This guest post is written by Kameron Hurley, author of The Mirror Empire and its newly released sequel Empire Ascendant.
There are an inordinate number of “best of” book lists, but “best” is a tricky thing to define. Does “best” mean the most readable? The most enjoyable? Does “best” mean the one that conformed to all the readers’ expectations? Does “best” mean an easy beach read? Or does it mean it was meatier stuff, heavy and fusty and literary?
For this list, I wanted to come up with books that weren’t necessarily the easiest to read, or the most enjoyable, or the most literary. Instead I wanted to serve up some selections of fantasy titles that made me question what it was to write fantasy.
So here are some titles that have challenged me to be a better, smarter, and more explosive writer over the years. YMMV.
Viciously underappreciated for its intricate politics, bold worldbuilding, and tricksy plot, Kushiel’s Dart will challenge the way you think about fantasy fiction. Most importantly, it’s unafraid to address topics that are often treated poorly in epic fantasy: sex, sexuality and consent are explored deftly here.
2. Sword Dancer, Jennifer Roberson
One of the most slyly subversively feminist adventure stories I’ve ever read, Sword Dancer gave me a template as a teen for how to write a story that was engaging and meaty without being preachy. The transformation of the worldview of its wise-cracking hero is a must read.
3. N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
In reading Jemisin’s latest fantasy novel, I was struck by the fact that she has become a powerhouse fantasy writer without compare. The latest is a harrowing exploration of slavery, complacency, and exploitation that’s unafraid to take narrative risks.
4. The Etched City, KJ Bishop
Narratively messy, vibrant, and compellingly weird, this underrated gem pushed me to raise the bar on my own work.
5. The Price of Spring, Daniel Abraham
Strangely enough, this was the first fantasy novel I ever read that included an abortion as a plot point. Dynamic characters breathe life into an equally wonderful world where magical beings are spun to life from bits of poetry.
6. A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Somatar
A lush and lyrical book, this tale has a hint of old world travelogue in its narrative that will hook you in like one of Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago novels. If you’re looking for a page-turner, look elsewhere. This is an exploration of language and worldbuilding.
7. The Female Man, Joanna Russ
Best known as a science fiction writer, this weird, experimental, genre-and-world-hopping novel can be a lot to digest if you’re not ready for it. But it’s a must-read for folks who want to shake up their reading experience.
8. The Labyrinth, Catherynne M. Valente
A gorgeously written book, and one of Valente’s very early works, it will show you what’s possible to achieve with prose. Truly one of those books that took me to places I’d never seen before on the page.
About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.