2017: the year that became an adjective. A year during which the only status quo became the lack of one, and the only thing stranger than the day’s trending Twitter topics was the next day’s trending Twitter topics. Wherever you come down on the merits of the past 12 months, there’s no denying the fact it’s been a very 2017 year.
Which brings us to the books below—25 titles that stood out in a particularly strong year for SFF, a year during which many of us looked to the speculative to help us grapple with the strangeness around us—or to offer us an escape from it. Taken collectively, they are: provoking, thoughtful, compelling, challenging, unique. And, most certainly, they are all so very 2017. These are the best science fiction and fantasy books of the year. [A note from the future: Once you’ve finished working through this list, check out our picks for the best books of 2018… so far and the year-end list of the best sci-fi and fantasy of 2018.]
The Power, by Naomi Alderman
In the near future, women all over the world discover they have the ability to unleash “skeins” of electricity powerful enough to hurt, injure—even kill. The world order slowly erodes under the new math of this power imbalance. Revolts begin in oppressive, male-dominated societies like Saudi Arabia, but on scales both large and intimate, society resets as new paradigms form: an abused orphan girl establishes a new religion focused on the female figures from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A woman founds a new nation and strips all men of their rights. An American woman rises through the traditional power structures of democracy, but the taste of power corrupts her. The world seems destined to spin into complete chaos, as Alderman’s arresting novel investigates what might happen if we torn down the systems that have supported the world for centuries. Read our review.
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 way 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.
The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear
In grand style, Bear begins a new epic set in her Eternal Sky universe. The Stone in the Skull introduces us to two new characters, Dead Man and the Gage, who are immediately enigmatic, yet also compelling and achingly human (doubly impressive for the Gage, a towering automaton powered by a human soul). The pair are escorting a convoy into the Lotus Kingdoms. Once a single powerful empire, the Kingdoms have shattered into many squabbling fiefdoms. The Gage and the Dead Man are secretly carrying a message from The Eyeless One, a powerful mage, to Mrithuri, who rules Sarathai-tia. Mrithuri is locked in a power struggle with her male cousins, and the words carry will cause Gage and The Dead Man to become enmeshed in the struggle as well. The first book of the Lotus Kingdoms saga has all the elements necessary to not only to match the Eternal Sky trilogy, but succeed it entirely, and reminds us that Elizabeth Bear is one of the premier fantasists of her generation. 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.
Clade, by James Bradley
The Hollywood version of climate change is sudden, dramatic, and instantly cataclysmic; Bradley’s thoughtful near-future sci-fi offers the opposite. With a time-hopping narrative focusing on a single family across years, Bradley explores a world struggling with the effects of rising temperatures that cause fierce, constant storms, battered infrastructure, and widespread extinctions. Adam is a climate scientist working on the arctic ice shelf, worried that the child his partner is pregnant with will enter a world already ruined. That child, Summer, grows up estranged from her parents as England faces collapse in the face of the relentless power of a boiling Earth. By avoiding the easy narrative, Bradley’s novel is absorbing and depressing, thoughtful and fascinating, tracing the possible paths of a future being seeded right now in the present day. Read our review.
Sea of Rust, by C. Robert Cargill
In this warped, Black Mirror reflection of Wall-E, a former caregiver robot that once served as a nurse to human beings wanders a blasted wasteland in search of spare parts. Fifteen years earlier, the last human was killed by the triumphant robot uprising. But instead of freedom, the robots were subsumed into One World Intelligences (OWIs), rival hive minds inexorably spreading across the globe, demanding subservience as they claim new territory. The caregiver robot, Brittle, is haunted by her own role in the human extermination. As a lone machine, she has no access to factory-made parts and must scavenge the “Sea of Rust” in order to survive—but her model is rare, making her parts valuable to a second caregiver robot called Mercer, whose attacks leave both robots vulnerable, locked in a tense race against time and the approach of warring OWIs. Read our review.
