As six-month periods go, the first half of 2017 has certainly been, shall we say, interesting. But even as the real world works ever harder to convince us that we’re all living inside a genre novel (though what kind will depend on your particular point of view: sci-fi? Alt-history? Dystopian thriller? Grimdark fantasy?), the authors we rely on to provide us with an escape into fictional worlds continue to up their game.
These 25 novels represent the finest SFF this still young year has to offer. They’re smart, scary, uplifting, terrifying, thrilling, prescient, unforgettable. At the bookstore, at least, it’s been a very good year…so far. Here’s looking at six months’ worth of the best science fiction & fantasy books of 2017.
The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden
Arden’s debut novel is an incredible achievement, fusing Russian folklore and history into a thoroughly modern fantasy exploring themes of belief, feminism, and magic. Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna is the beautiful daughter of a 13th century Russian noble. Her father, conflicted because he blames Vasya for the death of her mother in childbirth, nonetheless seeks to protect her in the only he believes he can: by marrying her into royalty. Vasya, however, prefers to commune with the spirits of wood, home, and water that lurk in the forests on her father’s estate—spirits who have protected the land for centuries. With the arrival of a new priest and Vasya’s new mother-in-law, who both see the spirits as demons to be destroyed, the locals begin to reject the ancient beings just when the village needs them the most. It falls to Vasya to harness the power she holds within to save her family and her home. Arden’s lyrical prose serves a story that combines the beauty of nature and the power of magic into a tale that feels like a fairy tale of old—ideal for a cold winter night’s reading. Read our review.
City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Gods, geopolitics, colonialism, murder and mystery—Bennett combined all of these elements in the first two books of his excellent Divine Cities series, set in a world where gods once helped the city of Bulikov dominate The Continent and the country of Saypur, but saw the tables turned when technology-driven Saypur killed the gods and took power. The disorder of the world and the cynicism of Bennett’s characters combine alchemically to produce human-scale stories of revenge, espionage, and desperation that ground everything in a realism the fantasy setting shouldn’t support—but somehow does. In the final volume of the trilogy, Bennett tells the story of the cursed, powerful man pursuing justice for the murderers of former Prime Minister Shara Komayd—a justice whose cost might be beyond him, as it leads him into a secret war and in conflict with a young god. Read our review.
Chalk, by Paul Cornell
A man named Andrew Waggoner looks back on his experiences as a tortured 14-year old boy living in 1982, at the height of Thatcher’s England. A boy also named Waggoner, a boy with the same face and same friends, who prays every day the bullies will pass him by. They don’t always. One day they force him into the woods and do something terrible—something that kills off some part of Andrew. The Cherhill White Horse is carved out of chalk in the mountainside, and legend has it that magic stirs there—legends Andrews discovers are true. Meanwhile, his classmate Angie is discovering her own magic—a power that tells her something terrible is coming, just as Andrew gains a magical friend only he can see, and his enemies begin to suffer terrible fates. This is a book for everyone who knows that the hardest thing in life is to grow up being the wrong sort of person. Read our review.
The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard
In the companion novel to The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard returns to a Paris devastated by a war between fallen angels, as the political struggles underlying the fragile peace between the various Houses that control the city is complicated by the frailties and desires of mortals. The House of Binding Thorns returns to these characters—their heartbreaks, their desires, and their plays for power—as yet more conflict rises on the wind. This series offers a perfect concept welded to perfect worldbuilding; De Bodard has built a world that feels real, and filled it with wonder and mystery. The prose is as lush and precise as ever, and the world—filled with angels and dragons (oh, the dragons!) and a melting pot of humanity—just as darkly alluring. Perhaps, at times, the first book felt like too rich a feast, overstuffed with a grand mixture of worldbuilding, deep history, and breathtaking espionage plotting. This time around, de Bodard’s attention is firmly on the characters—finding out what they’ll do to survive another day in the dark and strange world Paris has become. Read our review.
Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow returns with a near-future story that takes a moment to ponder where our current world might be headed, as seen through the eyes of the improbably named Hubert, Etc. (so-called because his given name is 22 nouns long). In 2071 in a post-scarcity world with plenty of food, life-sustaining technology, and no reason to work. The rich have become richer, but many people around the world have chosen to become Walkaways, rejecting the comforts of society to live in the wild or in ruined cities. When technology is developed that allows for the uploading of consciousness, the question of immortality for a select few turns on the potential harm the undying might cause. Walkaway paints a picture of where our future should go, not just technologically, but also culturally, but unlike other post-cyberpunk utopias, it has clear eyes for the flaws in machines, people, and ideology. At its heart, it is a book that believes a better world really is possible if we can all work together to figure out how to make it. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to lend a hand. Read our review.
Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly
Combining Casablanca, Cabaret, and John le Carré, Donnelly’s intoxicating debut whisks us away to Amberlough, a seductive, permissive enclave in a setting not exactly unlike 1920s Europe. The city is targeted by a conservative, nationalist One-State Party, which seeks to unite all nations into an orderly empire. Cyril DePaul is a shattered intelligence agent forced reluctantly back into the field—where his spectacular failure puts him at the mercy of blackmail by the OSP. But everyone in this story is a double-agent of sorts; no one is precisely who they seem, and their complex relationships and cover stories weave together into an complex web of intrigue. As the OSP tightens its grip, every character is forced to make hard choices, even as their freedoms wither around them. It’s dark, powerful, affecting stuff. Populated by fascinating, flawed, tragic characters and atmosphere that glitters like a spotlight on sequins, it’s a book destined to be remembered—a book out of time and a book for our times. Read our review.
The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden
This dense and imaginative debut is set in 2064, in a South Africa much changed from the present. As an ancient goddess concocts a blood-drenched scheme to drum up hatred and violence and reassert her status over humanity, a new designer drug has sparked a process by which everyday people reconnect with ancient, primitive abilities hidden in their DNA, granting them superpowers. It will take a spectrum of evolving humanity and a collective of artificially intelligent, newly sentient, slightly rebellious household machines to come together to fight this new, yet ancient threat to humanity. It’s a book like no other, with a diverse cast that crosses the spectrum of genders and races, and a new idea (or four) in every chapter. Read our review.
Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
Eames slams The Wild Bunch into a fantasy universe that’s equal parts grit, broadswords, fast-paced action, and humor. In his afterword the author reveals the original concept behind his story: “What if mercenaries were the rock stars in a fantasy world?” It’s an excellent idea, as far as it goes. But narrowing your focus to that catchy copy does a disservice to the book as a whole. Kings of the Wyld is that idea, yes. But it also manages to be a comedy, an adventure tale, a consideration on growing older, and a sendup of fantasy conventions, all at the same time. It also has heart. In short: it rocks. If we could, we’d see the tour, and buy the t-shirt. Instead, we’ll have to content ourselves with waiting for the sequel, and reading it again. Read our review.
Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys
The simple brilliance of mixing the Cthulu Mythos with Cold War paranoia and the shameful legacy of internment instantly makes Emrys’ debut (spun out of a celebrated short story) crackle with unpredictable energy. Aphra and Caleb Marsh are descendants of the clan showcased H.P. Lovecraft’s classic The Shadow Over Innsmouth; they’ve have been living in a prison-like compound ever since the government rounded them up in the wake of those unexplained occurrences. The pair is approached by the FBI to assist with examining some of the artifacts from the past; the Feds fear the Russians may have discovered the secret of magically pushing their minds into the bodies of American politicians and scientists (no comment). The surprising depths the novel mines from the premise catapult it onto the list of the year’s essential books, as Emrys uses the incidents of the plot as an effective springboard for a dive into depths of meaning we’d never before considered, and that Lovecraft never explored. Read our review.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show, by Eric Scott Fischl
In the post-Civil War 19th century, a group of performers, con artists, and criminals travel as part of the Medicine Show led by disgraced surgeon Dr. Alexander Potter. They entertain, whore, and steal, but their main grift is selling Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, a patent medicine supposedly guaranteed to cure whatever ails you—in other words, snake oil. But true alchemy is involved, practiced by a desperate man who is quickly running out of time, and Sagwa Tonic sometimes affects people in unusual, horrifying ways—leading to the revenge plans of Josiah McDaniel, a drunk for whom Sagwa has been a fate worse than death. You’ll feel slightly dirty after spending time with some of these characters, but you’ll never forget them—or this gritty, down-and-dirty debut. Read our review.
