Layla’s Best of 2021
Freya Marske, A Marvellous Light
This was probably my favorite book of the year. I don’t read m/m romance much, but this book had me hooked. Full of angst and tension, containing a swoon worthy romance and with a very compelling magical world, it was hard to put down.
The book opens with a scene of gruesome torture and violence, which was difficult to read, but gets going once the two leads meet. That first meeting of sporty jocular and open Robyn with icy cold reserved and scholarly Edwin was just simmering with heat. In fact, I bought this book after Sirius posted a snippet from that scene!
Marske immerses us into her unique magical world, an alternate England. In this world there are divisions between those who are part of a secret hidden magical world (Harry Potterish but much more sinister and sexier and adult!) and those are unaware of it. Robyn works as a civil service liaison for a hidden magical society, Edwin is his magical partner of sorts. Together they take on a world-altering mystery, uncover secrets about their society and find love with each other.
I absolutely loved this book and didn’t want to leave its magical world. So many of the side characters are well drawn and compelling, and the tension between good and evil—between the cruelties people inflict on each other and their deep capacity for love—is at the heart of the book.
Lena Harper, Payback’s a Witch
Charming coming of age and f/f romance with a wonderful magical world. I’m sensing a theme! A lot of the books I liked this year took risks and played with existing tropes. I am loving the risks and innovation in this subgenre of fantasy romance.
The magical world in Harper’s Payback’s a Witch centers around the town of Thistle Grove, where powerful witch families have ruled and lived in harmony for centuries. Each family has an ‘affinity’ and a set of powers. Emmy, the heroine, has turned her back on both her family, her town and her magical heritage. A desire for revenge, and a blossoming crush on an old classmate, draw her slowly back into her hometown and magical life.
This book is very soft and sweet and playful. The sexy Talia Avramov, Emmy’s love interest, just ignites on the page. Harper’s writing is elegant and her descriptions are sharp and clear.
This is another book I couldn’t put down and I am so eager for the sequel, I keep checking the author’s page hoping for an excerpt. I loved how the themes of family, finding ones’ self, and community intersect in this book. The romance is by turns gentle and sweet and fiery. Highly recommended!
Mary Balogh, Someone Perfect
I have read almost every book that Mary Balogh has published, and find comfort in the steadiness of her prose, and the stability of her heroes and heroines. With Balogh you can expect a good story, a hero and heroine who suffer but are redeemed through love, and lovely descriptions.
This new installation in the Westcott Family series, features the story of Justin Wiley, the lately installed Earl of Brandon, and Lady Estelle LaMarr. This was a gentle comforting read with a slowly evolving love story. The level of conflict between the couple is low, and a lot of the angst comes from Justin’s backstory. There is a darkness to this book and a lot of tragic suffering that Justin has to endure.
Justin looks brutish and mean but he’s a totally teddy bear. Estelle looks like a doll and comes from a comfortable and wealthy family, but she is stronger than she looks and has depth. My favorite character was Estelle’s twin brother Bertrand. I’m not a fan of Balogh’s extended family scenes and this does get annoying in this and other books in this series.
This book isn’t perfect. It is ponderously slow and much of the book is spent inside the characters’ heads. Some might take offense at the depiction of a disabled character in the end. Despite that I found the book to be moving and the love story to be redemptive.
Patricia Briggs, Wild Sign
I am a huge fan of this series, and of the hero and heroine, Anna and Charles. This was one of those books that I stayed up all night to finish.
In this latest installment in the series, Charles and Anna are sent to investigate a mystery that involves Leah, Charles’s stepmother and one of the most powerful and mysterious figures in their werewolf pack.
Leah is a very divisive character. Long hated by readers, myself included, Leah has hidden depths and tragic suffering that are revealed by her backstory here. By the end of the book Briggs had transformed my dislike of Leah to profound sympathy and I am dying to see how the relationship between her and Bran her husband, evolves.
I totally love when an author does this to me—shakes up my expectations and adds dimension and depth to a character over time. It’s a payoff for a reader’s investment and it’s one of the things I love about this series in particular. Briggs is a master at inverting tropes and expectations and building multi-dimensional characters.
