We live in a time when we are fortunate enough to have an abundance of truly phenomenal writers churning out fantasy novels, for all ages. Additionally, more than ever before, writers represent diverse backgrounds, as well as possess a willingness to blur the lines between fantasy and other genres.
There are few authors working right now who pull off the genre-bending trick as well as N.K. Jemisin. The author’s books are deeply rooted in fantasy as their main genre, but the urban and sci-fi fantasy elements found throughout them add extra flair and depth to the captivating stories.
Jemisin is also notable as a Black writer in a genre historically ruled by white voices. Her brand of African American fantasy explores issues of racism and brutality that plague the imagined worlds just as much as our real one. A conversation about Black fantasy books would simply be incomplete without her name included.
There’s no doubt N.K. Jemisin is one of the best writers working in SFF today. If you’re looking for somewhere to start with her amazing books, consider this your primer!
The title of this collection of short stories comes from an essay Jemisin penned for an anthology. Although the essay itself does not appear, the stories within definitely capture its spirit. Featuring about two dozen stories, this is a great primer for the styles and themes that the author incorporates into her writing. Some standouts include "Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows," an early story that imagines post-apocalyptic boredom, and "The City Born Great," which later became the genesis of The City We Became. If you're unfamiliar with Jemisin's style and are looking for a taste of what it's like, look no further than the opening line of "Stone Hunger":
"Once there was a girl who lived in a beautiful place full of beautiful people who made beautiful things. Then the world broke."
In a post-climate change world, a powerful class of people, Orogenes, can control earthquakes and prevent Seasons, the cycle of violent climate fluctuations that ravage the planet. However, ordinary humans frequently persecute the Orogenes, to the point that one, fed up with the oppression and fear their people face, uses their power to split the planet's sole continent in twain. This sets off a series of events that leads to the worst Season in memory, leading humanity to question whether or not they can survive. This book kicks of the Broken Earth trilogy, which explores themes of oppression, marginalization, and how to survive in a world that seeks to keep you down. It is truly one of the best sci-fi fantasy novels out there.
Set in the ancient city-state Gujaareh, the Dreamblood duology explores the pitfalls of a society that values peace and order over all other things. Beginning with The Killing Moon, the series chronicles the fallout of a string of murders in Gujaareh, and the brewing war that lies in wait in the shadows. Although released as two separate volumes originally, reading the duology in one volume really connects the threads of the separate installments and keeps the action moving seamlessly toward the exciting conclusion.
Jemisin's debut trilogy, Inheritance, introduced the reading world at large to her powers with the pen. Among her novels, this series is perhaps the most rooted in straight-up fantasy, but it contains many traces of what would become the author's signatures. Inheritance is notable not only for the greatly constructed story and detailed world, but in the author's professed interest in telling stories that upend their own status quo, and by extension, that of the sci-fi fantasy community—a goal that makes perfect sense for an African American fantasy writer. Without delving into spoilers, know that Inheritance is an explosive and gripping read, which takes many an unexpected, yet deeply satisfying, twist and turn. To date, each of Jemisin's books have been excellent, but there is perhaps no better place to start with this author than here.
I have to admit that this is the book I was most personally excited to cover in this list. Published earlier this year, The City We Became is a truly enthralling book, and has just about everything you can ask for in a sci-fi fantasy, with dashes of urban fantasy for good measure. Taking place in modern New York City, the novel finds a group of unlikely allies bound together by an unknown force that draws them toward defending their city from an otherworldly danger. It is the first in a projected trilogy, and I can't wait to read the next installment.
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D.R. Baker is a writer and musician based in New York City. Their work has appeared at Book Riot, Submittable, HowlRound, and others.