It’s the end of another year and the perfect time to look back at the moments that defined 2018. For readers, of course, that means choosing the books that defined the preceding 12 months. It was a great year for science fiction and fantasy readers, certainly—from epics spanning centuries of invented lore, to chronicles of the futures that await us, to the fairy tales and ghost stories that changed the way we look at the world around us. Here are the Barnes & Noble booksellers’ picks for the year’s best science fiction and fantasy books.
Fire and Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones (A Targaryen History), by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin delivers a treat for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones alike, even if it’s not exactly the one they were hoping for. The first volume in a detailed history of House Targaryen, who three hundred years before the events of the books conquered Westeros’ seven kingdoms with a little help from their dragons, offers us a full portrait of ancient history heretofore only hinted at, including what exactly compromised the so-called Doom of Valyria. Like the backstories doled out in The World of Ice & Fire, these tales are shared in the manner of a real historical text rather than a straight-ahead novel, but the effect is no less engrossing. The book also contains more than 80 new illustrations from Doug Wheatley, who brings Martin’s grim universe to vivid life. As we wait for the final season of the HBO series, not to mention that long-anticipated sixth book, this deep dive into Westerosi history is the perfect balm.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green
Green and his company, Complexly, have become a force in the realm of science education through content like Crash Course and Sci Show, which help people understand difficult concepts and topics. His debut novel surprises in its willingness to delve into the unknown and the unknowable, exploring how modern internet fame twists and chops reality and peoples’ lives via the story of twenty-something April May. When she comes across a bizarre sculpture resembling a transformer wearing samurai armor, her friend Andy records her climbing onto it and posts it to the internet. By morning, April is famous as the first to discover the statues that have mysteriously appeared all over the world (they are eventually dubbed “Carls”). April’s life changes rapidly as she’s swept into the whirlpool of viral fame—and into the quest to discover where the Carls came from and what they might mean.
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
The third book of Sanderson’s epic Stormlight Archive returns to the violent, complex world of Roshar. Dalinar Kohlin’s victory is very much a pyrrhic one, resulting in the Everstorm being summoned. The storm’s physical destruction is bad enough, but as it rakes the world, it awakens the subservient parshmen to the reality of their slavery. As Kaladin Stormblessed rushes to warn his family, he wrestles with the realization that the parshmen have every right to seek vengeance. Meanwhile, a mission to Urithiru—the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant set high above the storms—unearths dangerous secrets, and Dalinar begins to understand that his mission to unite Alethkar was just the beginning. If Roshar is going to survive the Voidbringers, every nation must stand together against the threat. As measured by its sheer scope and cinematic ambition, there’s no ongoing epic more epic in fantasy right now—period.
Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown
Brown kicks off a whole new trilogy set in the Red Rising universe with this story set about 10 years after Darrow finished the job of destroying the social order of the entire system. He and Mustang lead the Solar Republic, but you can’t smash an empire into pieces without causing some collateral damage, and it turns out running a multi-planet civilization is much more difficult than disrupting it. In addition to the usual woes successful revolutionaries run into, there’s also Lysander au Lune, the heir to the throne, moving freely through space and waiting for a chance to act, and a mysterious new threat coming from outside the solar system itself. Fans of Brown’s first trilogy have come to expect complex, flawed characters; awesome technology; and fierce battles, so it’s good thing the chaos of a ruined empire is fertile ground for all three.
Brief Cases, by Jim Butcher
Butcher offers up 12 stories set in the world of Harry Dresden, wizard and private investigator working an alternate, magic-filled Chicago. Several stories follow Harry’s adventures with River Shoulders, a smart sasquatch with a half-human son. Others involve Harry’s apprentice Molly Carpenter, crime boss John Marcone, and even Wyatt Earp. The novella “Zoo Day” follows Harry as he takes his young daughter Maggie to the zoo—and since this is Harry Dresden, you know there’s more in store than father/daughter bonding. Dresden fans may have encountered some of these stories before, but rereading them in this collection, alongside one all-new tale, should help ease the pain for waiting for Harry’s next novel-length adventure.
The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The complex history Tolkien constructed to shore up The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was incomplete and sprawling, and it’s taken his son Christopher decades to put it all together. This rejiggered volume details the story of Gondolin, the hidden city the Noldorin Elves built after they fled Valinor, the land of the gods, in rebellion. Secretly supported by Ulmo, one of the most powerful of the Valar, their king Turgon is hated above all by Morgoth, the source of all evil in Middle Earth, to whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant. Ulmo sets in motion events that will echo through the rest of Tolkien’s works, leading up to the siege of Gondolin by Morgoth’s forces and the birth of a child named Eärendel, a name familiar to Tolkien’s careful readers.
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
Drawing on Eastern European folklore and the classic fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, Novik tells the story of Miryem, a daughter of a family of Jewish moneylenders led by her incompetent father. With their fortunes on the wane due to his poor business sense, Miryem must step in and turn the family business around. Inspired by a mixture of desperation and genius, she responds by spinning debts into gold—gold that attracts the attention of the Staryk, emotionless fairies who bring winter with them. The Staryk give Miryem Fairy Silver and demand she transform it, too. Miryem does so by turning the beautiful metal into jewelry that attracts the attention of the rich and powerful—but her success brings her more Staryk attention, and thus more problems. Novik’s first standalone novel to come along in the wake of the Nebula Award-winning Uprooted had a tough act to follow, but Spinning Silver—expanded from a short story included in anthology The Starlit Wood—is every bit as enchanting.
