My Favorite Speculative Fiction Narratives

***My 200th Blog Post!!!***

For this post, which marks a new milestone for me, I decided to discuss one of the most enjoyable—and the most dreadful—topics: favorites. We all know why favorites is a fun topic, but it can be daunting for opposing reasons: others have them as their favorites, they are ubiquitous, they are different from yours, etc. 

            Why am I using the term “narrative” instead of story? What is a narrative? MasterClass has a great definition of the word (no, I am NOT a member). “A narrative is a way of presenting connected events in order to tell a ‘good’ story. A narrative unites distinct events by concept, idea, or plot.” Narratives have existed since the start of humanity, and they range from folktales to poetry to visual media, etc.

            So, why am I using narrative for this post? It is because it is tied to the topic of my 100th post. In that post, I mentioned how speculative fiction genres and subgenres can be used for films and video games. Personally, I believe speculative fiction should include both visual art mediums more often because many films and video games are presenting narratives. Yes, many films (and TV shows) are based on text narratives (a.k.a. books)—and, some video games are based on books and films; yet, there are many films and video games that standout because they are excellent narratives that are NOT based on books.

            Think about it, which films and video games are considered to be the best based on their narratives? And yes, not everyone has seen the same films, and not everyone plays the same video games, but you’ve heard of the “popular” ones and the “excellent” ones. Most of the these are critically acclaimed within their own academy, but their narratives are what capture our attention the most as we progress through them. These narratives are so captivating, we appreciate them regardless of the medium they are being presented to the audience. 

            So, for this post, I will be discussing my favorite speculative fiction narratives. My (current) favorites span across speculative fiction genres and narratives formats. Expect not only books, but also films and video games as well. Many of my favorites shouldn’t surprise you, but I hope you understand why I continue to gush over these narratives. This is a Top 10 List, but the order is based on when I experienced each one.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman

Known as both “the most dangerous man in the U.K.” and “J.K. Rowling’s contemporary” this (now retired) Oxford professor has been enjoying the latest adaptation of this dark fantasy—with blended elements of science fiction and religion—trilogy which have been more faithful to the books. This trilogy was published right before the Harry Potter Phenomenon, which were released in tandem (to the first half of the Harry Potter series). And, while this series might not have the same amount of fans as Hogwarts, readers of this series became devoted fans who waited years for the same level of media adaptation as its counterpart. 

I’ll say it right now, this is my favorite book series from my childhood. That’s over Harry Potter, Animorphs, and other series (from the same decade). Why? Because this series had a narrative that presented various conflicts within a coming-of-age story with realistic elements—which we take for granted—told through a lens that is speculative fiction. In addition to the protagonist being a less than ideal heroine (she has flaws), she takes matters into her own hands in order to do what she believes is the right thing to do, regardless of what the authority figures tell her to do.

Not only was this series my introduction to portal fantasy—I read C.S. Lewis’ and L. Frank Baum’s series in college and in grad school respectively—and genre blending. This trilogy is fantasy that contains several elements of science, religion and folklore—dæmons are a belief from Ancient Greece and the shamanism dates back to the Pre-Socratic Era—which tie into the plot, the character development, and the world-building. You can recognize the series based on keywords mentioned from the beginning to the ending. 

This narrative is one of my favorites because it takes the familiar tropes of a fantasy story (i.e. family) with real life elements (i.e. science) and scenarios (i.e. identity) and allows it to be presented between science fantasy and reality. And, the idea that a single action can lead to the same ramifications in all worlds is extremely thought provoking as well. The series’ ending—given the circumstances—is satisfying. This narrative has you saying, “what is” instead of “what if.”

  • Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001)

I remember when this movie was released in the U.S., but I didn’t get to see it in theaters. When I did sit down to watch this movie, I was mesmerized by both the animation and the narrative. And, while I understand the comparisons between this narrative and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—this story, fused with Japanese folklore, stands out on its own.

Chihiro isn’t a curious young girl who wanders into a magical world. She is a whiny child who is saddened with moving to a new home with her parents who are more optimistic about the move than her. When they get lost, it is her parents whose curiosity leads them all into the spirit world, where they are trapped inside. Chihiro is forced to complete the “Hero’s Quest” by completing 3 tasks. However, Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl, and she behaves like one throughout the narrative. It won’t be easy.

