When you think of the best novels of the 21st century, what are the first titles that come to mind? Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? Perhaps The Corrections, or The Road, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay? Those are some great novels, but they also all fit into a mold — heavy dramas tackling themes of family, love, conflict, and hate, written by critically-lauded white male authors. In other words, the same as nearly every other contender for title of the Great American Novel.
Make no mistake, those are indeed some of the best novels of the 21st century. But there are many others out there that are being overlooked, either because they are deceptively straightforward or wildly experimental, too commercial, or not commercial enough.
Some of these titles you might never have heard of, while others have spawned billion-dollar franchises. But at their core, they are all the same: a collection of words on paper telling a story that became one of the 21 best novels of the 21st century.
1. 1Q84 by Haruki Marukami
As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, the Japanese master of magical realism Haruki Marukami published 1Q84 — a novel that can only be defined as the Eastern version of 1984, but on acid. Marukami’s novel starts in 1984, when a woman named Aomame assassinates a guest at a glamorous hotel. Soon after, however, she faces a reality check — quite literally, as she finds herself in an alternate, dystopian Tokyo she calls 1Q84. Hundreds of pages long and published in three separate volumes, this epic story defies categorization. But it fills one category perfectly: that of a Great Novel.
2. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
This eerie, mystical depiction of violence and death in Juárez was published posthumously — its influential Chilean author Robert Bolaño died a year before it was released, and its plot is a clear meditation on mortality. 2666 follows five different threads, all of which seem initially disconnected except for their relation to hundreds of unsolved homicides that targeted impoverished women in Juárez. However, there turns out to be a lot more in common between a literary critic, a professor of philosophy, an American journalist, and a mysterious writer than meets the eye… and things take a turn for the cosmic. But once the dust settles, only one story remains: 2666, a massive and tragic accomplishment, and easily one of the best novels of the 21st century.
3. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
These days, more people “watch Game of Thrones” than “read A Song of Ice and Fire,” the series of epic fantasy novels that the popular TV show was based on. But the books have garnered a ravenous fanbase themselves, ever since the first installment came out in the ‘90s. In a series with hundreds of characters scattered across an entire medieval world, it’s probably hard for those fans to agree on much, but most will tell you that of the five books published so far, A Storm of Swords is the best.
A spoiled prince and his estranged grandfather compete for the highest throne of the kingdom Westeros. Meanwhile, the lord of a powerful northern city declares independence and threatens to secede. And if that weren’t enough, a band of natives from outside the kingdom’s walls launches an attack on Westeros, with only the scarce Night Watch in place to protect it. Like the rest of the series, A Storm of Swords is told from multiple perspectives following every significant character’s individual plot lines. This novel just happens to cover the best ones.
4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
What is it with these great novels telling loosely connected stories? This Pulitzer-Prize-winning work from Jennifer Egan could almost be considered a collection of short stories if the author herself didn’t insist it was a novel. But whether it’s a kleptomaniac confessing her vice to a therapist, a night of partying in NYC that ends in disaster, or an ill-fated gig for the punk band The Flaming Dildos, the 13 chapters of A Visit from the Goon Squad do eventually amalgamate into a single story: one of the connections made and lost in the world of rock and roll.
5. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
At last, a novel with a fairly straightforward plot! Indeed, the classic hero’s journey at the heart of Gaiman’s modern fantasy might actually be part of why the book is often overlooked when listing the best novels of the 21st century. Here’s how the journey unfolds: The protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison early to mourn the shocking death of his wife. With nothing left to lose, he falls in with Mr. Wednesday, a grifter and, it turns out, a god. If that sounds like pulpy paperback fiction, it’s because Gaiman takes as much influence from dime novels as he does from the classics, fusing the two into one truly great novel.
6. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
Amy Tan has received nearly equal amounts of acclaim and criticism since the publication of The Joy Luck Club in 1989, but whether you love or hate her work, there’s no denying she did what she does best in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
Ruth is a successful ghostwriter and first-generation Chinese immigrant supporting her ailing mother Lu Ling, whose erratic behavior and belief in spirits has only increased with her dementia. Ruth eventually translates her mother’s autobiography, uncovering the secrets that haunted Lu Ling’s life, as well as her own.
