Tuesday, September 6, 2016

ESSENTIALS: 24 SF/F Books to Make a Better Writer

What makes a sci-fi or fantasy book essential to read? There are some authors whose works I feel like I could easily throw out here with few people questioning me: Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Octavia Butler, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, and on. And all of them have written works that are essential, certainly. But what does essential mean? When my favorite Powers that Be at Nerds had the idea of us doing our essential lists, I immediately thought of a lot of books I’d want to include. Then, because they are as cruel as they are kind, they told me I could only include 24 books and I shook my fist at the sky.

To limit myself, I decided to take three different tacks when approaching my essential SFF list. 

One: they had to be books that had been written in my lifetime (so that I’d theoretically have an easier time narrowing things down. File this plan under: Lies I Tell Myself). I still had way (way [way]) too many titles, so then I narrowed again to books that had been written since 2000.

Two: They had to be standalone books, instead of a part of series. This saved me from having to choose one single Harry Potter to rule them all. They also had to be novels and not short story collections (because when I included both types, this list was about 22 titles too long). I also only allowed myself one book per author, so perennial favorites like China Mieville, Colson Whitehead, and Neil Gaiman wouldn’t steal too many spots.

Three: I’m a writer, so I decided that they had to be books that were essential to me because of specifically what they showed me writing could do. This, by its nature, means that they also had to be books that I’ve reread at least once.That means this list is more specific and personal than maybe it should be. It’s my essential list, so it certainly won’t be everyone’s essential list.
A quick note, while I’m saying SFF (sci-fi and fantasy) I did broaden that out to include horror; however, I only chose horror that was highly speculative (ie zombies and ghosts were fine; psychological suspense would not be).

Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs [Coach House Books, 2015]

"I wonder", said Hermes, "what it would be like if animals had human intelligence."

" I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence."

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks." (

Why: Alexis is an astounding writer. When he put his mind to a more fantastical conceit (though, admittedly, a lot of his works have speculative hints), he did it with such playfulness and heart that the resulting book rightfully won the Giller Prize for 2015. Warning: if you’re a dog person, as I am, there are some moments that are very hard to read. This book will crush your heart. 

Anderson, Howard L. Albert of Adelaide [Twelve, 2012]

"At once an old-fashioned-buddy-novel-shoot-'em-up and a work of deliciously imagined fantasy, Howard L. Anderson's dazzling debut presents the haunting story of a world where something has gone horribly awry . . . 

Having escaped from Australia's Adelaide Zoo, an orphaned platypus named Albert embarks on a journey through the outback in search of "Old Australia," a rumored land of liberty, promise, and peace. What he will find there, however, away from the safe confinement of his enclosure for the first time since his earliest memories, proves to be a good deal more than he anticipated. 

Alone in the outback, with an empty soft drink bottle as his sole possession, Albert stumbles upon pyromaniacal wombat Jack, and together they spend a night drinking and gambling in Ponsby Station, a rough-and-tumble mining town. Accused of burning down the local mercantile, the duo flees into menacing dingo territory and quickly go their separate ways-Albert to pursue his destiny in the wastelands, Jack to reconcile his past. Encountering a motley assortment of characters along the way-a pair of invariably drunk bandicoots, a militia of kangaroos, hordes of the mercurial dingoes, and a former prize-fighting Tasmanian devil-our unlikely hero will discover a strength and skill for survival he never suspected he possessed." (Goodreads)

Why: The fact that although the main character is a platypus ISN’T my main reason for recommending this should say a lot. A strange, lyrical, examination of what home, freedom, and friendship mean.

Barlow, Toby. Babayaga [Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2013]

By the author of Sharp Teeth, a novel of love, spies, and witches in 1950s Paris—and a cop turned into a flea.

Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls. 

Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike. Zoya, it turns out, has been a beautiful young woman for hundreds of years; she and her far more traditionally witchy-looking companion, Elga, have been thriving unnoticed in the bloody froth of Europe’s wars. 

Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who cherishes quiet nights at home. But when he follows a lead from a grisly murder to the abode of an ugly old woman, he finds himself turned into a flea. 

Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to Paris to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C. who ask a few favors in return. He’s in well over his head, but it’s nothing that a cocktail can’t fix. Right? 

Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of some more angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp through the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility. (Goodreads)

Why: There’s a such a spirit of playful joy in Barlow’s writing. That this joy couples with such darkness and beauty makes it an exquisite read. PLUS FLEA DETECTIVE. 

