The first reason I bring this up is because something that Jeff VanderMeer wrote in 2010 resonated with me and has stuck around in the back of my head (and in the back of my blog).
If a year’s best list is a kind of “possible impossibility,” then a decade’s best list is a fool’s errand, an absurdity, sometimes even an atrocity. I have seen decade lists with nothing on them from 2000 through 2005. I have seen decade lists weighted down with books from 2009. I have seen decade lists corpulent with the quivering fat of over-hyped books I am pretty sure will be footnotes sooner rather than later. I have seen decade lists supersaturated with one particular kind of fiction. In short, I haven’t seen much in terms of decade lists that I thought was comprehensive, level-headed, or fair.The second reason I bring this up is because Renay Williams at Lady Business posted a list of 60 Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy Reads and her list is fantastic, inspiring, and has inspired me to commit List Making.
Personally, I think everyone should post a list of the books that delighted or awed them over this past decade, without pretending it’s anything definitive.
Let's be completely up front here: Jeff VanderMeer is right. Attempting to put together any sort of list of truly "Essential" science fiction and fantasy books is a fool's errand, but this is part of why what Renay did with her list is so brilliant, and dare I say, essential. There is no singular canon in science fiction and fantasy. There are notable works, some of significantly greater renown than others, but there is no generally agreed upon canon. I'm not sure there truly is one in "Literature" either, but that is a separate and potentially contentious discussion better left for another time and place. Even in discussion of canon, I think it gets down to an idea Lin-Manuel Miranda raised in Hamilton, which is about "who lives, who dies, who tells your story."
The thing about defining a canon is that someone else is deciding what story should be told. There is value in this, but so much can be and is missed. The work that is missed is equally essential as the work often mentioned as "best", "greatest", "must read" or "canon" - and is often better. It just isn't talked about for a myriad of reasons. So what do you do? Maybe you can't just up and create a canon which will last for one hundred years, but what you can do is create a conversation about what it means for a book to be considered "essential". You can create a wonderful list of books that deserve to be read and talked about and considered as Essential.
Essential to whom? Essential compared to what?
Perhaps we should take what Jeff VanderMeer wrote six years ago and consider these to be books which delighted and awed me. Is that enough to make it "essential"? I don't know. What I know is that these are some of the books that I come to time and again when someone asks me for something awesome to read. These are some of the books I get excited to think about and talk about. These are the books I wave at other people and say "you must read this!" These are also some of the books that I don't see talked about enough.
I could work this list a dozen or more different ways depending on what perspective I want to take. A list of essential epic fantasy would look different than a list of the best books of the last decade, both of which would look very differently from a list covering the same concept, but looking at either the most popular or overlooked books.
So what I'm going to do here is consider those books which have delighted me over the years with a focus on those works which tend to not show up on those lists of the "all time greats" that are "essential" and "must reads" because I believe that they are.
I am also restricting this list to not include anything from the last five years. To the point that it matters, I am attempting to sidestep a small amount of recency bias and avoid my rampant desire to shout THE FIFTH SEASON! BLACK WOLVES! ANCILLARY JUSTICE! While I expect these novels will have a lasting impact on what and how I read, it really may be too soon to make that call. For me.Your mileage may vary.
There is also no doubt that not only have I overlooked something awesome I've read years ago that would more than merit inclusion, I likewise have to assume that there are dozens upon dozens (upon dozens) of novels which, if only had I read them, I would shout from the rooftops about how wonderful they are. To those authors, I apologize. I simply haven't read you.
Any list I make can only be considered inclusive of the books I have read, and suggesting anything grander would be hubris. The list is no more definitive than that. Let's do this.
"Kit Marley, playwright and spy in the service of Queen Elizabeth, has been murdered. His true gift to Her Majesty was his way with words, crafting plays infused with a subtle magic that maintained her rule. He performed this task on behalf of the Prometheus Club, a secret society of nobles engaged in battle against sorcerers determined to destroy England. Assuming Marley’s role is William Shakespeare— but he is unable to create the magic needed to hold the Queen’s enemies at bay.
Resurrected by enchantment in Faerie, Marley is England’s only hope. But before he can assist Will in the art of magic, he must uncover the traitor among the Prometheans responsible for his death…"(Goodreads)
The Stratford Man is actually two books, Ink and Steel (my review) and Hell and Earth (my review), but they tell one complete and stunningly good story of Shakespeare, Marlowe, faerie, and angels. Unfortunately, you probably missed this one, but there is still time to rectify that error. The Stratford Man is one of my all time favorites. (Joe)
"The first to be published, this is actually the fourth novel in the timeline of the VLAD TALTOS series. The books recount the adventures of the wisecracking hired killer Vlad, a human on a planet mainly inhabited by the long-lived, extremely tall sorcerers known as the Dragaerans. One of the most powerful bosses in the Jhereg--Dragaera's premier criminal organization--hires Vlad, one of their guild members, to assassinate Mellar, who stole millions from the Jhereg leadership and fled. Unfortunately, this thief turns out to be protected in a way that makes it difficult for Vlad to do his job without gaining the permanent enmity of a friend. The reader also learns more about Vlad's past in this, and in other, lives." (Goodreads)
The series begins and ultimately focuses on a smart mouthed assassin, but each book is very much its own thing and you can see Brust playing with the form while still maintaining a cracking story. Jhereg stands out as a masterwork. (my review) (Joe)
"The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity's nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn't dream are real.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall.
Welcome to Shadow Unit." (Goodreads)
My elevator pitch for Shadow Unit is "Criminal Minds meets The X-Files, but the monsters are human". Shadow Unit is one of the most engrossing, moving, painful, and wonderful things that I have read. It's as good as it sounds, and it's even better than that. It's written by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Leah Bobet, Holly Black, Stephan Shipman, Chelsea Polk, and Stephen Brust. Start here. Thank me later. (Joe)
"When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister's young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny... and the birth of a new faith." (Goodreads)
A very human story of survival and hope for the future in the midst of a brutal, brutal post apocalyptic world. Parable of the Sower is the very definition of essential science fiction. (my review) (Joe)
A brilliant young scientist rises to power on Cyteen, haunted by the knowledge that her predecessor and genetic duplicate died at the hands of one of her trusted advisors. Murder, politics, and genetic manipulation provide the framework for the latest Union-Alliance novel by the author of Downbelow Station. Cherryh's talent for intense, literate storytelling maintains interest throughout this long, complex novel. (Goodreads)
Trying to capture the enduring greatness of Cyteen in just a few words is the work of a better copywriter than I am, but this novel of isolation, genius, cloning, ethics, murder, political drama, social commentary, coming of age, morality, and any number of other things is so damned good that it hooked me on Cherryh from the first pages. (my review) (Joe)
"Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophesy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her... So begins one of the greatest fantasy epics of our age—Glen Cook's Chronicles of the Black Company." (Goodreads)
You like the Malazan novels from Steven Erikson? Try The Black Company. Glen Cook's story of a mercenary company is top shelf military fantasy with a grim cast of characters (Joe)
"Seattle, February 2076. The Marq ssan bring business as usual to a screeching halt all over the world, and Professor Kay Zeldin joins Robert Sedgewick, US Chief of Security Services, in his war against the invaders. Soon Kay is making rather than writing history. But as she goes head-to-head against the Marq ssan, the long-buried secrets of her past resurface, and her conflicts with Sedgewick and Security Services multiply. She faces terrifying choices. Her worldview, her very grip on reality, is turned inside out. Whose side is she really on? And how far will she go in serving that side? (Goodreads)
A deeply compelling vision of a dystopian future where aliens come with the benevolent plan to reshape humanity's political and social structure while requiring humanity to do the hard work of change. Alanya to Alanya is a deeply human story that gets into how people interact and view each other based on gender. The aliens are only a quiet sideshow, the tool in which Duchamp uses to explore behavior and the repression (suppression?) of women. It is spectacularly good. (my review) (Joe)
