The past year in science fiction and fantasy novels has been a welcome mix of debut voices and recurring favorites. While genre fiction is often seen as a form of escape from literature (something that is understandably needed in 2019), the best stories are often devoted to real world worries and fears.
If there is an overarching theme that connects this year’s books, it is a hope that people can reshape or rebuild worlds: be it by working towards a better future, exploring distant places, or confronting oppressors and hatred , Many of the books on our year-end list envision better futures and alternative ways that could lead us there, with a speculative twist.
With that in mind, here are our favorite readings from 2019.
In a distant, tidal world called January, a young woman named Sophia is accidentally branded a dissident and banished to a city on the dark side of the planet. After the native life forms, the gelet (called crocodiles by humans), were saved, Sophia, her friend Bianca and their companions set out to change the world and humanity itself.
The latest edition of Charlie Jane Anders is a deeply compassionate and complicated read that questions the privilege, love, and meaning of being human. The breathtaking adventure reminded me more than a little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best stories.
Alternative stories are often a way of contrasting reality with what might have been. Change one thing and see how events around the world could have happened. With her debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, K. Chess goes for it. In our real world New York City, refugees from another dimension come through masses when a nuclear disaster strikes their world.
Hel is one of those refugees who follows Chess on the way to recall the lost world, starting with a copy of a popular science fiction novel from her own world, the pyronauts. If it is missing, she does a desperate search to track down the copy. Their story is a powerful, relevant story about what people will do to hold on to the worlds they have lost and how they will progress.
Ted Chiang is responsible for some of the best written science fiction works in recent years. His latest collection – the first since 2002 – combines his latest, stunning repertoire.
The nine-story collection includes “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a brilliant story about artificial intelligence and “exhalation” that deals with a scientist’s observations of the universe. The entire book is insightful, thoughtful, and one of the best that science fiction has to offer.
In her penultimate volume in the Expanse series, the heroes of James S. A. Corey are in a dark place. The Laconians – a fascist colonial world of former Martians – have taken over the solar system and human-occupied space and are keeping Captain James Holden captive. They plan to investigate some anomalies that they have observed in some remains of a long-dead alien civilization that has built up a vast ring network, and their explorations appear to trigger a catastrophic response.
As Corey completes her epic space opera, they run on all cylinders, play with epic ramifications for humanity, and show that none of their longtime characters are sure of what might come. But you’ve also put together a story that seems too relevant these days: a warning of the dangers that fascism and totalitarianism pose.
At the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, a magical high school in California, the school’s faculty discovers one of its brutals who was killed in the library. If the initial investigation fails, the headmaster hires a private investigator, Ivy Gamble. She reluctantly accepts the case (her estranged twin sister is an instructor there) and delves into a world of magical secrets and high school drama to find out who’s behind the crime.
Gailey skillfully interweaves the tightly wound mystery and family drama against the backdrop of a fascinating fantasy world. Ivy works to reconnect with her sister and discovers a devastating secret at the heart of her family’s story.
Max Gladstone is best known for his fantasy craft sequence novels, but Empress of Forever is dedicated to the space opera. In the near future, a tech billionaire named Vivian Liao is about to take over the world when she is suddenly transported from Earth to the end of the universe. She is conjured up by a future empress who wants to ensure her own power by pounding to rule out potential threats.
Gladstone’s novel is a fast-paced, gripping space opera yarn that addresses the dangers of power and use in the hands of an individual and provides a good commentary on the excesses of Silicon Valley.
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A young girl named January grew up alone on the coast of Lake Champlain in Vermont, the parish of Mr. Locke, a wealthy benefactor who hires her father to collect strange artifacts from around the world. When her father is missing and is believed to be dead, January discovers a strange book that takes her on a journey to uncover the real nature of her father’s work, and then find out that he is the key to her own mysterious story.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January quickly became one of my favorite novels ever. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking adventure by a young woman who wants to find out who she is and how she can save the world.
