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The 50 best science fiction and fantasy books of thpast deca

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The 50 best science fiction and fantasy books of the past decade

Earlier in the summer, we asked you to vote for your favorite science fiction and fantasy reads of the past decade so here are 50 fabulous reads, curated by our expert judges and you, the readers.

NPR Books Summer Poll 2021: A Decade Of Great Sci-Fi And Fantasy

This years poll is going to be out of this world. Literally.

We asked, you answered: Your 50 favorite sci-fi and fantasy books of the past decade

The question at the heart of science fiction and fantasy is what if? What if gods were real,but you could kill them? What if humans finally made it out among the stars only to discover were theshabby newcomers in a grand galactic alliance? What if an asteroid destroyed the East Coast in 1952 and jump-started the space race years early?

NPR Books Summer Poll 2021: A Decade Of Great Sci-Fi And Fantasy

Summer Reader Poll 2021: Meet our expert judges

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This years summer reader pollwas also shaped by a series of what ifs most importantly, what if, instead of looking at the entire history of the field the way we did inour 2011 poll, we focused only on what has happened in the decade since? These past 10 years have brought seismic change to science fiction and fantasy (sometimes literally, in the case of N.K. JemisinsBroken Earthseries), and we wanted to celebrate the world-shaking rush of new voices, new perspectives, new styles and new stories. And though we limited ourselves to 50 books this time around, the result is a list thats truly stellar as poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi put it, Alive.

As always, a pretty extensive decision-making process went into the list, involving our fabulouspanel of expert judges but we know you eager readers want to get right to the books. So if youre inclined, follow these links to find outhow we built the list(and what, sadly,didnt make it this year). Otherwise, scroll on for the list!

Weve broken it up into categories to help you find the reading experience youre looking for, and you can click on these links to go directly to each category:

Worlds To Get Lost InWords To Get Lost InWill Take You On A JourneyWill Mess With Your HeadWill Mess With Your HeartWill Make You Feel Good

Breq is a human now but once she was a starship. Once she was an AI with a vast and ancient metal body and troops of ancillaries, barely animate bodies that all carried her consciousness. Poll judge Ann Leckie has created a massive yet intricate interstellar empire where twisty galactic intrigues and multiple clashing cultures form a brilliant backdrop for the story of a starship learning to be a human being. Your humble editor got a copy ofAncillary Justicewhen it came out and promptly forced her entire family to read it.

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What a wonderful world P. Djl Clarke has created here an Arab world never colonized, where magic-powered trams glide through a cosmopolitan Cairo and where djinns make mischief among humans. Clarkes novellaRing Shoutalso showed up on our semifinalists list, and it was hard to decide between them, but ultimately our judges felt the Dead Djinn Universe offered more to explore. But you should still readRing Shout, a wild ride of a read where gun-toting demon-hunters go up against Ku Klux Klan members who are actual, pointy-headed white demons. Go on, go get a copy! Well wait.

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One of my pet peeves with fantasy novels is they sometimes dont allow for the progression of time and technology but in Joe Abercrombies Age of Madness series, the follow-up to his debut First Law trilogy, industrialization has come to the world of The Union, and its brought no good in its wake. More than that machines may be rising, but magic will not give way, and all over the world, those at the bottom of the heap are beginning to get really, really angry. This series works as a standalone but you should also read the excellent First Law series (even though its old enough to fall outside the scope of this list).

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This sprawling saga of family, honor, blood and magical jade will suck you in from the very first page. Poll judge Fonda Lees story works on every conceivable level, from minute but meaningful character beats to solid, elegantly conveyed world-building to political intrigue to big, overarching themes of clan, loyalty and identity. Plus, wow, the jade-powered martial arts sequences are as fine as anything the Shaw Brothers ever put on screen. Reviewing books is my actual job, says fellow judge Amal El-Mohtar, but I still have to fight my husband for the advance copies of Fondas books, and were both THIS CLOSE to learning actual martial arts to assist us in our dueling for dibs.

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Yes, sure, youve seenthe TV show(you HAVE, right? Right?) about the ragtag crew of spacers caught up in a three-way power struggle between Earth, Mars and the society thats developed on far-off asteroid belts. But theres much, much more to explore in the books other planets, other characters, storylines and concepts that didnt make it to the screen. Often, when a book gets adapted for film or TV, theres a clear argument about which version is better. WithThe Expanse, we can confidently say you should watchandread. The only downside? Book-Avasaraladoesnt show up until a few volumes in.

