And we thought choosing the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2015 was tough. Not only was 2016 an outstanding year for wholly new entertainments across all facets of the genre, it also featured high-profile sequels to many of last year’s very best reads. We could have easily packed the list with a dozen second or third installments that equaled the superlative first volumes—but what’s a “best of” list for if not to start a few (hopefully friendly) arguments? And on that note, and without further ado, here are our selections for the best science fiction & fantasy books of 2016, plus a dozen runners-up that almost made the cut. (Short fiction fans: anthologies and collections are featured in their own list.)
[2017 update: This list is still fantastic, but if you want something fresher, you can find our picks for the best SFF books of 2017 here.]
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Former io9.com editor Charlie Jane Ander’s debut speculative novel is a story of love and friendship, hope and despair, science and magic, and the end of the world. A girl who can do magic falls for a boy who only believes in science, and together, they must figure out how to save our dying planet—assuming, of course, the planet even wants our help. Childhood friends Patricia and Laurance lose touch with one another as they grow up, their differing paths sending one of them to a secret school for magicians and the other to the best engineering programs on offer. Years later, they meet again, with the fate of the world at stake, and the forces of science and magic edging toward all-out war. Read our review.
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
Urban fantasy series often live of die on the strength of their protagonist, and by that measure, Mishell Baker has written one of the greats. Borderline introduces Millicent Roper, a cynical, at times unlikable, yet downright captivating new voice, a once-promising filmmaker, a suicide survivor and double-amputee struggling to reenter the world and keep her mental illness—borderline personality disorder—under control. Perhaps you don’t think she sounds like the best candidate to serve as the go-between between the dangerous Fey realm and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but then, you have yet to encounter the Arcadia Project, the shoestring organization tasked with keeping our world safe from magical destruction, staffed with society’s cast-offs. Baker spins a fast-moving fantasy yarn while crafting fully formed characters, showing great compassion in her depiction of mental illness and alienation. Read our review.
Morning Star, by Pierce Brown
Brown mixed dystopian tropes and lush SF landscapes in the first two installments of his Mars-based revolutionary thriller trilogy, Red Rising and Golden Son, telling the story of the rise of Darrow, a former slave who has infiltrated the color-coded system of the elites into order to dismantle it. In Morning Star, the time has finally come for Darrow to tear down the world of the aristocratic, despotic Golds from the inside. With propulsive storytelling and flawed, fascinating characters, the series has attracted a fervent fanbase, and it’s not difficult to see why. This one sticks the landing in a big way, and the series comes to a rousing finish, managing to thread the needle between satisfying genre die-hards and maintaining the kind of populist appeal that means we’ll be seeing this story on the big screen sooner rather than later. Read our review.
Paperback $14.49 | $16.00
The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman
We’re all readers. We know the peculiar power of books to transport us and transform the world. Cogman makes that power literal in this popular series-starter, a runaway hit when first published in the U.K., and, if you ask us, the flat-out most fun reading experience of the year. The Library is an organization that traverses space and time to collect unique books from alternate realities and catalog them for posterity. Into that fascinating premise is thrust Irene, a spy for the Library tasked with flitting into alternate realities—say, a vampire-infested London—in order to acquire invaluable books for the collection. With trainee Kai in tow, Irene’s latest quest goes awry and she has to delve into London’s underworld to set things right, battling not only bloodsuckers, but werewolves and Fair Folk as well. She must rely on more than her fighting skills if she wants to make it out with the books and her body intact. Read our review.
The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst
The adult debut of celebrated YA author Durst will delight fans of intricate, character-driven fantasy in the Anne Bishop mold. It is the start of an epic of political intrigue and magic in a world in which the violent spirits of nature can only be tamed by one woman, without whom all of civilization will fall. Born during the reign of a bloodthirsty queen, Daleina is determined to become queen and right the wrongs in her land. Disgraced champion Ven, who holds a vendetta against the cruel monarch, chooses the unassuming girl to take the throne. Together, they fight to save their kingdom, against all odds, and against fearsome foes and faithful friends alike. Read our review.
The Devourers, by Indra Das
Indra Das’ debut is beautiful and grotesque, equal parts horror and magical realism. It’s a novel that encompasses three stories. The first is set in modern-day Kolkata, where a lonely professor sits down with a stranger who claims to be half-werewolf. From there, we branch off into a saga that spans centuries and focuses on the consequences of a fateful meeting between a pack of shape-shifters and a defiant human woman in 17th-century India. It’s a story of love, magic, and werewolves that begins in at the building of the Taj Mahal and wends its way through centuries. It is atmospheric, evocative, and bewitching. Read our review.
