Best SFF books of 2021 so far: picked by the GdM team

2021, so far, has provided a fair amount of time for our team to read. We’ve been locked indoors whistfully thinking of Cons and catching up with mates, or celebrating a little freedom by getting our face out in the sun (with a book, of course!). Sometimes it’s been a struggle to summon the brainpower to get into a book, but the choices we’ve had for reading in 2021 so far have been nothing short of epic. The authors and publishers of the world (in all their forms) have stepped up to the plate to keep us entertained, and so I give you the Grimdark Magazine team’s picks for the best SFF books of 2021 so far.

May your TBR pile growl with hunger and your credit cards cry with remorse. Get in!

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Picked by Fabienne Schwizer

“If you like poetic reimaginings of mythology, such as Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, you need to make sure to pick up Sistersong as soon as it’s available.”

Read the rest of our review.

535 AD. 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.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold – a last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. But change comes on the day ash falls from the sky, bringing Myrddhin, meddler and magician, and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the siblings apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne must take fate into their own hands, or risk being tangled in a story they could never have imagined; one of treachery, love and ultimately, murder. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.

Read Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Seven Deaths of an Empire by G.R. Matthews

Picked by Aaron Jones

“The perfect blend of classical fiction and grimdark. Matthews has crafted a fast-paced novel full of so many shocking moments my jaw began to ache from dropping so often.”

Read the rest of our review.

The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.

General Bordan has a lifetime of duty and sacrifice behind him in the service of the Empire. But with rebellion brewing in the countryside, and assassins, thieves and politicians vying for power in the city, it is all Bordan can do to protect the heir to the throne.

Apprentice Magician Kyron is assigned to the late Emperor’s honour guard escorting his body on the long road back to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by his own people, even a magician’s power may fail when enemies emerge from the forests, for whoever is in control of the Emperor’s body, controls the succession.

Seven lives and seven deaths to seal the fate of the Empire.

Read Seven Deaths of an Empire by G.R. Matthews

Dark Sea’s End by Richard Nell

Picked by Tom Smith

Feared pirate and scoundrel ‘Lucky’ Chang has a dirty secret: he loves his crew, and would die to protect them. As he’s dragged from prison to face the dark sea and a dangerous new world, he just might have to.

Zaya, warrior and skald from the land of ash, knows she has a destiny. Having left her homeland with only a knife and a dream of adventure, she finds herself captured by pirates. To discover her fate, and become a hero from the book of legends, she must first survive the sea.

With a monstrous pilot as guide, and an ex-assassin as captain, Chang, Zaya, and the crew of the mighty Prince sail into uncharted waters. There they may find new lands and wealth, as well as glory beyond their dreams, or nothing but their doom.

Set in the same epic world as the award winning Kings of Paradise…this new series from author Richard Nell can be read on its own, or as a continuation of the Ash and Sand trilogy.

Read Dark Sea’s End by Richard Nell

Dragon Mage by M.L. Spencer

Picked by Jodie Crump

“The kind of book you can enjoy as an exciting action movie for a couple of weeks.”

Read the rest of our review

Aram Raythe has the power to challenge the gods. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Aram thinks he’s nothing but a misfit from a small fishing village in a dark corner of the world. As far as Aram knows, he has nothing, with hardly a possession to his name other than a desire to make friends and be accepted by those around him, which is something he’s never known.

But Aram is more. Much, much more.

Unknown to him, Aram bears within him a gift so old and rare that many people would kill him for it, and there are others who would twist him to use for their own sinister purposes. These magics are so potent that Aram earns a place at an academy for warrior mages training to earn for themselves the greatest place of honor among the armies of men: dragon riders.

Aram will have to fight for respect by becoming not just a dragon rider, but a Champion, the caliber of mage that hasn’t existed in the world for hundreds of years. And the land needs a Champion. Because when a dark god out of ancient myth arises to threaten the world of magic, it is Aram the world will turn to in its hour of need.

Read Dragon Mage by M.L. Spencer

The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse

Picked by James Tivendale

“Greathouse should be proud of what he has accomplished here. The Hand of the Sun King is an excellent mix of classic and modern fantasy with a grimdark undertone of despair.”

Read our review

My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.

All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother’s family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance.

I can choose between them – between protecting my family, or protecting my people – or I can search out a better path . . . a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by Empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation.

But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves . . .

Read The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng by K.S. Villoso

Picked by Ryan Howse

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng“Sharp characterization, clever dialogue, and intricate politics. The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng is a strong, striking conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.”

Read the rest of our review

Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Read The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng by K.S. Villoso

Sidewinders by Robert V.S. Redick

Picked by Julia Frazer

“A beautiful fever-dream of a novel that is bound to impress. Redick has outdone himself with this second installment, and no doubt the third novel will continue to surpass and subvert expectations.”

Read our review

Read Julia’s interview with Robert V.S. Redick here

The worst of rivals, the closest of friends, the two most wanted men in a war-torn world: Kandri and Mektu Hinjuman have cheated death so often it’s begun to feel like a way of life. But nothing has prepared them for the danger and enchantment of the Ravenous Lands. This sprawling, lethal desert is the brothers’ last hope, for they have killed the favorite son of Her Radiance the Prophet, and her death-priests and magical servants are hunting them day and night.

But there are dangers even within their caravan. Some of their fellow travelers worship the Prophet in secret. Others, including Mektu, have become obsessed with a bejeweled dagger that seems to afflict its owners with madness or death.

