The best fantasy novels that reimagine society

Why am I passionate about this?

Science fiction is rightly famous for experimenting with new and strange social worlds, but fantasy tends to fall back on the usual feudal tropes: the whims of kings, the valor of knights, the always-temporary powerlessness of farm boys, the technicalities of succession. Which is a shame, because fantasy provides just as much opportunity to reimagine what society could look like. That’s what I try to do in my books, and at my job, where I’m working to bring 21st-century data literacy and quantitative reasoning to a state government stuck resolutely in the ’90s. When I think of books that have done what I’m trying to do, these five are at the front of my mind.

I wrote...

Brimstone Slipstream

By Matt Weber,

Book cover of Brimstone Slipstream

What is my book about?

It’s the eve of the biggest dragon race in the city of Yemareir. Zaya Shearwater and her wife, Kiriki, have spent the year shooting up the rankings, and now they’re favored to win. But how did two women from Yemareir’s roughest precincts become the favorites in a sport where winners buy their victories?

Doctor of Journalism Shenireen Agama wants to know. Through interviews with Zaya, Kiriki, and the ground crew that’s become their family, she begins to weave a story. Its threads are love, desperation, biology, and magic – tangled with the history of Yemareir, where Zaya and Kiriki’s ancestors fled to escape the pogroms of a mad king, and where the colonists resettling its ruins have just discovered that it is home to dragons…

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Book of Jhereg

Matt Weber Why did I love this book?

In Dragaera, the fortunes of the seventeen Great Houses are determined by the Cycle, which elevates royalty, merchants, artisans, wizards, the mob, and even peasants as it turns.

The Cycle takes thousands of years to turn… but Dragaerans live thousands of years. Easterners, like Vlad Taltos, are lucky to see a hundred, and they can’t be members of the Great Houses. Except the House of the Jhereg, which sells titles.

They’re the mob; and Vlad, Baronet of Taltos, is an assassin. JHEREG and its many sequels are constantly exploring the social dynamics underlying this situation; as an Easterner with a bought title, Vlad doesn’t fit in with either Easterners or Dragaeran nobles, and choosing sides can mean destroying relationships or putting his life on the line.

By Steven Brust,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Book of Jhereg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first three fantastical adventures of assassin Vlad Taltos—now in one volume.

A welcome addition to any fantasy fan's library, The Book of Jhereg follows the antics of the wise-cracking Vlad Taltos and his dragon-like companion through their first three adventures—Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla.

There are many ways for a young man with quick wits and a quick sword to advance in the world. Vlad Taltos chose the route of assassin. From his rookie days to his selfless feats of heroism, the dauntless Vlad will hold readers spellbound—and The Book of Jhereg will take its place among the classic compilations…

Book cover of The Scar

Matt Weber Why did I love this book?

In the 21st century, you occasionally hear about libertarian fantasies of floating island civilizations free from the pesky laws of nation-states.

They always bring me back to China Miéville’s pirate city of Armada, which is the opposite of a libertarian fantasy; it’s a city populated by the kidnapped, ruled by contentious factions, and steered through the seas with a weird purpose.

The Scar’s main character is a linguist, unsure if she’s been brought to Armada to put her own skills to use or as collateral damage in the kidnapping of another character, and unsure how to relate to a city that she’s growing more comfortable in even as she can’t forget it holds her prisoner.

Also everyone has to donate blood to feed the vampires. Socialism!

By China Miéville,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A human cargo bound for servitude in exile... A pirate city hauled across the oceans... A hidden miracle about be revealed... This is the story of a prisoner's journey. The search for the island of a forgotten people, for the most astonishing beast in the seas, and ultimately for a fabled place - a massive wound in reality, a source of unthinkable power and danger.From the author of Perdido Street Station, another colossal fantasy of incredible diversity and spellbinding imagination, which was acclaimed in The Times Literary Supplement as: 'An astonishing novel, guaranteed to astound and enthral the most jaded…

Book cover of The Deep

Matt Weber Why did I love this book?

This book is about how trauma can force you to choose between memory and sanity… and how this problem gets worse when you live in a society of telepaths.

Said telepaths are the mer-person descendants of enslaved Africans who threw themselves off the boats from Africa to the Americas, but the emotional core of the book makes the deep weirdness of the premise pretty much an afterthought. 

By Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson , Jonathan Snipes

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society-and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future in this brilliantly imaginative novella inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song "The Deep" from Daveed Diggs's rap group clipping.

Yetu holds the memories for her people-water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners-who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one-the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on…

Book cover of The Shadow of the Torturer

Matt Weber Why did I love this book?

The action in this book begins when Severian, an apprentice in the Torturers’ Guild, gives a convict a weapon to kill herself rather than be tortured.

The reason there’s a Torturers’ Guild is, allegedly, that it beats prison: Better to deliver a punishment and then let the punished person return to their life, the thinking goes, than confine them to a useless existence as a ward of the state. Severian is expelled from the Guild, but not from the profession, and wanders the world plying his trade, at least until the plot can’t spare him.

It’s a constant dissonance, looking through the eyes of a character whose training and purpose is the infliction of pain, who seems so decent and forthright in the story he narrates. (But don’t be fooled.)

By Gene Wolfe, Don Maitz (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Shadow of the Torturer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a thoroughly decadent world of the future, Severian the torturer is cast out from the torturer's guild when he falls in love with one of his victims and allows her to die

Book cover of Awakening

Matt Weber Why did I love this book?

Monstress is an awful lot of things: An epic fantasy that confronts the horrors of modern war; a work of fusion that marries Western and Eastern aesthetics and the epic scale of George R. R. Martin with the cosmic and body horror of Junji Ito; an incredible trove of beautiful visual art; a stage for women of all kinds, young and old, beautiful and monstrous, weak and powerful, with and without shark heads; and a story about a girl coming to grips with a dark family legacy and what it means for her place in a bloody, painful world.

More than anything else, it’s about what happens when people use each other. For my money, the best epic fantasy currently being published in any form.

By Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda (artist),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Awakening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Writer
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Continuing Series
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Publication for Teens
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Cover Artist
2018 Harvey Award winner, Book of the Year
2018 Hugo Award winner, Best Graphic Story
2018 British Fantasy Award winner, Best Comic/Graphic Novel
2018, 2016, 2015 Entertainment Weekly's The Best Comic Books of the Year
2018, Newsweek's Best Comic Books of the Year
2018, The Washington Post's 10 Best Graphic Novels of the Year
2018, Barnes & Noble's Best Books of the Year
2018, YALSA's…

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A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

Book cover of A Diary in the Age of Water

Nina Munteanu Author Of Darwin's Paradox

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Writer Ecologist Mother Teacher Explorer

Nina's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This climate fiction novel follows four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. Told mostly through a diary and drawing on scientific observation and personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Her gritty memoir describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity.

Single mother and limnologist Lynna witnesses disturbing events as she works for the powerful international utility CanadaCorp. Fearing for the welfare of her rebellious teenage daughter, Lynna sets in motion a series of events that tumble out of her control with calamitous consequence. The novel explores identity, relationship, and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

What is this book about?

Centuries from now, in a post-climate change dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, discovers a diary that may provide her with the answers to her yearning for Earth’s past—to the Age of Water, when the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity in hatred—events that have plagued her nightly in dreams. Looking for answers to this holocaust—and disturbed by her macabre longing for connection to the Water Twins—Kyo is led to the diary of a limnologist from the time just prior to the destruction. This gritty memoir describes a…

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