The best fiction books of 2021

We look ahead to the best new fiction of 2021, from gripping sequels to incredible debuts from fresh new voices. We also look back at the best fiction books of 2020 and share our edit of some of the best novels of all time.

02/07/2021
6 minutes to read

Albert Camus once said that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’, and with these eight words he perfectly encapsulated the immense power of the novel (hardly surprising given that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature).

The best fiction teaches us history that the curriculum never did, sees us break in a new pair of shoes in a new city, breaks our heart and mends it –⁠ sometimes in the same chapter. It lets us breathe in a past era, step into fantasy worlds and even offers glimpses into dystopian futures more bewildering than 2020.

As 2021 marks another exciting year of new releases, we take a look at the best new fiction coming in 2021 and look back at the best fiction books of 2020, from bestsellers to the award-nominated debuts you may have missed. 

But there are some books that never age, and these page-turners certainly deserve a place on your TBR pile. So for even more reading inspiration, we also share our edit of the best fiction books of all time.

The best new fiction books of 2021

Circus of Wonders

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for 9781529002539

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell's life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

The City of Tears

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for 9781509806874

The sequel to bestselling author Kate Mosse’s epic historical fiction novel The Burning Chambers, The City of Tears is set in France in 1572, when the Wars of Religion have been raging for ten violent years. A royal wedding may mean peace at last, but when Minou Joubert receives a wedding invitation she has no idea that in the days following the marriage her own family will be ripped apart. This is set to be one of the best fiction books of 2021.

How to Save a Life

by Eva Carter

Book cover for 9781529038644

It’s nearly midnight on the eve of the millennium when eighteen-year-old Joel’s heart stops. A school friend, Kerry, performs CPR for almost twenty exhausting minutes, ultimately saving Joel’s life, while her best friend Tim freezes, unable to help. That moment of life and death changes the course of all three lives over the next two decades: each time Kerry, Joel and Tim believe they’ve found love, discovered their vocation, or simply moved on, their lives collide again.

People Like Her

by Ellery Lloyd

Book cover for 9781529039382

This smart debut thriller from husband-and-wife writing team Ellery Lloyd takes a compelling look at the dark side of social media and influencer culture. Emmy Jackson is better known to her online fans as Instagram sensation Mamabare, famous for telling it like it is when it comes to modern parenthood. But not everything you see online can be believed, and someone out there knows the truth about Emmy and intends to make her pay . . .

Luster

by Raven Leilani

Book cover for 9781529035988

Raven Leilani is a funny and original new voice in fiction, and Luster is one of the best novels of 2021. Her razor-sharp yet surprisingly tender debut is an essential novel about what it means to be young now. Edie is messing up her life, and no one seems to care. Then she meets Eric, who is white, middle-aged and comes with a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. And as if life wasn’t hard enough, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s family.

The Four Winds

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for 9781529054569

Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, called Kristin Hannah's novel ‘powerful and compelling.’ Elsa Martinelli finally has everything she had wished for – a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens her family and community, Elsa must decide whether to stay and fight for the land she loves or flee to California in search of a better life. 

The Library of the Dead

by T. L. Huchu

Book cover for 9781529039450

When Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker, earning a living by carrying messages from the dead to the living, it seemed harmless enough. But then the dead begin whispering about someone who is bewitching children and leaving them joyless husks. When Ropa starts investigating she needs to draw on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. And what she finds will change her world forever . . . This magical fantasy book is the first in the Edinburgh Nights series. 

Kololo Hill

by Neema Shah

Book cover for 9781529030501

Neema Shah’s impressive debut literary novel is set amidst the turmoil of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. When a devastating decree is announced which says all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days, Asha and Pran and Pran’s mother Jaya, must leave everything they’ve ever known for a new life in Britain. But as they try to rebuild their lives, a terrible secret hangs over them.

The Promise

by Lucy Diamond

Book cover for 9781529027013

This unforgettable new fiction book from bestselling author Lucy Diamond is about finding love, hope and joy in even the darkest of times. When Dan’s brother dies suddenly, Dan promises to support his grieving sister-in-law Zoe and her young children, to ensure their happiness and to live up to the man his brother was. But then a secret comes to light that makes Dan reconsider everything he knew about his older brother. Should he tell his family the truth, or let his brother’s secrets become his own? 

The Talk of Pram Town

by Joanna Nadin

Book cover for 9781529024623

This book from Joanna Nadin about mothers, daughters and second chances is perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s 1981, and eleven-year-old Sadie adores her mother Connie, who dreams of making it big as a singer. It’s always been the two of them, until the unthinkable happens . . . 

