Powell’s Essential List: 25 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)
Let’s be honest: reality isn’t super appealing these days. So when we started to discuss putting together a list of the best science-fiction and fantasy books of the 21st century, we really threw ourselves into that discussion. Which distant planets did we want to travel to? Which dragons did we want to battle? Which operatic space romances did we want to live vicariously through?
This is the list we compiled from those discussions, a list of books populated with mutants and robots and alien civilizations, prophets and thieves and shadows, mystics and inventors and space creatures. These are magical, larger-than-life books filled with mythology and adventure, galactic wars and history, science and philosophy, love and loss — books that aren’t afraid to explore issues of climate, race, gender identity, sexuality, and class, alongside much more intimate subjects, like heartache and hope.
Through the lens of this list, the future has as much potential to be bright as it does to be devastating.
The 21st century is still young, but there have already been so many amazing science-fiction and fantasy books published. These are the 25 we consider essential.
Sentient cacti, bird people, humanoid insects, artificial intelligence, dream-eating moths, demons, an interdimensional spider god, and a mob boss that looks like a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso paintings are just a handful of the vibrantly strange and mundanely horrific characters that populate this novel and the city of New Crobuzon, a steampunk fantasy police-state that took root in my mind from the moment I entered its borders and will stay with me forever. China Miéville is one of the leading forces in the genre of new weird fiction and this is arguably his magnum opus. The city feels so real that while reading it you may feel as if you're walking its grimy streets yourself. Just be sure you know where you're going, because all roads lead back to Perdido Street Station, and there is something hungry hiding in the rafters. – Ben T.
In 1992, Neil Gaiman moved to America. In 2001, he released American Gods. In the 10th anniversary edition, he recollects “this strange huge place where [he] now found [himself] living” and the urge not just to understand it but also to describe it. Describe it he did. I hesitate to use the term “masterwork” in book reviewing but here no lesser word applies. American Gods is masterful. Gaiman’s ability as a storyteller and myth weaver is on full display, covering everything from folklore, mythology, immigration, globalization, capitalism, and tragedy (both cosmic and personal). It’s the story of one man, of a nation, of the land, of a small icy town, promise, lies, and gods (both old and new). If you haven’t read it, I am so, so, so excited for you. – Sarah R.
Set in the then-present day of 2002, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is the work of a mind that is usually thinking ahead, but has paused to look deeply at the present. Reading it today, it’s remarkable how — although it may no longer be about the present — it remains shockingly current. Gibson foresaw — any write-up of a William Gibson novel will contain at least one sentence starting this way — that information merchants would have outsized power in the 21st century. In Pattern Recognition, a consultant (who is literally allergic to bad logos) is hired by an incredibly well-resourced ad firm to find the creator of a mysterious viral video. Although political and medical disinformation aren’t a centerpiece of this book, it’s clear reading it today that all the necessary pieces were in place and discernable two decades ago, if you knew where to look. And William Gibson has always known where to look. – Keith M.
Skaa-born teen and street thief Vin is in over her head. Posing as a noblewoman as part of a scheme to steal precious atium requires that Vin amplify her newly discovered powers of Allomancy to influence the nobility and also learn to fight assassins for her own survival. Power gained from this world’s magic, based on internally burning various paired metals, has long been used to assault and murder defenseless skaa workers; now society is ripe for a revolution. But Mistborn isn’t just a fun, fast-paced heist novel with surprising plot twists. Brandon Sanderson presents a fascinating dystopian world of ash and mistwraiths, enslavement and giftedness, with deep insight into the nature of charisma, the need for hope, and the lengths to which people will go for both revenge and freedom. – Sara F.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is a sparkling gem of a book — dialogue, plot, tone, characters — so seamlessly and artfully written that the reader can happily and completely escape into the world Lynch has created. Locke Lamora is a master thief, part of the Gentlemen Bastards, a group of con artists who enjoy relieving the wealthy citizens of Camorr from the crushing burden of their wealth. Filled with twisty plot turns and a setting reminiscent of late medieval Venice, this is well worth savoring. – MaryJo S.
The Three Body Problem is hard sci-fi — the kind of hard sci-fi that will leave you puzzling over astrophysics and researching the particulars of quantum mechanics for days — but the patient reader will be rewarded with a dazzling epic full of mystery and moral dilemma. Liu grapples with the darkness of humanity, but leaves room for hope that someday we will fling ourselves out into space, into a vast life that only visionary sci-fi authors can currently imagine. – Emily B.
The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe, who grows up in a nomadic troupe of players, the Edema Ruh, where he learns the fundamentals of magic, music, and the dramatic arts. After years as a penniless orphan in Tarbean, he eventually attends the University, where he narrowly avoids expulsion several times. Kvothe is brilliant, full of panache and daring, but certainly not exempt from suffering or heartbreak. The genius of The Name of the Wind is that the skill of the author elevates it beyond the sum of its highly entertaining parts. Long fantasy novels with magical schools are plentiful, but The Name of the Wind casts a spell that has not diminished with the passage of time. – MaryJo S.
This story hits the ground running through the dangerous winding streets of a future Bangkok, walled against the rising sea and populated with characters clawing out existence amidst food shortage and energy collapse. One of the single greatest science fiction settings I have every had the pleasure of “visiting.” Calories have become currency, crops are going extinct, and synthetic lifeforms are on the brink (or past the point) of singularity. The Windup Girl is thrilling, a little terrifying, and steps more toward reality every year. I will never stop telling people to read this book. As I’ve told everyone I’ve ever recommended this to, come find me when you get to the end of chapter 49. – Sarah R.
It’s hard to argue with the assertion that Saga is the best graphic series of the last decade — just look at the pile of awards it has amassed. The magic of this book is in the incredible alchemy that comes from the creative partnership of writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples. Together, they take an eclectic blend of sci-fi and fantasy tropes mixed with piercingly authentic emotions and then combine them with incredible design and flawless plotting. The first volume of Saga is sure to get you hooked. Lucky for you, there’s many more volumes in this sprawling epic that still has yet to reach its conclusion. – Keith M.
Before there was Murderbot, there was Breq, the AI protagonist of Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which caused a genderfuss when it was first published in 2013. Breq is non-gendered and the default pronoun for much of society in that civilization is “she,” regardless of gender. Four years later, All Systems Red, the first Murderbot novella, was published. In the space of four years, awareness of gender fluidity expanded. – MaryJo S.
I simply cannot say enough good things about Annihilation and the Area X trilogy.This is not just an amazing story; for me, it is an obsession. I loved the first book in the series, Annihilation, and anxiously awaited the follow-up books. This book is haunting in its imagery, and VanderMeer packs a lot into such a small book. I felt bonded to the anonymous Biologist in a way that I have not felt with other protagonists. Perhaps it is my own scientific background and deep love for wild nature that had me following this story as if it could be my own, but I really think it’s Vandermeer’s unique style of writing that makes this story truly special. – Angela G.
If you like a healthy dose of hope with your science fiction, there’s no better place to start than with Becky Chambers. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet gives us the gift of a found-family ragtag crew of adventurers, genuinely fascinating alien races, and super cool technology (their spaceship runs on algae!). This book, and the rest of the Wayfarers series, builds its foundation on character-driven kindness: that a better, more-hopeful universe can exist if we reach for the people closest to us and choose gentleness over bitterness again and again. Fans of Firefly and Star Trek, reach for this read next! – Anna B.
