As the real world grows each day stranger by leaps and bounds, the skewed secondary worlds, fantastical lands, and alternate histories that are the realms of science fiction and fantasy have only grown more vital, not only as a means of escape from blaring headlines, political turmoil, and the crescendo of climate change, but as a means of understanding them: truths more clearly viewed through the lens of fiction.
Of course, that kind of makes reading sound like a drag, doesn’t it? The best SFF books of 2018 aren’t about beating you over the head with an agenda, they’re about finding truth in the fantastical, whether it’s a story of animal revenge, an exploration of the philosophy of magic, a chronicle of a space program that could’ve been, an imagined war that echoes the horrors of a real atrocity, or a very strange trip up, up, up an impossible tower. These are our favorite science fiction and fantasy novels from another strong year for the genre, and another weird year for the world. (See our list of the best books from the first half of 2018, and browse earlier year’s best lists in our archive of editors’ picks.)
Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft
Bancroft’s buzzy debut was already a self-published sensation in ebook when Orbit acquired the rights to publish in print, with three sequels to follow in short order. It’s set in a steampunk universe whose main feature is the Tower of Babel, a legendary tourist attraction that soars endlessly into the sky, shrouded in clouds. No one knows how high the tower goes, and it seems to contain an infinite number of rooms, all of them unique. Thomas, a small town schoolteacher, and his beloved wife Marya take their honeymoon at the Tower, but Thomas loses his new bride in the immense crowd milling about the base. Desperate to find her, he begins to climb the Tower in hopes of finding her. Every room he enters is a world unto itself, as detailed and deeply imagined as any described in entire novels. Thomas finds himself in a mental and physical battle with various factions and personalities as he slowly ascends the tower and learns its secrets—well, some of them, at least. Deeply strange and instantly addictive, it’s one of the most original fantasy novels in years—and book two, Arm of the Sphinx (released in May) might be even better. Read our review.
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett
The author of the Divine Cities trilogy (a nominee for Best Series at the 2018 Hugo Awards) begins a new trilogy that’s as fun to read as its world is well-imagined. The city state of Tevanne runs on magic and pillage, as the four dominant merchant houses exploit the lands around them (not to mention the poor denizens who crouch outside their walls in a precarious shantytown known as Foundryside), as their scrivers create incredible machines and accomplish feats that look a lot like magic by way of intricate sigils that bend and break the laws of reality. Sancia Grado is a Foundryside thief who comes into possession of Clef, a sentient golden key—and is pursued by police captain Gregor Dandolo, reluctant scion of one of the richest houses. The unwitting Sancia falls into a scheme to destroy the power of the scrivers; putting a stop to it will bring her and Dandolo together as unlikely allies in the greatest theft theft in history, with the lives of everyone in Tevanne on the line. Read our review.
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
In this audacious, unapologetically feminist alternate history, Bolander imagines one of the “Radium Girls”—the very real victims of early workplace dangers, they suffered radiation poisoning from their jobs painting wristwatches with radioactive paint—meeting the sentient elephant that will replace her at the factory (elephants, being both intelligent enough to weild a paintbrush and large enough to absorb a lot of radiation before it kills them, are deemed a worthy disposable workforce). Bolander conflates the tragedy of the Radium Girls with the story of Topsy, the legendary elephant cruelly electrocuted before spectators at Coney Island to promote electricity. The two women—of different species, each boiling with rage against the injustice of their mistreatments—bond in a way that is wholly unexpected, leading a terrible act of justice and revenge that transcends time and history. The probable winner of this year’s Hugo and Nebula best novelette awards, this one is less than 100 pages, and will stay with you forever. Read our review.
Temper, by Nicky Drayden
Nicky Drayden’s followup to the her gonzo science fantasy debut The Prey of Gods is just as delightfully out there. In an alternate African country, your vices are more than just part of your private nature—they’re what determine your status in society. With only a single vice branded on his arm, Kasim Mutz is marked for a bright future. His twin brother Auben, however, has six vices on display, dooming him to a much darker fate. Auben is smart, mischievous, and charming—and jealous of his brother’s prospects. as Auben begins hearing a demonic voice instructing him to give in to his weaknesses and commit terrible crimes, he finds his self-control begin to erode, and both brothers find they will have to tame their inner demons if they’re going to save their world. Drayden’s worldbuilding boasts depth and nuance, but her real strength is in developing instantly relatable characters. It feels real in the ways of the best speculative fiction, as if we’re looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror, noting the skewed beauty, the blemishes, and all. Read our review.
Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
Marina and Sergey Dyachenko stand with the best writers of fantasy in Russia, but very little of their work has been translated into English. Hopefully, Vita Nostra—which has been hailed as perhaps their greatest work (it was named the best fantasy of the 21st century by the attendees fo Eurocon 2008)—will begin to change that. It’s the story of a young girl named Sasha who, after a series of bizarre and disturbing events, is enrolled against her will in the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, where she will learn a very peculiar sort of magic—think philosophy and linguistics rather than spells and wands. Hogwarts this isn’t—the Institute is a cold, austere place, and Sasha’s exploration of magic offers all the charm of cramming for a post-grad final—but the novel somehow makes her coursework thrum with the drive and suspense of a thriller, all the way through the mind-melting ending. Read our review.
Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames
Eames jumps back into the Band series, picking up the story six years after the events of Kings of the Wyld and shifting the focus to a group that includes the daughter of one of that book’s team of grizzled adventurers. Teenage bard Tam Hashford is thrilled to be invited to join Bloody Rose, the most famous adventuring band of all, but quickly discovers the worst thing you can do is meet your idols. Bloody Rose is content to play arenas in the south rather than head north to fight more monsters, and are working towards one final show that will earn them enough money to retire in peace. When that fabled gig goes completely off the rails, the band must once again put aside differences and overcome their own limitations to gear up and save the world. Eames’ brilliant “mercenary bands as rock stars” concept is only more delightful the second time around. Read our review.
Salvation, by Peter F. Hamilton
That Hamilton remains under the radar of many sci-fi readers (particularly in the US) is a crime; not only has he consistently offered up amazing science fictional concepts, he’s packed them into character-focused epics with sprawl to rival Dickens. His newest, which stands apart from his earlier series, is set in the 23rd century, by which time humanity has achieved a complacent sort of ascendancy, managing a far-flung interstellar empire via networked “jump gates” that allow for instantaneous travel to anywhere. The cargo on a crashed spacecraft found on a newly discovered planet, however, threatens to fatally undermine that hegemony. Paralleling that story is one set in the 51st century, where an ancient enemy pursues the genocide of the human race and a team of genetically altered soldiers prepare to face it. Per usual for Hamilton, the ideas are as invigorating as the plot, which earns the epic page count. Read our review.
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
The first of a pair of prequel novels to Kowal’s award-winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars, The Calculating Stars delves into the alternate history that resulted in humanity establishing a colony on Mars in the middle of the 20th century. In the spring of 1952, a huge meteor hits Chesapeake Bay, taking out most of the Eastern United States. Mathematician and former military pilot Elma York and her scientist husband Nate are there to witness the destruction, and Elma knows immediately that this is an ELE—an extinction-level event—and that humanity must look to the stars if it has any hope of survival. Although her experience as a pilot and her math skills earn Elma a place in the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator, she begins to wonder why women can’t be astronauts as well—and she’s more than willing to confront racism, sexism, and more personal enemies on her quest to become the first lady astronaut. This is one of those books that seems to have come along at just the right moment, bringing together fascinating, inspiring characters; compelling, plausible worldbuilding; and a message that resonates—especially today. Read our review.
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 and 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. Read our review.
Severance, by Ling Ma
There are many ways to write the apocalypse. Ling Ma’s debut novel manages to bind all of them together into an artfully drawn satire, the kind with humor so dry you almost miss it, and so sharp you at first don’t feel the cut. It follows a woman named Candace Chen in overlapping vignettes: from Fuzhou to Salt Lake City as the child of Chinese immigrants; from post-college ennui, documenting the streets of New York for a blog called NY Ghost, to an entry level job at a company that facilitates the publication of specialty bibles; from a slowly, inevitably emptying post-plague Manhattan, to her own uncomfortable exodus with a group of survivors. The world has been undone by Shen fever, a fungal infection understood to originate in southern China—the same region where Candace’s company prints those bibles. Its sufferers become trapped in their bodies, miming the same actions again and again: a suburban mother sets the table, and clears it, over and over; one young woman tries on and discards all the dresses in her closet; another brays with laughter as she changes channels on her widescreen, the television rife with nothing funny. The actions of the afflicted display a decided lack of contrast with the novel’s office drones and compulsory capitalists. The elegy of place—of New York—and the lapping blood tide of personal reverie and the uselessness of memory shape the novel as something warmer than irony and less combative than parody. Read our review.
