Martha Wells was already an award-nominated fantasy writer when she found herself unable to sell her latest book—because publishers didn’t know how to market it. The book offered an engaging world readers had never seen before—non-human protagonists, complex alien cultures, genre-mixing plotting—but the lack of tropes made it difficult to pigeonhole. Don’t worry, it all worked out: that book was The Cloud Roads, and it was eventually published, launching a trilogy that was later extended by two short story collections and yet two more novels. With the last of those—The Harbors of the Sun—new on shelves, Martha joins us to talk about other “trope-less” fantasy novels she finds inspiring.
Fantasy tropes can be great—that’s why they become tropes. But sometimes you want to read something you feel like you’ve never read before. I love secondary world fantasy books in which standard and well-known tropes are either in short supply, or have been transformed into something new and special by wildly original worldbuilding. I’ve always loved books that combine SF-nal technology and magic (I’ve done it in my own Books of the Raksura, in which technology is usually both biological and magical, and in the Ile Rien series, in which the magic often has mechanical components), and the one thing the eight books below have in common is that each uses different forms of technology combined with magic to build a fresh, fabulous fantasy world.
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The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
These are probably the first recent books that come to mind when someone mentions magical manipulation of science—it’s a key part of this brilliantly original setting. The Orogenes have a hereditary ability to manipulate energy in a world that has been destroyed over and over again. The main character deals with devastating losses as she explores the extent of her abilities and tries to uncover the deliberately erased history that may explain why all this is happening.
The Elemental Blessings series, by Sharon Shinn
In this series, the death of a king changes everything as the characters struggle to navigate the danger of political upheaval in a world of everyday magic on the cusp of a unique industrial revolution. The setting and especially the divinatory religion feel deeply real, and the books don’t hesitate to show the realities of extreme poverty that coexist with the magic and royal intrigue.
The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
The beautifully realized, beautifully strange world in this series is controlled by combinations of magic and technology. The Machinists are developing their own mechanical inventions to combat the magical technology of the Protectorate, even as what amounts to fantastical genetic engineers try to find ways to create supernatural creatures with human souls and memories. Plus, there are velociraptors. It’s awesome.
Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott
This series is set in a desert country that has been conquered and colonized by an empire, and tells of one young woman’s absolutely gripping struggle to survive and to save her family. One way the Patrons control the rest of the population is the use of spider-like war machines, but they aren’t just mechanical devices, and the magic used to animate them has a terrible origin.
Dreaming Death, by J. Kathleen Cheney
I love fantasy detectives, and this one offers fantasy detectives using psychic/magical powers to solve serial murders amid a fascinatingly complex society with three very different and distinct cultures—one with advanced technology—living on top of each other. Cultural differences abound (one of the characters is considered a legal adult in one culture, but still a child in another) but they are still able to work together to track down the killer in their city.
The Drowning Eyes, by Emily Foster
In this novella, the story of an attempt to stop an invasion by retrieving lost magic is made new by gloriously original worldbuilding and deeply engaging characters. The biological magic the Windspeakers use to control the weather and storms around their islands feels unique—and horrific and frighteningly real. I hope Foster writes more in this setting, because one novella is not nearly enough to explore this fascinating world.
The Dominion of the Fallen series, by Aliette de Bodard
When angels expelled from Heaven fall to earth in this alternate version of 20th century Paris, their bodies can be harvested for magic necessary to bolster the Houses that control the war-torn city. And the industrial magical pollution in the Seine is hiding an underwater dragon kingdom. It’s just as dark, just as vivid, and just as original as it sounds.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
This novella is set in a lush, brilliantly realized world where the line between magic and science just doesn’t exist. Demane is a sorcerer who manipulates magical forces according to scientific principals, and he and his lover are certainly the descendants of gods who departed from earth long ago,—gods that may have come from an alien world. This book sets a new high bar for sword and sorcery, and is one of my favorite fantasies of the past few years.
Martha Wells is the Nebula Award-nominated author of the Fall of Il-Rien series and the Books of the Raksura. Her most recent books are The Harbors of the Sun, the final novel of the Books of the Raksura, and All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, a science-fiction novella. Learn more at her website and follow her on Twitter @marthawells1.