8 Award-Winning Fantasy Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
The Hugo & Nebula Awards are by far the most well-known SFF award, at least in the United States, and those awards typically go to well-known books. Take a brief glance at the Hugo and Nebula winners over the past decade, and you’ll see a lot of familiar names: N.K. Jemisin, Martha Wells, Naomi Novik, Nghi Vo, Becky Chambers, Charlie Jane Anders. These are all fantastic writers who’ve written brilliant books. The Hugo and Nebula awards are a fun place to start if you’re looking to get into fantasy and science fiction. But if you’re a longtime SFF reader, it’s likely you’ve already read most of the Hugo and Nebula finalists by the time they’re announced. Maybe you’re looking for something new.
Happily, there are lots of under-the-radar fantasy books out there, and lots of them are well worth your time. Lots of them, in fact, have won awards! They just might not be awards you’ve heard of, or ones that are usually associated with fantasy. So here are eight fabulous award-winning books you might not have heard of, from epic fantasy to magical realism. We’ve got talking polar bears, coming-of-age quests, dark historicals, a magical love story, dragons, and more.
The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman (2018 Lambda Award)
I loved Isaac Fellman’s trans vampire novel Dead Collections, but I hadn’t heard of his debut, a meditative, melancholic story about a woman whose life is forever changed by a mountain-climbing expedition. Lamat Paed, along with a priest, sets out to summit the most sacred mountain in her people’s realm, known as God’s own head. After the expedition, her climbing partner becomes famous, but Lamat retreats into hiding, and is eventually exiled from her homeland. Years later, she finally tells the full story to her partner, revealing secrets she’s been keeping for years.
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2021 World Fantasy Award)
This dark, lush historical, set in New York City in the 1940s, is a beautiful and complicated story about trauma and power. It takes place in a world where some people of color have supernatural abilities, termed “hands” — gifts that allow them, through their hands, to wield knives with incredible precision, draw out secrets, foresee danger, and more. It unfolds in triptych, focusing on characters whose lives are defined by these powers, and especially on one woman who’s skill with knives gets her entangled in the city’s criminal underbelly.
The House of Rust by Khadijah Abdalla Bajaber (2022 Ursula K. Le Guin Prize)
Set in Mombasa, Kenya, this is a quietly beautiful coming-of-age novel about a young woman who sets out on a quest to find her father, a fisherman who goes missing at sea. She travels on a magical boat, and is accompanied by a crew of talking animals. The quest changes her forever, awakening her to new possibilities, both in herself and in the world she thought she knew. It’s a satisfying blend of adventure, family drama, and magical fable.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yōko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky (2017 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation)
If you’re looking for something fantasy-esque but epic quests and complicated magic systems aren’t your thing, how about a book about three generations of polar bears? These bears exist in human society as writers and circus performers. But though they live with humans, they are not human — they remain perpetual outsiders, and in constant danger. Told from the perspective of three bears, the story moves from the Soviet Union to Canada to East Germany. It’s a sweeping historical novel that illuminates changing political and social norms — with just the right amount of magic and whimsy.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed (2021 Nebula Award for Best Novella)
The novella category of the Hugo and Nebula awards doesn’t get as much love as it should! The 2021 Nebula winner for best novella might not be on your radar, so let me make this pitch: in a bleak future world, fueled by rampant capitalism, a murdered courtesan comes back to life to get revenge on her the man who killed her. I honestly don’t know what could be better than ghost vengeance!
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (British Fantasy Award 2014)
If you missed this book back when it came out, now’s your chance to fix that! Jevick, the son of a merchant, loves books, but they’re almost nonexistent where he lives. When his father dies and he has to travel in his place to Olondria — a kingdom known for its books — he can hardly believe it. But his dream trip gets complicated when he’s possessed by the ghost of a dead girl desperate for someone to listen to her story. He’s soon caught up in Olondria’s dangerous politics, and it forces him to reexamine everything he thought he knew about art, literature, reading, and storytelling.
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo (2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature — Fiction)
This is a gorgeous love story and a heartbreaking exploration of grief, loss, and our relationship with the dead. Yejide comes from a long line of women who have helped souls pass into the afterlife. Darwin takes a job digging craves to help support his mother, even though his religion instructs him to stay away from the dead. When they meet in a cemetery, it changes the trajectory of both their lives. It’s a lush and beautifully written novel effortlessly woven through with magic.
The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams (2018 British Fantasy Award)
Epic fantasy fans, don’t worry — I have something for you, too. This one has it all: a powerful empire that has fallen into ruin; a reluctant hero who sets off on a life-changing quest despite his better judgement; ancient prophecies and dark magic; a fierce witch with a penchant for flame; political turmoil. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second one won a British Fantasy award as well.
Looking for more award-winning books that also happen to be hidden gems? Check out these amazing award-winning nonfiction books you’ve probably never heard of!