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Nahri is a con woman (with a mysteriously real healing talent) scraping a living in the alleys of 18th century Cairo until she accidentally summons some true magic and discovers her fate is bound to a legendary city named Daevabad, far from human civilization, home of djinns and bloody intrigues. Author S.A. Chakraborty converted to Islam as a teenager and after college began writing what she describes as historical fanfiction about medieval Islam; then characters appeared, inspired by people she met at her mosque. A sly capable of saving herself, a dashing hero whod break for the noon prayer,she told an interviewer. I wanted to write a story for us, about us, with the grandeur and magic of a summer blockbuster.

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The Aztecs meet the Byzantines in outer space in this intricately imagined story of diplomatic intrigue and fashionable poetic forms. Mahit Dzmare is an ambassador from a small space station clinging desperately to its independence in the face of the massiveTeixcalaanli empire. But when she arrives in its glittering capital, her predecessors dead, and she soon discovers shes been sabotaged herself. Luckily, it turns out shes incredibly good at her job, even without her guiding neural implant. Im a sucker for elegant worldbuilding that portrays all the finer nuances of society and culture in addition to the grandness of empire and the complexity of politics, says judge Fonda Lee. Arkady Martine delivers all that in droves.

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Apollo, spurned by Daphne, is trying to understand free will and consent by living as a mortal. Athena is trying to create a utopia by plucking men and women from all across history and dropping them on an island to live according to Platos Republic. Will it all go according to plan? Not likely. Brilliant, compelling, and frankly unputdownable,wrote poll judge Amal El-Mohtar, this will do what your Intro to Philosophy courses probably couldnt: make you want to readThe Republic.

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V.E. Schwab has created a world withfour Londons lying atop one another: our own dull Grey, warm magic-suffused Red, tyrannical White, and dead, terrifying Black. Once, movement among them was easy, but now only a few have the ability including our hero, Kell. So naturally, hes a smuggler, and the action kicks off when Grey London thief Lila steals a dangerous artifact from him, a stone that could upset the balance among the Londons. Rich world building, complex characters and really scary bad guys make Schwabs London a city or cities well worth spending time in.

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On the Continent, you must not, you cannot, talk about the gods the gods are dead. Or are they? Robert Jackson Bennetts Divine Cities trilogy builds a fully, gloriously realized world where gods are the source of power, miracles and oppression, and gods can also be killed. But what happens next, when the gods are gone and the work of running the world is left to regular human men and women? What happens in that unsettled moment when divinity gives way to technology? This series spans a long timeline; the heroes of the first volume are old by the end. And as ancient powers clash among gleaming, modern skyscrapers, those who have survived from the first page to these last have a heaviness about them,writes reviewer Jason Sheehan, a sense that they have seen remarkable things, done deeds both heroic and terrible, and that they can see a far and final horizon in the distance, quickly approaching.

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Part of a recent wave of work celebrating and centering Nigerian culture, this trilogy is set in a future where a fungal alien invader has swallowed big global cities, America has shut itself away and gone dark, and a new city, Rosewater, has grown up around a mysterious alien dome in rural Nigeria. Its a wild mashup of alien invasion, cyberpunk, Afro-futurism and even a touch of zombie horror. I started readingRosewateron vacation and quickly set it down until I got home, because Tade Thompsons work is no light beach read, says judge Fonda Lee. His writing demands your full attention and amply rewards it.

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Author Rebecca Roanhorse was tired of reading epic fantasy with quasi-European settings,so she decided to write her own. The result isBlack Sun, set in a world influenced by pre-Columbian mythology and rich with storms, intrigue, giant bugs, mysterious sea people, ritual, myth and some very scary crows. (They hold grudges, did you know?) This is only Book 1 of a forthcoming series, but we felt it was so strong it deserved to be here, no matter where Roanhorse goes next.

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Susanna Clarke at last returns to our shelves with this mind-bendingly glorious story thats a bit hard to describe without spoiling. So well say its about a mysterious man and the House that he dearly loves, a marvelous place full of changing light and surging tides, statues and corridors and crossings, birds and old bones and passing days and one persistent visitor who brings strangely familiar gifts.Clarke limns a magic far more intrinsic than the kind commanded through spells,wrote reviewer Vikki Valentine, a magic that is seemingly part of the fabric of the universe and as powerful as a cosmic engine yet fragile nonetheless.

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Imagine Circe, the fearsome witch of the Odyssey, as an awkward teenager, growing up lonely among scornful gods and falling for what we modern folks would call a f***boy, before coming into her own, using her exile on the island of Aiaia to hone her powers and build an independent life. Circe only shows up briefly in the Odyssey, but Madeline Miller gives her a lush, complex life in these pages. She has worked as a classics teacher, andas our reviewer Annalisa Quinn noted, Miller extracts worlds of meaning from Homers short phrases.

