As long-time readers will recall, it is our habit to begin a new reviewing year by asking the Strange Horizons reviewers to talk about the other things they read, watched, and played during the previous year. Last year, I said: "During 2020 most of us have leaned harder than ever on books, TV, and games of one sort or another to fill our time," and that has been true, too, of 2021, the second year of the pandemic. This year, however, many of us, myself included, have struggled at times to read or watch anything at all, and when we did, we often turned to comfort reading/viewing of one sort or another. I've received a lot of apologetic emails about this but the truth is, I've found it vastly reassuring to know it wasn't just me that felt this way, and have in turn been trying to offer reassurance that it is absolutely OK to feel like this, because none of us have ever lived through a pandemic before and we do not know how it affects us beyond trying not to catch COVID. Once again, I'm writing this with no clear idea of what the new year is about to bring us, other than an approach to infection control driven more by capitalism than good science. So, while we hope for better times, get vaccinated if you are able to, stay safe if you are not able to, wear a mask, and be kind to one another wherever possible.
And now, on to the first of three instalments of our reviewers' thoughts on 2021.
Katy Armstrong: I live with regular Strange Horizons reviewer Erin Horáková, so we watch a lot of the same television and films. (But my name is ahead of hers in the alphabet, ha!) My favourites from this year were teen superhero Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir and the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows. Both are now in later series, which have given them scope to break their initial formulas and grow into even better shows. Massively popular superhero anime My Hero Academia was half brilliant (awkward but inspiring work-placement with Endeavour!) and half meh (villain origin stories). The new movie—World Heroes Mission—was excellent, and incidentally the first thing I’ve seen in the cinema this pandemic. I watched DC’s Shazam! for the first time on Netflix and almost immediately watched it again with Erin: it’s that good!
I reviewed Rainbow Rowell’s Any Way the Wind Blows for this magazine and loved it. It’s probably no surprise that I also enjoyed other queer YA fantasy novels that hail from a fanfic-romance tradition. These include Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, Dark Rise by C. S. Pacat, author of Captive Prince, and (arguably) the first two books of K. D. Edwards's Tarot Sequence. All great at making you care about characters you’ve never met before and setting romance against an epic political backdrop. Not new to me, but I’d also include Weak Heart (“LGBT+ horror fantasy featuring blood, sea salt, magic, and banter”) by Ban Gilmartin in this category, which I reread and loved just as much.
This time last year I was looking forward to Kristin Cashore’s Winterkeep, and I was not disappointed when I read it in a single day back in January. Cashore is one of my favourite authors in fantasy at the moment and I love that she chose to revisit Bitterblue and let us see her again, older (we first met her as a six-year-old) and dealing with old traumas and new problems. Graceling, the first book in that series, is also out this year as a beautiful graphic novel, with art by Gareth Hinds.
My mum died from cancer at the end of October. Back in July, just after London theatres were opening up, she and I saw Constellations, starring Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah. It’s about dying from cancer (I didn’t know that beforehand), relationships, beekeeping, science, and a multiverse of possibilities. Very powerful, worth watching on demand if it comes back. After she died, I revisited two of my favourite books about love and loss: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince, and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. I’d recommend both to anyone, but particularly to people who had similar years to me.
Redfern Jon Barrett: I can’t stop talking about An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King. As those who’ve followed my reviews will doubtless be aware, I’ve spent the past couple years slogging through several disappointing works by big-name sci-fi authors, so fresh new tales from talented new novelists are bringing me even more joy than they would otherwise. Set in a near-future China and dealing with the man-choked aftermath of the one-child policy, An Excess Male has it all: compelling social speculation, well-crafted characterisation, and, most importantly, actual queer people actually existing in the world. It’s everything I could want from a smart speculative novel, and along with The Offset by Calder Szewczak, it gives me real hope that up-and-coming authors can cut through the unimpressive dross churned out by more established literary figures.
This year I’ve also been delving into speculative short stories: buying up old copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction from a Kreuzberg sci-fi bookstore, as well as perusing the e-inked pages of Analog, Asimov’s, and of course, Strange Horizons. I’ve thankfully replaced my mentally destructive habit of spending an hour furiously checking the news each morning with a gentler routine of reading wonderfully constructed short stories—and I’m all the happier for it. After all, coffee tastes better with thoughtful curiosity than ineffective rage.
This might (definitely) be a shameful self-plug, but this August a short story of mine made it into the inaugural issue of PS Publishing’s new magazine, ParSec, and having read it cover to cover I’m genuinely proud to have been included in its launch. Featuring stories by Dan Abnett, Ken MacLeod, and Esther M. Friesner, ParSec is a strong new entry onto the speculative scene, and I’ll definitely be adding it to my literary rotation.
Nicole Berland: In a guest editorial for the horror website Bloody Disgusting, showrunner Mike Flanagan calls his third Netflix miniseries “the single most rewarding professional experience of my life.” While his prior two series were based on literary fiction from genre pioneers, Shirley Jackson and Henry James, Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s own, original, deeply personal teleplay, which represents more than a decade of labor. The new series extends his reputation for atmospheric, character-driven psychological horror, drawing on themes that will be familiar to any of his longtime fans—addiction, mental illness, family dysfunction, faith, loss, and redemption.
The series takes place in a small, fictional island community diminished by emigration and an oil spill that has crippled its fishing industry. Crockett Island feels like a place out of time, where people still use landlines and knock on each other’s doors without texting first. The opening episode sees the arrival of a strange young priest, Father Paul Hill (played by Hamish Linklater). All of the series’ actors are outstanding, but none more so than Linklater, whose quiet passion makes him, just like the Lord he serves, terrifying, soothing, and irresistible all at once. Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s magnum opus—more fully developed and cleanly articulated than any of his earlier series. To say much more at this point would be to give too much away, but I will tell you that each of the show’s ten episodes feels like a revelation.
M. L. Clark: If 2020 was the year for seeking comfort in my entertainment choices, 2021 was a year for reflecting on what stories we’re carrying forward. Through new visual media like Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time, much of our discourse interrogated the role, relevance, and fealty of classic SFF book adaptations. Foundation and The Wheel of Time made significant changes to mediate the source material’s poor representation of humanity’s fullness (though, for me, these visually pleasing productions are still fairly stilted on a character level), while Dune, also visually impressive, prompted significant criticism because of its lack of MENA [Middle East and North African) representation in a story expressly written with strong Arabic and Middle Eastern cultural references.
Newer story vehicles were more thought-provoking for me. The South Korean film Space Sweepers (2021), about a ragtag found family scraping by in a system built by a techno-tyrant, offered an approach to juggling drama and goofiness more common to the region’s cinema, and sorely needed in our own. C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken (2021) invited us into a more nuanced realm of colonialist discourse, a European-Middle-Eastern fantasy analogue that analyses systemic power from a wide range of differently (dis)empowered subject-positions. And fresh off the launch of Leviathan Falls, the last book in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series, this fan is facing down the end of the TV series (season six launched December 10) with tremendous gratitude for the ride.
One modern classic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006), also made for a wallop of a read this year. Its tale of an imaginary African nation struggling under a dictator with delusions of divine supremacy, and the resistance movements working for a better world instead, is both long and compelling, with a deep and hard-won humour. It’s a perfect reminder that the issue should never be “why are we adapting classics?” and more, “are we adapting enough classics to reflect the full, wondrous histories in our genre, as in the world?”
Rachel S. Cordasco: Though SF in translation wasn’t pouring into our laps this year, a very respectable amount was published. Notable in this group was the fascinating Nova Hellas: Stories from Future Greece (the first anthology of Greek SFT); Italian author Francesco Verso’s first collection, Futurespotting; the second volume of Zion’s Fiction from Israel; the first English publication of Robot (from Poland’s greatest science fiction author Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg), and the conclusion to Swedish horror author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Places trilogy (this last book is called I Am the Tiger, translated Marlaine Delargy). I’m currently halfway through that last item, and there’s something about Delargy’s translation into English that is so smooth and haunting, and I’d love to talk to someone who’s read this in Swedish!
And to do a little horn-tooting: my reference book Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium, is out from the University of Illinois Press in just a couple of weeks! It includes chapter introductions by Emad Aysha, Mingwei Song, Julie Novakova, J. Pekka Mäkelä, Edward Gauvin, Sonja Fritzsche, Keren Omry, Francesco Verso, Takayuki Tatsumi, Sunyoung Park, Wojciech Orliński, Dale Knickerbocker, and Maria Haskins.
Jonathan Crowe: I almost certainly read less in 2021 than you did. It’s indicative of what kind of year I had that there was a 136-day period in which I did not finish a single book. There were books I was very much looking forward to at the start of the year that I still have yet to crack. I may need to turn in my reviewer’s card.
In terms of what I was able to finish this year, I appreciated Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and Karin Tidbeck’s The Memory Theater for their failure to conform to genre expectations: I was struck by how Piranesi left its protagonist permanently changed by his experience; The Memory Theater was astonishingly laconic and spare, eschewing detailed description—atypical in a genre that can get extremely wordy. I like short books like these; I also tend to avoid series. There are exceptions: two this year were Seth Dickinson’s The Tyrant Baru Cormorant and Ada Palmer’s Perhaps the Stars, third and fourth books, respectively, in their series, both a good deal longer than their antecedents, and both of which perambulated more than they strictly needed to. None of which, in the end, prevented either from being impossible to put down.
On the nonfiction front, as a fan of Christopher Priest’s reality-twisting Dream Archipelago sequence who does not always understand what the hell Priest is doing, I found Paul Kincaid’s Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest both readable and helpful. (Priest’s latest, The Evidence, which I also read this year, came too late to be included in Kincaid’s study, but still benefits from it.) On the other hand, Nat Segaloff’s 2017 biography of Harlan Ellison, A Lit Fuse, struck me as the opposite of critical: an amanuensis’s apologia aimed at explaining and exculpating the behaviour rather than examining the work, one that acknowledges Ellison’s tendency toward falsehood without taking the time to interrogate it properly.
Shannon Fay: I know this isn’t a unique choice, but I loved Squid Game. I am just an all-around sucker for death game stories—when done right, they embody the best spirit of “subtlety is for cowards.” Squid Game follows a familiar setup (people play a game where their very lives are at stake) but it brings a level of creativity and panache that makes it seem fresh, while also introducing twists that just further enhance the themes and characters. I love that it was a hit, not just because it’s good, but because it gave me something to talk about with people besides the fact that COVID case numbers are going up again in my town (wheeeee!).
In 2021 I had a goal of reading a book a week—I am currently at forty-seven books out of fifty-two (I’m hoping to fit in five more in these last few weeks of December, which should be easy since I’m not planning to go to many social gatherings!). Of the books I read, Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge is probably my overall fav, and I feel like I’ll love it even more upon a reread. Lakewood by Megan Giddings is a sci-fi thriller that still gives me chills when I think about it. I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by Kim Bo-Young is an amazing collection of stories that manages to say a lot about love and connection without being saccharine.
In 2022, I am looking forward to Squid Games season two and getting a booster shot (fingers crossed on both counts!).
Debbie Gascoyne: My three favourite books this year were all relatively short, very much anchored in a vivid sense of place, and characterized by strong, poetic prose. Chronologically, the first of these I read was The Wolf Road, by Richard Lambert. This is an extraordinarily accomplished debut YA novel, written by an established poet, perhaps not really fantasy but skirting its edges, steeped in myth, and the suggestion of horror. It is one of the most powerful and unsentimental portraits of grief I have ever read; I think it was the psychological truth of the novel that impressed me as much as the sharply drawn characters of Lucas and his grandmother, both coping with tragedy and eventually finding solace in their relationship as well as in the landscape and wildlife of the Lake District. This book left me breathless, and it’s the one I’m recommending to anyone who will listen.
The second was Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, which probably needs no introduction. It is a wonderful mysterious puzzle of a book; I feel the need to reread it, and I’m sure I shall, if only to revisit the mysterious labyrinthine halls wherein dwells the title character, the narrator, Piranesi. When I finished it I wasn’t sure it was a masterpiece, and I’m still not, but I can’t deny that it still haunts me months later.
Last, but very much not least was Treacle Walker, by Alan Garner, which I think is a masterpiece, but then Garner is always astonishing. I’ve grown up with his books, having been given the Puffin version of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when I was about eight, and thence reading all his books more or less as they were published. It was he who opened the door to fantasy for me, more than any other writer. So now I, in my sixties, am reading a work by an author in his eighties, one that in some ways encompasses all his past books and all his preoccupations with time and space and all his art and all his craft, and my personal response to this book is nuanced by my life reading and thinking about and being influenced by his work. I’ve only just finished it—perhaps fittingly its journey to me by post was delayed by recent severe flooding in the Fraser valley in my home province—and it begs for rereading. Such a treat.
Zachary Gillan: I’d been looking forward to a new A. C. Wise collection since reading The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories in 2016, and even more so after reading “Harvest Song, Gathering Song” last year, an improbably successful story about American soldiers on the hunt for magical honey. The Ghost Sequences did not disappoint. It’s full of haunting stories (including “Harvest Song”) that could easily not have worked for one reason or another, which makes their consistent success that much more impressive. Perhaps most remarkable in that sense is “In the End, It Always Turns Out The Same,” a very dark, very sad, and very thinly veiled riff on Scooby-Doo and the gang, of all things. Many are structurally ambitious, shifting timelines and perspectives effortlessly, but still emotionally resonant, thanks in no small part to Wise’s prose, rich without being ostentatious. Other favorites include “The Nag Bride,” about two friends rehabbing a house while dealing with a local folk legend, the feminist Hollywood horror “Excerpts from a Film (1942–1987),” and the title story, about four artists dealing with a haunt making its way into the world through their art. A wonderful book that is well and truly safe to judge by its remarkable cover.
I’d also be remiss not to mention Erica Ruppert’s “Homecoming,” from Dim Shores Presents Vol. 2, about a woman called back to her small hometown to deal with her mother’s passing, which mines similarly melancholic and morbid territory in an even more forlorn and terse manner. I also mostly loved Mary Gentle’s maximalist Rats and Gargoyles, first published in 1990, an early and unjustly obscure example of what would be called the New Weird. For the first two hundredpages or so I thought I had found a new favorite novel, a beautifully atmospheric take on Hermetic science in the endless expanses of an unnamed city populated by lowly humans, noble giant Rats, and unfathomable stone Decans. The overly detailed plot churned on longer than it needed to and eventually wore off some of the luster, but that first half can be held up as an exemplary bridge between Viriconium and Ambergris, Ashamoil, and their counterparts.