The best science fiction books for fantasy readers

Why am I passionate about this?

I am the author of 5 (nearly 6) science-fantasy novels in my Sun Eater series, as well as the author of 2 novellas and nearly two dozen short stories, as well as an 8-year veteran of the publishing industry. For 7 of those years, I worked as an editor for Baen Books, a nearly 40-year-old publisher of science fiction and fantasy. On top of all that, I am a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan, and something of an amateur historian of the field. 

I wrote...

Book cover of Empire of Silence

What is my book about?

On the wrong planet, at the right time, for the best reasons, Hadrian Marlowe started down a path that could only end in fire. The galaxy remembers him as a hero: the man who burned every last alien Cielcin from the sky. They remember him as a monster: the devil who destroyed a sun, casually annihilating four billion human lives—even the Emperor himselfagainst Imperial orders. But Hadrian was not a hero. He was not a monster. He was not even a soldier.

Fleeing his father and a future as a torturer, Hadrian finds himself stranded on a strange, backwater world. Forced to fight as a gladiator, he will find himself fight a war he did not start, for an Empire he does not love, against an enemy he will never understand.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Shards of Honor

Christopher Ruocchio Why did I love this book?

One of the complaints levied—and not entirely unfairly—against science fiction is a lack of emphasis on character. Not so here. Lois Bujold sets is the absolute gold standard character writer in science fiction, for my money, and one of the best character writers I’ve encountered in my life, period. Her Vorkosigan series (which begins with the novel Shards of Honor, published 1986), follows two generations of the Vorkosigan family, a powerful noble family in the interplanetary Barrayaran Empire, as it struggles to reconcile the planet’s essentially medieval society with the more classically liberal galactic community. The first phase of the series follows Cordelia, an outsider from broader galactic civilization, and her whirlwind romance with Count Aral Vorkosigan. Science fiction tends not to focus on healthy relationships and intact family units, but Bujold does, and does so with a depth of feeling and sensitivity unmatched, I think, in the field.

As the series progresses, it centers on Aral and Cordelia’s son, Miles, a brilliant military commander and adventurer suffering from brittle bone disease and a host of less infirmities that barely serve to slow him down. Pound for pound, Miles is my favorite character in science fiction, and it isn’t even close. There are few science fiction writers who write political intrigue and aristocratic family drama as well as Bujold, and readers will be happy to learn the series contains more than 15 novels, as well as some novellas that will be sure to keep them invested for months at least. These are quick reads, hugely accessible, and for my money the perfect transitional reading for folks trying to jump from fantasy to SF.  

By Lois McMaster Bujold,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When Cordelia Naismith and her survey crew are attacked by a renegade group
from Barrayar, she is taken prisoner by Aral Vorkosigan, commander of the
Barrayan ship that has been taken over by an ambitious and ruthless crew member.
Aral and Cordelia s

Book cover of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Christopher Ruocchio Why did I love this book?

Folks daunted at the prospect of jumping in to a longer series will be delighted to know that this is just a standalone novel. In fact, it was the only novel Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote in his lifetime. There is a posthumously published sequel to this novel, but it was completed by another writer and is generally considered the lesser work, and at any rate, Canticle stands on its own. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, set after a nuclear war in the 1960s wiped out civilization. It takes place over the course of centuries, and follows a small Roman Catholic monastery in the American southwest as they struggle to preserve documents from before the bombs destroyed everything—scientific knowledge, mostly, knowledge the poor monks can’t even begin to understand.

This is one of the most beautifully written novels in the genre’s history, and one that—though I’ve only read it two or three times in my life—I think about almost daily. This is a book that asks big questions and meditates on the uglier aspects of human nature, but it’s not a book that drowns its readers in technobabble, and while the characters may take a backseat to the ideas, I think this is a great entry point for fantasy readers, because the setting is basically familiar. I’d even recommend this book to folks who only read mainstream, non-speculative fiction. This is a sci-fi novel I’d recommend to almost anybody—not because it’s an easy read. It’s heavy, but it’s never obscure or hard to understand…and it’s heartbreakingly, beautifully tragic. 

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked A Canticle for Leibowitz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the depths of the Utah desert, long after the Flame Deluge has scoured the earth clean, a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz has made a miraculous discovery: holy relics from the life of the great saint himself, including the blessed blueprint, the sacred shopping list, and the hallowed shrine of the Fallout Shelter.

In a terrifying age of darkness and decay, these artifacts could be the keys to mankind's salvation. But as the mystery at the core of this groundbreaking novel unfolds, it is the search itself—for meaning, for truth, for love—that offers hope for humanity's rebirth…

Book cover of Dune

Christopher Ruocchio Why did I love this book?

One of my favorite novels of all time, Dune is probably a tough read for newcomers to speculative fiction in general—but veteran fantasy readers should feel right at home. Set in a far future where feudal lords rule entire planets in a empire encompassing multiple galaxies, Dune has everything fantasy fans know and love: warring houses, intricate plots, strange worldbuilding, a kind of magic, ancient conspiracies, and larger-than-life heroes and villains. It’s probably science fiction’s single most-famous novel these days, and it deserves its reputation—though it probably needs little introduction from me.