Four Roads Cross, by Max Gladstone
The fifth and perhaps best entry in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, an asynchronous series of magic and magistrates, Four Roads Cross is another intricate work of imagination set an expansive world that turns necromancers into lawyers and unsexy matters like zoning disputes and corporate tax incentives bevome edge-of-your-seat fantasy plot points. More than anything, the series does justice by its female characters, allowing them to be people: flawed, feisty, dynamic, and distinct. It’s a trait on full display in Four Roads Cross. Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, who we met in Three Parts Dead, returns with her characteristic level head, courtroom grit, and continuing student loan worries intact. She’s given up her high-paying private sector job to serve as in-house counsel for the Church of Kos Everburning. As a craftswoman in a god’s house, Tara is a fish out of water, but she is nonetheless called upon once again to preserve the great city of Alt Coulumb as it tumbles into crisis. There’s a reason we were so excited when we learned Max is writing more Craft novels: this series rocks. Read our review.
Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard
Howard’s eerily beautiful debut introduces a number of things: a mysterious, secluded setting, a compelling modern fantasy world, and a sibling rivalry that threatens to unravel the whole thing. At its heart are Imogen and Marin, sisters who have translated their troubled childhoods into flourishing careers in the arts. A writer and dancer, respectively, they both are accepted to an exclusive residency at Melete, an elite school for the artistically inclined. While each pursues he craft—and try to rekindle a relationship estranged for many years—they become entangled in a high-stakes competition intricately tied to the school’s history. When one’s success could ensure the other’s failure, the question becomes: how badly does each want to win? The tension buzzes all the way to the final chapter. Read our review.
Paperback $15.99 | $17.99
The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin
The followup to the masterful, Hugo-winning The Fifth Season, unquestionably among the best novels of 2015, the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy is just as impossibly good as the first, delving ever deeper into the strata of a fantasy world imagined with near-scientific rigor, and the mind and heart of its protagonist, a woman who refuses to be broken, even if you try to drop an entire continent on top of her. Jemisin’s skill at crafting incredible characters is matched only by her world-building, which is truly second-to-none. We called The Fifth Season an epic fantasy with no epic fantasy tropes; this sequel is every bit as stunning and original. Read our review.
Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn
Kuhn envisions a world in which the only thing more common than demons attacking your city are the superheroes who exist to fight them. In this chaotic setting, we meet Evie Tanaka, who runs public relations for Aveda Jupiter—superhero, diva, and a most demanding client. Evie is equal parts smart, funny, and great at her job, which becomes infinitely more complicated when she attends an event for Aveda and is attacked by demons and is forced to reveal her deepest secret: she’s super-powered, too. Kuhn’s genius plot juggles Evie’s sudden need accomplish two jobs—as PR maven and superhero—and lathers on the humor like so much evil cupcake frosting. Did we mention the evil cupcakes? Romance, adventure, and kick-butt action combine into a shining example of the weird and wonderful potential still of urban fantasy.
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
Holding a mirror up to the works of H.P Lovecraft, LaValle’s brooding, bloody novella is a retelling of one of ol’ Howard’s most racist stories, “The Horror at Red Hook.” You need not have read the Lovecraft’s original—a poisonous tale drenched in the man’s fear of (and outright disgust for) the racially mixed neighborhood—to appreciate LaVelle’s story of a black man from 1920s Harlem who is happy to oblige the society that treats him like a monster by becoming one. Blending horror with more “literary” fiction, it’s an important novella for all kinds social and political reasons, but don’t worry about that yet—first, get ready to be terrified. Read our review.
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s short fiction has been praised for its elegant prose, outsized SF-nal ambition, and rigorous technical detail. Hard SF space opera from a mathematician and data analyst: one of those times you put a bunch of boring words together, and the result is only awesome. Ordered to retake a fortress captured by heretical rebels and with no other way to win, Captain Kel Cheris must welcome into her head the digitized consciousness of Shuos Jedao, an infamous military strategist who has been exiled to machine space ever since he engineered a disastrous campaign that left an entire planet dead. Together, they will unlock a galaxy-wide conspiracy that could disrupt the entirety of their rigid, ordered, highly mathematical society, throwing everything into chaos. This is one of the most challenging, mind-expanding new sci-fi books you’ll read this year. Read our review.
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu
The highly-anticipated conclusion to the Three-Body trilogy is finally here, offering a slightly more accessible story after the (wonderful) convolutions of the first two volumes. Humanity struggles to survive first contact with the TriSolarans, and Liu deftly places immense and often apocalyptic events into a context readers can understand, with a strong assist from a cast of well-drawn, believable characters. The end result is a story that is simultaneously epic and intimate, universe-altering and deeply affecting on a personal level. This is some of the best SFF being written today, and it belongs at the top of every reader’s list. Read our review.
