Summer is the best season for reading. Or so everyone would have us believe. There's always a big push for adding to the To Read pile once it gets warm outside. And I am not immune to being swept up in it.
We can pretend for a little while that warm weather once again means freedom and that means more time to read. In this alternate universe, the best reading material would obviously be science fiction and fantasy.
Let's start by diving into some novels. The science fiction and fantasy I love best includes all three of these elements in equal measure: engaging characters, expansive, immersive worldbuilding, and speculative premises that reach beyond easy answers and well-worn cliches. These books fit that bill.
The world of the Dreamblood books is based in part on Egypt and Nubia in ancient times, though it's not just a fantasy pastiche with a few names changed and a thin layer of paint. Jemisin is an expert worldbuilder and her skill is in full display from the opening chapter of "The Killing Moon."
Her protagonist is a ninja priest of death. I'm not kidding.
His job is to sneak into people's houses and ease them into death in the dream world so they can go on to a peaceful afterlife. And while this is an honored position in his society, you can imagine how visiting dignitaries might take a dim view on these actions.
Jemisin is as deft at weaving together political, religious, and spiritual intrigue as she is at creating characters you can empathize with even if you don't like them.
Rupetta by N. A. Sulway
This year's recipient of the James Tiptree Jr. award is one of those books that sits at the center of a lot of genre labels without fitting comfortably inside any one of them.
Some might label it steampunk since the main character is made of gears and a wind-up heart. It might also fit in with the gothic Victoriana or glittering Regency pastiches (though it's set somewhat earlier in history). It could be called science fiction as so many of the characters are engaged in scientific pursuits, but it's written with a fantasy sensibility.
Whatever label you put on it, Rupetta is a story about women's relationships to each other and to the people they create, whether by giving birth to them or making them out of springs and gears or shaping them with their ideas.
Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
I love the concept of this book so much, and the way Duyvis spools it out is so masterful.
The story centers on Nolan and Amara, two young people living in vastly different worlds. Nolan is here in the mundane world when his eyes are open. When he closes them he experiences a world of magic and fantasy through the eyes of Amara.
Beyond the cool premise, I love that Duyvis has put so much thought into her fantasy world and the people who inhabit it. They're not just your standard white, able-bodied, middle class-esque people who happen to be in some fantasy situation.
This is how you do great YA.
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This science fiction YA set in a future Brazil has so many great elements I hardly know where to begin.
It has so much to say about art, love, class, power, and control.
Johnson explores the idea that utopia is a matter of one's point of view. Shift your perception and the dystopia becomes evident. Technology is freeing, yet is also a means of control.
This book also features one of the most well done depictions of a "love triangle" I've seen in YA (or most media).
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
If you want to lose yourself in the language of a book, this is the one you should read first. Samatar's prose is evocative and immediate, sweeping you into the complex plot and the world of Jevick, a pepper merchant's son.
This is a book about loving books and stories and words. People who love travelogues and stories where cities that never existed come to life will really enjoy this book.
As much as I love a good novel, short fiction has always felt like a more suitable mode for summer reading since there is always so much to do. I can read a whole short story or novella on the way to the beach, or while waiting for a summer storm to end -- dipping in and out of worlds just long enough to get a sense of them before moving on to the next.
Here are a few suggestions for lovers of the short form.
Did you know that there are still dudebros in the world who think that most women can't write "real" science fiction because the SF they write is full of feelings and characters and girl cooties?
It's true. There are a lot of girl cooties. Especially here.
All of the editors and contributors to this special issue of Lightspeed are women. And if you ever need to prove that women can write "real" science fiction and write it really well, just buy this issue and then throw it at anyone who claims otherwise. It's pretty thick -- the size of many anthologies -- so it will hurt them.
Violence aside, I love this special issue because the stories are so varied in their ideas and execution, expanding the definition of science fiction beyond narrow boundaries. I also dig all the essays and interviews that come after the fiction that further explore how women have always shaped the genre and how they continue to do so, despite the railing from dudebros.
Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler
This short eBook contains just two short stories by Butler, but if you're a fan of her work or of SF in general you will squee over them.
They were both written in the ’70s but never published, so they're the last "new" Octavia Butler stories we're likely to see again.
In these tales you can see the kernel of the writer Butler would eventually become as she pokes at issues of biological imperative vs personal choice and how systems of oppression and inequality evolve yet remain fundamentally the same. Very powerful stories and very worth reading.
Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam
The stories in this collection explore themes of power, identity, sexuality, sensuality, and connection.
Salaam has a real skill for painting worlds very different from ours in just a few strokes and sinking you into them immediately and thoroughly. Whether you're into SF, fantasy, or stories and blur the lines between them, you will find stories to love here.
Filter House by Nisi Shawl
The reason I love the stories in this book is that Shawl refuses to allow the reader the comfort of assuming that the men and women will act according to the assumptions mainstream readers/society/culture puts on them.
Her stories are suffused with spirituality and her character always concerned with identity and affirming their place in the world.
Let's Play White by Chesya Burke
If your tastes tend more toward darker speculative fiction, you will want to get to know Chesya Burke.
Her stories are often set in a contemporary world similar to our own with one or two subtle shifts to the fantastic. Sometimes the difference is subtle, unspoken, or hidden in the perceived otherness of the cultures and characters she creates.
And sometimes these elements bring with them a creeping fear or unease or sense of being unsettled that draws you closer in spite of yourself.
What's on your summer reading list? Have you read any of these titles? Let me know in the comments.