Barzak, Christopher. One for Sorrow [Bantam, 2007]

"Part thriller, part ghost tale, part love story, One for Sorrow is a novel as timeless as The Catcher in the Rye and as hauntingly lyrical as The Lovely Bones. Christopher Barzak’s stunning debut tells of a teenage boy’s coming-of-age that begins with a shocking murder and ends with a reason to hope.

Adam McCormick had just turned fifteen when the body was found in the woods. It is the beginning of an autumn that will change his life forever. Jamie Marks was a boy a lot like Adam, a boy no one paid much attention to—a boy almost no one would truly miss. And for the first time, Adam feels he has a purpose. Now, more than ever, Jamie needs a friend.

But the longer Adam holds on to Jamie’s ghost, the longer he keeps his friend tethered to a world where he no longer belongs . . . and the weaker Adam’s own ties to the living become. Now, to find his way back, Adam must learn for himself what it truly means to be alive"

Why: This is one of my favorite, and the most original, takes on the “I see dead people” trope. It also deals with coming-of-age while being different in a beautiful and heart-rending manner.

Bishop, KJ. The Etched City [Prime, 2003]

Gwynn and Raule are rebels on the run, with little in common except being on the losing side of a hard-fought war. Gwynn is a gunslinger from the north, a loner, a survivor . . . a killer. Raule is a wandering surgeon, a healer who still believes in just--and lost--causes. Bound by a desire to escape the ghosts of the past, together they flee to the teeming city of Ashamoi… (Goodreads)

Why: Honestly, I almost can’t articulate why this is such a good read. It is one of the strangest and yet most affecting fantasies I’ve ever read.

Brockmeier, Kevin. The Brief History of the Dead [Pantheon, 2006]

"From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory..."  (Goodreads)

Why: This wonderful book turns apocalypse fiction on its head by not focusing on the apocalypse but rather on those who died during it.

Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell [Bloomsbury, 2004]

"At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
.." (

Why: Magicians. And footnotes. And one of the most fully realized alternate histories I’ve ever read.

Claudel, Phillipe. Brodeck [Nan A. Talese, 2007]

"Forced into a brutal concentration camp during a great war, Brodeck returns to his village at the war’s end and takes up his old job of writing reports for a governmental bureau. One day a stranger comes to live in the village. His odd manner and habits arouse suspicions: His speech is formal, he takes long, solitary walks, and although he is unfailingly friendly and polite, he reveals nothing about himself. When the stranger produces drawings of the village and its inhabitants that are both unflattering and insightful, the villagers murder him. The authorities who witnessed the killing tell Brodeck to write a report that is essentially a whitewash of the incident. 

As Brodeck writes the official account, he sets down his version of the truth in a separate, parallel narrative. In measured, evocative prose, he weaves into the story of the stranger his own painful history and the dark secrets the villagers have fiercely kept hidden." 

Why: This is more myth than fantasy, a dark fairy tale that mirrors our own world’s past. There is nothing magical about this book, except for perhaps the way that it leaves one reeling. Does it belong on this list? I’d argue yes, because it does what any great speculative work should: it forces us to consider history and reality in a way we hadn’t done before.

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane [William Morrow, 2013]

"Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark."

Why: This book reminds me so much of DWJ’s Fire and Hemlock that it could have skewed my appreciation. But I think it’s just that good. Nostalgia, the loss of childhood wonder, and unsettling magic all shine here. 

Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars [Knopf, 2012]

"Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.

But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for."

Why: There isn’t anything overly unique about the apocalypse here, but that’s one of the things that makes this one stand out. Grounded in realism and with sharp observations about friendship, loss, and loneliness.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go [Knopf, 2005]

"As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together." (Goodreads)

Why: This one sneaks up on you, at one point it seems almost emotionless and, yet, by the end of the book I always find myself almost unable to breathe. This is sci-fi at its most deceptively brutal.

Joyce, Graham. The Facts of Life [Atria, 2003]

"THE FACTS OF LIFE tells the story of an extraordinary family of seven sisters living in Coventry during the Second World War. Presided over by an indomitable matriach, the sisters live out a tangled and fraught life that takes them through the Blitz, war work and on into the hopeful postwar years, and a bizarre interlude for one of them in a commune. And through it all wanders the young son of one of the sisters, passed from sister to sister, the innocent witness to a life that edges over into the magical." (Goodreads)

Why: Joyce’s work is both deeply speculative and also not. You don’t leave one of his books going “oh what a fantasy” but you do leave them feeling like you’ve been through something fantastical. This is my favorite of his works.

