Last week we told you about 19 science fiction debut novels coming this year that are currently scaling the peaks of Mount TBR. Today, we’re doing the same for fantasy. After all, one of the (many) reasons people are attracted to the genre is the desire for something new—something we’ve never seen before, or imagined possible. Yet you only need to look at the multi-volume series lining the shelves to know that we also appreciate a sure thing. Still, every year, future stars of the genre emerge—and we’d place good money on the fact that at least one of them is on the list of 21 books below.
Gilded Cage, by Vic James (February 14)
James’ debut begins with an irresistible premise: in an alternate England, those with magical powers (known ironically as “Equals”) dominate as the aristocracy; those without magic must by law spend a 10 years as slaves to the Equals—the catch being that they get to choose when they will serve. Serve when you are young and enjoy years afterward without worry; serve when you are old, and risk dying a slave. The story focuses on non-magical Luke Hadley and family, who choose to go into their slave period together. Luke winds up in the slave settlement Millmoor, where he becomes involved in a secret group working to make the lives of the downtrodden better, while the rest of his family go to serve on the estate of the most powerful family in England, becoming involved in the personal and political dramas of firsts among Equals. James’ worldbuilding will absorb you in no time, as will the clever hints at a wider world waiting to be explored.
Empress of a Thousand Skies, by Rhoda Belleza (February 7)
It’s no accident that people are using Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series as a comparison to Belleza’s new science fantasy page-turner; Empress of a Thousand Skies similarly fuses complex political themes with pulse-quickening action. Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an is the sole survivor of an assassination attempt on the royal family that rules a galaxy in the wake of a brutal war that killed millions. When a second attempt on Rhee’s life—and her salvation–come from unexpected sources, she goes into disguise to ferret out her true enemy. As false reports of her death spread, a soldier named Aly, part of an oppressed social class and reluctant reality television star, is accused of assassinating the princess, and must prove himself innocent. These twin narratives allow Belleza to explore her universe with the sort of verve that draws you in and makes you care not just about the very real characters you meet, but also the teeming millions whose fates all depend on their choices.
Wintersong, by S. Jae Jones (February 7)
With a clever inversion of expectations, Jones’ debut novel tells the story of Liesl, an innkeeper’s daughter in 19th-century Bavaria who wants nothing more than to work on her music, dreading the day she must take over the family business and help to care for her younger siblings instead. When her younger sister is kidnapped for marriage by the Goblin King, Liesl travels to the Underground and bargains her hand in marriage in exchange for her sister’s. Instead of horror, Liesl finds joy: the Goblin King is a willing supporter and collaborator in her musical ambitions, and for the first time in her life, Liesl is free to pursue her gift. Living in the Underground, however, begins to sap away her life force, and Liesl is forced to face some uncomfortable choices: stay in the new life she loves, and die, or go home to a different kind of death. This YA debut is poised to enraptured audiences who open themselves to its song.
The Black Tides of Heaven/The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang (August 1)
Arriving this summer on a wave of advance praise from luminaries the likes of Kate Elliott, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, and Zen Cho, this dual debut from celebrated short fiction author JY Yang (their fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons) is about two siblings, twins, trying to figure out how they fit into the terribly divided world of Ea. They are each extraordinarily gifted: Mokoya possesses the power of prophecy, and Akeha can glimpse the levels of power that truly move the world. Their gifts will lead them down different paths—Mokoya to the magic-controlling Tensors; Akeha to the technologically inclined Machinists—as they each try to shape what the world is and what it could be—and both sides of the story will be explored in separate, standalone-yet-interrelated novellas releasing on the same day. Adding yet more complexity to this power struggle is a tenant of Ea society that dictates the choosing of a gender upon reaching maturity, making these twin tales feel particularly relevant to today.
