AAt the heart of every fantasy is something unreal, impossible, or at the very least, so extraordinary that it takes us outside the universe we think we live in. The construction of a fantasy world surrounds these unreal things with recognizable furnishings and plausible emotion, Coleridge’s “voluntary suspension of disbelief” may intervene. As we have learned from writers from Tolkien to Pratchett, the task of writers and readers is easier when the impossible involves patterns and plots that we recognize from oral accounts such as tales, legends, and stories. myths. It also links most fantasy literature, up to the turn of the millennium, to European culture, as the myths we know are probably Greco-Roman or Norse; tales, German or French or sometimes Scandinavian.
However, in this century, a new wave of fantasy is challenging this European domination. Writers of color and writers from indigenous cultures use magical narratives to describe experiences and express viewpoints that are difficult to convey within the confines of realism. One of the effects of fantasy is the way it forces us to consider the categories of the real, the possible, and the ordinary – all the norms that fantasy violates. And, in particular, the new fantasy reveals how culture-bound these norms are. Non-European traditions delineate boundaries differently and include as natural entities things that we might consider supernatural. From these different ways of setting the limits of the possible and giving meaning to the impossible come different versions of the fantastic.
The works I list here not only tell gripping stories set in vividly imagined worlds, they are also worth reading for how their versions challenge our sense of the ordinary and the limits of the real.
1. Nalo Hopkinson’s New Moon Arms (2007)
Caribbean-Canadian writer Hopkinson is known for her science fiction world-building, but she also excels at more intimate fantasies. The magic of this book involves the protagonist’s objects of manifestation from her childhood menopause as well as her encounter with a selkie child. The novel immerses readers in the sensory experience and social dynamics of its island environment, and its emphasis on the late passage of a middle-aged woman defies expectations of fantasy tales.
2. Who’s Afraid of Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
Like much of Okorafor’s work, this novel draws on his experiences as a child of Nigerian immigrants, hearing stories and spending time with his extended family in Africa. Protagonist Onyesonwu, whose name translated from Igbo provides the title of the book, is the child of rape, fitting into neither society but inheriting the powers of both sides of her parentage. In a shift from the conventional “chosen hero” narrative, Onyewonsu ends up rewriting the prophecies and remaking his world. In this and other science fantasies, Okorafor helped invent a form she calls African Futurism, which was embraced by readers and emulated by a talented new generation of African and diasporic writers, including Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. and Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.
3. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (2011)
Playwright and scholar Hairston pits Native American and African American folklore against racism in this southern journey from Jim Crow to the beginnings of a black film industry at the Chicago World’s Fair. The magic of the stage converges with a real conjuration to challenge violence and oppression. In a sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change, Hairston follows its protagonists back to their African roots and into a future among artists, ghosts and (surprisingly) aliens.
4. Alif the Invisible by G Willow Wilson (2012)
Wilson worked as a journalist in Cairo during the Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s. This World Fantasy award winner combines computer hacking and Arab mysticism in a dazzling tale of love, economic disparity, adventure and power. of metaphor. Along the way, Wilson also satirizes the minor character of an American convert to Islam who is blind to most of the magic happening around her.
5. A Stranger to OlOndria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
In this beautifully written tour of a complex underworld, Samatar explores ghosts, cultural clashes, and the effect of written language on a purely oral culture, all while delivering engaging characters and a gripping adventure story. The fantasy world of fiction reflects Samatar’s own immersion in multiple cultures as the daughter of a Somali immigrant and scholar of Arabic literatures with teaching experience in Sudan and Egypt.
6. The fifth season of NK Jemisin (2015)
Jemisin has won every award, and deservedly so, for the books in his Broken Earth trilogy, of which this is the first. The books might be set in the distant future on a world that isn’t our Earth, but they also clearly connect with the here and now, with themes of climate change, degradation of the environment, racial injustice and the burdens of the past. Bold second-person narration and a complex, admirable but not always likeable hero make this book so much more than the sum of its themes.
7. The House with Broken Wings by Aliette de Bodard (2015)
Alternating between science fiction and fantasy, de Bodard has already amassed an impressive number of Nebula, Locus and British Science Fiction Association awards. This novel is the start of a gothic fantasy series involving fallen angels and a war that has left Paris half-ruined and contaminated with magical pollution. The contamination reaches the depths of the Seine, where, unbeknownst to most people (and other earthly beings), a community of Annamese, or Vietnamese, dragons have taken refuge. The series reflects the multiracial politics and multicultural reality of contemporary European cities.
8. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (2020)
Roanhorse caught the attention of the fantasy and science fiction community in 2017 with a satirical short story titled Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience. She followed that up with a pair of science fantasies juxtaposing Diné legends against a post-apocalyptic landscape and, in Black Sun and its sequels, ventured into epic fantasy. Its fantasy world is a magical version of Mesoamerica without European invasion: its conflicts arise from tensions within and between factions and religious cults on the continent of Meridian.
9. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2020)
With this book, Coates deftly moved from non-fiction to writing novels. His story is set in the pre-Civil War South, but rarely uses the word “slave” to describe the people Coates calls Tasked. Rich historical detail conveys the terrible effect the task had on all those caught in the system, and especially on the young and gifted Hiram Walker. Walker’s own job is to look after the master’s legitimate and irresponsible son, who is his half-brother. From his mother, Hiram inherited a magical gift of unpredictable escape, the title Water Dancing. As he learns to harness this gift, he goes to work for the great Harriet Tubman. Like Octavia Butler in Kindred, Coates finds the horrors of slavery too overwhelming for mere realism: only the fantastic can take the reader into such a world.
10. A Djinn Master by P Djèlí Clark (2021)
Historian Clark deviates from his studies of the American past in this magical alternate history set in a steampunk Cairo at the turn of the 20th century. The novel is a mystery featuring a headstrong detective facing off against powerful human and non-human adversaries. The real interest is not so much in the plot as in the character interaction and the richly detailed setting. This Cairo is a meeting place between east and west, north and south (a recurring theme is the racial profiling of Nubians and Abyssinians by the palest Egyptian aristocracy), past and present , science and magic, all skillfully invoked in the details of architecture, costume and custom.