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller
Set in the floating city of Qaanaaq, built in the arctic circle in the wake of the terrible climate wars that saw ground-level cities burned and razed, Miller’s adult debut (his lightly fantastical YA The Art of Starving won the Andre Norton Award) is an intricate jewel box of ideas. The floating city is a marvel of engineering, but is starting to show the strain: poverty is rising, and crime and unrest along with it. A new disease known as the Breaks—which throws the infected into the midst of other people’s memories—is sweeping the population. When a woman arrives in Blackfish City riding on an Orca and accompanied by a polar bear, she’s an instant celebrity, dubbed the Orcamancer. She takes advantage of her fame to draw together the citizens Qaanaaq and set in motion acts of resistance and rebellion that will have incredible impact, leading four people them in particular to see through the corruption, lies, and marvels of the city to the shocking truths beneath. This is the kind of swirling, original sci-fi we live for. Read our review.
Before Mars, by Emma Newman
Newman returns a third time to her Planetfall universe with this creepy, moving psychological sci-fi mystery. Celebrated artist Anna Kubrin is struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of her child, so an offer from a billionaire to spend some time on Mars as its resident geologist and artist seems like the perfect escape. When she arrives on the Red Planet months later, she’s shocked to discover a painting clearly created by her—and the work seems to be warning her not to trust the colony’s resident psychiatrist. Other details don’t add up, and Anna begins to wonder if she’s enmeshed in some sort of huge conspiracy—or if she’s losing her mind. Isolated and far, far away from those she can trust, Anna sees only one way out, and that’s to delve deeper into the mystery. Newman is a fine fantasist, but her science fiction has proven to be truly otherworldly; Before Mars is equally stifling and unnerving, a futuristic mystery shot through with paranoia. Read our review.
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
Drawing on Eastern European folklore and the classic fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, Novik tells the story of Miryem, daughter in 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. Read our review.
A Study in Honor, by Claire O’Dell
O’Dell (aka Beth Bernobich) sets her alternate Earth fantasy in the wake of a second Civil War. The conflict has torn the country apart and inflamed racial tensions. Dr. Janet Watson, who lost an arm in the fighting, moves to post-war Washington D.C. to work at the Veterans Administration hospital and get used to her new mechanical arm. She rooms with the brilliant, arrogant Sara Holmes in a tidy flat in Georgetown, where the fact that they’re two black women cohabiting inflames lingering racial attitudes in an area still recovering from the hostilities. If you’re wondering, those surnames aren’t accidents—Watson and Holmes quickly find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving Civil War veterans who are dying off one by one, as evidence suggests a plot somehow connected to the upcoming election, with implications for the future of the country. Read our review.
Quietus, by Tristan Palmgren (March 6, Angry Robot—Paperback)
All you really need to know about Quietus is that one of the main characters is a transdimensional anthropologist—when’s the last time you read a book with one of those as the protagonist? Anthropologist Habidah’s universe is beset by a deadly plague. By way of study, she’s been assigned to research a similar calamity in our universe, and is dispatched to witness the Black Death as it swiftly decimates Florence. Moved by the tragic scene of a young Carthusian monk named Niccolucio, who watches as one after another of his brothers succumbs to the disease, Habidah breaks all the rules and saves him. This merciful act sets off a chain reaction that ultimately reveals there’s more to the plague in Habidah’s own universe than a simple illness, and her assignment to observe our world is not the task she believed it to be. There is a conspiracy at work, threatening to destroy a huge empire—and now, she and Niccolucio are part of it. The bells and whistles of sci-fi with the depth and worldbuilding of historical fiction mark this as a debut by a writer to watch. Read our review.
Witchmark, by C.L. Polk
Polk’s debut is set in a universe resembling Edwardian England, except for the fact that in this reality, the elite families that sit atop government and the social order have magical powers as well as political ones. Miles Singer is from just such a family, but when he flees the lap of luxury to join the war effort, he grows disillusioned with the trappings of power, and takes the opportunity to fake his own death and assume a new identity. Posing as a doctor at a failing veterans’ hospital, he sees firsthand how war changes people, never for the good—soldiers are returning from the front plagued by terrible versions, and shortly thereafter, committing terrible acts of violence. When one of his patients is poisoned, Miles not only accidentally reveals his healing powers, he is thrust into a mystery that involves an aloof, beautiful man who is more than human—and who may hold the secret to stopping a brewing inter-dimensional war. This bewitching story of political maneuverings, dangerous magic, sweet romance, and bicycle chases is never less than addictive. Read our review.
Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell
Gareth L. Powell is the mad genius behind the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, a British Science Fiction Award-winning saga of alt-history warfare and an uplifted monkey fighter pilot welding a machine gun. Sounds ridiculous, sure, but he managed to twist the premise in service of some really smart sci-fi, and he only tops himself in Embers of War, which turns some of our favorite space opera tropes (including sentient starships) to eleven. Trouble Dog was a vessel built for war, but after the conflict is over, the artificial mind at its core feels regret for its role int he conflict. She joins the House of Reclamation, a sort of rescue organization for trouble starships. Shortly after, she and a small human crew of miscreants are tasked with discovering what has happened to a passenger ship that has gone missing in disputed space. One of the missing ship’s passengers, On a Sudak, was a renowned poet, but was also living a dangerous double life, the facts of which are teased out by government intelligence officer Ashton Chide, who uncovers secrets that could plunge the galaxy into war yet again—unless Trouble Dog can figure out how to stop it. This is a true space opera, full of suspense, and mystery, and stuff blowing up real good—but it’s the humanity of Powell’s vision that truly makes it something special. Read our review.
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Roanhorse’s buzzy debut is set in a post-apocalyptic world comparable to Mad Max: Fury Road in intensity, with worldbuilding drawn from the author’s Indigenous American heritage. In an America devastated by rising sea levels, the Navajo Nation has been reborn as Dinétah—and with it have come the old gods and monsters of Native American legend. Maggie Hoskie is a monster-hunter, gifted with the power to fight and defeat these beasts. Hired by a small town to locate a missing girl, she teams up with a misfit medicine man named Kai Arviso, and the two dive into a mystery that takes them deeper into the dark side of Dinétah than they could have imagined—a world of tricksters, dark magic, and creatures more frightening than any story. Trail of Lightning is an audacious take on the conventions of both urban fantasy and the post-apocalyptic novel, binding them together in a way that could only and ever happen in Dinétah. Read our review.
Empire of Silence, by Christopher Ruocchio
Ruocchio’s ambitious debut is the story of Hadrian Marlowe, who is about to be hanged in front of the entire galaxy. In a universe where the Earth is a dead memory and humanity has spread to many planets and come into bloody conflict with the alien Cielcin, Marlowe was a powerful heir to an empire and a hero in the war against the aliens—and a monster who killed billions, including his own emperor. As Marlowe tells his story in his own words, however, we learn the truth is far stranger—and more tragic—than the official account. Marlowe loses everything, endures horrific poverty and desperation, and claws his way back into power—only to find himself on a collision course with doom in a galaxy dominated by suffocating religion and twisted by horrific violence. It’s not often we encounter a first novel of this scope, or one quite this accomplished—this is Serious Space Opera with a capital S, more Dune than Star Wars, and it signals the arrival of a writer worth paying attention to. Read our review.
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 both used them to 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, 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. Read our review.
The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
This literary-leaning dystopian novel is set in a world set upon by a truly strange affliction: all over the globe, people are losing their shadows, a loss that grants then extranormal powers, at the cost of their memories. To escape the Forgetting plague, lovers Max and Ory flee to the wilderness. They think themselves safe, until Max loses her shadow and is forced to go on the run, lest she become a danger to the man she loves. Knowing his wife’s time, and memories, are running out, Ory sets out after her, exploring a landscape devastated by the unrest that rose up in the wake of humanity’s strange evolution, and, along the way, finds answers, and some cause for hope.