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Serpentine, by Laurell K. Hamilton
The saga of Anita Blake, vampire hunter, continues in the latest volume of one of urban fantasy’s foundational—and longest-lived (nay, immortal?)—epics. Anita’s peer in the U.S. Marshals Service, Edward, is finally getting married to Donna in Mexico—assuming Donna’s cold feet and bridesmaid Dixie’s acid tongue don’t derail everything. Meanwhile, another relationship—between Anita and partners Micah and Nathaniel—is on the rocks, just as wedding guests begin to disappear from the hotel and the celebration transforms into an old-school vampire hunt. Anita and Edward, with an assist from Bernardo and Olaf, spring into action. They’ll have to move fast to stop a corrupt police officer trying to magically pin the blame on the vulnerable Nathaniel.
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile. She is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history, but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The “year’s best debut” buzz around this one was warranted; it really is that good.
Burn Bright, by Patricia Briggs
The fifth book in the Alpha and Omega series (spun off from the long-running Mercy Thompson saga) finds Charles Cornick and Anna Latham living as a mated werewolf pair and stepping into the role of pack leaders charged with watching over the Wildings, werewolves too dangerous to live with the pack formally who exist on the fringes and still need protection. When a Wilding is kidnapped, Charles and Anna set off to the rescue, but there’s an unknown enemy circling the pack. As Charles and Anna seek to protect the Wildlings and discover the identity of their enemy, they will be tested like never before. Briggs crafts another addictive volume of urban fantasy sprung from Native American lore and legends.
Vengeful, by V. E. Schwab
Schwab’s Vicious, her adult debut, predating her breakthrough A Darker Shade of Magic, introduced Victor Vale and Eli Ever, two frenemies who figured out how to give themselves superpowers and used them to each become different sorts of villains. Victor was arrested for his crimes, but Eli was the true monster, identifying others with powers to rival his own and killing them one by one. When Eli went after young Sydney, a girl with the ability to raise the dead, it turns out he took on more than he bargained for. In the sequel, Victor is in hiding underground recovering from his own resurrection, leaving Sydney to fend for herself alongside her dog Dol, who she’s raised from the dead three times already. Meanwhile, Eli remains at large, unpunished—and still very dangerous. The signed Barnes and Noble exclusive edition contains a short story set in Merit City and a special message from Victor Vale himself.
How Long ‛til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin solidified her place as one of the most important SFF writers of the 21st century with a third consecutive Hugo win for The Stone Sky earlier this year. With her next novel still a year away, it’s a perfect time to explore the true breadth of her talent, which comes through to grand effect in her first collection of short fiction. The highlight is the Hugo-nominated “The City Born Great,” the biography of a living city and the basis for the aforementioned next book, but there is much more to savor in these 22 tales. Jemisin is an essential voice in modern-day SFF; she writes both as a fan—her story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” for example, was penned as a direct response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—and for fans—there’s a new story here set within the universe of the Broken Earth trilogy. Essential.
Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink
As he did with Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!, in Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink transforms one of his popular podcasts into a novel. (The same-titled show, which completed its third and final season in 2018, is also being developed for television.) The story follows Keisha, a long-haul truck driver on a cross-country search for clues regarding her missing wife, who she refuses to believe is actually dead. The journey leads her into a complex web of dark conspiracies and stomach-churning terror. Fink was inspired by his experiences living in and out of his van while driving around the country performing live episodes of Welcome to Night Vale; taken as a travelogue of these weird United States, it’s by turns haunting, touching, and downright terrifying, with a particularly memorable villain—a slouching bag of distended flesh known as the Hungry Man—who will stalk your nightmares.
Red Moon, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson leaves the waterlogged Big Apple of New York 2140 to explore humanity’s future off-planet in Red Moon, as a political conspiracy unfolds on Earth’s satellite in a novel that harkens back to his landmark Mars trilogy. In the near future, the moon has been colonized by both the United States and China. The uneasy peace between the two countries is threatened when American Fred Fredericks is somehow involved in the poisoning of Governor Chang of the Chinese colony. Fredericks finds himself fighting for his life as he and an illegally pregnant Chinese woman named Qi race to return to Earth. As always, Robinson employs careful research and exacting worldbuilding as he traces current events into an entirely plausible future—it’s a novel that considers, among many other things, what role blockchain might play in our lunar colonial future.
Kill the Farm Boy, by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S. Dawson
Hearne and Dawson set out to undermine the white male patriarchy in a hilarious and surprisingly deep fantasy in the Pratchett mold. The titular, clichéd farm boy destined to save the world is killed more or less immediately after being anointed the Chosen One, but his death doesn’t end the threat to the world. A colorful band of unlikely heroes must assemble to do the job for him, including a half-rabbit bard, an aspiring evil wizard whose main skill is conjuring bread, a rogue lacking any sort of coordination, and, naturally, a talking goat. Their quest to take on the Dark Lord infesting their world with evil curses and evil-er magic is filled with plenty of jokes, songs, and riffs on the fundamental importance of cheese—but it also delves into the inner lives of these crazy characters, making them real, interesting people. (Which is more than can be said of many super-serious epic fantasy stories.)
What’s your pick for the best book of 2018?