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A sharp young socialite in 1950s Mexico City travels to a creepy rural mansion to check on her cousin, who has fallen ill after marrying into a mysterious family of English landowners. What could possibly go wrong? Silvia Moreno-Garcia makes you uneasy about invisible things by writing around them,said reviewer Jessica P. Wick.Even when you think you know what lurks, the power to unsettle isnt diminished. Not to be too spoilery but after reading this stylishly chilling novel, youll never look at mushrooms the same way again.

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I taught Lius The Man Who Ended History in a graduate seminar one semester, says judge Tochi Onyebuchi, and one of the toughest tasks Ive ever faced in adulthood was crafting a lesson plan that went beyond me just going wtf wtf wtf wtf wtf for the whole two hours. Some story collections are like those albums where the artist or record label just threw a bunch of songs together and said here, and some collections arrive as a complete, cohesive, emotionally catholic whole.The Paper Menagerieis that.

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Judges had a hard time deciding betweenSpinning SilverandUprooted, Noviks previous fairy tale retelling. Ultimately, we decided that this reclamation of Rumpelstiltskin has a chewier, more interesting project, with much to say about money, labor, debt and friendship, explored in unflinching yet tender ways. Judge Amal El-Mohtar reviewedSpinning Silverfor NPR when it came out in 2018. There are so many mathemagicians in this book, be they moneylenders turning silver into gold or knitters working to a pattern,she wrote at the time. Its gold and silver all the way down.

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I often get the same feeling reading a Ted Chiang story as I did listening to a Prince song while he was still with us, says judge Tochi Onyebuchi. What a glorious privilege it is that we get to share a universe with this genius! This poll can be a discovery tool for editors and judges as much as audience, so hearing that, your humble editor went straight to the library and downloaded a copy of this collection.

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In Olondria, you can smell the ocean wind coming off the page, soldiers ride birds, angels haunt humans, and written dreams are terribly dangerous. Have you ever seen something so beautiful that youd be content to just sit and watch the light around it change for a whole day because every passing moment reveals even more unbearable loveliness and transforms you in ways you cant articulate? asks judge Amal El-Mohtar. You will if you read these books.

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These eight stories dance across the borders of fairy tale, horror, erotica and urban legend, spinning the familiar, lived experiences of women into something rich and strange. As the title suggests, Machado focuses on the unruly female body and all of its pleasures and risks (theres one story thats just increasingly bizarre rewrites ofLaw & Order: SVUepisodes). At one point, a character implies that kind of writing is tiresome and regressive, too much about stereotypical crazy lesbians and madwomen in the attic. Butas our critic Annalisa Quinn wrote, Machado seems to answer: The world makes madwomen, and the least you can do is make sure the attic is your own.

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Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple, living in a fictional Britain just after Arthurs time, where everyone suffers from what they call mist, a kind of amnesia that hits long-term memories. They believe, they vaguely remember that they once had a son, so they set out to find him encountering an elderly Sir Gawain along the way, and long-forgotten connections to Arthurs court and the dark deeds the mist is hiding. Poll judge Ann Leckie loves Arthurian legends. What she does not love are authors who dont do them justice but withThe Buried Giant, she says,Kazuo Ishigurogets it solidly right.

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Do you love space opera? Alternate history? Silent film? (OK, are you me?) Then you should pick up Catherynne M. ValentesRadiance, which mashes up all three in a gloriously surreal saga about spacefaring filmmakers in an alternate version of 1986, in which you might be able to go to Jupiter, but Thomas Edisons death grip on his patents means talkies are still a novelty. Yes,Space Operadid get more votes, but our judges genuinely felt thatRadiancewas the stronger book. Reviewing it in 2015,judge Amal El-Mohtar wrote,Radianceis the sort of novel about which you have to speak for hours or hardly speak at all: either stop at its magnificent or roll on to talk about form, voice, ambition, originality, innovation for more thousands of words than are available to me here before even touching on the plot.

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Its easy(ish) to summarizeThe Changeling: Rare book dealer Apollo Kagwa has a baby son with his wife, Emma, but shes been acting strange and when she vanishes after doing something unspeakable, he sets out to find her. But his journey loops through a New York youve never seen before: mysterious islands and haunted forests, strange characters and shifting rhythms.The Changelingis a modern urban fairy tale with one toe over the line into horror, and wherever it goes, it will draw you along with it.

