Powell's Essential List: 25 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the 21st Century

This is one of the 282 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

    In a sprawling steampunk metropolis teeming with bizarre creatures and arcane technologies, a gifted scientist unwittingly unleashes a nightmare upon the city. When his experiment with a rare caterpillar goes awry, monstrous, dream-eating moths are set loose, preying upon the citizens' minds and plunging the city into terror. As the scientist grapples with the consequences of his actions, a motley group of individuals, including a renegade artist, a wingless bird-man, and other outcasts, come together in a desperate attempt to save their city from the eldritch horrors that now haunt its shadowy streets. Their journey takes them through the city's various layers, from the opulent heights to the grimy depths, revealing the complex tapestry of cultures and conflicts that define this urban labyrinth.

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman

    A recently released convict discovers that his wife and best friend died in a car accident. He then meets a mysterious stranger who hires him as a bodyguard. As they journey across America, it is revealed that the stranger is an old god, traveling to rally his fellow forgotten deities to wage a war against the new American gods born from society's modern obsessions with media, technology, drugs, celebrity, and more. The story blends elements of fantasy, mythology, and Americana to explore themes of faith, belief, and the nature of American identity.

  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

    The novel follows Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an intuitive sensitivity to corporate symbols, as she embarks on a global quest to find the creator of mysterious video clips that have garnered a cult following on the internet. Her journey takes her from London to Tokyo and then to Russia, navigating the intersecting worlds of advertising, technology, and espionage. As she delves deeper into the origin of the footage, she encounters various characters with their own vested interests, and her ability to discern patterns becomes crucial in solving the puzzle. The narrative explores themes of globalization, identity, and the impact of technology on society.

  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

    In a grim, ash-covered world ruled by the immortal Lord Ruler, a young street urchin discovers she possesses unique magical abilities—Allomancy, the power to ingest and burn metals to enhance physical and mental capabilities. She joins a group of rebel skaa, the oppressed class, led by a charismatic criminal mastermind, to overthrow the centuries-old tyranny. Together, they devise an elaborate heist to infiltrate the noble houses and spark a revolution, uncovering dark secrets and unexpected truths about their world and the origins of the Lord Ruler's power along the way.

  • The Lies Of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

    The book follows the tale of a cunning young thief, raised among a band of con artists and pickpockets, as he navigates the perilous underworld of a Venice-like city. Gifted in the art of deception and driven by a love for adventure and riches, he orchestrates elaborate heists, outwitting the wealthy nobility and rival gangs. However, when a mysterious and powerful adversary threatens the fragile peace of the criminal world, the protagonist must use all his wits and bravery to protect his friends, challenge the status quo, and survive the escalating dangers of his chosen life of crime.

  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

    The book is a science fiction novel that intertwines the cultural revolution of China with a complex narrative involving astrophysics, virtual reality, and alien contact. It follows a disillusioned scientist who, after suffering personal tragedy during the Cultural Revolution, sends a message into space, only to receive a response from an alien civilization on the brink of destruction. As the aliens plan their migration to Earth, a secret organization works to facilitate the invasion, while a disparate group of scientists and military personnel attempt to understand and prevent the impending extraterrestrial crisis. The novel grapples with themes of human nature, technological advancement, and the vast, often incomprehensible universe.

  • The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

    This fantasy novel follows the tale of a gifted young man who grows from a precocious child into a notorious wizard, known as the most notorious magician, musician, thief, and assassin. His life is one of hardship and danger, as he seeks knowledge and revenge following the tragic murder of his family by a group of supernatural beings. The story is told in retrospect as the protagonist recounts his past to a chronicler over the course of three days, revealing the truth behind the myths and legends that have come to surround his enigmatic persona.

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

    Set in a future Thailand amidst a world ravaged by climate change and depleted resources, the story unfolds in a bustling city where biotech corporations vie for supremacy. The narrative centers around a genetically engineered "New Person," known as the Windup Girl, who is trapped in a life of servitude and exploitation. As the city teeters on the brink of political and environmental collapse, the fates of various characters—including a foreign energy investor, a disgraced geneticist, and a street-smart refugee—intertwine with that of the Windup Girl. Together, they navigate a treacherous landscape of corporate greed, oppressive government, and social upheaval, in a desperate search for survival and redemption in a world where every action has unforeseen consequences.

  • Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

    In a war-torn galaxy, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love and have a child, igniting a dangerous pursuit by various factions who seek to control the child's extraordinary powers. With a mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance, "Saga Vol. 1" takes readers on a thrilling and visually stunning journey through a vast and imaginative universe.

