Like many people my age (I’m 3*, for the record), I have always dreamed about the library from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s such a particular generational marker. For those of us who love books, especially as physical objects, the moment when Belle opens the doors to reveal a gilded, multi-tiered library complete with ladders and staircases was an Awakening. We all, collectively, said to ourselves: “That. That is the life I want. I want the books.”
I live in a small apartment in Brooklyn. I do not have space for that shit.
…I’m still gonna go for it, though.
And it’s because I love books so much that this list, my Most Anticipated for the coming year, is both the most fun and the most awful thing to do. I love it—searching out exciting releases that feel different than anything I’ve read before is the best part of my job. But this list could also be 500 titles long, which none of us have time for. I agonize over this, because I want not only to share my joy for these books, but also share titles that might be new and exciting to you, the reader.
So, I had to create some rules for myself:
First, this list is only for the first half of the year. I had to cut myself off at some point, which was incredibly difficult. But I also know there are tons of books that haven’t been announced or don’t have publication dates yet, which just means we’ll get to do this all over again over the summer! (Of course, I’m keeping an eye on titles like Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance (August 3), Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light (November), She Who Became the Sun from Shelley Parker Chan (July 20), Summer Sons from Tor.com’s own Lee Mandelo (September), and Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (July 6), and I’m not gonna suggest you should put those on your wishlist now, but I’m not NOT gonna suggest that).
Second, there are no sequels or next-in-series on this list. There are so many wonderful additions to established series coming out next year, including (but not limited to) the next Murderbot, Fugitive Telemetry from Martha Wells (March 27); Arkady Martine’s highly anticipated A Desolation Called Peace (March 2) which got pushed back from 2020, causing even more anticipation; the final addition to Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series, The Desolations Of Devil’s Acre (February 23); the last of Fonda Lee’s epic Green Bone Saga, Jade Legacy (September 21); and the next Dandelion Dynasty book, The Veiled Throne from Ken Liu (November 2). We’re also getting sequels from Zoradia Córdova (Illusionary, May 11), Bethany C Morrow (A Chorus Rises, June 1), Hafasah Faizal (We Free the Stars, January 19), Premee Mohamed (A Broken Darkness, March 2), Romina Garber (Cazadora, August 17), Isabel Ibañez (Written in Starlight, January 26), and Intisar Khanani (The Theft of Sunlight, March 23), Amanda Joy (A Queen of Gilded Horns, March 16), and Hannah Abigail Clarke (The Scratch Daughters, August 24)—to name a few.
That being said, there were still a LOT of really incredible books to choose from. I know that 2020 has been a garbage fire, and next year is a huge mystery, but one thing remains true: the books are good. The books are real good. And I hope, if nothing else, they bring you a little spark of joy.
Here are the ones I’m most excited about for 2021:
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (January 19, Tordotcom Publishing)
Yeah, it’s NNEDI TIME. In this one, death comes to town in the form of a 14 year old Ghanian girl and her fox companion (and her “jar of shea butter bigger than a grown man’s fist”). Of course, everyone is afraid of her, and of course, there is a lot that Sankofa has yet to discover about herself and her powers. But Okarafor has built such an exquisite set up here, and crafted a story that is both strange and familiar, both charming and horrific, that it’s a wonder she fit all that imagination into a novella. This absolutely cannot be missed.
We Could be Heroes by Mike Chen (January 26, MIRA books)
The golden boy of January, Mike Chen, is back with his signature hopepunk sci-fi. We Could Be Heroes follows—you guessed it—a couple of superheroes who are also incredibly ordinary. Our hero, Zoe/Throwing Star, uses her super speed to do food delivery. The villain, Jamie/Mind Robber, always returns his library books on time. The twist: neither of them can remember who they were before they had powers. It’s a sweet story about discovering who you are and who the real bad guy is, and it’s incredibly read-able. I mean, flipping pages until you look up and realize it’s dark out and your tea is cold kind of readable. Which is the best kind of reading experience, if you ask me.
