Ancillary has had a great first year, with reviews and essays from writers all around the globe. And, whatever else it’s been, 2021 was a fantastic year for speculative fiction and related fields. We asked our editors and contributors to pick a work they read (or watched, or played, or listened to) from this year that really struck them: here’s 12 of our favorites!
Shinjini Dey: This Weightless World by Adam Soto
This debut novel appeared towards the end of this year and made me reconsider a lot of my assumptions about science fiction as a genre/mode. It is character driven, written in a beautifully gripping prose style, and entirely relevant for a world grappling with technology as an ubiquitous, mass-market product.
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Ellie Campbell: A Country of Ghosts by Margaret Killjoy
I’m excited to see Margaret Killjoy’s Country of Ghosts getting rereleased by AK Press. I first read this novel in 2019 and have thought about its depiction of an anarchist society under siege from a colonial power roughly once a week since. Killjoy’s work is in conversation with other liberatory SF texts like LeGuin’s Dispossession and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, and like those texts, gives us new ways to think about how to construct a society that has only increased in relevance in our politically and socially tumultuous times. I’m looking forward to whatever Killjoy decides to do next.
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Marisa Mercurio: The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles
Initially published in 1998, The Route of Ice and Salt by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is a queer retelling of Dracula from the captain of the Demeter’s perspective. This year, its English translation by David Bowles offers the novella a new audience. Expanding upon a minor chapter of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Zárate at once coheres with Stoker and challenges his presentation of sexuality and monstrosity. Stunningly poetic and thematically incisive, The Route of Ice and Salt is a quick read whose story lingers long after its conclusion.
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Misha Grifka Wander: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
The long-awaited sequel to The Goblin Emperor is not a direct sequel, but follows a minor character from the first novel as he attempts to use his ability to speak to the dead in order to solve the murder of an opera singer. Like the first novel, the focus is less on magic than on a rich and textured world, one that I was delighted to return to.
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Leah Rachel von Essen: Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton
In Matsuda’s exciting, absurd book, mythic, ghostly, and monstrous women work for the mysterious Mr. Tei, finding ways to channel their anger and unruly bodies into productive boons that change the world around them. The fabulist tales are reminiscent of Karen Russell and Carmen Maria Machado.
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Samira Nadkarni: Trese directed by Jay Oliva, Tim Divar, David Hartman, and Mel Zwyer.
Set in Manila, Netflix’s animated six-part series Trese adapts the Filipino komik by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo. It focuses on Alexandra Trese, a protagonist who acts as a policing force and arbiter for supernatural beings through a system of Accords. Although comprised of a generic supernatural drama recipe—an antisocial lead as detective, part police procedural, chosen one narrative, and (Filipino) folklore—there’s much to be said for the show’s relation to language, Manila’s city and culture and its consciously undermined acknowledgement of police brutality in the Philippines. The show’s characters, voice actors, and audience also offer room for complex discussions about race.
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Sébastien Doubinsky: Love. An Archeology by Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes is a Brazilian author of speculative fiction. His latest collection, Love. An Archeology, is a tantalizing collection of short stories revolving around the very gender-fluid notion of love and genre. Incredibly inventive, beautifully written, it also offers the reader a deep reaching reflection on the notion of literature as both an object and a meta-object, setting what we call “fiction” and “reality” in mind-boggling perspective. To me, one of the major literary speculative fiction works of the times.
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Selena Middleton: These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed
In September, Stelliform Press co-editor Kristen Shaw and I reviewed Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds. Another Premee Mohamed novella I loved this year was These Lifeless Things, an epistolary story set in a cosmic horror post-apocalypse wherein old iron statues move throughout the city with annihilatory intent. In this novella, a middle-aged woman navigates what it means to survive and what of the human is worth preserving in a world no longer hospitable to humans. This book packs an emotional and philosophical punch, especially given our continued pandemic and climate emergencies, but hope is built into its structure.
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Ursula Whitcher: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
In Jade Legacy, the majestic conclusion to Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, bioenergetic jade lets martial artists leap lightly over trucks or sense the tiniest lie. But the greatest transformations in Jade Legacy are personal. One of the most fascinating things about this series is the way conflicts shift from minor annoyance to life-threatening or intractable to irrelevant as the characters grow and the Cold-War-like Slow War evolves.
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Zach Gillan: Rookfield by Gordon B. White
Gordon B. White’s Rookfield is the plague novella I didn’t realize I was waiting for, a fantastic work somewhere between folk horror and a surreal caper. Cabot Howard, a self-important and self-righteous asshole protagonist for the ages, pursues his ex-wife and son to the town of Rookfield during a global pandemic. Indignant at everything, he’s excellently-drawn, and the town itself, full of children wearing plague doctor masks and mysterious references to birds, is a marvelous creation. The pacing is relentless, the story feels like it expands beyond the novella’s scant pages, and it’s funny without calling attention to that fact.
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Jake Casella Brookins: The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum
An intoxicatingly inventive far-future novel about gender, tradition, and the dangerous and liberating power of personal and societal change, The Unraveling was one of the most absorbing books I read this year and, without a doubt, the one that made me laugh the most, that made me think the most. Full of joyous energy, adolescent angst, and packed to bursting with huge ideas, this novel instantly vaulted into the same headspace where I keep Le Guin and Delany—I need everyone to read this so we can talk about it.
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Sam Botz: Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn
Nature writing for the dystopian-aware and -wary, Islands of Abandonment troubles assumptions about wastelands—the landscapes we’ve left for dead—and the linear narratives we tend to impose on sites of human destruction when the environment time and again proves much more complicated. Flyn visits fascinating and tragic sites: a French WWI weapons factory where the soil remains rich with arsenic; a town on the Caribbean island of Montserrat entombed in lava and ash; and, of course, Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, where the irradiated earth continues to defy all expectations. It’s a moving study of natural resilience, and offers a much-needed kind of hope: rigorous, curious, eyes wide open.
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