I love the narrative within this movie because it explores the balance between fantasy and folklore. Some tales from a region’s religion, culture and/or superstitions are often dismissed as being “false” or “fantasy.” However, the fantastic often presents what is real in its own way; and, this movie presents a spirit world with more than one location within it, which demonstrates that world is as vast as ours. There is one unanswered question: how long were Chihiro and her parents in the spirit world for? 

  • Final Fantasy X (2001)

I’ve discussed my love for video games before, but I haven’t talked about them as much as I wanted to beforehand. Some readers of speculative fiction do enjoy video games of the same genres, but role-playing games—a.k.a. R.P.G.s and Japanese R.P.G.s—are visual narratives in which you play your way through the story until you reach its end. And, some of the games in this genre are both popular and laudable enough for all gamers to play at least once.

Everyone has their favorite Final Fantasy game; and, each game in the main series has its own superlative. For example, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VII is the “Most Popular” game in the series. Final Fantasy X has my favorite narratives in this series. In addition to this game having an excellent story—which the other games in the (main) series all have in common—this game presents a narrative in which all of the main characters develop and grow over the course of the game.

            You play as Tidus, a famous athlete who takes after his father (who he hates and has been missing for 10 years). During a game, the city is attacked by an entity, and Tidus is transported 1,000 years into the future. From this point in the game, Tidus (and the player) learn about the world they find themselves in, what happened to their world since the initial attack there, and how the two are tied together. Conflicts and themes surrounding power, identity, religion, beliefs, love and choice are presented in each of the main characters throughout the gameplay. Each conflict and its relation to each character is presented early within the narrative. However, as each “truth” is revealed to the party, they must decide on how they want to carry on knowing the consequences of their actions. While the ending is bittersweet, you finish the game’s narrative aware that the world will be able to start anew; which is something we can all learn from this game.

            Final Fantasy X is one of the games in this main series with a direct sequel. Final Fantasy X-2 (2003) takes place a few years after the events of its predecessor. This presents a unique, yet believable, look into how the world has changed, and how the main characters have changed with it.             

  • The Twelve Kingdoms (1992-Present, Japan; 2007-10, U.S.A.) by Fuyumi Ono

Personally, I believe we take narratives for granted. Yes, we learn how stories were told orally and passed down from generation through posterity, then collected and written down, and then translated into other languages so more can enjoy them. The 1990s saw the demand for Asian content to be presented to a Western audience, and not just action movies. TV shows, anime, manga, etc., were in high demand; some works of literature were translated as well. Battle Royale: The Novel and the movie have a strong cult following, but some light novels (Japanese YA novels) were being translated as well.

Sea of Shadow is the first book in The Twelve Kingdoms, and the narrative focuses on the trope of the outcast and presents it in a way that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Yoko Nakajima has lived her entire life as an outcast. She is a high-schooler with red hair living in Japan with her traditional parents. Although she is an only child, she receives little love from her parents; she gets good grades in school, but she is ostracized due to her hair color. All Yoko knows is how to get through life by trying to please everyone around her. One day, a man with golden hair appears at her school—which is an all-girls school—abducts her from her classroom, and spirits her away to a world where Asian folklore and fantasy are authentic. After arriving, Yoko is separated from the man and now must survive in a world where she is even more of an outcast than in our world. 

This narrative is part coming-of-age and part survival story. Yoko is in a place where she is considered to be a criminal because she is an immigrant. After a few close calls, she is left on her own to survive in the wilderness. From there, Yoko grows into the individual she was forced to suppress due to her familial and societal notions. After accepting that there is nothing left for her in our world (she can never go home anyway), Yoko mush find a reason to keep living throughout all of the adversities she faces. Her goal matches a shocking revelation about herself.

The rest of the series introduce new characters and reintroduces fan favorites as the timeline of the 12 Kingdoms’ history is covered throughout each book. The same issues of immigration, regional biases and political conspiracies are covered in the narratives of each book. In addition, without too many spoilers, each of the protagonists in each book represent one of 3 types of societal outcasts within that world. 

Print copies of this series is limited; not to mention just 4 books in the series were translated to English. There is an anime series based on the first 4 books which you can stream online. Hopefully, one day we’ll get the rest of the series translated and released.

