The last year in science fiction and fantasy novels saw a welcome mix of debut voices and returning favorites. While genre fiction is often seen as an escapist form of literature (something that’s understandably needed in 2019), the best stories often address real-world concerns and anxieties.
As such, if there is any overarching theme linking this year’s books together, it’s a hope that people can remake or rebuild worlds: whether it’s by building towards a better future, exploring far-off places, or standing up to oppressors and hatred. Many of the books on our year-end list imagine better futures and alternate paths that could take us there, and with a speculative twist.
With that in mind, here are our favorite reads of 2019.
On a distant, tidally-locked world called January, a young woman named Sophia is inadvertently branded a dissident and exiled to a city on the planet’s dark side. After saved the native lifeforms, the Gelet (called Crocodiles by the humans), save her life, Sophia, her friend Bianca, and their companions set out to change the world and humanity itself.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest is a deeply compassionate and complicated read that interrogates privilege, love, and what it means to be human. The breathtaking adventure reminded me more than a little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best stories.
Alternate histories are often a way to juxtapose reality against what might have been; change one thing, and see how events in the world might have played out. K. Chess puts a spin on that trope with her debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived. In our real-world New York City, refugees from an alternate dimension come through enmasse when a nuclear disaster befalls their world.
Hel is one such refugee, who Chess follows on her quest to memorialize the world that they’ve lost, starting with a copy of a popular science fiction novel from her own world, The Pyronauts. When it goes missing, she goes on a desperate search to track down the copy. Her story is a powerful, relevant story about what people will do to hold onto the worlds that they’ve lost, and how they move forward.
Ted Chiang is responsible for some of the best written science fiction in recent years, and his latest collection — the first since 2002’s The Story of Your Life and Others — brings together his latest, mind-blowing repertoire.
The nine-story collection includes the likes of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a brilliant story about artificial intelligence, and “Exhalation,” about a scientist’s observations of the universe. The entire book is eye-opening, thoughtful, and some of the best that science fiction has to offer.
In their penultimate volume of the Expanse series, James S.A. Corey’s heroes find themselves in a dark place. The Laconians — a fascist colonial world of former Martians — have taken over the solar system and human-settled space, and hold Captain James Holden captive. They have plans to investigate some anomalies that they’ve observed around some of the remnants of a long-dead alien civilization that built a vast ring network, and their explorations seem to be triggering a cataclysmic response.
As Corey wraps up their epic space opera series, they’re running on all cylinders, playing with epic consequences for humanity, and showing that none of their long-running characters are safe from what could come. But they also put together a story that seems all-too-relevant in this day and age: a warning of the dangers that fascism and totalitarianism bring.
At the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, a magical high school in California, the school’s faculty discover one of their own brutally killed in the library. When the initial investigation goes nowhere, the school’s headmaster hires a private investigator, Ivy Gamble. She reluctantly accepts the case (her estranged, twin sister is an instructor there), and delves into a world of magical secrets and high school drama to try and figure out who was behind the act.
Gailey deftly weaves together tightly wound mystery and family drama, set against the backdrop of an engrossing fantasy world. Ivy works to reconnect with her sister and discovers a devastating secret at the heart of her family’s story.
Max Gladstone is best-known for his fantasy Craft Sequence novels, but Empress of Forever turns over to space opera. In the near future, a tech billionaire named Vivian Liao is on the verge of taking over the world when she’s abruptly transported away from Earth to the end of the universe, summoned by a far-future Empress who wants to ensure her own power by stamping out any potential threat.
Gladstone’s novel is a fast, enthralling space opera yarn that addresses the dangers of power and how it’s used in the hands of an individual, and it makes for a good commentary on the excesses of Silicon Valley.
A young girl named January grows up alone along the coast of Lake Champlain in Vermont, the ward of Mr. Locke, a wealthy benefactor who employs her father to collect strange artifacts from around the world. When her father goes missing and is presumed dead, January discovers a strange book, which leads her on a journey to uncover the true nature of her father’s work, only to discover that he’s the key to her own mysterious story.