Caraval, by Stephanie Garber (January 31)
Garber bursts onto the scene with one of the buzziest YA debuts in recent memory. Scarlett and Donatella Dragna live on a remote island, dreaming of attending Caraval, an annual magical audience-participation festival that is part treasure-hunt and part stageplay, orchestrated by the mysterious Master Legend on his own remote island. When the sisters receive a surprise invitation to the festivities, Tella schemes with a sailor named Julian to defy her father and more or less kidnap her sister in order to attend. Upon arrival, however, Tella is spirited away; she is to be the “treasure” of this year’s Caraval, leaving her reluctant sister and Julian to play Master Legend’s game and try to find her first. Like another novel about a magical circus, the setting reveals itself slowly slowly, page by page, until you’re completely immersed.
The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (January 10)
Arden’s debut is an incredible achievement, fusing Russian folklore and history into a thoroughly modern fairy tale exploring themes of belief, feminism, and magic. Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna is the beautiful daughter of a 13th century Russian noble. Her father, conflicted in his emotions because he blames Vasya for the death of her mother, nonetheless seeks to protect her in the one way he believes is appropriate: by marrying her into royalty. Vasya, however, prefers to commune with the spirits of wood, home, and water that lurk in the woods on her father’s estate—spirits who have protected the land for centuries. With the arrival of a new priest and Vasya’s new mother-in-law, who each see the spirits as demons to be destroyed, the villagers begin to reject the old ways just when the village needs them most. It falls to Vasya to harness the power she holds within to save her family and her home. Arden’s musical prose serves a story that combines beauty and power into something compelling and gorgeous—and ideal for a cold winter night’s reading.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (May 23)
We love an innovative alternate history, and we can’t say we’ve ever read one quite like this before. Sarah Gailey’s debut (which is also slated to received a sequel before the end of the year) imagines an alternate past in which the U.S. plan to kickstart a massive hippo farming operation goes terribly, terribly wrong. Which really almost happened! Yes, you read that right: a bit more than a century ago, the U.S. was facing a meat crisis—the population was booming, and the beleaguered meat industry was having trouble keeping pace. Thus begat a ludicrous, ingenious plan: the government imported hippos to the marshlands of Louisiana with plans to raise them en masse as an alternative to beef. Obviously, our track of history turned a different way, but this book imagines a past in which we really do import a bunch of hippos, and the operation gets out of hand, and it turns out hippos are really rather vicious creatures, and hippo-related madness ensues. Is this really a fantasy book? Maybe not: we included another alt-history on last week’s sci-fi list. Either way, we are going to go to town on it like a hippo diving into a mud puddle on a steaming hot day in the Big Easy.
Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer (January 31)
The first in Dyer’s Titan’s Forest trilogy, Crossroads of Canopy tosses us high into a complex world, mythology, and society. The great forest is huge, with trees stretching hundreds of feet high and containing entire cities within their branches. The upper reaches, where the sun penetrates, are divided into 13 kingdoms, ruled by gods who are routinely reincarnated into human bodies. The city of Canopy spans this sunny, abundant layer of the forest, while life grows progressively worse for the pale denizens of the lower areas. Unar worships Audblayin, the goddess of birth and life, and expects to be promoted to be the goddesses’ bodyguard when she is reincarnated. When that doesn’t happen, her sense of self comes unmoored, and she embarks on a journey that takes her ever further below the treeline—and exposing her to uncomfortable truths about the very foundations of the society she has served her whole life. Lush and detailed, this is the ideal debut: a book that immediately makes you want to read the sequel.
Heartstone, by Elle Katharine White (January 17)
Imagine Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with all of the wit and none of the gonzo irony, and you have White’s fascinating new book. Set in a Jane Austen-like Merybourne Manor, the story begins when deadly gryphons attack the grounds, leading Lord Merybourne to hire dragon-mounted Riders to hunt down the beasts. The Bentaine family, whose patriarch works as Merybourne’s clerk, have four daughters they would like to marry to a high-status Rider, and so the plot kicks into Austen-mode, spiced with magic, dragons, and a mysterious visitor who offers a cryptic warning of things to come. Inventively using Austen as a starting point instead of the point, White’s debut inhabits a world that is charming and fantastical in equal measure.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show, by Eric Scott Fischl (February 7)
In the post-Civil War 19th century, a group of performers, con artists, and criminals travel as part of the Medicine Show led by disgraced surgeon Dr. Alexander Potter. They entertain, whore, and steal, but their main grift is selling Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, a patent medicine supposedly guaranteed to cure whatever ails you—in other words, snake oil. But true alchemy is involved, practiced by a desperate man who is quickly running out of time, and Sagwa Tonic sometimes affects people in unusual, horrifying ways—leading to the revenge plans of Josiah McDaniel, a drunk for whom Sagwa has been a fate worse than death. You’ll feel slightly dirty after spending time with some of these characters, but you’ll never forget this gritty, down-and-dirty debut.
