With the influx of new sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books hitting shelves every week, it’s easy to miss a few good books here and there. There are more than a few well-hewn jewels that deserve a spot on your to-read pile. Thankfully, it’s never too late to pick up a good book. Whether a little-known sister-series to your favorite sci-fi chronicle or perhaps a piece of speculative fiction that slipped past your radar, the books below are a few of our favorite underrated and overlooked fantasy and sci-fi gems.
In this masterpiece of speculative fiction, Marge Piercy focuses on Connie Ramos, a woman who bears witness to two possible futures: one an egalitarian utopia, the other grotesque society where humans are considered nothing more than chattel. Connie, who may or may not be losing her sanity, could hold the key that determines which of these worlds will come to pass.
If you’re looking for a little grimdark to hold you over while George R.R. Martin finishes up The Winds of Winter, The Broken Empire Series is just the ticket. Brutal and relentlessly harrowing, the series tells the story of Jorg Ancrath, a prince who was driven from his home following the murder of his brother and mother. The Broken Empire charts his volatile quest for revenge.
Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts
This lesser-known but no less engrossing piece of The Riftwar Cycle chronicles Mara of Acoma’s rise to the most powerful woman in Kelewan. With no shortage of the sort of adventure and intrigue that drew fans to the Riftwar Cycle, The Empire Trilogy is well worth a look.
Matthew Woodring Stover
Heroes Die centers on Caine, known as the Blade of Tyshalle in the land of Ankhana and considered one of that world’s deadliest combatants. Back on Earth, he is simply Hari Michaelson, a man who, despite his fame, remains stuck in society’s rigid caste system – that is, until the disappearance of his estranged wife catapults him into a deadly game of cat and mouse.
He’s drawn comparisons to Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and China Mieville – if you aren’t familiar with newcomer Indra Das yet, you should be. His debut novel, The Devourers, is a seamless and surreal blend of Indian folklore and legend, weird fiction, and adventure. It centers on a professor in Kolkata, India who sets about transcribing a collection of documents recounting the saga of an otherworldly race that spans centuries.
Book One of The Sea Beggars
This imaginative adventure centers on a world long abandoned by its Creator, a world that was once home to an ancient and powerful race. A young man named Rol who was raised in a fishing village, but who may be descended from that ancient race, stands accused of witchcraft. He is driven from his village and begins an epic journey that will forever change his life.
Book 1 of The Second Sons Trilogy
The Second Sons Trilogy takes place on the world of Ranadon, where there is no night thanks to the two suns that shine on the planet. Featuring an expansive cast of characters, the story largely centers on Dirk, the second son of the Duke of Elcast, as he navigates the shifting alliances, intrigue, and palpable dangers that mark life beneath Ranadon’s unrelenting suns.
The disappearance of the spaceship Ishiguro devastated the global space program and dealt a blow to space exploration that would take decades to repair. Now with the program finally resurrected, twin brothers Mira and Tomas will lead an expedition and hopefully solve the mystery of the Ishiguro. What awaits them, however, is beyond anything either could have imagined. This mindbending sci-fi novel is part 2 of Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet, but you don’t need to have read the first book to dive right in.
The thought-provoking Tamir Triad trilogy from Lynn Flewelling deals primarily with the hostilities between the fantasy nations of Skala and Plenimar. The series presents the ancient rivalry through the lens of Tamir, a prophesied queen who, through magical intervention, grew up as a boy named Tobin in order to avoid the wrath of her uncle – a king who has murdered all women in the royal line to ensure the succession of his only son.
Mary Doria Russell
This fascinating novel is a challenging and thought-provoking exploration of the nature of good and evil. The novel follows a Jesuit priest and linguist who leads a scientific expedition to make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. What initially begins as a mission of hope devolves into a horrifying debacle through a series of misunderstandings. A beautiful and profound read.
In this fantasy/sci-fi hybrid, Ken Scholes created a vivid post-apocalyptic world filled with the remnants of magic, technology, and powerful religions. Centering on the battle for control of the Named Lands, the novels follows a host of characters struggling against aftermath of a cataclysmic event that reshaped society’s understanding of the world around them.
Aliette de Bodard
Set against the backdrop of post-apocalyptic Paris, the Dominion of the Fallen series imagines an arcane war waged for the soul of the City of Light. The novels focus on the great Houses struggling for dominion over Paris and the three people – a young but powerful magician, an alchemist, and a naïve fallen angel – at the center of the conflict.
