I’ve always had a soft spot for science fantasy. Chock that up to being raised on Star Wars, if you will, but it’s still something I love to see in fiction. I love a bit of hard sci-fi now and again, too, but sticking purely to what science currently says is possible can be a bit restricting at times. Don’t you ever want to explore the galaxy in a sentient spaceship or use magic to stop an intergalactic war? Because I do. And that’s where science fantasy comes in.
Science fantasy is exactly as advertised: a mixture of science fiction and fantasy elements blended together. Classic examples that most people will probably recognize are Star Wars and Star Trek, but the genre first came to prominence in American pulp magazines through writers like Robert A. Heinlein. The science fantasy genre utilizes fantastic elements made more plausible through the lens of science fiction or science fiction elements made even more extraordinary with a bit of magical thinking applied.
Much of the genre takes place in space or on alien planets, which is why these 20 must-read space fantasy books have made the very top of my list. Whether filled with magical powers or alien encounters, these books are an intricate melding of both science fiction and fantasy. Dive in for some fantastic space fantasy adventures.
Must-Read Space Fantasy Books
Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
On a biological ship, there are the elite and there are the beast workers. Seske Kaleigh was born to be the next matriarch, and as such, is expected to marry men and women that will secure important connections for her family line. But her friendship with — and feelings for — heart worker Idalla threaten her position. Especially when Idalla is cast out among the bone workers. Life on a spacefaring beast is never easy, but as Seske and Idalla begin to see the signs of impending exodus as the beast grows weaker and weaker, they must face the reality that the life they know has been built on lies. And there may be another future out there among the stars if only they’re willing to risk it.
Aetherbound by E. K. Johnston
Forced to work as a servant on her family’s interstellar freighter, Pendt longs to escape. In space, only useful aether abilities are worth the calories they take to use, which means as far as Pendt’s family is concerned, her connection to the genetics of all living things is less than worthless. On the brink of starvation and never having seen the galaxy outside her ship, Pendt sneaks off at the first station they’ve docked at in decades. There, she meets two brothers who change her life. In taking her in and showing Pendt her worth, the Brannick twins give her a place she can finally call home. It comes with costs, too, though. Only through a marriage contract will she be safe from her family. And even that might not be enough when they realize just how powerful she really is.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Master of speculative fiction Nalo Hopkinson writes out-of-this-world science fiction with a Caribbean flair. It’s Carnival on the planet of Toussaint. The festival is simply a wonderful excuse to put on her favorite costume as the Robber Queen. But then her power-hungry father is caught committing an unforgivable crime and he and his daughter are banished to the world of New Half-Way Tree where humans are the outcasts and creatures of folklore and legend are real. Here, Tan-Tan must find the true Robber Queen within herself and become who she was always meant to be.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
In order to redeem herself from a military disgrace, Captain Kel Cheris is forced to align her consciousness with a famed undead tactician who might be her only hope of saving the Fortress of Scattered Needles from heretics. With Shuos Jedao’s skills and knowledge, they might just be able to scrape victory from the jaws of defeat. After all, he never lost a battle. But he also went mad in his former life, massacring two armies, one of them his own. Can Cheris truly trust someone such as that with not only the war but her mind? And maybe a better question: does she even have a choice?
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
This necromantic space fantasy features some of my favorite sword- and bone-wielding heroines of all time. Gideon teams up with her archenemy and the heir of her planet to act the part of the Ninth House’s cavalier. She’s one of the best swordswomen the planet has to offer but she wants nothing more than to escape her dreadful planet with her sexy magazines. But the Ninth House’s necromancer, Harrowhark, isn’t having it. Not until Gideon preforms one last service to the House by answering the Emperor’s call for each of the nine Houses necromancers and cavaliers to gather and solve a mystery that could save — or perhaps destroy — them all.
We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen
Dr. Grace Park was only meant to observe the 13 person crew of the Deucalion. She far prefers the ships’s androids, their behavior seeming less baffling than the human crew. But when the ship is forced to bunker down during a radiation storm, everything falls apart. The survey is put on hold. The crew succumbs to waking nightmares and the androids are acting strangely. On the planet of Eros, nothing is as it seems. And Dr. Park has to figure out what is causing all of this before she falls prey to the madness herself.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
An arranged marriage may be the only hope of staving off war with planets chaffing under the rule of the Iskat Empire. Jainan of Thea’s marriage to an Iskat prince is meant to keep the peace. But when Imperial Prince Taam dies, Jainan finds himself rushed into a new marriage with the prince’s cousin, Kiem. Marriage to someone you hardly know is difficult, and life at court even more so. But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, Jainan is a prime suspect. How hard can it be to solve a murder in the Iskat court? They’re about to find out.