The latest from Kameron Hurley is a riff about military science fiction classics like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Humanity is involved in a war against Mars, and a soldier, Dietz, is caught in the middle as he joins a military force that can teleport soldiers to the battlefield in a beam of light.
When they join the fight as part of the light brigade, time begins to work differently: they get stuck and experience events that are out of order. The book is a devastating charge against the nature of warfare and corporate feudalism, and it contains a wonderful, recursive act that stuck me in my place.
Marlon James is best known for winning the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel A Short History of Seven Kills. After the publication of this book, he noticed that he wanted to draw his attention to the imagination and a long-standing complaint that he had: the genre often ignored or deleted people with color from their stories. The result was Black Leopard, Red Wolf, an epic fantasy inspired by the African diaspora.
In the book, a man named Tracker has the job of tracking down a missing boy. While on the search, he meets other strange characters and is forced to deal with his own mysterious past. In the phenomenal world, it’s a strange, complicated, and thoughtful alternative to Game of Thrones.
Supernova era by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen
Chinese author Cixin Liu is best known for his novel The Three-Body Problem, the first major science fiction novel to be translated into English. It sparked keen interest in the country’s science fiction scene (which included other Liu novels and a major film adaptation, The Wandering Earth). In its latest edition of the supernova era, the adult population of the earth is wiped out after a nearby star reaches supernova and the children of the world take their place.
Like Liu’s other novels, it’s a book about great, great ideas. He examines what the effects of such a catastrophic event could have on humanity and how people and institutions are progressing to find out how the world can be rebuilt – and that it is not only enough to survive but how a future can be built and productive.
In the distant future, Teixcalaanli Empire is striving to extend its reach to new star systems. When the ambassador of the highly independent Lsel station dies unexpectedly, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is sent to his successor to find that his death was part of a conspiracy related to the technical progress of their home.
Arkady Martine, author and historian, takes inspiration from the Byzantine Empire and uses the novel to examine how a society’s institutional memory shapes its culture and future. It is an exciting look at colonialism and what is lost when one culture submits another.
The moon is the perfect clean environment for science fiction writers as a backdrop for alternative political societies. Ian McDonald lives from such stories and ends his epic Luna trilogy with Luna: Moon Rising.
In the previous novels, Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon, McDonald examines the traps of a feudal, capitalist world in which corporate families (called dragons) rule the moon and its inhabitants as they search its surface for valuable resources. When the Mackenzie family decimates the Cortas, Lucas Corta goes underground and plans his revenge. In Moon Rising, he returns to take control of the moon, and McDonald examines what costs the entire company spent on everyone involved and what kind of future we should build when we finally colonize the moon?
In Tamsyn Muir’s mushy debut, Gideon the Ninth, her heroine grew up in the ninth house. He trained as a sword woman and tried for years to escape his dark walls. When the Emperor invites representatives from all houses to participate in a trial, Gideon is selected to accompany her by her nemesis, the ninth-house honorary daughter and the necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus.
The premise of this novel is essentially “lesbian necromancers in space” and it is a nifty mix of science fiction and horror with a lot of sarcasm, sword fighting, romance and adventure.
Time travel and alternative universes are widespread genre tropes. Countless authors are researching how travelers change or preserve the past in order to preserve the future as it is. Annalee Newitz takes a slightly different path in her latest novel, The Future of Another Timeline, telling a story about factions of time travelers who struggle to make changes and change the future for the better.
Time travel between the Paleozoic, the 1800s, 1990s, 2022s and other times is well known in Newitz’s world: historians and activists jump back and forth on time to study the past. Editing the past is not easy, but she notes that a dangerous group of travelers are working to create a timeline that fully suppresses women and their companions against their changes, a contemporary novel that is all too current in 2019 ,
Cixin Liu is perhaps the best-known science fiction writer from China, but he is far from the only one. Far from Liu’s epic science fiction stories, Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide takes a grim look at China’s near future, where impoverished workers struggle to make a living from the world’s electronic waste.
