I wanted to write a recommendation list but didn’t know what to write about and that’s how we ended up with this. I hope you like my twist on the “if you like this, try that” recommendation posts!
Disclaimer: I in no way mean to imply that any of these books are alike/very similar. They’re not – especially in category 1 and 5, in which they’re all from different genres. I just feel like they can appeal to the same kind of reader.
So You Like A Challenge
read them! then judge me for recommending them to you
Have you ever felt like the books you’re currently reading aren’t challenging you enough? Do you want to read something that will consume you, surprise you, and leave you with the knowledge that you’ve never read anything quite like it and never will again? Are you ok with not understanding all of what you read?
Then I can recommend you these three unique and truly bizarre books, three of the most challenging novels I’ve ever read.
- Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” told through transcriptions of parts of fictional films. It’s a love letter to filmmaking and stories, with dizzyingly beautiful descriptions of sci-fantasy settings, and you won’t be able to keep straight what’s real and what’s fictional inside the book.
- Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: the 25th century from the point of view of someone who just really likes 17th century philosophy. It’s basically 90% worldbuilding, and if that sounds boring – oh, it is. It’s really boring, but that’s exactly how the extremely disturbing trainwreck in part two sneaks up on you! It totally pays off in the worst way, and this is the kind of futuristic story that feels at the same time possible, surprisingly alien, and horrifying. Is this an utopia, a dystopia or neither? I still don’t know the answer. Anyway, try this. It’s worth reading just to hate on the narrator.
- Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko: to give you an idea of how good this book is, I’m just going to tell you that this is the only novel I’ve ever really disliked that regularly makes it to my recommendation lists. It’s the kind of book in which the individual scenes make sense but the whole does not. I have no idea what the fuck I read, but was it An Experience. I really recommend it if
you ever want a headacheyou are ok with not understanding most of it but want to read something that in a way is about growing up (which is confusing, like this book).
Emotional, Diverse Multi-PoV Contemporary
they will make you cry but they’re so wholesome
So you like pain? What about books that will smash your heart to pieces and then put it back together again, making you cry of happiness in the end? Those are the best kinds of contemporary novels. And today I’m recommending three books that deal with heavy topics like adoption, teen pregnancy, friendship break-ups, grief, and alcoholism with grace, heart
and a lot of reader tears.
- Far From the Tree by Robin Benway is the most well-known of these three – it won a National Book Award and it’s deserved – and it follows three biological siblings who were adopted by different families/are in foster care as they reconnect. It talks about adoption, teen pregnancy, and family. If you’re putting this off because, like I did, you think this is going to be a sappy story, I can tell you it isn’t.
- This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow: I love this book so much? And it’s so underrated. I have yet to find another contemporary book which follows three characters who are all dealing with their own mental health issues – grief and anxiety, low self-esteem after a toxic relationship, recovery from addiction – and does all their journeys justice. This has two very sweet romances – one f/f and one m/f – and it’s about three girls who were once friends as they reconnect through music. Also, two of the three main characters are black (ownvoices rep). It’s the kind of contemporary that manages to be a light read even though its themes are heavy without ever feeling superficial. I know I’m talking a lot about it lately, but that’s because it deserves better than 250 ratings on goodreads!
- The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk: another story about teenagers as they find each other through music! This follows an adopted Korean-American teen, a black girl, and a white gay boy who all have lost someone close to them – a friend, a sister, a boyfriend – as they work through their grief. It’s one of the first positive representations of a character going to therapy I’ve seen and that meant a lot to me. This is another really underrated novel, but it’s really good, the kind of good that hurts. It needs trigger warnings for biphobia (the gay main character has some internalized prejudice and I have mixed feelings about how the story dealt with that) but apart from that, I loved it.
Political Intrigue In Space
they’re so good and very gay, please read them
What’s better than political intrigue? Political intrigue in space following a mostly, if not all-queer cast!
Anyway. Many people mention that they like political intrigue, and they want to read more novels in which the intrigue is actually unpredictable. And here’s my list of novels set in space that deal with complex political situations! In all of them the complex worldbuilding paid off and all of them had twists I didn’t see coming.
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: a story about a vengeful AI and an evil space empire told through two timelines. It’s the kind of effortlessly compelling high-stakes sci-fi I would recommend to anyone who isn’t intimidated by complex worldbuilding and wants to read about politics, power dynamics in interactions between cultures, the nature of humanity and sentience – and who gets to decide who is human and sentient. And it’s set in an empire with a concept of gender and family very different from our own, which is really interesting to read.
- Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: this is a story about sieges. On the surface, it’s a story about a disgraced captain, Cheris, who is shackled to the ghost of Jedao – a general who was a tactical genius and also a mass murderer – to win an impossible siege. At the same time, it’s the story of Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ mind and beliefs, and the story of a space empire divided into bickering factions all threatened by an external enemy and held together by someone who might be even worse. It has an all-queer cast, math-inspired magic in space, no romance and plenty of explosions. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read.
- A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: I still haven’t fully recovered from this one. Many parts of it hit really close, it’s… personal. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that talks about what it’s like to grow up on literature not written for you or anyone from your country, written in a language that isn’t your own, because when your neighbors are far more powerful than your country is, they get to set the standards of what is good literature – and even which ways of living are modern and civilized. It’s a story about a woman who, after being thrown into political intrigue at court (she’s an ambassador), changes the history of an empire she both loves and hates. Also, it has a main f/f romance, a mostly-queer cast and possibly the best court intrigue I’ve ever read.
because monster romance is the best romance!
Romance storylines in fantasy often leave a lot to be desired. But you know which kind of romance rarely disappoints me? Monster romances. Give me all the weird and complicated and unusual romances in which the love interest has the best aesthetic – be it a chaos entity or a shapeshifter or an evil broody elf – and I will end up loving them.
- In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard: a lesbian scholar and a bisexual shapeshifting dragon woman fall in love in this Vietnamese-inspired Beauty and the Beast retelling! It’s the only monster romance I know in which both main characters are women and it also has the best descriptions ever – do you like beautiful but dangerous palaces in which doors can lead to gardens and libraries as often as they can lead to death? Anyway, this was one of my favorite relationships of 2018, to see the dragon Vu Côn act like she’s totally not into the main character and then as she tries to flirt with fruits anyway…
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: I’ve seen this book described as Shadow and Bone for adults and that’s… accurate. If you thought this book wouldn’t be a “let’s sleep with the chaos god amidst deadly political intrigue in a palace that is basically floating in the sky”, you were wrong. It’s that book, and the chaos god is also genderfluid (what is gender to a god) and the main character is a bisexual brown woman.
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: monster romance as a genre is by definition extra and really dramatic – which is what I love about it. Give me all the overdramatic monster love interests who are not as scary as they initially seemed – but nothing is as extra as this book. This book doesn’t have a monster romance, it has two. One between a Jewish daughter of a moneylender and what’s basically a broody ice elf and the other between the daughter of a duke and a possessed Tsar. And it’s a story about women supporting each other against terrible men as well! Pick up this slow-paced, wintry retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and get ready for the feelings.
I believe in exploring hard topics but I don’t believe in hopelessness
Some words like “relevant” and “important” are overused enough to be pretty much meaningless, like a lot of the words thrown around for buzz when it comes to book promotion. That’s why I never use them – well, almost. There are some books that – in my opinion – actually fit what those words mean. They’re not easy reads in any way, but I really think they’re worth it.
- An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: this is set in a generation spaceship whose social order is very similar to the society in the United States before the civil war. It’s a story about enslaved people enduring horrible things, about the ways they are affected by them, about the small ways they still find to fight back. It’s also a story that talks about how gender roles are imposed, taught, made up – and it really makes you look at them and at cisheteronormativity and think “was I really taught to think that was natural? And people still believe it?”. It talks about the many forms racism can take, from the outwardly violent parts to the ones that look like details but really aren’t. It also has a mostly-queer cast (the main character is intersex and maybe non-binary, and there are explicitly non-binary major characters) and the main character is autistic.
- Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: this is a story about the rise of a fascist government in a previously-accepting city from the point of view of marginalized characters – two queer men, one of which is a person of color, and a woman who is a sex worker. I still can’t think of any other book that balanced the fun – because yes, this was a fun read at times – with the darkness as effectively as this book does, and what it did haunts me. It has that tone of “it happened, and it can happen again, quickly” but it’s not hopeless, which would have made it unreadable. It’s… a lot and it is upsetting and it also should have more readers.
- Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan: I often talk about this novel because it has one of my favorite romances ever – an f/f forbidden slow burn, the kind of romance that blooms in stolen moments and I love everything about it. But that’s not what this book is about. This is a story about being a rape survivor set in a Malaysian-inspired kingdom in which young girls are forced to become concubines of a demon king. It portrays the many reaction women have to assault and rape culture, including enduring, fighting back, starting to see it as normal and hurting other girls because they have been hurt themselves. It’s… an exploration of that and I thought it was very well-written (and, of course, hard to read).
Have you read or want to read any of these? Have you ever read three books you think would appeal to the same kind of reader even though they’re not really similar?