Favorite Romance Novels of 2021
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Favorite YA of 2021

In 2019, I read more fantasy than contemporary YA. In 2020, I read more contemporary. Now I'm back to mostly fantasy, with a side of science fiction. I have no idea what's behind these subconscious trends! Regardless, this year's favorite YA really impressed me. Now I just need to start reading the next books in series in a timely manner so I can keep up.

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

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Iron WidowIron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

Give me all the morally gray FMCs! Zetian gave me so much life. She was a true murder princess (except she wasn’t actually a princess…but you know what I mean.) It’s cathartic to watch a female character decide she’s had enough of the patriarchy and not only fight back but seek vengeance.

This is YA science fiction, loosely inspired by the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, Empress Wu. Science fiction can be tricky for me. I couldn’t quite picture the Chrysalises they’re piloting or what the Hunduns were. Basically, the pilots are inside the head or chest of these huge robot mechs that look like East Asian mythical creatures. The pilots can further transform them depending on their qi, as well as the spirit force of their concubine-pilot.

Becoming a concubine-pilot is basically a death sentence for girls because few survive a battle—their life force basically gets sucked dry by the pilot. But Zetian not only survives, she kills the pilot who murdered her sister. And she’s not going to stop there. She was fierce and prickly and absolutely glorious in her fury. The council doesn’t know what to do with her. Frankly, they don’t want to use her and so she not only has to fight literal battles against Hunduns but also political intrigue and misogynous advisors who would rather see her dead.

Few people are as they seem and that includes Shimin, the pilot she’s paired with who is also an alcoholic and Death Row inmate. And then there’s Yizhi, her only friend and possible love interest from back home, who makes his way to the barracks. I loved Shimin and Yizhi with all my heart, especially Shimin. He was basically my catnip, all misunderstood and tortured. But don’t worry, there’s nary a love triangle here. We’ve got a polyamorous triad! However, it’s a very, very slow burn between these three. Things are heading in a promising direction but we’ve really only gotten a hint of what things could be like. The love story plot is smaller than I’d like and I’ll be eager to see how things develop in the next book. Because that cliffhanger ending? Brutal. I can’t wait to see what happens next! (Content notes.)



Perfect on PaperPerfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

I loved this book SO MUCH!!! It’s about a girl who runs an anonymous relationship advice business at school until someone figures out it’s her and kind of blackmails her into helping him get his ex-girlfriend back. At least, that’s what Darcy thinks.

Darcy is great at giving other people advice but she has a hard time figuring out her own problems, whether it’s her long-time crush on her best friend Brooke or how to get her distracted mom to pay attention to her. Or what exactly she thinks about her blackmailer Brougham. While I was very ready for her to accept that Brooke wasn’t into her and that she should turn her attention to Brougham instead, I was completely in Darcy’s corner. Things aren’t straightforward, especially when you’re in high school, and I was more than willing to go along for the ride.

This was such a fun and moving read. I loved how things developed between Darcy and Brougham. They take their time getting there but it gives the reader a chance to really see how they bring out the best in each other and how they understand each other. Brougham might be a rich boy but he's had a rough home life and Darcy did a great job looking out for him, just as he did a great job standing up for her.

I thought this did a great job exploring bierasure and internalized biphobia. Darcy is bi, no matter the gender of whoever she dates, but there are still people out there who would invalidate that experience. It doesn’t matter that Brougham is a guy. It doesn’t change who Darcy is or her bisexuality. I hope that message really sinks home for people. The Queer and Questioning Club at school was one of my favorite parts, especially due to a scene toward the end that made me cry. I’m a cishet woman and I kept thinking about what that scene would mean to my bi friends. Cue the waterworks. (Content notes.)



Cemetery BoysCemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Such a fantastic debut! Anxious determined Yadriel and irrepressible Julian had my heart from the beginning. I had an idea about who was behind Julian’s murder but I wasn’t sure about the how or why and I especially wasn’t sure if there could be possibly be a happy ending for these two. I mean, Julian is a ghost! I loved seeing how it all played out. The magic of this world made for compelling reading, especially what it comes to mean for Yadriel and his cousin Maritza (who deserves her own book), and it was nice to read a blood magic book that wasn’t as bloody as others I’ve read. I am so excited to see where Aiden Thomas’s career goes from here. (Content notes.)








A War of Swallowed StarsA War of Swallowed Stars (Celestial Trilogy #3) by Sangu Mandana 

I have been on pins and needles waiting to see how this YA space opera trilogy would resolve. While I haven’t yet read The Mahabharata (I decided to hold off until the trilogy ended), I know the original story does end not well for the characters involved and I’ve been worried about what that would mean for Esmae, Max, and their crew in this retelling.