"The Dazzle of Day is a brilliant and widely celebrated mixture of mainstream literary fiction and hard SF. Molly Gloss turns her attention to the frontiers of the future, when the people of our over-polluted planet Earth voyage out to the stars to settle new worlds, to survive unknown and unpredictable hardships, and to make new human homes. Specifically, it is a story about people who have grown up on a ship that is traveling to a new world, and about the society and culture that have evolved among them by the time they arrive at their new home planet." (Goodreads)
Jo Walton writes "The Dazzle of Day is an astonishing short novel of a generation starship" This isn't a novel so much about the destination as it is about the life of the people who will be the ancestors and first wave of the colonists of a new world. It's about the people and very much not about the journey or the science or the discovery. It's about the people and the more emotional challenges they face as the journey nears its end, not so much the physical challenges. (my review) (Joe)
"Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep–and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing–and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction. . . ." (Goodreads)
Nicola Griffith's exploration of the evolution and biology of humanity moves alongside her exploration of identity and what it means to have family will linger with readers long after the final page is turned. (my review) (Joe)
"England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as "Sister" escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as "un-officials" in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist." (Goodreads)
Daughters of the North is a novel which raises even more questions at the end as to what the nature of the story the narrator told us is. What was left out, what was missing, what was skewed to make a point or protect Carhullan? Daughters of the North is a quiet novel which packs a strong punch. (Joe)
"Even as a young girl, Jill was a favorite of the magical, mysterious Wildfolk, who appeared to her from their invisible realm. Little did she know her extraordinary friends represented but a glimpse of a forgotten past and a fateful future. Four hundred years-and many lifetimes-ago, one selfish young lord caused the death of two innocent lovers. Then and there he vowed never to rest until he'd righted that wrong-and laid the foundation for the lives of Jill and all those whom she would hold dear: her father, the mercenary soldier Cullyn; the exiled berserker Rhodry Maelwaedd; and the ancient and powerful herbman Nevyn, all bound in a struggle against darkness. . . and a quest to fulfill the destinies determined centuries ago." (Goodreads)
My inclusion of Daggerspell is partly because it is an excellent fantasy novel on its own and also because I want to represent the Deverry Saga as a collected whole. This book is so damned good. (my read of the first four novels) (Joe)
"The Steerswoman is the first novel in the Steerswoman series. Steerswomen, and a very few Steersmen, are members of an order dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge. Although they are foremost navigators of the high seas, Steerswomen are also explorers and cartographers upon land as well as sea. With one exception, they are pledged to always answer any question put to them with as truthful a response as is possible within their own limitations. However, they also require anyone of whom they ask questions to respond in the same manner, upon penalty of the Steerswomen's ban; those under the ban do not receive answers from the steerswomen.
In this novel, Rowan is a Steerswoman who is interested in some strange jewels which have been found distributed in an unusual pattern. These jewels are made of strange materials bonded onto metal. Some think that such jewels are magically produced." (Goodreads)
What I love most about The Steerswoman is how Kirstein continually challenges the readers assumptions about the nature of the world and the interconnection of magic and technology and how things change over time. (my review) (Joe)
"Camber was the greatest of the Deryni—that race of men who were gifted with arcane mental powers that set them above normal humans. In later legends, he was to become a figure of mystery, known as both the defender of humanity and the patron saint of dark magic. But now he sought only retirement on his family estates.
His dream of justice and amicable relations between the races had turned to ashes in his mind. The medieval kingdom of Gwynedd groaned under the tyranny of Imre and his sister and mistress, Ariella. Normal humans were savagely persecuted by the king, whose Deryni ancestors had seized the throne from the rightful human Haldane line a century before. Camber could not even save his own son from the murderous treachery of Imre.