  • Pan’s Labyrinth, El labriento del fauno (2006)

I’ve discussed fairy tale retellings and fractured fairy tales, but I haven’t mentioned fairy tales and folktales as often as I should in my posts. In short, fairy tales are a genre of folktales in which there is a strong storyline and plot, emphasis upon magic and fantasy, repeated motifs and tropes, with a “happy ending.” Characters are represented as good or evil, and there are beings with magical powers or objects which serve a purpose for the characters. Director Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed his own fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth, in which he blends fantasy, magic realism and folklore into this poignant, yet dark film. 

The setting of the narrative grabs your attention immediately. It is the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)—which occurred in tandem with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and World War II (1939-45)—and a young girl, Ofelia, and her pregnant mother are traveling to her (new) stepfather’s residence. The protagonist’s stepfather is a captain in Franco’s army, which holds dominance over Spain. Ofelia does her best to cope with the changes by retreating into fairy tales, her favorite literary genre, which the adults all comment that “she is too old for them.” Amidst the violence that happens outside of the home, Ofelia comes across a magical faun who tells her her true identity and the 3 tasks she must complete in order to prove that she is “the lost princess.” 

The narrative is haunting and beautiful as it explores the reasons why anyone would read fantasy and fairy tales; besides escapism, they offer a semblance of hope during difficult times. Not to mention, this is one of the few “fairy tales” where there is a villainous step-father instead of a step-mother (and he’s not a child molester). Each of the 3 tasks correlate to the themes of war and violence—not to mention one of the scariest evil creatures in recent narratives to date—and whether or not magic does exist.

This new fairy tale resembles the older variants which were collected by the Grimm Brothers, and written by Perrault, Andersen, and Baum. In other words, it is for adults not children; that being said, anyone who is a fan of fairy tales will appreciate how new tales can emerge through the appreciation of previous ones. And yes, you can read the literary variant of this narrative—released in 2019—but the film presents how the audience, and the general public, continue to take these narratives for granted instead of seeing them for what they are: a much needed and a wonderful fairy tale. 

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 (2016)

I’ve played both Persona 3 and Persona 4—which you should as well—and, while those entries in the series have great narratives, characters and gameplay, it does not have the same down-to-Earth element Persona 5 maintains throughout the entire game. The series is an urban fantasy JRPG with elements of folklore, science, horror and paranormal in it. Persona 3 delves into themes of depression. Persona 4 is a murder mystery which focuses on the effects of media coverage and urban legends. Persona 5 investigates how societal norms and conformity has a negative effect on individuals. 

The narrative focuses on a group of misfit students who are victims of misconceptions placed upon them by the adults in their lives and the rest of society. Anyone who remembers feeling like an outcast—even in adulthood—can relate to these emotions. And yet, the game explores how it is not only adults and power figures who mistreat other individuals, but also other children and adolescents. In addition, players realize how each of the antagonists ended up as they are because of societal expectations. Are the Phantom Thieves heroes, or “a group of meddling kids”?

The narrative within this game is the reality within the fiction. The unfortunate truth is that we all know more than 1 person in our life and “social circle” who is similar to the characters in the game. Another factor to consider is that the narrative forces us to look at ourselves and to determine whether or not we are mistreating anyone for our own gain. The game’s narrative serves as one part fable and one part entertainment.

I’ll mention the narrative within Royal as well. Without getting into too many spoilers, the narrative in this part of the narrative focuses on how manifested desires allows us to achieve a life that is too good to be true, and the causes and the consequences of living such a life. Living this life can lead us to being “out of touch” from reality, especially to those who might be suffering because life isn’t as good for them. Persona 5 (Royal) examines the lives we choose to live while fighting beings from folklore around the world. 

From the first page to the final sentence of this trilogy you are transported to a world where science, fantasy, history, magic and reality enmesh into one of the most engrossing narratives of all time. What if the seasons lasted for several centuries? What if Earth was unstable due to tectonic activity? What if there were individuals who could control seismic activity? What if life on Earth was dead for centuries? Would you be able to survive?

In the far future, Earth has become an unstable planet where earthquakes kill life for centuries at a time. In a twist of fate, some humans gained abilities to sense and to control the Earth’s tectonic activity; so what does the majority of humanity do? Resort to the old methods of societal oppression by practicing fear, control and slavery of these individuals for millennia, which leads to the beginning of the series where a woman arrives at her home to find her toddler son has been murdered, her daughter abducted by her father, and her secret exposed to her community. On top of that, the “fifth season” has begun, so she must hurry and find her daughter (and kill her now ex-husband) before the surface becomes too uninhabitable to survive. 

