Here I am again, trying to go back over my list and sort my muddled opinions into some sort of ratings system to tell you what my top ten reads of the previous year were. You can view my 2020 list here for comparison.
This is always hard. My main focus on these is a mix between "how well do I remember them and how much did they stick with me" and things like how many of my own favorite tropes they used and whether they just appealed to me personally. I'll overlook certain roughness or editing flubs if the story, characters, and style appeal to me on that hard to define but somehow easily for me to personally recognize level. The top slot here was just one of those books where I'm like, "Yeah, there were typos, but I can't think of another book I enjoyed this much as a one to one comparison, so ... gonna go with that."
I think that's what I love about indie books. Yeah, sometimes the production value is lower than you would get from a big house, but these are stories that were put out by an individual (or small press. I do count those as indies) outside of a big machine, maybe with very little budget or support, and because of this they are allowed to do something different or to exist without having a bam pow gimmick to drive sales. They're sleepers. Tiny productions that have some heart driving them that just need their fair shot.
As always, I am choosing to only feature Indie books here. There are a couple of reasons for that. The primary one is I mostly read indie, but even when I do read a big press book or a classic, I just don't feel they need the exposure. Like Andy Weir isn't going to get a boost from my tiny post even if I did enjoy Project Hail Mary (which for the record, I did. Not as much as The Martian but more than Artemis), and Ray Bradbury is dead, so I very much doubt he's going to care about my opinion on The Halloween Tree (though again, excellent book). Also, if you haven't read those yet, it's not because I didn't recommend them. You've probably heard of both those books (presuming you are into either genre) and whether you were going to read them or not was decided long ago, whereas with these ten books, there's a decent chance that you might not have heard of them if I hadn't put them in this post, so to me, this is just a better use of my top ten list.
Also, I think if I had included traditional authors, my list would probably have only shifted by like three (I'll mention Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Rose Martin and Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi as two others that MIGHT have forced me to reconsider this list if I were including them)
Oh, and these are my honest opinions, but yeah, those are affiliate links, so if you click I get some pennies from Amazon's coffer (more reason to click, I think).
Okay, so after that needlessly lengthy introduction, let's dive in with my tenth favorite book of 2021.
Kill the Beast by Michele Israel Harper
I do like an original spin on a familiar fairy tale. This one is particularly spinny. I liked the heroine, who was both tough and believably flawed, and the magic surrounding the castle. Other things are harder to talk about without doing spoilers (which is generally a problem with Michele's books for reviewing them. The details I really want to get into are ALWAYS spoilers). I think the ending might be a controversial choice for some readers, but I felt it made sense with the way the characters developed. Honestly, the only thing that kept this from being higher on the list for me was that it has a VERY extended battle scene right in the middle. I am the sort of reader who skims action to get to the talky parts (this will not be a problem for you if you happen to like a lot of action, obviously), so for me that was a long bit of skimming.
Of Murder & Mages by Nikki Haverstock
This title was a bit of a risk for me because I usually do not like this genre. Normally I find Cozy genres (cozy mystery, cozy paranormal, this is both) super frustrating, filled with "clumsy" to be relatable main characters, side characters somewhere between cartoon and sitcom level of development, and mysteries that get solved almost more by blind, dumb luck than any actual detecting.
This is not one of those. The characterization and world building are decently interesting. It's a bit magical CSI, and the character does actually do investigating instead of just falling in and tripping out of trouble. The humor is good, just edgy enough to be a little wink wink but subtle enough not to be a turn off. There's a cat. Overall very much enjoyed this.
The Clockwork Ice Dragon by Liz Delton
Sometimes you just need something cozy.
This is a simple, sweet, short book that has some good holiday feelings. Fun steampunk world with some cool design elements and an overall likeable heroine and love interest. It might've been higher on the list, but the eventually revealed reason for the rift between them was, to me, a misunderstanding that should never have happened (like could've been resolved almost instantly with a quick talk sort of issue with the main character choosing to believe something overheard from someone who she wouldn't have reason to trust and never bothering to ask her boyfriend if said thing was actually true before just writing him off forever.). Maybe people do this in real life, but when you have an otherwise fairly level headed MC do it, it always bugs me. That said, the relationship rift is a backdrop to the story, not the story itself, so you can enjoy the book even if that is irritating to you.
Cursed for Keeps by EJ Kitchens
I actually beta read this so some aspects might have changed since my read so this is going to be a sparser review than otherwise. I really should re-read it, but even with it being a beta, I felt this was a fun enough/strong enough story to be on my top ten.