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
Thompson’s novel-length debut, published last year in ebook but now out in print from Orbit, is set in the near future, in the wake of Earth’s settlement by alien visitors, who have constructed a huge biodome in Nigeria. The newcomers are rumored to have healing powers, and the sick and suffering gather around the bio-dome, forming the city of Rose Water around it. Thompson, whose sci-fi/horror novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne was released last year to significant acclaim, was born in London to Yoruba parents, and brings a unique worldview to a story that runs the disparate threads of those disparate cultures through a sci-fi idea machine. The result combines a sprawling timeline, engaging speculative concepts, and aspects of old-school detective fiction to craft one of the most unique books of the year. Read our review.
Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar
In award-winner Lavie Tidhar’s positively Philip K. Dickian new novel, the suspiciously similarly named pulp writer Liro Tirosh returns to his homeland of Palestina, a Jewish state on Lake Victoria between Kenya and Uganda. Tirosh has been out of the country, living in the Reich for years, in a Germany that never perpetrated a Holocaust. But his father, a larger than life national figure, is dying, so he returns. When a visit from an old classmate goes horribly awry, Tirosh finds himself slipping in and out of reality: he imagines himself as a detective in one of his own novels, he speaks to his ex-wife on the phone but can’t quite connect with her, he seems to be aware of the plots of Tidhar’s other novels. Things only grow stranger as a wall in erected between the Jewish state and its African neighbors. Unholy Land plays in the strange, uncomfortable demilitarized zone between the national founding myth and the uninterrogated childhood, between the person who leaves the homeland and the one who returns. Read our review.
Sisyphean, by Dempow Torishima, translated by Daniel Huddleston
Set in a world where genetic engineering corporations have become living organisms unto themselves, their top executives transformed into grotesque alien beings who transcend all flesh, Sisyphean follows the corporate workers, students, and the other low-level denizens of this horrifying universe as they go about their daily routines. Torishima’s gruesome, fluid-drenched prose (translated from Japanese to English by Daniel Huddleston) lends gut-wrenching detail to wild plot elements, from gigantic eel corpses, to massive worms, to parasitic bugs that eat people on an ontological and existential level, and huge flesh-crafted symbiotic organisms that rampage with wild abandon through cities, transforming the flesh of everyone they encounter. The stories in this mosaic shared-setting novel begin in surreal, nigh-incoherent horror and somehow grow more comprehensible and grounded as they go along as you acclimate to a bizarro world. And then things get really bizarre, as Torishima revels in yet more twisted heights of genetically engineered depravity.
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente
If you’ve been looking to get schwifty with a new space opera, look no further. Valente spins a truly nutty sci-fi story that begins with the Sentience Wars that nearly eradicated all intelligent life in the universe; when they ended, the scattered survivors regrouped and began a new tradition designed to avoid future apocalypses: the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a universe-wide competition of song and dance open only to recognized sentient species. When any new species emerges onto the universal stage to declare itself sentient—like, say, humanity—they must send contestants to the Grand Prix to prove their worth and quite literally sing for their lives (though alien singing doesn’t always sound like a Top 40 hit). Place anything but last and the upstart civilization is a part of the club. If they come in last…well, they’re quietly exterminated, in the name of preserving universal peace. (Tough choices, people…and not people.) When Earth is unexpectedly pulled into the next contest, the task of saving humanity falls to a has-been rock star named Decibel Jones, who must grapple with the demons of his past while venturing reluctantly onto the largest stage of all-time. It’s a a second chance to be a glitter-bombed rock star. or die trying—along with everyone else. Inspired by her dual love for Eurovision and Douglas Adams, this one is pure Catherynne Valente, from the first page to the last. Read our review.
12 “Alternate Universe” Picks
There’s more great science fiction & fantasy being published now than ever before: so many more books from so many different voices, so many other worlds to explore and weird futures to contemplate. To put it another way, narrowing down a list of the year’s best books is a near-impossible task. With that in mind, we offer the following list of 12 books that could just have easily been included on the list above. They aren’t the “next best” or runners-up; think of them as our alternate universe picks.