Daughter of the Pirate King, by Tricia Levenseller (February 28)
The word that comes to mind while reading Levenseller’s delightful first novel is “swagger”—because both the characters and the story do so, with aplomb. Alosa is literally the Pirate King’s daughter, a girl of impressive courage, smarts, and abilities (both physical and otherwise). Confident in her competence, she goes undercover in search of a treasure map, allowing herself to be captured by a rival ship—but there she meets First Mate Riden, who seems to not only be her match in physical and mental capabilities, but also able to resist Alosa’s most potent “other” power, one she can normally rely on to dominate any man. The sense of adventure, the smart dialogue (internal and external), and the surprise twists make this a book that floats in front of you, delighting at every turn.
Song of the Current, by Sarah Tolcser (June 6)
Caroline Oresteia lives on the river and her family serves the river and the river god; her father is a wherryman, and Caro fully expects the river god to whisper her name someday, setting her on the expected path on the river. When pirates attack, burning ships, her father is arrested and Caro is tasked with transporting a mysterious cargo down the river in exchange for his release. Tolcser expands her world and story from there, slowly tipping Caro to the certain knowledge that whatever else might come her life won’t be as expected as she’s caught up in a deepening web of politics, lies, and the mystery of her cargo.
The Waking Land, by Callie Bates (June 27)
Lady Elanna is the daughter of a disgraced traitor, but raised in court as a surrogate daughter of the king. When the king is found dead, her legacy rises against her and she is accused of his murder, forcing her to flee home—to her father, to the magical abilities she has always suppressed, and to the strong connection she feels to the natural world around her. Bates’ style is lyrical and elegant, slowly spinning out a mythical in a universe where the very forces of nature seem like magic to be controlled.
Borrowed Souls, by Chelsea Mueller (May 2)
The crackerjack premise of Mueller’s debut is that in her universe, you can “borrow” a soul for a time, allowing you to sin without any of the consequences to your own immortal existence. Callie Delgado needs to borrow a soul in order to save her brother, who has finally gotten into the sort of trouble you can’t talk your way out of. She can’t afford the rent, however, and is forced to consider a counteroffer from the sketchy Soul Charmer—one that promises to put her in over her head in an underworld of magic and soul trading she isn’t entirely ready for. This is a story that transcends the usual genre conventions, delivering a satisfying tale of magic, eternal damnation, and even romance.
Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys (April 4)
The simple brilliance of mixing the Cthulu Mythos with Cold War paranoia instantly makes Emrys’ debut (spun out of a celebrated short story) crackle with unexpected and unpredictable energy. Aphra and Caleb Marsh are descendants of the people involved in H.P. Lovecraft’s classic The Shadow Over Innsmouth who have been living in a prison-like compound ever since. They’re approached by the FBI to assist with examining some of the artifacts from that event, as the Russians may have discovered the secret of pushing their minds magically into the bodies of American politicians and scientists. The surprising depths the novel finds in these rich themes make it into one of the most surprising books you’ll read this year, by far.
Frostblood, by Elly Blake (January 10)
Blake’s debut is one of those classic premises that seem simple on the surface, yet yield surprisingly complex fruit. Young Ruby is a Fireblood—someone who can create and control flame. She hides her untrained and poorly-controlled ability, because Firebloods are persecuted and outlawed by the ruling Frostbloods and the Frost King, who have similar abilities with cold and ice. When Ruby is discovered, she’s imprisoned, then freed by rebel Firebloods seeking to overthrow the Frost King. When she’s captured again, she’s sent to the arena to be a Fireblood gladiator to amuse the king. Ruby’s struggle to control and hone her abilities will be affecting one for anyone who has ever tried and failed to do something others seem to do easily and instinctively, and Blake’s worldbuilding sings in the details, making the icy setting feel chillingly real—and the struggle for freedom, noble and necessary.
