’Tis the season for “best of the year” lists, and this is one of my favorites lists to pull together. Looking back at 2019, I realized that a number of the most memorable reads came from debut authors, including Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, our #1 and #2 picks for the year. Who can resist a sword-swinging and wisecracking cavalier, or a new ambassador from a small mining station who must discover why an entire galactic empire is so nervous about the questions she’s asking?
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments—the Amazon editors' #1 book for 2019 across all categories—won a spot on our SF and fantasy “best of” list, as did Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, which came in #5 across all books of 2019.
A monster-hunting Navajo, a witch who can save or destroy medieval Russia, a boy on the hunt for his stolen dog after the apocalypse, and time-traveling rival agents with a hidden agenda are among our favorite SF and fantasy books of the year. Browse through the books below to find a new, mind-blowing read.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
All Gideon wants to do is leave the Ninth House and join the military. But Harrow, the de facto ruler of the Ninth House, has other plans. Big plans. When the all-powerful and undead ruler of the galaxy asks the Houses to send their best necromancer and cavalier to compete to become the ruler’s newest advisors, Harrow coerces Gideon to join her in Harrow’s grab for power. But the other Houses want to win as well. As cavaliers and necromancers start getting killed in mysterious ways, it becomes clear that something far stranger is afoot. While it takes a few chapters to wrap your brain around who everyone is, Gideon’s voice—hilarious, irreverent, and yet innocent of malice—propels the action forward in Muir’s unique world. A mix of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and a rousingly unpredictable D&D campaign, Gideon the Ninth is my favorite book of 2019—and I'm already looking forward to Tamsyn Muir's sequel.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital city of the massive Teixcalaani empire to represent her people—30,000 souls living in an independent mining station on the edge of Teixcalaani space. Riding along in Mahit's brain are the memories of the former ambassador, though the memories, suspiciously, are ten years out of date. As Mahit is swallowed by sophisticated Teixcalaani protocols and traditions, she becomes the bone that sticks in the throat—unwilling to accept not only the flimsy story around her predecessor’s sudden death but also the empire’s clear desire to assimilate Lsel Station. Mahit’s gritty spywork, diplomatic sleight-of-hand, and heightened awareness of the power and enticement of the empire’s embrace have made A Memory Called Empire one of my favorites of the year.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
As the third book opens in Arden's fantasy trilogy set in medieval Russia, Moscow is burning. Vasya is one of the few who can still see and speak with the old spirits who guard the hearth, calm horses, or lure unwary travelers into bogs, but her impatience and sense of invincibility has led to this disaster. Under the pressure of her mistakes, Vasya transforms into a battered but wiser warrior, and to save Russia from the all-too-human invaders at its borders, she must find a way for the old magic to work with the new. Arden's writing is almost luminescent in its power and emotion, and she bypasses lyrical fripperies for spare, white-hot storytelling. Not only does the Winternight Trilogy shine among Russian-inspired tales, it establishes a new high bar for coming-of-age fantasy epics. I can't wait to see what Arden creates next.
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
Evan Winter’s Xhosa-inspired fantasy novel of dragons, conquest, sorcery, and revenge has won over readers since its debut in Kindle format in February, currently sporting an average of 4.7 stars on more than 600 reviews. When young Tau has everything he loves taken from him, vengeance for the injustice is the only thing that keeps him going. A deeply unequal social system propped up by gifted warriors and bulwarked by fear of uprisings from the indigenous peoples have kept cruel people in power for too long—and Tau is determined to tear it all to the ground. This coming-of-age story burns with fierce action, a breath-taking magical system, and thoughtful introspection on what makes a hero.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Agents Red and Blue fight for different sides in a war that spins up and down the threads of time. A snip here, a weaving there—these major and minor actions tilt the balance of power, and Red and Blue are among the best time agents on the front lines. When Blue leaves a letter for Red at their latest battlefield, a playful correspondence turns into something far bigger. But neither can be sure that the other agent isn’t playing a very long game of subversion and double-cross. Emotionally riveting (and sometimes ravaging), El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s slim tale of love and loyalty despite time and place packs a wallop more potent than that of books three times its size.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Almost ten years after she wrote The Night Circus, Morgenstern offers readers a shape-shifting, time-bending, otherworldly adventure of storytelling, where pirates lurk and doors lead forward and backward in time, where crowded ballrooms collapse into oceans, and where a young man must piece together the clues to uncover and protect his own life’s story. This magnificent tribute to tales of the imagination is absolutely magical. —Seira Wilson, Amazon senior editor
Cry Pilot by Joel Dane
There’s a quote from C.J. Cherryh on the cover of Cry Pilot that says, “I picked it up, I started reading. I kept reading.” This might sound like faint praise indeed, but I had a similar and quite lovely experience with this SF novel. Despite a tall stack of other books staring at me accusingly, I kept reading this book until I reached the final page. Choices—and many secrets—in Maseo Kaytu’s past means he can’t join the military like most folk, so the only way to get in is to become a “cry pilot”—a human (often a criminal) strapped into an AI-based weapon that can only work with a person inside it. Pitted against the worst enemies, the cry pilots almost never survive, but Kaytu does, joining a group of soldiers training against a new adversary so horrifying that their commanders refuse to name it. Lots of action paired with a fascinating new take on an Earth repairing its broken ecology while fighting off “aliens” made Cry Pilot one of my top military SF reads of the year. Book 2, Burn Cycle, arrives in February 2020.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Praise be! After almost 35 years, Margaret Atwood released the sequel to her pioneering work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is well worth the wait. While The Handmaid’s Tale explored how totalitarian regimes come to power, The Testaments delves into how they begin to fracture. At 80 years young, Atwood is at the top of her game. —Erin Kodicek, Amazon senior editor
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World: A Novel by C. A. Fletcher
I think I’m not the only one suffering from postapocalyptic-novel fatigue, so it takes something pretty special to keep me glued to the page of books in the genre. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World pulled me in quickly, though not with ghoulish disasters or gung-ho action scenes. Starting in a remote island off northern Scotland, generations after the bulk of humanity stopped being able to reproduce, the story of youngster Griz’s quest to recover his kidnapped dog bursts with heart, compassion, and the oft-neglected power of love and loyalty. As Griz travels beyond the small area that’s familiar to him, he discovers strengths about himself he never understood before, as well as more about the wider world. Ferociously good.
Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Book two of Roanhorse’s series starts swiftly, with monster-hunter Maggie coaxed by a friend into taking a job that’s supposed to be easy and turns out to be anything but. A new big bad has arisen, and he wants to revive the cult of the White Locust among the Navajo. When he ups the ante by kidnapping two locals—one of which is Maggie’s friend, Kai Arviso—Maggie is pulled into the fight whether she wants to be or not. Gods, monsters, and Diné mythology provide plenty of gloriously fascinating supernatural elements, but Maggie and her pursuit of Kai, whom she feels like she wronged in the previous book, is the coiled-tight core of the story. Start with Roanhorse’s first book, Trail of Lightning, if you haven’t already.
Didn’t find a book you think you’ll love? See all our top 20 science fiction and fantasy picks for the year.
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