When Camber learned that Cinhil Haldane, a descendant of the previous kings, still lived, he realized that the only hope for the kingdom lay in overthrowing Imre and restoring Cinhil to the throne. But Cinhil was a cloistered monk, hidden under his religious name in one of many monasteries, unaware of his heritage, untrained in politics. Could he be persuaded to leave the only life he knew and take on the leadership of a rebellion? And lacking the Deryni powers, could he hope to overcome the magic of the king?" (Goodreads)
Part of the inclusion of Camber of Culdi is for the Deryni series as a whole, but also specifically for the three volume Legends of Camber of Culdi series - which, by the end, is one of the grimmest series of epic fantasy you're likely to run across, though tempered with the grace of faith and the interaction of religion and society. (my review / re-read) (Joe)
"Onetime underground journalist Sandy Blair has come a long way from his radical roots in the ’60s—until something unexpectedly draws him back: the bizarre and brutal murder of a rock promoter who made millions with a band called the Nazgûl. Now, as Sandy sets out to investigate the crime, he finds himself drawn back into his own past—a magical mystery tour of the pent-up passions of his generation. For a new messiah has resurrected the Nazgûl and the mad new rhythm may be more than anyone bargained for—a requiem of demonism, mind control, and death, whose apocalyptic tune only Sandy may be able to change in time . . . before everyone follows the beat." (Goodreads)
We've all heard of GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire. We've read the books, we've seen the show, we know Martin is capable of. But, the one book of his that few people speak about, except to note that it is the novel which failed so spectacularly that it drove Martin to write for television, is perhaps my favorite George R. R. Martin novel. Martin's blending of the fantastic with rock music is so intense and pounding that I could almost hear the music and almost feel myself getting sucked into it. Go behind the music on this one. (Joe)
"Paksenarrion — Paks for short — is somebody special. She knows it, even if nobody else does yet. No way will she follow her father's orders to marry the pig farmer down the road. She's off to join the army, even if it means she can never see her family again.
And so her adventure begins... the adventure that transforms her into a hero remembered in songs, chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne.
Here is her tale as she lived it." (Goodreads)
One of the best military fantasy novels you are likely to read. Sheepfarmer's Daughter focuses on the day to day slog of a military company going about its business and the dream of a young girl of being a soldier and the life that dream will give her. (my review) (Joe)
"From now on I'm Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I'll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna's first adventure begins - one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land." (Goodreads)
A fantasy novel every kid (grown or otherwise) should read. (Joe)
"Melanie Rawn's best-selling debut is a novel of love and war, magic and madness, and deadly dangerous dragons that hold the secret to unimaginable wealth that could prove key to mutual peace-or a bloody tyrant's reign. And among it all, an idealistic young ruler struggles to civilize a culture that understands the strength of the sword-but has yet to discover the true power of knowledge." (Goodreads)
Dragon Prince is simply one of my favorite fantasy novels. I've revisited it a number of times over the years and it continues to hold up to my memories and at this point it is an old friend. Despite that, when lists of the most notable and important fantasy novels of the 1980's and 1990's are put out, Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince is left off. No more. (my review) (Joe)
"In a land where art is prized above all else, the master painters of the Grijalva family stand apart from other artists. Theirs is an art that can alter Reality, a secret Gift passed down for generations and always used for the good of the kingdom. But now the most talented of the Grijalvas has decided to use his power for his own dark intentions--with results more devastating than anyone could imagine!" (Goodreads)
As a general rule, I did not want to include multiple books from the same author, but The Golden Key is a special case because it's not one author, it's three writers who bring the excellence time and time again. A generation tale where art is magic? This is a stunning achievement. (Joe)
"In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human." (Goodreads)
The Sparrow is a beautiful and painful story. Perhaps knowing how the mission ends before it begins is part of what makes the doom bearable. The loss and death and failures are still shocking, but not unexpected. How can they be? The beauty and the grace and the pain is in the telling. Russell tells it well. (my review) (Joe)
