Year of Books 2021: The Best!

Time to clean off the shelf.

Every year, I set aside every book I read on a shelf near the bed. At the end of the year, I evaluate what I’ve read before shelving the books in our permanent collection (or donate or sell or…). My year runs from July 4 to July 3. So… it’s time!

In this post I’m going to write brief reviews of the top ten books or series I read this year. They won’t be in any order; they’re just the ten I enjoyed the most. I read quite a few comics, but I won’t be addressing those today.

I’d like to prevent this from turning into a food blog with endless preface, so… let’s get to it!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World
by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

Doreen Green moves from California to New Jersey. Time to make new friends and meet a bunch of superheroes! Can a girl with the powers of a squirrel be a normal teen and face off against her first real supervillain?

This book was just a delight. I’ve read a few other books by the Hales, most notably Diana: Princess of the Amazons and Rapnuzel’s Revenge, both of which I highly recommend. Squirrel Girl comics are also just amazing and often make me laugh out loud. This book kept the light tone of the comics without worrying about any continuity, so if you’ve never heard of Squirrel Girl before, this is a great place to meet her. She’s giddy, no-nonsense, and just excited about the fun of being a superhero. If you’re looking for grim or gritty, this is a terrible place to go. If you’re wanting a fun superhero set in the Marvel universe, this is a great place to start.

Zorro: The Complete Pulp Adventures, Vol. 2
by Johnston McCulley

Zorro may have conquered his foes in his first outing, but what happens when pirates kidnap his fiance? It’s Zorro on the high seas! Three complete early adventures from Zorro’s creator are reprinted in this single volume!

I read Zorro’s first adventure, The Curse of Capistrano, a few years ago. At the time, I had no idea that Zorro’s creator had written any more adventures. And then I discovered that he had completed a number of novels and short stories! It’s great that Bold Venture has collected them all in publication order in some nice volumes that also include the original illustrations. Zorro has been a favorite character of mine for years, and now I get to read the source material!

That said, the modern reader needs to put themselves in the mindset of pulp readers of the early 1900’s. Continuity wasn’t nearly as much of an important thing. This collection of three novels starts off with Zorro still happily engaged, as he was at the end of his first novel. By the last novel in the collection, his fiance is gone, he’s actively engaged in other love interests, and the fiance is never mentioned again.

That said, if you can enjoy some classic adventure, these collections are well worth your time! (Well, at least this one is… I’m looking forward to reading more of them!)

The Burning White
by Brent Weeks

The only thing that will save the Seven Satrapies would be God’s intervention. It’s too bad that Gavin’s set out to kill him.

So The Burning White is the final volume of the Lightbringer saga, and it amazes me. It concludes everything well. I’ve heard some people thought it became a slog in the middle, as Gavin has some interesting theological discussions, but those discussions thrilled me. My only complaint is that after four books of buildup, this volume could have breathed a little more. The pacing was hectic at times. That said, the book itself is over a thousand pages long, so there may have been size restraints!

I have recommended Lightbringer again and again. If you’re a fantasy fan, start at book one, The Black Prism. Savor each chapter. (I also love that most of the chapters are bite-size.) The journey will entertain, the characters are likable, and the final is worth the time.

Towers Trilogy
Towers Fall
by Karina Sumner-Smith

Xhea sees ghosts. It’s the only way she can make money. Society revolves around people’s use of magic, and she has none. But when her strange abilities attract a ghost who can still use magic, everyone in the world seeks to control her. Xhea isn’t fond of control. Now she and this strange ghost must find a way to fight back.

This trilogy sat on my shelf for years. My wife had ripped through it long ago. I figured it was finally time to read it.

Oh. Yeah.

This is the good stuff.

Each volume in the trilogy builds on what came before, opening up entire new realms of worldbuilding, but each step was clearly preplanned. Xhea reminds me a lot of Katniss from The Hunger Games as far as personality, making her not always likable. Despite that, the creativity of the world drew me back again and again until I had to see what was going to happen to Xhea. Sumner-Smith’s pacing doesn’t let go, either. I’d rank this among the best Young Adult novels I’ve ever read.

By Winged Chair
by Kendra Merritt

Merry may be confined to a chair, but she refuses to be rescued, even when memory-eating creatures attack her. She hates that the mage who rescues her may be her best ally to help rescue her father. But now she may need to depend on him to help her save not only her father but the kingdom, too.

Merritt’s book sparkles in all the right ways. She writes characters with wit, charm, and attitude. While this is supposed to be a retelling of Robin Hood, you won’t find a lot of parallels – at least, I didn’t. There are some of the same character archetypes, but Merritt makes the setting entirely her own. I didn’t mind a bit. Her clever use of a character with a major disability that didn’t define her was a refreshing choice, too, and one I heartily applaud. If you’re looking for fantasy with great representation of an underrepresented group, check this one out.