The Summer Dragon, by Todd Lockwood
Renowned illustrator Lockwood debuts his first novel, the story of Maia, whose family breeds and trains dragons for war. Maia is recovering from the loss of her mother, and longs for a dragon of her own to bond with—a bond that goes deeper than most can truly understand. Her hopes and dreams are pushed sideways when a dragon arrives in her aerie—not just any dragon, but one of the rare High Dragons, the Summer Dragon itself, prompting Maia to makes a risky decision and take an incredible chance. Lockwood proves to be a master of the art of world-building, crafting a universe that feels absolutely real and lived-in, and populating it with fascinating, complicated characters. It’s a grand fantasy debut that any genre fans will love—and dragon lovers will devour. Read our review.
After Atlas, by Emma Newman
Newman returns to the intriguing world of Planetfall with a second novel (but not a sequel) that is just as thoughtful, lyrical, and moving as the first. When the Atlas left Earth seeking to establish a colony on another planet, it left collateral damage in its wake. Carlos Moreno was a boy who watched his mother leave for the stars, and could do nothing as his father fall into despair and desperation—eventually landing in a religious cult known as The Circle. Forty years later, the leader of The Circle is dead, and Carlos, now a Gov-Corp detective, knows he’s been assigned to the investigation for a reason—but as he looks deeper into the case, he must also delve deep into the past. A breathtakingly elegant, idea-packed expansion of a rich and fascinating universe. Read our review.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
Older’s debut novel imagines a world where the entire population is divided into groups of 100,000, known as centenals. Each centenal can vote for the government they wish to belong to—governments ranging from corporate-dominated PhilipMorris, to policy-based groups with names like Liberty. A global organization called Information seeks to police elections and ensure that the many governments keep their promises and play by the rules—and when a researcher for a government called Policy1st stumbles onto a conspiracy to rig elections, he’s teamed with an agent of Information as they struggle to find out the truth, expose the plot—and, naturally enough, stay alive. Older’s fierce imagination and eye for detail make her future world seem entirely plausible, and her characters believably flawed. It’s one of the year’s most promising debuts, and we can’t wait to see where she goes with the recently announced sequel. Read our review.
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
Palmer’s long-in-coming debut crafts a distinctly unique vision of a future world—a 25th century where technology has created abundance, where religion is outlawed but personal spirituality is encouraged, where criminals are sentenced to wander the world making themselves useful. It’s an imagined outcome rooted in threads visible all around us even today. 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 is one of the year’s most striking debuts. Read our review.
Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
Everfair is a colony newly established by members of the Fabian Society, meant to be a haven for slaves fleeing the atrocities inflicted upon them by the king’s forces in the Congo Free State. Instead of dying by the thousands, they run to this promised land, where steampunk marvels exist, and they can replace missing limbs with new and better contraptions—and weapons. With this technology, they, and their allies in a nearby African tribe ruled by King Mwenda, can fight back. Nisi Shawl’s searing, essential alternate history imagines a new vision of the Belgian Congo of 1896, giving voice—and vengeance—to countless people slaughtered in our version of reality. Read our review.
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchiakovsky
Adrian Tchiakovsky apparently has a thing for spiders. His trope-defying fantasy adventure Spiderlight, which features a giant arachnid as a main character, was a strong contender for this list, but he actually cracks it with this Arthur C. Clarke Award winner. It’s a magnificently imaginative space opera about the last remnants of humanity’s diaspora to the stars, who believe they’ve found their new Eden—a terraformed planet perfectly suited to human life—until they discover another batch of colonists (of the massive, fiendishly intelligent, eight-legged variety) is also vying for a spot at the top of the food chain. It’s a novel that once again proves the author a master at manipulating familiar elements of the genre (generation ships, cryosleep, truly alien civilizations), while injecting his own brand of venomous originality—due to the colony world’s ideal environment, the spider race evolves at an accelerated rate, allowing us to witness entire epochs of its history, from squishable bugs to a space-faring civilization to be reckoned with, in the span of a few hundred idea-packed pages.
Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar’s second novel out in the U.S. this year, following the pitch-black Adolf Hitler satire A Man Lies Dreaming, couldn’t be more different: this strange take on space opera is a classic “fix-up,” strung together from a double-handful of previously published short stories exploring the lives of the inhabitants of a slum situated below Central Station, the hub of humanity’s future and a gateway to contact with the Others, an alien force that is changing the future of humanity. On the ground, in a border town between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, genetically engineered children experience a different sort of reality, cyborg couriers deliver drugs, and robotic priests speak to the faithful. It’s a dazzling, unsettling vision of the future from one of the most consistently interesting—and challenging—voices in the genre. Read our review.
United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas
Tieryas’ third novel is one of the year’s breakout books. A spiritual sequel to Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece The Man in the High Castle, it takes us to a richly-imagined alternate 1980s America, greatly changed from what we know by four decades of rule by the Japanese, victors of the second World War. Inspired by Tieryas experiences touring former Japanese internment camps, and incorporating plenty of electrifying what-if details (from video games to giant mechs), it’s both a thoughtful examination of humanity’s darker nature and a slam-bang sci-fi adventure. Read our review.