Orbital Cloud, by Taiyo Fujii
Kazumi Kimura and Akari Numata, amateur web designers from Japan with unparalleled, and untapped, skill sets, as they uncover mysterious objects in low Earth orbit. The two are quickly whisked off to the United States by a Chinese spy after discovering they are being followed by North Korean operatives. The pair partners with the CIA, NORAD, and an Iranian professor of astronautical engineering in Tehran, to try and solve the who, how, and why of the objects in orbit before terrorists strike and an international catastrophe takes place. Whew. Intense, right? Fujii (Gene Mapper) pulls off this epic sci-fi international spy thriller with such smooth prowess, we couldn’t put it down. The premise sounds like it might stretch plausibility to the breaking point, but Fujii not only creates a masterful sci-fi spy adventure—he makes it believable. Read our review.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss
In a brilliant mash-up of classic horror and sci-fi tales and characters, with an added steampunk twist, Goss’s debut novel expands on an earlier short story to tell the tale of Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famed Dr. Jekyll. Impoverished, she hires detective Sherlock Holmes to track down the man who murdered her father—the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Holmes is distracted by the serial killings in Whitechapel, a parallel investigation that leads both him and Mary to other daughters of infamous men: Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappacini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. With an unwaveringly entertaining narrative voice, Goss imbues each woman with agency and personality, crafting a story in which each can pursue her own destiny as they wrestle with their singularly odd pasts and odd families. Read our review.
The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
A woman named Zan wakes up in a sick bay minus most of her memories. She is greeted by a woman named Jayd, daughter to the lord of the Katazyrna, who says they are sisters, and that Zan is the only one who can help her people. From this intriguing beginning, Hurley throws us furiously into a universe where women fight and die for and aboard living worldships, organisms populated by maintained by their solely female populations, who give birth to everything needed to keep the ships healthy: children, monsters, even fleshy mechanical parts. But the Katazyrna is a dying world, and the coveted worldship Mokshi may hold the secret that will save it. Before Zan can get her bearings, Katazyrna is ambushed, and Zan and Jayd are thrust into dangerous new roles and a fight for their lives in a landscape that’s constantly shifting underneath them—and the reader. This is space opera like you’ve never seen it—angry, feminist, ferociously inventive, and not a little frightening. Read our review.
The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel
John Kessel, a writer with an impressive raft of genre awards to his name, returns with his first novel in two decades, imagining a future in which underground city-states are scattered across the moon, each operating by various and very specific political models. The Society of Cousins is a pure matriarchy where men are free to pursue their careers but have no political voice—but it is one of many. Kessel sketches out a complicated matrix of relationships between people from several colonies, including revolutionaries seeking change and an “uplifted” canine reporter named Sirius. When the Organization of Lunar States investigates allegations of male mistreatment in the Society of Cousins, these relationships set off a chain reaction that threatens to completely destabilize Moon society. This is a book so in tune with contemporary issues, it feels prescient, tackling topics from gender politics, to the validity of social constructs, to the true price of freedom. ideas shared in prose that forces you to slow down and savor the beauty of each sentence. The first novel in 20 years from the multi-award-winning author, it is a masterclass in language and worldbuilding. Read our review.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
A locked-room mystery nestled comfortably inside a big-idea sci-fi premise, Lafferty’s latest is a interstellar page-turner, building a compelling future world of human clones and interstellar travel, and rewriting the rules of the crime novel accordingly. Societal and climate collapse drives humanity to send 2,000 cryo-frozen people to a distant, Earth-like planet on a ship crewed by six criminals who volunteer to be cloned again and again as they shepherd their precious cargo to its final destination. Every time the crew is cloned, they maintain their collective memories. When they wake up at the beginning of the novel, however, their former bodies are dead—brutally murdered in various ways; the ship is in shambles (gravity is off, the controlling artificial intelligence is offline, and they’re off-course); and their memories (and all other records) have been erased. The six have to clean up the mess—but they also have to figure out who killed them and why, and how to survive within a paranoid pressure-cooker of a ship. Lafferty steadily ramps up the tension from the jarring first pages to the nail-biting conclusion. We dare you to stop reading it. Read our review.
