For established authors, 2021 is expected to be an exciting year. A buzzy list of titans from Colson whitehead to Lauren Groff, to Kazuo Ishiguro gave us new work. But while they, along with several others, did not disappoint (see TIME’s list of the 100 Must-Read Books of 2021), it was debut authors who truly shined. In an industry that has long been criticized for exclusion—and where it’s increasingly difficult to break out from the crowd—a crop of bright new voices rose to the top. From Anthony Veasna So and Torrey Peters Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, and many other writers They introduced themselves to the world through fiction that challenged us and gave us hope. These are the 10 best fiction books for 2021.
10. Klara and The Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
The eighth novel from Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, longlisted for the Booker Prize, follows a robot-like “Artificial Friend” named Klara, who sits in a store and waits to be purchased. Klara’s observations about the world are put to the test when she is made the friend of a 14-year old girl who has been ill. Ishiguro explores the relationship between the AI and the teenager, creating a story that poses unsettling questions about humanity and technology, and offers a glimpse into the future.
Get it now Klara and The Sun Bookshop | Amazon
9. Open Water, Caleb Azumah Nelson
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel is a poignant love story of young Black London artists. Nelson’s protagonist is a photographer, who fell for a ballet dancer. Nelson excels in writing young love.Nelson is just over 150 pages long. celebrates the art that has shaped his characters’ lives while interrogating the unjust world that surrounds them.
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8. Afterparties, Anthony Veasna
The nine stories that constitute Anthony Veasna So’s stirring debut collection, published after his death at 28, reveal a portrait of a Cambodian American community in California. One follows two sisters at their family’s 24-hour donut shop as they reflect on the father who left them. One story focuses on the high school badminton coach, who wants to beat the teenager in his past. There’s also a mother with a secret, a love story with a major age gap and a wedding afterparty gone very wrong. Together, So’s narratives offer a thoughtful view into the community that shaped him, and while he describes the tensions his characters navigate with humor and care, he also offers penetrating insights on immigration, queerness and identity.
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7. Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr
The five protagonists of Anthony Doerr’s It is kaleidoscopic yet remarkably beautiful The three novelists, who all live at the margins, have been connected By an ancient Greek legend. You can find it here. Cloud Cuckoo Land, a National Book Award finalist, a present-day storyline anchors a sweeping narrative: in a library, an ex-prisoner of war is rehearsing a theatrical adaptation of the Greek story with five middle schoolers—and a lonely teenager has just hidden a bomb. Doerr catapults Cloud Cuckoo Land From this moment forward, to and fro: 15th-century Constantinople to interstellar ships and then back to the Idaho library that houses the impending crisis. He weaves together disparate threads with his vivid world-building and stunning prose, proving that storytelling is valuable and can be used to inspire others.
Get it now Cloud Cuckoo LandBookshop | Amazon
6.The Mind is the LifeChristine Smallwood
The contemporary fiction landscape is full of protagonists like Christine Smallwood’s Dorothy: white millennial women who are grappling with their privilege and existence in a world that constantly feels like it’s on the verge of collapse. The plot is secondary to what’s going on in their heads. But Dorothy, an adjunct English teacher, is enduring her sixth miscarriage day. In Smallwood’s taut debut, this charming yet profound narrator relays amusing observations on her ever-collapsing universe. Languishing in academia, Dorothy wonders how her once-attainable goals came to feel impossible, and her ramblings—which are never irritating or tiring, but instead satirical and strange—give way to a gratifying examination of ambition, freedom and power.
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5. W.E.B.’s Love Songs Du Bois, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
The debut novel from poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, longlisted for a National Book Award, is a piercing epic that follows the story of one American family from the colonial slave trade to present day. At its core is the mission of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a Black woman coming of age in the 1980s and ’90s, determined to learn more about her family history. Ailey is forced to question her identity as she uncovers the secrets of her ancestors. Jeffers provides a detailed account of colorism, class and intergenerational trauma in 800 pages. It’s an aching tale told with nuance and compassion—one that illuminates the cost of survival.
Get it now W.E.B.’s Love Songs Du Bois Bookshop | Amazon
4. The Detransition of BabyTorrey Petes
Reese is an adult trans woman of 30 years who wants to have a child. Ex-partner Ames just discovered that her new love is pregnant. Ames presents Reese with the opportunity she’s been waiting for: perhaps the three of them can raise the baby together. Torrey Peters’ debut novel is a delightful tale about these characters. messy, emotional web while considering this potentially catastrophic proposition—and simultaneously spins thought-provoking commentary on gender, sex and desire.
Get it now The Detransition of Baby Bookshop | Amazon
3. My Monticello, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s searing short-story collection is one to read in order. Its narratives dissect an American present that doesn’t feel at all removed from the country’s violent past, and they build to a brutal finish. The unnerving standout piece—the titular novella—follows a group of neighbors who seek refuge on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation while on the run from white supremacists. Johnson’s narrator is college student Da’Naisha, a Black descendant of Jefferson who is questioning her relationship to the land and the people with whom she’s found herself occupying it. It’s as realistic as it gets. This is a disturbing portrait of a society struggling to survive in a country that continually undermines its existence.
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2. The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.
At a plantation in the antebellum South, enslaved teenagers Isaiah and Samuel work in a barn and seek refuge in each other until one of their own, after adopting their master’s religious beliefs, betrays their trust. The Prophets a National Book Award finalist, Robert Jones, Jr. traces the teens’ relationship, as well as the lives of the women who raised them, surround them and have been the backbone of the plantation for generations. In moving between their stories, Jones unveils a complex social hierarchy thrown off balance by the rejection of the young mens’ romance. It is both a devastating exploration of slavery’s legacy and a tender story about Black queer love.
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1. Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead
The beginning of Maggie Shipstead’s astounding novel, a Booker finalist, includes a series of endings: two plane crashes, a sunken ship and several people dead. The bad luck continues when one of the ship’s young survivors, Marian, grows up to become a pilot—only to disappear on the job. Shipstead unravels parallel narratives, Marian’s and that of another woman whose life is changed by Marian’s story, in glorious detail. Every single character mentioned has an essential presence, regardless of how often they are mentioned. It’s a narrative made to be devoured, one that is both timeless and satisfying.
Get it now Great Circle Bookshop | Amazon