Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ESSENTIALS: 24 SF/F Books That Have Shaped Me

I feel quite strange writing an "essential" list of sci fi and fantasy books. Because I will never feel like I will have read enough to be an expert on anything. But I try to read a lot. And I try to read deeply. And I have opinions. Which I guess makes me as expert as most who claim at the title. So I will attempt to do my best.

This list will probably change in a year. Hell, it will probably shift and flow from year to year as long as I'm alive and reading. Why? Because I truly believe that right now is seeing some of the most amazing books come out that have ever been written in SFF. Which, you'll notice that a lot of these books are somewhat recent. I'd still consider them essential. They have been, at least, essential to defining my own relationship with SFF. They have been essential in showing me where I fit in and what I love. Reading some of these books has provided me with rather transformational moments in my life. To me, that is the definition of essential, because these books have been vital in helping me to try and better figure myself out.

You might also notice that I have the "Book" part of this list to mean more than just "novel." There are graphic novels and there are short story collections and there are anthologies of various sorts and even a book of poetry. I did not want to make a list that narrowed itself to the point of not being meaningful to me. This is my list of essential SFF books, and so there is YA alongside erotica alongside comics alongside romance alongside more classic interpretations of sci fi and fantasy. I consider these all to be SFF, and for those who want to see the true width and depth of what SFF can be, moving outside the largely single-dimension of traditional SFF publications is, again, essential.

So here we go, on a voyage of discovery and wonder. Hold onto something…

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince [Arthur A. Levine, 2013]

"A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that's sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June's best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist." (Goodreads)

There are novels on this list that inspire me and novels that break me, and this falls solidly into both categories. It's marked YA to many but it doesn't stop it from being one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I've read, with statements on art and sexuality and love and age. It's a stunning book and definitely a must-read. (my review)

Smut Peddler: 2012 Edition [Iron Circus Comics, 2012]

"Indie comics' most sex-positive, lady-friendly, dirty little mini is back as a FULL-SIZED ANTHOLOGY!" (Goodreads)

The first of the graphic novels on this list is, well, quite graphic. But it is also a celebration of genre and sex and art. It is amazing and amazingly sexy, with stories that are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) SFF, from sex in space to contemporary fantasy to stranger settings still, it blends erotic art with stories that challenge dominant sexual fantasies and affirm those who find themselves on the outside looking in. (my review)

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed [Avon, 1975]

"Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. he will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change." (Goodreads)

This is definitely my favorite of LeGuin's novels, a book that takes aim at capitalism and the myths surrounding cooperation and socialism. There is so much going on in this novel, and despite being one of the older works on this list it's still a great piece for thinking about social structure and optimism and progress. (my review)

Bowes, Richard. Minions of the Moon [Tor, 1998]

"Kevin Grierson has a Shadow with a mind of its own. It likes thrills, it likes power, it likes the rush of drugs and danger. From the suburbs of Boston to the streets of New York, from the false glamour of advertising to the dark glamour of hustling and drug-dealing. Grierson's Shadow keeps him walking the edge of destruction and madness. Then a simple robbery goes horribly wrong. With the help of a flawed saint named Leo Dunn, Grierson struggles to banish his Shadow, and succeeds. Temporarily. Years later, sober and settled, at peace with his world, Kevin Grierson meets his Shadow again. And this time it won't go away. This new edition of the Lambda Literary Award-winning novel includes a brand-new Grierson story." (Goodreads)

One of my most recent reads and a novel that absolutely wrecked me. A moving and beautiful story about a man dealing with inheritance and shadows and a world that is actively trying to do him harm. There are moments of this book where I had to set it down and just breathe, and there are moments when I couldn't help but cheer. It was a difficult experience for me, to be sure, but also an amazing, amazing read. (my review)

Arnason, Eleanor. To the Resurrection Station [Avon, 1986]

"It began like any other day....

Until Belinda Smith was abruptly snatched from the comforting surroundings of university life by her mysterious guardian and imprisoned in the solitary confines of Gorwing Keep. Suddenly, she was the reluctant heiress to her planets' largest fortune---and the unwilling bride-to-be of an alien prince.

