Best of 2021: Notable Debuts
Yep, it’s that time of the year again! Starting this week I’ll be making lists…lots of lists. All of it will culminate into an end-of-year roundup post with my favorites and best-ofs, but in the meantime there also other categories I’d like to explore, like notable debuts. Each year, I’m always excited to have discovered new authors who have broken onto the scene for the very first time, and 2021 was no exception. So let’s shine a spotlight on these rising stars whose first novels really made an impression on me this year.
The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec
In the tradition of Madeline Miller’s Circe comes Genevieve Gornichec’s debut The Witch’s Heart, a creative reimagining the life of the Norse mythological figure Angrboda. The world may know her as the lover of Loki and the mother of monsters, but this novel seeks to present her as something more—a fiercely passionate and driven woman who will do anything to protect her children. In the beginning is fire and death; Odin the All-Father is angered by a witch who denies him access to any more magic, so he punishes her by tearing out her heart and burning her at the stake. Thanks to her powers though, she was able to survive but just barely. Weakened and wounded, she retreats to the forest at the edge of world where she can be left unbothered and alone. However, this new life of seclusion was interrupted when the trickster god Loki, having found the witch’s missing heart, decided to seek her out to return it. The two of them end up falling in love, and in time, three children are born from their marriage—all three of them, in some way, prophesied to play a part in the final destruction of the world. To Angrboda though, her children are her life and happiness. For their protection, she decides to raise them alone in the quiet and peaceful forest, but it is only a matter of time before prophesy catches up with her, setting in motion a chain of events that will test her courage and will. (Read the full review…)
The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly
Set in a world of rivaling empires, the rightful heir to a beleaguered realm must find a way to regain her throne and repel an invasion, but in order to succeed, she will need to raise herself a grand army. For many months now, the warrior princess Askia of Serevesh has been fighting a losing battle, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Taking along a small contingent of her most loyal guard, she travels south to Vishir in the hopes of securing aid from the emperor, who was a good friend to her late parents. Yet for all her skills with a blade, Askia finds herself no match for the convoluted southern customs and elaborate rules of the imperial court, and while she herself may have roots in Vishir, her enemies in the capital far outnumber her friends. Fortunately, our protagonist has a secret weapon—a rare kind of magic that might possibly gain her access to the mysterious Shadow Guild whose members could help unlock her true potential. With the empire still very much divided on the subject of witches though, Askia must tread carefully despite her willingness to risk everything to save her people. If playing the petty political games of the nobility will get her what she needs, then she will gladly do so, even if it means having to sacrifice her own hopes and dreams. (Read the full review…)
Shiver by Allie Reynolds
When they were young, they thought they were invincible. Now a group of former pro snowboarding friends are reunited a decade after the height of their careers. But only five of them have made it—missing are Odette, who none of them have seen much of since the catastrophic accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down, and of course, Saskia, who is dead. Like the others, our narrator Milla had received an invitation several weeks ago with instructions to arrive at Le Rocher, the remote ski resort in the French Alps where they had all trained and competed that fateful season. Before, she had thought she knew who invited them, but now she’s not so sure, because when the five of them get to the resort, the place is deserted, and the cable cars back to the bottom of the mountain have stopped running. They are also greeted by an icebreaker game meant to draw out their secrets and separate from their cellphones, but when they finally realize it is a trap, it is too late. Whoever had set it up seems intent on reminding them all of Saskia, who had vanished on the morning of the big competition ten years ago, never to be seen again. Now, it appears someone has gathered them all in a place of dark memories to find out the truth of what happened to her. But who could it be, and why have they deliberately isolated them and left them stranded in the middle of a snowstorm? (Read the full review…)
The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel
