I’ve noticed that many of my friends who read SFF also read mysteries. Not only that—authors who publish in SFF sometimes publish mysteries as well (which are often more profitable). Indeed, some authors even write SFF mysteries. Here are five recent SFF mysteries I liked.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark (2021)
When Al-Jahiz restored magic to the world there were consequences. Not the least of them was the abrupt collapse of various imperia as subject peoples suddenly obtained the means to throw off colonial shackles.
While newly independent Egypt might be forgiven for seeing its freedom as a positive development, Lord Alistair Worthington remained profoundly disappointed at what he saw as a betrayal. In hopes of reversing this reverse, he founded the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz. Its goal was to deliver to good Englishmen like Lord Worthington the sorcerous means to return a disordered world to sane, efficient British rule.
Perhaps Alistair’s final foray into the mystical arts went awry? No way to tell; Lord Worthington and his companions are too incinerated to bear witness. It falls to special investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to determine the cause of the Brotherhood’s sudden conflagration. It’s important. The entity behind the Englishman’s sudden demise is still very much active, extremely powerful, and does not have Egypt’s best interests at heart.
Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard (2020)
Scholar Vân struggles to make a meagre living as a tutor despite the challenges she faces as a product of the lower classes. The well-to-do often will not value instruction if it is delivered by someone from the lower orders. As if class were somehow contagious.
She is now faced with an even greater problem: an unexplained corpse found in quarters belonging to Vân’s student Uyên.
The Militia demands that all such deaths have satisfactory explanations, whether true or not. Vân’s personal history, if viewed in an unfavourable light, might make her an acceptable scapegoat. Thus, a reason for Vân and her criminally-inclined shipmind ally The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods to figure out who the dead woman was, what killed her, and what brought her to Uyên’s quarters.
Detection leads them in an unexpected direction. What begins as a possible murder mystery transforms into a treasure hunt…albeit one that has already left a trail of bodies in its wake.
The Apothecary Diaries 01 by Natsu Hyuuga (2020)
Kidnapped and sold as a maid to the rear palace, the sprawling residence for the emperor’s many wives and consorts, Maomao is determined to keep a low profile until her term of service is over and she can return to her old life as a would-be apprentice to her apothecary foster-father in a nearby red light district. Bright, pragmatic, and aloof, Maomao sees little to covet in the endless squabbles of the rear palace.
Sadly for this plan, Maomao’s observant nature, unusual skills, and inability to restrain from interfering in potentially lethal misadventures draw the attention of powerful eunuch Jinshi. Maomao has committed an error even riskier than offending one of the court’s most powerful functionaries. She has inadvertently shown that her deductive prowess could be useful. Which means, of course, when confronted with seemingly inexplicable mysteries—or even just the need for a toxin-resistant food taster—it is to Maomao that Jinshi turns. And if things go horribly wrong? Well, that probably won’t affect Jinshi.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey (2019)
Osborne Academy for Young Mages’ Health and Wellness teacher Sylvia Capley is beside herself…which is to say, she is bisected and quite dead. The official explanation is that Capley died due to a magical misadventure for which no living person and certainly not the school can be held accountable. Nevertheless headmaster Marion Torres fears that Capley was murdered. If she were, it’s probably a good idea to catch the killer before they kill again.
Torres does not turn to the first interested amateur sleuth she encounters (as do so many characters in mystery novels). She hires professional detective Ivy Gamble to determine if Capley was murdered and if so, by whom. Ivy brings to the task many useful qualifications rarely found in one person, not least of which is that, unlike most detectives, Ivy is familiar with magic. Ivy’s sister teaches at Osborne.
Unfortunately, Ivy doesn’t have even a smidge of magical talent. Her plan to investigate the suspicious death by posing as a fellow magician is bold but will be hard to carry off convincingly. And quite dangerous, if there’s a homicidal sorcerer lurking on Osborne grounds…
A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell (2018)
Dr. Janet Watson returns from her service on the Federal side of the American New Civil War with a medical discharge, a second-hand, defective prosthetic limb, and dismal career prospects. Her professional qualifications are excellent, but few hospitals are interested in hiring a one-armed Black surgeon struggling with PTSD. Thus, Watson must settle for a technician’s post well below her talents and for a roommate with whom to split the rent. The job is unsatisfactory. The roommate is alarming.
Why Sara Holmes (occupation classified, probably spy) is so determined to share her luxurious apartment with a roommate at all, let alone Watson in particular, is unclear. That she is determined to do so is manifest, if only from the implausibly low rent. Still, living in luxury with a nosy, pushy (occupation classified, probably spy) is preferable to a squalid room in a crowded tenement. Particularly when Watson takes too close an interest in a mystery that powerful people very much do not want solved. Having offended well-connected people unburdened by ethics, Watson’s survival may depend on her quirky roommate’s ingenuity.
There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of F&SF mysteries—I almost wrote an essay focusing Holmes and Watson pastiches and may still do so. But I settled on an assortment, like a gift box of chocolates. Do tell me which chocolates/books you would have preferred. Comments are below.
Originally published July 2021.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.