7. White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
British-Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi only started her publishing career in 2004, and she already has a handful of classic novels, stories, and plays under her belt. But none are quite so dazzling as White is for Witching.
A coming-of-age ghost story, this book follows Miri, a young woman with a rare eating disorder, as she moves to a freewheeling haunted house with her newly-widowed father. But when they hire a Yoruba housekeeper who practices juju in her spare time, the supernatural becomes a benevolent presence in the story, shining a spotlight on the real malicious forces in the world: racial violence, illness, displacement, and xenophobia.
8. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz may have taken a fall from grace this past year, but that only makes his uncomfortably personal examination of toxic masculinity that much more captivating. Oscar Wao is an overweight child whose greatest fear in life is that he’ll die a virgin. The lengths he goes to avoid that in his “brief, wondrous life” are alternatively shocking, nauseating, and gutting. But as he travels everywhere from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic in pursuit of a masculine ideal, Díaz leaves in his wake a rumination on oppression and sexual identity that may serve as something of a confession, too.
9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
There are essentially two novels at play in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: a classic, Sherlock-Holmes-inspired murder mystery for adults and a heartwarming coming-of-age story for children. Maybe that’s the reason it has found success with both demographics. Or maybe it’s simply because of the singular narrative at the center.
Christopher Boone, a teenager on the spectrum, investigates the death of a dog impaled on a garden fork. While on the “case,” however, he unravels a different mystery: that of his own family and childhood. By treating Christopher’s autism as more than just another procedural plot device, Haddon wrote one of the century’s definitive novels on one of the century’s defining phenomena.
10. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
It’s hardly been a year since its 2017 publication, but Exit West is already one for the ages. A young couple emigrate from a mysterious, civil-war-torn country through a series of doors that teleport them all over the globe. Like Monsters Inc. meets Salt Houses, this magical realist mediation on love, home, displacement, and survival will undoubtedly go down as the quintessential novel on the refugee crisis, and one of the best novels of the 21st century to boot.
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
The series that spawned seven novels, ten films (and counting), four amusement parks, two Broadway plays, and one author richer than the Queen of England already had three excellent novels to its name by the turn of the century. So, it’s easy to forget that in 2000, Harry Potter was still just another great young adult trilogy. That all changed when Harry Potter’s name flew out of the Goblet of Fire, forcing him to compete in the magical interscholastic sporting event known as the Triwizard Tournament. If you’re the one person in the world who has yet to read it, we won’t spoil it for you… but, predictably, things get extracurricular.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was bigger than the previous three novels in almost every way — length, scope, and acclaim. The first movie adaptation dropped the next year, and then it was off to the races. But with the publication of Goblet of Fire, the franchise’s fantastical fate was already sealed.
12. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Not every great YA novel of the 21st century hit it big like Harry Potter — though not for lack of trying. People have been attempting to adapt Rick Riordan’s mythology-meets-coming-of-age tale The Lightning Thief for years, be it to film or stage musical. Percy Jackson is your average, ADHD 12-year-old, sent to a different remand school each year by his mother where trouble nevertheless always finds him. Only lately, it has started to take a very different form: satyrs, magical swords, and Furies straight from the Underworld. Whisked off to a mysterious summer camp, Percy finds out that his absent father might actually be a Greek God… and he’s not the only one.
With a story like that, it’s no wonder Hollywood has tried again and again to make The Lightning Thief happen. But so far, it’s been to no avail — maybe because it simply works so well as a novel that no adaptation will ever quite measure up.
13. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
After decades of writing short stories, George Saunders finally released his debut novel in 2017… and it’s a doozy. Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the course of one evening in the as Abraham Lincoln’s late son Willie passes into the afterlife and the president mourns the loss of a child. Saying much more would spoil this wildly inventive work of fiction, but the idea that the bardo (the Buddhist concept also known as “limbo”) contains ghosts of those “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” is especially poignant in the context of this novel that Saunders had conceived for twenty years before finally deciding to write it.
14. Looking for Alaska by John Green
There’s a reason this book regularly beats out Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on lists of books most commonly challenged or banned at schools. Ask many parents, and they’ll tell you why: this young adult novel simply isn’t for young adults. Miles Halter transfers to a boarding school in Alabama, quickly falling in with the troublemaking crowd (and falling in love with the lead troublemaker, Alaska). Skipping school, playing pranks, smoking cigarettes, suicide — name a taboo of adolescence, and it’s covered in Looking for Alaska. But that’s exactly what makes this coming-of-age novel so authentic. It is, quite simply, The Catcher in the Rye of the 21st century.
15. Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
The fourth novel in the heart wrenching, almost-autobiographical series Patrick Melrose barely qualifies as a novel. Change a few names, pull apart a few composite characters, and you’d have a precise memoir of a final member from the old British elite generation. Edward St. Aubyn’s fictional avatar Patrick, the great-grandson of a baron, never had to worry financially in his youth — his struggles came instead at the hands of his atrociously abusive parents and the life of addiction and self-destruction that followed. But now, married and with two children, he returns to his childhood estate to care for his negligent mother as she squanders the rest of her fortune on an evangelical Ponzi scheme.
The details of St. Aubyn’s life depicted in Mother’s Milk aren’t as immensely disquieting as the earlier entries in the series, such as the horrific childhood abuse portrayed in Never Mind or the prolonged drug binge that comprises Bad News. But as a rumination on hereditary trauma and generational change, it stands alone.
16. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood
Pigs with human brains. Men with glowing genitalia. A man named Snowman. In a dystopian future ravaged by rampant genetic engineering, he appears to be the last human alive, starving and alone but for a group of primitive humanoids. Set in both the past and future — before and after the collapse of a society run by monopolist corporations — there’s a lot about this novel that could categorize it as “science fiction.” Maybe that’s why it’s often overlooked when discussing 21st century classics. But the reason this novel stands apart from the dystopian fiction pack is the very same reason Margaret Atwood would push back against that label: like The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing is included in the novel that “we can’t yet do or begin to do.”
17. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead became a household name in 2016 with his unfortunately timely novel The Underground Railroad. But in 2009, he published Sag Harbor, which is his true claim to fame. Tackling the African-American experience through a far more subdued approach than his later books, this novel tells the story of Benji Cooper, a black teen in a primarily-white vacation neighborhood who reinvents himself to fit in — a pressure that readers of all races can no doubt relate to.
18. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
When it comes to unfortunately timely novels, this winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize is the definite standout. This biting satire concerns an unnamed protagonist who attempts to reintroduce segregation to his suburban LA neighborhood so that he can employ a slave to man his weed/watermelon farm. Despite the excellent, exaggerated set-up and the dark humorous prose, it’s the serious, urgent topics underlining the narrative that earn this novel a place on this list.
19. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
This superhero satire by Austin Grossman goes unsung for a number of reasons — an oversaturated market, the shadow of his brother Lev (author of The Magicians, the popular trilogy and television show), and the simple question of, “Who wants to read a book about superheroes?” But anyone who overlooks Soon I Will Be Invincible is missing out on a quintessential piece of superhero media of the 21st century.
The novel follows two protagonists: Fatale, a cyborg recently recruited to an Avengers-style super team, and Dr. Impossible, a Lex-Luthorian super genius recently imprisoned but plotting the next in an extensive series of attempts at world domination. In under 300 pages, Grossman manages to embrace nearly every aspect, trope, and era of superhero history. But, simultaneously, he creates his own world of gossip, grudges, and grief, and it’s one just as engrossing as any golden age comic book out there.
20. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
After the death of their mother, the three Bigtree children embark on a quest to find her ghost, while their father struggles to keep the family business open. The wrinkle is that said family business is an alligator wrestling amusement park — the eponymous “Swamplandia!” This stylish, wildly original blend of magical realism, dark comedy, Southern Gothic, and family drama tackles far deeper themes than its silly premise would suggest. But it’s Karen Russell’s immersive prose that leaves the long-lasting impression that the world of Swamplandia! is not so different from our own.
21. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is quite simply one of the most important authors of the 21st century, and she has a handful of titles to her name that could make this list. But her debut novel stands apart as a mission statement of sorts. The story at its center is fairly simple: two friends, one from England and the other from Bangladesh, return from to London from war and spend time in a pub. A lot of time in a pub. But this simple set-up allows Smith to use her abundant talents to explore nearly everything under the sun, from post-traumatic depression to religious dogma to Britain’s relationship with its former colonies. If there’s one novel that comes the closest to encapsulating the Western world at the turn of the century, it’s White Teeth.