tThe ability to write a great novel is some mysterious proportion of natural talent and hard-won mastery of the craft, yet the business of publishing, that eternal conflict between art and commerce, loves to celebrate the new, the untested. That is to say, there’s nothing quite like the excitement of a debut novel, even though debuts are rarely the best books an author will ever write. Each year sees dozens of debuts in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, all of which eventually settle in along a range of critical reception—some are good enough to launch careers, some aren’t (and, sadly, some are, but still don’t).
Then there are those debut novels that stand apart: sometimes, a writer produces, in their first long-form effort, something truly remarkable, displaying a mastery of the genre from published page one. Here are 50* of the greatest debut science fiction and fantasy novels ever written: books that announced the arrival of serious talents arriving on the literary scene, books sturdy enough to support dozens of imitators that followed, books so good it almost didn’t matter if their authors ever published again (thankfully, most of them have).
[Editor’s note: Because we initially erroneously included a few books on this list that were not, in fact, debuts, careful readers will note the current list stands at 52 titles; we wanted to make sure we did feature 50 debuts, but we didn’t want to strike anyone already featured. Fair is fair.]
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)
It’s easy to forget that Mary Shelley wrote other novels, and that this one was her first—and especially that she wrote it almost as a lark. Two centuries after its composition, and through countless adaptations, reinventions, and revisions, this strenuously pro-science novel remains as enormously influential as ever, a story that continues to fascinate despite the passage of time, the changing of social mores, and the advance of technology. While many novels are still worth reading or studying for their historic importance, not all such novels remain vibrant reading experiences to a modern audience the way this debut does. It is, perhaps, the most imporant sci-fi debut ever written.
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1895)
It’s amazing to consider that H.G. Wells was still alive during World War II (he died in 1946), and wrote more than 50 novels in his lifetime, given that the first of them was an all-time classic: The Time Machine, published in 1895. Though written before sci-fi existed as a genre, the novel remains powerful influential today, and is remarkably accomplished for a debut, exploring heady concepts like time travel with gilded-age aplomb (the timeline is a true example of “epic”). While many of the books on this list are influential, few are as foundational to the genre as this one.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937, rev. 1951)
Tolkien had written and published extensively prior to The Hobbit, but always in an academic vein, in pursuit of his studies. During this time, though, he was sharpening the tools he’d eventually leverage to write the foundational fantasy of the 20th century—by writing stories for his children and casually inventing languages in his spare time. The Hobbit was a lark for Tolkien; he had a sudden inspiration while grading papers and wrote the first draft for his own amusement. It was only published when a copy he’d lent out to a friend made it into the hands of a publisher, who in turn asked his son to read it and offer an opinion. The original version was a standalone story in a much lighter vein than The Lord of the Rings; later revisions brought it more into line with the epic that defined Tolkien’s career and legacy.
Pebble in the Sky, by Isaac Asimov (1950)
What’s really amazing about this novel is that Foundation followed it—and basically completely eclipsed it—just a year later. Asimov was already well-established as a writer of sci-fi short stories when his debut was published, but this is surprisingly not a fix-up—rare for the era, it was wholly conceived as a novel. The story of a man accidentally sent into the far future where he is tricked into undergoing an experiment that grants him telepathic powers, it is a bit dated by today’s standards, but is very well done, and its existence within the sprawling Foundation universe marks it as one of the most interesting works in Asimov’s massive bibliography.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (1950)
Bradbury’s first novel is a “fix-up” assembled from previously published, loosely connected short stories, a practice that was pretty common in the mid-20th century. Unlike much of Bradbury’s later, less-speculative novels, it hasn’t aged particularly well in terms of its science, but an energetic prose style and a certain poetic sensibility forever keep it on must-read lists, and thus, it continues to influence today’s writers. It might be cheating to call this Bradbury’s debut novel, since it’s composed of short stories that were more or less fully-formed before he cobbled them together, but we include it here because it was for many people their first exposure to Bradbury’s brand of fableist sci-fi, and because it excites and influences as a collective whole, not by the merits of any individual story.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
The first and only novel Walter Miller, Jr. completed during his lifetime is more than just a story of Earth recovering from an apocalypse. It is an examination of faith, religion, human nature, and the patterns of history itself. Miller was a prolific writer of short stories in the 1950s, and Canticle is another fix-up novel, composed of three long short stories he published during that time. It won the Hugo for Best Novel and is today regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi works of all time. After his death, the sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was completed by author Terry Bisson; battling depression, Miller was unable to finish the book to his own satisfaction. He committed suicide in 1996.
