Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue