Though we’re only halfway through the year, it’s been packed with excellent science fiction and fantasy books. Many of our favorites once again blur the line between sci-fi and fantasy — but this year was a particular standout for books blurring the line between SFF and other genres, from historical fiction Westerns to fable retellings to intergenerational sagas in translation.
Though we seem to have crested the wave of pandemic novels, that sense of dread and discoloration has lingered, written into novels of new forms. There’s a preponderance of post-post apocalyptic science fiction unpacking lofty ideas like sentience and humanity, often set on different planets or among the stars. It has also been a standout year, so far, for supernatural horrors and thrillers.
So jump in and take your pick. Whichever direction you head in, it will be sure to grip you — and make you think. We’ll keep this updated throughout the year, in reverse chronological order, so the newest releases will always be listed first.
Lords of Uncreation (The Final Architecture #3) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Reading the Final Architecture series, I had to accept long ago that I would never fully grasp the nuances of some of its central concepts, even if I understood them on an instinctual level.
This acceptance set me up well for Lords of Uncreation, which revolves around concepts that even the characters find impossible to understand, and whose minds may literally break if they try to. Like looking directly into the sun, confronting the blurred space between the real and unreal (as well as the eldritch terrors that lurk within) poses a grave threat to those doing so head-on – at least to anyone other than weary intermediary Idris Tellemier, whose risk is merely reduced rather than eliminated. But the characters Adrian Tchaikovsky has populated this world with are so grounded, so emotionally rich, and so vibrant that the details of the brain-bending threats lurking within unspace become secondary to their impact on the lives of and relationships between the Vulture God’s crew.
This is not to say that Tchaikovsky does not deliver an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the mysteries of unspace (he does!). But what I’ll remember most is how he crafted the perfect emotional resolution to this intellectually intricate tale that left me in tears and has stayed with me since. —Sadie Gennis
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin
Proctor Bennett is a ferryman, whose duty is to guide unhappy citizens from the utopian Propersa to the Nursery, where they retire their old selves before returning in younger bodies with no memories of their former lives. But when Proctor is assigned to retire his own father, the troubling encounter sends him careening off the path of conformity. He begins questioning prescribed truths and confronting the darker side of Prospera, which runs off the work of a disenfranchised support staff whose discontent is building towards a revolution that pulls Proctor into its orbit.
Though this premise may feel familiar, The Ferryman is anything but. This tightly-wound, atmospheric thriller weaves together layers of knotted mystery with Proctor’s haunting POV as he grapples with his relationship to grief, happiness, family, and identity. It’s a sharply complex mystery with a cinematic quality to it. Throughout reading, I couldn’t help but fan-cast who would star in a Christopher Nolan adaptation of it. But even if you aren’t an Inception fan, it’ll be easy to become immersed in The Ferryman’s distinct dystopian world. —SG
Chlorine by Jade Song
I think I have been waiting my whole life for this book — for someone to write adolescence like the body horror it is, with all of the cultural specificity of being a Chinese American girl, simply bursting at the seams with sapphic longing. Chlorine stars Ren Yu, a swimmer who believes that she is a mermaid. But she is tethered to land by her human ambition: By the parents who constantly push her to achieve, and by a swim coach who pays inappropriate attention to her — pushing her to swim faster times, while also making her feel uncomfortable in her skin.
Ren’s steadfast belief in being a mermaid feels both like a flight of fancy, and increasingly like a means of dissociating from the horrors of everyday life. Being a young girl is hard enough without having to contend with the high expectations of parents, the predation of adult men, and the casual racism of peers. Jade Song’s writing is gruesomely lyrical, contrasting the sublime with the deeply disturbing. There were several points where this book almost made me throw up, and I mean that as a high compliment. —Nicole Clark
Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Adelaide Henry is traveling to Montana, where she plans on making a new life as a homesteader — leaving the flames of her California home, and the bodies of her parents, behind. But she has a heavy weight to carry. She lugs an enormous steam trunk wherever she goes; whenever the trunk opens, people around her die. In 1915, Montana is in the middle of a homestead boom, and though Adelaide aims to make a new start, not everyone is welcoming to a Black woman traveling alone.
Victor LaValle mixes horror and fantasy in this expertly paced tale. It’s satisfyingly bloody, while making incisive commentary on the price of being an outsider. The Western genre has long fixated on the white imagination, perhaps occasionally making space for the early struggle of the suffragettes. But LaValle’s vision of history emphasizes just how powerful white women are in upholding the interests of their white husbands, and how far these women will go to protect the societal structures that put them in proximity to power. Lone Women also examines how shame, and the family unit, ultimately uphold these unspoken rules — ostracizing those who might otherwise find community support.