A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson (January 31, Nyx Publishing)
Sorry, did someone say DRACULA’S BRIDES??? That’s right, this one is a beautiful gothic romance(ish) from the perspective of one of Dracula’s brides. And listen, when I say gothic, I mean gothic—it gets dark and bloody and weird and emotional, which might not be for everyone but is exactly my kind of thing. It’s as if Saint Gibson had a copy of my senior thesis/teenage diaries and was like, “you know what I could do? Write this book about a vampire harem just for Christina.” Don’t worry, I’ll share it with you. After I’ve finished, of course.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (February 2, Tor Books)
I cannot properly convey the joyful screech that my friends made when I told them about this book. The hype is R E A L, folks. It’s both imaginative and tropey, with a bad boy prince Kiem forced into an arranged political marriage, only his new partner, Jainan, is uptight and duty-bound. Oh, and, the whole reason they had to get married so quick is because Jainan’s last husband was MURDERED and the political ties are quickly becoming, well, untied, so this marriage has got to save the empire. Oh and, they have to investigate the murder. And stay out of the media’s prying eyes. And maybe not strangle each other?? It’s a lot. The stakes are high, but the wit and romance are also high, and it’s definitely joyful screech worthy.
What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo (February 2, Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR)
YA Horror is really having a moment, and What Big Teeth will fit snugly on your shelf next to Wilder Girls and Lobizona. When Eleanor returns from boarding school after a horrific event, she’s nervous to be reunited with the family she left behind, very much on purpose. But why is everyone in the idyllic small town terrified of the Zarrins? What caused her mother’s awful scar? And what exactly is going on with Eleanor? Turns out, she might not be as different from her family as she thought she was. Like all good horror, the aesthetic is IMPECCABLE, and Szabo has crafted a tale so gorgeously twisty, it’ll turn you inside out.
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel (February 2, Tordotcom Publishing)
I mean this in the best way: this one is for NERDS. Science nerds, space nerds, history nerds, and word nerds will all find something to love about A History of What Comes Next. This story follows Mia, a descendant of a family of extra-terrestrial women who are dedicated to helping humans get to space. They do this by nudging humans in the right direction and messing with history. Mia’s mission is focused on Wernher Von Braun, a scientist working for the Nazis. The narrative is both an alternative history and a first contact story, expertly and delicately told. Just as Mia and her family nudge history, Neuvel nudges the narrative, divulging little bits of backstory and characterization. It’s technically dense, but an absolute marvel.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (February 9, Delacorte)
This one has been on my anticipated list for a while, as it was a title that unfortunately got pushed back at the start of 2019. The Gilded Ones takes the farm boy trope and flips it on its head—not only because it’s actually a farm girl, a young Black girl named Deka, whose “impure” golden blood means she’s actually magical. Now, wanting ‘purity’ in a society is always super gross, but in this story it’s also super dangerous. So when Deka is offered an out, she takes it, and goes to join an army of golden-blooded girls who help protect the kingdom from the actual monsters. This one does get dark, but it’s also epic in every way. The girls are powerful, the danger is real, and the characters are engaging and diverse. Forna has accomplished something really special here, equal parts subversive and fun.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard (February 9, Tordotcom Publishing)
SFF superstar Aliette de Bodard has really come through with this novella. It is politically intriguing, It is Sapphic, and it is HOT—in a very literal sense. Thanh, a princess and a diplomat, has a mysterious ability to set things on fire, whether she intends to or not. And it caused big problems when she was sent away to a neighboring (read: conquering) country. Now that she’s home and the aforementioned neighbors are visiting for negotiations, she’s struggling to keep her fire under control. Especially when her first love, the other princess, is part of the negotiations. There’s SO MUCH TENSION and also so much tenderness, it really is a feat to behold. Sign me up for more fire queers, please!
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey (February 16, Tor Books)
Leave it to Sarah Gailey to turn the simple pitch of “clone of wife is having an affair with real wife’s husband” into an incredible dissertation on gender, relationships, and selfhood. Because of course the only thing to do when you find out your husband is sleeping with your clone is team up and murder him, and then you’re left to unpack all those feelings of not-good-enough-ness, because you made your clone an idealized version of you. So it’s a rough ride for Dr. Evelyn Caldwell, and a tense and emotional read for us. The Echo Wife is a tightly crafted, cerebral thriller with an intelligent narrator. It descends into dark places, and I am super happy to go there with Gailey.