This series not only takes genre blending to a new level, but also reminds the readers of the dangers of repeating negative social norms instead of solving the bigger problem. Not to mention how such negative treatment and hostility affects posterity for the worse; and, how far will any mother go to protect her child(ren)? And, what will a child do to ensure their own survival? The world-building explains the current predicament the characters find themselves in and how the planet ended up the way it did. In addition, this is one of the few series in which the beginning chapters play a huge role in the narrative. Even the 2nd person P.O.V. chapters are well-written. You finish reading this series knowing it was an amazing narrative. There is a reason why every book in this trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and in consecutive years. 

How do I describe Murderbot to someone who hasn’t read this series? Murderbot is a brilliant A.I. who is smart enough to gain control over itself, hates stupidity, has a bleak outlook on life to the point where it borders on nihilism, watches soap operas so that it can understand humans better, and is very good at its job at providing security and killing threats to those under its protection. On a serious note, I haven’t laughed so much regarding robots since watching the Star Wars movies.

The series follows Murderbot—which is what it calls itself—on its latest assignment, protecting a group of scientists as they explore a planet. After a close call, it wonders if something else was happening on that planet, not that it cares what happens to the humans. Basing its knowledge about humans on the T.V. show it watches (i.e. Sanctuary Moon), Murderbot concludes that some of the other humans are up to no good. So, it abandons its post to go on a mission to determine whether or not Murderbot is right; but, not because it cares about the humans who were nice to it. And, from there the narrative takes off. 

With 5 novellas and 1 novel (with more books expected in the future) readers get to look into how the future could look—and without any intergalactic wars, just corporate greed. Through Murderbot’s P.O.V., readers learn how various types of robots are created and are treated throughout the galaxy, and how they interact with each other when they have the opportunity to do so. Murderbot is a “Security Unit, or Sec Unit,” whose purpose is to follow orders and to protect those within its “contract.” But, Murderbot is smart enough to play dumb when it has to survive and to remain incognito from other bots, A.I.s, and humans. 

Each narrative is a “report” of events Murderbot has to submit. And, given its personality, expect a lot of laughs because you will get its inner thoughts as well; and they are on point! Anyone who wants to read a sci-fi action-adventure series with a funny and a unique narrative will enjoy this one as much as I do. 

After reading so many fantasy stories (and playing them), you ask yourself 2 questions. One, if I ended up in a fantasy world, then what would it be like? Two, if I found myself in another world I started to call, “Home,” then why would I consider returning to the world I came from? Seanan McGuire isn’t the first author to think about these things (read the Oz books by L. Frank Baum), but she is one of many to consider such worlds existing parallel to ours. 

Wayward Children takes the trope of “lost/wandering” children—they ended up in a different world with a different set of rules and time span—and transforms it into a new narrative with a twist. The ones who “return” are “changed” by their time in the other world, which they called Home. Their families don’t know what to do with them, so they send them to “Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children” (or, its sister school in Maine) so they can become “reacclimated” into society again. In truth, these students are searching for ways to return Home by looking for their Doors.

The series is divided into 2 narrative sequences. The first one follows the ongoings at the school, which is more like a school than the characters want to admit. There are disagreements about clothes, cliques are formed based on the sort of worlds they traveled to, and what their plans are for the future—in our world or in their Homes. Not to mention, when they do go on quests, they have to be quick about it, so Miss West doesn’t tell their parents. The second one focuses on each adventure each character, or characters, has in the world they traveled to, from how they found themselves there to the reason(s) why they had to leave it. The one thing these characters all have in common is that they’ll do anything to return Home. 

Worlds such as Fairyland, the Moors, the Goblin Market, Hooflands, and several more where beings such as mermaids, talking skeletons, resurrected individuals, centaurs, etc., exist in worlds next to ours. In fact, some of those worlds are connected to each other as well. How many other worlds exist? Which one would you find yourself in and why? Would you want to stay there or return to our world? 

The narrative of this novel begins with a familiar trope before twisting into something else. The protagonist, Sasha, is on vacation with her mother when she notices a strange man watching and following her. When she confronts him, he gives her strange tasks to complete. The catch is if she doesn’t complete them, then a loved one will suffer the consequences. After the first failure, she accomplishes all of the tasks given to her (which causes her to vomit gold coins). Afterward, Sasha is coerced into attending a university in order to “enhance” her knowledge.