Magic Triumphs, by Ilona Andrews
Because the final Kate Daniels novel signals the end of an era in urban fantasy, and the final (for now) adventure of one of the genre’s most iconic heroes. Before the end, Kate grappled with dark family secrets and forge desperate alliances in order to save Atlanta, and the world, one last time.
Treason of Hawks, by Lila Bowen
The fantastic final volume of Lila Bowen’s (née Delilah S. Dawson) Shadow series finds protagonist Rhett Walker facing the one enemy more lethal than all the monsters he has fought and felled thus far—his own past. Through four volumes, and against a fully realized landscape of a weird, monster-strewn west, Bowen has followed Rhett’s struggle with identity and self-acceptance; the final steps of that journey are every bit as gripping as the supernatural plots afoot.
Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown
In the Red Rising trilogy, Brown showed us how a revolution can change a galaxy. In this gripping first volume of the followup series, his protagonist, former Mars miner Darrow, discovers how much harder it is to build a better world.
Starless, by Jacqueline Carey
Carey has a great gift for creating a deep sense of place in her novels, and Starless is another kaleidoscopic book of a thousand colors—the arid desert where the crows eat you when you die; the steam- and gossip- filled baths teeming with secluded royal women; the biting, salt-filled sea wind as felt from the prow of a raider’s ship—every scene as richly hued as new pigment on vellum canvas.
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
This standalone followup to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit explores what happens to those passengers on the generation ships humanity used to escape Earth who don’t know how to leave their vessels behind. Chambers’ books are celebrated for their warmth and diverse characters, but her worldbuilding is also stellar; it’s a delight to spend more time in this universe.
An Easy Death, by Charlaine Harris
The creator of Sookie Stackhose begins a new adventure set in the weird west of an America changed by the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and starring gun for hire Lizbeth Rose, who reluctantly takes on two wizards as clients and sees her world turned upside down. Meet another kick-ass woman with a wild, western tale to tell.
The Quantum Magician, by Derek Künsken
Belisarius is a small-time con man genetically engineered with super senses that give him an awareness of quantum realms. Pulling off his latest job—transporting warships through a wormhole—will take every skill he possesses, and the help of a crew of other augmented humans. This brainy sci-fi heist novel uses mathematics like magic to pull you through a caper worthy of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Grey Sister, by Mark Lawrence
Things only get worse for assassin nun Nona Grey in the followup to 2017’s Red Sister. This blood-spattered middle volume of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy features intriguing politics amid the scenes of sudden violence, and is populated by a host of fascinating, deadly women.
Fire & Blood, by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin’s fictional history of the rise of one of the most powerful dynasties in Westeros might not be the book the author’s fans were hoping to read in 2018, but that makes it no less satisfying on its own terms: a richly detailed, surprisingly gripping tome in the tradition of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Alternate Routes, by Tim Powers
The master of secret histories tries something a little less serious and a little more fun, as we follow a disgraced secret service agent on a twisty road trip into the haunted history of California’s highway system. Watching Powers turn his prodigious research skills toward such a monumentally American system (in addition to the Daedalus myth, for funsies) is an absolute pleasure.
Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi
The author of The Quantum Thief crafts a confounding alt-history set in a world where access to the afterlife has made post-mortem spycraft a key espionage tool in a much-changed pre-World War II Europe. Rajaniemi blends familiar tropes in impressively weird ways, crafting a spy caper that will expand your mind even as it pummels it into submission.
Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri
In her debut novel, Tasha Suri draws on the history of India’s Mughal Empire to create a story both claustrophobically personal and as large as civilizations. It is a study in contrasts: the sweep of history resolved down into a beaten girl on her hands and knees before a despot, and dancing out her inherent power and magic in a storm built by the dreams of the gods themselves.
The Year’s Best Collections & Anthologies
The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2018, edited by John Joseph Adams and N.K. Jemisin
There are many excellent year’s best collections released every year, but this newer one, part of the vaunted, genre-spanning Best American series, is fast becoming a favorite. For the past three years, returning editor John Joseph Adams has teamed up with an established author in the genre serving as guest editor. This year, the honor falls to N.K. Jemisin, and we can’t think of a better choice to represent the best short SFF of the past year than the author who just snagged her third consecutive Best Novel Hugo award. This year’s TOC includes a host of names that will be familiar to anyone who reads short spec fic, from Tobias S. Buckell (whose “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” has been collected in nearly every year’s best anthology out there), to Charlie Jane Anders (“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award), to Peter Watts (“zeroS”), to Maria Dahvana Headley (“Black Powder”), as well as up-and-coming writers A. Merc Rustad and Micah Dean Hicks.