A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle (1960)
Eight years before The Last Unicorn, Beagle published his debut fantasy, a book that has a lot of surprising thematic parallels with George Saunders’ recent acclaimed debut, Lincoln in the Bardo: Jonathan Rebeck is a broken man, a former pharmacist who dropped out of society and has been living in a cemetery for more than 20 years, surviving on scraps brought to him by friendly, oddly intelligent ravens. Rebeck can see and communicate with the shades occupying the graveyard near their bodies; the shades start off crisp and stable, but slowly lose their memories and faculties as their mortal remains decay. When two ghosts fall in love just as one’s body is scheduled to be moved, Rebeck is finally driven to leave the cemetery and take action in order to reunite them. It’s a remarkably assured, achingly lyrical debut, written when the author was not yet 20 years old. That he surpassed it with his next book is no slight against Beagle’s very fine first novel.
This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny (1965)
Roger Zelazny made his bones in sci-fi short fiction in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until he’d been writing professionally for more than a decade that his first novel came along—and even then, it was initially split into two parts, abridged, and serialized. This Immortal (originally serialized as …And Call Me Conrad) is a story about an immortal man struggling to protect Earth from ruling aliens using an unusual strategy, and it’s remarkably assured, working in Greek myths and other epic tropes while finding unexpected and unusual new directions for them. Like much of Zelazny’s output, it remains a most unusual work of sci-fi, and though today it is often spoken of derisively as that book that undeservedly tied with Dune for the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, it deserves reconsideration, and not only in light of the career that followed it. It holds up, is what we’re saying.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (1974)
The fact that The Forever War was Haldeman’s first sci-fi novel (he published one non-genre book before it) is kind of incredible, considering its lingering influence, not to mention that, despite his later prolificacy, it remains his best book—one of those novels taught by college professors who want to prove sci-fi can be art. Haldeman’s story of super soldiers suffering from the increasingly drastic culture shock caused by time dilation as they travel the galaxy fighting an endless war wears its Vietnam inspirations on its sleeves, but it doesn’t feel dated in the least, because the ideas it grapples with are timeless (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the ever-expanding timeline keeps branching off in new, thought-provoking directions. What starts off as a purposeful riff on Starship Troopers morphs into the tragic story of men and women used by society and made to suffer as the world changes around them, leaving them increasingly isolated and alone. On a first read, it still delivers a sock to the gut.
Carrie, by Stephen King (1974)
It’s easy to imagine Stephen King emerged from the womb as a fully-formed writer in complete possession of one of the singular talents of the modern age—after all, this, his first novel, is tight, focused, and truly shocking. The relatively simple story touches every reader in that universal sore spot: the hell of adolescence. As King builds up to that classic moment when a suffering girl with strange powers makes everyone regret how they’ve treated her, the story becomes deeply personal thanks to his ability to craft characters who feel like human beings we’ve met and—terrifyingly—maybe ridden the bus with. King single-handedly reshaped the notion of horror as a genre with his debut.
Patternmaster, by Octavia Butler (1976)
Butler’s story is a familiar one to many writers: after initial success with her short fiction (she sold a story to Harlan Ellison for the infamous, never-published Last Dangerous Visions anthology) she hit a drought and went years without selling a word. During that time, she began work on Patternmaster, which would be her debut novel, and the beginning of the Patternist trilogy (though it takes place last in terms of story chronology). Beneath the story of a far future where humanity is ruled by the psychic patternists and their titular leader is an examination of race and gender issues that remains relevant and resonant today.
The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
The Sword of Shannara (along with its sequels The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara) is considered one of the first examples of the “second wave” of high fantasy literature that succeeded Tolkien. Certainly the brisk sales of the first book have been credited with establishing fantasy as a marketable publishing category. Put simply, the genre landscape would look very different without Terry Brooks’ epic debut. On the face of it, Sword is perhaps overly beholden to Tolkien, mirroring one story element after another—the seemingly inconsequential hero, the powerful magical artifact, the evil dark lord—but in synthesizing for contemporary readers, Brooks injected an irresistible freshnesses and pop sensibility that is noteworthy in its own right. Several of the many sequels that followed are arguably better or more original, but there’s not arguing the import of Brooks’ debut.
Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson (1977)
Donaldson is a divisive figure in SFF; his purposefully stilted writing style, bleak worldview, and exploration of taboo-to-repellant points-of-view certainly aren’t for everyone (this novel’s depictions of sexual violence in particular justifiably rankle many contemporary readers). But despite its eyebrow-arching title, Lord Foul’s Bane launched a 10-novel series with a story layered in complex concepts, including, in no particular order, the nature of reality, the nature of morality, and the impact of disease and ostracization—all in the context of one of the most expansive fantasy universes ever imagined.
Dying of the Light, by George R.R. Martin (1977)
Today it seems impossible there was a time when George R.R. Martin’s writing regimen wasn’t the stuff of worldwide interest. But his recent success and outsized stardom is only that—recent. He’s been writing for more than four decades, starting off with a robust career writing short-stories. In fact, his first novel was initially serialized in Analog Science Fiction and Fact under editor Ben Bova. The book tells the story of a planet whose erratic and unusual movement through space has doomed it, and the 14 cities built on its surface, to a inevitably cold and dark death, and the man who travels there in response to a possible distress call from his old lover. While Martin’s style has evolved since 1977, this is still a remarkable first novel, exhibiting a mastery of setting and characterization that heralded the career to come.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1979)
The funniest book predicated on the destruction of the Earth ever written, Adams’ comedy classic was a radio play before he reorganized and rewrote the material to shape it into a novel. What’s remarkable about this debut is the way Adams masterfully combines comedy with serious sci-fi concepts and dilemmas, ranging from temporal considerations, to the relative unimportance of individual lives in the vastness of the universe, to the metastatic growth of obstructive, destructive bureaucracy in galactic civilizations. The secret to the book’s longevity might be the fact that if you peeled away all the humor, you’d uncover the skeleton of a great sci-fi story. It launched Adams into decades of bestseller-dom (rarely a month goes by it doesn’t rank with B&N’s top-selling SFF paperbacks), and remains the (Heart of) gold standard when it comes to funny genre fiction
Dragon’s Egg, by Robert L. Forward (1980)
Perhaps the ultimate example that writing “hard,” scientifically rigorous science fiction doesn’t exclude the possibility of a gripping narrative, Dragon’s Egg is described by its author as “a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel.” Which, if you think about it, is a remarkable way to describe a first novel. It chronicles humanity’s discovery of the Cheela, a race of intelligent beings evolving on a neutron star where the environmental conditions mean each of their days lasts about 0.2 seconds—meaning that, from our point of view as outside observers, the Cheela evolve and develop incredibly quickly. From that mind-expanding, scientifically plausible concept, Forward developed a debut that endures as a classic of high-concept storytelling.
Tea with the Black Dragon, by R.A. MacAvoy (1983)
R.A. MacAvoy’s debut is pitch-perfect in its light use of fantasy elements. Martha Macnamara is a middle-aged, free-spirited musician who meets Mayland Long, an older Asian man with elegant manners and a lot of money—who also claims to be a 2,000-year old black dragon in human form. Their conversation (over tea, naturally) hints that he was an eyewitness to momentous events throughout history, and counts as close friends many long-dead historical figures. He and Martha strike up a thoroughly charming, adult relationship, instantly and believably drawn to one another as the story morphs into a mystery. It’s the sort of novel that floats between genres, never precisely one thing, never entirely another. It’s an achievement many writers never manage; MacAvoy nailed it on her first try.
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks (1984)
Ian M. Banks is one of those writers who began perfecting his craft at an absurdly young age: he penned his first novel at 16 and wrote a whole stack of explicitly science-fictional novels before he was 30—and failed, at least initially, to publish any of them. Which is one reason his disturbing, hilarious, ultra-violent debut is so fascinating: it’s been called unsettling and subversive, yet Banks wrote it intending to go a bit more mainstream with his writing after failing to find an audience for his “proper” genre works. Some might argue that The Wasp Factory isn’t really sci-fi, and thus not a sci-fi debut—but Banks has stated that he wrote the book as if it were sci-fi, imagining the island that the sociopathic (and quite terrifying) burgeoning serial killer Frank lives on as as a planet, and Frank an alien invader. And it does contain fantastical murder machines and an attempt at genetic engineering through hormones, so we’re considering it an edge case: an example of extreme genius, an unpleasant and ultra-plausible work of mundane SF.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)
Not many debut novels establish and codify an entire subgenre. Following on from the short fiction he published in the 1970s and early 1980s (much of it collected in Burning Chrome), Gibson’s prescient 1984 cyberpunk novel gifted us with many of the terms and imagery we use to describe computers and the internet to this day. Gibson himself doubted he could write a novel-length work; according to the author, it was commissioned by Terry Carr to be a part of the Ace Science Fiction Specials, which was intended to be composed entirely of debut novels, and he was given a year to write the book. He accepted the offer, despite feeling like he was still a few years away from being ready to write a novel. Surprising, then (at least to the author), that it went on to win both the Nebula and Hugo, and establish Gibson’s reputation as a master futurist and a hell of a genre writer.
Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is one of the mainstays of space opera, and one of the winningest book series of all time (it even recently picked up the first Best Series Hugo). It kicked off in perfect fashion in this assured debut, which, remarkably, was initially rejected by publishers; its sequel, The Warrior’s Apprentice, was sold first, and Bujold leveraged that interest into a three-book deal that rescued Shards. And thank goodness, because the book expertly establishes the setting—a galactic civilization in which humanity has spread to numerous inhabitable planets, but, due to the limitations of communicating and traveling such vast distances, has also fractured, each colony world developing its own unique culture—and develops an indelible lead character in Cordelia Nasmith, an entirely competent woman who gets in trouble, but never in over her head, when she is stranded on a hostile planet with a notorious war criminal, the Captain Lord Aral Vorkosigan (this is what passes for a “meet cute” in military space opera).
China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh (1992)
Now considered an early (and standout) example of “mundane SF,” McHugh’s first novel depicts a future world in which the United States has experienced a communist revolution after a period of economic decline and China has risen to become the new global superpower. Although it includes plenty of SF tech, the book’s true focus, and real pleasures, are found in its exploration of the ways the world may change culturally and politically in the coming years. Its well-imagined vision of a reasonable future has aged well over the course of more than two decades.
Vurt, by Jeff Noon (1993)
Written at the height of virtual reality hype, Vurt is a cyberpunk head trip with the added appeal of utilizing one of the strangest delivery mechanisms for any fictional drug, ever—it involves sucking on differently-colored feathers, which send the user into alternate realms where they can meet and interact—and bring fantastic objects back into mundane reality. Noon’s first novel has been compared to Neuromancer and A Clockwork Orange in terms of its stylized world-building. Inspiring several other volumes set in the same universe, it’s a book that lingers like a particularly intense hangover, long after you’ve finished reading it.
The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell (1996)
Maria Doria Russell is a scientist, and has struggled her whole life with reconciling her feelings on science and religion. That struggle certainly informed her amazing debut novel, in which Jesuit priest Emilo Sandoz is chosen by the Vatican to be a part of the first manned mission to an alien civilization. When Sandoz returns as the sole survivor, he is broken physically and mentally, only to be condemned by the church. This is a grim, unexpected story of first contact that pivots on the arrogant human assumption that alien civilizations will be at all comprehensible to us from a mere superficial—or even an in-depth—study.
Paperback $11.69 | $12.99
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (1997)
Measured on a scale of sheer cultural influence, Rowling’s debut might be the most successful of all time. By now most people know the story behind the story: of Rowling, depressed and barely surviving, banging the book out in public cafés and keeping her writing dreams alive through sheer determination. The result of her efforts turned out to be a book that synthesized, codified, and redefined what children’s literature could and should be. This fantasy about a boy wizard discovering his destiny combines a dazzling sense of wonder with a mature grasp of the emotional and spiritual lives of young people that few authors have equaled. An entire generation grew up with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, et al, making Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a truly momentous debut.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Jamaican-Canadian writer Naolo Hopkinson brings a totally original perspective to her dystopian debut, set in a future Toronto that has suffered a financial collapse and become isolated from the rest of the world. Hopkinson does a marvelous job of pouring Jamaican and West Indian culture into this feminist vision, telling a story where women have a special cultural bond and spiritual abilities, set against a bleak dystopia that’s rooted in frighteningly realistic possibilities. It represents a near-perfect example of how previously underserved voices can use the tropes of classic SFF to tell stories that are truly their own.
Green Rider, by Kristen Britain (1998)
Twenty years and five sequels ago, Kristen Britain launched a beloved epic fantasy series with Green Rider, following the titular central heroes who are part of a sort of postal service/spy network. The series draws on her own real-life history as a park ranger with the National Parks service; in fact, Britain was working full time at Arcadia National Park when she conceived of and wrote Green Rider. As a direct result of her experience and training, the lush natural descriptions in her debut feel rich and vibrant, lived-in and deep. Rarely has a debut generated the sort of low-key obsession with fans that these books have maintained.
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Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erickson (1999)
Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is the epic fantasy reader’s epic fantasy. That is to say, it is a dense, challenging, and unforgiving series, dropping you headfirst into a frantic conflict that is just one small skirmish in a vast conflict that stretches across a massive world, filled with all varieties of magic, monsters, and living gods. The first book in the 10-book series (not including spinoffs), Gardens of the Moon grew out of a role playing game setting author Steven Erikson developed alongside Ian C. Esslemont (who would go on to author some of the aforementioned spinoffs) when attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After a later, unsuccessful attempt to shape the material into a screenplay, Erikson turned it into a novel that eventually went on to spawn what is arguably one of the vastest imagined worlds ever conceived, with a literal cast of thousands and an overarching story of unimaginable scope. It all begins here, with a book that readers tend to either adore or bounce off of. Either way, there’s no question it’s the start of a true epic for the ages. [Editor’s note: It has been reported to us that Steven Erikson previously published literary novels under a different byline; we are keeping him here on a technicality.]
Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (2000)
Jim Butcher sold the first novel in his Dresden Files series after taking a writing workshop and resisting every instruction and guideline he was given. After failing to get a book started “properly,” he finally decided to comply with the instructions—first creating character biographies and other worldbuilding materials—and in short order produced the first case of Chicago’s Harry Dresden, wizard detective. The book launched one of the most popular fantasy series of the 2000s, reinvigorating the urban fantasy genre just as it was threatening to collapse under the weight of too many same-y, snarky series.
Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds (2000)
Reynolds’ debut is a dark delight from page one, incorporating brain-bursting concepts—like a nanomachine plague that infects humans, computers, and starships alike—with characters whose morality is colored in shades of gray. A scientist by training, Reynolds brings a great deal of real scientific knowledge to the story, but manages to perfectly balance plausibility with exciting storytelling. He worked on the novel for years while failing to sell short stories, which might help explain why it’s so well-formed and smart; whatever the reason, it’s one of the best hard sci-fi debuts of the last 25 years.
Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
Carey’s startling, utterly original debut was inspired by the bible and Jewish mythology,which led her to imagine Terre d’Ange, a country loosely based on medieval France, which is said to have been founded by a fallen angel. The protagonist is the courtesan Phedre, whose titular eye mote marks her as a servant of the angel Naamah, one with the ability to experience pain as pleasure. This unique capability attracts the attention of aristocrat Anafiel Delauney, who recognizes her as an anguissette, a chosen of a god. He wants to use Phedre’s body and ability in order to uncover the secrets others bury deep. She receives an incredible education as a result, but soon finds herself pulled deep into dangerous conspiracies and experiences a personal journey as intense and compelling as any in the genre. The novel’s frank sexuality is far more than merely titivating (though a strong vein of romance does aid in creating an addictive reading experience), and coupled with the depth of the character exploration, it was an instant critical and commercial success, and went on to attract a legion of devotees, inspire countless literary tattoos, and beget eight sequels.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)
One of the most interesting thing about Clarke’s debut novel is that it took her a decade to write it, during which time she almost gave up, even as she published several short stories set in the world she was actively building. When the finished book finally sold, it went on to win the Hugo—and, perhaps more surprisingly for a thousand-page riff on Victorian literature and fairy tales, sell like hotcakes. In this alternate history, set in a 19th century world where magic has recently returned after a long absence, a fateful rivalry develops between stuffy, bookish magician Mr. Norrell and showy upstart Jonathan Strange, with world-changing consequences. It is one of the most unusual works of fantasy you’ll ever read, filled with epic detail and a writing style that brings names like Dickens and Austen to mind. It’s a masterpiece, and nothing short of remarkable for a first effort.
Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear (2005)
Bear’s energetic, cyberpunkian debut is a bit rough around the edges, it’s true, but it’s so bursting with ideas and propulsive writing, you won’t care a lick; you can almost sense her excitement as you read her words. The story of a middle-aged former Canadian special forces soldier, now part machine due to her injuries, recruited into a virtual world project that soon becomes a global struggle between powerful forces, Hammered announced the arrival of a muscular new talent in the field. In the double-digit stack of works that has followed, Bear has more than lived up to the promise of this debut.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi (2005)
John Scalzi had already made a name for himself as a blogger and fan writer when he dropped his debut novel on the world. Earning a Hugo nomination out of the gate, Old Man’s War instantly turned him into a writer to be taken seriously. The story is a brilliant twist on Heinlein-style military SF: fighting in an endless war to claim rights to livable planets, the Colonial Defense Force doesn’t recruit strong, young, inexperienced kids. It favors old, experienced adults—one can only join the CDF after retirement’ soldiers’ consciousnesses are downloaded into new bodies, giving them a second lease on life (granted, it’s a pretty short-term lease, considering the brutality of the hostile galaxy in which the novel is set) . From this one brilliant subversion of the expected, Scalzi launched one of the most popular series in recent sci-fi history.
