Best of 2019: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books

I love the possibility that sci-fi and fantasy offer and there’s really never been a more exciting time to love this genre. All but one of these books were published in the last two years and the wealth of talent in the genre at the moment is ridiculous. There’s truly never been a better time to fall in love with these very wide, diverse genres and dream up a better future with them. If you want stories about hope, healing, and compassion, this list is a good place to look. Those were the stories I wanted to hear most this year and these books delivered.

1. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal When a meteor strikes the Earth, causing initial problems as well as long-term climate change, the need to get to space and establish a colony becomes increasingly critical. This alternate history takes place in the 1950s and centers around Elma York, a member of the WASP program during World War II and a scientist, who dreams of becoming an astronaut. But it’s still the 1950s in America and thoughts on what’s acceptable for (certain types of) women are what we know them as. She gets to struggle with the roles she’s placed in as well as becoming aware of the advantages she had in comparison to other women at the time. We get to see her learn and grow and struggle and overcome as she reaches toward and achieves her dream. It’s a story of drive and longing and friendship that I enjoyed from start to finish. 

2. How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin I am not always a fan of short stories – it’s a format that I often struggle with, even when the work itself is good. With that said, this is an incredible collection. I didn’t love everything, as is to be expected, but the writing is undeniably strong. Most of the stories are standalones with one set in her Broken Earth universe (which I was delighted to return to) and another in her Dreamblood universe (which immediately got moved up my TBR list). Some of the highlights include “The Ones Who Stayed and Fight”, an interrogation of the concept of utopia that was no less enjoyable for the fact that I hadn’t read the Ursula LeGuin story it interacts with; “Red Dirt Witch”, which blends the Fae with the Jim Crow South and is above all about the necessity of hope; “The Trojan Girl”, a AI story about dreams helping to make us human; and “Cuisine des Mémoires”, which muses about memories and getting stuck in our past through the use of a restaurant that can recreate any dish so long as you know the place and date on which it occurred. 

4. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley I had previously read and loved Hurley’s nonfiction essay collection “The Geek Feminist Revolution” but hadn’t read any of her fiction yet and WOW was this a good way to be introduced to it. This is what I want my science fiction to be. Yes, it’s bloody and dark and the world created is both grim and all too believable, but in the end, that darkness doesn’t triumph. There is hope and people and things worth fighting to keep. The non-linear construction of the book is brilliant as Dietz jumps around time seemingly without rhyme or reason (with smart, thought out time travel!) alongside the interview snippets talking about a future event that gradually coalesce into a single narrative. It’s sharp, incisive, powerful and I need it to be nominated for awards next year. 

5. That Ain’t Witchcraft/The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire Between novellas, tie-in novels, series continuations, comics, and the release of a (currently) stand-alone novel, it was yet another incredibly prolific year for McGuire as an author and a terrific time to be a fan. Middlegame is stunningly written and probably her strongest work yet and Lundy’s story in In An Absent Dream is the closest I’ve come to feeling the pull of my own door yet but this is a list of the things that resonated most strongly with me this year and of everything McGuire wrote, it was this year’s installments of her InCryptid and October Daye series. I’m not sure anything made me cry more than the end of That Ain’t Witchcraft. I cannot think of a more fitting end to Antimony’s arc than invoking the Aeslin’s liturgy and embracing her place in the line of women from which she comes and the faith that revolves around them. She’s been separated and felt like an outsider for so long and forced to undertake this battle without them near but she’s never been alone and it’s time for her to go home now. Similarly, I couldn’t have asked for any more from The Unkindest Tide. Like That Ain’t Witchcraft, it partially closed a chapter and started a process of healing for not only the Luidaeg but also for Jazz. It is a book that centers around the power of healing and moving past pain to a place where you can look forward and create a new kind of existence, one still touched and altered by trauma but no longer defined by it. It was such a powerful message and the one I needed to read in that moment and one I think is vitally important to include in our stories that I got far too little of this year. 