The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck (February 16, Pantheon)
So, I’m a person who really likes weird stuff. I love weird, inventive, lyrical fantasy, and The Memory Theater is firmly in that category. Reading it feels like The Night Circus mixed with Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—with a little Seanan McGuire mixed in. Dora and Thistle exist in a land called The Gardens where children are stolen and made to serve mysterious lords and ladies at a never ending party. If they grow up they’ll be hunted and eaten (YIKE), so they set out to find their true names in order to free themselves. Now, as you might imagine, there’s a lot of violence in addition to the threat of being eaten, but a lot of magic and adventure too. The Memory Theater is a truly immersive experience, and absolutely blew my mind.
Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo (March 2, Make Me A World)
Listen, I love SFF so much, but poetry is my first love. So when I heard that Safia Elhillo (accomplished poet, fashion icon) had written a novel in verse with speculative elements that explored identity and culture, I couldn’t have been more stoked. It’s so up my alley it’s ridiculous. Elhillo has written something so beautiful and enchanting it’s hard for me to describe it. Nima struggles with being a young first-gen immigrant in America, with balancing English and Arabic, old country and new country. The magic is subtle, both within the plot and the lyric, as Nima starts to see Yasmeen, the girl she could have been if her family had stayed in Sudan. Home is Not a Country is about what could have been, what it means to be part of a diaspora, and what home and family really means. And yes, it made me cry. Don’t tell anyone, though.
Lost in the Never Wood by Aiden Thomas (March 23, Swoon Reads)
This year’s Cemetery Boys took the book world by storm, gaining a National Book Award nomination for Thomas alongside cracking the NYT list, so of course Thomas’ sophomore effort is on this list. Peter Pan is an iconic figure among trans mascs, and Thomas takes his turn at the wheel with this inventive retelling. In this one, Wendy and Peter hope to discover why the town’s children are going missing, and what exactly happened to Wendy all those years ago when she herself went missing. The book centers loss, grief, mental health, and growing up, all dealt with carefully in Thomas’ capable hands. It’s a perfect second novel, and I for one will be picking up every Aiden Thomas book for as long as he keeps writing them.
The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman (April 6, Simon & Schuster BYR)
There’s a lot for sci-fi to explore when pondering the question what happens after we die, but an alt-reality where our consciousness gets uploaded is maybe my favorite answer. Throw in some Jane Austen-esque social dynamics and we’ve got a winner on our hands, my friends! When Nami is murdered on her way to an important party, she joins Infinity, a virtual afterlife where a Siri type AI reigns as queen. But Nami definitely isn’t in heaven, even though she has to reckon with her life and what it means to be alive. There’s a lot going on here and some big issues to tackle, but there are plenty of joyful things to love about this one too. Bowman has created a world that feels fresh and exciting, and might also make you want to watch “San Junipero” again.
Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders (April 13, Tor Teen)
Adrenaline is the first word that comes to mind with this book—pure, unbridled adrenaline. We start off with Tina, on Earth, who is waiting for her beacon to light up so aliens will come and get her. Girl, same. Turns out, she’s an alien who is hiding on earth, being protected from an intergalactic war by a human mother. But she’s being hunted by the bad guys, and she’s got a destiny to fulfill. Victories Greater Than Death is pure sci-fi fun. It’s like Anders took all our favorite space adventure stories and extracted the best parts, made sure everyone’s pronouns were respected, and wrapped it in a neon-colored package.
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart (April 20, HarperTeen)
Ooooooh my god I can’t express to you how gorgeous a reading experience this is. The PROSE! The BADASSERY!! The DRAMA!!! Ciannon Smart is truly bursting out of the gate with a banger. It’s a Jamaican-inspired world where a ritual sacrifice takes place every year to help protect the island. Jazmyne is the daughter of the controlling doyenne, but also part of a group working to take her down. Iraya’s people have been systemically eradicated and imprisoned, and she’s looking for revenge. Of course, the two girls must work together to bring their island peace. What unfolds is plenty of fighting, so much wonderful magic, and, as I said, badassery. Smart is definitely a writer to watch.
