Last week, I reread the very first N. K. Jemisin book I had ever read, Killing Moon. I mentioned to a sister-in-law that I had initially read the book five years ago, and was surprised how much of the book I didn’t remember on rereading it. She laughed and said that was probably because of the hundreds of novels I had read in the intervening years—so much reading was bound to blend together on some level. I assured her that her assessment was an exaggeration—but her comment made me start counting.
Until about five years ago, I rarely read science fiction or fantasy. I read The Lord of the Rings during my teen years, to be sure, and essentially everything C. S. Lewis wrote (including his space trilogy). But most of the rest of what I read during those years was Amish romance novels or Christian historical fiction.
During the years that followed, I was consumed with college reading. Just about the only sustained novel reading I did during college was finally reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. My early years of graduate school were similar, eaten up by assigned reading for graduate classes. It wasn’t until I reached the dissertation phase that I had mental space for novels—perhaps because I needed the escape.
That is how, about five years ago, I came to dip my toe into a new world of reading. N. K. Jemisin’s Killing Moon was my gateway drug, along with its sexual companion, Shadowed Sun; I was so impressed with the books that I decided to focus my exploration on books by female authors. Once I found an author I liked, I typically read her entire works in a matter of months. This made for a fast-escalating book count.
First, I devoured Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series. It’s like a Twilight, but without the abusive dynamics and quivering teenagers. In the series, a near-death experience leaves Richardson’s protagonist, a female detective, in tune with an underworld of vampires and magic, forever changing the clientele of her detective agency, as the undead come to her for help. Throw in a lot of historical Seattle, via ghosts which the protagonist can now see. I read all nine books in the series over a few months.
Because I saw enjoyed Richardson’s focus on a female detective, I next turned to Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski novels. Paretsky published the first book in her series, which takes as its protagonist a female detective in Chicago, in 1982, and is still publishing new V. I. Warshawski novels today. I loved the grittiness, the relationships, and Paretsky’s rejection of many stereotypical female tropes. It took me under a year to read all 19 of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski novels, which left me wanting more.
At this point I returned to where I’d begun my exploration and read N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, along with several accompanying short stories. I did not, however, read her much acclaimed Broken Earth series, which has angered male “bro” science fiction and fantasy readers, for reasons that are entirely predictable—N. K. Jemisin is a black female writer unafraid to speak her mind, and that is apparently enough to set bro readers off. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series was just coming out when I last revisited N. K. Jemisin to read her Inheritance trilogy, and it was therefore hard to get my hands on. I just received it for Christmas, however, and I cannot wait to read it.Casting around for other female authors of science fiction or fantasy, I picked up the first of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Upon reading the first chapter, I was not impressed. Dragons, during the Napoleonic War? I may be a history nerd, but I was never big on that particular conflict, and besides, the main character was a man, and the gender norms of the time left something to be desired. But I kept reading, and am I glad I did! The series turns a variety of ideas upside down, and there are female dragon riders, which is both a state secret and disrupts things in delightful ways. I listened to the first six books on book and tape, and then paused to wait for the remaining three to come out in this format as well.
I’m not completely sure how I came to read Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, but the trilogy swept me off my feet completely. There’s not much more I can say than that to emphasize the absolute beauty and wonder of her books. She plays with so many norms in ways that feel completely unforced and delightful, and takes readers on an epic journey to an end result that is at once perfect and leaves the reader wanting more. And more is on the way! Leckie has already added another book, Provenance, also set in her world. Leckie is at the beginning of her career, and I very much hope it is a long one.
When I mentioned how much I loved Leckie’s books, which took place in outer space and involved planets with divergent cultures and norms, anyone who knows anything about the world of science fiction asked me why I hadn’t read Ursula Le Guin. I didn’t have an answer. Odd though it may sound, she hadn’t been on my radar—perhaps because my reading journey started at fantasy and moved through detective novels to then land on science fiction. So I read all eight books in Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. I was in love. Her Dispossessed was probably the most beautiful, thoughtful, and intriguing thing I had ever read. From here, I read all six books in her Earthsea series, which though not science fiction was still excellent.
I’m fairly certain I read a number of other books and series interspersed amongst these, but these are the ones that stick in my mind most firmly. My trouble right now is, I’m not sure where to go from here. To be sure, I have a few other Le Guin novels and novellas I could read, and there are three books still of Novik’s Temeraire series, and I have yet to read the Broken Earth set I got for Christmas. But I want more than that. I want new authors and new series, new worlds of adventure.
I’ll end this post with an open invitation for readers to share what they have been reading, especially in the world of science fiction and fantasy, but also other series and authors who may be of interest. I am particularly interested in books with strong (and relatable) female characters, which typically (though not always) means books written by women, and I’m interested in reading more books by women of color.
With that, I’ll turn it over to you. What books, authors, and series have you been reading? What authors or series would you recommend to others, and why? What genres do you enjoy, and not enjoy, and why? What, for you, pushes a book from being just okay to being utterly absorbing? Have at it!
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