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
Lee’s debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, was a brilliantly off-beat, intricate space opera assembled with care by a master worldbuilder—and it has the awards cred to prove it. The sequel? Is better. The series is set in the Hexarchate, a proudly alien realm in which gravitational physics give way to manipulations of a calendar. In Lee’s conception, the laws of reality are only as static as our agreed belief in them, and it can all break down when we move away from consensus. Raven Stratagem more than lives up to the promise of its predecessor, continuing the intriguing double-sided story of Shuos Jedao, an enigmatic tactician reborn into a new body and looking to make things right once and for all. It is a challenging read, but it’s not all philosophizing and waxing poetic about the scattering of stars in the Hexarchate. There’s a ton of action, and when it hits, it hits hard—there’s literally a climactic battle in which two space fleets just throw math at each other, and it’s spectacular. Only a mad genius could pull off that maneuver in style—and that madman’s name is Yoon Ha Lee. Read our review.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire
McGuire takes a deeper look at the characters of Jack and Jill Wolcott from last year’s Nebula-winning novella Every Heart a Doorway in this prequel. The twin girls grew up opposites, Jack poised and perfect for their mother and Jill rough and ready for their father—and then they discover their parents’ love is highly conditional and little more than an act. When a mysterious portal to another world appears, they take it without a second though. There, under a blood red moon, Jill is apprenticed to a vampire and seeks immortality while Jack is apprenticed to a scientist named Dr. Bleak, who can reanimate the dead. For the first time in their lives, the choices they make matter, and the twins discover when Jill, impatient for her chance at forever, does something shocking that forces Jack to choose sides. The first book won McGuire acclaim—and a Nebula Award—and this one’s even better. Read our review.
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor
In the followup to 2015’s Binti, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Okorafor explores what happens to the young girl who defied her family’s way of life to travel to the stars…after she returns home, very much changed, to find that her most difficult journey may still be ahead of her. Though the first novella ends on a definitive note, we’re thrilled Okorafor has continued this story—and planted the seeds for a longer, more epic work. Binti’s adventures thus far blend high-concept science fiction ideas with genuine heart and humanity, but most of all, they showcase one of the richest, most compelling characters in recent sci-fi. Word is that there is at least one more story to come. We can’t wait to follow along with Binti as she takes her next steps. Read our review.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
While many “cli-fi” novels have told us of the horrors of rising sea levels and unpredictable weather patters brought on by climate change, painting dim furutes of a post-apocalyptic society, Robinson offers up an alternative future in which life (and capitalism) have continued to march on, even after the oceans have swollen to drown the coasts of every landmass in the world. Sure, lower Manhattan is submerged, but it’s still New York real estate—and those who know how to play the real estate market know there’s always money to be made in NYC. Power centers shift, economies recalibrate, and political movements may rise, but the world continues to function, and half the fun is seeing how Robinson extrapolates a believable future in which the physical world is very different, but human nature remains the same, for good and ill. Weaving together the varied stories of the residents of one partially submerged New York skyscraper—a broker, an Internet star, a building manager, a pair of homeless children, and two coders with a taste for social revolution—this near-future fable gives us much to fear about our wet future, but also reminds us that humanity is, if nothing else, good at figuring out how to survive the worst. Read our review.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi
The start of a new series from crowd-pleaser Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire explores an intriguing SFnal premise—what happens to the far-flug inhabitants of an intergalactic empire when the poorly understood interstellar phenomena that allows travel between distant planets begins to break down?—via an intriguing cast of diverse characters. Space mutinies, violent political intrigues, crisp prose, and a plot that travels faster-than-light: it’s pure, distilled Scalzi, and the only problem is, we have to wait for the sequel. Read our review.
A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab
A trilogy ender more than worth the wait, A Conjuring of Light is pure magic, and an entirely satisfying conclusion to the story of four parallel alternate Londons, each with its own relationship to magic, and Kell, the wounded, gifted magician who can step between them. Schwab handles language and storytelling the way her lethal street rat-turned-pirate protagonist Lila Bard wields a knife—with cunning and absolute precision. As a conclusion to the series, it is a singular work; as a whole, the Shades of Magic series is a turning point for epic fantasy, reinvigorating the genre with originality (it bears the influences of everything from classic fairytales, to comics, to anime) and a mastery of language. Read our review.
The Refrigerator Monologues, by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Annie Wu
Women have made tremendous strides as characters in superhero fiction in recent years, but far too often they’re still appendages: aunts, girlfriends, wives, and one-note villains who don’t serve any purpose beyond advancing the story of the male leads, often by dying (or worse). That’s the attitude Catherynne M. Valente is taking aim at in her very dark, very funny, and very angry satire of the girlfriends-in-jeopardy school of comics writing. In the appropriately named “Deadtown,” female superheroes and sidekicks live on after ignominious deaths to tell their stories during nightly gatherings at the Hell Hath Club, taking back the voices they were never given on the four-color page. It’s not that they’re given happy endings, no—but wouldn’t we all rather be the hero, albeit tragic, in our own story rather than a supporting character in someone else’s? This book is uncompromising in its (deservedly savage) critique of the ways in which female characters are written in pop culture, with parallels to some of the most iconic stories in comic history, and it holds together beyond the meta, creating a set of interconnected stories that are fun, wryly funny, and just freaking heartbreaking. Read our review.