This book was so good that I am now reading my way through every interview LaValle has given on the Lone Women press circuit, too, and then reading every book he references. What a gift! —NC
Nathan Ballingrud’s debut novel was added to my TBR pile after seeing it marketed as a blend of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Charles Portis’ True Grit. I’m always dubious about marketing comparisons, but was thrilled when The Strange delivered on this high promise.
In an alternate history where humanity colonized Mars in the early 1900s, the red planet has lost all communication with Earth, leaving the fate of 14-year-old Annabelle Crisp’s mother unknown. When a thief steals Annabelle’s sole voice recording of her mom, she and her beloved Kitchen Engine, Watson, set off into the desert to retrieve what’s hers and see justice served. The longer Annabelle’s adventure goes on, the more she loses perspective and drifts away from righteousness in dogged pursuit of her own selfish desires. Struggling to comprehend that the world can’t be divided into binaries like right or wrong and black or white, Annabelle converts her fear into anger, lashing out and harming those around her, including those providing aid.
Annabelle can be vengeful and cruel, and though I often disagreed with her choices, Ballingrud makes it impossible not to understand and empathize with her. Annabelle Crisp isn’t a hero and she isn’t a villain, but she is an outstanding protagonist in a wonderfully original sci-fi tale. —SG
The Lies of the Ajungo (The Forever Desert #1) by Moses Ose Utomi
In his debut novella, Moses Ose Utomi wields his precise prose to tell a dark, visceral fable about a young boy from the City of Lies, a metropolis reliant on the brutal Ajungo Empire for their supply of water. But the cost of this trade is high: At 13, every child of the City of Lies has their tongue cut out and sent to the Ajungo.
Even with this gruesome tithe, the Ajungo send barely enough water for the population to survive, and far from what they’d need to do so comfortably, let alone thrive. Shortly before his thirteenth birthday, the brave Tutu sets out on a dangerous journey to save his mother and the city by finding their own water supply. As Tutu explores the outside world for the first time, his perception of truth and history is challenged, and he comes to understand how the decisions and deceptions of those in power rewrite the past and shape the future to uphold those with privilege and foster compliance in those who don’t. —SG
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez
This literary tome defies categorization, so I’ll paint a scene instead: A father (Juan) whisks his son (Gaspar) away on a trip. Juan is mercurial; at turns terrifying and violent, at turns bewilderingly tender, nearly infinite in love. But he is a closed book. And if you think you’ve seen his hands elongate, spindly fingers yielding to piercing claws — well no, you didn’t.
Slow, dreadful, and razor-sharp, Our Share of Night charts a family’s desperate attempt at escaping the clutches of a death cult in Argentina. Its members seek the secrets of immortality, and many are willing to pay any price to obtain it. Set in 1981, the novel’s supernatural terrors intertwine with those of the Dirty War, the authoritarian violence offering cover for the cult to operate uninhibited.
I will read anything Mariana Enríquez writes next, it’s an absolute joy to experience her work. —NC
The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
The Terraformers concerns itself with one question: As a species evolves, what behaviors stick around? Set more than 50,000 years in the future (yes, you read that number right), The Terraformers details the process of terraforming and developing a privatized planet into a tourism joint for the super rich. Technology has advanced in barely fathomable ways, allowing, for instance, the extension of human-level intelligence to animals and robots. But some aspects of society might seem familiar: Real estate developers who jack up rent with no warning? Local governments that abhor public transit? That every video call still has one person who can’t get the camera to work?
Equal parts prescient and absurd, The Terraformers splits its story over three novellas, each 700 years apart. One of those stars a sentient train who teams up with an investigative journalist ... who also happens to be a cat ... who’s also trying to prove this ostensibly privatized planet is in fact public land. Written by a leading science journalist of our era (author Annalee Newitz is the founder of io9 and has written for basically every major science publication under our sun), The Terraformers is unexpectedly one of the most accurate representations of the journalistic process I’ve ever read. And it all culminates in an undeniable stance: That capitalistic power must still be held in check by the truth. Even 50,000 years in the future, a free press is among society’s most essential facets. The more things change... —Ari Notis
Children of Memory (Children of Time #3) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s highly anticipated third book in the Children of Time trilogy once again delves into some of science fiction’s headiest topics. There are parallels to earlier installments — Tchaikovsky once again uses another hyper-intelligent animal species to examine the idea of what being “alive” really means. But he also takes readers somewhere completely and utterly new, outside the scope of the previous titles, and incredibly difficult to describe without spoiling the premise entirely.
All I can say is hold on for the ride. This is an author who dives head first into Asimov-esque ideas, and who is willing to take the plot in fanciful directions. I still can’t believe that I have recommended a book about sentient spider colonies to so many friends, but here we are. This finale is worth your time. —NC