5. To By Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers This is an intrinsically hopeful story about exploration and believing in something bigger. There’s a love for space and its knowledge that leaps off the page, not just from the characters but in the way Chambers writes about it. It’s a world of crowdfunded exploration because humanity as a group found potential in the stars, not to conquer or expand, but simply to learn what we can. Like she did with her Wayfarers books, Chambers is really good at writing characters to feel vivid and real. There’s an understanding and passion for both the hard science of space travel and the soft science of human psychology that blends together into something comforting and beautiful. I really love her writing style and this didn’t disappoint at all. 

6. Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett This book is chilling and easily the least hopeful book featured on this list but it’s a story that stuck with me and for that, it’s earned its place here. The best (and worst) thing about this novella is the fact that it doesn’t feel like a wholly improbable future. It’s basically what would happen if you crossed America’s current issues with guns and the Hunger Games and it’s unpleasant to read about, though it is well-written. It’s a story of entitlement and manipulation and fear all in the name of profit that never glorifies the violence but forces readers to ask how things could get to this point and how we’ve already taken steps toward it. It’s well-done in a terrifying way that I don’t recommend for everyone but I think it was worth reading. 

7. The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum If you are drawn toward the kindness and compassion at the heart of Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers Trilogy, stop what you’re doing right now and buy this book or check it out of a library. This book is gorgeously written and so gentle in its treatment of the characters. They have been through a lot and continue to go through a lot but that’s not what defines them and not what you’ll take away from this. They build a family for themselves and give each other the space to be who they are and want the best for each other. It’s about the magic and allure of space exploration but it’s more about searching and yearning and dreaming of something more. Sometimes more is found on a spaceship and sometimes it’s found in a person (or a group of people) but it’s the thing that help makes you whole and soothes those jagged edges within. It has the best found family I read all year and a main character I immediately loved and I hope it can bring someone else as much joy and peace as it brought me. 

8. The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang I love the world this quartet of novellas creates and the way Yang has given each addition its own unique feel and voice. This one was especially captivating as it’s told in the drunken ramblings and recollections of a somewhat embittered woman who loved the woman we had only previously seen as the Protector and the mother of Mokoya and Akeha (the protagonists of the co-released first and second books in this series). The writing is particularly gorgeous throughout and we get to see how exactly the Hekate came to power and what was needed to protect that power. It doesn’t recontextualize the novellas that proceed this one exactly but gives a wider picture of the world before the rebellions. It’s melancholy and alternately full of love and hate but compelling throughout and one you won’t want to put down.  

9. Ascension by Jaqueline Koyanagi This is a beautifully written story about love – love for a ship, a crew, between sisters, and romantic partners. It’s more philosophical musing than fun, fast-paced space romp, which won’t be everyone’s favorite, but the style of the prose perfectly matched its content for me. It’s lyrical and evocative and makes you feel the world you’re reading about rather than understand it intellectually. There is plot and a seemingly corrupt corporation and things that happen in this book but they’re not its core and if this list is any indication, that’s a storytelling style that I love. I don’t mind a lack of hard science and the somewhat vague but prominent spirituality that upholds the systems of the book because of the feelings it managed to invoke. Much like The Weight in Our Stars and Becky Chambers’ books, there’s a peacefulness that emanates from the writing and story and that’s what made it resonate so strongly with me. 

10. Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman I probably wouldn’t have read this book had it not been nominated for a Lodestar and I would be worse off for it. This book would have meant everything to me from a decade ago and still manages to resonate despite my different place in life. It’s all about finding yourself and learning to love the beautiful contradictions that make up a person and a life after a lifetime of hearing that there was only one very defined way to be and the person you were was inherently broken and needed to be sublimated into someone better. It’s about having the freedom to explore and choose a path that feels right and appreciating the journey even when the path is winding or loops back on itself. It’s a book of exploration and growth and healing all told in a fantasy setting with dragons and it’s absolutely beautiful.

Honorable Mentions: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn

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