"Saunders' novel fuses the narrative style of fantasy fiction with a pre-colonial, alternate Africa. Inspired by and directly addresses the alienation of growing up an African American fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which to this day remains a very ethnically homogonous genre. It addresses this both structurally (via its unique setting) and thematically (via its alienated, tribeless hero-protagonist). The tribal tensions and histories presented in this fantasy novel reflect actual African tribal histories and tensions, and provide a unique perspective to current and recent conflicts in Africa, particularly the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing conflict in The Sudan." (Goodreads)
The African sword and sorcery of Charles Saunders is the very definition of an overlooked and so very essential fantasy novel. Imaro is a fully realized sword and sorcery novel set in an alternate Africa, one which respects the traditions and histories of Africa in general and Rwanda specifically, one which attempts to draw the Western reader into a world they have seldom encountered and never like this. (my review) (Joe)
"In a world where males are rarely born, they've become a commodity--traded and sold like property. Jerin Whistler has come of age for marriage and his handsome features have come to the attention of the royal princesses. But such attentions can be dangerous--especially as Jerin uncovers the dark mysteries the royal family is hiding." (Goodreads)
A Brother's Price is, at its core, a Regency romance with a gender flipped societal roles. I remain deeply curious about what the rest of the world is like and wish that Spencer would tell additional stories in this world. Until she does, we have this excellent novel. (my review) (Joe)
"On Earth, Hari Michaelson was a superstar. But on Overworld, he was the assassin Caine. Real monarchs lived and died at his hands and entire governments were overthrown-all for the entertainment of millions back on Earth. But now Hari, stripped of his identity as Caine, must fight his greatest battle: against the powerful corporate masters of Earth and the faceless masses who are killing everything he loves. Enemies old and new array themselves against him. And Hari is just one man-alone, half-crippled, powerless. They say he doesn't have a chance." (Goodreads)
If there were any justice in publishing, Matthew Stover would be as much of a household name as Joe Abercrombie and would sell just as many books and we'd be awash in Caine novels and anything else Stover wished to write and publish. Alas, there is not and we are not. Stover's Acts of Caine is an impressive feat of fantasy fiction and Blade of Tyshalle is one of the high water marks in the genre, period. (Joe)
"Three separate alien societies have claims on Cavanagh's Star. But the new arrivals -- the gethes from Earth -- now threaten the tenuous balance of a coveted world.
Environmental Hazard Enforcement officer Shan Frankland agreed to lead a mission to Cavanagh's Star, knowing that 150 years would elapse before she could finally return home. But her landing, with a small group of scientists and Marines, has not gone unnoticed by Aras, the planet's designated guardian. An eternally evolving world himself, this sad, powerful being has already obliterated millions of alien interlopers and their great cities to protect the fragile native population. Now Shan and her party -- plus the small colony of fundamentalist humans who preceded them -- could face a similar annihilation . . . or a fate far worse. Because Aras possesses a secret of the blood that would be disastrous if it fell into human hands -- if the gethes survive the impending war their coming has inadvertently hastened." (Goodreads)
City of Pearl is a military, environmental, and character driven science fiction novel that doesn't smack the reader in the face with any of it. This is so good and the introduction to a six volume series that I can only recommend as highly as something that you simply will not regret reading. (my review) (Joe)
"In Finch, mysterious underground inhabitants known as the gray caps have reconquered the failed fantasy state Ambergris and put it under martial law. They have disbanded House Hoegbotton and are controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, and the gray caps are using human labor to build two strange towers. Against this backdrop, John Finch, who lives alone with a cat and a lizard, must solve an impossible double murder for his gray cap masters while trying to make contact with the rebels. Nothing is as it seems as Finch and his disintegrating partner Wyte negotiate their way through a landscape of spies, rebels, and deception. Trapped by his job and the city, Finch is about to come face to face with a series of mysteries that will change him and Ambergris forever." (Goodreads)
Jeff VanderMeer's Finch was a revelation. A noir detective novel with betrayals and rebellion and fear, but VanderMeer has written such an atmospheric tale that builds as part of a larger story of the rotting city of Ambergris while still welcoming newer readers. Finch is a must read.(my review) (Joe)
So, that's it. How might you define "Essential" science fiction and fantasy? What would you want to include on your list? What perspective would you consider taking in creating such a list?
POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.