5 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels That Will Take Your Breath Away

Martin Cahill is a writer working in Manhattan and living in Astoria, Queens. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the New York City based writing group, Altered Fluid. He has had fiction published in Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Shimmer Magazine. Martin also writes non-fiction reviews, articles, and essays for Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, and Strange Horizons.

Twitter Handle: @McflyCahill90


Some books just take your breath away. Whether it’s a series that builds and builds over the course of books until the final volume leaves you gasping for air, a brilliant take on a tried and true genre or narrative, or a tiny slice of fiction that pierces your heart like a needle, leaving no mark on the skin but injecting you with emotion all the same, some books leave you panting, adrenaline pumping, and craving more. In the world of science fiction and fantasy, we’ve especially begun to see a revolution in the way these stories are told. Below, find some sci-fi/fantasy novels and series that have make me shake my head in admiration and pride.   

the-fifth-season-coverThe Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Every book Jemisin has written strikes with a thunderous boom, a split of lightning through the sky, leaving the air itself feeling charged, electric. Her latest series, The Broken Earth, is no exception. A series that examines rage, social injustice, cultures of use and abuse, power dynamics, what an apocalypse would really look like, and a struggle for both freedom of self and freedom of identity, Jemisin’s three book epic delivers, as a mother from an oppressed community in society must find her daughter in a world that is ending faster than either of them anticipate. Jemisin succeeds in creating a narrative that is brutal, harrowing, and filled with moments large and small that made me gasp from page one.

The Craft Series by Max Gladstone

I always love when writers push fantasy out of their regular milieu. Much like the way Jemisin tinkers with convention—setting a fantasy novel in a precarious, apocalyptic world with a middle-aged mother protagonist—Gladstone is equally as happy to superimpose our 21st century ideas, cultures, and fears onto a world of monsters, myths, and magicians. Necromantic lawyers? Call us at your convenience! Got demons in the water supply? Hang on, we’ll send someone out there. Is your temple disintegrating because no one can agree upon its shared reality? Well, let’s get the board together and talk about it. Gladstone gleefully orchestrates the world of the Craft, picking and choosing where to interrogate finance as faith, investment as idolatry, or law as magic. Whether he’s discussing gentrification in Last First Snow, or space travel in Ruin of Angels, Gladstone backs down from nothing, and through his Craft Series, tells us a truth we can only see through a certain angle.

the changeling by victor lavalle coverThe Changeling by Victor LaValle

New York City is alive in a way only a certain handful of writers can capture, and Victor LaValle is absolutely one of them. Through his words, he brings to light the magic inherent in the streets of the city; the way that skyscrapers become icons of faith, the way Central Park can be just as haunted and ethereal and lovely as any faerie wood, how the subway thrums through the veins of the boroughs like blood vessels of grating sound and harsh light. In The Changeling, LaValle twines together myth and Manhattan, sacrifice and subways, as a man journeys into the world beneath this world to find out the truth of his wife and child, both of whom he believes he’s lost. LaValle captures these two worlds and braids them together effortlessly, and by the end of the novel, as he pulls away from the story to let you look at how he did it, even now, I can’t see; I only know it was magic, and this man is well-versed in the spells of narrative, mystery, horror, and myth.

The Only Great Harmless Thing by Brooke Bolander

Bolander is well known for her searing, lyrical, bittersweet short stories that are less a meander through a meadow and more a rocket burning fuel, desperate to escape orbit and bring you along for the ride. Her prose is gorgeous and hits with the kinetic power of a heavyweight champion, and there hasn’t been a story of hers that I’ve finished where I haven’t put a hand to my forehead, suddenly feeling as though I’ve come down with fever. The Only Great Harmless Thing, her new novella, is no different. Set up like mirrors through time, Bolander weaves together the story of an alternate world where Topsy, an abused and mistreated elephant, meets with Regan, one of the radium girls currently facing her own death by the glow of the element they were working with, which executives did not tell them was poison. And through it all, the haunting deep-myth history of Topsy and her ilk, told to us through the triumphant trumpeting of history, as well as a far future where the sins of the past are eager to be forgiven. Except elephants never forget. All of these tales come crashing together in a crescendo that is tragic and horrible and angry, so angry, and justifiable in that anger, as together, Topsy and Regan sing a song of rage that will shake the pillars of the world. Though this is a slim tale, its impact on me was enormous. 

The Red Threads of Fortune by Jy YangThe Tensorate Series by JY Yang

THESE BOOKS Y’ALL. Ahem. My apologies. It’s just that these books by JY Yang are such a breath of fresh air, that it’s tough for me to talk about them without getting a little…energetic. But that energy is earned, as Yang does everything in their power to make these stories sing. Beginning with the duology The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, and continuing with this summer’s The Descent of Monsters, we follow the twins of the Protector: brash, stubborn, and sensitive Akeha, and his sister, Mokoya, whose powers of prophecy made her distant, cautious, and strong. Their stories braid throughout the first two novellas, and continue on into the third story; no matter what the plot may be, Yang manages to keep things fresh and exciting; they’re equally as gifted at interrogating aspects of gender, sexuality, power, imperialism, hierarchy, family, and love, as they are at crafting a fully lived in world full of intricate magic and massive monsters and deep history. The Tensorate is full of mystery but none of it would be half as interesting without Yang’s deft prose and their rich, complicated characters giving this world life.

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