It has some fun magic and an interesting twist on fairy tales that combines the Frog Prince and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
My main quibble when reading it is that it makes such a big deal out of kissing. Like the characters are so uptight about the guy's curse needing to be kept at bay by a daily kiss and the fear that him kissing random women (as he is not yet married/betrothed) will ruin his reputation, but ... I don't know. To me having to get a chaste kiss (there's no tongue requirement) or even maybe a kiss on a cheek from a trusted serving girl or platonic female acquaintance ... I don't see it as a big deal. There's no reason you couldn't do it behind closed doors so people wouldn't be gawking at you. It just seemed a really easy thing to work around, if inconvenient. That said the heroine's "poison to the touch" conflict is pretty interesting and kind of makes up for the guy's issue being underwhelming.
Head Over Tails by Brianna Tibbetts
A late entry to this list. This was the last book I read in 2021.
This is a very sweet, simple romance. Not a lot of huge conflict or action. Mostly just two people getting to know each other with the twist of one of them being a mermaid and the other doubting his sanity.
Both characters are sweet. Sevencea was a little naïve but believably and not stupidly. Like she didn't know a lot about human life and was wide-eyed about it, but she also didn't make a ton of dumb decisions because of it.
Might've been higher on the list, but the middle (where they are apart and dealing with their own things) dragged on for me. I do like that it took the time to deal with Jacob's family issues and fears, but I felt some of the conversations involved to get there got a little repetitive. Probably very true to life (things like that take time and aren't solved in a single conversation), but in fiction, without much going on between that part, it kind of slowed the pacing. If there'd been some more "movement" between the conversations (another subplot going on) I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it, but the sections are interspaced with an equally slow paced (if again, realistic) section of Sevencea just kind of learning to human.
It does reach a satisfying conclusion and the protagonists are all likeable and cool to spend time with.
Dawn Bringer by EJ Kitchens
EJ's books are apparently my repeats this year.
This is a really fun Steampunk+Magic world with some super cool world building. It's also all short works which means I have read like three of them. The first is my favorite so far, though.
This is a world with a blocked out sky and with a curse that prevents people from navigating on their own or knowing directions. Maps and compasses are outlawed. Travel and navigation is controlled by the Fae tyrants and regulated via robot. Just a lot going on, but easily understood in the world and not info dumpy.
It's a "romance" series, but the romance is pretty light. Like the book is mainly the two learning to work together and growing to care about each other and it's nice and extremely slow, but you basically end the book at the very beginning of a potential relationship. There's not even a kiss at the end, just kind of an idea that they are together. I probably would've moved it up higher had there been more payoff to the relationship. I thought at first that maybe this would carry on in book 2 and we'd see the relationship grow there, but three stories in, each story covers a separate couple with the previous couple mentioned due to shared connections but not actively in the story.
If you REALLY like your romance slow and chaste, this might not be an issue for you. If you are more about the "post falling in love" pay off in your romance, it might feel a little disappointing.
That said, it's one of the more interesting worlds I've read in the past several years, and I would recommend it just on that alone.
The King's Spell by EJ Kitchens
So where EJ Kitchens shines is the world building. Things are well thought out. They're usually unique. There's a lot of detail but it's clear to understand without getting info dumpy.
This book has all of that. Very rich and satisfying world
There's also a lot of great character moments. Both characters are flawed in a believable way. There's a great mystery here that unfolds with enough information to keep one reading.
I will say, I kind of expected from the cover and description this would have a little more of a romance. I think it's building towards a slow burn that will pay off in a future book, but the characters get to at most a begrudging respect by the end and that's about it.
If you're reading for the fantasy/mystery elements, I think you'll love this. If you go in looking for a romantic fantasy with a lot of feels, it's not that so you won't find it.
That said, very well written, good characterization, highly satisfying mystery, excellent world building.
Wrath & Ruin by CW Briar
Reviewing an anthology is hard ... especially when you procrastinated writing the review part for several months past when you read it, you can't remember any of the stories, and you got this through the library so you can't easily consult a copy to jar your memory.
That said, I think I liked almost all of the stories in this. They all have humor and creepiness without being gory or off putting. There's a few that are exceptionally fun, some that are more serious. Good mix of ghosts to monsters to more scifi horrors. Probably Ghoul stands out as the one I want to see more of. Overall great collection.
The Worlds Next Door by C. E. White
Vincent in Wonderland (also by White) was my top book of last year, so it's not a surprise this one came in very high on my list. While I think the worlds in the books are meant to be connected/same universe, this one comes across as way more scifi to the other one's fantasy. Things are explained in terms of rules of the universe, different physics, and everything is a little grounded in that even when it's completely bonkers in appearance.
I'd say if Vincent was Narnia (many comparisons there) this is the Space Trilogy.
The story has some fun characters. I really liked the inter-universe smuggler character. He was written believably enough that I was never sure where his character was going until it got there, but then it did make sense.
I think this book would be accessible/enjoyable for kids, but I enjoyed it as an adult because it's thoughtful as well as whimsical.