Marisa Mercurio: Over the past few years, I’ve devoted my evenings to catching up on classic horror movies. Or, more accurately, classics and schlocky forgotten flicks with lots of flesh and unrealistic gore. Though I don’t feel any of the nostalgia for the 1980s that makes Stranger Things so popular, I confess that the decade’s colorful and brazen take on horror appeals to me more than any other era. So, even though I’m dreadful at keeping up with new movies, I made sure to sit down to watch Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut film Censor as soon as it was released this year.
As media moralizing resurges from politicians and audiences alike (“Is that sex scene really necessary? I’m not taking my kids to see that movie!”), Censor is a refreshing rejection of moral clarity. Enid, a censor who works for the British Board of Film Classification, takes pride in her chopping block but begins to wonder what she’s cut from her own memory when she reviews a movie that seemingly stars her presumed-dead sister. Its homage to the Thatcher-era video nasty—low-budget and exploitation horror movies lambasted by critics on obscenity grounds—deconstructs the fallacy of censorship, in life and on screen. It’s smart but it doesn’t try to explain too much. And, frankly, as the pandemic marches on and my attention span drains slowly away, I’m gaga for any movie that manages to be a dizzying nightmare in under 90 minutes. And the colors!
For anyone who has old VHS tapes somewhere in their memory, Censor’s horror spliced between the static is the perfect anti-nostalgia dip back into the 80s. As a bonus, pair Censor with Valancourt Books’s equally delightful Paperbacks from Hell series of resurrected gems.
Archita Mittra: I spent the latter half of 2020 trying to come to terms with my trauma, and 2021 made things far worse. I spent most of this year in a daze, seeking comfort and solace in art and looking for ways to escape reality. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern was one such distraction, packed with puzzles and stories-within-stories and evocative descriptions of the fantastical. Masterfully crafted, intricately layered, and extremely ambitious, I felt that this novel wasn’t praised enough, unlike The Night Circus. With court intrigue being one of my favorite genres, I finally got a chance to read and complete The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The second and third books, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia respectively, quickly became my favorites, as they were packed with the exact kind of romance and suspense that I adore, and my only regret is that I did not read them when I was younger. I also picked up The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune, a beautiful and heart-warming book about found families that felt like a warm, tight hug and made me cry like a child. Finally, Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January brought back childhood memories of reading The Chronicles of Narnia and other portal fantasies for the first time—the sheer sense of joy and wonder of falling down rabbit holes and exploring vast wonderlands crafted with words and imagination. As the year ends, I realize with gratitude that no matter where I am, I will always have stories by my side, and for a while at least, that is more than enough.
Eve Morton: I started off this year teaching a science fiction course for my university and reviewing all of my favourites, plus finding a few more. I reviewed one of them for SH this year (Love After The End by Joshua Whitehead) and I spent way too long talking to my students about PKD. If you haven’t read him, then I’ll give the same advice I gave my students: start with “The Minority Report” or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Then move onto Ubik. If you’re still not convinced, I can’t get you there, but if you are, have fun in this zany electric wilderness.
I also had a baby this year, so I ended up falling in love again with the form of the short story, especially those written with a pulp market in mind. I read Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, and many best of science fiction, fantasy, and horror collections while I nursed and rocked my son to sleep. Anytime I had fifteen minutes between tasks, I told myself to read something short, so anthologies (especially Queer Fear edited by Michael Rowe; anything by Ellen Datlow and Rhonda Parish), flash fiction (DailySF), and podcasts specializing in these forms (EscapePod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, etc.), were wonderful and so necessary.
By the time I returned to work in September, I’d found the wonderful work of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I ended up falling in love with their Fiction River series, so if you’re looking for some quick reads with still a lot of quality plotting, characters, and SF exploration—go for them. They do great work on StoryBundle as well (I have the Christmas bundle currently on my phone) and I discovered a local Canadian author during a previous bundle this year whom I knew but didn’t know I knew; turns out, horror author Mark Leslie lives up the street from me and also has great horror stories. Small world!
That’s really what reading in 2021 has felt like: small worlds colliding. It’s been a blast, too, made even better by rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my son. He’s still just a babe, but enjoying the images of space exploration and Picard nonetheless.
Samira Nadkarni: 2021 has been an odd year of a variety of my worlds colliding. With supply chain issues and the Ever Given running aground in the Suez Canal in March, people suddenly seemed to become aware of shipping in a way that I haven’t seen much of over the last decade. I yelled a lot about the crew change crisis and also bought and read Chuck Tingle’s I Freed This Handsome Cargo Ship From The Suez Canal And Now He’s Stuck In My Butt (2021) and then made a cake of myself by having a cackling meltdown about the difference between general cargo and container ships. While I love the sheer number of ship-fucking jokes, books, and fanfics on the topic, it did leave me wishing people would also look under the memes to the ongoing labour crisis in the Panama Canal as well and show up for those unions. The visibility does help.