But fate had still more surprises in store for the young woman. And soon Belinda, her unwanted fiancee, and a battered old robot would find themselves fleeing across the galaxy in search of a new life. Their destination: a real-life fountain of youth, found in only one spot in the entire universe... The fabled planet Earth... and its legendary resurrection station." (Goodreads)

This is another example of classic SF done so incredibly right. It moves between planets, between genres, with a queer main character and an incredible ensemble. There's a strong touch of humor, too, and a great metaphor for the viral nature of change and progress. This novel truly surprised me, because by the cover art I was expecting something wholly different. This is a gem and worth digging back to uncover. (my review)

Older, Daniel José. Shadowshaper [Arthur A. Levine, 2015]

"Cassandra Clare meets Caribbean legend in SHADOWSHAPER, an action-packed urban fantasy from a bold new talent.

Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra's near-comatose abuelo begins to say "No importa" over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep.... Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.

Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order's secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick's supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family's past, present, and future." (Goodreads)

This is a book I wish existed when I was younger, because I feel that it would have set me on a completely different trajectory as a young reader. Instead of being buoyed into the Tor dude-fantasy stable I think I might have veered more closely to the SFF waters I call home today. This is a great book for any age reader and for me one of the best and most fun books I've read in the last few years. (my review)

We See A Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology [The Future Fire, 2013]

"This anthology of speculative fiction stories on the themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism focuses on the viewpoints of the colonized. Sixteen authors share their experiences of being the silent voices in history and on the wrong side of the final frontier; their fantasies of a reality in which straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males don’t get to tell us how they won every war; their revenge against the alien oppressor settling their “new world”." (Goodreads)

This was actually my first review at Nerds of a Feather and my only perfect score to date. If you're looking to get inspired by short fiction, this anthology has a bit of everything and definitely looks at post-colonial and international SFF in a way that is sharp and inspiring. (my review)

Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008-2012 [Circlet, 2012]

"To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Circlet Press, Fantastic Erotica presents the very best erotic science fiction and fantasy short stories published by Circlet in the past five years. Chosen by popular vote by the readership from among all the stories published by Circlet from 2008 to the present, these favorites are the cream of the crop.

A winner and two runners-up were chosen. N.K. Jemisin's "The Dancer's War" shows us the sensuous magic not of a stock fantasy medieval Europe, but of an Africa that never was. Bernie Mojzes "Ink" combines H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler into a surprisingly soulful story of sexual transformation. And our winner, "Ota Discovers Fire," by Vinnie Tesla pokes gentle fun at all the traipsing into exotic lands depicted in fantasy quests. Sometimes the traveler you meet on the road is nothing like what you expect." (Goodreads)

You want to read the very best of what speculative erotica has to offer? Read this book. It's full of amazing stories from a great many different genres and styles, all exploring the sexier side of SFF. These stories are at turns fun and poignant, sexy and heartbreaking. And the names involved are pretty much the same that you'd find in any other collection of SFF. Please, anyone go out and read this collection and then try to tell me that erotica can't "count" as SFF. (my review)

Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory [Tor, 2015]

"Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable's high-quality bordello. Through Karen's eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone's mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen's own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science." (Goodreads)

Alt-history, sex-positive, steam-Western mystery adventure? Yes, please! This book manages to take a lot of different things and mash them together into an exuberant celebration of genre and identity. There is a huge cast of characters and yet the novel doesn't feel crowded, which is a feat, and it's a fast and fabulous experience from beginning to end. (my review)

Valente, Catherynne M. Radiance [Tor, 2015]

"Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return." (Goodreads)

Taking a somewhat nostalgic look at solar system science fiction, this novel mixes classic film at the dawn of color and voice and creates an absence at the heart of an ominous and mysterious event. It is told entirely in texts, part documentary and part pulp and part examination of life in front of a camera. Turning an eye at the borders between art and entertainment, truth and fiction, it is a traveler's guide to places that might have been if only the galaxy had lived up to our imaginations. (my review)

Jemisin, N.K. The Killing Moon [Orbit, 2012]

"In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers - the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe - and kill those judged corrupt." (Goodreads)

This book brings all the cool (psychic ninja dream assassins) and stays for the gripping emotional work and political intrigue. The world building is amazing and epic and the character work is intense and personal. I absolutely fell in love with this book and the tragedy and the hope of it, the way that it made me look at what was possible in fantasy in a whole new way. This novel was part of the wake-up call that got me interesting in most of the books on this list, and so for me was a bit of a turning point in my life as a SFF reader and writer. (my review)

Scott, Melissa. Trouble and Her Friends [Tor, 1994]

"Less than a hundred years from now, the forces of law and order crack down on the world of the computer nets. The hip, noir adventurers who get by on wit, bravado, and drugs, and haunt the virtual worlds of the Shadows of cyberspace, are up against the encroachments of civilization. It's time to adapt or die.