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie (2006)
Joe Abercrombie’s debut, the first book in the First Law setting, solidified a mold of modern epic fantasy that came to be known as “grimdark,” combining brutal violence and realistic characterization with classic tropes, a synthesis that feels gritty and real without sacrificing the wonder of a wholly imagined secondary world where impossible things are possible. Abercrombie has said that he began writing the book in 2002 with the ambitious aim of reinventing epic fantasy… and danged if he didn’t do just that.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch (2006)
Scott Lynch, a.k.a. Mr. Elizabeth Bear, was just a fantasy superfan in 2004 when he posted a work-in-progress on an online forum. That fragment became the prologue of his debut novel after an editor at Gollanz saw the posting and contacted Lynch, launching one of the most successful modern fantasy series with the Gentlemen Bastard series. It’s the Dickensian life story of its title character, an orphan who becomes the greatest grifter in the city of Camorr—which might not even be enough for him to pull off his latest, and entirely too ambitious, job, even with the help of his trusted band of toughs and thieves. What makes the book so remarkable is the sheer joy of the storytelling—Lynch’s enthusiasm for the genre shines through, and his deft mixing of different elements, ranging from ancient folklore to contemporary heist films, produces a story of instant impact and lasting impression.
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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
Patrick Rothfuss’ already legendary debut is deceptively simple: Kvothe, secret hero of a thousand legends, tells his life story to Chronicler. His fascinating tale—growing up as part of a nomadic family, seeing them slaughtered, living on the street, becoming a student of magic at an elite school, with hints of his future destiny hidden in subtle foreshadowing—is plenty entertaining, and hints that the storied hero is both greater and lesser than the sum of his experiences. The layered complexity and expert handling and subversion of fantasy tropes launch of a remarkable series and career; immediately after it was published, it started showing up on lists of the best fantasy novels of all time. Like, er, this one.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
Paolo Bacigalupi is a rare author who can claim the curious distinction of making and then (indirectly) breaking an entire publishing house on the strength of his debut novel. When released to critical acclaim and unexpectedly huge sales in 2009, The Windup Girl single-handedly put theretofore under-the-radar publisher Night Shade Books on the map, moving so many copies that the publisher wound up expanding too fast, and subsequently falling into bankruptcy. But that drama ultimately has little to do with the quality of the book, which is outstanding; it combines a fantastic, fatalistic near-future, post-climate change, resource-strapped dystopian world with terrific sci-fi ideas (an economy built on kinetic energy—think bioengineered elephants winding giant springs—to glow-in-the-dark cats, to the windup people themselves, constructed beings whose sentience is a matter of debate) and complex and flawed—sometimes detestable—characters. It’s grim and depressing, yes, but the author’s eye for detail is impressive, especially in a first novel.
God’s War, by Kameron Hurley (2010)
After more than a decade publishing short speculative fiction, Hurley arrived in the novels world in 2010 with teeth, introducing Nyxnissa so Dasheem, a licensed bounty hunter known as a Bel Dame who cuts off heads on behalf of the government on the ravaged, war-torn colony world Umayma. This weird work of “bugpunk” (the magic-like technology that powers Umayma is based on alien insects) introduces one of the fiercest female characters in all of genre fiction, an unapologetically vicious killer, but not without her own codes of ethics and honor, shaped into a monster by an endless war, a remorseless society, and a heartless world. God’s War, a Nebula nominee, announced the arrival of a serious talent, and Hurley has upped her game ever since (her next release, The Light Brigade, is a military sci-fi thriller that stands proudly alongside Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War).
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
Like many of the writers on this list, Jemisin published a good deal of short fiction before delivering her breakthrough debut, the first book in the Inheritance Trilogy, which won the Locus for Best First Novel. Her short fiction was no warm-up effort—several of her stories were nominated for awards, most notably “Non-Zero Probabilities,” a 2010 Hugo nominee). What’s truly remarkable about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is how assured, beautifully written, and original it is—and yet it was just the beginning for Jemisin, who went on to make history by winning three Best Novel Hugos in a row for The Broken Earth Trilogy and become one of the most visible SFF writers working today. Was it obvious from her first novel? Yep, it sure was. (Note: Though The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was published first, Jemisin has revealed that her fourth published book, 2012’s The Killing Moon, was written first; it was initially rejected by publishers for being “too black.”)