Jean hasn’t seen her good-for-nothing daughter Connie since she ran away from home as a pregnant seventeen-year-old. Then she gets a call asking her to come and collect the granddaughter she’s never met . . . 

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Book cover for 9781529047318

Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s debut novel is a riveting mystery which will grip the reader, and a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from shore. The door is locked from the inside, and the clocks have stopped. What happened to those men, and to the women they left behind? 

Neighbours

by Danielle Steel

Book cover for 9781529021394

You can always rely on the world’s favourite storyteller for some of the best fiction of the year. When a personal tragedy cut Meredith White’s career short, she shut herself away from the world, safe in her San Francisco mansion. But when a devastating earthquake hits the city, Meredith opens her home, and her heart . . . 

If I Can’t Have You

by Charlotte Levin

Book cover for 9781529032420

Constance Little has met the one, and she’s sure he feels the same. They have to keep things quiet as he’s a doctor at the GP surgery where she works but there’s no doubt in Constance’s mind that this is happily ever after. So when Samuel starts to seem less sure, Constance knows she must do everything she can to hold onto love. This devastating novel will have you rooting for Constance even as you start to fear how far she will really go. 

Correspondents

by Tim Murphy

Book cover for 9781529040272

Tim Murphy’s powerful novel spans the breadth of the twentieth century and the legacy of the post-9/11 wars. Rita Khoury is an Irish-Lebanese woman whose family came to America during the golden years of immigration. When her career as a journalist sees her posted to Iraq after the 2003 American invasion, she finds that her safety depends on her translator Nabil – a young man hiding a secret about his sexuality. When Nabil’s identity puts him in trouble and Rita’s position becomes more and more unstable, they are forced out of the country and into an uncertain future.

Amnesty

by Aravind Adiga

Book cover for 9781509879052

Full of Aravind Adiga’s signature wit and magic, this novel from the Man Booker Prize-winning author is both a universal story and a timeless moral struggle. When Danny – an illegal immigrant in Sydney who has been denied refugee status – hears about a murder that has been committed which he may have information about, he faces a moral choice. Should he come forward with his knowledge of the crime and risk deportation, or should he stay silent, protecting the life he has built but letting justice go undone?

Cleanness

by Garth Greenwell

Book cover for 9781509874675

Expanding the world of his novel What Belongs to You, a debut that the New York Times Book Review hailed as 'an instant classic, in Cleanness Garth Greenwell writes with startling insight about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with ourselves.

In Bulgaria's capital, amid political protests, an American teacher reflects on the intimate encounters of his past as he prepares to leave the country he has come to call home.

Little Bandaged Days

by Kyra Wilder

Book cover for 9781529017403

Kyra Wilder’s debut novel is a beautifully written, painfully claustrophobic story of a woman’s descent into madness. A mother moves to Geneva with her husband and their two young children. Unable to speak the language, and with her husband working increasingly long hours, she becomes more and more isolated. As her whole world becomes about caring for her children, Erika is determined that everything will be perfect. But it isn’t . . . Erika has never been so alone, and when the children are sleeping there is just too much time to fill all by herself.

The Missing Sister

by Lucinda Riley

Book cover for 9781509840175

The six D’Aplièse sisters have each been on their own incredible journey to discover their heritage, but they still have one question left unanswered: who and where is the seventh sister? They only have one clue – an image of a star-shaped emerald ring. The search to find the missing sister will take them across the globe – from New Zealand to Canada, England, France and Ireland – uniting them all in their mission to complete their family at last.

In doing so, they will slowly unearth a story of love, strength and sacrifice that began almost one hundred years ago, as other brave young women risk everything to change the world around them.

Discover Lucinda Riley'sThe Seven Sisters series, in order.

Finding Ashley

by Danielle Steel

Book cover for 9781529021578

Danielle Steel's Finding Ashley is a moving story of two estranged sisters who get the chance to reconnect and right the wrongs of the past. Melissa Henderson was once a bestselling author, but following a tragedy six years ago she stopped writing and now pours all her energy into renovating her house in rural New England. When Melissa's house appears on the news, her sister Hattie gets in touch, determined to repair their relationship and help Melissa turn a new page. 

Read more about Danielle Steel's bestselling books here.