Mishap’s Heroes
Magic and Misrule
Death and Devotion
Trust and Treason
Illusion and Infamy
by K. M. Merritt

Vola longs to prove that not all half-orcs are evil. The Paladin Academy doesn’t seem to believe her, though. She’s got one chance to prove that not only does she stand on the side of good, but that she has what it takes to be a paladin. It doesn’t help that her patron goddess is laughed at by everyone, including the rest of the pantheon. Oh, and the other “heroes” she finds to join her on her quest seem useless. Is there any chance she can finally be recognized as a paladin?

So, I backed Mishap’s Heroes on Kickstarter. I’ll be getting the final two volumes of the series in the next few months, but I’ve devoured all four volumes so far. When I read the first book, I shrugged. It was a “light” fantasy read with some goofy characters and some true laugh-out-loud moments. The characters were likable enough that I picked up volume two when it arrived, and that’s when I started really being drawn in.

Each main character presents unique forms of brokenness and represent groups often ignored in fantasy settings. I don’t want to give anything away, as who these people really are keys into plot points, but I found myself hungry to read more by the end of book two. Books three and four just increased my interest. On top of all that, Vola’s relationship with her patron goddess just makes me smile.

Merritt drew me in with By Winged Chair, and now with this set, she’s convinced me. I’ll be picking up all her stuff. She’s got a reader for life.

No Lesser Angels, No Greater Devils
by Laura J. Campbell

Ever notice how some areas just seem to attract teens who want to, um, have some “private time” with their boyfriend or girlfriend? What is it about those areas that draws couples? What if there were something predatory there?

Campbell presents a collection of short stories that ask a bunch of similar questions. They range from horror to science fiction to fantasy to slice of life. I enjoyed nearly all of them. There are twenty-eight stories in this volume, which means there were a lot of options! That said, Campbell’s creativity and her elegant use of prose made for some fantastic reading. I highly recommend this collection if you’re looking for something a bit more eclectic than your average anthology!

by David Kudler

Risuko climbs trees. She lives in a Japan that has been devastated by war, but she is still young and innocent. That is, until she is purchased by a noblewoman who seems to care for her and then hate her in equal measures. Soon Risuko will be part of a plot that will unify all of Japan – or destroy it forever.

My wife got me this book for Christmas. She said that I told her I wanted it. I didn’t remember the book at all. Of all things, the gorgeous cover drew me in. The book is obviously the first volume in what’s intended to be a longer series, but this first book introduces some likable characters you want to see win, as well as some antagonists you want to see lose, but are still realistically written. I’ll be looking forward to picking up the next volume!

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi
by Charles Soule

Hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga began, the Jedi were guardians of peace in the Old Republic. The Republic reaches out to the outer rim, lighting Starlight Beacon. And then disaster strikes. A hyperspace accident puts multiple systems at risk. The Jedi must rush to protect countless lives, but will even their power be enough?

First, I love the idea of the High Republic. It’s a series of novels and comics showing Jedi as truly heroic. And you know what? The Jedi here are heroic. They’re not stuffy people who aren’t real, either. It gave me someone to cheer for. Also, it’s really nice that it doesn’t tie into a movie at all. If all you’ve seen is the original trilogy, you’ll still be fine watching this.

The book itself is rather interesting. The first half is less about characters and felt more like a disaster movie. Soule knit a growing sense of dread, even as he showed the characters as competent. He also presents a compelling group of antagonists in the Nihil, a band of pirates that can use hyperspace in ways no one else yet knows how to.

I haven’t read any of the other High Republic novels yet, but I can tell you, I want to!

The Toll
by Neal Shusterman

The Thunderhead, the AI that has benevolently cared for humanity for centuries, has seemingly turned itself off. Scythes slay without paying attention to their own commandments. The only hope for peace lies dead at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. But something is happening, one last chance to save the world… or at least the people who live on it.

Shusterman wraps up his Arc of a Scythe series. At the end of the previous volume, he killed off his main characters, so I was curious how he’d continue. I also came to this volume with trepidation. The previous series of his I’d read, Skinjacker, left me underwhelmed at the end. Ah, but this trilogy ends in a satisfying manner, wraps up all the loose ends, and made me sigh in contentment.

Look, it’s Neal Shusterman at his best. Go read it, would ya?

Published by Jon

Jon lives in Kentucky with his wife and an insanity of children. (A group of children is called an insanity. Trust me.)

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