Waste Tide follows a number of people who come together on Silicon Isle: Mimi, a worker who is on her way to work; Scott Brandle, an American who is trying to arrange a contract; and Chen Kaizong, a translator who sees everyone involved in a major conspiracy to control. It is a book that reminds me a little of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with a specific commentary on class warfare and the life cycle of the devices we use.
After Rebecca Roanhorse released her first urban fantasy novel “Trail of Lightning” last year, it was given remarkable success by the science fiction community, including nominations for the prestigious Nebula and Hugo Awards. Storm of Locusts is picked up shortly after this first book and is just as good.
Roanhorse’s story takes place in Dinétah, the traditional Navajo homeland, in the near future where climate change has devastated the world and ancient gods have returned to roam the earth. Monster hunter Maggie Hoskie sets off after a friend’s disappearance and exposes a conspiracy led by a mysterious, charismatic cult leader. It’s a quick, exciting read that is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American gods and Mad Max: Fury Road.
A few years ago Adrian Tchaikovsky published his first science fiction novel, Children of Time, an epic story about how humanity shaped a distant world and how a civilization of uplifted spiders emerged that inhabited them. In this year’s independent sequel, Tchaikovsky returns to his universe with a new, uplifted species and struggles with the native life forms of a planet.
Like Children of Time, Children of Ruin covers much of the time and leaps from generation to generation, while human surveyors raise another eight-legged creature in a water world: the octopus. As Tchaikovsky leaps through time while a survey ship arrives in the system, he examines the nature of consciousness, first contact, and how humanity could eventually spread to distant stars.
When an alien spaceship arrives on Earth and settles over the Virgin Islands, its mysterious, changing residents promise to deliver immense progress and technology to humanity. The Ynaa appear to be at peace, but their mission is mysterious and any threat is answered with extreme, disproportionate violence. After a boy was brutally killed, the islands and their visitors are on their way to conflicts that could destroy everything.
Turnbull’s debut novel is a ravishing, powerful work that explores the balance of power between the Ynaa and the islanders and explores the long history of the archipelago’s invasions.
In the near future, a plague will conquer the whole world. Those affected seem to be asleep and cannot be woken up, but they also run to a mysterious goal. A woman named Shana accompanies her sister as she walks, and while others follow in her footsteps, the country is in crisis, and violent militias threaten to kill the sleepwalkers. Scientists are working on how to stop it before the country falls into anarchy.
Chuck Wendig’s most recent work has been compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, and throughout the book he examines how a country (badly) copes with a major crisis and how such disasters are only an excuse for long-standing bigotry. Hatred and racism. The book is an ambitious epic that reflects the state of the world in 2019, and it’s not a pretty sight.
In the early days of the Spanish Inquisition, a royal concubine named Fatima and a card maker named Hassan were forced to flee their lives because their home in Grenada was overtaken by the Inquisitors. You have good reason to flee. Hassan has two dangerous secrets: he is strange and can change reality with his card and add new functions to the world with a stroke of the pen.
G. Willow Wilson’s latest adventure is a gripping adventure in which the couple, with the help of mythical creatures, escape through Spain and the unknown to save themselves in the mythical homeland of the bird king. Wilson’s story is about the dangers of oppressive ideologies and the power words have to create stories and whole worlds.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Margaret Atwood’s wills
Ninth house by Leigh Bardugo
Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
Rule of Christopher Brown’s capture
The ghost of the tram car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
Myke Cole’s Deadly Light
Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed
This is how you lose the time war of Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
The dark secret of the hypnotizing girl by Theodora Goss
Rob Hart’s warehouse
Full speed from Joe Hill
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday from Saad Z. Hossain
A long time ago a brightness from Guy Gabriel Kay
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Unraveling by Karen Lord
Infinite detail by Tim Maughan
The Bayern Agenda by Dan Moren
Jade Gods and Shadows by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Atlas alone by Emma Newman
The Book of Dust: Philip Pullman’s Secret Commonwealth
Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Orange Tree Priory by Samantha Shannon
Growing things by Paul Tremblay
The Rise to the Deity of JY Yang