I love art and illustration. My childhood obsession with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led to hours with art history texts. I’d need a fortnight just to properly do the Met. And so I love it when SFF books engage with art and culture, providing insight into the history of the world, their aesthetic, and their values. There are plenty of literary works revolving around art, and artists, but SFF provides a number of stories where art matters—to the story, to its society, and to its character.
The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott
This deeply written novel starts with a series of descriptions of paintings. It’s art nerd heaven—the descriptions are delightfully layered with art criticism, the story of the war, and most of all, the centuries of enmity between the Serranos and the Grijalvas, the foremost painting families of Tira Virte. History is painted by the winners as art serves as the official record of legal treaties, births, marriages, and deaths, and the limners of Tira Virte employ sorcery to manipulate time, history, and people.
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
A novella written with the delicacy of the pastel chalks favored by Haskel herself, Passing Strange tells a magical story about a pulp magazine illustrator and a nightclub singer who meet at Mona’s, a queer nightclub where tourists trample through to gawk at the regulars, who glitter and shine anyway. Haskel and Emily’s connection is at once gentle and electric, and the collision of art and magic makes this story one that lingers in the memory.
Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
Hand’s sublime book leaps from one century to another, from one artist to another, exploring the popular and often destructive ideas around art, madness, drugs, and visionary creativity. Through every thread of narrative is a woman—chestnut haired, green-eyed, irresistible and dangerous. She’s drawn to artists and leaves devastation behind her as she tries to find her way. When I read it, the part of me that staunchly believes that magic is real, fey, and dangerous wakes up and glides a finger down the nape of my neck.
Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
Bear’s super spy SF novel begins with two operatives reuniting after many years to deliver a shipment of stolen artwork to a matriarchal colony planet after years of diplomatic tension—but really they are there to get intelligence for old earth’s government. Don’t walk into this book expecting good vs. evil or any simple, reductive morality—everyone possesses virtues beside their flaws. Come for the art reclamation, stay for the culture building, which won’t be anything like you expect.
Borderline by Mishell Baker
When I heard a friend describe Borderline as “Faerie Muses in Hollywood,” I was one-clicking Baker’s book a minute later and reading all about Millie, a woman who lost her legs in a suicide attempt that ended her run at becoming a filmmaker. After years of therapy and institutionalization, she’s invited to work for The Arcadia Project, a mysterious group who do their best to maintain the treaty between the filmmakers of the mortal world and Faerie. While telling a story with enough investigation to keep me turning pages, Baker has sharp things to say about mental health—and she doesn’t romanticize the image of the tortured artist one bit.
C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut series beginning with the novel Witchmark is available from Tor.com.