This was one of Briggs’ best books and it lingered in my mind long after I read it. Inspired by great horror fiction and monsters of old, the villain at the heart of the story was deeply disturbing. A fantastic entry in a fantastic series.
Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman
I was so eager to read this book. I read and adored the previous entry in the League of Extraordinary Women series, A Rogue of One’s Own, and the glimpses I had of Hattie made me want to read her book desperately.
Hattie, the heroine, is the daughter of a wealthy English merchant who loves art and is one of the core members of a local suffragette chapter. She is clever and a little awkward and naïve. Caught in a compromising position with the mysterious Scottish financier Lucien Blackstone, she is forced into a marriage of convenience.
The first half of the book documents their meeting and their marriage, the second half follows their honeymoon in Scotland. The first part of the book is difficult to enjoy—the hero and heroine don’t get along, and nothing really happens. The second half is rollicking fun as they honeymoon in Scotland and she becomes involved in the local mine that Blackstone owns.
This was a memorable if not perfect book. After I read it and reviewed it (link to my review is here) I realized the writing and descriptions carried me to a higher grade than the characterization itself. The book is deeply flawed and the heroine acts immaturely. However, the originality of the plot and the very good writing make it one of the best books I read this year.
Margaret Rogerson, Vespertine
Vespertine is an utterly absorbing book with one of the most adorable grumpy heroines I have had the pleasure to read about. I laughed so much and cried so much—this book really moved me.
Artemisia is a nun in training to become a Grey Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the dead so their spirits can pass on. In this world, the dead who are not cleansed rise as spirits who attack the living. Artemisia is cynical and awkward and afraid and funny and clever and brave—I adored her so much. When possessed soldiers attack her convent, she helps defend it by awakening a revenant—a powerful ancient spirit bound to a relic.
The revenant , who shares Artemisia’s mind and body, is a captivating character–charming, wickedly funny, dangerously powerful and mysterious. I was in thrall to Rogerson’s writing and her creation of this unique character.
Over the course of the book, Artemisia battles spirits, unravels mysteries, dodges pursuers and wields power that can save her world or destroy it. I was in a state of pure joy reading this book. The plot is fast paced, a lot of action happens, and yet the author manages to make me care deeply about the characters. There were lots of twists turns and revelations that kept me satisfied and wanting more.
This was my second favorite book of the year, it was an absolute joy to read, and Artemisia and the revenant were original and captivating characters. I loved the world building and the conceit that being possessed by an evil spirit isn’t such a bad thing—and that fighting your own insecurities and history is as much a part of the battle as fighting the bad guys.
Bethany Bennett, West End Earl
This is a delightful romp with some super steamy scenes and a very unusual couple. Ophelia, the heroine, has spent 10 years of her life hiding as a man. Working as a land steward for the Earl of Carlyle disguised as a man, she has security if not love.
Ophelia, variously known as Adam and Phee in the book, is an unusual heroine for Regency Romance. I loved her—she was independent, clever, self-sufficient, sexy, in touch with her feelings and her body, but also vulnerable and soft. She is attracted to her employer, but she is never stupid. She acts in line with her life experience—and her life experience was both unusual and compelling. The backstory of how she comes to live her life in disguise was tragic and also compelling, and what I loved most of all in this book was seeing her get her much deserved happy ending.
The hero, the Earl of Carlyle, is also an unusual and refreshing hero. He was sensitive, in touch with his feelings, open with his affection and so tender it melted my heart.
For reasons I won’t disclose, Ophelia’s secret is revealed very early on and the rest of the book revolves around three conflicts—one surrounding the hero’s sister, one surrounding Ophelia’s guardian (evil of course), and one internal or between the couple.
I love stories with heroines in disguise, and I loved reading about a sensitive protective and not A-hole Regency hero. He wasn’t a rake or a libertine. Bennet finds a way to make responsibility and stability sexy. This book isn’t without faults—there are a lot of anachronisms, and if you are a stickler for historical accuracy well then, this book isn’t for you. However, I highly recommend this book for its humor, tenderness and sweet love story and for its brave and compelling heroine.
Have you read these books? What did you think of them?