The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow
While the title really means this needs no introduction, it’s still worth discussing: for a decade, The Best Horror of the Year has provided a platform for the blacker side of fantastic fiction—everything from ethereal ghost stories about strange lights in the woods, to a gruesome class-based twist on The Masque of the Red Death; from the real, to the surreal, and back again. In this volume, legendary horror impresario Ellen Datlow collects the standout stories from 10 years of The Best Horror. The result is a collection that sets OG dark fiction writers alongside newer upstarts, organized in a way that seems to flow seamlessly from one horrifying scene to the next. An afterword listing notable horror novels of the past decade will further help you build out your reading list.
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin
This companion volume to 2017’s The Book of Swords is the last anthology to bear the name of revered editor Gardner Dozois (save for next year’s The Very Best of the Best, which will act as a sort of capper to his decades editing The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology series)), who passed away earlier this year (his regular co-editor, George R.R. Martin, also aided in bringing together this hefty volume). It collects 16 new stories (and a reprint of one classic Martin tale) exploring the light and dark sides of magic, and the shadows in-between. Featured authors include Elizabeth Bear, John Crowley, Tim Powers, K.J. Parker, Garth Nix, Liz Williams, Lavie Tidhar, Kate Elliott,Megan Lindholm, and more—a veritable all-star lineup of the best writers (and some of the most familiar names) in genre writing. A Gardner collection was always a sure best. How we’ll miss reading more of them.
An Agent of Utopia, by Andy Duncan
Andy Duncan is a writer’s SFF writer—his short fiction has earned him a Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and three World Fantasy Awards and won him endless praise from genre giants like Gardner Dozois, Nancy Kress, Michael Swanwick, and Jonathan Strahan. Now, Small Beer press has assembled his most noteworthy stories—along with two new tales—into a wildly varied and consistently brilliant collection drawing from tall tales and legends of old, and featuring a Utopian assassin, an aging UFO contactee, a haunted Mohawk steelworker, a yam-eating zombie, Harry Houdini, Thomas Moore, and more.
Worlds Seen in Passing, edited by Irene Gallo
Since 2008, sci-fi and fantasy fans have known Tor.com as one of the best sources for cutting-edge short fiction; publishing original stories weekly, to the tune of hundreds over the course of the decade, the site has featured acclaimed writers the likes of N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, and Jeff VanderMeer. This anthology, painstakingly edited by Tor mainstay Irene Gallo (who, as art director for Tor, commissioned illustrations for every one of them—and thus has read everything the site has ever published), collects the best of the best. It’s a startling reminder of just how good their taste is, and how influential the site has become. Stories include new classics like Hugo-winner ‛The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (since expanded into a series of novels), Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” and the time-tripping, bittersweet romantic comedy of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days.” This is unquestionably one of the year’s essential anthologies, and a must for any reader interested in exploring sci-fi and fantasy’s universes in miniature.
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The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, by Ursula K. Le Guin and Charles Vess
It’s nice to be reminded that there’s a reason to print books on paper. Weighing in at over five pounds and extending to nearly 1,000 pages, this is the definitive single-volume collection of all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, stories, and essays concerning the magical island nations of Earthsea. Working in close collaboration with the author, illustrator Charles Vess presents a slightly whimsical new vision of this fantasy realm—its people finally depicted dark skin, as in the text; his dragons, pure magic. The real treat for fans: a new short story, published in the Paris Review just months after Le Guin’s death, gives us the author’s true final words on Earthsea.