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
Nebula Award-winner Jeff VanderMeer returns with his first new novel since he released all three books of the Southern Reach trilogy throughout 2014, and it’s another heady dose of unsettling weirdness: Rachel, a refugee from a drowned island, lives off of the bones of a ruined city of the future. On one of her scavenging trips, she encounters a giant, genetically engineered bear, a remnant of cruel experimentation by the corrupt Company—and nestled in its fur, a small, strange living lump she takes home and names “Borne.” He is a creature who will change her entire world. The author’s imagination is as wild as ever—Rachel is involved with a drug dealer named Wick, who processes creatures like Borne into living drugs users can put into their bodies to recall others’ lost memories of a pre-collapse world—and the slow-burning plot is propelled along by uneasy mysteries (what is Wick’s history with the company, and what secrets is he hiding from Rachel?). It’s another triumph from one of the weirdest authors in the genre, operating at the height of his powers. Read our review.
All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells
Veteran fantasist Wells proves her sure hand at sci-fi as she imagines a future dominated by corporations, in which the twin imperatives of bureaucratic adherence to policies and the need to award all contracts to the lowest bidder result in every planetary mission being required to be accompanied by a company-supplied SecUnit, an artificially intelligent android built from cheap parts, and as likely to malfunction as all of the other shoddy equipment the expeditions are counting on to, oh, keep them breathing. The SecUnit narrating the story has hacked its own Governor Module, attaining sentience and free will; it would despise the humans it protects if it didn’t find them so boring, but it nevertheless refers to itself as Murderbot. When its humans are attacked by something outside of the experience provided by its data banks, however, Murderbot must turn its prickly, near-omniscient mind towards not just the survival of its humans, but itself. This slim read is both surprisingly funny and packed with intriguing future worldbuilding—all the more reason to celebrate the three planned sequels that will continue Murderbot’s adventures. Read our review.
The Dragon’s Legacy, by Deborah A. Wolf
Hafsa, a dreamshifter who can kill people in their sleep, protects her young daughter Sulema from assassins sent by her father, the Dragon King—the only man capable of keeping dormant the dragon slumbering within the world. If the dragon awakes, the world cracks open like an egg. Hafsa and Sulema, who’s nearing adulthood and on the verge of becoming a fearsome warrior, find themselves the focus of conspiracies, betrayals, and magical threats as their world literally begins to break apart around them. The dragon is stirring, and what that means for the future of this complex world of interwoven tribes and nations is impossible to foresee. Wolf’s debut fantasy is remarkably assured and deeply detailed, offering a unique universe and a trope-twisting narrative that plays out in unexpected ways. Read our review.
And 10 more books we love…
The Berlin Project, by Gregory Benford
In the smartest, most science-minded alt-history you’ll read this year, a veteran SF master barely tweaks the history of World War II and tracks the massive changes that result. Read our review.
Vanguard, by Jack Campbell
Campell jumps back a generation from his Lost Fleet series to tell the story of the founding of an empire, and it’s so good, it’ll make you forget sci-fi prequels don’t exactly have the best reputation. Read our review.
The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey
This year’s answer to The Martian and Station Eleven posits that journeying to the stars will do little to change us from the people we are here on Earth. Read our review.
Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence
All the bloody mayhem you expect from Mark Lawrence, but the main character is an assassin nun. And the first line is a keeper: “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.” Read our review.
All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai
A book that lives up to its utterly brilliant premise: what if the 2016 we all lived through was a dark timeline accidentally created by a hapless traveler from a utopian alternate United States? Read our review.
The Last Good Man, by Linda Nagata
So prescient about where the business of warfare is headed, it’s barely science fiction, with a hard-as-nails middle-aged female veteran protagonist you’ll never forget. Read our review.
The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams
The triumphant return to the land of Osten Ard is everything we’ve been dreaming of for 25 years, and sure to inspire another generation of epic fantasy writers. Read our review.
What’s the best new science fiction or fantasy book you’ve read in 2017?