Before you start comparing this book to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc., remember, Sasha was coerced into attending this university (which is in the isolated and rural parts of Russia). In fact, all of the students are in the same situation as Sasha, but why are they there? What makes them different from their former high school classmates? What are they supposed to be learning? 

This narrative blends the college experience within a speculative fiction setting. Sasha and her college peers have to deal with roommates, classes, changing family relationships, and the changes that go with being away from home; but, they don’t have the option to flunk out of the university. If a student fails their classes or reveals the ongoings at the university, then their families will pay the price. This is done to ensure the secrecy of the university and the success of their students. As for what they are studying, well none of the students know until halfway through their second year. And then, they have to study for a test so that they can “attend” the graduate program.

Without giving away anything else, the narrative does an amazing job balancing college life with the unexpected. And, similar to the narrative, the college experience becomes an addiction you don’t want to give up. In fact, some of the students decide to stay at the university during the holidays, instead of returning home. No one is forcing them to stay there during that time, so why won’t they leave? And, what happens to the students—including Sasha—when they begin to comprehend their “schoolwork”?

            Those are my (current) favorite speculative fiction narratives. Yes, they are on my lists of favorites by medium as well, but I won’t be mentioning that topic anytime soon. I hope you all consider reading, watching and/or playing what I listed here. If anything, then I hope you enjoy the stories being told as much as I did, and still do.

            Coincidentally, I started my blog site 9 years ago, and it started as a simple hobby. It’s amazing what any individual can achieve when given the opportunity to do so. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me to keep my blog going from when I was just posting theories about A Song of Ice and Fire and pop culture essays. I wasn’t sure whether or not anyone would read the posts on this blog; then again, I didn’t believe I had so much to say about literature, social issues, pop culture, etc. I’ve been able to branch out and work on projects for other websites (i.e. Fantasy-Faction, SWFA). So, thank you for reading, liking, commenting, and sharing my work; especially when I was attending grad school and I had to limit the content in my posts. And, a huge thank you to the publishers, the authors (and their literary agents), and other bookbloggers for sending me ARCs and galleys of so many books so I am able to keep up with the industry; and, as I make my way through my never-ending TBR pile.           

            Obviously, I’ll still be posting on my blog while working on all of my many projects and any new ones that come my way. A few of you have asked me about one potential project (more like a revival). My answer: I’ll decide after the New Year because there are other things that require my immediate attention. So you’ll have to wait and see. 

            Here’s to 9 years and to 200 blog posts with hopes that I make it to the next milestone. 

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. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Stone Sky”

The Broken Earth 3: The Stone Sky

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 15, 2017

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Fantasy

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2018, Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2017, Winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel 2018*

            The job you “have” to do is the easier of the two, you think. Just catch the Moon. Seal the Yumenes Rifting. Reduce the current Season’s predicted impact from thousands or millions of years back down to something manageable—something the human race has a chance of surviving. End the Fifth Seasons for all time.

            The job you “want” to do, though? Find Nassun, your daughter. Take her back from the man who murdered your son and dragged her halfway across the world in the middle of the apocalypse, (1: you, in waking and dreaming). 

            N.K. Jemisin has done what very few authors have managed to do, present a good and believable ending to a series that leaves readers with a sense of both accomplishment and satisfaction. What started with The Fifth Season and continued through The Obelisk Gate ends with The Stone Sky, the third and final book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Readers and critics learn what must be done in order to put an end to an apocalypse. 

            The protagonists are once again Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, and two of the most powerful orogenes in the world right now. Both mother and daughter have made their choices regarding themselves: Essun decided to grow her powers to the fullest, and Nassun decided to identify herself as an orogene. And, both mother and daughter have to live with the consequences of their decisions—both physical and emotional. All that’s left is for the two orogenes to determine the path of the Moon. One orogene and her companions hope to save the world, while the other orogene is coaxed by her companions to destroy it. Mother and daughter will face off after they’re reunited. Essun just wants to know whether or not her 10-year-old daughter is traumatized, and Nassun wants the world to know that those with power can and will determine the ways of the world. The daughter has become as powerful as her mother, and her mother isn’t with her to provide guidance. 