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

    The book is a science fiction novel that follows the story of Breq, who was once a powerful starship AI controlling many bodies, but is now trapped in a single human body and driven by a quest for vengeance. Set in a vast interstellar empire where ships and stations are inhabited by ancillary AIs, the narrative explores themes of identity, gender, and colonialism. Breq's journey intertwines with flashbacks to her past experiences as an AI, revealing her complex relationship with a former officer and the events that led to her current mission. As she navigates political intrigue and battles, Breq challenges the empire's rigid structures and seeks to address the injustices within it.

  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

    In the novel, a team of four women—an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist—embark on an expedition into Area X, a mysterious and remote region cut off from civilization. The area is known for its strange occurrences and the disappearance of previous expedition members. As the team delves deeper into the wild and enigmatic landscape, they encounter bizarre creatures, cryptic signs, and the remnants of a lost civilization. The biologist, serving as the narrator, documents their discoveries and her own personal transformations, driven by the unseen forces of Area X. The novel explores themes of nature, mutation, and the unknown, as the expedition's members confront the limits of knowledge and the consequences of seeking to uncover the inexplicable.

  • The Lone Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

    In this character-driven space opera, a diverse crew aboard a tunneling spaceship embarks on a treacherous mission to punch wormholes through the far reaches of the galaxy. As they journey to a distant planet fraught with conflict, the crew members—each with their own unique backgrounds, species, and perspectives—navigate the complexities of their interpersonal relationships, cultural differences, and personal struggles. The narrative delves into themes of friendship, family, and acceptance, painting a vivid picture of life in a vast, multicultural cosmos where the vastness of space is matched only by the depth of individual experiences and the bonds that form in the most unlikely of circumstances.

  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

    "Binti" is a science fiction novella that follows the journey of a young Himba girl named Binti, who defies her family's wishes and leaves her home to attend the prestigious Oomza University. As the first of her people to be accepted, Binti faces various challenges and cultural clashes as she navigates the complexities of interstellar travel and encounters an alien race known as the Meduse. Through her unique abilities and determination, Binti becomes a bridge between two civilizations, ultimately transforming her own identity and challenging societal norms.

  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

    In this science fiction epic, humanity faces an existential crisis when the moon suddenly explodes, triggering a catastrophic chain of environmental disasters on Earth. With only two years before the planet becomes uninhabitable, nations unite to launch a daring plan to preserve human life by sending a select group of survivors into orbit. The narrative spans thousands of years, chronicling the efforts of these initial survivors to maintain the human race in space, the political and social challenges they face, and the eventual attempt by their far-future descendants to return to a drastically changed Earth. The story is a sweeping examination of human resilience, ingenuity, and the enduring quest for survival against insurmountable odds.

  • The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

    A woman searches for her kidnapped daughter in a world ravaged by a catastrophic climate change event known as the Fifth Season. Simultaneously, the narrative follows a young girl with destructive powers and a man struggling to control his own similar abilities. The story explores themes of oppression, survival, and the destructive power of nature, all set in a dystopian world where the earth is constantly in flux, and society is strictly divided and controlled.

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik

    The book is a captivating fantasy novel that weaves a tale of a young woman from a quiet village, chosen by a mysterious and powerful wizard to live with him in his tower, away from her home. As she learns about her own latent magical abilities and the malevolent force of the corrupted Wood that threatens her world, she must navigate a complex relationship with her enigmatic mentor and ally herself with the kingdom's prince to save her people. Drawing on Eastern European folklore, the story is a rich tapestry of magic, politics, and the struggle between tradition and change, ultimately exploring themes of identity, friendship, and the courage to fight for one's home.

  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

    This novel blends science fiction and fantasy, telling the story of two outcasts, a witch and a tech genius, who meet as children and then part ways, only to reunite as adults in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe. As the planet faces environmental collapse and the threat of war, the pair must navigate their differences and their past to harness their extraordinary abilities. Their friendship becomes the key to survival, as they confront forces that could either save humanity or lead to its destruction, blurring the lines between magic and science in an uncertain future.

  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells

    In this science fiction novella, a self-aware security android, which has secretly hacked its own governor module to gain autonomy, refers to itself as "Murderbot." Despite its disinterest in human affairs, Murderbot finds itself compelled to protect the human crew it is assigned to on a distant planet after a series of mysterious and dangerous events unfold. Struggling with its own identity and the desire to remain unnoticed, Murderbot must navigate the complexities of human interaction and its own past, all while ensuring the safety of its charges from unknown threats.