Folklorn by Angela Hur (April 27, Erewhon)
Did you have an imaginary friend as a kid? I didn’t, I was pretty aware that I was talking to myself. But Elsa Park did, and when her imaginary friend shows up again, shit gets REAL. You see, Elsa’s family is cursed, and it doesn’t seem like she’s going to be able to escape. This book heavily spotlights Korean folklore and culture, and grapples with being part of the diaspora, family dynamics, pasts and futures, and how culture is kept alive. It’s haunting and spiritual and touching, and so unique. This is absolutely one to be cherished.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He (May 4, Roaring Brook Press)
I feel like it used to be really difficult to find sci-fi in the YA space, but we’re starting to see more and more beautiful stories pop up, this one included. The Ones We’re Meant to Find follows sisters Cee and Kasey—Cee is lost on a desolate island with no memories save of her sister, and Kasey is left behind to try and find a way forward. There are plenty of twists and turns in this one—romances, cool sci-fi elements, and a lot of love for the earth (including a cool dome, we love a dome). Cee and Kasey’s story will tug on your heartstrings, so be prepared for a bit of a book hangover after you finish. And maybe bring tissues.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark (May 11, Tordotcom Publishing)
P. Djèlí Clark is, let’s be honest, one of the best and brightest writers working in genre right now. I’m excited for anything he puts out, but especially excited for him to return to the magic world of A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 with a full length novel. We get to spend time with our favorite investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi again, along with a new rookie partner as they investigate supernatural mysteries in Cairo. We love a mystery, we love Fatma’s “I’m too old for this shit” vibes, we love a queer Muslim main character, we love Clark’s incredible mind, and we love this world. It just is so indulgent and magical, and I have a feeling Clark is only just getting started.
Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (May 11, Orbit)
Okungbowa is a spectacular writer, hands down, and so when I heard we’re getting a brand new fantasy series from him, I smashed the pre-order button so hard I almost broke my keyboard. Son of the Storm is an epic tale that follows a young scholar, Danso, as he aids a powerful, skin-changing warrior woman who shouldn’t exist. Of course, this means Danso was lied to all his life, and the world is much bigger and more magical than he could have ever imagined. It’s a sprawling tale, and definitely just the beginning. Okungbowa is poised to become a major player on the SFF scene.
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker (May 11, Berkley)
It’s no longer dystopian to think about how big technological advances are going to effect our lives, and how that will impact the lives of our children. Pinkser (who won the Nebula Award for 2019) tackles this question in We Are Satellites by exploring how new tech gets adapted into our everyday lives, and who we become both with and without it. But of course, there’s still something sinister about tech that is everywhere, especially when the government is involved. With tense and engaging family dynamics and a fight that feels a little too close to home, Pinsker has another winner on her hands.
In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland (May 18, imprint)
Strickland is quickly making a name for themself in the realm of dark fantasy, and I am very much into these vibes. When Rovan’s bloodmage abilities are accidentally revealed, everything goes to hell. Those in power seek to control her by binding her to a (hot) spirit, so she’s got to find a way out, relying on help from the (hot) princess. It feels like a mix of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and Labyrinth Lost and Girl Serpent Thorn. And it’s set in a queernormative underworld, which is very much my shit. As I said earlier, I like it weird, and this might just be the weird, sexy, gothy book of my dreams.
The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman (May 25, Tor Books)
There is nothing I love better than a good thief. Add to that some sass, magic tattoos, warring kingdoms, and a good bar fight, and you’ve got yourself a deal. Blacktongue Thief is an epic fantasy that features hot magic ladies, goblins, giants, and huge fighting birds alongside a voice-y, clever protagonist. Of course, our thief (with an actual black tongue) ends up on an adventure with the aforementioned hot magic lady, leading to plenty of fun tension and hijinx. It feels like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, but written by the people who did Galavant.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (June 1, St. Martin’s Griffin)
I cannot express to you how absolutely thrilled I am that I get to talk to y’all about Casey McQuiston (Red, White, and Royal Blue apparently “wasn’t genre enough”, even though reading it in 2020 felt like reading fantasy, so fight me). McQuiston’s latest romcom follows new-to-NYC August and sexy-but-stuck-in-a-time-slip-from-the-70s Jane, who fall in love on the subway. Which, if you’re a New Yorker, is both really delightful and kind of questionable, knowing how the subway can be. But McQuiston’s witty writing, hilarious and familiar side characters, and gorgeous slow-burn romance is just *chef’s kiss*. And this city is magical, so it works perfectly.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (June 1, Tordotcom Publishing)
I remember reading The Great Gatsby in high school and clinging onto golf star Jordan Baker, knowing deep in my heart that she was meant to be queer and also definitely better than all the other rich idiots in that book. Apparently Nghi Vo had very similar ideas, but like…better. Way better than I could have ever imagined. This book feels like draping yourself in delicate silk and drinking champagne, with all the decadent magic and romance and drama you could want. But it also does careful work to criticize racism, colonization, class, and abuse, which makes for a vital undercurrent to the atmospheric prose. We can talk forever about the purpose of the ‘classics’, but there is possibly no better purpose than allowing writers like Vo to smash them to pieces and rebuild something more gorgeous in their wake.
