I’ve read a lot of books. I haven’t read a lot more. This is the list of what I consider the best speculative fiction books that I have read. It’s likely some of your favorites are missing because I haven’t gotten to them, but I’m always looking for recommendations. Leave a comment if there’s any title you think belongs.
Speculative fiction isn’t quite a ubiquitous term, so I’ll explain the criteria before starting on the list. Most commonly associated with fantasy, horror, and sci-fi genres, speculative fiction is most easily defined by answering a simple question: could this story have happened in our world as it is or was? For example, Shutter Island is one of my favorite books, but everything in that story could’ve happened in the past. Note, this puts alternative history in the speculative fiction camp. Thankfully, Nazis lost World War II, so any book where they won is speculative. Hence, the umbrella term: speculative fiction. It’s how a world (our Earth or otherwise) could be if A, B, and C were true.
I largely prefer speculative fiction because I live in the real world enough as it is. I know what people are doing and how they’re reacting (or have reacted) to various events. What I want to see is how “people” act—at risk of sounding cliché here—when the rules all change.
Why limit my all-time list to 40 books? That’s the point where I felt challenged on what to exclude. Several great books missed the cut, but that’s by design. Otherwise, I’d keep adding books in some desperate attempt to add validity to the list. This is, like any such list, a compilation of personal opinions, and I want those to come through clearly. That said, I expect to expand this list in the future but only as long as I’m making tough choices on what to cut. Rankings will also likely change as I get to rereads.
Final note: I’m ranking my best speculative fiction books purely on the books themselves. There is at least one author here who believes in reprehensible nonsense. I think that author and their views are widely known. There might be others. I do my best to separate art from the artist here.
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – No book has ever immersed me like this one. It’s a unique concept, one that requires a physical copy and can never work in another medium. Executed to perfection, the multiple endings one can interpret somehow all feel satisfying. I love the story within a story here, and despite my trying to replicate the experience, nothing has come close. Truly genius.
- Dune by Frank Herbert – The amount of worldbuilding, character personality, politics, and plot packed into this novel is what most authors need a trilogy (or more) to tell. The blending of magic and sci-fi makes almost anything seem possible, yet it never feels arbitrary. Everything’s existence is explained by world mechanics. I’ll also add I almost universally dislike third-person omniscient POV. Dune is one of the few exceptions where it’s not confusing and used to great cinematic effect.
- A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin – You’d think with over 1,000 pages there would be some lulls in the story. Not the case here. The book is addicting from start to finish. The two books before this in Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series are no slouches, but everything comes to a head here. All of our beloved (and not so beloved) characters see major shifts that alter the trajectory of their personal tales within this grand epic. This novel also includes two of fiction’s most memorable weddings ever. Yes, weddings. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get to reading!
- IT by Stephen King – Maybe it’s because I grew up on epic fantasy, but the size of this book is a plus for me. Horror has a lot of untapped potential for worldbuilding (you’ll see me mention this again), and it’s one of IT’s many, many strengths. The characters are strong, their plight is powerful, and peering into their lives as both children and adults shows the depths to which true horror can burrow into our souls.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A heart-wrenching, fascinating tale about an intellectually disabled person who undergoes surgery to increase said intelligence. We follow the protagonist as he adjusts and reacts to these changes. It’s a fast read with a lot of weight behind it that will leave you itching to discuss ethics and morals.
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – There’s a reason the TV show was so successful. This book is just that good (and the show was well-adapted for most of its run). Multiple, unique POVs. Easy to read prose. Crazy intricate world that’s fleshed out at a reasonable pace. Authors with awesome worlds often find difficulty in parceling out their details at a reasonable clip, but Martin does so masterfully. He lays down the template for a “setup book” here that I have yet to see matched in fantasy.
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – AKA the book that taught me about time dilation when I first read it two decades ago. This book touches on many themes (mostly around war) and does so in such an efficient and engaging manner that it remains one of the sci-fi’s best. As the main character is frequently traveling faster than the light, the universe ages around him, and its fascinating to see all of the changes through the eyes of a man who has become a relic in time. I haven’t read The Forever War in a long time, and I can still vividly recall multiple scenes in the book (including the great ending).
- Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson – If you want the best high-fantasy action scenes then you want Brandon Sanderson. The whole trilogy, but especially this book, just oozes cool. The heist, the magic system, the villain, the mist—all of it, so cool. Both protagonists are compelling and show a different side to the struggles of the average person in an empire where the bad guys won. Ultimately, it’s the combination of these various facets that make Mistborn so great.
- Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Not a good book for arachnophobes, but a great way to get caught in the web of living an alien’s life. Except that alien is the familiar spider, genetically enhanced. The book catches flak for its human storyline, and while those characters aren’t particularly memorable, the species/societal plight as it relates to the intelligent spiders plays a key role in making the book shine. Bonus points for hard sci-fi is that isn’t dry.
- The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan – The fourth book in the Wheel of Time series and generally considered its best. I won’t argue. Jordan is the best worldbuilder in fantasy, and that’s a lot of what makes this book shine. We learn a lot about anthropology, cultures, and disparate societal weights by the end of this novel. And unlike some of the books in the series (especially 9 through 11), the plot packs a lot of compelling events into what could otherwise be an overly descriptive affair.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – Remember middle school? That terrible time in your life when everyone was terrible because they thought acting terrible was the key to social success? Yeah, that’s this book, except the fate of the human race depends on those kids. I bring this up because the book also includes: easy-to-digest hard sci-fi, vivid battle scenes, rising tension, a fast pace, and social commentary about war’s mental impact. Pretty adult stuff, right? That it’s captured through the lens of a genius child interacting with other genius children, all acting very human with their middle school-esque maturity, is what adds a necessary grounding to the book.
- Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson – This is the rare second book I rate higher than the third for a trilogy I adore. Largely, this boils down to the heavy political plots that are rare to see handled with any nuance in fantasy. The aftermath of book one also creates a lot of engaging and unique conflicts not found in the genre.
- A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin – I can’t express enough how good the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire are. I’ve given Martin enough real estate here, so hopefully occupying 3 of the top 15 spots on my all-time speculative fiction list says enough.
- Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson – The Wheel of Time ends and does so in a convincing fashion. It’s basically 1,000 pages of battle. Everything that is set up in the previous thirteen books explodes in a volcanic fury. Granted, I don’t know that we needed thirteen books to get here, but the payoff sure hits home.
- Battle Royale by Koushun Takami – Battle royales have been all the rage the past decade, whether in books, film, or video games. This is what started it, and it’s still the king. Some of that is because the story resolves in a singular book, and it lasts just the right length. As is typical in these books, there’s a lot of anxiety about who will survive and who to trust. That it takes place in an alternate history where Japan emerged a victor from World War II further adds to the tension. Maybe this terrifying dystopia could have been our reality.
- The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein – A book that encapsulates one of my favorite phrases in gaming: “Gather your party and venture forth.” I love the gradual formation, and eventual dissolution, of the fellowship in this book. The idyllic Shire could be considered a slow start, but I love a good party scene, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I think it’s key to show what the characters are fighting for. This is how the world should, and could be, and sometimes the people most responsible for our well-being are those we’ve never heard of.
- The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons – The direct sequel to Hyperion, the sci-fi/horror spin on The Canterbury Tales (more on that later). This book builds on the first’s characters and world, then layers on a story most authors would need two books to tell. While the sci-fi elements overshadow the horror here (whereas they’re well-balanced in the first book), there is no shortage of tension. The stakes appropriately rise (as they often do in a sequel), and the payoff is immensely satisfying.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I don’t do a lot of young adult novels, but this gets so much right without ever feeling immature. The world is that balanced mix of realistic dystopian and definite fiction. Characters are almost all compelling, especially considering it’s a fast read. From beginning to end, I’m completely absorbed by the story. It’s a shame the movie couldn’t live up to the book, but it was a tall order. Katniss’s internal dialogue is what binds the book up in a nice package, and that’s difficult to capture in film.
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons – Like I said when discussing the sequel, Hyperion is sort of a sci-fi/horror take on The Canterbury Tales. It’s slow to get going (slower than any other book on this list). That must mean the middle and end make up for it, right? Yeah, they do. And it’s not like the early parts are pointless. Every element is crafted to deliver an atmospheric blend of horror and sci-fi that just sucks you in by the third “tale”. A must for anyone who loves speculative worldbuilding. Can be read as a standalone but given that the sequel is better, why stop here?
- Hell House by Richard Matheson – Short and sweet, like all of Matheson’s work. While this is far from the smartest book on my all-time list, it might be the most entertaining. The book examines hauntings from both scientific and mystical points of view, lending credence to each as the plot progresses. Horror/tension stays at a high level throughout the story via an engaging mystery with more overt supernatural occurrences than, say, The Haunting of Hill House. Unfortunately, the ending is rushed and some scenes haven’t aged well, but it’s one of those infinitesimally rare books without a slow chapter.