India Carless, alias Trouble, got out ahead of the feds and settled down to run a small network for an artist's co-op.

Now someone has taken her name and begun to use it for criminal hacking. So Trouble returns. Once the fastest gun on the electronic frontier, she had tried to retire-but has been called out for one last fight. And it's a killer." (Goodreads)

This novel isn't new any longer but the struggle it chronicles is still incredibly timely. About a group of queer hackers going up against not just the system but also the toxic elements within the hacker community itself, the novel is about the strength of fighting when your very existence is political. It's a book that is filled with action and conflict and characters circling each other, unsure of who to trust, only freed when they decide to trust each other and try to build something they can all believe in. (my review)

Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology [Beyond Comics, 2015]

"Beyond is an anthology of queer sci-fi and fantasy comics. Featuring 18 stories by 26 contributors, Beyond is a 250+ page, black and white, queer comic anthology, full of swashbuckling space pirates, dragon slayers, death-defying astronauts, and monster royalty. Each story celebrates and showcases unquestionably queer characters as they explore the galaxy, mix magic, have renegade adventures, and save the day!

The Beyond Anthology was born from a desire to see stories inspired by people like us (queer people with diverse genders and sexualities) slaying dragons, piloting spaceships, getting into trouble, and saving the day—without having to read for their queerness from between the lines. We wanted to see beautiful, heartwarming, and adventurous stories that reflect and celebrate the many facets of gender and sexuality, without having to worry that their queerness would cast them as a villain, a pariah, or turn them into a cautionary tale." (Goodreads)

As far as SFF comic anthologies go, this stands as a turning point for me as well. To see so many writers and artists coming together to tell the stories they want to tell, the stories that don't get picked up from the major publishers. The pieces are short (it is an anthology, after all) but the impact is huge, with story after story exploring different worlds where queer characters are present and accounted for, not relegated to the C-list or killed off to promote some new (straight) hero. This anthology exposed the old lie that "there just aren't people making it" by showing how many extremely talented people showed up to contribute. (my review)

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions [Penguin, 1998]

"Jorge Luis Borges has been called the greatest Spanish-language writer of our century. Now for the first time in English, all of Borges' dazzling fictions are gathered into a single volume, brilliantly translated by Andrew Hurley. From his 1935 debut with The Universal History of Iniquity, through his immensely influential collections Ficciones and The Aleph, these enigmatic, elaborate, imaginative inventions display Borges' talent for turning fiction on its head by playing with form and genre and toying with language. Together these incomparable works comprise the perfect one-volume compendium for all those who have long loved Borges, and a superb introduction to the master's work for those who have yet to discover this singular genius." (Goodreads)

For the short fiction reader you can't go wrong with this incredibly weighty but incredibly good collection of collections, showcasing Borges' fiction throughout his life, from the earliest to the latest. And it's great to read Borges in conversation, not just with his influences and his peers but with himself, often literally breaking the fourth wall to speak to himself as character and author, as artifact and cipher. Not all of these stories are SFF, but a good number all, and for anyone wanting an education in short fiction, look no further. (my review)

Cherryh, C.J. Kutath [DAW, 1979]

"Kutath was an ancient world and a dying one. In ages past, its best sons and daughters had gone to the stars to serve as mercenaries in the wars of aliens. Now the survivors of its star-flung people, the mri, had come back-in the form of a single woman, the last priestess-queen Melein, and a single man, the last warrior Nuin. And one other-the human Sten Duncan who had deserted Earth-s military forces to swear service to the foes of his own species-" (Goodreads)

Yes, this this the third book in a trilogy. And yes, I recommend the entirety of the Faded Sun books. But this final book in there series is the one that got me, the one that brought everything together and made literally cry with happy tears at the ending. It is powerful and brings the characters on a long, strange journey that changes them. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. It's about the warring elements of the human spirit and it's about hope and trust and Is. Just. So. Good. Seriously, read this series and pay extra attention to this book. (my review)

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Signal to Noise [Solaris, 2015]

"Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends -- Sebastian and Daniela -- and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love...

