The Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels to Escape This Crazy World

When life around you turns into a hot mess, it’s a great time to dive into a really absorbing novel. At least, I’m escaping into storyland with even more abandon than usual these days. It seems like a good time to tell you about a handful of sci-fi and fantasy novels that I love.

The list comes to you at a time when my sci-fi, cyberpunk novel, THE JUICE is set for release less than one month from now (gasp!). I’m holding a book giveaway in celebration, which I posted about yesterday on social media (Facebook @authorjanetstilson, Twitter (@janetstilson) and Instagram @janetstilson).

Never let it be said that the following five books are the best ever, or the only ones that I admire. (Now that would be a really long list.) However, they are among the ones that have impressed me the most in the sci-fi and fantasy categories.

I’m always on the lookout for new ones. So please share your faves with me on social media. Here goes, in no particular order:


Years ago, I was in JFK airport looking to make a snappy book-buying decision before boarding a flight, and William Gibson’s ZERO HISTORY caught my attention. Before that time, I’d read sci-fi, but hadn’t really dedicated my own writing to the genre. But HISTORY was so revelatory that it turned me in that direction.

It’s the third book in a trilogy by Gibson known as the BLUE ANT series, preceded by PATTERN RECOGNITION and SPOOK COUNTRY. But there was no sense, as I read it, that I needed to read the earlier books in the series to understand what was going on. It very much stood on its own.

Gibson, the king of speculative fiction, set his witty adventure in the present day, but the story feels futuristic because of the technology he presents, and the sense that he was pulling back a curtain, allowing us to see what people in powerful positions might do. It takes a true master to cook social commentary into a tale but remain very entertaining—and Gibson seems to do it so easily.

NEW YORK  2140

I’m a sucker for a good book about my beloved city, New York, as long as it’s well told. NEW YORK 2140, written by Kim Stanley Robinson, certainly falls into that category.

Imagine a time when climate change—and as part of that, the glacial ice melt—has so devastated the world’s shorelines that much of Manhattan is underwater. In that Venice-like environment, there’s a towering, landmark building on Madison Square that is a haven for a collection of oddball and otherwise fascinating characters.

They include a detective, a lawyer, a market trader, a celebrity who flies around the world saving endangered animals, the building’s manager and a couple of coders who are surviving up on the building’s roof.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, I discovered that some people felt there were too many characters, and those that were there weren’t fully fleshed out. I don’t have that problem. And I say to the naysayers: “To heck with your opinion.”


While I’ve never been smitten by fantasies of unicorns, IN CALABRIA, written by Peter S. Beagle, charmed me with a most noble creature of that ilk. Didn’t hurt that the story is set in the Italian countryside.

A quiet farmer who likes to keep to himself suddenly finds that a unicorn has taken up residence in one of his fields. He becomes the unicorn’s protector, guarding the magical being from media and other intruders.

While this is going on, the farmer falls into an unexpected romance with a woman who seems an unlikely love interest at first, until the relationship melts into a true meeting of the mind and heart.

Beagle has a wise, lyrical writing style. You may remember that from another one of his unicorn tales, THE LAST UNICORN. It’s another classic work of fantasy fiction, but CALABRIA remains my favorite of the two.


Octavia E. Butler didn’t just invent a futuristic, dystopian world in her two-part EARTHSEED novels. She invented an entire religion. The two books—PARABLE OF THE SOWER and the follow-up PARABLE OF THE TALENTS—are largely taken up with diary entries written by a woman named Lauren, who created the religion.

At the heart of her belief is the idea that God is change. “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, we shape God,” she writes in one of the first book’s opening chapters. Needless to say, it takes some doing for the people around her to get behind that concept. Some never do.

Lauren grows up in a walled-off enclave on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which is constantly endangered by marauders. And when it finally collapses and her family is destroyed, Lauren travels north with a collection of other homeless souls seeking a better life. In the process, Lauren finds her life mate, a doctor who does not share her religious zeal.

In a brilliant (to my mind) turn, the second novel, TALENT, is partially told from the standpoint of Lauren’s daughter, who is quite critical of her mother.

While it was first published back in 1998, TALENT features a charismatic President who uses the tagline “Make America Great Again,” which seems amazingly prescient.


An inn along the River Thames has a certain reputation. It’s the place to go for good storytelling. That’s the intriguing setting for ONCE UPON A RIVER, a fantasy novel written in a lovely style.

In her novel, Diane Setterfield describes how a nearly drowned child changes the lives of a sprinkling of people who visit the inn. The girl, who is mute, seems to enchant those around her.

Three sets of people want to claim her as their own: a young mother who believes her own daughter was kidnapped; an older couple who believe she is the offspring of their wayward son; and a mixed-up housekeeper grieving for a long-lost sister.

The mystery of who the child is, and how she came to nearly drown, sets the plot in motion. A bewitching series of events made it hard for me to put this book down.

So there you have it: my five recommendations for how to escape these crazy times. I certainly will welcome any and all ideas you might have about what I should be reading next. And please enter my THE JUICE book giveaway, which I posted about yesterday on Instagram (@janetstilson), Twitter (@janetstilson) and Facebook (@authorjanetstilson).

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