These are fantasy or science fiction novels that I read over and over again. Some are relatively new and some have been around for years. They have a few characteristics in common: They transcend the tropes of science fiction or fantasy; they are imaginatively plotted, beautifully written, and filled with vivid and memorable characters; and they are (mostly) by women authors, with woman protagonists.
1. The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (Tor, 1998)
Gloss is an amazing stylist. In this novel, she presents a thoroughly realized and believable culture at three different stages. The prologue is one character’s meditation on the ecologically devastated planet she is abandoning just before she leaves to board the spaceship, never to return. The body of the novel tells the story, through four points of view, of the crisis that challenges the culture when, after 175 years of space travel, they arrive at a possible destination. The epilogue is a character’s meditation about a difficult day, several generations later. The vast scope of this book is balanced by its close attention to the everyday experiences of its very ordinary characters. Another excellent book by Molly Gloss (a historically grounded page-turner that doesn’t seem like science fiction at all): Wild Life (Mariner Books, 2001).
2. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam, 2004)
Karen Joy Fowler edits collections and writes short stories as well as novels. As far as I know, this is the only book she has written that can be classified as science fiction, although, like Gloss’s Wild Life, it could also be classed as historical, with a science fiction component so subtle you could miss it entirely. I loved this book from the beginning because it is profoundly funny, sometimes because of the ridiculous (but believable) things people do, sometimes in the peculiar characters that people it, and especially in the way that all the characters choose to understand the mysterious woman, Sarah Canary, in whatever manner best suits their needs. Most of Fowler’s fiction is realistic, also beautiful and hilarious. I highly recommend her short stories, which are collected in Black Glass and What I Didn’t See.
3. Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor, 2011)
Typically, fantasy stories end when the evil witch is overcome, but this is a story about the aftermath. Set in Wales and England in the 1970s, it follows 15-year-old Mori during the year or so after a magical battle in which she and her identical twin vanquished the evil witch (their mother) but her twin was killed and Mori was crippled. For Mori, the real world is populated by fairies, which are wild and strange and not particularly good friends to her. As she figures out how to live under the care of a father she never knew (and his really weird sisters), and struggles to get settled into an English boarding school, which is every bit as alien an environment as the space ship in Dazzle of Day, she longs for a group to belong with, and discovers that her mother isn’t done yet, and her beloved sister isn’t totally gone. It’s a riveting and haunting story, a book for book lovers, about book lovers. Jo Walton has written and continues to write a lot of books, and I am happy to read them. This one is extraordinary.
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2006)
I had never read anything by McCarthy, and I stumbled across this book because I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction…don’t ask me why. I didn’t even realize that this book—by an author who has not written any other science fiction—was a bestseller, won the Pulitzer, and was made into a movie. This is a gritty and grim story of a father and his young son, engaged in a desperate day-to-day struggle for survival. In the physical and spiritual darkness of their world, as human civilization gradually grinds to a halt, the father’s heroic love for his son is blindingly bright and completely compelling.
5. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
Delia Sherman is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, and all of them are sensational for their historicism, sensitivity, and style. In The Freedom Maze, set in 1960 Louisiana, young Sophie is transported into 1860, is mistaken for a slave, and must survive and help her fellow slaves survive on a southern plantation. Sherman grapples with some difficult racial issues, but what matters most in this beautiful book is the strength of the characters. This is a powerful coming of age story, one that transports its readers into two eras, each of them alien and grim, but also shot through with beauty. I admire everything Sherman has written, such as The Porcelain Dove, a masterpiece of historical/fantasy. Her more recent books (such as The Evil Wizard Smallbone) are primarily YA, but her intelligence, wit, and style are always appealing to and appreciated by adults. She writes with great sympathy about the very human experience of young people who are making their way through fantastical places—many of them in or near New York City.
6. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
In Un Lun Dun, China Mieville’s amazing inventiveness and love for the grotesque are displayed in a fast-moving narrative that turns the traditional quest story on its ear. Deeba is not supposed to be the hero of this story—she’s supposed to be the sidekick—but she ends up on a journey to save the City of London that is reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Wizard of Oz. In the city below London, almost anything (including an empty milk carton) can be alive and have a personality, and the most unlikely things are dangerous—giraffes and broken umbrellas, to give two examples. I really like some of Mieville’s other books, such as Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, but this is by far my favorite.
7. The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary R. Kirstein
Kirstein is continuing to write this series, which currently consists of four books, but each book has its own discrete plot while also being connected to the whole. Rowan, the central character of the series, comes upon some mysterious jewels, and her effort to figure out what they are launches her on a journey to understand her world. Kirstein tells an engaging and exciting tale about how people know things, and about what happens when the accepted explanation of reality seems to be in conflict with the facts. She simultaneously uses her reader’s expectations of fantasy vs. science fiction to demonstrate the ways that shifting expectations change how we understand the story. Rowan’s journey of discovery through her landscape–sometimes familiar to us and sometimes alien—is recounted in The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, The Lost Steersman, and The Language of Power. Kirstein is a careful and vivid storyteller, and her short fiction also is worth seeking out.
8. The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
I find this book gripping and mind-bending, a completely different kind of science fiction that, despite being set on this planet in the near future, is sometimes overwhelming in its alienness. Part of that strangeness comes from the vivid first-person narratives that reveal some very strange internal landscapes. The novel’s two story-lines both are travelogues; one of a young woman who is walking across the ocean, and one of a young girl who on an arduous land journey by truck, and both of them are unreliable narrators. This book is a book that must be dug into, but it’s worth it. This is Byrne’s first novel, and it won the Tiptree award. She also writes plays, short fiction, and essays.
9. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
I have a complaint: Kushner doesn’t publish enough books. Her first book, Swordspoint, is still my favorite, but I love her stylish writing and eccentric characters, and in the subsequent books, the Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings (with Delia Sherman), she portrays the world of Riverside with fondness and clarity. She also wrote a marvelous retelling of the Thomas the Rhymer ballad, and numerous short stories. All this, plus she is a delightful and engaging human being who belongs on a stage…and perhaps that’s why she doesn’t publish more.
10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
In American Gods, Gaiman mines numerous mythological traditions to populate the commonplace landscape of middle America with supernatural beings—gods—who, being degraded from their original forms, are forced to make a living in various peculiar ways. (I particularly like the cluster of gods who work as surprisingly endearing undertakers.) Shadow, recently released from prison, finds himself working for one of these gods, Mr. Wednesday, which lands him in the middle of a brewing supernatural battle. Gaiman’s prose is powerful and his creativity animates and reinvigorates the legends with great conviction. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is another of my favorites by this successful author.
11. Black Wine by Candas Dorsey
Black Wine is one of the most beautifully-written books I have ever read, the much-deserved recipient of multiple awards, including the Tiptree. Dorsey tells a complex, interwoven tale of five generations of women who discover each other and themselves in experiences lovely and awful, and their lives enlighten each other in ways you never expect. This book is difficult to categorize: its realistic narrative is set in a vividly realized imagined world that’s free of both science fiction and fantasy tropes. Candas also has another novel, A Paradigm of Earth, and she is an acclaimed poet, essayist, and short-story writer.
12. Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie
The three books of this trilogy are titled Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. This science fiction trilogy is like nothing you have ever read before: a story of power and cultural usurpation, but also of profound humanity. Its point of view character is uniquely devised and realized, and the narrative succeeds as few have done in presenting a genuinely gender-blind tale. Not only do we never know the sex of the narrator; we never know the sex of any but a few characters (and even that is uncertain). Leckie ingeniously solved the language problem by using the feminine gender for all characters, and by having the point of view character acknowledge her own inability to distinguish the sexes. But never mind this marvelous solution; the narrative itself seems genderless as well, presenting a space opera that should be classic masculine science fiction, except that the artificial intelligences whose story this is, and whose characters are so fully realized, are distinctively feminine in their concern for people and the quality of human life. This wonderful series is utterly unique, and if you haven’t read these books, prepare to be delighted.