Part portal fantasy, part coming-of-age adventure, and part meditation on the power and importance of storytelling, The Ten Thousand Doors of January quickly became one of my favorite novels — ever. It’s a powerful, heart-wrenching adventure of a young woman trying to figure out who she is, and how she can save the world.
Kameron Hurley’s latest is a riff on military science fiction classics like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Humanity is engaged in a war against Mars, and one soldier, Dietz, is caught in the middle when they join a corporate military force, which can teleport soldiers onto the battlefield in a beam of light.
As they join the fight as part of the Light Brigade, time begins working differently for them: they become unstuck, and experience events out of order. The book is a scathing indictment on the nature of warfare and corporate feudalism, and it comes with a wonderful, recursive plot that glued me to my seat.
Marlon James is best known for winning the 2015 Man Booker prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. After that book’s publication, he noted that he wanted to turn his attention to fantasy, and a long-standing complaint that he had: that the genre often ignored or erased people of color from their narratives. The result was Black Leopard, Red Wolf, an epic fantasy that drew its inspiration from the African diaspora.
In the book, a man named Tracker is tasked with a mission: to track down a missing boy. As he embarks on his quest, he encounters other strange figures, and is forced to confront his own mysterious past. Set in the phenomenal world, it’s a strange, complicated, and thoughtful alternative to Game of Thrones.
Supernova Era by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen
Chinese author Cixin Liu is best known for his novel The Three-Body Problem, the first major science-fiction novel to be translated into English. It kicked off a flurry of interest in the country’s science fiction scene (which has included other novels by Liu, as well as a major film adaptation, The Wandering Earth). In his latest, Supernova Era, Earth’s adult population is wiped out after a nearby star goes supernova, leaving the children of the world to take their place.
Like Liu’s other novels, it’s a book about big, grand ideas. He looks at what the impact of such a cataclysmic event might have on humanity, and how people and institutions move on to figure out how to rebuild the world anew — and that it’s not just enough to survive, but how to build a future that’s fulfilling and productive.
In the distant future, Teixcalaanli Empire works to extends its reach to new star systems. When the ambassador of the fiercely independent Lsel Station dies unexpectedly, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is sent to replace him, only to discover that his death was part of a conspiracy, tied to her home’s particular technological advances.
Arkady Martine, an author and historian, draws inspiration from the Byzantine Empire, and uses the novel to examine how a society’s institutional memory shapes its culture and future. It’s an engrossing look at colonialism and what’s lost when one culture subsumes another.
The Moon is the perfect, clean-slate environment for science fiction authors to use as a setting for alternative, political societies. Ian McDonald thrives with those types of stories, and brings his epic Luna trilogy to a close with Luna: Moon Rising.
In the preceding novels, Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon, McDonald explores the pitfalls of a feudal, capitalistic world where corporate families (called Dragons) dominate the Moon and its inhabitants as they mine its surface for precious resources. When the Mackenzie family decimates the Cortas, Lucas Corta goes into hiding, plotting his revenge. In Moon Rising, he returns to retake control of the Moon, and McDonald examines what the cost the entire endeavor has taken on all involved, and what type of future should we build when we eventually do colonize the Moon?
In Tamsyn Muir’s pulpy debut, Gideon the Ninth, her titular hero has grown up in the Ninth House, training to become a swordswoman and spending years trying to escape its grim walls. When the Emperor invites representatives from all of the houses to compete in a trial, Gideon is selected by her nemesis, the Ninth House’s Reverend Daughter and necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, to accompany her.
The premise of this novel is essentially “lesbian necromancers in space,” and it’s a rollicking blend of pulp science fiction and horror, with plenty of sarcasm, swordplay, romance, and adventure.
Time travel and alternate universes are well-used genre tropes, with countless authors exploring all the ways that travellers work to change — or preserve — the past in order to keep the future as it is. Annalee Newitz takes a slightly different approach in their latest novel, The Future of Another Timeline, telling a story about factions of time travellers battling to make edits and change the future for the better.
Jumping between the Paleozoic, the 1800s, 1990s, 2022 and other times, time travel is a known thing in Newitz’s world: historians and activists jump back and forth in time to study the past. Editing the past isn’t easy to do, but she realizes that there is a dangerous group of travellers working to create a timeline where women will be completely oppressed, and with her companions, works to counter their edits, and it proves to be a timely novel that’s all too relevant in 2019.