Catch the Rabbit

by Lana Bastašic

Book cover for Catch the Rabbit

Sara hasn't seen or heard from her childhood best-friend, Lejla, in years. She's comfortable with her life in Dublin, with her partner, their avocado plant, and their naturist neighbour. But when Lejla calls and demands she come home to Bosnia, Sara finds that she can't say no. What begins as a road trip becomes a journey through the past, as the two women set off to find Armin, Lejla's brother who disappeared towards the end of the Bosnian War. Presumed dead by everyone else, only Lejla and Sara believed Armin was still alive.

Translated into English by Lana Bastašic, Catch the Rabbit tells the story of how we place the ones we love on pedestals, and then wait for them to fall off, how loss marks us indelibly, and how the traumas of war echo down the years.


The best fiction books of 2020

The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Book cover for 9781529075076

This stunningly evocative novel set on the remote Norwegian island of Vardø in the 1600s was inspired by the real Vardø storm and the subsequent witch hunt. When a catastrophic storm wipes out almost the entirety of the male population of the island, the women who are left, still grieving for their men, are forced to fend for themselves. Eighteen months later, the sinister new commissioner, Absolom Cornet, arrives with his young wife Ursa. Ursa sees independent women for the first time in her life, and she is drawn to Maren, the young woman who helps her navigate life in this harsh new world. But Absolom is convinced that the women’s behaviour is ungodly and he must bring them to heel by any means necessary.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Book cover for 9781529050868

This is another beautiful, simple tale about the time-travelling customers of the Cafe Funiculi Funicula from the author of Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Customers include a man who travels to see the girl he couldn’t marry, a son who had to miss his mother’s funeral and a man who travels back to see his friend who died twenty-two years ago. 


Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for 9781529019278

One of the best novels of the year was Douglas Stuart’s blistering, Booker Prize-winning debut. Set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s, this is a heartbreaking story which lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty and the limits of love. Agnes Bain has always dreamed of greater things, but when her husband abandons her she finds herself trapped in a decimated mining town with her three children, and descends deeper and deeper into drink. Her son Shuggie tries to help Agnes long after her other children have fled, but he too must abandon her to save himself. Shuggie is different, fastidious and fussy, and he is picked on by the local children and condemned by adults as ‘no’ right’. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can be like other boys and escape this hopeless place.

Discover Douglas Stuart's favourite LGBTQIA+ books.

The Sin Eater

by Megan Campisi

Book cover for 9781529019063

When fourteen-year-old May is orphaned, she begins a tough fight for survival. Arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, she’s sentenced to the harshest punishment – she must become a sin eater, shunned from society and condemned to take on the sins of the dead. But May’s invisibility opens new doors, and when she is called to hear the sins of one of the Queen’s dying courtiers she stumbles on a dark conspiracy only she can get to the bottom of. 

Read more about the real history behind The Sin Eater.

Nothing Ventured

by Jeffrey Archer

Book cover for 9781509851300

The start of a thrilling new series by bestselling author Jeffrey Archer, Nothing Ventured begins the story of Wiliam Warwick – a family man and detective – who will do battle with a powerful criminal nemesis. After graduating from university, Wiliam joins the Metropolitan Police Force where he rises to the rank of detective, taking on his first high-stakes case in Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques squad. Investigating the theft of a priceless missing painting, he meets and falls hopelessly in love with research assistant Beth Rainsford, and comes up against suave art collector Miles Faulkner, who is willing to bend the law to breaking point to get what he wants.

In this video, Jeffrey Archer introduces his new series featuring William Warwick.

The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for 9781529002430

Elizabeth Macneal’s bestselling debut novel immerses the reader in the intoxicating world of Victorian London, as the Great Exhibition approaches. All Iris wants in life is the freedom to pursue her passion for art. When Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost asks her to model for him she agrees, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. As a whole world of art and love opens up for Iris, a chance encounter with Silas, a collector of the strange and beautiful, changes everything. Because Silas can’t stop thinking about Iris, and his dangerous obsession is growing . . .

Discover ten weird and wonderful facts about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for 9781509882809

When Vincent, a beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, meets the hotel's owner, New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis, she immediately agrees to start a new life with him. That same night, an unknown person graffitis the window of the hotel with the words 'Why don't you swallow broken glass.' The staff, and a guest, shipping executive Leon Prevant, are left shaken by the malicious message. Thirteen years later, Vincent disappears from a ship owned by the same company Leon worked for . . .

Emily St. John Mandel's extraordinary novel moves between time and place to explore greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, the interconnectedness of our lives and the ghosts of our pasts.

