Twelve-year-old me is finally getting my wish of high fantasy books centered around non-European mythology. Sometimes it was hard to ignore that I had more in common with the aliens or monsters than with the elven creatures with pale faces and impossibly blue eyes. Over a decade later, the books I’ve wished for are finally here, so I will be shoving them down everyone’s throat as much as possible.
And can we all do everyone a favor and stop comparing these books to white stories? Thanks.
The Deep by River Solomon
Remember in Black Panther when Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger said “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Well, River Solomon’s The Deep explores just that.
In this world, enslaved people who were lost to the sea turned into what can be easily described as mermaids. The truth is they’re so much more than that. One water-dwelling person is a keeper of memories for her people about how they came to be. It’s her burden to remember, which becomes too much to bear.
The Dark Star Trilogy is currently in-progress. The narrative revolves around the fate of one boy and an unlikely group sworn to protect him. There are kingdoms, magic, mayhem, sex, and betrayal. These books are largely inspired by Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, X-Men, and more.
What makes this series different is that it’s not chronological like most. Instead, the central plot features the same events told from different perspectives. The series took Marlon James years of research before beginning to write the book. This is one of the few fantasy novels in the Western canon that centers on African mythologies without centering Eurocentric histories or storytelling structures.
Mind control powers are always OP. It’s almost cathartic to have a BIPOC character take revenge against her colonizing captures that brutally murdered her family – who happened to be a part of a royal line on her island.
This young adult book has a fun edge with a surprising amount of fantasy and political espionage.
Between Earth and Sky trilogy (Black Sun & Fevered Star) by Rebecca Roanhorse
This fantasy series is set in pre-Colombian South America. The first book, Black Sun, is a haunting introduction to this world. This is a great book for those intimidated by high fantasy and tired of Eurocentric fantasy novels. This is an ongoing series, with the sequel just released in 2022 and the third novel has yet to be announced.
The magical realism in this book is haunting. This follows a large cast of characters, so if you get easily confused, you’ll need a character map to get through this one. This is an intergenerational novel following the slow “death” of a matriarch and how her gifts were passed down to other family members. This is a tale of family legacy, mourning, and small acts of magic (aka love).
Set in 1930s Hollywood, we follow Luli Wei, who will do anything to be a star. She’s headstrong and undeniably beautiful and enters the dark and powerful world of Hollywood. She quickly learns that studios will do anything to control you and your image via dark rituals and blood magic. This is one you want to pick up if you’ve ever been slightly entertained by Illuminati conspiracy theories.
This one might be cheating, but what is horror, if not dark fantasy?
Themes of greed, vengeance, internalized oppression, and intergenerational trauma are expertly woven into the text. There’s an interesting subversion of expectations that occurs in the novel. This is a refreshing critique of wasting resources and sport hunting. If animal abuse/cruelty isn’t your thing, you won’t like this book. It’s bloody. This is a good spooky read. It went by rather quickly, especially since, at times, it read more like a collection of short stories. Read this during Halloween. You won’t be disappointed.
Babel by R. F. Kuang
In this blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction, the reader follows Robin, who, as someone who is Chinese, has to grapple with the fact that his work at Babel supports British colonialism in China. This book has strong dark academia vibes, but caution to readers: the long-winded paragraphs that explore linguistics and etymology aren’t for the weak.
Okay, so what if a city became a person? After all, anyone who’s lived in at least one major city knows that every city has a pulse and the rhythm of a living thing. N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became takes this to the next level by having the souls of cities reside in physical avatars to protect their dominion from threats.
There’s a metaphysical threat that is thrumming around New York. There’s a small quiet undercurrent that follows national food chains, corner stores charging $8 for a bacon egg and cheese, and the judgmental stares from transplants who turn the city into a carbon copy of their bland suburbs. The five boroughs of New York must fight this physical embodiment of neo-colonialism—aka gentrification in this duology.
Okay, so I have a little bias toward N. K. Jemisin. Oops. I also have a soft spot for short story collections. The collection title gives a great nod to Afrofuturism, which will be included later in the list.
This is a mix of fantasy and soft science fiction. Some stories feature an early version of The City We Became, which is about a mother in the Jim Crow South trying to save her daughter from the fey, a utopian society watching us make our mistakes, and aliens. There’s a short story for everyone in this collection.
People are destroying themselves through war and destruction (sound familiar?) when an intergalactic alien race comes in to try and save humanity. Lilith is one of the few resurrected and is offered a chance to live again if she merges with the alien race.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
If you don’t already know, FX has adapted the famous Sci-Fi novel, so it’s time to pick up the novel and graphic novel versions.
This book follows Dana, a Black woman who lives in 1976 California and begins to start slipping through time to antebellum Maryland. The first time she experiences this slip, she sees a boy drowning in the water. She saves him only to have her life threatened. In that instant of paralyzing fear, she’s thrown back into the 20th century. These episodes continue and she realizes that she is inextricably tied to this young boy.
This is another dark, fantastical horror. This is inspired by the real movie The Birth of a Nation, which was a propaganda film used to recruit Klu Klux Klan members. In Ring Shout, this film is a spell cast across the country to bewitch white people to worship interdimensional demons.
In this world, white supremacists are sorcerers and the Klu Klux Klan are actual interdimensional demonic monsters who feed off of hate, and only one person can save us. Maryse is this chosen one. We follow Maryse as she hunts and slaughters these literal monsters with her rag-tag team of monster hunters: a World War I veteran who had to disguise herself as a man to fight, a dreamy sharpshooter that never misses a shot, an overeager scientist, a character who likes to push everyone’s buttons by talking about social issues, and a magical Gullah woman who sells Mama’s Water for protection.
Afrofuturism, which is different from Africanfuturism, is about reimaging a futuristic world that centers on Black history and culture. As what is recognized as “the SciFi canon” is predominately white – Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, etc. That shows in the writing. The projection of the white male psyche, fearing another alien race will colonize, rape, torture, enslave, and experiment on them, bleeds through their SciFi, which is probably why I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre until I learned that Afrofuturism has been around since the mid-20th century.
This short story collection features numerous well-known authors like Victor LaValle, N. K. Jemisin, and more who specialize in speculative fiction. This is a modern collection from writers in our contemporary age who are redefining SciFi and literary fiction.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The above article features a TedTalk by Nnedi Okorafor, promoting her work Binti. Binti is the first in her community to be invited to an intergalactic University. This means that Binti will have to leave everything behind for this life-changing opportunity. The thing is, no one talks about how life-changing opportunities are often terrifying.
This post-apocalyptic book follows a worker desperately trying to survive the monotony of late-stage capitalism. She had dreams of grandeur but fell into a job that provided a regular paycheck and health insurance. That is until a mysterious virus spreads throughout the country. Sounds too painfully familiar, no? Except this virus is more like a zombie-like virus.
So, giant robots (aka Mechas) meet X-Men. This queer protagonist is a badass pilot with skills beyond anyone else’s. And she will use this newfound strength and power to change the world.
The Lesson: A Novel by Cadwell Turnbull
Aliens have been co-living with the people U.S. Virgin Islands. As alien species go, they’re incredibly chill unless provoked. As tensions rise, it becomes clear that the honeymoon phase between these two groups is not going to last. This book explores colonialism in SciFi in such a fresh, exciting way.
I usually pick up the newest edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. So far, my favorite has been the 2019 collection with guest editors Carmen Maria Machado and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, who are fantastic writers in their own right. This collection captures what modern SciFi and Fantasy look like: speculative, diverse, and tackles concerns for the modern age, where day-to-day lives already feel like a bad SciFi novel and where evil nepotism billionaires make virtual money swindling their fans with virtual art.
In this book, “two friends–often in love, but never lovers–come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality.”
(featured image: Tor Macmillan, Gallery Saga Press, Riverhead Books, Orbit, Atria Books, Harper Voyager, Grand Central Publishing, Rosarium Publishing, Picador USA, Penguin Teen, Blackstone Publishing, and Knopf Publishing Group)
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