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Becky Chambers writes aliens like no one else in fact, humans are the backward newcomers in her generous, peaceful galactic vision. The Wayfarers books are only loosely linked: They all take place in the same universe, but apart from that youll meet a new set of characters, a new culture and a new world (or an old world transformed). Cranky space pacifists, questing AIs, fugitives, gravediggers and fluffy, multi-limbed aliens who love pudding the only flaw in this series is youll wish you could spend more time with all of them.

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Binti is the first of her people, the Himba, to be offered a place at the legendary Oomza University, finest institution of learning in the galaxy and as if leaving Earth to live among the stars werent enough, Binti finds herself caught between warring human and alien factions. Over and over again throughout these novellas, Binti makes peace, bridges cultures, brings home with her even as she leaves and returns, changed by her experiences. Our judges agreed that the first twoBintistories are the strongest but even if the third stumbles, as judge and critic Amal El-Mohtar wrote, Perhaps the point is just having a Black girl with tentacles for hair possessing the power and freedom to float among Saturns rings.

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What would Americas space program have looked like if, say, a gigantic asteroid had wiped out the East Coast in 1952 and started a countdown to destruction for the rest of the world? Wed have had to get into space much sooner. And all the female pilots who served in World War II and were unceremoniously dumped back at home might have had another chance to fly. Mary Robinette Kowals Hugo Award-winning series plays that out with Elma York, a former WASP pilot and future Lady Astronaut whose skill and determination help all of humanity escape the bonds of Earth. Adds judge Amal El-Mohtar: Audiobook readers are in for a special treat here in that Kowal narrates the books herself, and if youve never had the pleasure of attending one of her readings, you get to experience her wonderful performance with bonus production values. Its especially cool given that the seed for the series was an audio-first short story.

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Far in the future, the dregs of humanity escape a ruined Earth and find what they think is a new hope deep in space a planet that past spacefarers terraformed and left for them. But the evolutionary virus that was supposed to jump-start a cargo of monkeys, creating ready-made workers, instead latched on to ... something else, and in the intervening years, something terrible has arisen there. Poll judge Ann Leckie says she cant stand spiders (BIG SAME), but even so, she was adamant that the Children of Time books deserve their spot here.

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Everyone loves a good portal fantasy. Who hasnt looked in the back of the closet hoping, faintly, to see snow and a street lamp? In the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire reminds us that portals go both ways: What happens to those children who get booted back through the door into the real world, starry-eyed and scarred? Well, a lot of them end up at Eleanor Wests School for Wayward Children. The prolific McGuire turned up on our semifinalists list A Lot. We had a hard time deciding between this and her killer stand-aloneMiddlegame, but the Wayward Children won the day with their shimmering mix of fairy tale, fantasy and emotional heft not to mention body positivity and solid queer and trans representation. (As with a lot of the also-rans, though, you shouldreallyreadMiddlegametoo.)

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There are 382 parallel worlds in Micaiah Johnsons debut novel, and humanity can finally travel between them but theres a deadly catch. You can visit only a world where the parallel version of you is already dead. And that makes Cara whose marginal wastelands existence means only a few versions of her are left valuable to the high and mighty of her own Earth. They needed trash people, Cara says, to gather information from other worlds. But her existence, already precarious, is threatened when a powerful scientist figures out how to grab that information remotely. At a time when I was really struggling with the cognitive demands of reading anything for work or pleasure, this book flooded me with oxygen and lit me on fire, says judge Amal El-Mohtar. I cant say for certain that it enabled me to read again, but in its wake, I could.

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Poll judge Amal El-Mohtar once describedBlack Leopard, Red Wolfaslike being slowly eaten by a bear. Fellow judge Tochi Onyebuchi chimes in:Black Leopard, Red Wolfis a Slipknot album of a book. In all the best ways. Set in a dazzling, dangerous fantasy Africa, it is at least on the surface about a man named Tracker, in prison when we meet him and telling his life story to an inquisitor. Beyond that, its fairly indescribable, full of roof-crawling demons, dust-cloud assassins, blood and (fair warning) sexual violence. A gnarly book, a difficult book, sometimes actively hostile to the reader yet necessary, and stunning.

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TheSouthern Reachbooks are, at least on the surface, a simple tale of a world gone wrong, of a mysterious Area X and the expeditions that have suffered and died trying to map it and the strange government agency that keeps sending them in. But theres a lot seething under that surface: monsters, hauntings, a slowly building sense of wrong and terror that will twist your brain around sideways. If the guys who wrote Lost had brought H.P. Lovecraft into the room as a script doctor in the first season,our critic Jason Sheehan wrote, theSouthern Reachtrilogy is what they wouldve come up with.

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Part sci-fi cautionary tale, part murder mystery,The Echo Wifeis a twisty treat. At its center are a famed genetic researcher and her duplicitous husband, who uses her breakthrough technology to clone himself a sweeter, more compliant version of his wife before ending up dead. As expertly constructed as a Patek Philippe watch, says poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi. Seamlessly blends domestic thriller and science fiction, adds fellow judge Fonda Lee. This book is going to haunt my thoughts for a long time.

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This series is often described as lesbian necromancers in space, but trust us, its somuch morethan that. Wildly inventive, gruesome, emotional, twisty and funny as hell, the Locked Tomb books are like nothing youve ever read before. And we defy you to read them and not give serious consideration to corpse paint and mirror shades as a workable fashion statement. There are only two books out now, of a planned four-book series, butGideon the Ninthalone is enough to earn Tamsyn Muir a place on this list: Too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance,says critic Jason Sheehan.It is altogether its own thing.

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Liu Cixin became the first author from Asia to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel, forTheThree-Body Problem, the first volume in this series about one of the oldest questions in science fiction: What will happen when we meet aliens? Liu is writing the hardest of hard sci-fi here, full of brain-twisting passages about quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence (if you didnt actually know what the three-body problem was, you will now), grafted onto the backbone of a high-stakes political thriller. Poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi says, These books divided me by zero. And, yes, that is a compliment.

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In the Hexarchate, numbers are power: This interstellar empire draws its strength from rigidly enforced adherence to the imperial calendar, a system of numbers that can alter reality. But now, a calendrical rot is eating away at that structure, and its up to a mathematically talented young soldier and the ghost of an infamous traitor to try to repair the rot while a war blazes across the stars around them.Ninefox Gambitis a book with math in its heart, but also one which understands that even numbers can lie,our critic Jason Sheehan wrote. That its what you see in the numbers that matters most.

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In the world of the Stillness, geological convulsions cause upheavals that can last for centuries and only the orogenes, despised yet essential to the status quo can control them.N.K. Jemisindeservedly won three back-to-back Hugo awards for these books, which use magnificent world building and lapidary prose to smack you in the face about your own complicity in systems of oppression. Jemisin is the first and so far only person ever to have won a Hugo Award for Best Novel for every single book in a series. These books upheaved the terrain of epic fantasy as surely and completely as Fifth Seasons transform the geography of the Stillness, says poll judge Amal El-Mohtar.

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Author Emily St. John Mandel went on Twitter in 2020 andadvised peoplenotto readStation Eleven, not in the midst of the pandemic. But we beg to disagree. A story in which art (and particularly Shakespeare) helps humanity come back to itself after a pandemic wipes out the world as we know it might be just the thing we need. Survival is insufficient, say Mandels traveling players (a lineshe says she lifted fromStar Trek), and thats a solid motto any time.

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Enemies-to-lovers is a classic romance novel trope, and its rarely been done with as much strange beauty as poll judge Amal El-Mohtar and co-author Max Gladstone pull off in this tale of Red and Blue, two agents on opposite sides of a war thats sprawled across time and space. Most books I read are objects of study. And more often than not, I can figure out how the prose happened, how the character arcs are constructed, the storys architecture, says judge Tochi Onyebuchi. But then along comes a thing so dazzling you cant help but stare at and ask how. Amal and Max wrote a cheat code of a book. They unlocked all the power-ups, caught all the Chaos Emeralds, mastered all the jutsus, and honestly, Id say its downright unfair how much they flexed on us withTime War, except Im so damn grateful they gave it to us in the first place. (As we noted above, havingTime Waron the list meant that Max Gladstone couldnt make a second appearance for his outstanding solo work with theCraft Sequence. But you should absolutely read those, too.)

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What if Mao Zedong were a teenage girl?Thats how author R.F. Kuang describes the central question in her Poppy War series. Fiery, ruthless war orphan Fang Runin grows up, attends an elite military academy, develops fire magic and wins a war but finds herself becoming the kind of monster she once fought against. Kuang has turned her own rage and anger at historical atrocities into a gripping, award-winning story that will drag you along with it, all the way to the end. If this were football, Kuang might be under investigation for PEDs, jokes judge Tochi Onyebuchi, referring to performance-enhancing drugs. But, no, shes really just that good.

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Baru Cormorant was born to a free-living, free-loving nation, but all that changed when the repressive Empire of Masks swept in, tearing apart her family, yet singling her out for advancement through its new school system. Baru decides the only way to free her people is to claw her way up the ranks of Empire but she risks becoming the monster shes fighting against. Ive loved every volume of this more than the one before i.

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