Underrated sci-fi and fantasy books
A list of hidden gems.
When I was a kid, my Boomer parents decided I shouldn’t watch too much TV or play too many video games, so they restricted these activities. I thus spent quite a lot of time as a kid reading books, and the habit stuck. I love nonfiction, but sci-fi makes up a healthy portion of my literary consumption. I don’t read as much fantasy anymore, but when I was a kid I loved it.
So I figured I’d make a list of some underrated sci-fi and fantasy novels. This baker’s dozen is weighted toward fantasy, because although I read a lot more science fiction, my tastes in that genre are more mainstream than my fantasy tastes. But a couple of these also do make an appearance in my earlier list of sci-fi recommendations, which you should also check out.
1. The Vorkosigan saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This is a weird one to start with, because it’s literally one of the most decorated sci-fi series of all time. And yet despite this flood of acclaim, and a decent number of book sales, the Vorkosigan saga is still massively underrated, because as of 2022 our culture seems to have largely forgotten that this series existed. It’s time to rediscover it (and to adapt it into a Netflix series).
The Vorkosigan saga is basically the story of a liberal family on a conservative planet (loosely based on Russia), trying to reform their society from within. But it also features quite a lot of exciting space adventure, since when the protagonists aren’t trying to advance the cause of gentle 90s-style liberalism, they’re gallivanting around the galaxy foiling the evil plots of star empires and mercenaries and gangsters and terrorists.
What sets the Vorkosigan saga apart is not just the unique characters (Tyrion Lannister is almost certainly loosely based on Miles Vorkosigan), the fleshed-out world, and the extremely well-paced plotting. This is perhaps the most idealistic, optimistic science fiction I’ve ever read — basically this series is to books what Star Trek: The Next Generation is to TV shows. Most speculative universes are places I enjoy reading about; Bujold’s is one I would actually want to live in.
Start with either Barrayar or The Warrior’s Apprentice. But make sure to read Borders of Infinity and Mirror Dance, which together are the peak of the series.
2. The Cycle of Fire, by Janny Wurts
The 80s were really the best decade for fantasy, in my opinion; you can find so many hidden gems just by going back and reading 80s stuff. And one of the very best is Janny Wurts’ Cycle of Fire series. The basic plot is that humanity is constantly under siege by a whole lot of demons and their various henchmen, and our only real defense is the powers of a very small number of extremely powerful wizards. Since one of those wizards has recently died, humanity is in trouble, and the next generation of super-wizards must be discovered and trained.
The Cycle of Fire is great because it has everything a fantasy series ought to have — a beautifully fleshed-out world, protagonists you can really sympathize with, a creative magic system, breathless fast-paced action, looming evil that’s about to destroy the world, dastardly antagonists, and so on. And sailing. Lots and lots of sailing. It also has a fun sci-fi tie-in (no spoilers!), and it also manages to pull off that most elusive of feats — a highly satisfying ending.
3. The Dark Border series, by Paul Edwin Zimmer
These books are probably the most obscure items on the list — I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone else who has even read these (other than my mom, who recommended them). They came out in the early 1980s (the best fantasy decade!), and basically sank into instant and complete obscurity. They’re so obscure that Amazon doesn’t even list the titles correctly.
But they’re amazing books! The setting is a Tolkienesque world that’s locked in a sort of fantasy Cold War, where the human world is guarded by powerful beings called Hasturs (a name cribbed from the works of the far more popular Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was the author’s sister) and various magical warriors. The forces of evil — basically, Cthulhu-style extradimensional monsters — maintain their half of the world in a truly hellish state where everyone is always trying to enslave and/or eat everyone else. Essentially the books document a series of skirmishes in this never-ending Cold War.
There are four books in the series — The Lost Prince and King Chondos’ Ride, which are two halves of one main story, a fun side story called Ingulf the Mad, and a sequel called A Gathering of Heroes that’s far inferior to the other books and frankly can be safely skipped.
4. Metaplanetary + Superluminal, by Tony Daniel
In the early 2000s, there was a small boom in “posthuman” space opera fiction where the characters can upload their personalities. Titles like Revelation Space and Singularity Sky got a fair amount of attention, but my favorite entry in the genre is nearly unknown. Tony Daniel wrote a pair of books called Metaplanetary and Superluminal that were supposed to be part of a longer series, but, well, no one read them so he quit.