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
Only two cities exist on the tidally locked planet, January, and Sophie has been kicked out of one of them for her involvement in a failed revolutionary group. She’s saved by a mysterious creature in the ice. Along with a ragtag band of exiles, Sophie travels to the other side of the planet, but the creature that saved her is never far from her mind…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This philosophical farce of a space opera is one of my all time favorites, featuring some of the most ridiculous characters and situations you’ll come across in science fiction, fantasy, or just about any other genre you can think of. A spaceship powered by improbability? Check. A depressed robot? Check. The answer to life, the universe, and everything? Check, check, and check.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
It’s space fantasy plus cats! Chasing psychic cats loose on a spaceship is just the beginning (literally) of this ridiculous and ridiculously fun sci-fi adventure. Really, psychic cats should be the worst of Captain Eva Innocente’s troubles. But then she’s blackmailed into doing dirty work for a shadowy crime syndicate after they kidnap her elusive sister. As she tries to protect her crew and keep the truth about their new missions a secret, things go from bad to worse. Each mission could be her last, and if she’s not careful, all these terrible secrets could burn the life she’s carefully scraped together to the ground.
The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis
A voiceless priestess, taking soldier’s confessions on a military’s as part of the Gean war effort, is ordered to spy on the new captain by the Sisterhood. It would be an easier thing if she wasn’t also falling for her. On the other side of the military divide, an elite soldier of Venus is devastated to learn that the partner he thought had disappeared in battle is alive and a traitor to his cause. His only hope of redemption lies in tracking down his former partner, but what if there was more to the story? What if defecting was actually the right choice?
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Mahit is an ambassador to the imperial City of Teixcalaan. Her job should be a relatively easy one: to investigate the death of the former ambassador and advocate for the continued independence of Lsel Station. But as soon as she arrives, the brain implant that allows her to hear the voice of her predecessor is silenced. Adrift without guidance, Mahit finds herself stymied in the face of an alien culture where no one will admit that the previous ambassador’s death wasn’t an accident…or that she might be next.
Dune by Frank Herbert
No list of space fantasy would be complete without this classic of the genre. On a planet rich in invaluable Spice Melange, an addictive substance that plays a fundamental role in space travel through its awareness expanding properties, young Paul Atreides finds himself in the middle of a war: a war between ancient noble houses, a war of imperial politicking, and a war to keep the planet of Arrakis from non-native invaders who want to exploit its resources. When his family is betrayed, Paul is set on a journey that will change the course of Arrakis — and the galaxy — forever.
Does the book have some problematic elements? Oh, definitely. It was published in the 1960s. But it’s a classic that I would still say is worth a read — especially with what looks to be an incredible movie adaptation coming our way soon starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya.
The Long Way To a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers’s fiction tends to be much more rooted in science than in science fantasy, but the wildly imaginative exploration of what alien life might look like in an interconnected galaxy makes it plenty fantastic enough for this space fantasy list. Meet the ragtag crew of the aging spaceship Wayfarer through the eyes of a young woman trying to escape her past. She’s doing her best to escape her past, but in all her sheltered life, Rosemary has never met a group as wildly diverse as this crew made up of a mixed human and alien crew. When the ship gets a dangerous job tunneling wormholes, though, Rosemary has to question whether getting distance from her past is worth risking her life.
Redshirts by John Scalzi
This wonderfully ridiculous book follows the low level crew members of a huge space ship, who, strangely enough, keep dying off. Even weirder, the commanding officers always seem to be fine no matter how bad things get. Not surprisingly, most of the crew tries to avoid going on away missions with the high ranking officers and all the inevitable danger it entails. But as Ensign Andrew Dahl and his fellow low-ranking friends dig deeper, they stumble across information that completely upends their understanding of life on the starship Intrepid. Nothing is as it seems.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
The whole premise of “Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” (as promised by the Goodreads blurb) has me sold. Three women — one who’s made a deal with the devil to deliver souls, one runaway violin prodigy, and one retired starship captain — whose paths cross in California, altering each other’s lives for good. It’s a Faustian deal with a devil meets trans coming-of-age story.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
The biggest, baddest intergalactic music competition has finally come to Earth! It’s time for the Metagalactic Grand Prix. Unfortunately, if the band chosen to represent Earth doesn’t preform, it will result in total annihilation of all life as we know it. Now Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have to make the comeback of their lives to prove the the sentience of life of all life on Earth by making up the sickest of sick beats. But, uh, first they’ll have to get the band back together. What could go wrong?
The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes
The edge of the universe is collapsing, and it’s taking everyone and everything with it. The only ones left to stop it are the dregs of the military: the recruits, exiles, and least-wanted soldiers. They’re the ones nobody wanted. And now it’s up to them to save the universe.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
A talented girl with a gift for mathematics and handling astrolabes earns a spot at a prestigious intergalactic university. She’s the only one of her people to ever be accepted, and the only one of her people to ever want to go off-planet. But her journey to Oomza University puts her on a collision course with a group of aliens bent on revenge against the institution. Binti is not a typical Oomza student, influenced by both her talent and her culture, and neither Binti nor the aliens are prepared for what comes to pass when they meet.
Destroyer of Light by Jennifer Marie Brissett (October 12, 2021)
Alien conquerors have resettled the remains of humanity on the planet Eleusis made up of three habitable zones: Day, Dusk, and Night. Three interconnected stories reveal the ever-shifting divide between alien and human, criminal and dissident, and the haves and have notes in this Afrofuturist Persephone retelling.
Did all that space fantasy put you in the mood for more great science fiction? Try these: