Best of 2018: Sci-fi/Fantasy Books

This is my genre of choice. This was the first year I purchased a supporting membership for the Hugo Awards, giving me voting privileges for this year and nominating privileges for next year, and as you will see, that’s where I found a lot of these books. It encouraged me to read books I may not have picked up otherwise, expanded my horizons within the genre, and introduced me to new authors that I’ll now enthusiastically follow. I am so excited by the variety of work that’s coming out and being celebrated within this large and varied genre and can’t wait to read more next year.

1. Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn This book is sort of urban fantasy/superhero meets Devil Wears Prada and is as much fun as that description makes it sound. There are demon cupcakes and difficult people to work with and a fantastic portrayal of the difficulties in taking full responsibility for a younger sibling but that’s not why it attached itself to my heart like it did. In my 30 years of life, I’ve never seen myself in a piece of fiction as much as I have in this book. Representation matters. Letting people see their cultures and people who look like them in fiction as the protagonist of a story is so important and something that fortunately is becoming more common for more groups of people. It’s explicitly addressed in the book as an influence for Evie and Aveda becoming who they are and something I had no idea I could have in this specific way. I am Evie. We share numerous personality traits, areas of academic interest, ethnic backgrounds, and even a favorite comfort food that she was made fun of for bringing to school which I refused to do for fear of the same result. So to read a story in which she worked to overcome her emotional repression (which I was actively doing to an unhealthy degree when reading this book) and let herself feel and own her feelings, both good and bad, was incredibly important to me and I can’t thank Sarah Kuhn enough for that gift.

2. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire My love for Seanan McGuire’s work is well-established by this point and this series is something special. I was thrilled to be back at Eleanor’s and with some of the characters I fell in love with in Every Heart a Doorway and the introduction of new characters like Cora and Rini. I love that it’s a book about loving and accepting people for who they are, even when you don’t understand their reality. It’s a book about friendship, hope, and kindness and therefore everything I needed. I spent the majority of my first read-through in near tears for reasons I still don’t fully understand, it was just one of those pieces of fiction that resonates perfectly with where you are at that particular moment in time. For a series about finding the place where you fit, this is the story that has called to me the most. Confection wouldn’t be my world but this book is a partial glimpse of what mine would look like.

3. Wayfarers Trilogy by Becky Chambers This character-focused sci-fi series is going to be one of my go-to comfort reads from now on. There isn’t a lot of plot, it’s largely exploring the universe Becky Chambers has imagined and the day-to-day lives of her characters, but there is a lot of heart. There is a gentleness that runs through the trilogy and a sense of compassion for each of these characters that make these books feel warm and cozy. The world she has created is full of different species with different appearances and social structures that often aren’t like our own but without the othering that sometimes comes into the sci-fi and fantasy genre when creating new species or races. Everyone is simply allowed to be. It’s filled with found families and the acceptance that comes with finding your people and your place in the world and that made it everything I could have wanted to read this year.  

4. Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin It’s fair to say that N. K. Jemisin is among the best fantasy writers of our generation, if not the best. While slightly more traditional fantasy than her Broken Earth trilogy, it feels anything but stale as Jemisin gives us a world of imprisoned gods and their captors. It’s a story of balance and the way forces push and pull against each other to find equilibrium. It’s a story about love and jealousy and rediscovery. It’s a look at power structures and the way they are perpetuated as well as a reminder that we need each other to survive. Each novel in the trilogy revolves around a different set of characters (though still connecting to the larger whole) to create a full picture of this universe from its creation to the present. The worldbuilding is stunning as are the characters, from the mortals to the gods and everyone in between.

5. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee There was a substantial amount of time in which I was reading this where I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the world and the war strategies used in it but I did not care at all. I may not have fully understood how or why it worked but the writing was strong enough that I was happy to accept that it did and enjoy the story it was telling about power structures, rebellion, identity. It’s about the inhumanity of war, how it reduces people to abstracts and numbers. It’s about remaking the world and taking it back from people who are trying to use it against you. Shuos Jedao is a fascinating character and his complex relationship with Kel Cheris brings the story to life amidst the numbers and games that make up this world. It may be messy and complicated but it’s real and grounding in a way it was never meant to be when they were thrown together. It’s a book that took me entirely by surprise and gave me something that felt new and fresh in a really exciting way.