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
Morgenstern’s debut (which won the Locus for Best First Novel) makes marrying a complex story with great characters and rich worldbuilding seem easy. That’s deceptive, of course, as the book was originally written during NaNoWriMo and required six years of reworking and polish before it hit store shelves. The work paid off: this story of ill-fated lovers and an enchanted circus drips with wonder and magic. Celia is five years old and struggling with controlling her instinctive mental powers while being raised by her father, Hector, better-known as Prospero the Entertainer in the Le Cirque des Reves—an uncanny circus that only opens at night. Hector is a schemer and not a very nice nice person besides, and he binds Celia and his rival’s charge Marco to each other in a deadly ritual they have no choice but to play out. Celia and Marco fall in love, and with the assistance of their friends in the circus, seek to find another way. Morgenstern revels in the off-kilter fantasy universe of the circus itself, filled with weird, fully-formed people who each have their own motivations, back stories, and role to play in a flowering tale of young love and magic that builds to an unexpected conclusion.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed (2012)
Detroit’s own Saladin Ahmed was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Awards for Best New Writer in 2010 on the strength of his short fiction. For his wonderful debut, he drew inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights and Middle Eastern legend to tell the story of an aging, prickly demon hunter roped into one last job. In a genre glutted with Euro-centric epics and Tolkien riffs, this small-scale, character-focused monster mash was a breath of fresh air, and not only because the setting—it’s not every day the protagonist of a fantasy novel is a grumpy, out of shape old man. Though the start of a planned series, a sequel has yet to materialize as Ahmed has struggled with writer’s block and moved on to comics and TV work. Happily, this one stands alone perfectly well, and is worth treasuring.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (2013)
By any argument, Ancillary Justice is one of the most notable debuts in science fiction since Neuromancer. Leckie takes her time introducing an innovative and deeply-imagined universe in which incredibly advanced AI control not just huge warships, but thousands of biological “ancillaries,” human host bodies that have suffered the rather horrid fate of having their personalities overwritten so they can serve as glorified, expendable drones. Adorned with other memorable touches, including the (plot-relevant) use of exclusively female gender pronouns, and a complex twist on the first-person plural point-of-view, this is a dense and challenging story told in an assured and mature style, and it never once feels like a first effort. Any book that prompts the sheer amount of discussion, argument, and awards attention as this one is clearly doing something remarkable.
Red Rising, by Pierce Brown (2014)
Brown admits to writing and failing to publish six novels before he wrote Red Rising in just two months. The first volume of Brown’s revolutionary space opera trilogy heralded the appearance of a new genre classic, telling the story of a color-coded solar empire modeled on ancient Roman swagger and built on ruthless genetic manipulation. Brown leaves everything on the page, a sprawling epic that plays out against a vivid backdrop of political intrigue in a culture composed of the different color castes, each of which has their specific role to play in the empire, with beliefs shaped by their very different world views, influenced as much by their in-bred talents as their status in the galactic hierarchy. Brown’s skill at seeding moral and ethical complexity into a story that moves with the speed of a blockbuster is truly impressive; five books in, and with a rabid online fanbase, this series already seems one for the ages.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (2014)
Becky Chambers’ debut was a book that couldn’t be kept down: a Kickstarter success story, then a hit in the U.K., then a word-of-mouth ebook sensation in the US. The crew of the Wayfarer make their living tunneling out the wormholes that make long-distance spaceflight truly feasible. Just as the ship sets off on an extended mission to bring the gift of expedient interstellar travel to an alien race that has suddenly, suspiciously ceased its hostile stance toward all other forms of life, the aging ship welcomes its newest crew member. Rosemary signs on in order to escape her mysterious past, but finds that her secrets may be the most mundane among the ragtag group of flawed and endearing personalities. Naturally, everything that can go wrong does goes wrong—and more than once. Chambers’ episodic storytelling style recreates the feeling of bingeing a whole season of your new favorite TV show, and her conceit that space-based sci-fi can be about character as much as incident is a surprisingly singular one.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (2015)
Baru Cormorant hates the Empire of Falcrest for what it did to her family and her people when she was just a girl: arriving in force upon the shores of their small island, taking control, absorbing her people and erasing the markers of cultural identity deemed “unhygenic” by imperial science. Luckily, Baru is a prodigy when it comes to revenge. To destroy the empire, she must become a part of it, win its trust, and earn a seat at its heart, where she can strike a killing blow. With one book, Seth Dickinson joined the ranks of the great evil geniuses of speculative fiction, making you care immensely for incredibly realized, complex, flawed, frustrating, fascinating characters, then to repaying your indulgence by doing terrible things to them. When the book is this well-constructed—wound tight as a watch, the plot ticking along with the intricacy and inevitability of a sweeping second hand—the result is worth the torment. Though this one stands alone as a finely honed instrument, the sequel, The Monster Baru Cormorant, is just as compelling, if not quite the same stiletto to the guts.
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins (2015)
Scott Hawkins’ 2015 novel is a real gem of a debut, telling the story of the library at Garrison Oaks, where a girl named Carolyn finds herself after her parents die in an accident. Along with eleven other kids, she is cared for by the librarian, known as Father, and learns that the library is a conduit to incredible power—divided into twelve sections that, if mastered, offer near omnipotence. As Carolyn is forced to master her assigned section (languages), she learns to fear and hate Father—until he disappears mysteriously, leaving her and her fellow kids to defend the library against an army of creatures—and each other. That mere plot description only hints at the weirdness within this story, which uses and abuses every fantasy trope in the, er, library and rewrites the rules with every new chapter. It’s imaginative, fun, and unique—everything you could ask for in a debut.
