What with bookstore choice paralysis and the background noise of marketing hype, it’s inevitable that many wonderful novels are overlooked each year. In SF/F, it’s sometimes because the most interesting books don’t fit neatly into a particular marketing categories. At the risk of increasing your anxiety and terror over your pile of unread books, here are seven oddball SFF novels that should have gotten more attention this year—and it’s not too late to read them!
Mort(e), by Robert Repino
The fact that so few people seem aware of this ambitious, unusual, unclassifiable is a crime. You can keep peeling its layers back forever: it’s a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel about a sudden transformation that elevates all animals to sentient intelligence, sparking a war against their human oppressors. It’s a romance centered on a cat named Sebastian, who falls in Platonic love with a dog named Sheba, and who saves his human family from the rampaging animals before being conscripted into a cat army and taking on the name Mort(e) (the parenthetical “e” meant to imply both death and a normal life). It’s a detective novel in which Mort(e) investigates the fate of his beloved Sheba and begins to delve into the mystery of what’s happened to the world. And through it all, Mort(e)’s deadpan, snarky persona remains hilarious and moving. This book is wonderful.
The Vorrh, by Brian Catling
Lush, dense, and complex, Catling’s novel (the first in a trilogy, though there is precious little information about subsequent volumes) is set in the titular forest, an ancient, primeval place that might contain the Garden of Eden at its center, though it’s impossible to traverse that far in without losing your mind. There is no way to summarize the plot, which is an intricate knot of stories that overlap, stop, and twist like the branches of a overgrowntree, and the characters are a mix between the surreal (a young Cyclops who accidentally heals those he encounters) and the very real, including several historical figures. The language is beautiful and poetic, and it’s easy to get lost in it and miss a subway stop or two. Put simply, enjoying The Vorrh requires some effort—but it’s well worth it.
Dark Star, by Oliver Langmead
Let’s get the Big Weird out of the way: this is a novel in verse. In iambic pentameter, to be precise, the same meter preferred by Shakespeare. And it works, because at its heart, Dark Star is a noir detective novel, and the rhythm of the poetry suits that gruff, deadpan style. The setting is the city of Vox, which exists in humanity’s far future on a planet orbiting a lightless sun—a dark star. Light is generated artificially from the three “hearts” that fuel the planet and allow life to exist there. The main characters, Virgil Yorke and Dante, come across a murdered woman whose blood glows brighter than anything else in Vox, even as one of the vital hearts is stolen. The story works within the familiar frame of a detective story, allowing you to find your bearings even as you contemplate a world without light. Easily one of the most unusual novels of the year, Dark Star deserves more attention.
The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis
This alternative history fantasy imagines a world in which the Dutch—yes, the Dutch—conquered the globe with an army of mechanical golem creatures called Clakkers, controlled by a form of alchemy. By the early 20th century, steampunk robots have overrun the world, and only a small rump state of France, located in Canada, resists. French spies, Clakkers, and Dutch agents vie for an artifact that might hold the key to stopping the artificial soldiers. While the story is twisty and compelling, the real treat is Tregillis’ examination of the Clakkers’ free will, or lack thereof; they are powerful creatures with thoughts and imagination, but are compelled to do as their told via magic, which makes them, essentially, slaves. The sequel, The Rising, came out this week, so you’d best catch up.
The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson
Plenty of dystopian science fiction has toyed with the idea of people being “sorted.” Wilson’s fantastic new novel puts a more realistic spin on the trope: in the near future, a company claims to have an algorithm that can sort you into one of twenty-two “Affinities,” groups of people perfectly matched to you in every way. When the college student protagonist is sorted into the Tau, the largest Affinity, his life improves in every way as he joins a group of people who work communally for each other because they share desires and goals. As the years go by, the Affinities grow more and more influential and powerful—and things take a dark turn as human nature reasserts itself and war between the Affinities looms. A novel about the dark side of social media, The Affinities is timely, affecting, and brilliant.
The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman
When Newman’s novel hit shelves earlier this year it seemed destined to dominate the conversation due to her masterful work capturing the titular character’s unique voice, expressed through a futuristic patois that is initially confusing and then becomes, by degrees, increasingly poetic as we sink into an apocalyptic future in which everyone over the age of twenty has been killed by a lethal illness. When her older brother shows signs of the disease, Ice Cream Star sets off to search for a cure, exploring the broken world around her and conveying it to the reader in a unique and complex way. If you’re looking for a dystopian SF novel unlike anything else, this is the one.
The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour
This lush literary fantasy, based on an ancient Persian epic poem and brought to modern life by Khakpour’s lively writing, tells the story of Zal, born an albino in an Iranian village and deemed a “white demon” by his unstable mother, who keeps him locked in a bird cage for years. Rescued and brought to New York City just before a series of disasters to come (Y2K, 9/11), Zal struggles to become less feral and more human, and meets a sketchy magician who claims to know the secret of magical flight. That this plot summary only barely begins to describe the story, which is equal parts fantastical, hauntingly realistic, and bursting with ideas, should put it on everyone’s reading list—it’s the sort of book that will only grow in esteem with time.
What 2015 books do you think deserved more attention?