LaValle, Victor. The Devil in Silver [Spiegel & Grau, 2012]

"New Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward has a new resident. It also has a very, very old one.

Pepper is a rambunctious big man, minor-league troublemaker, working-class hero (in his own mind), and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He is accused of a crime he can’t quite square with his memory. In the darkness of his room on his first night, he’s visited by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It’s no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the group’s enforcer. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster that’s stalking them. But can the Devil die?

The Devil in Silver brilliantly brings together the compelling themes that spark all of Victor LaValle’s radiant fiction: faith, race, class, madness, and our relationship with the unseen and the uncanny. More than that, it’s a thrillingly suspenseful work of literary horror about friendship, love, and the courage to slay our own demons."

Why: No one quite does the uncanny like LaValle. But the uncanny also is never the point of his books. His characters, even a rat!, come first in this take on horror, the mental health industry, and what evil is or is not.

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven [Knopf 2014]

"An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it."  (Goodreads)

Why: This is simply put one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I’ve ever read.

Mièville, China. The City & the City [Del Rey, 2009]

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad finds deadly conspiracies beneath a seemingly routine murder. From the decaying Beszel, he joins detective Qussim Dhatt in rich vibrant Ul Qoma, and both are enmeshed in a sordid underworld. Rabid nationalists are intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists dream of dissolving the two into one. (Goodreads)

Why: It’s perfect. Detective fiction meets political thriller meets a world so carefully constructed that you want to shake Mieville for writing something so good.

Miyabe, Miyuki. Crossfire [Kodansha USA, 2006]

"A harrowing tale of murder and retribution. 

Young, pretty Junko Aoki has an extraordinary ability-she can start fires through sheer force of will. When she begins using her gift of pyrokinesis to take the law into her own hands and punish violent criminals, her executions attract the attention of two very different groups: the Guardians, a secretive vigilante organization that tries to recruit her, and the arson squad of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Soon the police are on Junko's trail, most notably Detective Chikako Ishizu, a rationalist who must come to terms with the existence of paranormal forces. As Junko's crusade against evil escalates and she finds it harder to control her power, we are taken on a breathtaking and brutal journey through the urban landscape of Tokyo on a journey that challenges us, along with Chikako, to think about what's right and what's wrong in the name of justice. 

Atmospheric, suspenseful, provocative, and even romantic, Crossfire is a tour de force sure to secure Miyuki Miyabe's place in the pantheon of today's top mystery writers." (Goodreads)

Why: Miyabe is a master of so many genres that it was hard to choose one title. Ultimately, I went with the first I read by her because of the way it forces the supernatural into a detective thriller while also posing interesting questions about violence and power.

Oyeyemi, Helen. White is for Witching [Picador, 2009]

"In a vast, mysterious house on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the hole punched into its heart. Lily is gone and her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her husband, the gentle Luc, mourn her absence with unspoken intensity. All is not well with the house, either, which creaks and grumbles and malignly confuses visitors in its mazy rooms, forcing winter apples in the garden when the branches should be bare. Generations of women inhabit its walls. And Miranda, with her new appetite for chalk and her keen sense for spirits, is more attuned to them than she is to her brother and father. She is leaving them slowly -

Slipping away from them -

And when one dark night she vanishes entirely, the survivors are left to tell her story.

"Miri I conjure you "

This is a spine-tingling tale that has Gothic roots but an utterly modern sensibility. Told by a quartet of crystalline voices, it is electrifying in its expression of myth and memory, loss and magic, fear and love.
"  (Goodreads)
Why: Oyeyemi creates some of the strangest and most intriguing works around. Her plots don’t always make sense on the page and yet I never leave feeling unsatisfied. This is the ultimate haunted house story as only Oyeyemi can tell it.

Sigurdardottir, Yrsa. I Remember You (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012]

"This horrifying thriller, partly based on a true story, is the scariest novel yet from an international bestseller.

The crunching noise had resumed, now accompanied by a disgusting, indefinable smell. It could best be described as a blend of kelp and rotten meat. The voice spoke again, now slightly louder and clearer:

Don't go. Don't go yet. I'm not finished.