Binti runs away from her beloved desert home and family on Earth to go to the most prestigious university in the galaxy. She starts her journey as an outlier, as the first-ever Himba to be accepted. Mid-way, her ship is attacked and she witnesses a horrific massacre — and has to come up with a way to survive and broker peace between two warring groups before the ship lands. The experience colors Binti’s life, world, and sense of self in innumerable ways throughout the collected novellas. There’s so much to love about Binti, but I’m struck most by how Nnedi Okorafor maintains a clear voice for our heroine while she is changed by and changes everyone she comes across and while she works through the ongoing trauma of the ship massacre and discovers secrets about her home and family. An unforgettable coming-of-age story, a realistic and fantastical look at intergalactic space treaties, and a bombastic slice of life that may make you regret letting your mathematical education lapse. It’s perfect. – Michelle C.
Neal Stephenson’s books seem to either have devoted fans or vocal detractors, and Seveneves is perhaps the most polarizing book I’ve ever read! I have always enjoyed books that break the conventions of storytelling, and while I was initially shocked at where Stephenson takes Seveneves two-thirds of the way through the novel, I quickly found myself happily along for the ride. Seveneves explores what humanity will do when the moon inexplicably breaks apart, eventually hurtling life on earth towards a global extinction event. The goal is to convert the ISS into an Ark and create a new beginning for the human race. Seveneves embraces Stephenson’s signature deep dives into a lot of (very cool) science. But it is also an epic nail-biter of a tale with great characters that you will root for with every fiber of your being. – Lesley A.
The Fifth Season brings about devastation, volcanos erupting, the ground beneath your feet falling apart — communities don’t survive it; it’s a complete reset of the world they know. We follow the perspectives of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun — three women coming to terms with their connection to the Earth, their control of the plates, and how to best manipulate this energy for the protection of civilization and their own safety. Jemisin flawlessly executes this multiple perspective narrative in a richly imagined and immersive dystopian setting. The magic system is also well developed and wonderfully scientific and offers something new and refreshing to the genre. This is a story that will draw you in immediately from the sheer depth and richness of the world. Featuring an amazing, diverse cast of fully realized characters and intricate plot lines that beautifully interweave with each other, this thorough and expansive story is a perfect blend of high fantasy and dystopian speculative science fiction. Complex, imaginative, and absolutely brilliant. – Tawney E.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik is one of those stories that you feel has somehow always existed. I mean that as a highest compliment. It captures the essence of a classic fairy-tale: what is really in that tower? and just how dangerous are those woods exactly? Novik has proven time and time again that she’s a fantasy collection must-have with napoleonic dragons, magic schools, fable, and more. Still, Uprooted is where I always send people first. Its magic system is unique and wonderful, the romance steamy and believable, the friendship powerful, the world dark and dangerous but still beautiful. I’m going to go read it again. – Sarah R.
Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky is a carefully crafted story with a clear narrative and a robust set of themes and metanarratives running parallel to it, just below the surface. The novel follows Patricia, a young girl who learns that she will become a powerful witch, and Laurence, a boy with an incredible aptitude for technology. Neither child is popular at school or well-supported by their parents. They find each other and form a fast friendship, until they learn that they are prophesied to become bitter enemies and avatars of incompatible worldviews. If Patricia and Laurence sound like familiar types to readers of sci-fi and fantasy, they should! But as Anders is playing with tropes, she’s also interrogating what it means to become an adult and when and how we should put away childish things. – Keith M.
With a title like Murderbot Diaries, you might expect Martha Wells’s award-winning series to be about a ruthless killing machine. What you get instead is a moody, slightly sarcastic security unit who just wants to be left alone to watch all the entertainment feeds it’s downloaded. But as weird things start to glitch, Murderbot’s newest mission of keeping a scientific team from getting themselves killed while on planet might just teach it a few things about human interactions and even lead to the development of some gooey “emotions” (whatever those are). This is the first in the series and it is highly addictive — nine out of ten people will suffer major withdrawals while waiting on more to be released. Murderbot has quickly become one of my go-to comfort reads. #Murderbot4ever – Mecca A.