            The plot of the story is a race to an underground network in order to restore “order” to the Earth. This can be achieved with orogeny and there are 2 orogenes who are powerful enough to restart it. So, who will get there first? And, what will happen once the obelisks are activated? Another plot of the story involves Essun and Nassun preparing for action when the Moon is closest to them in “orbit.” Essun has succeeded in activating the Gate while at the comm, and Nassun travels to one that’s been lost and forgotten to history. There are two subplots in this story which answers some of the remaining questions in the trilogy. The first subplot is the origin of the Stone Eaters, which leads to how the Seasons became so dangerous. The second subplot answers the question regarding the purpose of the Guardians and their relation to the Seasons. These subplots are necessary because they provide the bits of information required for the plot’s development and resolution.

            The narrative continues to shift between 1st, 2nd and 3rd points-of-view. And, the sequence falls back into flashbacks and present time. The flashbacks provide both background information and answers to the questions to how everything came to be and how it will all end. The streams-of-consciousness of all the characters make them all reliable narrators. Yes, not all of their motivations are morally good, but it’s understandable given the circumstances. These elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses for The Stone Sky tells that an end is coming. Now, whether or not that end is for the Seasons, or for the characters, or both is to be determined. But first, the author lets the audience know how the Seasons came about. At the same time, Jemisin lets her readers know that oppression of any form does not ensure safety and/or order within a society. Instead, fear and suppression take place, which can lead either to a life of secrecy or to a life full of anger. The mood in this story is one of readiness—the need to make it on time to save the world, to save the last surviving member of one’s family, and to finish preparations in order to survive the Seasons. The tone in the novel is dread due to the choices and consequences of saving the world and reuniting with estranged loved ones. However, if it came down to two possibilities, then which choice would you make? This is what the author has her characters do, they must make a choice and live, or die, with the consequences. 

             The appeal for The Stone Sky have been massive and monumental! Not only did this novel win the Nebula Award (2017) and the Locus Award (2018) for Best Novel, but also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2018)! This means that The Broken Earth Trilogy has won the Hugo Award in the same category in three consecutive years! N.K. Jemisin is the first author to accomplish this feat; and, it’s well-deserved! The Broken Earth Trilogy is not only a must read for readers of speculative fiction, but also is a magnificent work of literature overall. There have been people who’ve read this series and found it to be an excellent story regardless of its genre. The message of the cost and the resistance that results from oppression and the end-of-the-world is received—although it’s not practiced in our world, yet—and is the reality within the fiction. The Stone Sky completes this trilogy and is a must read within the canon of speculative fiction.

            The Stone Sky is a strong and powerful end to this ambitious trilogy. N.K. Jemisin has managed to raise the expectations and the standards of writing and presenting a work of speculative fiction. This book series is one of my all-time favorites. Not to mention, I’ll be re-reading and recommending these books for years to come! Everyone needs to read this amazing trilogy!

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Obelisk Gate”

The Broken Earth 2: The Obelisk Gate

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 16, 2016

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

*Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2017*

            “We’re going somewhere you can be better,” he says gently. “Somewhere I heard of, where they can help you.” Make her a little girl again, and not…He turns away from this thought, too.

            She swallows, then nods and steps back, looking up at him. “Is Mama coming, too?”

            Something moves across Jija’s face, subtle as an earthquake. “No.”

            And Nassun, who was fully prepared to go off into the sunset with some lorist, relaxes at last. “Okay, Daddy,” she says, and heads to her room to pack.

            Jija gazes after her for a long, breath-held moment. He turns away from Uche again, gets his own things, and heads outside to hitch up the horse to the wagon. Within an hour they are away, headed south with the end of the world on their heels,” (1: Nassun, on the rocks).

            N.K. Jemisin presented a believable futuristic dystopian world by blending science and history—with a bit of magic—in The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. The book received tons of praise from both readers and critics alike; and, it even won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2017. The book’s characters, history, revelations and cliffhangers have readers wondering what would happen next. We get some answers in the second book in the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate.