But those books were truly excellent. Daniel’s depiction of distributed uploaded personalities and virtual worlds is one of the most intuitively believable I’ve read. I especially like the concept of a “pellicle” — a distributed cloud of devices that contains small subcomponents of your personality that you only occasionally use. And the books contain a human warmth that’s largely missing from the genre, as well as a wry sense of humor (1990s Usenet geeks have uploaded themselves into cloud-like spaceships so they can continue their esoteric forum debates, and at one point our heroes are condemned to a forgotten digital prison known as Microsoft Windows). I wish this series had continued, but just these two books are worth reading in and of themselves.
5. The Death Gate Cycle, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
When I was a kid I loved reading the Dragonlance Chronicles (usually under my desk when my teacher wasn’t looking), but in fact I think Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s best series was the Death Gate Cycle. It’s not based on Dungeons and Dragons like Dragonlance is, but this frees Death Gate to be far more experimental and creative. There are multiple types of highly creative magic, feuding clans of wizards, multiple worlds that the characters jump between, floating kingdoms reachable only by airship, and in general a lot of other cool stuff. And the ending manages to wrap up everything pretty well (a feature sadly lacking in many of today’s fantasies).
6. Tales of the Ketty Jay, by Chris Wooding
If you like the TV shows Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, or Outlaw Star, you’re going to love the Ketty Jay series. It’s basically the same setup — a mismatched crew of down-on-their luck quasi-pirates with shady backstories, flying around doing quasi-legal things as they slowly become friends and realize they also have to save the world. Only instead of a spaceship, this story is on an airship — it’s British steampunk fantasy. Given the popularity of Firefly etc., I’m not sure why Wooding’s series never got that famous, because the quality is just as good.
The Ketty Jay series starts strong and gets better — the second book is the best, the third is a little too heavy on the action sequences, and the fourth one is an emotionally satisfying and appropriately wild ending. Fortunately all the books are now available as audiobooks, so you can listen to someone read them in an appropriately British accent.
7. The Neverness Cycle, by David Zindell
This is some seriously far-out sci-fi, right up there in weirdness with Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny. It’s posthuman space opera before posthuman space opera became a popular thing. But it’s just far weirder than other tales in that genre. Just look at the summary from Amazon:
Mallory Ringess becomes a pilot of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame. His quest to find the Elder Eddas – nothing less than the secret of life embroidered in humanity’s oldest DNA – will lead him from Neverness’s streets of colored ice into the deadly manifold: the “space beneath space” whose topology writhes and twists with hideous complexity like a nest of psychedelic snakes.
I promise that this summary utterly fails to convey the weirdness of these books, but you can get a taste of it — the main city is one where people ice-skate everywhere, space pilots fly by proving theorems in their head, and so on. There are lots of weird things that get mentioned but never explained, such as an order of people called “autists” who try to intentionally cultivate autism, and whom I assume are like the people who used to hang out on the LessWrong forums. But the books also do have an emotional core — they’re really about father-son relationships.
8. The Mirror of Her Dreams + A Man Rides Through, by Stephen R. Donaldson
This two-book series is actually called “Mordant’s Need”, but I think that’s a silly name. The books themselves, however, are far from silly, and in fact are excellent! Donaldson is much better known for his other books, especially the Thomas Covenant series. But Mordant’s Need (sigh) is actually his best series by far, in my opinion.
This is “portal fantasy” — a woman from our world gets pulled into a fantasy world. Portal fantasy is still very common in anime, but has mostly been forgotten in American fantasy literature. That’s too bad! And The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through are right at the top of that subgenre. In fact, the fantasy world in these books is based on portals — the only form of magic is “imaging”, the ability to make mirrors that function as gateways between worlds. The protagonist, a woman named Terisa, gets pulled from our world and finds herself in the middle of a runup to a war.
The characters in this series are endearing, the action is fun, and the magic is very cool and original. But what I really like most about this series is the plot, which is based on the frustration of living a government that simply won’t wake up and recognize the titanic threats bearing down on it. Reminds me a bit of my own country.
9. The Coldfire trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
To be honest, all of C.S. Friedman’s books are underrated, including the sci-fi epics In Conquest Born, The Madness Season, and This Alien Shore. Friedman’s writing is just so damn readable — the books tend to be a bloated 1990s length, but the prose and plots are so engaging and fun that before you know it you’re turning the last page. Unfortunately, like many authors of the period, her work is now often overlooked.
