They say fiction is a hard sell these days. Our attention spans are shrinking faster than the news cycle and polemics are dominating bestseller lists. But I would argue that this is exactly the time that we should be reading more fiction, because the good stuff can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, take us to places we’ve never been, and increase our empathy. Who’s with me?! You can start with the list below, featuring a handful of our favorite fiction of the year. To view the full list, click here, and to see all of our picks for the best books of 2018, you can do so right here.
Washington Black is that rarest of novels: a hybrid that knows exactly what it is. The story begins as an antebellum novel about Wash, an 11-year-old slave working on a Barbados plantation run by a sadistic master. When Christopher, the master’s brother, takes Wash under his wing and teaches him to read, the novel turns more toward adventure and scientific exploration. There are inventions, twists, and turns; there is danger and intrigue; there is travel and growth. What holds everything together is author Esi Edugyan’s writing chops. She is a precise writer who has created a world that seems whole and all-embracing. Her characters are fully realized human beings. The weight of personal freedom is a theme that winds through the book, as does the opposing weight of cultural and societal expectations. There is so much to digest here, and so much to enjoy, that readers may well be tempted to read this book twice. --Chris Schluep
What does it really mean to be an Indian/Native American/American Indian/Native? Orange's vivid debut novel allows a unique cast—ranging from teenagers to elders—to pull this question apart even as they add a modern layer of complexity: They live in the urban landscape of Oakland, California. The thrust of Orange's cross-cut storytelling is not to force his characters onto a strict plot line but to explore the varied ways of being an Indian and, more important, of feeling like an Indian. Fractured families, Oakland itself, and detachment from tradition make an Indian identity seem even more elusive to the younger characters, but it's a feeling that they unknowingly share—and that Orange wants to expose. As an amateur filmmaker says to a teen he's interviewing, "When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone." Isolation and longing permeate the page, lifted briefly only as the characters intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow, with chaotic results. If I have any quibble about the book (and it could be a failure of mine, really), it's that there are a few too many characters for me to comfortably hold in my head. But then again, this isn't a comfortable novel, and therein lies its power and purpose. —Adrian Liang
In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, a damaged vet named Ernt Allbright returns from Vietnam and moves his family to the wilds of Alaska to start their lives anew. Initially it's a welcome change, but as winter approaches, and Ernt's mental state deteriorates, his wife and daughter find themselves in an increasingly precarious position. Leni and Cora are the heart of what is as much a mother-daughter love story as it is a pressure cooker of a page-turner. Together they reckon not only with the elements, but with some bad decisions, born from the stubborn faith that Ernt will somehow be restored to the person he was before the war. It’s a testament to Hannah’s compassionate storytelling that you’ll be hard-pressed to call him a villain; Ernt actually shares the same Achilles heel as the rest of the Allbright clan: they do not know how to ask for, or receive, help (so much so, you just want to shake them). Fortunately the cavalry comes anyway, including a homesteader named “Large Marge” who doesn’t suffer fools (or domestic abusers). The muse of The Great Alone is clearly Alaska--in all its untamed, stunningly beautiful, dangerous glory. It provides the perfect backdrop for an equally dramatic tale, one that feels remarkably current for the 1970s setting. But Hannah’s latest also harkens to her mega bestselling The Nightingale: it highlights the heroics of everyday people, especially women. And it’s just a damn good read. --Erin Kodicek
I first imagined that the title of Girls Burn Brighter referred to the custom of widows immolating themselves upon their husbands' funeral pyres. While no women suffer that fate in this contemporary novel, that's practically the only bad thing that doesn't happen to best friends Poornima and Savitha, who grow up in rural India. The two young women become soul mates as they work long hours together in Poornima's father's weaving hut, but a late-night attack on Savitha forces her out of Poornima's life shortly before Poornima enters an arranged marriage. Shobha Rao's writing power builds in the spaces between words, her lean prose making the glimpses she shows of the breathtaking misogyny the girls endure all the more horrifying. This is not an emotionally gentle novel. You'll be outraged and hopeful, shocked and awakened. And throughout, Poornima and Savitha do burn brighter, fueled by their unshakable determination to find each other again. —Adrian Liang
For those of you who didn’t think, “You had me at mermaid,” neither did I! But I’m so glad I read Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock or I would have missed one of the most delicious debuts of 2018. A Georgian romp reminiscent of Sarah Waters’s wonderfully bawdy Victorian-era novels, it follows the unlikely courtship of a celebrated courtesan and a decidedly undazzling merchant. The latter has come into a windfall, owing to the sale of a deceased merbaby (just go with it—the writing is that good), but it turns out that their union isn’t just reliant on the size of his…wallet. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a treat of a read with clever, immersive dialog and enough twists and turns to make you wish the word count was even more generous (it's 496 pages). But it also slyly scrutinizes class, gender, and race divides—adding a layer of depth to a novel that is hopefully the first of many for Ms. Gowar. —Erin Kodicek