present trauma elevates the collection, making the tales weave together even when character, tone, and setting are vastly different. The collection also lands on this list because I’m still thinking about several of Brune’s stories months later.
This collection contains seven experimental stories that the author calls derelictions. In each of these tales, a narrator guides the reader through a location where a terrifying event took place (or in some cases still taking place). There are no characters, only the narrator’s descriptions and occasional hints at what the evidence invokes. This approach won’t be for everyone, but it’s impossible not to be wowed by the detailed visceral descriptions Nevill sets down. Every place, object, and severed body part leaps off the page making this something like a virtual-reality experience using only the written word.
If you read any horror, you probably know Stephen Graham Jones is on fire right now. Last year’s The Only Good Indians propelled him into the spotlight and My Heart is a Chainsaw will keep him there. A love letter to the Slasher genre, it delivers both extreme horror and an incredibly deep emotional exploration of a teenage girl coping with abuse and abandonment. The fact that Jones can push the extreme in both of these areas makes this novel absolutely dazzling.
I’ve been following Wise’s stories for a few years now, always excited when I spot her name in a magazine or anthology table of contents. This collection features many of her finest, and although I’d previously read quite a number of them, they were a joy to reread, and I was thrilled to get some new ones. These tales hover on the knife’s edge of dark fantasy and horror and are always intelligent, surprising, and touching. This is one of the few short story collections where I was amazed by every single entry and would be hard-pressed to single out any favourites.
Taken as a quest fantasy, The Black Tongue Thief has some amazing things going for it: strong distinctive characters, an exciting plot filled with twists, and a few awe-inspiring or out-right bizarre settings. Not to mention, I loved that the main character wasn’t a noble or the chosen one and instead is a person just trying to survive. But what really made this book stand out was the main character’s frequent and inventive curses interjecting humor at every turn. I listened to this on Audible narrated by the author, and he really brought this foul-mouthed narrator to life. This was by far the most fun book I came across in all of 2021 and had the sequel been available, I would have started it immediately.
10. Red X by David Demchuk (2021)
While reading some books, you just realize they are important–that they will elevate and reshape literature for years to come. Red X is one of those books. Far beyond an own-voices horror story, this is a deeply personal and moving portrait of members of the gay community and the threats they face. Part supernatural horror, part fairy-tale, and part memoir, it blows the genre apart and remakes it into something new and vital. This is a gutting novel to read, but it’s an essential one.
For more suggestions take a look at my recommendation lists on Goodreads.