I think a lot of the reluctance fantasy readers feel about leaping into science fiction is the difficulty adapting to very strange new worlds. Elves and dwarves are comfortable and familiar at this point, likewise dragons and goblins and trolls, but the various alien creatures and terms sci-fi writers invent are less likely to be drawn from such a pool of stock characters and ideas. Dune’s world is deeply human. There are no aliens (unless one count’s the planet’s famous sandworms), and while there are a number of science-fictional terms to get used to, most editions of the book provide the reader with a glossary to help newcomers along (which is not uncommon among science fiction novels of this type). 

By Frank Herbert,

Why should I read it?

52 authors picked Dune as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's lifespan to making interstellar travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of…

Book cover of Revelation Space

Christopher Ruocchio Why did I love this book?

This deep into the list, I want to start taking the training wheels off. The Revelation Space series by UK writer Alastair Reynolds is the only example on this list of mine of what we in the business call hard science fiction. This is the sort of stuff people think of when they think of the genre in general, I think—or at least its literary end. Reynolds used to work for the European Space Agency, and his technical acumen shows in the books. His work has some of the craziest and most well thought out applications of technology that I’ve seen in the genre. Softer science fiction writers like myself are perfectly happy to wave away such pesky limitations as the speed of light. Not Reynolds.

The technology underpinning his worlds and imagined futures pushes our understanding of physics and the lesser sciences to its limits, but never breaks them. The results are often stranger than pure fiction, and the world of Revelation Space is vast and threatening and alien, with even the human characters seeming far removed from ordinary humanity. These are dark reads, but absolutely rewarding, and—like Dunenot recommended for the casual reader, but veterans of the bigger fantasy sagas like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and perhaps especially fans of George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson will find that Alastair Reynolds is exactly the science fiction writer the doctor ordered. 

By Alastair Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Revelation Space as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The legendary space opera that kicked off the ground-breaking, universe-spanning series.

Nine hundred thousand years ago, something wiped out the Amarantin. For the human colonists now settling the Amarantin homeworld Resurgam, it's of little more than academic interest, even after the discovery of a long-hidden, almost perfect Amarantin city and a colossal statue of a winged Amarantin. For brilliant but ruthless scientist Dan Sylveste, it's more than merelty intellectual curiosity - and he will stop at nothing to get at the truth. Even if the truth costs him everything. But the Amarantin were wiped out for a reason, and that…

Book cover of Shadow & Claw

Christopher Ruocchio Why did I love this book?

Those familiar with me and my favorites will have been expecting, well…this entire list, but will most especially have been waiting for this series to make its appearance. A cult classic from the early 80s, Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun is far and away my favorite science fiction series, surpassing even Frank Herbert’s Dune, which held that title for most of my life. Gene Wolfe is, in my opinion, the finest writer our genre has ever produced. No less than Ursula K. LeGuin called him “our Melville,” and not without reason. These books are gorgeous, but they are so rich and dense that I can understand why he never reached the mainstream appeal of Herbert or Asimov. The entries on this list have gotten more complex and perhaps difficult to read as I’ve gone on, but the reason why I think this is the perfect, perfect science fiction series for fantasy fans is because on the surface it appears to be a fantasy.

One could read several chapters of the first book in this series The Shadow of the Torturer, and never realize the turrets of the citadel where our young hero spends his childhood are decommissioned rocket ships crumbling with age, or that a certain wandering doctor is, in fact, a robot—because the narrator, our hero, Severian, takes all these things from granted. The world of New Sun lies so far in the future that society has collapsed into a kind of a medieval world. Soldiers with rayguns ride into battle on horses, aliens visiting Earth (or Urth, as Wolfe would have it) are looked on with scorn and distrust, but not with surprise. Folks who want the feel of fantasy, but of a fantasy where the magic lying underneath the everyday is the half-forgotten science of an earlier golden age of space exploration and empire, will find this series scratches that itch.

But as I’ve said, this is not one for the faint of heart. Severian is a supremely unreliable narrator, and often doesn’t even understand the fantastic events he’s experiencing. I said this was a cult classic, and few writers have a cult like Wolfe’s. Whole podcasts and communities have sprung up dedicated to cracking the secret meaning in every line of these books, dissecting them with the thorough seriousness of Biblical scholars. But the thing about Wolfe, is that he stands up to the scrutiny. Don’t let his reputation for difficulty turn you away. This series is science fiction’s crown jewel.

By Gene Wolfe,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Shadow & Claw as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A major work of twentieth-century American literature...Wolfe creates a truly alien social order that the reader comes to experience from within...once into it, there is no stopping.” ­―The New York Times on The Book of the New Sun

Gene Wolfe has been called "the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced" by the Washington Post.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is unanimously acclaimed as Wolfe’s most remarkable work, hailed as “a masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis” by Publishers Weekly and “one of the most ambitious works of…

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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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