Call it escapism or call it a salve for running a website that covers politics in 2018, but I read a lot of speculative fiction this year. Back in April, we published a list of the Best Fantasy Novels of the 21st Century (So Far) and since then we’ve been on speculative fiction kick across all media with The 15 Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comics of 2018, The 100 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time and The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time. Meanwhile, the Paste Books team found time to read a bunch of new fantasy novels, including one which topped our Best Novels of 2018 list.
The following 15 books capture the range that makes fantasy fiction so great, from epic high fantasy to alternate reality to urban fantasy to literary fiction that just happens to star a Greek goddess. These books visit other magical worlds, sure, but also draw from West African, Chinese and Greek mythology, as well as the American Civil War, ’80s punk scenes, far-off planets and Edwardian England. Most of these are stand-alone novels, but there are also a few continuations of some of our favorite fantasy series.
If magic existed, those with power would undoubtedly create their own strict class structure, ruling us muggles without our knowledge. Or so imagines C.L. Polk in her stellar debut, set in an alternate world where cars, radios and illumination are just beginning to take hold; poor magicians are sent to asylums; and an oppressive system forces even second-rate mages from wealthy families to serve as little more than batteries for their betters. Add in a mythical love interest and even more wrong with the world than our protagonist can imagine, and you have a gripping magical mystery from a fresh voice in fantasy. —Josh Jackson
14. Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
Vita Nostra proves how tireless and cruel and necessary is the pursuit of knowledge. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s novel, translated from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, concerns itself almost entirely with education’s tyranny. In an amalgamation of fantasy, science fiction and pedagogy, students at the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies learn to shed their human essence in pursuit of something higher: complete understanding. Through new student Sasha Samokhina’s education, we view the destructive nature of the process; she’s induced to vomiting gold coins, slut shamed, coerced into sex and silenced. She’s also gifted immense power of comprehension; she’s capable of reading and parsing the world, understanding the subtext upon which it’s built and editing that text in turn. But the cost! This is not the bunny-eyed education of Hogwarts; this is the violent expansion of the mind. Vita Nostra reminds us that language and knowledge are the greatest powers, and it’s through the word that we’ve shaped everything around us. —B. David Zarley
It’s hard to dig into the third book in Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series without spoiling the first two, so we’ll keep it brief. Set in a world resembling ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy novel of love and revenge. When a young soldier groomed to take over the oppressive, military government decides to turn his back on the regime, he collides with a young scholar determined to save her brother. He’s a soldier, she’s a slave, and together they prepare to fight for their freedom. The series gets better and better with each installment, which is the case with A Reaper at the Gates. War feels inevitable as the characters you’ve come to love fight to stop chaos…both in the land of the living and the land of dead. —Eric Smith
Robert Jackson Bennett, who wrapped up his Divine Cities trilogy last year, wasted no time debuting a new fantasy saga in 2018. Beginning with Foundryside, the Founders series introduces a fascinating world run by magical technology called “scriving.” The novel’s industrialized magic system is intriguing on its own, but Bennett pairs it with a thieving protagonist and her high-stakes heists to create an enthralling epic. Weaving compelling adventures and tackling real-world issues, Foundryside kicks off a story that will leave you clamoring for book two. —Frannie Jackson
Dhonielle Clayton’s poison-macaron world where beauty has quite literally been weaponized is a precise reflection of the toxicity of the capitalist patriarchy already dictating value in the real world. Set in a world ravaged of natural beauty—all humans are cursed to live with wrinkled gray skin, scraggly hair and red eyes unless they can pay a talent-wielding Belle to have their situation changed—The Belles draws a dystopia that is more enticing, more feminine and more brutally brittle than any that have come before. Its young protagonist, ace Belle Camellia Beauregard, is the perfect tour guide through this brutality, balanced as she is between being a wide-eyed Pollyanna amazed by life beyond the walls of her sheltered upbringing and a keen-eyed judge of the moral hypocrisy her sugary world holds. If it takes her too long to untangle the mystery a discerning reader sees from the beginning, the time spent observing the broken world of Orleans through her empathetic eyes—setting up a rock-hard foundation for the society-shattering fireworks threatened by the sequel—is well worth every second. —Alexis Gunderson
Nicholas Eames’ follow-up to last year’s Kings of the Wyld follows another band of mercenaries, Fable, led by its legendary frontwoman Bloody Rose. Told from the perspective of a young Bard named Tam, the novel takes a punk-rock approach to a fantasy world populated by every kind of monster imaginable. From Tam’s escape of a life of drudgery to seek glory in arenas filled with cheering fans to the camaraderie and tensions of a life on tour, Eames’ world is a welcome escape for anyone who’s ever itched to break out of the constraints of parental or societal expectations. While Grandual’s most famous groups may sport winking names like Screaming Eagles, Men Without Helmets, the Duran Brothers and Boomtown Rats, they sling literal axes instead of figurative ones, accompanied by musicians who capture their most daring deeds in song. Of course, Fable must do more than just play for the crowds, taking on one final epic gig that will put the existence of all humankind in jeopardy. —Josh Jackson