Future Feeling by Joss Lake (June 1, Soft Skull)
This is a display of TRANS FUTURISM, BAYBEEE! Future Feeling will fit on your shelf right next to Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Pen and his roommates intend to hex a social media star, but accidentally hex a young transman instead, sending him the the Shadowlands. Now Pen and said hex-intended-influencer need to go and bring him back, which evolves into emotional reckonings for all, but some beautiful connections formed too. Lake has constructed a wonderful world where trans identity is celebrated and centered, where trans characters are allowed to be messy and complicated and human. It’s, quite honestly, the kind of book I’ve been waiting for for a really long time. I’m so glad it’s finally here.
For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten (June 15, Orbit)
Remember this piece on wolf girls from Electric Lit? Well let me tell you, I am Seen and Known by this (minus the girl part). So I was hooked from the very beginning on this one: “The first daughter is for the Throne. The second daughter is for the Wolf.” WHAT WOLF. ME?? ME WOLF?? Oh no, a HOT MAN WOLF? Yeah, I am all the way in. It’s a Red Riding Hood retelling, sort of kind of, but this Red is headstrong and sassy and clever and has to go into the woods to protect her people, and the wolf is a bad boy himbo. Anyway this book might be perfect, I’m already in love, it’s fine, just let it happen.
Star Eater by Kerstin Hall (June 22, Tordotcom Publishing)
THIS. BOOK. IS. SO. WEIRD. Y’all, I don’t know…it’s like, they’re nuns, but they’re also the government, but they’re also cannibals, and that’s part of the nun gig. And it’s exquisite. It’s beautiful to read. It’s so completely otherworldly that I feel like I had no point-of-reference for any of this and I’m just diving straight into this completely new, bizarre universe. It’s like Jeff VanderMeer wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, or like Midsommar but they ride around on giant cats. Kerstin Hall is really a powerhouse. I honestly don’t know how she does what she does, but I am so very glad for that weird, fantastical brain of hers.
The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw (June 22, Erewhon)
Cassandra Khaw is an absolute superstar, and her voicey, raw prose truly shines in this one. Maya and her crew of fellow cyborg ex-cons need to rescue a missing teammate, but are up against an all powerful AI who wants them all dead. The world is gritty and rough, the aesthetic is truly impeccable, and Maya is a total badass. Heavy Furiosa vibes, you know? This book might make you want to put on leather and punch a robot-ghost in the face, which I, for one, encourage you to do.
The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison (June 22, Tor Books)
Alright, yes, I broke my own rule here—technically this is a sequel to The Goblin Emperor, but it’s THE SEQUEL TO THE GOBLIN EMPEROR so, y’all understand. Publishing six years later, The Witness for the Dead works as a standalone and follows Celehar, the aforementioned Witness and fan favorite from the original. Celehar is such a good boy and we love him so much, and I trust Katherine Addison to deliver the hopeful, comforting prose that we so need right now.
Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta (June 29, Feiwel & Friends)
AND WE HAVE MECHAS, FRIENDS. Mechas are one of my favorite aspects of contemporary sci-fi, and so I’m really thrilled that with this one we have hot, tattooed rebel girl working to take them down. And like…maybe she falls for a hot rogue mecha pilot who is also looking to take them down and destroy the evil warmonger government. And like, maybe they also have some cool friends who support them. It’s got found family, it’s got tender, yearning sapphics, it’s got badass sci-fi tech, and it’s SO. COOL. Gearbreakers truly ticks all the boxes.
See you in July for more, readers!
Christina Orlando is the Books Editor for Tor.com, where they get to be a book nerd all day. As a freelance writer covering poetry, gender, and sexuality, their work has appeared Electric Literature, Catapult, gal-dem, THEM, Adroit Journal, and Book Riot. They are a 2019 recipient of Spotify’s Sound Up grant for people of color in podcasting and currently reside in Brooklyn, NY. Find them on Twitter at @cxorlando