Vasya is the heroine of my 13-year-old (and, let's face it, 31-year-old) inner horse-girl-talking-to-magical-creatures dreams. In this first installment of the Winternight Trilogy, Vasya grows from an untamed girl to a fiercely independent free-spirit, who embraces the traditions passed down through the women in her family. When her classically evil step-mother appears, she brings with her new beliefs that threaten to wipe out the old ways and free an ancient evil. Set in a snowy and magical forest landscape in 14th century Russia, you'll want to settle in with a hot cup of tea for this cozy read, even in the summer months. – Corinna K.
When I first read On a Sunbeam, a graphic novel about a girl who travels across the universe to find lost love and a space crew that restores crumbling, alien architecture, it was with that wide-eyed, hungry wonder you always chase as a reader. It’s an expansive, beautiful book, with carefully rendered characters that are as intricate and lovely as Tillie Walden’s illustrations of distant planets and cathedral-like ruins. On a Sunbeam contains so much: it’s a queer coming-of-age story, a story about salvaging (love, relationships, former civilizations), a love letter to found family, a romance, a space opera, and... the list could go on. This book is lush and generous and big and gracious. I am so grateful to Walden for bringing it into the world. – Kelsey F.
This National Book Award finalist starts with a failure — Tracker, a man with an uncommonly good nose, is telling the story of how he ended up in this jail cell, about the boy he was meant to find, about how he came to have the eye of a wolf. Black Leopard, Red Wolf unspools in spirals, and we learn more about how he came to this quest (and the ragtag rogue’s gallery that he uneasily agreed to work with), when he first met the leopard who can turn into a man, what monsters he has known and slain. Marlon James has created a fantasy epic for the ages, a twisting, betrayal-studded, magic-imbued adventure that mesmerizes even when the violence on the page gets especially gruesome. I would not pick this up if you’re looking for a light book; I insist you read it if you're looking for an unforgettable tale that will rearrange your thoughts and blow your hair back. – Michelle C.
For over 30 years, Seattleite Ted Chiang has slowly and steadily been writing emotionally intelligent, speculative short stories. He’s not a quick writer, or a prolific one. He’s published just 18 stories in that time. But what incredible stories they are. (Sci-Fi award committees agree: Chiang’s won four Hugos and four Nebulas.) Exhalation is Chiang’s second collection, and though it was only published a few years ago, these nine stories have become classics of the genre, exploring the complicated relationships between humans and machines, determinism and free will. I can’t wait to read what he writes next, though I will try to be patient. – Adam P.
In this quasi-medieval world, East and West are at odds — the East reveres their water dragons and their dragon riders, while the West hates all dragons after one of the wretched, fire-breathing ones nearly destroyed the world. There’s a large cast of endearing characters, but the hearts of the story are Ead, lady-in-waiting to the queen, and Tané, dragon-rider in training, both harboring dangerous secrets. The Priory of the Orange Tree harkens back to the best of classic fantasy. It’s both epic in scale and scope — spanning decades and continents — yet still manages to remain intimate. While long, the pacing doesn’t lag, with big doses of adventure and unapologetically queer romances. – Carly J.
This slim volume is the introduction to Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle, and an entryway to a lush and complicated world. The series follows Chih, a travelling cleric who records histories from the people they talk to on their journeys. Lore is delivered in bits and pieces — each snippet of a story is a rich delicacy, leaving the reader with just the right amount of knowledge and mystery. The Empress of Salt and Fortune, in particular, packs an emotional punch with its story of political intrigue, love, loss, and revenge. By playing with myth, oral tradition, and the slippery nature of history, Vo crafts a wistful atmosphere. The result is a kind of gentle and nostalgic magic for the reader to sink into, as if into a delightful dream. – Marley S.
A Master of Djinn returns us back to P. Djèlí Clark’s alt-Cairo historical steampunk universe that he first introduced us to in The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and A Dead Djinn in Cairo. Dapper-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi — along with her quasi-girlfriend — are joined this time with both new and old colleagues from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. It’s another case full of murders and magical mischief, mysterious Djinn, fallen angels, and maybe a few old Egyptian Gods. I had so much fun immersing myself in this world and hope there will be more to come.– Mecca A.
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