At stake is far more than the lives of two runaway soldiers. Kandri is carrying an encoded cure for the World Plague, a disease that has raged for centuries—while far from the desert, certain criminals have learned just how lucrative a plague can be. Are they using the Prophet, or being used by her? Who, in this game of shadows, can Kandri trust?

He knows one thing, however: they must reach Kasralys, great and beautiful fortress-city of the east. Only there can the precious cure be deciphered. Only there can Kandri seek word of the lover who vanished one night without a trace.

But Kasralys, never conquered in 3,000 years, is about to face its greatest siege in history.

Read Sidewinders by Robert V.S. Redick

Master Artificer by Justin Call

Picked by Elizabeth Tabler

Master Artificer has taken the fantasy rulebook, beat it with a bat, and then set it on fire. The tonal shift from the first book to the second is staggering, yet Call makes it work. He drags you along with Annev into the muck and mire, and you want to be there.”

Read our review

Annev has avoided one fate. But a darker path may still claim him . . .

After surviving the destruction of Chaenbalu, new mysteries and greater threats await Annev and his friends in the capital city of Luqura. As they navigate the city’s perilous streets, Annev searches for a way to control his nascent magic and remove the cursed artifact now fused to his body.

But what might removing it cost him?

As Annev grapples with his magic, Fyn joins forces with old enemies and new allies, waging a secret war against Luqura’s corrupt guilds in the hopes of forging his own criminal empire. Deep in the Brakewood, Myjun is learning new skills of her own as apprentice to Oyru, the shadow assassin who attacked the village of Chaenbalu – but the power of revenge comes at a daunting price. And back in Chaenbalu itself, left for dead in the Academy’s ruins, Kenton seeks salvation in the only place he can: the power hoarded in the Vault of Damnation . . .

Read Master Artificer by Justin Call

Idols Fall by Mike Shel

Picked by Nate Aubin

Agnes Manteo now bears her father’s sentient Djao sword, along with a terrible revelation—the gods are charlatans, ancient sorcerers who draw their strength from the suffering of humanity. She and her Syraeic companions have but one duty: to track down those pretenders and end their reign of cruelty and lies, no matter the cost. To that end, the magical blade—mighty, single-minded Szaa’da’shaela—won’t allow any wavering of their commitment.

But the empire is in turmoil with the sudden passing of its undying queen. Noble houses clash and threaten civil war, murderous barbarians mass on the frontier in preparation for a bloody invasion, and all feel the aching void left by the clergy, whose temples were devastated by a great fire. Can the kingdom survive should Agnes succeed in tearing away its very foundations?

And if she fails? What might sorcerers with nearly godlike powers do to exact their revenge?

Read Idols Fall by Mike Shel

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Picked by Eugene Vassilev

“A bonafide instant classic and I sure as hell can’t wait to see what Buehlman comes up with next.”

Read our review

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.

But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.

Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.

Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva’s. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.

Read The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Picked by Adrian Collins

“Full of heart, heartbreaking, revealing, and has one of the most enjoyable and brutal last page twists I’ve read in a long time.”

Read our review

“She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own.”

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­–a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

Read Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J. Hayes

Picked by Chris Haught

Pawn's Gambit“Pure adventure and heart.”

Read our review

Merciless gods, vengeful spirits, immortal assassins, and empires at war collide.

Five years ago, Yuu made a mistake that cost her everything. Once a renowned strategist and general, now she is on the run, royal bounty hunters snapping at her heels. But what if there was a way to get back what she lost, a way to bring back a murdered prince?

Once a century, the gods hold a contest to choose who will rule from the Jade Throne. Each god chooses a mortal champion, and the fate of heaven and earth hangs in the balance.

On a battlefield full of heroes, warriors, assassins, and thieves can Yuu survive long enough to learn the rules of the game, let alone master it?

Read Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J. Hayes

The Last Watch by J.S Dewes

Picked by Mike Myers

“Combines likeable rogue characters, interesting scientific speculation, and some subtly great, unpretentious writing into a very entertaining space opera.”

Read our review

The Divide.

It’s the edge of the universe.

Now it’s collapsing—and taking everyone and everything with it.

The only ones who can stop it are the Sentinels—the recruits, exiles, and court-martialed dregs of the military.

At the Divide, Adequin Rake, commanding the Argus, has no resources, no comms—nothing, except for the soldiers that no one wanted.

They’re humanity’s only chance.

Read The Last Watch by J.S Dewes

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Picked by Edward Gwynne

Watch the Brothers Gwynne interview with Miles Cameron here

Out in the darkness of space, something is targeting the Greatships.

With their vast cargo holds and a crew that could fill a city, the Greatships are the lifeblood of human-occupied space, transporting an unimaginable volume – and value – of goods from City, the greatest human orbital, all the way to Tradepoint at the other, to trade for xenoglas with an unknowable alien species.

It has always been Marca Nbaro’s dream to achieve the near-impossible: escape her upbringing and venture into space.

All it took, to make her way onto the crew of the Greatship Athens was thousands of hours in simulators, dedication, and pawning or selling every scrap of her old life in order to forge a new one. But though she’s made her way onboard with faked papers, leaving her old life – and scandals – behind isn’t so easy.

She may have just combined all the dangers of her former life, with all the perils of the new . . .

Read Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

And that’s it so far! There’s plenty more good books coming out this year, and you can catch our list of most anticipated books for 2021 here.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.