Cixin Liu might have become the best-known science fiction writers to come out of China, but he’s far from the only one. Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide is a far cry from Liu’s epic science fiction tales, taking a grim look at the near future of China, where impoverished workers struggle to make a living from the world’s electronic waste.
Waste Tide follows a series of people who come together in Silicone Isle: Mimi, a worker who heads there for work; Scott Brandle, an American who is trying to arrange a contract; and Chen Kaizong, a translator, all of whom find themselves wrapped up in a greater plot for control. It’s a book that reminded me quite a bit of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with a pointed commentary on class warfare and the lifecycle of the devices we use.
After releasing her debut urban fantasy novel Trail of Lightning last year, Rebecca Roanhorse earned considerable acclaim from the science-fiction community, including nominations for the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards. Storm of Locusts picks up shortly after that first book, and it’s just as excellent.
Roanhorse sets her story in Dinétah, the traditional Navajo homeland, during a nearish future in which climate change has ravaged the world and ancient gods have returned to roam the Earth. Monster hunter Maggie Hoskie sets off after a friend goes missing, and uncovers a conspiracy led by a mysterious, charismatic cult leader. It’s a fast, exciting read that’s reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Mad Max: Fury Road.
A couple of years ago, Adrian Tchaikovsky released his first science fiction novel, Children of Time, an epic story of how humanity terraformed a distant world and the rise of a civilization of uplifted spiders that inhabited it. In this year’s, standalone-ish sequel, Tchaikovsky returns to his universe with a new uplifted species, and their clash with a planet’s native lifeforms.
Like Children of Time, Children of Ruin covers vast swaths of time, jumping from generation to generation as human surveyors uplift another eight-legged creature on an aquatic world: the octopus. As he jumps through time as a survey ship arrives in the system, Tchaikovsky explores the nature of consciousness, first contact, and how humanity could eventually spread to distant stars.
When an alien spaceship arrives at Earth and settles over the Virgin Islands, its mysterious, shape-shifting residents promise to deliver humanity untold advances and technologies. The Ynaa appear to come in peace, but their mission is shrouded in mystery, and any threat is met with extreme, disproportionate violence. After a young boy is brutally killed, the islands and their visitors find themselves on a path towards conflict that could destroy everything.
Turnbull’s debut novel is an entrancing, powerful work that explores the imbalance of power between the Ynaa and islanders, and an exploration of the archipelago’s long history of invasions.
In the nearish future, a plague sweeps across the world. The afflicted appear to be asleep and can’t be awoken, but they also begin to walk to a mysterious destination. A woman named Shana accompanies her sister as she walks, and as others follow in their footsteps, the country erupts into a crisis, with violent militias threatening to kill the sleepwalkers. Scientists work to figure out how to stop it before the country descends into anarchy.
Chuck Wendig’s latest has been compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, and over the course of the book, he examines how a country deals (badly) with a major crisis and how such disasters are merely an excuse for the emergence of long-standing bigotry, hatred, and racism. The book is an ambitious epic that holds up a mirror to the state of the world in 2019, and it’s not a pretty sight.
In early days of the Spanish Inquisition, a royal concubine named Fatima and a mapmaker named Hassan are forced to flee for their lives as their home of Grenada is overtaken by the Inquisitors. They have good reason to flee. Hassan has two a dangerous secrets: he’s queer, and has the ability to change the fabric of reality with his map, adding new features to the world with the stroke of a pen.
G. Willow Wilson’s latest is a gripping adventure that finds the pair, with the help of mythical creatures, escaping across Spain and into the unknown as they seek safety in the mythical home of the Bird King. Wilson’s story is a powerful one about the dangers of oppressive ideologies, and the power that words have to create stories and entire worlds.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
Rule of Capture by Christopher Brown
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
The Killing Light by Myke Cole
Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
The Warehouse by Rob Hart
Full Throttle by Joe Hill
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gabriel Kay
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Unraveling by Karen Lord
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan
The Bayern Agenda by Dan Moren
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Atlas Alone by Emma Newman
The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.