City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty
In 18th century Cairo, Nahri, a young Egyptian con artist, unwittingly captures the attention of a djinn warrior with her powerful supernatural healing capabilities. Swept off to the legendary City of Brass, she becomes embroiled in the complex and violent politics of its magical residents, who are edging ever-closer toward a religious war. Nahri doesn’t know who to trust, or how to navigate a world where loyalty is a magical bond and grudges are measured in millennia. There are more ideas in this thumbnail plot summary than in most complete novels, and we’re only scratching the surface of this richly textured debut. With a briskly moving plot and inventive worldbuilding that pulls from Middle Eastern traditions, it’s one of the year’s standout debuts, and should attract loyal fans among fans of both adult and YA fantasy. 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.
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.
A Plague of Giants, by Kevin Hearne
The first in a new fantasy series from Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) takes a deep dive into a complex fictional world. It’s a story told by a bard with the ability to take on the appearance of the subjects of his tale. A year ago, a volcano erupted, destroying an island inhabited by giants, who then invade the lands of Teldwen seeking refuge. A second race of towering beings, mysterious and destructive, also arrive to do their own killing and rampaging. A soldier, Tallynd, must put aside her grief at the death of her husband to fight the giants. A young boy from a family of hunters sets off on a quest of self-discovery and finds a powerful magic that might be the key to defeating the giants before they destroy everything. And a scholar (the audience for the bard’s tale) begins to suspect there’s more in the telling than the bard is letting on. 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 crewed and 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.
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The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin
The first book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Hugo-winner The Fifth Season, is an explosion of ideas, twisting plot points, and clever point-of-view puzzles. The second, The Obelisk Gate, is a masterwork of world-building, developing the history and culture of the Stillness while setting up the clash between mother and daughter that will define a new age. Neither one disappointed in the least. Which is why it’s such a delight to say that the final book, The Stone Sky, is one of the most satisfying concluding novels of the year, or any year. This is not because everything is wrapped up neatly and tidily, handing out rewards to the deserving and punishing the wicked. The Stillness is a place of hard choices, and hard choices are what we are given, in the end. This book, and this trilogy, pull off a feat that works something like magic, a trick that ends with its beginnings and begins where it ends. 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.
An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what SFF does best, extrapolating from a real-world scenario. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. Read our review.
Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence
The first novel in Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy builds a complex universe of politics, violence, and religion on a scale sure to please any fantasy fan, right from a wowzer of an opening line: “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.” Nine-year old Nona Grey is about to be executed for murder when she’s purchased by the abbess of Sweet Mercy. At the convent, Nona will be trained in the art of assassination, a regimen that often awakes the slumbering blood of the ancestors, resulting in the emergence of magical skills that enhance the young postulants’ fighting abilities. Long before her decade of training is over, however, Nona’s past, rival factions within the church, and the emperor himself will influence her fate, putting pressure on the falsely accused young girl with unpredictable results. As the power structures of the empire fray in a world slowly dying, Nona finds a darkness within herself that makes her truly dangerous. Mark Lawrence is a master of no-holds-barred fantasy, and he just may have outdone himself with this one. Read our review.
Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The island nation of Kekon relies on the magical properties of jade—and the families of Green Bone warriors able to manipulate it to gain magical fighting abilities—for protection. These warriors have safeguarded the island for centuries, but when a long period of unrest gives way to peace, the new generation forgets about tradition, and powerful families jockey for control of the country. As the family drama spills out into brutal street fighting and cunning political intrigue, a new drug emerges that allows anyone, even foreigners, to use jade. Back-room scheming erupts into full-on warfare, and a conflict that ties together complex threads of family and history will determine the fate of Kekon’s future. Magic meets The Godfather in this immensely readable epic. Read our review.
Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter
In the near future, a brilliant astrophysicist named Reginald Straifer discovers a distant star that behaves unusually. Suspecting it is either a key discovery in our understanding of the universe or an artificial, alien creation, he convinces Planet United Missions to send one of 12 light-speed convoys to investigate. Even at the speed of light, it will take hundreds of years to arrive, so the convoys are crewed by clones of Straifer, engineer Akane Nakamura, and artificial intelligence programmer Jamal Kaeden. A young and old version of each clone exists simultaneously in order to pass down experience and knowledge, but each generation of clones is also different from the previous—and overseen by the persistent AI of Convoy Seven. Soaked in the spirit of classic SF sensawunda, this ambitious debut explores the complexities of such an immense voyage, which pile up in surprising ways as the clones get further from the familiar. Read our review.
Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren
Freddy Duchamp is just trying to survive high school, as one does. This task is made more difficult by her siblings: her geeky, deaf stepbrother Roland and super smart little sister Mel. Things take a turn for the strange when new neighbors move into the house next door, and the house suddenly refuses to obey the laws of physics. Cuerva and Josiah prove to be as strange as the house they inhabit—and before she knows it, Freddy finds herself pulled along in their wake (quite literally, though to reveal exactly how would be a big spoiler). As Freddy begins to learn that Cuerva and Josiah are something much more than human, she must confront the fact that either she or one of her siblings is a major player in a conflict as old as time itself, and that one of them may have the power to tip the balance between order and chaos. With all the charm and imagination of Madeline L’Engle and Diana Wynne Jones, Maaren’s debut feels like an instant classic, perfect for precocious young readers or older ones looking for the kind of book that made them fall for sci-fi and fantasy in the first place. Read our review.
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
Newitz, the co-founder of io9, delivers seriously plausible—if chilling—future medicine in her debut, imagining a world where pharma pirates reverse-engineer drugs the way people jailbreak software today. Judith “Jack” Chen, who fancies herself a Robin Hood figure, offering affordable life-saving drugs to those who can’t afford them, hacks a far less benevolent drug called Zacuity, which supposedly makes people feel good about working long hours for their jobs—but when people start dying, she discovers the truth: Zacuity makes people addicted to work, to the point of insanity and even death. A thrilling pursuit and race against time ensues as Jack flees two determined agents—one of them an artificially intelligent robot beginning to awaken to the soul within its own programming—while trying to get the truth out into the open. In this terrifyingly plausible post-climate change future, pharma hackers—both blackhat and white—are a vital part of the healthcare system in which “better living through chemistry” is taken to terrifying extremes. Read our review.
Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng
Under the Pendulum Sun starts like many good fairy stories do: with a journey. In the mid-19th century, Catherine Helstone spends six weeks on a ship off the north English coast trying to get well and truly lost, for this is the only way to find the Faelands of Acadia. She’s trying to reach her brother Laon, a missionary for the Anglican church, who went to Acadia to replace Reverend Roche, the first missionary to the fae, who died under mysterious circumstances. Catherine is whisked off through a land of mist to the Gethsemane mission, an architectural magpie building of Norman forts and Gothic flying buttresses, which feels both large and small, looming and choking. Her brother is not in residence, so Cathy is left for weeks and months with the strange company of a changeling woman and a gnome, heretofore the only Christian convert of Laon’s ill-fated effort. How does one act as missionary in a world that twists the metaphors of the Christian parables into something unrecognizable and strange? This debut contains wonders and terrors, sweet love and brittle disgust. Catherine and her brother might be able to strike off into the darkness, to collect the souls of their mission, but they must accept the darkness in themselves before they do. Conversion goes both ways in Acadia. 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 patterns brought on by climate change, painting dim futures 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.
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.