The Five Daughters of the Moon, by Leena Likitalo (July 25)
Arcane technology, dark magic, and real history combine is this twist on the history of the 1917 Russian revolution and the tragic story of the Romonov sisters. The five titular daughters hold in their hands the fate of the Crescent Empire, a nation tipping ever closer to revolution. Each of the girls, from six-year-old Alina, who is terrified by the court scientist and his machine said to predict the future; to Celestia, her 22-year-old sister, who seems caught in the machine’s thrall—will have a role to play in determining the fate of their people and way of life. If Likitalo pulls it off (and the signs are good, considering a sequel is planned for this year as well), the blending of real history and the fantastic should prove irresistible.
Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw (July 25)
Sometimes you read about an upcoming book and the premise just grabs you—such is the case with the incredibly clever idea at the center of Shaw’s incipient Dr. Greta Helsing series, kicking off with Strange Practice in July. Dr. Helsing, as her name might suggest, has a very unusual, if unexpected, medical practice—tending to the undead and the supernatural. Banshees with strained vocal cords, mummies suffering from entropy—you get the idea. Apparently Greta’s living the quiet, unassuming life she always expected, working in the shadows, until a cult of murderous monks unleashes a reign of terror on London. Doctor the undead? Murderous monks? If you’re not excited to discover how Shaw pulls it off, you’d better check yourself for a literary heartbeat. For our part, we can’t wait.
And three more books so far out, you can’t even preorder them yet…but that doesn’t mean we can’t still get excited.
The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty (November)
Here’s what we know: It’s set in 18th century Cairo and the main character is an Egyptian con artist who has supernatural healing capabilities—capabilities that attract the attention of a djinn warrior. Swept off to the legendary City of Brass, she becomes embroiled in the complex and violent politics of the djinn as they edge closer and closer towards a religious war—and she doesn’t know who to trust, or how to navigate a world where loyalty is a magical bond and things like grudges are measured off in millennia instead of human lifetimes. There are more ideas in the thumbnail plot summary than in most complete novels, and the unique setting makes this one of the most promising and potentially innovative books coming this year.
Blackwing, by Ed McDonald (July 20)
McDonald made some waves when his debut epic fantasy series sold at auction, and every detail we hear about the new series, which launches this summer with Blackwing, gets us more intrigued. Set in a world where a nascent republic is protected from an evil empire and the Deep Kings, who rule it by men like Galharrow and his Blackwings (who already sound pretty butt-kicking) and by wielding a magical wasteland-creating weapon called the Engine, McDonald’s work has unsurprisingly been called “gritty.” He keeps getting compared to folks like Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch, and Daniel Polansky, which is pretty incredible company to be in. What happens when the Republic becomes complacent—and then the legendary Engine fails just when its needed? If you’re on our wavelength, you’ll have this one pre-ordered nice and early so you can find out.
The Tiger’s Daughter, by K. Arsenault Rivera (October 3)
The editors over at Tor Books are very hot on this one—we’ve heard comparisons to V.E. Schwab bandied about, in terms of breakout potential, if not the storyline itself. Rivera’s debut tends toward the traditionally epic rather than the urban, but, like Schwab’s celebrated books, it seems poised to twist genre tropes into unexpected shapes. The Hokkaran empire has conquered the world, but is now rotting from within. It’s walls are crumbling, and monsters are emerging from the dark forests all around. On the far-flung silver steppes, the few remaining nomadic tribespeople the Qorin wish only to resist the empire’s advances (and guard against its rot), but two young women—a Qorin warrior and a haughty empress—will be forced to unite to save both of their peoples. It’s a legendary quest with two strong women at its core. What’s not to like?
What debut fantasy novels are you most eager to read in 2017?