In an isolated village in the Icelandic Westfjords, three friends set to work renovating a derelict house. But soon they realise they are not alone there - something wants them to leave, and it's making its presence felt.

Meanwhile, in a town across the fjord, a young doctor investigating the suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son.

When the two stories collide the terrifying truth is uncovered . . ." (Goodreads)

Why: This is one of the only books I’ve ever had to set away from my bed while I was sleeping because it creeped me out so much. Add in that Sigurdardottir writes excellent crime fiction that isn’t afraid to add in speculative hints and how could I not include it?

Theroux, Marcel. Far North [Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2009]

"Far North is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

My father had an expression for a thing that turned out bad. He’d say it had gone west. But going west always sounded pretty good to me. After all, westwards is the path of the sun. And through as much history as I know of, people have moved west to settle and find freedom. But our world had gone north, truly gone north, and just how far north I was beginning to learn.

Out on the frontier of a failed state, Makepeace—sheriff and perhaps last citizen—patrols a city’s ruins, salvaging books but keeping the guns in good repair.

Into this cold land comes shocking evidence that life might be flourishing elsewhere: a refugee emerges from the vast emptiness of forest, whose existence inspires Makepeace to reconnect with human society and take to the road, armed with rough humor and an unlikely ration of optimism.

What Makepeace finds is a world unraveling: stockaded villages enforcing an uncertain justice and hidden work camps laboring to harness the little-understood technologies of a vanished civilization. But Makepeace’s journey—rife with danger—also leads to an unexpected redemption.

Far North takes the reader on a quest through an unforgettable arctic landscape, from humanity’s origins to its possible end. Haunting, spare, yet stubbornly hopeful, the novel is suffused with an ecstatic awareness of the world’s fragility and beauty, and its ability to recover from our worst trespasses."

Why: This is like the ice-bound alternative to Mad Max’s hot-desert post-apocalyptic landscape with one of the most interesting narrators I’ve read.

wa Thiong ‘o’, Ngugi. The Wizard of the Crow. [Pantheon, 2006]

"From the exiled Kenyan novelist, playwright, poet, and literary critic--a magisterial comic novel that is certain to take its place as a landmark of postcolonial African literature.

In exile now for more than twenty years, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has become one of the most widely read African writers of our time, the power and scope of his work garnering him international attention and praise. His aim in Wizard of the Crow is, in his own words,nothing less than “to sum up Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history.”

Commencing in “our times” and set in the “Free Republic of Aburĩria,” the novel dramatizes with corrosive humor and keenness of observation a battle for control of the souls of the Aburĩrian people. Among the contenders: His High Mighty Excellency; the eponymous Wizard, an avatar of folklore and wisdom; the corrupt Christian Ministry; and the nefarious Global Bank. Fashioning the stories of the powerful and the ordinary into a dazzling mosaic, Wizard of the Crow reveals humanity in all its endlessly surprising complexity.

Informed by richly enigmatic traditional African storytelling, Wizard of the Crow is a masterpiece, the crowning achievement in Ngugl wa Thiong’o’s career thus far."

Why: Technically, I think it’s inaccurate to include this one. However, because it’s a masterpiece and I want everyone to have read it, I bent my own rules slightly. There is magic here and some alternative history, though, so it counts in a way. However, here Thiong ‘o’ is mostly proving that story is the greatest magic.

Waters, Sarah. The Little Stranger [Riverhead, 2009]

"The Little Stranger follows the strange adventures of Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. One dusty postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his." (Goodreads)

Why: This is one of the best haunted house novels out there. Waters puts her signature gorgeous writing to good use in the slow and creeping unfolding here.

Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. [Doubleday, 2011]

"In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century"

Why: Whitehead completely reimagines the zombie novel while also staying true to it. This is funny, heartbreaking, deeply intelligent writing.

Wilson, G. Willow. Alif the Unseen [Grove Press, 2012]
"In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the "Hand of God," as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground.

When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen."

Why: Mixing myth, fable, techno-thriller, and political allegory all into a wonderful mesh of goodness. Some of my favorite djinn in literature are in here.

Wynne Jones, Diana. Anything.

Right here I’m cheating. Throwing out all my careful rules. But Jones’ was a gift to the world. And I couldn’t find one of her books that fit the parameters I set for myself. There could be no way that I could have a list of the essential SFF and not include her.

POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016.