Of all Friedman’s books, the Coldfire series is probably my favorite. It’s science fantasy, set on a planet where a strange phenomenon gives life to humans’ thoughts, basically creating a dark fantasy world that knocks humans back to a more-or-less medieval standard of living (and also gives rise to scary scary demons). The books are notable for the excellent and archetype-defining character of Gerald Tarrant, an evil wizard/vampire who is reluctantly forced to save the world. Watching Tarrant go up against a series of even more evil wizards is consistently fun — sort of a Silence of the Lambs style showdown of Big Bad vs. Bigger Bad.
10. The Alliance-Union Universe, by C.J. Cherryh
This might be another odd pick, since two of the books in this series — Downbelow Station and Cyteen — won Hugo awards. Those are both excellent books. But there are a ton of other novels in the series that got much less attention — so many that Amazon, frustratingly, doesn’t even have a page for the series as a whole — and many of these are also great. Merchanter’s Luck, Serpent’s Reach, Hellburner, and Forty Thousand in Gehenna are others you should try.
The Alliance-Union series is a space opera that sprawls across space and time, featuring interstellar wars, weird planets with alien races, and all the usual space-opera goodness. The characters are different from book to book, so it’s really more of a universe than a series.
What really sets Cherryh’s writing apart is the plotting. I want to call it “cramped”, but that sounds like a bad word; instead, these books are cramped in a fun way. They’re usually about people forced to live and work in extremely close and stressful situations, usually with people they don’t get along with. The tension this creates is what makes the books fun.
11. The Hero and the Crown + The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
Another forgotten gem from the great 1980s. These are two unconnected books, with The Blue Sword happening quite a long time after The Hero and the Crown and having basically nothing to do with it except that both books involve a magical blue sword. The Hero and the Crown (actually a prequel) is a pretty straightforward dragon-slaying story, about a woman who fights a big dragon and an evil wizard. The Blue Sword is a war story, about some people trying to unite against an impending invasion. The tone of both books is weird and arcane in that inimitable 1970s/1980s style — a style that, when done well, makes fantasy worlds seem alien, far-off, and magical. Robin McKinley does it well.
12. The Lyonesse trilogy, by Jack Vance
Jack Vance is probably best known for his voluminous sci-fi novels and his Dying Earth series, which helped to inspire Dungeons and Dragons. And all those books are excellent. But in fact my favorite Vance books are the forgotten fantasy novels of the Lyonesse trilogy — Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc. (Annoyingly, this series also doesn’t have its own Amazon page — here’s Goodreads.)
This series takes place in a Europe-inspired lost continent. The plot is very fairy-tale — an evil king locking a princess in a garden, a child reared by fairies, and so on. But it’s written in Vance’s trademark laconic, terse, insouciant style, which makes it more like a picaresque adult fantasy. And it’s peppered with weird 1980s stuff — alternate dimensions filled with bizarre energy beings, and so on. As with many Vance tales, it’s an unambiguous morality play — the good guys are simple honest folk who just want to live their lives, the bad guys are scheming sociopaths who eventually get the perfect comeuppance. My favorite character is the young, impetuous, overconfident wizard Shimrod. Anyway, the Lyonesse series is yet another lost gem of the 1980s.
13. All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
This is not an overlooked book — it was nominated for a Hugo — but it’s criminally underrated nonetheless. Quite simply, All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most beautiful novels ever written. It defies genre classification — it’s a picaresque, surrealistic sci-fi/fantasy book that’s really just about human relationships and love and friendship and pain.
It’s the story of a mad scientist and a witch who become friends growing up in a small conservative 1980s American town. In the second half of the book (spoiler!!), after a falling-out, the protagonists both end up in 2000s San Francisco — the mad scientist in a sci-fi version of the startup world, the witch in a fantasy version of SF’s literary underground scene. (Among other things, All the Birds depicts the soul and culture and feeling of San Francisco better than any other book I’ve read.) Eventually the world must be saved, but ultimately the human relationships that the characters form are the most important thing.
If I had to pick one book to be the “great American novel”, at least as far as the last half century is concerned, this might be it.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle, Bio of a Space Tyrant by Piers Anthony, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Lieber, the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison …
And the best trilogy of all, the Gaea Trilogy by John Varley.
This makes me wonder if you’ve happened to read any Iain Banks? His books are highly focused on intervention in developing galactic civilizations and the role of a galactic hyper-power (the Culture) in those interventions. Hard to really describe, but it’s probably one of the best, if not the best utopian vision in science fiction. You can see the whole thing as a giant meditation on human values and pluralism. Hard also to recommend an optimal start point, but player of games or excession are pretty good. Look to windward and surface detail are probably the best novels of the series and would be pretty accessible for an experienced sci-fi/fantasy reader (especially someone who’s read permutation city in the case of surface detail)