I watched the gritty live-action reboot of Fate: The Winx Saga (2021–present) which is the expansion of a property explicitly about teen soldiers, really pointedly tying together this idea of being trained for war to the process of schooling. There’s been a large influx of this sort of ideology of training child/teen soldiers in western media—Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, the Legacies offshoot of The Vampire Diaries, etc.—and it’s telling that this is not only sexifying the militarisation of schooling that’s divorced from existing realities of what schooling in war zones is like, but that this becomes about the production of schooling towards a larger notion of preserving an existing culture as cause. As education is increasingly under attack around the world and codified to particular styles of nationalism, the subtle reinforcing of this ideology through media is something I feel is worth keeping an eye on.
For respite, I’ve been reading Charlie Adhara’s gay paranormal romance series, Big Bad Wolf. I have a particular soft spot for romance novels that allow people to be broken and complicated, to recognise when that’s harmful, and to slowly put in the work to be better for themselves and the people they love, and these give me all of that. The novels also seem to be shifting away from their initial focus on policing into a recognition of how broken that system is and towards more community-based repair, and it’s what’s kept me reading through all five novels (so far).
Alongside these, I also read and immensely enjoyed R. B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves (2020) and David Bowles’s translation of José Luis Zárate’s The Route of Ice and Salt (2021), both of which are fascinating books of queer fiction that offer so much to a careful reader. Since I can’t seem to stop myself, I’ve also continued to watch seasons two and three of The CW’s Nancy Drew (2019–present) which continues to be terrible and amazing all at once, good grief.
Despite everything, SFF of all stripes is stronger than ever. The funnest novels I read this year might be M. A. Carrick’s The Mask of Mirrors and The Liar’s Knot—queer normative swashbuckling in a richly imagined secondary world with masked heroes, con artists, and intricate magic. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful makes a compelling bid to be the queer Gatsby retelling with magic we were all waiting for; Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun is a luminous queer retelling of the founding of the Ming dynasty. Leigh Bardugo’s Rule of Wolves and Kristin Cashore’s Winterkeep both levelled up their respective already great YA series even further. Returning to the Old Kingdom with Garth Nix’s Terciel and Elinor, and the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Sabriel, was a much-needed reprieve. I also read two oldies but goodies worth mentioning: Naomi Mitchison’s Arthuriana-with-journalists, To the Chapel Perilous, and Roger Zelazny’s Halloween/Lovecraft/genre mashup, A Night in the Lonesome October.
I didn’t see many movies this year, but The Green Knight and Dune were easily the best movies I’ve seen in years: they made me remember just how transporting and expansive movies can be.
I did watch a decent amount of TV. Star Trek: Lower Decks was just as good in the second season, and Discovery season four has been great so far, but Star Trek: Prodigy blew me out of the water with just five episodes. It secretly might be the best of the current Trek shows. I enjoyed Loki quite a lot, and Dickinson is sticking the landing on its final season. Star Wars: The Bad Batch has gorgeous animation and a nicely unpredictable plot, and Star Wars Visions was gorgeous and strange and well worth watching.
Comics have been great too. This year saw another excellent volume of Monstress, but also the final volume of Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ mind-blowing and incisive DIE, as well as another volume of Once and Future from Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora, still the best Brexit take on King Arthur that I know. The amazing webcomic Lore Olympus saw its first print volume, and I enjoyed Theo van Ellsberg’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Secret Life. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Wonder Woman: Historia is destined for the history books, and N. K. Jemisin’s Green Lantern comic with Jamal Campbell, Far Sector, is one of the best works of sci-fi I’ve read in a while. Inspired by Loki, I went back and read Kieron Gillen’s transformative run on Journey into Mystery and his mic drop run on Young Avengers with Jamie McKelvie, both of which are classics that continue to influence the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Speaking of which, I also reread the Matt Fraction and David Aja run of Hawkeye, and yup: it’s still great. And having finally read Saga vol. 9, I now await its resumption with bated breath, along with everyone else.
May 2022 be better for all of us. We’ll have to work for it.