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?" (Goodreads)

Some books seem made to satisfy the critic or the SFF geek or the sappy romantic in me, and this novel manages to satisfy all of those. A love story about music and magic and growing up, about families and circumstance and missed chances, this novel delivers a dense and layered experience that had me wanting to take notes and reread while also making me break down a few times from the emotions it evoked. Meticulously crafted, it delivered in about two hundred pages what some series couldn't accomplish across tens of thousands. (my review)

Samatar, Sofia. A Stranger in Olondria [Small Beer, 2012]

"Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire's two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading." (Goodreads)

Most fantasy novels transport you to other worlds, but few do so with such expression and depth as this novel, which is something of a travelogue, something of a lost history, and a moving look at voice and erasure and power. Examining trade and language and ghosts, it follows a young man far from home as he learns of the great world outside, and the great world all around him that he never really knew how to see. It's a fantasy novel in some ways about how to read fantasy novels (or outsider narratives of any sort), and doesn't let the reader look away from the difficult subjects that come with cultural imperialism. (my review)

Miéville, China. Un Lun Dun [Del Rey, 2007]

"What is Un Lun Dun?

It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong." (Goodreads)

There's something to be said for upsetting the natural order of things. For taking the tropes and flipping them upside down. And here is a book that does just that, that looks at a portal world where things aren't exactly backwards but are backwards enough, where what's needed isn't a Chosen One so much as an UnChosen One, and I love how the novel managed to subvert and complicate the hero's journey. It's a novel, to me, about the danger of the expected narrative, the cliché and the tired tropes, and how sometimes what you need is a heavy dose of the unexpected. (my review)

Carroll, Emily. Through the Woods [Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014]

"Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there..." (Goodreads)

Want to never sleep again? Or at least want to check to make sure the windows are locked and there's nothing under the bed every night? This collection of horror comics is truly frightening, making excellent use of the page and breaking the comfortable barriers between reader and text. There's a sense that there's something in the book, lurking, and that each time you pick it up you're taking a risk, tempting fate that something inside is going to reach out and— (my review)

Maguire, Gregory. Mirror Mirror [Reagan Books, 2003]

"The world was called Montefiore, as far as she knew, and from her aerie on every side all the world descended.

The year is 1502, and seven-year-old Bianca de Nevada lives perched high above the rolling hills and valleys of Tuscany and Umbria at Montefiore, the farm of her beloved father, Don Vicente. There she spends her days cosseted by Primavera Vecchia, the earthy cook, and Fra Ludovico, a priest who tends to their souls between bites of ham and sips of wine.

But one day a noble entourage makes its way up the winding slopes to the farm - and the world comes to Montefiore. In the presence of Cesare Borgia and his sister, the lovely and vain Lucrezia - decadent children of a wicked pope - no one can claim innocence for very long. When Borgia sends Don Vicente on a years-long quest to reclaim a relic of the original Tree of Knowledge, he leaves Bianca under the care - so to speak - of Lucrezia. She plots a dire fate for the young girl in the woods below the farm, but in the dark forest there can be found salvation as well ...

The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say." (Goodreads)

I love Maguire's Oz books but my favorite project of his has been this novel about magic and betrayal and family secrets. About pain and about hope and about love. It's not really like any other telling of Snow White I've seen, reimagining it as a sort of Italian Opera full of murder and darkness. (my review)

Schwartz, Susan. Silk Roads and Shadows [Tor, 1988]

"Alexandra, sister of the dying Emperor of Byzantium, undertakes a mission to smuggle live silkworms from the mysterious Empire of Ch'in. Hounded by ferocious sorcery and an array of magical helpers, she must walk the length of the known world to save an empire threatened by her very existence." (Goodreads)

This book was a surprise to me. I didn't expect a book about trade and historical politics to really effect me that much, but then I got into this world, into the magic and the characters, the love and the reaching hope. I got to see a sort of narrative that's not really popular any more, that of the Western person traveling along the Silk Road and finding…wonders. There's so much here, from treacherous mountain tops to thrilling chariot races to the secrets of silk itself, and it's a novel that defied all my expectations and made me fall in love with the people and places it revealed. (my review)

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana [Roc, 1990]

