The best debut science fiction and fantasy novels with immersive worlds

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been a book doctor and acquiring editor for almost twenty years. I've read hundreds of debut novels, both published and not. I've always been amazed and impressed when an author is able to create a unique and internally consistent universe for their story. I also know—as a writer of ten fantasy and science fiction novels—that building a vivid, alternate world is a very difficult thing to do well. In the best stories the fictional world defines the characters in it, shapes them, and gives their struggle meaning. It's why we relate to their journey and make their success our own. 

I wrote...


By Jak Koke,

Book cover of Liferock

What is my book about?

In Jak Koke's debut novel, you get to dive into the mysterious world of Obsidimen. Born fully formed from their Liferock, they live for a thousand years before they are reabsorbed to share their souls with their brotherhood.

Young Pabl Evr returns home for his Naming, only to find his liferock threatened by a mining crew and in peril from an apocalyptic remnant of the Scourge that threatens to destroy the Liferock, kill the whole community, and erase the entirety of their ancestral memories.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Jak Koke Why did I love this book?

How can a fantasy novel about a math and economics genius in a world governed by an empire top my list? Suffice it to say that these subjects fascinate me. And I read it at a time when the housing crisis devastated so many people, many of whom I knew personally, so the economy and its manipulations were front of mind. The world of Baru Cormorant is rich and gritty. Baru herself is complex, brilliant, and likable, but deeply flawed. She has a plan, but to accomplish it she might have to choose between the people she loves and her drive to destroy the Imperium that erased the culture of her home. What she does and the choices she makes are shocking and heart-wrenching.

By Seth Dickinson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Traitor Baru Cormorant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

[Published as The Traitor Baru Cormorant in the US]

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people - even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her Fathers, Baru vows to hide her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way up enough rungs of power to put a stop to the Emperor's influence and set her people free.

As a natural savant, she is sent as an imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn - a post she worries will never get her the…

Book cover of Ancillary Justice

Jak Koke Why did I love this book?

I really resonate with Breq, the protagonist of Ancillary Justice. Even though she's a fragment of an AI in a human body, Breq is more passionate about fairness and justice than the human characters. She's a truly singular protagonist. Breq's unique and insightful view of the Radch empire makes this book one of the best debut science fiction novels I've ever read. The worldbuilding is impressive here, too, showing the dark underbelly of a monolithic civilization as it, like many imperialist expansions have on Earth, absorbs and destroys local cultures.

By Ann Leckie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ancillary Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Once, she was the Justice of Toren -- a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

Book cover of Our Lady of the Islands

Jak Koke Why did I love this book?

Unlike many fantasy novels, the protagonist, Sian Katte isn't an adolescent. When I read this book in my 40s, I identified with the main characters. They've already come of age, but their lives are nonetheless turned upside when Sian gains an unexpected and unwanted magical ability. She is forced out of her routine and becomes a lynchpin in the political turnings of the tropical island nation of Alizar – a fantasy setting that resonates with the familiar while maintaining its uniqueness and rich history. 

By Shannon Page, Jay Lake,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Lady of the Islands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in the lush and dangerous world of Jay Lake's Green, Our Lady of the Islands is a vibrant, enchanting tale of political intrigue and divine mystery."Our Lady, heal us ..."Sian Katte is a successful middle-aged businesswoman in the tropical island nation of Alizar. Her life seems comfortable and well-arranged...until a violent encounter one evening leaves her with an unwanted magical power.Arian des Chances is the wife of Alizar's ruler, with vast wealth and political influence. Yet for all her resources, she can only watch helplessly as her son draws nearer to death.When crisis thrusts these two women together, they…

Book cover of The Blade Itself

Jak Koke Why did I love this book?

I've always been impressed and fascinated by fantasy that feels realistic and down to Earth. That's why I was sucked into (and was blown away by) Joe Abercrombie's world. It is grittier than Game of Thrones; his characters are brutal and realistically flawed; and his writing is by turns vivid and hilarious. This first book in The First Law trilogy pulls you into a harsh world filled with likable barbarians and sympathetic torturers. Against the backdrop of war and its atrocities, Abercrombie brings fantasy archetypes into a realistic (if very dark) world – and it's an unforgettable journey.

By Joe Abercrombie,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Blade Itself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body - not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers.

Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men.

And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior…

Book cover of A Ragged Magic

Jak Koke Why did I love this book?

A Ragged Magic hooked me from the opening when Rhiannon watches while her family is falsely accused and then publicly executed.  Rhiannon herself is captured and undergoes a torturous ritual against her will – one which infuses and amplifies her burgeoning magical aptitude. The magic in The Runebound series is unique and fascinating. This book and its vulnerable main character drew me into her world.

By Lindsey S. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Ragged Magic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rhiannon has the Sight - the ability to glimpse the hearts and minds of others. Her visions attract the attention of the powerful kirche, which has condemned all magic outside the holy orders. Thrust into intrigue and danger, Rhiannon must learn to control her growing power, and master ...


"Lindsey S. Johnson debuts strongly with her tale of betrayal, magic and political intrigue. She breaks our hearts open in the first chapter ... with her fast-paced, often poetic prose ... "
--KEN SCHOLES, award-winning author of The Psalms of Isaak

"Lindsey S. Johnson's strong, confident voice ...…

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By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.


By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…

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