Audiobooks are one of the few modern conventions that I love without reservation: They are delightful. If I've got a road trip coming up, or when I want a distraction from my morning commute, audiobooks are a great, hands-free way of getting through my to-do list and to-read pile at the same time.
Below are 13 of the best audiobooks out there for sci-fi and fantasy readers, selected for the quality of the story itself, the standard of narration, and the book's suitability for an aural adaptation. Of course, it's impossible to include all the great audiobooks out there in one list. If we've missed one of your favorite literary listens, let us know in the comments below!
If you haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel about a battle between the Old Gods and the new gods of America, you still have time to squeeze in the audiobook before the TV series adaptation premieres April 30th. There are two American Gods audiobooks; the first based on the original published text, the second a full-cast 10th anniversary edition with the author's preferred text. I recommend the latter, which has 12,000 words more than than the original audiobook, and features an introduction read by Gaiman himself, as well as a full cast of performers bringing his unforgettable vision of America to life.
American Gods follows Shadow (voiced in the 10th anniversary edition by Daniel Oreskes), a convict suddenly released from prison after his wife and best friend die in a car accident. In the wake of this tragedy, Shadow starts working for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ron McLarty), and embarks on an eye-opening road trip with his new employer—a journey that brings Shadow face-to-face with the Gods of America.
If you're searching for an audiobook to read on your next long drive, American Gods' depiction of the strangest, most epic road trip ever will be a great accompaniment to your own wanderings.
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We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
Winner of Audible’s 2016 "Best of Science Fiction," the We Are Legion (We Are Bob) audiobook elevates an already terrific novel into an even greater experience.
Book 1 in the Bobiverse series, We Are Legion, follows Bob, an engineer and software company owner who is killed crossing the street on his way to a comic convention. Fortunately (or not?) for Bob, as a client of CryoEterna Inc., his head is removed from his body immediately after death, and preserved for future reanimation. Cut to 2133, when Bob ‘awakens’ to find that America is reeling in the wake of a particularly tyrannical president, and his own consciousness has been scanned into a computer simulation. Essentially, Bob is now a replicant.
Narrator Ray Porter had his work cut out for him in depicting Bob's new reality, particularly in voicing Bob's GUPPI, or General Unit Primary Peripheral Interface. But he gives the story even more life than it has on the page, highlighting the absurdity and humor of Dennis Taylor's novel.
When school nurse Harper Grayson sees a man burst into flames in the schoolyard, she realizes that Dragonscale—a mysterious contagion that dooms the afflicted to a fiery death—is about to change the world forever. The Space Needle burns, hospitals are swarmed by the infected, and in the face of apocalypse Harper's own family turns against her. When she's forced to flee her home, Harper falls in with a community that may have found a way to survive and even thrive with Dragonscale. Amidst anarchy, they're full of peace and joy. So why does Harper find her new friends' closeness so disconcerting? Narrator Kate Mulgrew (the great Captain Kathryn Janeway herself!) does a brilliant job evoking a world that's literally on fire, and the brave woman who perseveres in spite of it. Around 22 hours long, The Fireman is another great book book to listen to on a road trip— provided you don’t mind imagining your surroundings going up in flames.
If you’ve never read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy (now also a show on SyFy), I recommend listening to the audiobook of the first title. Narrator Mark Brahmhall brings the story of Quentin Coldwater and his friends wonderfully to life. When the book begins, Quentin is a depressed high school senior still living vicariously through his favorite fantasy series, Fillory and Further, a Narnia-like story about a family that discovers a magical dimension. When he is recruited for an elite, secret magic school—Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy—Quentin feels like his real life is finally starting. But even magicians aren't immune to the aimlessness and anxieties of adult life, and when Quentin and his Brakebills friends realize that the world of Fillory is in fact real, they're eager for a distraction from their own realities. Unfortunately, all is not as it appears in Fillory. Set partially in New York, The Magicians is a great book to listen to if you want a distraction from the grind of the subway, but believe that escapism and fantasy can be a danger in their own right.
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The Golden Compass
Narrated by Philip Pullman with a full cast, this audiobook will delight both first-timers and longtime fans of Pullman's surprisingly dark fantasy series. The Golden Compass is the first book in the His Dark Materials saga, and follows 11-year-old Lyra as she travels to the Arctic in search of her beloved uncle Lord Asriel, who has been imprisoned while researching a mysterious, powerful substance called Dust. Set in a parallel universe where humans have familiars called daemons, and dissent is suppressed by a religious theocracy called The Magistrate, The Golden Compass is the start of an epic you'll remember for years to come. And don't let the young protagonist fool you—His Dark Materials deals with very adult, controversial themes, and ranked number eight on the American Library Association's list of most frequently banned/challenged books from 2000-2009.
If you enjoy the trilogy, you can also listen to The Collectors, a story set in the His Dark Materials universe and written exclusively for audiobook.
When aliens arrive off the coast of Lagos, they are nothing like the creatures depicted in sci-fi movies. Their ship settles under the ocean's surface, and the visitors send waves onto shore to contact humans, pulling a marine biologist, a rapper, and a soldier down to meet the newcomers. When the three humans return to the surface, they bring with them an alien ambassador in the form of a human—Ayodele. As news of the aliens spreads, Lagoon switches narratorial points of view to depict the arrival through a dizzying variety of perspectives, even showing how the local marine life feels about their new neighbors. That unique structure gives the audiobook's narrators, Adjoah Andoh and Ben Onwukwe, the opportunity to truly show off their range and skills. Lagoon is an enthralling, unique story of alien arrival, and its audiobook adaptation is proof of how effective the format can be.