Laini Taylor’s writing is the stuff of dreams, even when her subject is literally nightmares. She not only draws language together in ways almost impossible to believe, but builds worlds of fantasy that resemble nothing you’d have even been able to imagine, let alone could have hoped to have had a master of the craft write into being. Her latest, Muse of Nightmares, continues the wildly fresh and beguiling story of blue gods and magic metal and deep trauma compounded over generations of abuse and genocide begun in last year’s Strange the Dreamer. Muse wraps it up with the addition of an entirely new thread of trauma launched from a new magical world that should be just too much to work, but in Taylor’s dexterous hands—and with the viability of multiple universes working together established in her previous trilogy—it absolutely succeeds. If you’re burned out on traditional fantasy, read this duology now. And for those readers who want a healthy dose of sexy, deeply emotional romance with their magic battles and flying creatures, rejoice: Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone-borne brand of that very thing is extra strong here. —Alexis Gunderson
This is a book I’ve pretty much screamed about to anyone who will listen, and it’s my favorite new series to debut this year. Set on a faraway planet, A Conspiracy of Stars introduces a teen girl whose parents are celebrated scientists, studying the secrets of the planet they live on—the animals, the plants, the natural wonders the world has to offer. When she notices the natives of the planet being horribly treated, however, she discovers some dark secrets and a war that might be brewing. Olivia A. Cole’s novel is an intense blend of sci-fi and fantasy, tackling colonization and how we treat the world around us. —Eric Smith
The Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale has never been as captivating as it is in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. The lush retelling of a classic story follows Miryem, the daughter of Jewish moneylenders who takes on the family business. But her talent for turning silver into gold draws the attention of a calculating fey king, catalyzing a chain of events that places both human and fey realms in danger. Novik already proved herself a master of weaving fairy tales with Uprooted, her 2015 Nebula Award-winning novel about a young woman chosen to be a “Dragon’s” servant. Spinning Silver further cements her place as one of the genre greats, delivering a magical story tackling sacrifice and anti-Semitism that will enchant readers from cover to cover. —Frannie Jackson
A fantasy series about an orphan who finds herself in a boarding school to learn about magic might not seem original in 2018, but there’s no character quite like Nona. The protagonist of Mark Lawrence’s high-fantasy series was given to the child-taker and sold to a convent to study combat, magic and poisons, along with academics and spiritual devotion, but there will always be something of the wild in her. Lawrence’s storytelling is the kind that has you turning pages and then wondering where the time went and why everyone else has already gone to bed. And while the world of Abeth might be running out of habitable land in an apocalyptic Global Freezing, Grey Sister expands the world he introduced in the first volume of the Book of the Ancestor series last year to great effect. Lawrence has published a book each year since 2011, so fans likely won’t have long to wait for the trilogy’s conclusion with Holy Sister. —Josh Jackson
When Rachel Hartman unveiled the world of academic, shapeshifting dragons in her excellent Seraphina several years ago, it was clear that a new virtuoso had hit the fantasy scene. While the first two books set in this world featured the musical half-dragon Seraphina as protagonist, Tess of the Road shifts the narrative lens to Seraphina’s violent disaster of a (fully human) half-sister, Tess. Tess’ sense of self worth has been so shattered by both the patriarchal mores of the society she grew up in, as well as her own internalized misogyny manifesting into seething self-hatred, that she runs away from home with nothing but her brother-in-law’s name in her mouth and a pair of good boots on her feet. Tess’ is a pummeling psyche to sit in for the near-epic length of a swords-and-dragons fantasy, but living through her journey to self-forgiveness—first alone, then with her gender-fluid, dragon-adjacent Quigtul friend, Pathka—proves illuminating and healing. Tess’ journey ends on a cliffhanger, so we can’t wait to read more of her. —Alexis Gunderson
Named Paste’s best Young Adult novel of 2018, Dread Nation blends elements of fantasy, horror and alternate history to create something wholly unique and utterly memorable. Set in an alternate world in which the undead rose up at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, the novel picks up years later as the United States is spiraling into horror. Readers meet Jane, a teen studying to be an Attendant who is trained to fight zombies for the wealthy white class. But it isn’t the life she wants. A novel that discusses race, class and so much more, Dread Nation is one of 2018’s best reads. —Eric Smith
A truly epic Young Adult fantasy blockbuster, Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel has topped the bestseller list all year long—and with good cause. With stunning world-building and lush prose, readers are swept up into a world where magic is banned and a ruthless monarch seeks to kill those who still hold these gifts. Zélie, a teen with powers of her own, finds herself in a position to fight back, seeking revenge against those who oppressed her people and killed her mother. Children of Blood and Bone is an epic, clocking over 500 pages…but you’ll never want it to end. —Eric Smith
Inspired by 20th century Chinese history, The Poppy War kicks off R.F. Kuang’s epic fantasy trilogy. What begins as a magical school tale—peasant girl Rin tests into the best military academy in the country and hones her mysterious powers with the help of drugs—gradually transforms into a brutal exploration of warfare and its cost. This novel is not for everyone; chapter 21 is inspired by the 1937 Rape of Nanjing and results in a devastating read. But if you can handle the content, Kuang’s novel delivers a thrilling, powerful saga that will leave you clamoring for the sequel, The Dragon Republic, ahead of its Summer 2019 release. —Frannie Jackson
Madeline Miller has mastered two specific skills: writing gorgeous prose and reimagining ancient Greek literature in powerful ways. Her 2011 debut novel, The Song of Achilles, drew from The Iliad to weave a captivating saga with the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus at its center. And now she’s returned with Circe, a novel starring the intriguing sorceress briefly mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey. Through Miller’s lyrical writing, Circe transforms from a sweet, overlooked goddess to an extraordinary witch banished by Zeus to a deserted island. Men may have gotten the glory in Greek epics, but in 2018, Circe is fiction’s most compelling protagonist. If you only read one novel on this list, make it this one. —Frannie Jackson
Looking for more reading recommendations? Check out our lists of the best novels, best nonfiction books, best Young Adult novels and best book covers of 2018.