If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably heard this before: one of the best ways of understanding the struggles of people who don’t share your lived experiences is by reading fiction, especially fiction written by someone who has lived that different experience.
A novel puts you right in someone else’s shoes, in their heads, in their lives, and forces you to see a reality you might not otherwise see.
For white readers especially, that means we should be reading books by more Black authors — now and always — so that we can better understand struggles we know exist but which we will never experience. If you’re a fantasy fan, however (particularly if you’re an older fantasy fan used to the musty, beloved paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s), that might seem a challenging task, since the genre has been white-dominated for a long time.
Things are changing, however. There are still a lot of white authors in the genre, but over the last 10 years there have been so many new Black voices and amazing stories. Below are 20 fantasy books and series written by Black authors. This list has a lot: traditional swords and sorcery high fantasy, steampunk, alternate history, time-travel, and creeping eldritch horror. Enjoy! Dive in. All of it is so good, and there’s something for everyone.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is my favorite fantasy trilogy ever, and the first book, The Fifth Season, is probably my favorite fantasy book for the way Jemisin folds the three main viewpoints into one another to tell a crushing, terrible story about oppression, power, and fear. This may sound heavy, and it is, but the Broken Earth really is a beautiful story about redemption, set in a world where some people are born with magical powers that let them control rocks. This sounds lovely, but it can be a dangerous power, so the state scoops up these orogenes, as they’re called, and controls them. All the normal people without rock powers fear and hate the orogenes. Hate them, even if they’re their own kids. The Fifth Season starts when one orogene of incredible power breaks free and ends the world by causing a massive earthquake. That’s how the trilogy starts.
The Akata Books by Nnedi Okorafor
Akata Witch and its follow-up Akata Warrior — winners of the Lodestar Award, the Locus Award, and the Andre Norton Award — focus on Sunny, a young woman with albinism who lives in Nigeria. She is very sensitive to the sun and she doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere. She learns from her friends that she has magical powers. Sunny is a “free agent,” overflowing with latent power. Once she learns about her power, the magical authorities ask her for help tracking down a criminal: a serial killer with abilities far stronger than theirs. Later, she must fight a monster to save humanity.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
Acacia is a good old-fashioned high fantasy epic, and it’s fantastic! There are castles and monarchs and invading armies! There are princesses and there’s magic, and unlike most old-school high fantasy that serves up these things, many of the characters are Black.
Told from several points of view, in a world as complex as our own, the story focuses on the family of King Leodan, a good king, a good dad, and a good man, but he happens to be the latest in a royal line who have subjugated several other peoples for centuries, and who’ve made a deal with a terrifying threat from beyond the kingdom’s borders. Acacia tells the story of Leodan’s family, of his subjects and of the warriors who seek to displace him. It’s a complicated story, in the best way. Think Game of Thrones, when it comes to plot intricacy, palace intrigue, and morally complicated characters. Read it. Read it read it read it. It’s so good. There are three books in this series, and unlike A Song of Fire and Ice, this saga is blessedly complete.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Is N.K. Jemisin on this list more than once? Yes, because she is amazing and should be mentioned whenever possible. While The Broken Earth is one of my favorite series of all time, The Inheritance Trilogy deserves a mention as well. The first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, focuses on Yeine, the granddaughter of the world’s most powerful man, who becomes a pawn in a struggle between her own family and the gods. Gods in this world exist alongside mortals, and Yeine’s family keeps four of the most powerful gods as pets. PETS!! I was fascinated by the gods in Inheritance. The creation myths of Jemisin’s world are family history for them, and those first events influence everything that happens in all three books, whether the mortals in the story know it or not. The other books follow the gods’ stories rather than the people, so it’s a long timeline for a trilogy, but it’s very good.
The Earthsinger Chronicles by L. Penelope
The Earthsinger Chronicles series is currently two books into its storyline, which are some good solid high fantasy, but the third book is coming out later this year. (More on that below.) There are also several novellas exploring the world, so if you love a series with lots of ancillary material, this is the series for you.
The two books out now are Song of Blood & Stone (named a Time Magazine Best Fantasy Book of 2018) and Whispers of Shadow & Flame. The story starts with Jasminda, who just wants to live a quiet life on her farm in the kingdom of Elsira. That’s difficult, however — she’s an outcast among the townsfolk because of the color of her skin and also because of her magical power, the gift of Earthsong. Then a band of soldiers from Lagrimar, the next kingdom over, wander into her valley. Lagrimar ruled by the most powerful Earthsinger in the world. He wants to invade Elsira, and Jasminda might be the only one who can stop him.
I’ve only read the first book of this series, but it’s great. It’s exciting, there’s romance, there’s magic, and it’s an unflinching look at the willful ignorance of people who see history in whatever way benefits them.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Redemption in Indigo, which won Barbados’s Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2008, follows Paama. When she leaves her idiotic husband, she is given a magical gift by the djombi, or the undying ones: a Chaos Stick. But this gift makes her the target of a supernatural creature that wants the power for himself. This is Lord’s first novel (she’s gone on to write science fiction) and it’s the retelling of a Sengalese folk tale.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Named as the of the best books of 2015 by Publisher’s Weekly, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps follows Demane, an earthbound demi-god who is seen by the men around him as a sorcerer. He’s part of a mercenary party traveling through a dangerous wilderness. The prose, as well as the description of the relationship between Demane and the Captain, the leader of the party, are gorgeous.
This is a novella, one of a couple set in same universe by Wilson. It’s a beautiful world, full of magic and danger, and I very much recommend reading it if you’re looking for a quick read.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
I really loved A Taste of Honey, which starts by exploring an intense 10-day romance between Aquib, the son of a nobleman, and Lucrio, a visiting soldier. It’s a novella that involves time travel, romance, and political intrigue. It also examines the fact that sometimes our lives depend on one choice, because at the end of their 10-day affair, Aquib has a choice to make.
This novel explores the consequences of that choice over the course of the rest of his life. It’s a short book, but a dense one that feels much longer than its 160 pages.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
How would you like to read a Black author dunking on H.P. Lovecraft’s most openly racist short story? The Ballad of Black Tom, a novella about sorcery in New York in The Jazz Age, is an answer to The Horror at Red Hook and it’s better than the original. The novel centers on Charles Thomas Tester, a salesman who works hard to make sure that he and his father have enough to eat. His job? Selling magical objects to sorcerers. The everyday evils of racism are not new to Tom — he deals with that all the time — but when he meets the rich eccentric Robert Suydam, he’s brought into contact with another kind of evil. The Elder kind. This novella fills out Lovecraft’s story, brings humanity to his villains and his portrayal of Red Hook, and gives a voice to the people Lovecraft simply depicted as dark-skinned agents of evil.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Speaking of Black writers writing about NYC and also putting Lovecraft in his place, The City We Became, Jemisin’s most recent work, is a modern fantasy that follows the stories of people who can hear the six souls of New York City. This one’s on my To Be Read pile, but if you’re into Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or American Gods, it sounds like this may be the book for you. Also, it might be the start of a new series featuring cities, which… yes, please. Always give me more Jemisin.
Changeling by Victor LaValle
Changeling is a horror-oriented fantasy about fatherhood and racism, set in the boroughs of New York. Here’s the blurb:
“When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, he left his son a box of books and strange recurring dreams. Now Apollo is a father himself — and as he and his wife, Emma, settle into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. At first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression. But before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act and vanishes. Thus begins Apollo’s quest to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His odyssey takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.”
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Dread Nation and its sequel, Deathless Divide, are alternate histories in which zombies derailed the American Civil War. They center on Jane McKeene, a biracial young woman who has gone to combat school in order to become an Attendant, a special assistant trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. She’s the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman, but society still sees her as Black. But just as she’s finishing her education, families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, and Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, and zombies suddenly are the least of her problems.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Everfair is an alternate history, a steampunk novel, and an exploration of what might have come of Belgium’s horrific colonization of the Congo if the native populations had possessed steam technology.
What if the African natives developed steam power ahead of their colonial oppressors? In this book, Fabian Socialists from Great Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated. This book is told from several points of view — African, European, East Asians, African Americans — and discusses a period of history that’s often ignored.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award, was called “an African Game of Thrones” when it was released. It follows Tracker, who “has a nose” and is engaged to track down a mysterious boy.
The first book in the Dark Star trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a complex, intricate saga that draws on African myth and history.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
The Black God’s Drums is also steampunk, set in an alternate New Orleans during the American Civil War. This book, which won the Alex Award in 2019, centers on a young girl named Creeper. Creeper yearns to escape the streets of New Orleans for the air — by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums. But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations. Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Published last year, Queen of the Conquered is about Sigourney Rose, the only survivor when her family on the islands of Hans Lollik, was massacred by the colonizers. When the childless king of the islands declares he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
But someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers. I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks amazing.
A Cry of Metal & Bone by L. Penelope
A Cry of Metal & Bone, out on August 11, is the third book in the Earthsinger series, so now is the perfect time to catch up on Elsira and Lagrimar. Then you’ll be ready for book three in a couple of months.
Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston
Coming out on September 8, Hairston’s book Master of Poisons weaves African folktales and postcolonial literature into a story about Djola, the righthand man and spymaster of the lord of the Arkhysian Empire who is trying to save his adopted homeland, and Awa, a young woman training to be a griot, who “tests the limits of her knowledge and comes into her own in a world of sorcery, floating cities, kindly beasts, and uncertain men.”
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Out on October 13, Ring Shout is a novella that combines a dark fantasy alternate history featuring real-life American monsters (the KKK) and supernatural ones.
King of the Rising by Kacen Callender
Out on December 1, King of the Rising is Callender’s sequel to Queen of the Conquered. It follows follows Loren, former slave turned revolutionary leader, charged with leading a band of survivors in their quest to bring freedom to their island once and for all.