The world of The Body Scout is one where its citizens prize cybernetics and other body modifications, and the use of such enhancements has changed virtually every aspect of human life, including sports. Our protagonist Kobo is a talent scout for the professional baseball league, making his living traveling around the world recruiting new people for his bosses and hunting for the latest mods to improve performance. Meanwhile, his adoptive brother Zunz is making a name for himself as a rising star playing professionally, and Kobo couldn’t be happier for him. But then one day, in the middle of a playoff game in front of millions watching, Zunz suddenly drops dead on the field. Everyone is calling it a tragic accident, but Kobo isn’t buying it. He suspects it may be murder, and the plot thickens as he is next hired by the owner of Zunz’s team to investigate the death, with the promise of a large reward if he can somehow implicate their ivals. Seizing this opportunity to seek answers to his own questions, Kobo begins his twisted journey into the dark and unforgiving world of sports and corporate politics where everyone has a stake. (Read the full review…)
The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes
I’m usually super skeptical with any book whose blurb invokes comparisons to The Expanse because that’s one tough promise. Still, I must doff my hat to J.S. Dewes, because I have a feeling The Last Watch is about to become my next big sci-fi obsession. To set the scene, imagine the dark and lonely reaches at the edge of the universe, beyond which simply nothing exists. This is the Divide. Here is where the Argus keeps its watch, the space station home to a ragtag crew of misfits known as the Sentinels. Their job is to patrol edges of space, maintaining the warning and defense systems in place to protect against any unknown threats. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when humanity was nearly wiped out by an alien species called the Viators, and only after multiple wars and untold number of deaths did they finally manage to drive the invaders out. Although that had been many years ago, the Sentinels aren’t about to take any chances, always remaining vigilant and on alert. But now comes a danger no one was expecting. The Divide is starting to collapse, threatening to destroy everyone and everything with it. The commander of the Argus, a Titan veteran of Viator war named Adequin Rake,must find a way to stop the collapse, but with communications down and their resources stretched to the limits, the Argus finds itself cut off from all help. Left with no other recourse, Rake turns to the wise-cracking and irreverent Cavalon Mercer, an exiled prince from the Allied Monarchies of the Core. (Read the full review…)
The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
Set in 19th century Prague, Nicole Jarvis’ historical fantasy debut opens on a world at the cusp of great change. Residents of the city are enjoying a revolution of sorts, with everything around them changing quickly, becoming better and more modern. However, unbeknownst to its citizenry, Prague is still a dangerous place, hiding many secrets in its shadows. Thanks to men like Domek Myska and his fellow Lamplighters though, everyone can sleep a little more soundly. Our protagonist is part of a guild of monster hunters who patrol the streets at night, keeping the gas lamps burning, vanquishing any supernatural creature unfortunate enough to cross his path. As the story begins, Domek has just had a run-in with a particularly nasty pijavica, a vampire-like predator. After killing it, he discovers what the creature had been transporting—a mysterious container with a will-o’-the-wisp trapped inside. Later, he also makes the acquaintance of Lady Ora Fischevá, a wealthy widow with a reputation for being a little eccentric. The truth is though, she is a pijavica, currently working on her own investigation into rumors about a possible cure for vampirism. Unaware of Domek’s affiliation with the Lamplighters, she strikes up a relationship with the young man, and as the bond between them deepens, so too does the urgency to expose those behind the conspiracy that has bought them together. (Read the full review…)
Rabbits by Terry Miles
The story follows “K”, a fan obsessed with a game called Rabbits. Using the real world as a platform, players would seek out patterns and unlikely connections, following them down a particular path filled with more clues, ultimately ending in the fulfillment of the individual’s deepest desires. Once an iteration of the game has been won, another round will begin again. Like many Rabbits players, K has become completely addicted and can’t stop trying to find a way into the game. An opportunity presents itself, however, when our protagonist is approached by reclusive billionaire Alan Scarpio, who had reportedly won the sixth iteration. But what Scarpio actually wants to share is a dire warning. He believes Rabbits is corrupted and must be fixed before the next round, the eleventh, is to begin, or else the world as we know it will cease to exist. Together with close friend Chloe, K seeks to find out more about Scarpio’s claims, but before they can get far in their research, the billionaire is reported missing. The eleventh iteration begins as K and Chloe fail to learn what Scarpio was talking about. Like it or not, they are playing now. (Read the full review…)
The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter
Less a mystery thriller and more of a suspenseful character study, The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter is like a cautionary tale about how seemingly well-adjusted people can in fact be hiding a batshit crazy version of themselves beneath a façade of kindness and normalcy. It’s what made this book so creepy, especially considering the protagonist is a professional photographer, specializing in family portraits and events. It’s Delta’s job to capture perfect memories for her upper crust clients, even if it is all a lie. It’s one of the reasons why her services are so highly-sought after by the elite families of New York City—everyone wants what she’s selling, a version of themselves they wish were real. So when Delta was hired to photograph Fritz and Amelia Straub’s daughter Natalie, she was unfazed by the pomp and pageantry surrounding the eleven-year-old’s birthday party. However, that was before she became enchanted by the family. With them, she feels a kindred spirit and can’t help but be drawn to the couple. Sensing an opportunity, Delta volunteers to be their babysitter, giving her an excuse to get even closer. Before long, she also finds out that Amelia is desperate to have a second child but is struggling with fertility issues. This gives Delta an idea, one that takes her to a whole new level of obsession and derangement as she develops a plan which would ensure her a permanent place in the Straubs’ lives. (Read the full review…)
The Push by Ashley Audrain
Traumatized by her own harsh childhood of growing up with a distant and uncaring mother, Blythe never thought she wanted kids of her own, but that was before she met Fox in college—her perfect boyfriend who would later become her perfect husband. Loving, kind and gentle, Fox was always meant to be a father, and Blythe soon warmed to the idea of starting a family with him, despite her reservations and memories of the past. Soon, their daughter Violet came along, but what didn’t arrive as expected was the sense of joy and connection to her baby that Blythe had so badly wanted. Of course, it didn’t help that Violet was a difficult child from the start. Blythe fears there is something wrong with her daughter, the way her eyes sometimes flash with something cruel or wicked behind them, or the way the other children at preschool would shy away in fear. No one else seems to notice, causing’s Blythe’s resentment to grow and a rift to develop between her and Fox. Desperate to fix things, she hastily agrees to have another child, though later, tragedy strikes out of the blue, dealing a final, irreparable blow to Blythe’s marriage. Worst of all, she can’t be sure if her own daughter had a role in what happened. (Read the full review…)
Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
The story opens on the fictional world of the Arpa Empire, following a young warrior priestess named Hessa who is sworn to Eang, the Goddess of War. One day, our protagonist receives a message from her patron deity commanding her to kill a lone stranger traveling through their village. Caught off guard by the man’s kindness, however, Hessa ends up failing to carry out the task, and thus is banished from the sacred Hall of Smoke as punishment for her disobedience. This is how Hessa finds herself alone on the mountain, about to supplicate herself before her goddess, when the attack on her village comes. But by the time she hears the sounds of battle coming from below, it is too late. She rushes home to find everything razed to the ground and everyone dead. Filled with grief and a desire for revenge, Hessa sets off on a journey to hunt down the man she was supposed to kill, her devotion to Eang still as strong as ever. Hoping to fulfill her goddess’ destiny for her and get back in her good graces, Hessa is determined not to hesitate this time, though nothing could have prepared her for the many challenges ahead, some of which will test her resolve and make her question everything she thought she knew about life, death, and the nature of the gods. (Read the full review…)
Fantastic post, Mogsy, these all look brilliant! There are even a couple of new ones here that I haven’t seen before so thank you for sharing!
Oh that’s great! Many new books to me!
The Last Watch was indeed an unexpected discovery, and I’m eager to find space on my TBR for the sequel, The Exiled Fleet. And I’m trying not to look too closely to all the other interesting titles you listed because I KNOW I will not be able to resist the temptation… 😀
I went back through my list and realized I only had a handful of debuts I liked so I can’t even pull together a list this year🙁 Although The Last Watch and Hall of Smoke would have been on it!
These all seem amazing!!
I always love that feeling when you find a new author and really enjoy their work. And maybe even better is then looking back, years later, and remembering when you first read who might now be a favorite author.
Well, 2/10. I feel like that’s better than I usually do on your recap lists of things I need to read 😅 I do hope it was somewhat challenging to only pick out 10 though!
I really want to try that first one!
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The top two are high on my wishlist – who knows? Christmas is coming…