- Speaker For the Dead by Orson Scott Card – A great follow-up to Ender’s Game. The protagonist learns a lot from his experience and responds with a deeply set morality about the ramifications of war (something I’m sure many of us wish from our political leaders). It’s a completely different book than Ender’s Game, yet it’s the perfect sequel. Despite having all the gifts needed for a Gary Stu, Ender is a compelling character with depth further defined by this novel.
- Pet Sematary by Stephen King – You’d think this book was about a killer zombie cat by the cover. It sort of it is, but like any good speculative fiction, there’s so much more to it. It starts dark, then dims to pitch black by the end. It touches on multiple subgenres of horror—folk, undead, madness, isolation—but never gets lost in the weeds. The poor decision-making that’s inherent to much of horror feels real and believable here. When King is at his best, the protagonists have no right answers, and he’s certainly at his best here.
- Circe by Madeline Miller – Miller takes the shallow characters and tales from Greek mythology and infuses them with life. Circe is a little-known character in the grand scheme of things, and that’s exactly why the story works. We see the world through her eyes, from her younger days to her older. It feels “down to earth” (as much as mythology can), and we get to see familiar Greek mythological characters making decisions on a small scale that define them, rather than through the grand tales that turn them into caricatures. Kind of a random aside, but if you like modern Greek mythological adaptations and play video games, look into Hades by Supergiant Games.
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – If you’ve seen the movie and haven’t read the book, then you haven’t experienced I Am Legend. I think the movie is great too, but they are thematically and plotwise different. Easily the best vampire story I’ve ever read. Matheson delivers compelling and immersive ideas in such an efficient manner that makes I Am Legend one of those few books where no page feels wasted. In under 200 pages, he lays out some of the best speculative fiction ever written, creating a world that takes most authors many hundreds more pages to establish.
- The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan – This is where the Wheel of Time hits its stride. We start to realize the power levels of the young Two Rivers heroes that we’ve merely glimpsed so far. Rules are established that delve deeper into the world’s secrets. The world that has been interesting so far continues to come to the forefront, establishing itself as what I think of as the most compelling world in all of literary speculative fiction. I also rank the climax as the series’ best after Memory of Light, and I’ll vividly remember it for the rest of my life.
- Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven – I haven’t read this book in 20 years. So, on one hand, I’ve read the depictions of certain characters feel antiquated, and I’d need to reread to verify this (and I will, eventually). On the other hand, the story has stuck with me for 20 years. A big reason is the vast majority of post-apocalyptic books read too similarly to The Hero’s Journey. Characters become adventurers in a crappy post-apocalyptic world. What I’m more interested in from the genre is the breakdown and attempted reformation of society. Lucifer’s Hammer appeals on that level, tackling humanity on an anthropological level. It does so through multiple characters and multiple ideologies, which can be overwhelming, but is exactly what I’d like to read more of.
- HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt – Let’s be honest: horror generally sucks at worldbuilding (I told you I’d bring this up again). Scares are created out of convenience, with no concern for universal rules. The reason is clear: it’s easier to scare readers when they don’t understand the whos, whats, and whys of a threat. HEX is amazing because it swims against the current and puts its evil witch front and center, creating a world that feels like it exists before and after the story. This leads to an unsettling atmosphere that permeates beyond the bounds of HEX’s pages.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – The oldest book on this list and a classic for a reason. A deft blend of ambiguous paranormal events and clear mental instability. Compelling characters all play a key role in the narrative. Its age partially shows in its formatting and sparse prose, making some scenes difficult to parse or imagine. That said, given the novel centers around the mental degradation of its unreliable narrator protagonist, one could argue these “flaws” are intentional or at the very least, aid the story. Either way, it’s a testament to the genius of Jackson’s work that no similar tale has surpassed it in over 60 years.
- The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – Mystery, thriller, fantasy, sci-fi. What genre isn’t this book? Taking place over eight days from the POV of eight different (sort of) characters, the whole picture comes together at a riveting pace. It’s one of those books that will keep you guessing until the end, yet where the answer always feels close at hand. The ending is also one worth discussing with your local book club.
- Phantoms by Dean Koontz – I love the atmosphere in this book. The whole town under siege by who knows what—devils, ghosts, monsters, laboratory experiments, or something else—keeps the mystery as tense and engaging as the plot itself. My only complaint is the tidy and predictable ending that feels at odds with 90% of the book that came before.
- Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill – Sometimes, the debut book is the best book. I’m sure I’ll eventually read something by Hill that will top this, but Heart-Shaped Box remains his best work for me. It’s got everything I want in speculative fiction. A unique but flawed character. Horror that takes shape early. The clear antagonist. A believable, constant source of danger. Kind of like The Troop (see below), the story feels familiar, but the twist and execution leave me no room to care.
- The Troop by Nick Cutter – Boy Scouts, meet monster horror. There are some serious tropes in the characters and plot progression, but Cutter executes these to such perfection that I don’t mind. Newspaper snippets intermixed with POV characters keep the tension high and the story moving. The only time he falters with these tropes is the ending, but your mileage may vary there.
- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin – For me, this book is all about the relationship between two characters who we only glimpse in the first book. I think their dynamic (and the younger character’s path) is far more engaging than any of the lead protagonist’s relationships, especially given the world state by the third book. I appreciate good characters and dynamics in fantasy more than any other genre (speculative or otherwise), and that’s why this tops the series’ first book.
- The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski – The first Witcher book is the best Witcher book. This is a connection of short stories centered around protagonist Geralt of Rivia. Each is individually compelling, but they weave a tale that hits on almost everything I want in fantasy: tense action, great characters, and interesting worldbuilding, all without the bloated setup chapters. That’s not to say deeper plots with setup chapters are bad. It’s just rare to see a fantasy book eschew those in favor of pacing and still deliver an engaging narrative.
- How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix – I hated every character in this book, and you know what? The story is better for it. I like how it subverts the typical horror start of “tense, scary prologue followed by ten chapters of setup”. Instead, we’re treated to early subtle undertones of horror where the story is carried by another emotion: anger. We’re rallied to the POV’s cause, incensed by what they’ve had to endure. That is, until we see that lead character from another lens, and it upends everything. By then, the horror is running full stride, and you wouldn’t be blamed for hoping all the main characters die. But Hendrix adds just enough sympathy to keep me invested in their struggle until the end.
- An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – A cool premise about mysterious alien robots coming to Earth. The stakes remain vague, yet high, and perfectly encapsulate humanity’s penchant for hating what they don’t understand. Includes social commentary on social media that will feel all too real to anyone who uses the Internet. I’m also a big fan of unique professions. Give me more graphic designers and fewer detectives/reporters in my fiction. While the book is great on its own, I must give props to the audiobook narrator: Kristen Sieh. She brought the story to life, with consistently distinct voices for every character that might’ve influenced my ranking.
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – What this book lacks in compelling characters, it makes up for in post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Oh, and the ending. The second-person POV is pretty cool, somewhat because it’s unique. But also because it works. It doesn’t feel gimmicky, instead playing an integral role in making the story what it is. Yes, it’s fantasy, but it’s also a literary experience.
- Blindsight by Peter Watts – The monsters in this are terrifying. Unfortunately, that terror is dampened by PhD-level biology. Dense language makes for difficult parsing at times. But did I mention the monsters? They feel real, they feel alien, and they will rip you to shreds. And credit where it’s due—the same biology that makes Blindsight an overly dense read is what lends credence to the aliens terrorizing the main characters. It’s an interesting paradox that ultimately results in a strong recommendation for anyone willing to exert some patience.
- The Watchers by A.M. Shine – Multiple strangers gather in an isolated forest, who must take refuge in an out-of-place house to survive nightly attacks by the forest’s bizarre monsters. Fast-paced and to the point, A.M. Shine never dawdles with the plot. Some of this can be jarring, and the book does suffer from lack of clarity on occasion but is forgiven due to its engaging plot. The monsters are somewhat familiar to speculative fiction readers but are unique enough. It’s engaging to learn about them while simultaneously discovering more about the trapped characters’ lives.
- The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson – Choosing the last couple of slots for speculative fiction’s best 40 works was harder than ordering the first 30. As I said in the intro, I kept this list at 40 to force exactly this decision. I’m sure my all-time list will expand with time, but what is a better fitting cap to it than the final book of my favorite trilogy? Like its predecessors, The Hero of Ages offers a different style to the reader. The finale feels the most like standard fantasy in the trilogy, but that by no means makes it generic. Great book. Great trilogy ender. Great list ender.
Discuss or leave in disgust. Your choice. And if you love worldbuilding as much as I do, check out my second novel, Secrets Gnaw at the Flesh.