Read Octavia Bright on the capitalist dystopia of The Glass Hotel.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance

by Tomi Adeyemi

Book cover for 9781509899456

 Tomi Adeyemi is back with this thrilling sequel to Children of Blood and Bone. After battling the impossible, Zélie and Amari have finally succeeded in bringing magic back to the land of Orïsha. But the ritual was more powerful than they imagined, reigniting the powers of not only the maji but also some nobles with magic ancestry. With civil war looming on the horizon, Zélie finds herself at a breaking point: she must find a way to bring the kingdom together or watch as Orïsha tears itself apart. Children of Virtue and Vengeance is one of the best fiction books of 2020 for young adult readers.


The best fiction books of all time 

Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell

Book cover for 9781529032666

One of the most influential fiction books of all time, 1984 is George Orwell's terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime led by The Party. The novel has a fascinating history, from the phenomenon it became on publication to the impact it has had on the English language.

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Book cover for 9781909621657

Jane Austen’s witty satire of love, class and a woman’s position in eighteenth-century England is a classic fiction book and her best-loved novel. When headstrong Elizabeth Bennett meets aristocratic Mr Darcy sparks fly, but both must have their pride humbled and address their prejudices before they can acknowledge their love for each other. 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for 9781529034523

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most-loved science-fiction books of all time. Beginning life as a Radio 4 show in 1978, it has since spawned adaptations across almost every format, making it a staple on every respectable list of the best fiction books. Following the galactic adventures of Arthur Dent after his house's untimely demolition to make way for a new hyperspace express route, this new edition of 'the Guide' features exclusive bonus archive material and a new introduction from Russell T. Davies.

Only Time Will Tell

by Jeffrey Archer

Book cover for 9781509847563

Only Time Will Tell is the first in the thrilling Clifton Chronicles fiction book series, beginning with the birth of Harry Clifton in the backstreets of Bristol in 1919. The man Harry believes to be his father was a war hero, but it will be twenty one years before Harry discovers how he died, and if he was indeed his father. Only Time Will Tell follows Harry from the horrors of the Great War to the Second World War, when Harry must decide between a place at Oxford or joining the fight against Hitler. 

Firefly Lane

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for 9781447229537

Kristin Hannah writes some of the most heartbreaking and best fiction around, and Firefly Lane is no exception.  Kate Mularkey has accepted her place on the bottom rung of her school's social ladder. But then 'the coolest girl in the world,' Tully Hart, moves in across the street and wants to be Kate's best friend. The pair are inseparable for thirty years, until a terrible betrayal tears them apart. Firefly Lane has been adapted into a Netflix series starring Katherine Heigl as Tully Hart and Sarah Chalke as Kate Mularkey.

Gingerbread

by Helen Oyeyemi

Book cover for 9781447299424

Perdita and Harriet Lee make gingerbread, which isn’t popular in London, but which is very popular in Druhástrana, Harriet’s home as a child – which Wikipedia thinks doesn’t exist. Years later, Perdita seeks out her mother’s long-lost friend Gretel, which prompts a retelling of Harriet’s story, and a few reunions. Inspired by the special place gingerbread has in fairy tales, this is a wonderful story of a surprising family legacy.

Read author Daisy Johnson on the wonder of Helen Oyeyemi.

Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl

by Andrea Lawlor

Book cover for 9781529007671

A joyous romp through early '90s American subculture, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl follows Paul Polydoris, a shapeshifter who can change sex at will, as he navigates relationships and identity politics from Iowa City to Chicago leather bars, and from a women-only music festival to the bright lights of San Francisco. This riotous bildungsroman is full of heart and humour.

Read our interview with Andrea Lawlor

The Confession

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for 9781509886197

The highly anticipated third novel from million-copy bestselling author Jessie Burton is a powerful and deeply moving story about secrets, motherhood and friendship. In 1980 Elise meets Constance, a successful writer, and quickly falls under her spell, moving to LA to be with her. Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for answers about her mother, who disappeared after she was born. When she learns that reclusive novelist Constance Holden was the last person to see her mother alive, she is drawn to her door in search of a confession . . .

Read Lucy Scholes on The Confession and portrayals of motherhood in literature.


Looking for more inspiration? Explore our recommendations in the genres you love with our edit of the best thriller books of 2021, the best fantasy books publishing this year and the best science fiction books. Or, if you're looking for something a little less fiction and more fact, don’t miss our edit of the best non-fiction books of all time.