What sets fantasy apart from other genres of fiction? Its untethering from reality. In a year like 2021, that will be a welcome feature for many readers out there. If you're looking for the best fantasy books, 2021 is shaping up to be a vintage year in the genre. Here in this section we'll be keeping an eye on new fantasy publications in 2021, as well as shortlisted books and winners of the most prestigious prizes in fantasy like the British Fantasy Awards — with winners already announced in February, 2021—and the World Fantasy Awards, whose winning books will be announced in November. However you like your fantasy—epic or short, high or low, dark or comic, contemporary or historical—it's a great time to be an avid reader in the realms of the imagination.
Part of our best books of 2021 series.
A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark
What could be better than 1912 Cairo for the setting of a steampunk fantasy where djinn and mechanical angels coexist with humans? Fatma, the youngest woman to work for The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is on the occult murder trail of a deathly sect. Her partners provide more comic relief than clues to this whodunnit, where colonialism, mythology, religion and social standing all create an unexpected warp and weft to a spellbinding tapestry of a crime thriller.
Black Water Sister
by Zen Cho
A coming-of-age chronicle which retraces the immigrant footsteps of dissolute drifter Jessamyn Teoh from Harvard back to Malaysia, where she is engaged by the ghost of her estranged grandmother Ah Ma to settle spiritualist scores with local gansters. It’s a tale that traces how we navigate family histories, and how these often intertwine to create mythologies of their own, replete with ghosts and gods, many of our own creation. How to balance our many obligations, across generations and across cultures? Foreboding but fun, this urban fantasy in contemporary Malaysia is vividly told.
by Jordan Morris, Natalie Riess (colours), Sarah Morgan & Tony Cliff (Illustrator)
Any fantasy pick list worth its salt will feature a graphic novel or two. Bubble is the bright offering of podcaster Jordan Morris, who has imagined a parallel quotidian existence – not so different to the daily grind of many readers – only with a science-fantasy twist. Morgan was born in the Brush, an ex-urban jungle (hic sunt leones) and who earns her keep as a freelance monster hunter (the leones of terra incognita being badass Imps). Brilliant, brightly coloured parody of the gig economy in all its absurdity.
The Gilded Ones
by Namina Forna
Let’s get this out of the way first: this book is not for squeamish readers. It is violent. Now then, The Gilded Ones is a fabulous epic fantasy set in a West African-inspired world. When Deka turns sixteen, she has to prove her purity in a ritual. All she wants is to obey the Infinite wisdoms and start to wear a beautiful mask like other women in Otera. To her horror, when she is cut her blood runs not red but gold: she is a demon. Deka’s superpowers – strength, speed and a body that heals itself after injury – are not considered gifts in Otera’s extremely patriarchal society; her own father disowns her as a monster when she fails the purity test. Deka has the body of a warrior, but in her own mind can she overcome the emotional violence inflicted upon her and fight back? The Gilded Ones is the first book in a projected trilogy.
by Lucy Holland
Sistersong is a story based on the ‘Twa Sisters’ folk ballad is set in a late Antique Britain after the Romans have left. King Cador’s three children inherit a land torn by warring tribes and fearful of a life confined within the hold, protected from Saxon invaders. The arrival of Myrdhin, meddlesome magician, upends the calm and brings pagan and Christian magic and myths into the frame.
There’s no date yet for it’s US release but we’ll keep you posted.
Alexandria: A Novel
by Paul Kingsnorth
Top of the pile of fantasy books to be read is Paul Kingsnorth’s Alexandria, only just published in the UK. A small religious community is living in what were once the fens of eastern England. They are perhaps the world’s last human survivors. Now, they find themselves stalked by a force that draws ever closer, a force intent on destroying everything they stand for. Set on the far side of the ecological apocalypse, Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel is a mythical, polyphonic drama driven by elemental themes: of community versus the self, the mind versus the body, machine versus man – of whether to put your faith in the present or the future.
Alexandria completes the Buckmaster Trilogy, which began with Kingsnorth’s prize-winning The Wake. That was set in distant Saxon England, and I was reminded of it by Sistersong.
Son of the Storm
by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Son of the Storm is an epic tale that takes us to pre-colonial West Africa, following a young scholar Danso, whose encounter with Lilong of a powerful, skin-changing warrior woman upends his world and sends them both to the Nameless Islands where Lilong hails from, with their history of a subjugated culture and forbidden magic. Enticing echoes here of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a favourite from 2019 with its labyrinthine retelling of African history and mythology as a fantastical road trip mystery.
The Chosen and the Beautiful
by Nghi Vo
In The Chosen and the Beautiful Nghi Vo’s reimagining of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the protagonist is a queer, elite-level golfer in a man’s world. She’s also an adopted Asian-American, which imposes glass ceilings and barriers of another kind. Her secret is a form of paper magic that can enchant or destroy.
The Bone Ships
by R J Barker
***Winner Best Fantasy Novel at the 2021 British Fantasy Awards***
The Bone Ships by RJ Barker is the first book in The Tide Child trilogy (the second book in the trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, is also already out, as book prize awards tend to lag publication by a year or so).