            The protagonists in this book focuses on Essun and Nassun—mother and daughter—who are trying to survive the Fifth Season while trying to keep their orogene abilities discreet. Unfortunately, the latter is no longer an option because the secret has been exposed, with deadly consequences. Nassun, who is eight years-old, was fantasizing of a life away from her home, and her mother, when her actions led to her father learning the truth about his family, unintentionally. Nassun is whisked away by her father—who is relying on a fantasy for a return to “normalcy”—not realizing that she was safer with her mother than with her father. Yet, the further away father and daughter travel from their home, so does their relationship. Nassun starts to believe that something is wrong with her as her father starts and continues his physical abuse towards her. When they do arrive at the “haven,” Nassun learns the truth about her mother’s treatment of her and why her brother was killed. Not to mention, Nassun meets someone who once knew her mother, and he has plans for the daughter. All the while, Jija doesn’t appreciate being tricked a second time. How much pain and trauma can a little girl experience before lashing out at the world? Meanwhile, Essun’s journey to rescue her daughter has been halted by the change in the atmosphere due to the changing seasons and her running into someone else she believed to be dead. And, that person wants her to finish a task he started but is unable to continue. Along with her companions—both from the past and the present—Essun tries to figure out a way to do the impossible, which could save everyone. Both mother and daughter develop both as individuals and in their orogene abilities. Essun has to start where she left off 10 years ago and to determine for herself how powerful she really is; at the same time, Nassun learns of the life her mother was trying to protect her from. All she can do is protect herself by becoming smarter and more powerful in orogeny. Nassun is in survival mode and she refuses to let anyone, or anything, hurt her again. 

            The plot continues where it left off in the first book: a mother seeks her missing daughter and vengeance for her murdered son. Along the way, Essun’s past catches up with her and soon she realizes that she has to make peace with her past before any more harm can come to her daughter. In spite of that, Nassun does experience everything her mother did, but in a location unknown to other Guardians and with its own set of rules. While Nassun does prove to be very talented in orogeny—thanks to her mother—she doesn’t have the same fear of the Fulcrum as Essun did. Instead, Nassun’s fears are reserved for her father, who slowly realizes that there is no way to rid oneself of orogeny. There are two subplots in this story, which develop alongside the plots. The first is the life in a comm during a Season. While Essun and her companions figure out a way to accomplish their tasks, the members of the comm devise plans and methods for their survival of the Season. It is unclear how long the Season will last and who will survive (a lot of harsh decisions will be carried out), but everyone must work together to ensure their survival. The second subplot focuses on the Stone Eaters. The surviving orogenes—particularly the powerful ones—and the readers, learn more about them and their nature including their lifespans, their goals, and their need to protect the orogenes. This subplot is interesting because while the world knows of their existence, little is known about them. These subplots function as world-building elements as well. This is because to understand how and why a Season changes everything, an explanation of the world must be given to the readers. 

            The narrative in The Obelisk Gate is more straightforward. In The Fifth Season, the narrative jumps between two timelines in the past and two in the present. In the sequel, the sequence sticks with the present as it moves between the points-of-view of the protagonists. However, the P.O.V.s does shift between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person amongst ALL of the characters. Readers should be used to the changing P.O.V.s; and, if not, then they should know that these multiple P.O.V.s do provide the streams-of-consciousness from reliable narrators. Yes, even foes and children can be reliable narrators. These narrative methods allow readers to follow the story while understanding what is happening to the characters at the end-of-the-world.

            The style N.K. Jemisin uses in The Obelisk Gate combines science and communal survival during an emergency with the themes and the practices of systematic oppression and abuse on a group of individuals. All of the talks about the Moon, satellites and seismic activity is based on science. The practice of “harboring” people who are different in separate facilities and “training” them to be “useful” is a form of oppression. And, while differences should be ignored when a group of people are hunkered down and trying to survive, that doesn’t always occur. Old practices die hard and there are always victims. In fact, it is known for abuse to increase during such times and relationships change as well (and not for the better). The mood in this novel is preparation. The world has acknowledged that a Season has begun and everyone works and strives in order to survive it. That means a lot of harsh decisions and cruel practices are carried out, but it must be done in order to ensure survival. The tone relates to the idea that only the strong and the useful survive an apocalypse. We don’t want to admit this, but it’s the truth within the fiction. And, the author makes sure that we remember this truth regarding the survival of the fittest in a dystopian world. 

            The appeal for The Obelisk Gate adds to the praise of The Fifth Season. Not only has the second book achieved the same acclaim as the first book by critics and fans, but also was nominated for several speculative fiction awards and won the Hugo Award a year after the first book did, which is a rare achievement! The success of this series of far has brought readers of different genres to read this work of speculative fiction. And, with the cliffhanger at the end of the book, readers will be eager to learn how the story ends in The Stone Sky.

            The Obelisk Gate is a brilliant sequel to The Fifth Season. The development of the plot and the characters alongside the pacing continues to keep readers engaged in the story. The themes of family, survival, oppression and truth are found within the narrative as reminders that an apocalypse doesn’t always bring people together for the greater good. Survival is the key.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!