Apocalypse Nyx, by Kameron Hurley
Nyx, who readers met in Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series, is a mercenary with a serious drinking problem, which is really only a coping mechanism for her serious everything else problem. In five standalone stories, Nyx and her messed-up crew take on a series of dispiriting jobs as they fight for survival in a world dominated by enormous insects—a world composed of war-blasted wastelands, in which bug magicians plot to exploit an endless war for their own gains. Nyx investigates the death of an ex-con, pays off old debts, and manages to keep her and her team alive—barely—in the midst of a holy war on a planet where technology is all about genetically-altered bugs. In the end, bare survival may be all they’re capable of—but fans of the Bel Dame books will catch plenty of arch references to future adventures and terrible fates that haven’t been served up just yet.
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 her 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.
Tomorrow Factory, by Rich Larson
This has been a year of debuts for Larson, a short fiction wunderkind who has had more than 100 stories published in just about every major SFF market, from Asimov’s to Tor.com. His debut novel, Annex, dropped in July, and now arrives his debut collection, loaded with twenty-three stories that make a case for his reputation as one of the most promising young writers in genre today. Across straightforward short fiction, flash, and even verse, Larson explores possible futures and alternate universes, putting an inventive spin on tried-and-true tropes and exploring new ideas all his own. The stories collected here have appeared in eight different “Best of the Year” anthologies; opener “All That Robot Shit,” voted the best short story of 2016 in an Asimov’s reader poll, is a great starting point.
The People’s Republic of Everything, by Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is a publisher, editor, and celebrated raconteur of the SFF world, but he’s also a great writer—look no further than this collection of his short fiction for proof of that. This volume collects 15 stories by the man China Miéville called “the People’s Commissar of Awesome,” including an amusing Lovecraftian tale that finds old Howard P. Lovecraft brought back to life as an artificial mind and terrified at being the monster for once. There’s a story of a steampunk workers’ uprising, and one about an app that bring our worst fears about the internet to life. In others, a meme that takes on a life of its own, and a family succeeds from the U.S. and is prepared to defend its sovereignty with hand-crafted nuclear weapons. Mamatas favors stories with a sharp edge of social satire and prose as smart-assed as his latest Twitter rant. He’s one of the loudest voices in the insular genre world these days, and well worth listening to.
Robots Vs. Fairies, by Navah Wolfe and Dominic Parisian
The key to a great anthology is twofold: author selection, and theme. Wolfe and Parisian (the team behind the award-winning fairy tale anthology The Starlit Wood) nail both in this new project, gathering insanely great writers (including Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, Ken Liu, Sarah Gailey, Annalee Newitz, and Lila Bowen, to name just a few) and asking them to choose sides. The result is an essential collection of stories exploring the eternal conflict between magic and technology—specifically in the form of robots and fairies. The question of whether mechanical or magical means would triumph in a battle royale is explored at locations both intimate (a man’s home, invaded by tiny fairies) and otherwise (an amusement park where fairies struggle to carve out a safe place among the talking automatons). Themes both humorous and serious, delivered by the best in the business. Robots and fairies battle on, and the only winners are SFF readers.
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, by Vandana Singh
Reading a Vandana Singh story is a bit like finding a new window in a familiar room, opening the blinds, and being astonished at the richness and beauty of the light streaming in: often, they show us the familiar, but illuminated strangely. Singh is both a physicist and a writer, and her stories combine scientific sharpness with quiet, lyrical power. She makes constant connections between history, the present, and the future; humans and nature; space and Earth. An old woman travels back in time in search of ancient poetry. A man tries to achieve immortality. A human looks for revenge against a machine by trying to find its true name. An engineering exam that considers the classification of three new types of machine life. In every story, she brings big, fantastically speculative ideas so close, it feels as if you can reach out and touch the worlds they inhabit.
Starlings, by Jo Walton
Released last month in ebook and out today in print. Fans of Walton will rejoice at the variety on display in this collection, her first (though we’d expect nothing less from an author who seems determined to never write the same book twice). She offers up short stories, poetry, and plays that explore many of her favorite themes in new and interesting ways. From a tale that follows a gold coin as it changes hands on a space station to a story about a phone app that allows you to share in a loved one’s pain and loss, Walton’s lively imagination is the main selling point, as she deluges readers with ideas. Other standouts include a story about a biographer interviewing a simulation of a 20th century subject, three brief vignettes set at a weary inn, and, oh, the poems, which are wonderful whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the form.
What’s the best science fiction or fantasy book you read in 2018?