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His Majesty's Dragon
Captain William Laurence of the HMS Reliant believes in duty above all else. So when he and his crew seize a French ship with surprisingly precious cargo — a dragon egg days away from hatching — Laurence realizes that, despite how undesirable life as a member of the Aerial Corps is known to be, someone must bond with the dragon and ensure its service for the King. Unfortunately, the dragonet chooses Laurence as his rider.
His Majesty's Dragon is book one of Naomi Novik's nine-book Temeraire series. It's set in an alternate universe version of the Napoleonic war, where the most influential battles are waged using dragon corps. The series is remarkable for the truly unusual intimacy between Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire; the vivid descriptions of draconic warfare; and its historical insight. The aerial corps might be fictitious, but Novik's depictions of 19th century British class systems and culture is meticulously researched and fascinating. The audiobook is narrated by Simon Vance, who does a commendable job capturing the spirit of Laurence, and in voicing Temeraire and his fellow dragons.
The Goblin Emperor
This Locus Award-winning and Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-nominated novel follows Maia, a half-goblin, half-emperor son of the Emperor of the Elflands. For the first 18 years of his life, Maia is mostly ignored by his royal father, and lives in exile from the court under the care of a cruel cousin. But when Maia's father and half-brothers perish in a suspicious accident, he is, unexpectedly, the next heir to the throne — and totally unprepared for the expectations of life at court. Set in an elaborate world that will delight steampunk fans, The Goblin Emperor is a surprisingly optimistic story that follows Maia as he attempts to survive his transition from boy to man, and nobody to emperor. Narrator Kyle McCarley wonderfully depicts Maia and the colorful cast of characters who inhabit the court.
The Fifth Season
Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Fifth Season is the first book in N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. For residents of "The Stillness" — a disaster-plagued, geologically restless, Earth-like supercontinent — the fifth season is a time of endings. In the midst of cataclysmic climate change and seismic events, Essun, a grief-stricken schoolteacher, embarks on a quest to find her daughter. Narrator Robin Miles moves listeners through interweaving points of view and time periods, giving voice to a unique world that will leave you hungry for the next book in the series.
The Kingkiller Chronicle: The Name of the Wind
Patrick Rothfuss' epic The Kingkiller Chronicle series is particularly well suited for audiobook format, given that it is, in some ways, a book about the power of oral traditions. The saga is a story-within-a-story, in which the infamous Kvothe tells the history of his life to the scribe Chronicler. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe shares the events of his early life, when, as a young boy skilled in the magical art of 'sympathy,' he endured personal tragedy before attending the prestigious University.
Patrick Rothfuss' unique tale often emphasizes the power of storytelling and of music (music plays such a significant role in the epic that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has even been tapped for an adaptation). Hearing The Name of the Wind read aloud by narrator Nick Podehl feels, in many ways, like how Kvothe's story was meant to be enjoyed.
The Girl With All the Gifts
Twenty years ago, humanity was overrun by a fungal infection that caused the afflicted to lose their mental faculties and crave human flesh. But now a group of children 'hungries' may be the key to a cure. These young hungries haven't lost their minds, and aren't dangerous unless they're close enough to humans to smell them. Melanie, one of these unusual young hungries, is taken to a military base run by the few surviving uninfected. There, she develops a deep affection for her teacher Miss Justineau. She doesn't fully understand what makes her different from other humans, or why the brief moment of physical affection she shares with Miss Justineau causes so much consternation on the base. Narrator Finty Williams (Dame Judi Dench's daughter!) perfectly evokes the world of a very special young girl in this totally unique, chilling zombie novel.
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Parable of the Sower
Octavia Butler's classic novel about a dystopian near-future America is narrated in the audiobook by Tony Award-winning actress Lynne Thigpen (also known as the voice of "The Chief" from the Carmen Sandiego TV series!). Thigpen helps listeners truly appreciate the strength of Lauren Olamina, a 15-year-old girl grimly aware that the security of her family's gated compound will not keep them safe for long from the violence ravaging Los Angeles. In the face of uncertain times, she philosophizes about the power of change, crafting a system of belief called "Earthseed" based off the simple but unsettling idea that "All that you touch you change, all that you change changes you." Thigpen captures the poetry of Earthseed's verses, and draws listeners into a story that feels terrifyingly plausible.
Ready Player One
A clever, nostalgic novel that will delight pop culture aficionados and anyone who has ever become a little too invested in their favorite fictional worlds, Ernest Cline's award-winning Ready Player One is set in a dystopian near future. In the face of cataclysmic climate change, people turn to the virtual reality simulator OASIS for escapism. But time spent exploring OASIS can influence the meatspace world as well. Teenager and OASIS devotee Wade Watts learns this first-hand when he discovers a clue within the game that may lead to a fortune hidden by OASIS' creator. Soon to be a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One touched an emotional core for many nerds born in the '80s and '90s. The excellent audiobook is read by Nerdist's Wil Wheaton, who is also a character in the story.
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Featured photo: French cover art for Patrick Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind"