Once upon a time, it was considered “nerdy” to bury your nose in sci-fi and fantasy novels, but now, the hobby is performed with pride. And for what it’s worth, there’s nothing nerdy about enjoying a good read, no matter what genre it derives from. In fact, we’ve found that the best way to balance out activism and constantly confronting the turmoil of the world is to turn to a great escapist read.
Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones – so much mega-famous mainstream entertainment first started out as book series. However, there’s a whole world of sci-fi and fantasy out there that is as good – if not better – than the aforementioned series, and equally deserving of your attention. Some of them have been adapted into mainstream shows, but others are untapped treasures, awaiting your discovery.
Read on for the best books to help you escape the real world, if only for a little while.
'The Long Earth' Series
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
What if earth was connected to an infinite number of other earths, each unique in their own way? What if, in order to get to the other earths, you simply needed to “step” through to them? How would these accessible, untapped, and open lands change society back on main earth? These are questions posed by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett’s witty, intriguing series ‘The Long Earth’.
You may know Pratchett’s hilarious writing style from previous books like Good Omens (which was recently adapted into a brilliant Amazon Prime show by the same name), and this time he and Baxter turn their attention and humor to a sci-fi story unlike any other. Starring an unusual robot who is the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman named Lobsang, and a gifted “stepper” by the name of Joshua Valienté, this is sci-fi and quantum theory like you’ve never read before. It’s as entertaining and funny as it is thought-provoking.
‘The Long Earth’ Collection by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
'His Dark Materials' Series
by Philip Pullman
A series we’ve read so many times we’ve lost count, ‘His Dark Materials’ offers one of the greatest fantasy worlds ever created. Centered on a little girl named Lyra and her ‘dæmon’ Pantalaimon as they unravel a universe of history-changing mysteries, this famous series explores topics of fanatic devotion, humanism, and the benefits and drawbacks of knowledge. In this riveting coming-of-age story, Lyra is tasked with saving – not just the world – but all of the worlds.
This series is so popular that it was turned into a major motion picture, but failed at the box office because fans felt it took too many liberties with the original plot. Now, His Dark Materials has benefitted from an HBO reboot, starring Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, that is incredibly faithful to the source material and is one of the best shows to emerge in 2019/2020.
His Dark Materials Series by Philip Pullman
'Shades of Magic' Series
by V. E. Schwab
‘The Shades of Magic’ series is a tightly-packed, magic-laced adventure, with plenty of action, intriguing characters (our favorite is female pirate-wannabe Delilah Bard), a multiverse setting, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Fans of Harry Potter will love V.E. Schwab’s sophisticated storytelling, but it’s the author’s incandescent prose that really keeps the pages turning. Brilliantly written, unpredictable, and exhilarating, you’ll devour the books in a matter of days. If ever there was a series primed for television adaptation, it’s this one.
‘The Shades of Magic’ Series by V.E. Schwab
'The Worlds of Chrestomanci' Series
by Diana Wynne-Jones
We’ve read every series on this list, but ‘The Worlds of Chrestomanci’ is the one that we return to time and time again. For the uninitiated, the series is penned by one of Britain’s foremost literary treasures, Diana Wynne Jones, whose other works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky have been adapted into gorgeous Studio Ghibli animated films. But, we’re still waiting for the major film studios to give Chrestomanci its turn.
In the series, which blends magic and multiverses, “Chrestomanci” is the title given to the magician who supervises magic in all of the parallel worlds. Each book is devoted to either the main Chrestomanci and his origin story, or his offspring and heir apparents. With a heaping dose of whimsy, intrigue, plot twists, and superlative writing, Chrestomanci stands out as one of the most brilliant magical figures ever committed to the literary page. This series was written out of order, and there is a lot of debate about what order to read them in. However, we chose to arrange them below in the order the author herself recommends. Can’t argue with the source.
[Editor’s note: There are a lot of books in this fully-realized series, but our favorites are The Lives of Christopher Chant and The Pinhoe Egg.]
'All Souls' Series
by Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness’s ‘All Souls’ trilogy offers a fresh and exciting take on some of the most tedious and overdone tropes in fantasy: vampires, werewolves, and witches. Her novels have them all, but she composes her stories in such a sophisticated, complex way that you don’t have to be embarrassed to be seen with them in public. This isn’t schlocky teen-lit or purple prose, but a dense and compelling narrative that takes on the war between good and evil and the nuance of desire, with an unexpected tie to world history. If you find yourself obsessed with the series (like we were) and looking for more, there’s good news. The first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, has been adapted into a binge-worthy television show on AMC (and Sky One in the UK), starring Matthew Goode (A Single Man, Downton Abbey), and Teresa Palmer.
‘All Souls’ Series by Deborah Harkness
'Bigend Cycle' Series
by William Gibson
William Gibson always has his eye to the future, but sets his mind-bending sci-fi novels in the real world. As the inventor of the term “cyberspace” and the father of “cyberpunk”, Gibson has been influencing the realm of speculative fiction since the early 80s, but it’s his ‘Bigend Cycle’ trilogy that sees him at his most accomplished – and most daring. The trilogy centers on connected conspiracy theories, and his textured prose leads you down rabbit hole after rabbit hole (like Neo in The Matrix) until those theories reach their wild conclusions.
Fashion fans will especially love the first book in the ‘Bigend Cycle’, Pattern Recognition. Its main character is enduring fashion muse Cayce Pollard, who has her style down to a science. From her “Buzz Rickson ‘MA-1’ reproduction flight jacket in men’s size 38” and her brand-free capsule wardrobe, Pollard quickly became a literary anti-fashion hero. While she chases down the origins of mysterious footage that keeps popping up on Internet forums, outsmarting bad guys, and clocking people’s knock-off Prada, Pollard will introduce you to a world that will keep you returning for more.