Extreme strength. Super speed. Telepathy. These types of powers and more tend conjure up images of superheroes—and typically, superheroes are the realm of comics, TV shows, and movies. In books? Not as much. And though my superhero novel We Could Be Heroes arrives on January 26th, it doesn’t have too many contemporaries featuring traditional tights-and-capes superheroes. However, superpowers do wind up in books much more than you might think. It may come in the form of magic or science-based evolution, but the idea of ordinary humans having extraordinary abilities has shown up in some of the most acclaimed science fiction and fantasy novels of recent years—and here are five of them worth checking out.
All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Do witches and magicians count as having superpowers? Sometimes these types of characters are classified elsewhere, but when you look at superhero canon, you’ll find plenty (see Dr. Strange and Zatanna)—and their foes are often those steeped in science. The idea of magic vs. science is an extension of natural vs. unnatural, and Charlie Jane Anders’ award-winning All The Birds In The Sky takes these ideas and runs with them in wild, unpredictable ways across a story that’s equal parts coming of age tale, epic conflict, and sharp satire.
Patricia and Laurence meet for the first time when they’re young as Patricia feels the onset of powers and Laurence builds a home supercomputer. Years later, they come together when Patricia has become a powerful witch and Laurence has become a technological innovator—but they’re quickly put at odds when science and magic have competing ideas on the health of the planet. Weaving themes of environmentalism, technocracy, and free will into a sharp and witty story about friendship and love, All The Birds In The Sky is a dazzling story unlike any other.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
When people think about superpowers, it often leads to things like speed, strength, flight, and other physical characteristics. And when they consider the mechanism for those powers, it’s usually something to do with harnessing the potential of the human body beyond normal ways. The Ten Thousand Doors of January isn’t necessarily a book about superpowers or superheroes, but it IS a book about powers and heroes—in a much different way than you’d expect.
January Scaller encountered her first mysterious door when she was seven years old; years later, as her parents’ mysterious circumstances leave her isolated and under the thumb of polite-but-oppressive caretaker, she encounters a book that uncovers the truth of that door—and the many other doors that create portals to other places, even other worlds. Alix E. Harrow’s gorgeous novel is about the power of intent, writing, and purpose, and its heroes draw that power from names, books, and yes, doors. Once you start, you’ll quickly see why it’s one of the most acclaimed books in recent memory.
The award-winning Green Bone Saga—now in development with Peacock–is the ultimate genre-masher. It’s got generational crime family drama and politics. It’s got intricately constructed fight scenes (which, if you’re an aspiring writer, provide a masterclass in tension and execution). It’s got morally complex protagonists in both the Kaul family and its rivals in the Mountain clan, characters where the terms “hero” and “villain” don’t really apply.
And yes, it’s got powers, as certain groups of people are capable of harnessing the power of a mineral called jade. The result? Speed, strength, and other superhuman abilities, making the Green Bone Saga a blend of eastern and western influences that comes together as something wholly unique—and widely beloved by the fantasy community. With the trilogy finale Jade Legacy scheduled for September 2021, now is the perfect time to dive into this urban fantasy epic.
Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Are superheroes REALLY heroic? Or do they create more chaos than they actually solve? For most of her career, Anna doesn’t take that into consideration, she instead focuses on getting through her day-to-day as a hench—someone who does boring office work for supervillains and not really considering the battle between supposed good and evil. But when the city’s most notable superhero injures her by accident, she finds herself laid off and holed up with nothing but her own computer skills to keep her busy.
So she does what any good spreadsheet jockey would: she starts to crunch numbers. And the data tells her that actually, superheroes cause way more pain, suffering, and property damage than their rivals—but what is she going to do with this data? By taking genre tropes into the modern world of office work and big data, Hench offers a wry, fresh take on the superhero genre that grounds the fantastical in the mundane.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
If Jade City is the Godfather of urban fantasy, then An Unkindness of Magicians (and its upcoming sequel A Sleight of Shadows) is the equivalent of The Sopranos for the genre. In modern-day New York City, magic is controlled by rival houses, and every ten years, an event known as The Turning that determines the direction of magic for the upcoming decade. Except there’s one problem: magic is dying.
Into this mix comes Sydney, a mysterious newcomer with shocking power. Hired as a house representative in the deadly Turning duels, Sydney grows in power and influence—but her goal isn’t to save the system; she’s set on destroying it and righting her past. Kat Howard’s award-winning novel touches on themes of revenge and belonging, all with top-notch worldbuilding and exquisite prose.
When he’s not writing about sci-fi for Tor.com, The Mary Sue, StarTrek dot com, and other geek media, Mike Chen writes sci-fi books. His novel We Could Be Heroes publishes January 26th with MIRA Books. Visit him on twitter and on his website for geekery discussion, dog photos, and many curse words.