Last month, we published the Powell's Essential List: 25 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far). It's a list we're proud of. We spent so much time debating which titles to include, going back and forth, weighing our options, and we truly think the list we ended up with is great. We know we're biased, but we rate this list five stars.
(Oh, you haven't had a chance to look it over? Go do that! Now! Then come back here.)
The thing with this Essential List, though, was just how many good titles there are. Inevitably, we had to leave some titles off that we really wanted to include!
We started by asking everyone at Powell's to nominate their favorite science fiction and fantasy books, but when the results came back, we realized we were in a pickle. So many titles had to be included if we were looking at the best of these books from all time. We also noted that many booksellers' choices were 21st century titles (in fact, some of our colleagues were also born in this century), so we decided to limit the list to books published after 1999, which helped shorten the list, even if it meant excluding some of our forever favorites. We had some other limitations: the book couldn't have been featured on one of our previous essential lists (previously known as the “Read Before You Die” lists). Again, that helped us winnow the list down.
But there were so many that it felt gutting not to include, thus: this list. The Honorable Mentions. Books that didn't make the cut for the Essential List, but still made the cut for our list. Books published before the 21st century that haunted us, asking “Why was I left out??" Books from the last 22 years, that begged to know why we snubbed them. All sorts of books that have avid fans, that keep us up asking, "Why did you do that to me??”
There are, of course, still so many titles we couldn't mention! (And the arguments continue with which Terry Pratchett title deserves the slot, or whether any list can be complete without Bradbury, or "and another thing!" bookseller arguments for Dealing with Dragons.) Tell us the titles we missed, that you consider essential. Our TBR piles are listening.
In her short 53 years, Mary Shelley wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, biographies, and travel books, but it's not surprising that she is best known for her novel Frankenstein. It's hard to separate the idea of Frankenstein's monster from the popular icon he's become, but everyone should read the original novel. Shelley's Gothic masterpiece, first published when she was only 20 years old, is far richer than the legacy it brought to life, a work of elegance and depth, more tragedy than monster story, exploring the dangers of hubris, the nature of so-called evil, the sorrows that lead us to our crimes, and the possibility that rejection and remorse are far greater horrors than any monster. — Gigi L.
Frankenstein was featured on our 25 Women to Read Before You Die list.
Foundation is an oldie but goodie in the sci-fi world in my opinion. My brother offhandedly recommended it to me, and it has easily become a favorite. Asimov's writing style flows in a way that is complex but also digestible, and the dialogue is the most unique I've experienced. I'm usually not much for space politics, but this story is amazing, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has liked Le Guin or Douglas Adams. — Rin S.
When this title was brought up in one of the original meetings (before we narrowed the list down to the 21st century), the question came up: “well, how broadly are we defining science fiction and fantasy, then?” Which was a super valid question! And considering how short the list had to be, we shelved this option, but I had to pull it back out for the Honorable Mention list because it’s truly one of my all-time favorites. Borges explores — surpasses! — the limits of fiction and storytelling. It’s a true riot of imagination, filled with labyrinths and abysses, libraries and mirrors and dreams, philosophy and fantasy. I love basking in Borges’s brain. — Kelsey F.
I was in fifth grade when I read The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I couldn't believe it: here I was, 10 years old, and I'd already done it! I'd already found the best book. I've read and enjoyed a lot of great books in the two decades since but 10-year-old Sarah was right. The Lord of the Rings is still the best. — Sarah R.
Extra credit content:
Check out W. H. Auden's 1954 New York Times review for The Fellowship of the Ring.
Dune is a giant space opera, with heaps of political intrigue, deeply interesting worldbuilding, and some of the most iconic (and famously difficult to film) scenes. I stand by everything I said when I included it in books that got us through 2021. Dune pulls off a neat magic trick: it's a fun book to read, whether your sense of fun is giant scary sand worms or the complex political maneuvering of war in space (and shifting sense of who's an invader and who's being invaded). — Michelle C.
Ursula K. Le Guin is our own personal legend, a local legend, an incredible talent. She’s already been included on two of our Essential Lists: the original 25 books you should read before you die as well as the PNW edition. So even before we decided to limit the list to the 21st century, it was going to be difficult to find a Le Guin title to include. Honestly, limiting the list to the 21st century may have just been our slick way of getting out of this particular pickle.
That said, we do have some great Le Guin extra credit content:
An interview bookseller MaryJo did with Le Guin in 2017.
Author Vandana Singh wrote about climate change, science fiction, and the future, through the lens of a Le Guin story.
We highly recommend watching our event that served as a tribute to Le Guin: Susan DeFreitas presents Dispatches From Anarres with David D. Levine, Leni Zumas & Curtis C. Chen.
In Junior High, I went through an extended Larry Niven phase, and this book is the reason why. Ringworld is probably his most influential book. It's a great example of a wacky concept extrapolated from astrophysics, made “real” with an interesting cast of characters with deep backstories (the book is part of Niven's Known Space continuity, which is a truly sprawling universe). This is a book that spins a lot of ideas in its orbit, asking questions about what drives individuals, sustains societies, and holds the forces of entropy at bay. — Keith M.
I love an ambitious book, one that pushes the limits of my understanding, and helps me become a better reader, and even a better person. Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, first published in 1975, addresses serious issues like gender, race, sexuality, and class, and merges a high modernist style with a sci-fi sensibility. I'll never finish reading Dhalgren, and I hope it's never finished with me. — Adam P.
Intelligent, philosophical, witty, charming, and laugh-out-loud funny. Douglas Adams's conversational style of writing makes this strange journey an absolute joy to read. This is my favorite book of all time, and "Don't Panic" is tattooed on my arm in large, friendly letters as a permanent reminder of this most important lesson from the most important book in the galaxy — The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! This is a book everyone should read, and is in fact on our list of 25 Books to Read Before You Die (and most deservedly so). Arthur Dent's reluctant trip across space and time continues to be essential reading for all — not just sci-fi fans — 42 years after its publication. — Joseph P.
We don't shelve Parable of the Sower in the Horror section here at Powell's, but this book scares the holy crap out of me. Although it first appeared in 1993, this smoldering gem of a dystopia reads like it was written recently. You could say this was Octavia Butler's masterpiece, and you wouldn't be wrong. — Mary Jo S.
Parable of the Sower was featured on our 50 Books for 50 Years list.
Parable of the Sower was also featured on Books at the End of the World: Climate Fiction Recommendations for Earth Day.
This oft-banned book is a must-read for any fan of sci-fi or fantasy. In a world where the soul takes the shape of an animal companion, or daemon, young Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pan, leave their home in Oxford to embark on a dangerous adventure to the Arctic — and beyond. This trilogy contains some of the most thoughtful, beautifully written genre fiction I've ever encountered. — Madeline S.
Extra credit content:
An interview with Philip Pullman: Philip Pullman Reaches the Garden
Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini Talk Fantasy Fiction
Sabriel lives in Ancelstierre, where magic isn't real — or so they say. Across the Wall in the Old Kingdom, the living dead walk, and Sabriel must take up the bells of the Abhorsen, a Necromancer tasked with keeping the dead at rest. A fascinating, unforgettable blending of worlds from a master storyteller! — Madeline S.
The Animorphs series was one of the first real extended lore universe stories I glommed onto, and it can be very tricky to go back to the books you loved as a kid. Your brain is different, the world is different, sometimes the author has since taken up a cause you vehemently disagree with. (K.A. Applegate continues to be amazing, thank goodness.) But the books hold up. An unlikely collection of barely-teens happen to walk through a construction site one evening, an alien crash-lands and gives them both the knowledge of an ongoing alien invasion of Earth (by mind-controlling, brain slugs called Yeerks), and a powerful weapon to fight this hidden war (the ability to morph into any animal they can touch, for up to two hours). Pretty much every book included a pivotal, high-action fight battle, and while you could pop in to almost any title it's best read in order to get the full experience of what the responsibility of saving the world does to our heroes. The action-packed sequences are always approached with an understanding of the stakes, both for the world as a whole, and for the emotional well-being of these kids who should be able to be kids (rather than viscerally killing hordes of aliens, or planning strategic actions while learning loved ones are effectively being held prisoner in their own minds).
Animorphs is written for a YA audience (and I remember some particularly light moments around balancing saving the world and everyday teen responsibilities, or the culture shock when they bring Ax, an Andalite, into the crew and he doesn't do a great job in his human morph), it doesn't shy away from darkness. The series is bombastic and enthralling, but there's no sugarcoating of the fundamental truth: War is hell. — Michelle C.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’s mentorship turned rivalry over the use of magic, which takes place in early 19th-century England, lies at the center of this unparalleled tale, in which the foibles of humans, our relationship to the fantastic, and the lengths and limits of faith and science are told in measured wit. This book is so deserving of the many awards it has received and of its devoted and diverse fan base, for inside Clarke’s intricately constructed world of magical realism is a treasured nucleus crafted of caution, passion, intellect, and madness; Susanna Clarke has written one of the great fantasy literature crossover works of our time. — Lucinda G.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was featured on our 25 Books to Read Before You Die: 21st Century list.
Extra credit content:
Amber Sparks lists Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as one of her favorite books that screws around with time
The book buyers recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for lovers of A Discovery of Witches.
Charles Yu, the author, writes this book from the perspective of Charles Yu, the time machine repairman within a small, seemingly inconsequential science fictional universe. Charles Yu (the repairman) is opting out of chronological life, searching for his father, and may have just trapped himself in a time loop by shooting another version of himself. You can connect the dots between HtLSiaSFU and his National Book Award–winning Interior Chinatown — he turns tropes into fuel for compulsively enjoyable literary fiction, without any of the conceptual stretches and groans that often accompany reference-heavy writing. One of Charles Yu (the author)'s great talents is building a very clever and fun structure, and skillfully using it to devastate you with grounded, quietly emotional realities about being a human being (and specifically, being a human being in a family). This would be worth the read for the fun of how time travel and science fictional universes work in this reality, alone — but is elevated into a remarkable book by the ways these truths of the universe are applied to our universal truths. — Michelle C.