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Karen Lord has drawn favorable comparisons to SFF heavyweights like Ursula K. Le Guin and China Mieville, and The Best of All Possible Worlds makes it abundantly clear why. An alien race loses its homeland in an unprovoked attack and is forced to settle on a new world among a foreign species and culture. Soon after, a man and woman from these clashing societies are drawn together to save what’s left of their vanishing cultures. The Best of All Possible Worlds is equal parts love story and character study, exploring the ever-timely issues of culture, social change, and assimilation.
This epic fantasy from author Michelle West follows the intricate tale of the battle for control of the most powerful of the ruling Houses of Essalieyan Empire, House Terafin. The series is told largely from the perspective of Jewel Markess, a remarkable young woman whose visions may be key to saving the realm and all that she knows.
In this provocative and poignant novel, Elizabeth Moon imagines a near future free of disease and genetic defects. The protagonist, a high-functioning autistic man named Lou, was born too early to reap the medical breakthroughs that so greatly impacted the society around him. When he is offered an opportunity for an experimental cure, Lou must decide whether he will still be himself if cured, and if the world will still be as he knows it.
In this tense and terrifying thriller, a woman shepherds her two children on a terrifying journey to what she hopes will be safety. The kicker? Thanks to an unknown terror that drives people to unspeakable violence after a single glimpse, she and the children must make the journey blindfolded with only their instincts to guide them.
Inspired by Native American myth and legend and infused with magical realism, Susan Power – a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe – creates a decades-spanning tale of broken families, romance, violence and redemption centered around a North Dakota reservation.
In this underappreciated page-turner, a group of five teenage orphans are ushered into a strange building. It has no walls, no ceiling or floors. Instead it is filled with endless flights of stairs that all lead towards a strange red machine. House of Stairs is a slow burn, but it is nonetheless thought-provoking in its layered exploration of social dynamics.
The Gone-Away World is a hilariously incongruous mix of post-apocalypse, kung-fu, buddy comedy, and war story – and it works. Centering on an unnamed narrator and his best friend, the story sends the martial arts-trained duo on a perilous mission to stave off world domination in a wasteland populated by ninjas, pirates, and (of all things) mimes.
When Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park with no memory and a pile of dead bodies around her, she has no choice but to trust the instructions left in her pocket – instructions left by her former self. She soon discovers that she is a Rook, an operative for secret agency that combats supernatural threats, and is pulled into a far-reaching conspiracy that she can barely comprehend. By turns scary, funny, fantastical, and poignant, The Rook is not to be missed.
In the mood for a dark fairy tale? White is for Witching is likely just the ticket. The story follows the Silver family and their cavernous home outside of Dover, England. The Silver women have long had a deep connection that spans time and space, and when Miranda, the latest Silver, begins suffering strange ailments and hearing voices, things within the house begin to change. White is for Witching is a fascinating and terrifying meditation on race, family legacy, at once both mysterious and haunting.
And Other Stories: 75th-Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Speaking of fairytales, Angela Carter’s masterpiece is a brilliantly subversive and dark collection of twisted feminist retellings of some of the world’s most familiar legends and fairytales, from Little Red Riding Hood to Bluebeard and Puss in Boots. Steeped in gothic trappings, and told with a remarkable grasp of language and suspense, The Bloody Chamber deserves a spot on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf.
Those Across the River is a haunting piece of preternatural fiction. The novel follows failed academic Frank and his wife as they relocate to the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow so Frank can write a history of his family’s estate – the Savoyard Plantation. However, a dark force is at work within the plantation grounds, and it’s been waiting a long time for Frank.
Catherynne Valente; Illustrations by Michael Kaluta
Drawing inspiration from works like One Thousand and One Nights, The Orphan’s Tales is a dazzling compendium of folklore-inspired tales. It begins in a secret garden where a lonely girl weaves stories for a curious prince. What follows is a series of dark and elaborate fairy tales as surreal as they are enchanting.
Patricia A. McKillip
Brendan Vetch has a peculiar gift – an innate ability to connect with the agricultural world. It is a gift that has isolated him throughout his life – until he receives an invitation to serve as gardener at the magical school of the wizard Od. But there may be more to Od’s invitation and Brendan’s powers than he could ever imagine.
Scott Snyder & Jock
Scott Snyder may be best known for his work on Batman at DC Comics, but his heart has always been with horror comics. Wytches is his most recent foray into the genre, and one of his best. The series follows the Rook family, who relocate the Litchfield, NH after traumatic incident involving the Rooks’ daughter Sailor. Nothing is quite as it seems in Litchfield, however, and Sailor is soon caught up in a terrifying mystery surrounding the town.