Skullsworn, by Brian Staveley
A standalone set in the same universe as Staveley’s exceedingly rewarding Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, this is the remarkable story of a woman named Pyrre, an acolyte of Ananshael, the goddess of death. In order to rise to the rank of priestess, Pyrre must kill seven people in two weeks—including someone she loves, who loves her back. Pyrre has never experienced love in her life, and so returns home to locate an old companion in the hopes that she can find love—and complete her mission. From that irresistible setup, Staveley explores what it means to love, both in service to something greater than yourself and for its own messy possibilities, while taking us on a detailed tour through unexplored corners of his universe. Read our review.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Stephenson and Galland aren’t shy about mixing sci-fi and fantasy tropes; this story includes time travel, sorcery, advanced technology, and shadowy government divisions seeking to bring magic back to the world through the ironic use of advanced technology. At the center of it all is Melisande Stokes, a brilliant expert in ancient languages living an “agreeably uninteresting existence” before she’s recruited by the Department of Diachronic Operations (D.O.D.O.) to translate old documents and report any patterns she notices. Impossibly, the job eventually leads to her being stranded in the 19th century, and Stokes is alarmed to discover that magic worked up until the year 1851, when the industrial revolution tipped the balance and the buzzing frequencies of modern technology blocked it—something D.O.D.O. is determined to change via the liberal altering of history. 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.
12 “Alternate Universe” Picks
Putting together this list only seems to get more challenging every year, as more and more books are published, representing a wider range of ideas and ever more diverse perspectives. With that in mind, we’d like to offer the following list of 12 books that, in another year, or even on a different day in this one, could just have easily been included on the list above. Calling them runners-up doesn’t quite cut it; think of them as our alternate universe picks.
City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Because it ends the Divine Cities trilogy with style, grace, and beauty; this story of vengeance, strange miracles, and reborn gods provides a narratively dense, philosophically challenging, emotionally moving finale to one of the most striking fantasy sagas of the last five years. Read our review.
Malice of Crows, by Lila Bowen
Because with each book, we’ve only grown more invested in Rhett Walker’s journey across a weird, monster-strewn western landscape; this penultimate volume may be the most powerful yet. Read our review.
The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden
Because every once in a while, you don’t want to read a book that’s just sci-fi or fantasy, but both—and also an endearingly messy mix of touching queer romance, political thriller, pop culture satire, and blood-soaked horrorshow; apparently no one told Nicky Drayden the “right” way to write a debut novel, because hers breaks all the rules in the best way. Read our review.
Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys
Because a book that reimagines the horrors of America’s history of internment through the potent metaphor of Lovecraft’s monsters felt more timely this year than we’d like to admit. Read our review.
Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb
Because Robin Hobb brought the long, genre-redefining tale of Fitz and the Fool to an ending that felt both surprising and inevitable; if you haven’t started this journey, do so now—you’ve got nine fabulous books ahead of you.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie
Because Leckie proved she was no one-trilogy pony with a book that offered all the pleasures of Ancillary Justice—relatably flawed, human (and not) characters; convincingly alien cultures—while creating something that feels new (call it the cozy space opera). Read our review.
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
Because we didn’t think another book could break our brains like Ninefox Gambit, until we read Yoon Ha Lee’s sequel, and were reduced to gibbering fools once again, in awe of the cunning and imagination on display. Read our review.
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
Because Brandon Sanderson isn’t just writing some of the longest epic fantasy books running, he’s also writing some of the very best; in truth, the latest installment of his 10-book magnum opus would fit right in on the list above, but it doesn’t need our help to sell tens of thousands of copies. Read our review.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Because the the unjust society of the generation ship Matilda—divided by race, class, and religion—is deeply detailed, and uncomfortably close to home.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
Because Martha Wells made us fall in love with a killer cyborg who has named himself Murderbot—even if he likely only grudgingly tolerate us in return. Read our review.
Artemis, by Andy Weir
Because we didn’t think Andy Weir could possibly write a second novel that lived up to his first, but then he did—this one is just a breezy, brainy, and addictive a read as The Martian, and it’s probably going to make for another great movie. Read our review.
The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams
Because we’ve been waiting for nearly a quarter century to return to Osten Ard, and now that we’re finally back, it feels like we never left; it’s a seamless continuation of one of the foundational epics of 21st century epic fantasy. Read our review.
What’s the best book you read in 2017?