"This is that rare, spellbinding novel in which myth comes alive and magic reaches out to touch us. Tigana is the magical story of a beleaguered country struggling to be free. It is the tale of a people so cursed by the dark sorceries of the tyrant king Brandlin that even the very name of their once beautiful home cannot be spoken or remembered. But years after their homeland's devastation, a handful of men and women set in motion a dangerous crusade---to overthrow their conquerors and bring back to the world the lost brightness of an obliterated name: Tigana. Against the magnificently realized background of a world both sensuous and brutal, this masterful epic of a passionate people pursuing their dream is breathtaking in its vision, and changes forever the boundaries of fantasy fiction." (Goodreads)

Okay, this is the one novel on here that I read when I was young that's still one of my favorites. Not only does it not shy away from sexuality (queer and otherwise), but it builds so beautifully, bringing together a great cast of characters in a world with a powerful magic. It's about the weight of revenge and intent and action, about the price of tyranny and rule. I was blown away at the time with the richness of the world and the complexity of the motivations that drive the characters, and I still am. It's a novel that has stood up quite well for me, and that continues to inspire my imagination. (my review)

Moraine, Sunny. Line and Orbit [Samhain, 2013]

"Adam Yuga, a rising young star in the imperialist Terran Protectorate, is on the verge of a massive promotion…until a routine physical exam reveals something less than perfection. Genetic flaws are taboo, and Adam soon discovers there’s a thin line between rising star and starving outcast.

Stripped of wealth and position, stricken with a mysterious, worsening illness, Adam resorts to stealing credits to survive. Moments from capture by the Protectorate, help arrives in the form of Lochlan, a brash, cocksure Bideshi fighter.

Now the Bideshi, a people long shunned by the Protectorate, are the only ones who will offer him shelter. As Adam learns the truth about the mysterious, nomadic people he was taught to fear, Lochlan offers him not just shelter—but a temptation Adam can only resist for so long.

Struggling to adapt to his new life, Adam discovers his illness hides a terrible secret, one that the Protectorate will stop at nothing to conceal. Time is growing short, and he must find the strength to close a centuries-old rift, accept a new identity—and hold on to a love that could cost him everything." (Goodreads)

This is another novel that wears a lot of hats. Intense, action filled science fiction? Check. Adorable and affirming queer romance? Check. Exploration of immigration, family, and fractured relationships sets against a galaxy where science and magic don't look all that different? Check! I love the humanity in this book, the way that it imagines two very different ways that humanity might have drifted, and the consequences when one of those paths looks like it might be a dead end. It's fun and wrenching and a blast to read! (my review)

Lemberg, Rose. Marginalia to Stone Bird [Aqueduct, 2016]

"In this powerful debut collection, Rannu Award-winning poet Rose Lemberg explores the deep-rooted fluidity of gender, tradition, language, and desire in landscapes as familiar as high fantasy and as foreign as San Francisco. Written in the voices of immigrants, shape-changers, sentient ships in a distant future and heroes of a mythic past, her poems inhabit a fragile, vital space of complex identity and story as a conscious act, stubbornly urging the reader's attention toward the marginal, the liminal, and the unheard--a firebird cautioned to burn less brightly, a ghost-child ignored by the gods, a lover laying a road of words for a beloved to follow. By turns devastating and deeply hopeful, Marginalia to Stone Bird writes a fearless commentary on our history and others." (Goodreads)

Yes, poetry. And poetry that made me realize what SFF poetry could be. Poetry that tells a story and inspires, that moves and reaches out across borders and across worlds and across galaxies. It's incredibly constructed and includes some of my absolute favorite SFF poems, so it definitely earns a spot on this list. Like with so many works I've included, it got me to better understand myself as a person, a reader, and a writer. So the list wouldn't be complete without it. (my review

And there you have it. As I said before, I'm sure that if I checked back in six months this list would be slightly different. Six years? It's possible most of my choices will have changed. But I wish I had started my reading of SFF with these books. I'd undoubtedly be a different person, but I think I would have figured myself out a lot faster and maybe saved myself some grief. At the very least these are books that embody to me the idea of "essential." Because, to me, they have been essential. To understanding myself and the world.

So tell me what you think and maybe suggest some of your own essentials in the comments. One thing's for sure—with books like these out there, and with so many more to find, I'm not stopping reading any time soon.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.