Extra credit links:
An original essay, "Some Notes from a Freelance Protagonist," by Charles Yu
Our friends at APANO recommended Interior Chinatown for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Yesterday a friend texted me, asking if I’d read Sea of Tranquility. I said an emphatic yes and, I quote: “I would go to battle for Mandel.” I would! She’s one of the working writers who I will always, always read, and Station Eleven is what got me on the Mandel train. It’s such a beautiful book about what happens when we go past the edge of our world’s capabilities (with a pandemic, gulp), and the joy and community people are still able to find through art despite everything. It made sense not to include it on the initial list (that question, again: how strictly are we defining these genres!), but when the Honorable Mentions opened up, I had to include it. What a book. — Kelsey F.
Extra credit links:
Powell’s Q&A: Emily St. John Mandel
An original essay, "The Festivals," by Emily St. John Mandel
Like the best speculative stories that explore the problems of contemporary society, Annalee Newitz's Autonomous uses future biotech and AI to explore captialism, identity, militancy, and other existential concerns. It may not be immediately apparent just how ambitious this book is, but the aplomb with which Newitz pulls it all off sure is. — Keith M.
In a Q&A with Powell's, Cory Doctorow recommended Autonomous as one of the debuts he was most excited about.
One of the most achingly beautiful and intensely romantic books I've ever read — totally unexpected and deeply, lyrically human, right in the middle of a science fiction story about two far-future agents on opposing sides — one a technotopia, the other an organic hive. If these two opposites can fall in love, then there is hope for all of us. — Warren B.
This is How You Lose the Time War is one of the books that got us through 2020.
A Very Gothic Queer science fantasy, this will have you giggling and awestruck at Gideon's snark, and the delicious train wreck that is her relationship with Harrowhawk. Heavy on the skulls, necromancy, and the suspense, and lots of black clothing. All Gideon wants is to escape the confines of the Ninth House, but things don't go quite as planned, and so a reluctant adventure with Harrowhawk begins. — MaryJo S.
Think Le Carré set in space. Mahit Dzmare is a newly arrived ambassador who discovers her predecessor was murdered. Full of intrigue, richly textured world building, and tinged with an elegant sort of sadness, A Memory of Empire is a cracking good read. Arkady Martine is a Byzantine historian and an urban planner and the juxtaposition of those two disciplines mixed with political intrigue makes for mesmerizing reading. — MaryJo S.
We live in an age of legacy intellectual property being endlessly prequeled, sequeled, rebooted, or repackaged, especially in sci-fi and fantasy. So let's take a second to appreciate when it's edifyingly reimagined by a true genius. Jonathan Hickman's take on the X-Men is built on 60 years of convoluted continuity, but is so sophisticated, high-concept, and revitalizing that it is truly a quantum leap for the franchise and superhero comics, generally. These two linked series are audacious, stunning, and already on the shortlist for greatest comic stories of all time. — Keith M.
Leigh Bardugo's adult debut is an immersive, heart-pounding, brain-twisting read set in an alternate New Haven. Alex Stern's connection to Yale's secret societies may be more dangerous than she bargained for. Drenched in magic and darkness, this world will clench you between its bony fingers until the end. — MaryJo S.
For more in the Bardugo-verse, check out these 13 books to read after you binge on Shadow and Bone.
I rarely read fantasy, but this story pulled me compulsively through all 600 pages, from France in the 1700s to current day NYC. Addie LaRue makes a deal with "darkness" for immortality, only the catch is that no one will remember her once she is out of sight. This makes Addie's 300-year adventure a fascinating challenge and a great tale of choosing life despite crippling loneliness, forging a career as an artistic muse, outwitting the "dark," and finding love. — Kathi K.
Yoko Ogawa is another author I would follow into battle. Everything she writes is by equal turns surreal, bleak, lovely, and unnerving. Her latest, The Memory Police, is no different. As someone whose life is based around words and how many of them she can use on a given day, the idea of words slowly disappearing, and the erosion that occurs as words leave our vocabulary, is truly terrifying, but Ogawa manages to capture that dystopic idea through an empathetic, compelling lens. This was one of my favorite books from 2020. — Kelsey F.
The Memory Police has previously been featured on our marquee at the Burnside location.
Iron Widow is a staff favorite. It’s a title that had a lot of votes, but also felt potentially too recent to include. Thus: a necessary honorable mention. A book that combines an epic heroine with mind-melting action, as well as Chinese culture and history, this book is sharp, beautifully written, and, mostly importantly: fun. — Lucinda G.