Well. Let me tell you it was worth the wait. I don’t want to spoil one thing about how everything unfolded but I will say I’m impressed with how Mandanna let characters evolve and how she explored the notion of hope in the face of hopelessness and the tradeoffs we make. Esmae’s growth throughout the trilogy was a marvel to behold. I didn’t always know if she’d get there but I always enjoyed watching her figure it all out.

I adore the secondary characters (except for that awful mother and her general, of course.) Titania’s evolution as a sentient spaceship was particularly fun and unexpected. I got a kick out of her character glossary at the beginning. There’s also a great secondary FF love story, which was lovely to see. The alliances continued to shift and change and I loved what this revealed about everyone and what truly mattered. Plus, there are all the gods and what Amba makes of life as a mortal.

Then there was Esmae and Max’s relationship. This gave me so many feels! I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Mandanna writes next. (Content notes.)



LakesedgeLakesedge (World at the Lake's Edge #1) by Lyndall Clipstone

What a lush gothic YA fantasy! I was completely captivated from the start. Leta is a complicated messy heroine, fierce and determined and not always able to see that she might get things wrong. At times this could be frustrating but then I’d remind myself that she’s only 17 and of course she’s going to screw up along the way. All she wants is for her brother to be okay and that plan gets thrown for a loop when Rowan comes along. Rowan who is being poisoned by the Corruption. Rowan who is the kind of misunderstood hero that makes me weak in the knees. Leta and Rowan get off on a very wrong foot at first and I ate up their verbal sparring with a spoon. Their relationship evolved in such a lovely way and I was here for each and every step they took toward one another.

Then there’s Lord Under, the god of death. Leta gave him her magic when she was young in order to save her brother and now they’re connected. I started to wonder if this was heading in a Hades-Persephone retelling direction. It’s not, at least not in this installment, but there are very strong nods. However, it’s definitely playing with the Death and the Maiden trope and I’m very interested to see how this plays out in book 2. The author said the sequel is going to have Orpheus and Eurydice vibes and I cannot wait.

All the secondary characters are fantastic. The way magic worked kept me riveted. I loved the way the estate becomes a character in its own right as it deals with the Corruption and the way the lake figures in. The gorgeous prose on top of the way the premise delivered really sealed the deal for me. Bring on book 2! (Content notes.)



The Silvered SerpentsThe Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2) by Roshani Chokshi

I adore the world Chokshi created for this historical fantasy heist story. The characters have my entire heart, even when they could be behaving better. Case in point: Séverin has really been through the wringer since the death of his brother and it’s led to some negative personality changes. He decides to bring the gang back together for one more job, whether they want to help or not. This installment is darker in tone compared to the first and that makes sense given the exploration of grief and the fact that Laila is now dying, not to mention Zofia and Enrique’s respective concerns. They’ve created a wonderful found family but it’s not functioning the way it used to, now that Tristan is gone and Séverin is off the rails himself. But there’s still so much heart there. I loved watching them try to solve the mystery, even when their respective connections started to fray. There were some fantastic twists and turns and holy buckets that ending!!! I have no idea how things are possibly going to work out and I can’t wait to see how they do. (Content notes.)






The Ghosts We KeepThe Ghosts We Keep by Mason Deaver

A fantastic YA grief novel, The Ghosts we Keep follows a nonbinary teen after the hit-and-run death of his brother. The book is structured with scenes from Before and After as we come to understand just what and who Liam has lost. Not only are they grappling with what an Ethan-less life means, their two best friends have pulled back at a time when he needs them most. How true to life to have to deal with more than one messy loss at once. My heart really went out to Liam.

I used to counsel grieving teens as part of my work as a hospice social worker and this struck me as a very accurate depiction of teen grief. Liam doesn’t always behave the best, nor is he honest about how he’s doing with the people who care, including his parents. His parents make a point of saying they’re figuring it out as they go, that there’s no roadmap for this and they might make mistakes. (I’m closer to Liam’s parents’ age so I was definitely wincing over how he treated them, whereas I’ve seen reviews from people closer to Liam’s age who thinks they were unfair. I thought they did a pretty good job.) I liked that Liam and Ethan had a complicated sibling relationship so the book offered a more even-handed portrayal of what Ethan was like—there is no placing the dead on a pedestal here. Liam was pretty self-absorbed and oblivious, somewhat understandably, but I was mystified that they didn’t figure out a big secret more quickly. As much as a I enjoy a good love story, I’m glad there wasn’t a romantic subplot. In this case, the focus really needed to be on bereavement and Liam was not in a place for anything more than finding new friends. It was such a moving read. (Content notes.)



Favorite YA of 2021