Speculative Fiction That Makes You Go “Hmm”

Speculative fictionSpeculative fiction can be a big bucket in which to throw all fiction that isn’t based on current or historical "reality," but in this case I’m going to use it as a smaller bucket to hold the novels that aren’t easily embraced by the standard fantasy or science fiction definitions.

This year has been a good one for speculative fiction. Here are a handful of my favorites that I’m still thinking about long after I’ve finished reading them.


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 The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Green - My coworker and fellow speculative-fiction-lover Matt Fyffe and I  were both enthralled by this deceptively quiet-looking novel that will make you look at animals in a whole new light. Says Matt: “Katherine ‘Kit’ North is the longest serving phenomenaut, a position that allows her to experience life through the eyes (and very different bodies) of a whole host of animals. When she’s drawn into a (non-spider) web of intrigue, Kit must rely on her survival skills, while questioning everything she knew to be true. Clever and action-packed, The Many Selves of Katherine North is smart science fiction by a talented new voice.”

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 The Fireman by Joe Hill - I read this 700+-page post-apocalyptic thriller in three days, and none of those days were weekends. Sleep was definitely lost. But I have no regrets, because Joe Hill’s latest still burns like a hot coal in my heart. Set in New Hampshire right about now, The Fireman opens with a man spontaneously combusting outside the office of school nurse Harper Grayson. Highly contagious and 100 percent fatal, Dragonscale soon plunges the world into chaos. But Hill smartly focuses on Harper and her attempts at survival, keeping the stakes small but extremely personal as the uninfected hunt down and murder the infected, supposedly to protect the rest of the town but really to indulge in sociopathic tendencies now unleashed. The Fireman starts with a bright burn, simmers as Harper joins a group of infected hiding in a summer camp, and then heats up again as the near-utopian community ruptures. Hill weaves questions about the power of leadership, group-think, love, catastrophe, and family into the plot. His smartest move is to give no clear-cut answers to these questions, and his humdinger of an ending provides just the right closure.

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 Skinner Luce by Patricia Ward - This gritty story set in Boston has an unusual twist—the main character, Lucy, isn't human. At all. Dropped off in the human world when she was a baby by other beings called the Nafikh (not space-faring aliens, though no one's really sure what they truly are), Lucy doesn't realize until she's a teenager that she's not like everyone else; she's a serv. And servs, well, serve the Nafikh in horrible, soul-crushing ways that will likely get Lucy killed before she can live out her terms of service. Unfortunately, Lucy is now suspected of homicide by the too-human police, which means she's expendable to servs and Nafikh alike. Fluidly moving between Lucy's present-day horrors and her past transition from human-ish to serv, Skinner Luce paints a heroine who's more human than most in her fears and ambitions and who will grab your heart. This novel is among my top 10 favorite SF and fantasy books of the year, no question. 

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Fellside by M. R. Carey - It took me a while to get into this novel, but I persevered. I had faith that Carey—the author of the breathtaking The Girl with All the Gifts—would deliver a story that would make me stop and think. And he did. In most ghost stories it's the ghosts who are the ones to fear, but when Jess Moulson is incarcerated in a women's prison for murdering a child, she quickly learns that the other prisoners are the scariest thing on the moors, not the child’s voice that only she hears. Moulson’s spectral friend become her bodyguard while Moulson pulls together a strategy to find the real murderer who should be in jail instead of her. Happily, in the last quarter of the book, Carey unravels the slowly building story in an explosive finish as shocking as it is satisfying. While The Girl with All the Gifts was epic in its effect (it changed the world!), Fellside has a much smaller blast radius, but it’s a scarring one all the same.

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 The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales - An office in midtown Manhattan is a mundane travel agency on the outside but a secret force for good on the inside. Or is it? What’s clear from the outset is that the Regional Office will shortly come under attack by a group of young women with special talents who can out-ninja the best ninjas, and the results are going to be bloody—as well as horrifyingly hilarious. Gonzales has one of the most refreshing, original, and straight-up whackadoodle voices I’ve read this year. As he lifts away the layers that hide the Regional Office and its not-so-pristine history, readers will be sucked into this propulsive tale. Don’t expect deep “learnings.” This book is more like cotton candy—deliciously fun and lightweight, and you’ll find bits of it stuck to you for days afterward.


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