Catherine Rockwood: In October I read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013), which sensible and not-overdramatic people have been yelling—yelling!—about since its publication. Maybe I put off reading the book because I was intimidated by all the yelling? So in case you’ve been intimidated too, I will whisper: you’re right to be concerned. It’s so good it will change you. It also changes its own heritage of texts. Read this, won’t you, against Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan? “Clad in a white silk robe with turmeric on my cheeks, I scrape through the stone and am eaten up by the hillside. At the last I feel a tearing anguish, the agony of departure. Never have I been so far from home.” That is also the feeling of turning the last page of this sublime novel.
Emily Tesh’s Greenhollow duology, Silver in the Wood (Tor, 2019) and Drowned Country (Tor, 2020) begins charming and swoony but ends in a grateful, bittersweet complexity that measures the plight of its lovers against the terrors of deep time. It’s a wonderful read, enjoyable, and emotionally satisfying.
I also admired Premee Mohamed’s new climate novella The Annual Migration of Clouds (ECW Press, 2021), which seems self-consciously linked to post-apocalyptic genre texts like Barbara Hambly’s Darwath novels and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, but again is a book unafraid of its influences and prepared to change them to its own ends. The novella is unwilling either to over-promise or to despair about its narrator’s fate: it is, in other words, a very fitting text for its time.
Ian Simpson: Disney+ offered up a potential box of delights from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (on the small screen) at the start of 2021. And boy did we need some delights! So, in order of release, my thoughts on a dazzling array of superheroes.
Wandavision was first off the bat, reuniting the grieving Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in what appeared to be homages to early American sitcoms, with each episode moving forward a decade or so. The conceit was ridiculously clever, and kept everyone guessing early doors. It introduced us to Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), who was clearly the star of the show. Shame that the last episode descended into a typical Marvel special effects slugfest. Still, a joy to watch.
Not so much, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which in all honesty should have been just The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), with Bucky (Sebastian Stan) receiving short shrift in the plot. Harking back to the tone of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this show was fairly pedestrian with the exception of the plotline involving Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). The Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) arc seems like a misstep to me. On the upside, it was great to see a young female antihero in Erin Kellyman’s Karli, keeping up the MCU’s tradition of the big bad with relatable and good-intentioned motives.
Loki, on the other hand, was both great fun and poignant. While Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki wasn’t as mischievous as the main timeline character (the only disappointment on the series), his relationship with Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) was the heart of the show. Owen Wilson’s Mobius was such a lovely change of pace for an MCU character. Meanwhile, Richard E. Grant’s all-too-brief appearance as Loki was the show-stealer. The Time Variance Authority and the introduction of the excellently portrayed Kang will prove to be vital, no doubt.
I miss Agent Carter. So, I was delighted to see the return of Hayley Atwell to What if…? I’ve always been intrigued by the Watcher in the comics so it was with great anticipation that I sat down to the MCU’s first stab at animation. The first few episodes did not disappoint, with sumptuous animation and some fun “what if” concepts. I was slightly disappointed later on, however, when it transpired that the stories were coming together in an arc. Especially when it came to the story of the Watcher. The biggest downer of the year’s Marvel TV.
Hawkeye, however, brought everything back on track. I’m a huge fan of Kate Bishop from Matt Fraction’s comics and Hailee Steinfeld blew away my expectations with an excellent portrayal. With elements of the wider MCU and other Marvel characters coming together in a show about family and Clint Barton’s acceptance of his past, this Christmas outing was nothing short of magical. A perfect end to the year.
So, now we’ve been introduced to Kid Loki, Kate Bishop, Yelena Belova, and Wanda’s kids, how long before Marvel announces the Young Avengers? Fingers crossed!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: So, 2021 … remarkably like 2020, alas, even down to the growing possibility of an end-of-year lockdown. I’m not appreciating the Groundhog Day memes right now, nor the incompetence of the UK’s Prime Minister.
Reading has continued to be fitful. I’ve kept a reading log and it tells me I read little at the beginning of the year (I finished nothing in February) but as the year has gone by the reading mojo has returned, though I’m still reading more nonfiction; in fiction I’ve done a lot of rereading.
The year started well, with Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which was everything I hoped for. Gripping, complex, and haunting by turns, as the narrator describes his daily life in a mysterious palace of statues and gradually comes to realise that he once had another life and is in fact a prisoner. I’m still threatening to write about it. Maybe this Christmas holiday will provide me with space for that.
I shall embarrass our very own Gautam Bhatia by saying how much I enjoyed his debut novel, The Wall, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with its sequel, The Horizon. Quite apart from the nods to such classic writers as Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wall had more than a passing flavour of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria about it, which made me very happy. I also commend Jeff Noon’s most recent Nyquist mystery, Within Without, in which John Nyquist grapples with the nature of identity as he handles a case involving an actor’s stolen persona (and I choose my words very carefully here).