Escapology, by Ren Warom
Taking its cues from cosmic horror and weird fantasy, Warom’s debut overflows with ideas and world-building that push it well beyond its cyberpunkian premise, which follows a socially awkward console cowboy on the job from hell. With its meme-spouting hivemind savants, AIs who behave more like sealed-away eldritch abominations than computer programs, high-speed monorail chases, and megaship-to-megaship battles, Escapology grabs cyberpunk by the throat and drags it into deeper, stranger waters. The result is something that pays tribute to the subgenre of old, but establishes itself firmly as its own unusual (and original) creation. Read our review.
Crosstalk, by Connie Willis
Connie Willis’s first book in six years is a delightful return to the farcical antics and screwball romance of Remake and Bellwether—and like those books, beneath a fluffy exterior of quipping characters and madcap action, it engages with serious SFnal ideas. This time around, she’s considering the ways the ubiquitous, instant communication afforded to us by cell phones and the internet is changing society, filtered through the lens of a signature Connie Willis protagonist: Briddey Flannigan, employee of a struggling tech company looking for the next communications breakthrough that will allow it to compete with Apple, who gets more than she bargained for when she agrees to undergo a poorly understood medical procedure intended to give her an empathetic connection with her boyfriend Trent, one of her company’s top executives. Instead of feeling what Trent feels, she wakes up hearing the every thought of C.B., the antisocial engineer who works in the basement, and her accidental abilities may have terrifying implications for the world at large. Surrounding this bickering oil-and-water pair are a host of lovable oddballs, from Briddey’s feisty niece Maeve to her interfering Aunt Oona, who just wants to see her marry a foine Irish lad. You’ll happily devour all 498 pages, and hope the next one doesn’t take another six years. Read our review.
A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Clearly no one told Kai Ashante Wilson how to write epic fantasy. Here he is, publishing a sequel to one of last year’s best books (the Crawford Award-winner The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps), and it’s another slim volume, starring a completely new cast, embracing a vivid range of themes—gender, race, sexuality—with nary a feast in sight. Though far removed in time from the first book, it shares many of the same preoccupations while telling a very different story, about a Romeo & Juliet love affair between Aqib, aminor royal, and Lucrio, a brash soldier from a neighboring kingdom; if the burgeoning secretive affair between the two men were revealed, it would threaten not only Aqib’s own future, but his entire family’s. Wilson creates a gay hero for the ages, amid a story that manages to squeeze in a brutal fight scene and a twist ending you won’t see coming. If this author is the future of fantasy, we can’t wait to read what’s next. Read our review.
Super Extra Grande, by Yoss
This newly translated novel by Yoss, considered one of the masters of contemporary Cuban sci-fi, transports us to a bizarre vision of the far future, where humanity has mastered space travel and discovered it is but one small corner of a vast, very strange intergalactic tapestry (think planet-sized amoebas, talking lizards, and female creatures that exist, mantis-like, on “substances” from the males of the species). Odder still, our hero is Jan Amos Sangan Dongo, an interspecies veterinarian tasked with hunting down a giant creature that has swallowed two Galactic Community ambassadors—each of whom Jan happens to have slept with—before the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven sentient species collapses.
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2016:
12 Books That Just Missed the List
Remember when we said up top that 2016 was a very good year for SFF? Make that a very, very good year. We had a hell of a time narrowing our list to just 25 titles, and we’d be remiss not to mention 12 more that might have made it on a different day of the week (and certainly in any other year).
The Race, by Nina Allan
Because a deeply metafictional quartet of nested novellas about missing persons, environmental collapse, sapient whales, and illegal smartdog racing turned out to be just what our 2016 needed. Read our review.
A Conspiracy of Ravens, by Lila Bowen
Because we can’t get the dusty Weird West setting out of our heads, or ferocious and fearless protagonist Rhett Hennessy (née Nettie Lonesome) our of our hearts. Read our review.
Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Because it proved Kay is still second-to-none when it comes to crafting intricate worlds rife with complex characters, compelling politics, and questions without easy answers. Read our review.
The Vagrant, by Peter Newman
Because this post-apocalyptic epic about a lone wanderer carrying a child to safety across a desolate wasteland also managed to somehow be one of the most hopeful fantasy novels of the year. Read our review.
A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab
Because it brought back those prickly, imperfect characters for a second go-round that delighted all the way up to the agonizing cliffhanger ending. Read our review.
The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks
Because it proved the Lightbringer series is at the top-of-the-top when it comes to ongoing fantasy epics, and made us desperate for book five, ASAP.
What’s the best new science fiction or fantasy book you read in 2016?