This was not an easy list to create. There are hundreds of incredible SFF short story collections out there, and even with a list of 20, I couldn’t include all of the must-reads. But here’s my best shot: a list of the best fantastic, ambiguous, twisting, mysterious, and world-bending short story collections out there right now.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin is one of the top SFF writers today. This collection showcases her talents, from “L’Alchimista,” about a chef fallen from grace who finally finds a challenge worth her skills, to “Non-Zero Probabilities,” where one-in-a-million chances suddenly become day-to-day probabilities. My personal favorite was “Valedictorian,” a story about a Black girl who refuses to underachieve even though being the best in her class will have dire consequences for her future. Jemisin’s stories are about destruction, redemption, and rebellion.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Adjei-Brenyah’s 2018 debut features a dystopian near-future, and its tales explore themes of Black identity and youth, revealing the absurdities of Black life in America today. The stories are surreal, highlighting social commentary through heightened, strange situations. It’s a razor-sharp collection, focusing on the horrors of consumerism, capitalism, racism, and more.
The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
Liu is the author of Hugo Award–winning novel The Three-Body Problem, and is China’s bestselling science fiction author. This collects his short fiction: 11 science fiction mind-bending tales, five of which won the Chinese Galaxy Award. Stories focus on space exploration, generational difference, to capitalism gone too far.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This incredible short story collection is dreamy, dark, foggy, and surreal. Machado’s fabulist tales star women, many of them queer, and they examine women and their bodies, and the ways we embrace them, or the ways violence turns against them. I adored it from start to finish—from “The Husband Stitch,” a retelling of the woman with a ribbon around her neck, to “Inventory,” where a woman recounts all of her lovers as, in the background, a plague spreads, to “Real Women Have Bodies,” which tells a tale where women are suddenly fading away.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
In Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, she gathered an intensely diverse and global collection that features solely fairytales focused around women; she is a pioneering, feminist scholar and author of fairytales. She takes the classic stories and, in her fragrant, simmering writing, retells them to be more explicit about their sexual and violent content, or turning them on their head. A mother saves her daughter from a bloody fate; women take control of their own sexuality. It’s a brilliant collection.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Link is the one of the most celebrated surrealist storytellers of our age. In this collection, she writes of a house haunted by hordes of rabbits, a girl searching for her grandmother’s handbag that holds her ancestral hometown, a young boy watching a show that takes place in the midst of a vast library, a party-crasher operating in the middle of a zombie attack. Her stories are rooted in heart; her fantastic elements serve to expose alienation, community, and isolation, particularly in family and marriage environments.
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente writes a collection of high-speed stories about the women whose lives are “refrigerated” to progress the storyline of the superhero. Valente pulls on the tales we know from DC and Marvel, but she takes them much further. Her world is well-built and each story lives on its own merits, giving us a point of view we always craved from the stories that are fiery and wondrous for men and almost always violent and cruel to their women, who are fierce, bitter, and exciting.
Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe
In this YA anthology, a young girl finds escape in the stars, a black teen with healing capabilities grows into a self-dependence, Marimar returns to the family ranch where her grandmother is dying, and a girl isn’t sure if she deserves communion as a witch who can cure love-sickness. This collection features queer witches, sisterhood, feminist rage, all in a magical series of stories.
The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad
From JY Neon Yang to Helene Wecker to Nnedi Okorafor, this anthology centering around djinn, jinn, and genies are written by some of the greatest fantasy authors of our time. In “REAP,” American soldiers spying on a town in Pakistan via drone watch a young girl be possessed by a flame; in “Black Powder,” a hunter hunts the jinn over years and years; in “Glass Lights,” a jinn’s lonely granddaughter reflects on wishes as she navigates an alienating and prejudiced workspace.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
The title story of this superb, surrealist collection swept the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, an unprecedented win. Some stories are influenced by Borges and Calvino; others are mythological musings of morality and folklore; and still others take a look at what makes us human in the face of technological advances. Liu’s stories are excellently written and prompt us to ask compelling questions.
This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire and the Fantastic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Moreno-Garcia is one of the superb fantastical writers of our time. The author of novels including Gods of Jade and Shadow writes speculative fiction tales infused with Mexican folklore. The perplexing horror and urban fantastical tales explore vampires struggling in Mexico City, giant penguins, magic scorpions, and more.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
“Story of Your Life” is the novella that was transformed into the celebrated film “Arrival” (2017). Ted Chiang is the award-winning young author taking speculative fiction to the next level. He explores questions of religion, mathematics, logic, and linguistics; his intelligent and wild tales are changing the world of SFF. This is a compelling and fascinating collection, and when you’re done, you can jump straight into his newer collection, Exhalation: Stories.
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
Hopkinson is a Jamaican-born writer and editor who lives in Canada, her stories drawing from Caribbean history, language, and oral traditions. This collection showcases years of her short fiction, tales which mix modern worlds with Afro-Caribbean folklore, featuring everything from fire-breathing chickens to a new take on Caliban and Ariel to trees eagerly enjoying a storm.
The Real and Unreal by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time, and The Real and Unreal gathers 700-plus examples of the prolific author’s award-winning fiction into one hefty volume. From her famous ethical dilemma of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” to “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” a story written in academic journal form. Le Guin writes of gender roles, sexist violence, time travel, cultural difference, and more.
Tender by Sofia Samatar
Samatar is an award-winning fantasy author who writes of fragility and tenderness, rooting her tales in folklore and fairy tale. This collection is the beloved of so many writers and readers, and has gotten less attention than it deserves. Just the first story alone, “Selkie Stories are for Losers,” is an incredible story full of heart, about a young girl whose mother left long ago, who holds a deep grudge against the ocean, against the tales. Samatar experiments with form and narrative, and writes a collection that deserves so much hype.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
Sarah Pinsker’s work is more relevant than ever—her novel A Song for a New Day writes of a world where congregating is banned after illness and terrorism overwhelms governments. This collection features the short story at the core of that novel. Clones of a writer populate an entire conference where one of them is murdered; a prosthetic arm dreams it is an open road; a girl adjusts to a robot grandmother; a community that left Earth years ago wonders if it should abandon traditional art for the new. Her tales feature queer women galore, and I loved the collection from start to finish.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Russell roots surrealist absurdism in tales full of heart. The stories feature an army of seagulls who steal important mementos and the important moments that come with them; a magical tattoo on the back of a veteran reveals the story of his friend’s death; several presidents find themselves in a barn, as horses, instead of in heaven, after death. A vampire who has found peace in Italy wants the same for a lover, and in a biopolitical critique of labor exploitation, women tricked into mutating into silkworm creatures rebel.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer
Some of my absolute favorite fairytale retellings are featured in this anthology, from Aimee Bender’s “The Color Master” to Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People.” Dissatisfied with the way the father gets away with everything in “The Juniper Tree”? Check out Alissa Nutting’s “The Brother and the Bird.” Read Timothy Schaffert’s “The Mermaid in the Tree” if you want a dark, spooky mermaid tale about drugs, darkness, and responsibility; read Shirley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” for a more realistic look at the woman robbed of magic, sewing thorny shirts. This entire collection is a gem.
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
I saved one of my absolute favorites for last. Gaiman’s collection includes his dark horror retelling of Snow White, “Snow, Glass, Apples,” which explores what would happen if the Queen was actually the heroine, trying to save her kingdom. “I Can Get Them For You Wholesome” is an ironic story where a man looking to assassinate his unfaithful fiancée and realizes he can get more for a steal—and quickly is overwhelmed. And “The Sweeper of Dreams” is one of my all-time favorite poems. It’s an excellent selection from a fantasy great.