For some reason I’ve also spent a lot of time revisiting an early passion for ghost stories. Susan Owens’s The Ghost: A Cultural History and Catherine Belsey’s Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History provided history and theory while Handheld Press’s Elinor Mordaunt: The Villa and the Vortex, and Eleanor Scott’s Randall’s Round provided the fiction, along with a reread of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I’m now reading/rereading the complete works of Shirley Jackson, and would also recommend Ruth Franklin’s exemplary biography of Jackson: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.
Alan Garner published another novel, the extremely strange Treacle Walker. Its reception has been mixed so far; everything from it being lauded as a work of genius to its being incomprehensible. So far I am somewhere in the middle with this one. There are some astonishing dramatic moments, but it leans heavily on the reader having a detailed (and I mean, really detailed) knowledge of Garner's previous work. Which has in turn prompted me to think about how one reviews a book that is being marketed at a general audience with certain expectations but which was clearly written for a more particular audience. That's a technical challenge for 2022.
And with Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf winning a Hugo this year I want to draw your attention to Gillian Clarke’s new version of The Gododdin, composed by the poet Aneirin in the seventh century BCE and then written down, in Welsh, in the fourteenth century. It’s a series of short laments for the fallen warriors, written by someone who witnessed the battle, and is commemorating his fallen comrades. The pain echoes across fourteen centuries in a way I find extraordinary.
As I write this, it is the Winter Solstice, which means time to dust off the DVD of the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (to be followed this year by their adaptation of Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe), and I have finally cracked, taken out a subscription to Amazon Prime, and I will be watching The Green Knight, at just the right time of year.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I’ve prefaced my last several contributions to this annual group review with disclaimers about how little I’ve read and how difficult it has been—2020 was a low point, and (in several respects) 2021 was no different. Over this period I’ve found nonfiction far more forgiving of my fragmented reading abilities, and that continued to be true this year. I was grateful for the vastnesses of Henriette Gunkel and Ayesha Hameed’s Visual Cultures as Time Travel, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, and Sujit Sivasundaram’s Waves Across the South.
Fictionwise, I read Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight a year later than I’d planned to, and loved its human and inhuman monsters and its characters living in community with one another. I have a lot of feelings about Megan Milks’s Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, the one novel that I did read in one, breathless overnight session this year, but they are forthcoming in these pages (for now, please accept that it is a good book). I also loved Harry Josephine Giles’s verse novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia, and Freedom Fables, a collection of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s fables, essays, and poems. And so on to 2022, when I am once again overestimating my ability to read anything, and planning a Ulysses reread (maybe if I put that here I’ll be shamed into actually doing it).
Lesley Wheeler: I had to read up on contemporary tales of the Fae for a WorldCon panel in December, and it was the best homework ever. I was taken, so to speak, by Emily Tesh’s queering of the Green Man legend in the Greenhollow duology; interestingly, the fairies aren’t suffering from environmental threats to the wild world but themselves represent depletion, as if fairy lore itself is a destructive force. The Fae bureaucracy in Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe is hilarious (her riff on vampire lore is terrific, too). In The Absolute Book, Elizabeth Knox conjures intersecting worlds, including a version of fairyland, in a seriously mesmerizing mystery-fantasy that I’d recommend to anybody. Many recent tales of Faerie focus on migration, colonization, and on reading itself. Zen Cho’s The True Queen involves a student’s dangerous, urgent journey through the Fairy Queen’s realm. Emily Croy Barker’s main character in Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is a literature scholar who changes tracks to research the creepy Faitoren and how religion works in their perilous world. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng portrays a young woman who follows her missionary brother on a benighted attempt to bring Christianity to the Fae; the key to comprehending who she is and where she’s landed is a bible translated into the local tongue, which may also be the language of angels. The Fae, that is, are as fascinating and slippery as they ever were. Navigating their worlds requires religious study, political acumen, and novel-reading.
Some powerful recent poetry collections with strong kinships to speculative genres: Sally Rosen Kindred’s Where the Wolf gives us fairy tales of families under strain, particularly in relation to mental health and a parent’s dementia; Eric Tran’s The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer engages SF through comics; and Bill Manhire’s Wow includes epistles from the climate-change apocalypse.
Finally, I was riveted by Naomi Novik’s Deadly Education and its sequel. Nancy Jane Moore’s feminist sword-and-sorcery For the Good of the Realm is a delight. Anjali Sachdeva’s story collection All the Names They Used for God and Brittany Hailer’s hybrid-fairytale-memoir Animal You’ll Surely Become are also stunners.