  • The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

    Set in the wintry wilderness of medieval Russia, the novel weaves a tale of a young girl named Vasya who is gifted with the ability to see and communicate with the spirits that protect her village. As the world around her succumbs to the fear and influence of a zealous priest, Vasya must embrace her unique abilities to safeguard her family and the mystical beings of the forest. Her journey is fraught with challenges as she confronts the encroaching forces of both human and supernatural threats, ultimately leading her to confront a dangerous entity. In doing so, she must navigate the tightrope between the Christian beliefs of her community and the older, pagan traditions that run deep in her blood.

  • On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

    The graphic novel is a beautifully illustrated tale that weaves together two timelines, following the journey of a young woman named Mia. In one timeline, we see her navigate the challenges of boarding school, where she falls in love with a mysterious girl named Grace. In the other, we follow her as a member of a diverse crew aboard a spaceship that restores ancient structures throughout the galaxy. As the story unfolds, Mia's past and present converge, leading her on a quest to find her lost love amidst a backdrop of space exploration, found family, and a richly imagined universe that defies the boundaries of time and space.

  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

    "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" is a gripping and fantastical tale set in a mythical and ancient African world. The story follows Tracker, a skilled hunter with a keen sense of smell, who is hired to find a missing boy. As Tracker embarks on his dangerous journey, he encounters a diverse cast of characters, including witches, giants, and shape-shifters. Amidst the treacherous landscapes and political turmoil, Tracker's search for the truth becomes intertwined with his own personal quest for identity and redemption. With its richly imagined world and lyrical prose, this epic fantasy explores themes of love, power, and the blurred boundaries between good and evil.

  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang

    "Exhalation" is a collection of nine science fiction short stories by Ted Chiang that explore various themes such as free will, determinism, artificial intelligence, and the nature of consciousness. Each story presents a unique and thought-provoking concept that challenges the reader's understanding of the world and human existence. The stories range from a society that communicates through scent to a scientist who discovers the secret of time travel. Chiang's writing is insightful, imaginative, and philosophical, making "Exhalation" a must-read for fans of science fiction and speculative fiction.

  • The Priory Of The Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

    In this epic fantasy novel, a divided world faces the threat of awakening draconic forces. The narrative weaves together the stories of a queendom without an heir, a hidden priory dedicated to a secret mission, and distant lands with contrasting beliefs about dragons. As the ancient enemy stirs, a disparate group of characters, including a queen who must secure her throne, a dragon-riding warrior from the East, and a mage with a personal vendetta, must overcome deep-seated prejudices and historical enmities to forge an alliance. The fate of their world hinges on their ability to unite and confront the encroaching darkness brought forth by the return of a legendary fire-breathing beast.

  • The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo

    In this evocative fantasy novella, a young archivist listens to the tales of an elderly woman named Rabbit, who was once a servant to an exiled empress. Through a series of vignettes, the narrative unfolds the empress's cunning and silent accumulation of power in a court that underestimated her. Set in a world inspired by imperial China, the story weaves themes of memory, storytelling, and the subversion of patriarchy, as the archivist uncovers the hidden history of a regime's rise and the role of women who operated from the shadows to shape their destiny. The tale is a testament to the quiet strength and resilience of those who have been marginalized, and the impact of their often-unseen labor on the course of history.

  • A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

    Set in an alternate Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, where magic and steampunk technology infuse the air, the story follows Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. When someone claiming to be al-Jahiz, the famed Sufi mystic who opened the veil to the magical realm forty years prior, returns to wreak havoc in the form of a murderous cult, Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter. With the help of her new partner, a clever ministry bureaucrat, and her girlfriend, an enigmatic lounge singer, Fatma delves into a world of djinn and gods to prevent the imposter's diabolical plot from unleashing chaos upon the world.

About this list

Powells' City of Books, 25 Books

Powell's Books has curated a compelling list of the 21st century's best science fiction and fantasy novels, offering an escape into realms far beyond the mundane realities of our current world. This collection is a vibrant tapestry of narratives, featuring distant planets, formidable dragons, and epic space romances. It brings together a diverse array of characters—from mutants and robots to prophets and space creatures—embarking on adventures filled with mythology, galactic wars, and profound philosophical inquiries. These selections are not just about escapism; they boldly tackle significant contemporary issues such as climate change, race, gender identity, sexuality, and class, while also delving into the universal themes of love, loss, heartache, and hope. Highlighting the imaginative potential of the 21st century, Powell's list presents 25 essential reads that promise to enchant, challenge, and inspire readers with their visionary insights and fantastical worlds.

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