Updraft, by Fran Wilde (2015)
Fran Wilde’s debut novel offers one of the most unique, mysterious, yet sturdily-constructed settings we’ve encountered in fantasy in recent years: an unnamed city composed of living bone towers that grow upwards from the long-abandoned ground. Its citizens soar between the towers on glider-like wings, surviving at the mercy of the Singers who control the Spire at the city’s center—and protect them from the skymouths, invisible, squid-like beasts that stalk the treacherous skies. Updraft began life as a short story Wilde penned in response to a prompt at a writing workshop she was attending, and grew in the telling, enriched by her passion for sailing, which informed her treatment of the character’s reliance on the whims of the wind to move them from place to place. The novel is the only one to be nominated for both the Hugo Award and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SFF; it won the latter handily.
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Like many of the authors on this list, Lee was initially known for his shifting, strange short fiction (much of it collected in Conservation of Shadows), which raised expectations for his novel-length debut. When it arrived, it did not disappoint: Ninefox Gambit is a remarkably assured debut, one of those books that is difficult to summarize, or even to grasp upon that first, confounding read. The book is set in a universe with a “consensus reality” shaped by the shared, very rigid beliefs of its inhabitants, and controlled by numbers, equations, and other mathematical processes. Reality itself is therefore governed by an accepted application of formula—but the story pivots on the question: what happens if there’s a rebellion of thought? The answer is revealed in a book unlike any other. All three books in the Machineries of Empire trilogy were Hugo nominated, with good reason.
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer (2016)
Ada Palmer won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer largely on the strength of this, her debut novel, an enormously complex, witty, and dense alternate future history that blurs the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy with wild abandon. It crafts a distinctly unique vision of a 25th century in which technology has created abundance, where religion is outlawed but personal spirituality is encouraged, where criminals are sentenced to wander the planet making themselves useful. The story involves an unlikely meeting between a convict serving a family named Mycroft Canner; a “sensayer,” or spiritual guide, named Carlyle Foster; and Bridger, a young boy who seems to possess the power to make his every wish come true—a power that could completely destabilize a world that is the very definition of stability. With lush prose that recreates the feel of a period novel, this sprawling novel—or, really, half a novel, as you need to pick up Seven Surrenders to complete this first part of a planned four-volume story—pulls no punches.
Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng (2017)
Last year, Jeannette Ng delivered a truly original fantasy debut built on a truly genius premise: ostensibly, it chronicles the efforts of a British missionary to convert the Fae to Christianity. When he stops writing, his sister Catherine fears the worst—and embarks on an effort to save him. The siblings eventually begin to grasp that the alien Fae may not be as interested in religion as they intimated—and may in fact be more interested in the pain and misery of their human guests, which they find amusing. Ng, who has a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, weaves serious theological questions into a densely built fantasy world,and her prose drips with flourishes of the poetic. It’s early days yet, but it seems like one of those books that promises great things from its author.
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (2018)
Historian R.F. Kuang’s debut, describing a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, is remarkably accomplished, and arrives with a polish and depth that makes it feel like the start of a second or third series set within the same fictional universe. It begins as a story of orphaned peasant girl Rin, escaping a life of misery in Nikan by gaining entrance to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite, then shifts into a rumination on the horrors of war, with terrifying echoes of the Nanjing Massacre. As the island nation the Federation of Mugen invades, murdering thousands and destroying whole cities with chemical weapons and other advanced technology, Rin determines to fight back, gaining power and struggling with the moral dilemma of using it. This is a debut that just gets deeper as it goes; that it was written before the author graduated from college makes it that much more impressive an achievement.
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
Rebecca Roanhorse came on strong, and seemingly out of nowhere, in 2017 as her short story “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience” won the Hugo and Nebula awards—and then was quickly followed by the release of her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, a genre-shattering urban fantasy that Roanhorse describes as an “indigenous Mad Max,” set in a post-apocalyptic world drawn from the author’s Indigenous American heritage and set in a future devastated by rising sea levels. In this time, the Navajo Nation has been reborn as Dinétah—and with it have returned the old gods and monsters of Native American legend. Maggie Hoskie is a monster-hunter gifted with the power to fight these beasts, and so she does. On one level, it’s brisk, action-filled romp; on another, a moving portrait of a character suffering from past trauma; and on still another, an impressive exercise in subtle, expansive world. With sequels—and a much-anticipated “Indigenous epic fantasy”—in the offing, it doesn’t seem too early to say Roanhorse is unquestionably a talent to watch.
What standout SFF debuts would you add to our list?