6. Tensorate series by JY Yang This series of novellas is absolutely gorgeous so far. It’s all about making a stand against corrupt systems and healing and it’s full of compelling, complicated relationships. The world reminds me a little of Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra in its East Asian influences and the blending of machinery with elemental manipulation and fits nicely in the burgeoning subgenre of silkpunk but also an exciting look at gender and what it means in this world. Everyone starts their life nonbinary and when it feels right, they choose a gender (or don’t, in some cases) and develop accordingly and the smart exploration of pronouns and the importance of using the correct ones for people is so well done. Each novella centers around a different character while advancing an overall story and the writing feels so crafted around the main POV character for each story in a way that helps further develop them as characters. They’re gorgeously written books that I adored and need more people to read them and be excited by them with me.

7. Infomocracy by Malka Older As I mentioned in my nonfiction list, I love books that talk about societal systems and this book gives me all that along with a compelling fictional story. I love that the science used to give this book it’s grounding is political science and social science in general and it’s extremely well-thought out. It takes place in a world that has largely dissolved country borders in favor of micro-democracies that are able to elect their own leaders while being overseen by one supermajority government that also has constant access to Information, a real-time combination of Google, Wikipedia, and news sources, and it’s time for the third global election. There’s sabotage, Information manipulation, and the use of dogwhistles to get one’s true intent across only to those who are receptive to it and if that sounds a little too familiar for comfort, remember that this book was published in June 2016. You feel every bit of Older’s educational and professional background in international relations, sociology, and humanitarian aid in the construction of this world and it led to an incredible result.  

8. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett I really enjoyed this trilogy but the first book in particular felt tailor-made for me and my reading interests. This blend of fantasy, murder mystery, and religious conspiracy is a look at a world where the gods have been banned and removed from public knowledge. But perhaps they’re not as gone as Saypur would like to believe. Shara travels to Bulikov in the hopes of solving her former mentor’s murder and gets thrust into a more complex world than even she could imagine as a spy. Shara is a fascinating character and I love the way this book forced her to confront assumptions about the world. History wasn’t what she had been led to believe and the Continent wasn’t this desolate place that needed to be saved. It’s a critique of colonialism and the way those in power stay in power by manipulating access to accurate historical details. I love the worldbuilding and the work that went into making these cultures, that are based on but not exact replicas of our world, feel vibrant and full of history. It’s an incredibly strong start to a fantastic trilogy and you’ll want more time with these characters when you’re done.

9. The Recitation of the Holy and Harrowing Pilgrimage of Mindy and Also Mork by Seanan McGuire This InCryptid short story was originally published on Patreon and later included at the end of Tricks for Free. Like all her InCryptid short stories, it expands the world – in this case, by giving us a story that is partially narrated by one of the Aeslin mice. This shouldn’t work as well as this does. The Aeslin are a very particular kind of character that works best in small quantities because their existence is so ritualized. It would be easy to get lost in the public performance of those rituals but when the perspective is flipped and we get to see the world through their eyes, instead we get a beautiful picture of veneration and love. Mindy’s devotion to her priestesses and her gods is incredibly touching and sincere in a way that almost hurts to read. They are a species defined by their faith and that comes through in everything she does. I love the other half of the story, with Sam and Mary and the warnings about the crossroads, but Seanan’s ability to make me cry over two mice was a new high, even for her, and still leaves me in awe.

10. Space Opera by Catherynne Valente This beautifully absurd book is Eurovision meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a dash of Discworld. It is weird and funny and full of enough tangents and puns to make Sir Terry Pratchett proud. The writing is probably best described as enchanting as it is equal parts delightful and magical although I’m going to guess the writing style probably isn’t for everyone. It knows that life is both beautiful and stupid without that being a contradiction. This is a universe with an alien species who is compared in text to Clippy, where a space panda helps move you around the galaxy and the fate of your species can come down to a song. It finds the beauty in humanity and the transcendence of music. Above all, it knows that we are worthy of love, no matter how weird or messed up we appear.

Honorable Mentions: The Poppy Wars by R.F. Kuang, The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Witchmark by CL Polk, The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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