Though I’ve usually thought of myself as a science fiction reader primarily, this year’s favorite fantasy fiction has shown me how diverse and vital this vast category can be. None of the nine books in this list resorts to the tired conventions of Eurocentric medieval-style settings and hero questing. Each one takes a completely original approach in re-imagining worlds that blend mythic, historical and contemporary settings driven by basic human needs and startling magic. Since I don’t like rankings, I present my favorite fantasy fiction in no particular order. (Just a note that some of these novels first appeared in 2021, but I didn’t get to them until this year.)
Babel by R.F. Kuang
Babel by R.F. Kuang (author of the Poppy War trilogy), has the lengthy subtitle: or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. It may seem strange to talk about violence, revolution and academic translators in one breath, but make no mistake, this is a compelling story of revolution in response to the concentration of wealth and power and the impact of racism in the British Empire in the 1830s. And it’s also clearly about the world as it is today. Babel is part bildungsroman, part disquisition on language, part adventure of anti-colonialism and empire building, part love of Oxford and privilege, part alternate history of early industrialization, part story of deep friendships, part analysis of racism and power, and more besides. I was skeptical at first how this could all come together, but it does so quite brilliantly.
Monkey Around by Jadie Jang
Claire Light, writing as Jadie Jang, has re-envisioned the Monkey King from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, as Maya MacQueen, a shape-shifter twenty-something woman of the San Francisco Bay Area during the Occupy movement of 2011. Maya, while assuming human form as a fun-loving activist/magazine editor/researcher/barista, is constantly exploring and questioning her abilities and her place in the world, and in the midst of that she’s called on to investigate a series of murders of other shapeshifters. Then it gets personal when she realizes that the mysterious killer entity has her on its list as well. Jadie Jang has created a special place in urban fantasy with her blending of exciting action, contemporary social movements, supernatural beings, the character of Maya MacQueen herself and the developing spirit of the Bay.
The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope
Leslye Penelope takes us in the masterful The Monsters We Defy to 1925 Washington DC and its thriving but caste-bound African American elite community where spirits battle for souls. Though I could use the marketing labels (historical fantasy, romance, etc) to describe the story, The Monsters We Defy is so insightful and brilliant that conventional terms fail utterly to convey Penelope’s special vision. She sees this world through multiple layers of spiritual realities that empower and burden each major character, and those spiritual qualities, while being great fun to read about, also work as metaphors for the real struggles people endure to find out who they are. At its center is the bristling and unforgettable Clara Johnson, who has “second sight” into the spiritual world and can summon the “Enigmas” that bestow gifts on humans but always at a heavy price. The Monsters We Defy is a great blending of realistic characters, spiritualism and magic, fantasy, mystery, a heist story and a strong element of romance. I love it when I encounter a book of a type I don’t often read and get completely carried away with. And The Monsters We Defy is such a book that draws you into a brilliantly recreated historical world that is turned inside out through its powerful spiritual presences.
The Stars Undying by Emery Robin
It’s a bold idea for a debut novelist to choose the stories and legends of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar projected into a space opera. Bold, I think, because these were formidable people in life, and I’ve been disappointed too many times with thin fictional replicas of great historical figures. But Emery Robin’s The Stars Undying succeeds brilliantly in rendering interesting and complex characters for these difficult roles. The Stars Undying is full of beautifully rendered moments that make the story exceptionally rich and rewarding. There are dozens of scenes I come back to again and again. This may be a debut novel, but it is the work of an incredibly accomplished writer.
Embertide by Liz Williams
Liz Williams’ Embertide is the third outing with the Fallow Sisters (following on from Comet Weather and Blackthorn Winter), and it’s another time-slipping and spirit-battling adventure with Bee, Serena, Stella, Luna, and their reality jumping Mom, Alys. Spirits, both good and evil, frequently interrupt their lives in present-day England. Assisting them are a troupe of friends, including some baseline humans but also various ghosts, shapeshifters, reborn time-hopping folks or the avatars of stars or ancient goddesses. I’m on board for anything Liz Williams writes. Her beautiful style is carefully attuned to both harmony and discordance of the ancient land and the people struggling to understand it.
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Impressed as I was by Simon Jimenez‘ beautiful and moving first novel, The Vanished Birds, I have to say I’m just staggered by his second, The Spear Cuts Through Water. Using the second person, the narrator lures “you” with intensely lyrical but dramatically apt prose into a world between worlds. One of several story tellers within the story, “your lola”, an often short tempered elder talking to a young man of a recent era, envelopes her listener in a cloud of smoke, as she urges him to “let the dreaming body go.” He does so and steps out of a cloud into the world of the Inverted Theater. The Spear Cuts Through Water is an amazing achievement that works on many levels. It’s a story that richly repays re-reading to linger over its beautiful details, as one would pause over the tapestry of life that is one of its key metaphors.
Spear by Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith’s Spear takes us on a journey of discovery through Arthurian legend that flows on brilliant prose. I had to read it in a day because the rhythm and imagery were so fluid and deeply woven into the sensual world of Peretur’s heightened perception and powers. I found Spear to be a flawless work of glistening imagination, a rendering of early Britain that is completely original and fresh. Peretur is an unforgettable figure, always alert to what her senses take in, brilliant in action and, something that is hard to portray, a character who feels thoroughly good as she grows into her adult self and all her powers.
The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri
In The Oleander Sword, the second novel of The Burning Kingdoms trilogy, Tasha Suri has produced an even more intensely involving and brilliant book than she did in The Jasmine Throne. That first novel richly explored the many selves and identities its characters had to adopt to survive as they strove to increase their power, whether worldly or spiritual or both. The Oleander Sword raises the stakes even higher by confronting the major characters with the price of their success. Each faces a brutal choice of sacrificing what is dearest to them to achieve a greater good or a higher ambition. This is an incredibly powerful novel that heightens the tension of these choices while also setting the stage for a conflict of even grander scale in the final volume of the trilogy.
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
One of the things that makes Ling Ma’s stories in Bliss Montage so extraordinary is her ability to blend keen perceptions of human relationships with fantasy elements that somehow make the fantastic an intimate part of ordinary life. There is the house in “LA” the narrator shares with a hundred ex-boyfriends, the pickup date in “Yeti Lovemaking” who turns out to be a yeti in a human suit, the drug in “G” that makes the body literally disappear, and the opening in the closet of a college professor in “Office Hours” that leads to another world. The fantasy elements in Bliss Montage don’t take you out of this world but rather plunge you more deeply into the confused strivings of the characters in this one. For me all eight stories of Bliss Montage are unforgettable. Each one dances on the edge of fantasy, the surreal, the satiric and the profoundly moving need for love and selfhood. The fact that Ling Ma’s characters are always on the verge of fulfilling themselves but never quite getting there makes this collection all the more true to life.