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16 of the Best Debut Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels

These first books have launched extraordinary careers. 

Collage of best sci-fi/fantasy debut novels, including someone you can build a nest in and name of the wind

Whenever I fall in love with an author’s new work, I instinctively browse their portfolio, particularly in search of their first novel. There’s something intimate about reading an author’s first published foray into storytelling, and it's awe-inspiring to witness how much they’ve flourished since then.

Now, I’d like to highlight some of the best sci-fi and fantasy debut novels of all time... in my own humble opinion, that is. Let me know if you agree with these selections!

Zahrah the Windseeker

Zahrah the Windseeker

By Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel revolves around Zahrah, a young village girl who is ostracized due to the growing vines atop her head. 

Aside from introducing a fascinating fantasy world where people grow computers from seeds and use flowers as currency, this book also delivers a heartwarming tale about friendship and belonging.

Someone You Can Build a Nest In

Someone You Can Build a Nest In

By John Wiswell

Monster-slaying might be a staple of the fantasy genre, but you don't often get the story from the monster's perspective. In the novel debut by Nebula Award-winning writer John Wiswell, Shesheshen is a shapeshifter who's just made the fatal mistake of falling in love. She hasn't fallen in love with just anyone, mind, but a human … a human who, it turns out, is on the hunt for a shapeshifting monster she believes cursed her family. 

Here's what bestselling author CL. Polk had to say in a review of Someone You Can Build A Nest In, which publishes April 2: “I love the wonder and the darkly enchanting danger of this story. It makes me think of fairy tales, but John Wiswell understands what so many have forgotten: that true fairy tales are gruesome and magical at the same time, and he nails it here.”

The Hobbit

The Hobbit

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Did you really expect us to leave this one off the list? Tolkien's story of Middle Earth begins with this classic, and while it's hardly an under-the-radar read at this point, you can't make a list of the best debut sci-fi/fantasy novels without it. 

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss hooked all of us with the story of Kvothe. While The Name of the Wind was the debut novel from Rothfuss, the story itself is built on a lifetime's appreciation of stories. In fact, for all of the sympathy (magic in that world) and sweeping, tragic events that unfold, the entirety of the novel is itself a story … or at least, part of one, which is meant to unfold over three days' time. 

From the exploration of popular tropes like the wise old wizard or even D&D classes like bards and mages, The Name of the Wind has everything you could want in a debut work.

The Inheritance Trilogy The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

It’s no secret that anything N.K. Jemisin touches turns into a timeless masterpiece, and her award-winning debut is no exception. 

Set in a chaotic universe where gods dwell among mortals, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells a story that explores the dark nature of power and challenges those who wield it. This is a compelling first installment to a fantasy series that’s known for its rich mythology, unique worldbuilding, and masterful storytelling. 

the song of achilles

The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

For avid fans of Greek mythology and retellings, look no further than The Song of Achilles

Following the tragic love story between Achilles and Patroclus, this beautifully written debut has warmed and broken many readers’ hearts since its publication. If you ever feel like dehydrating your tear ducts, this is the read for you.

books like Mass Effect becky chambers long way to a small angry planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

By Becky Chambers

This ambitious space opera follows the treacherous adventures of the Wayfarer crew and is told through the perspective of a young space explorer who subconsciously yearns for a family. 

Set in space but grounded in human emotions, Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is the literary equivalent of a wormhole, effortlessly sucking readers in.

red rising

Red Rising

By Pierce Brown

The Red Rising saga is undoubtedly one of the most popular YA dystopian series to date—and for good reason. 

In its first installment, readers are introduced to a color-coded caste system and a grief-stricken young man who is determined to overthrow the ruling class. And the twist? To take down his enemies, Darrow must first join them and rise through their ranks.

An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon

An Unkindess of Ghosts

By Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon follows a premise where Earth has been totally decimated and the last of humanity must rely on a massive space vessel to safely take them to a mythical Promise Land. 

Through the eyes of an intersex and autistic healer named Aster, this powerful debut novel explores hard-hitting themes such as slavery, generational trauma, racism, and mental illness.

empire of sand

Empire of Sand

By Tasha Suri

Drawing inspiration from Mughal India, Empire of Sand offers a dazzling, albeit dangerous, fantasy that features desert spirits, religious fanatics, and a fearsome empire built on bloodshed. It also delivers an agonizingly slow-burn romance between a half-Amrithi noblewoman and a soft-hearted slave. 

This is absolutely perfect for fans of romantic fantasy with generous amounts of angst!

The Poppy War by  R.F. Kuang Grimdark Books

The Poppy War

By R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is a phenomenal military fantasy that touches on the Second-Sino Japanese War. It is largely told through the perspective of Rin, a dark-skinned war orphan-turned-Sinegard scholar who later discovers that she possesses unearthly powers which could change the course of history. 

Unapologetically delving into the very real repercussions of war and conquest, R.F. Kuang’s debut is not for the faint of heart.

books like Station Eleven

Trail of Lightning

By Rebecca Roanhorse

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where fearsome monsters terrorize the land, Trail of Lightning is centered on Maggie Hoskie, a supernaturally gifted monster hunter. 

Drawing inspiration from Native American mythology and offering elements of mystery, Roanhorse’s debut novel is uniquely spellbinding. 

a memory of empire

A Memory Called Empire

By Arkady Martine

For sci-fi fans who enjoy political machinations and murder mysteries, A Memory Called Empire might just be your cup of tea. 

In a time of political instability, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare must navigate the imperial court and a far too seductive alien culture, all the while investigating the murder of her predecessor.

the night circus erin morgenstern fantasy romance books

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus helped to launch the marvelous career of Erin Morgenstern, who won the 2012 Locus Award for Best First Novel. The story details a rivalry and a romance between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, trained by handlers for a game more perilous than they can understand. 

The audience might think there is nothing particularly dangerous about Le Cirque des Rêves, the strange circus that arrives without warning and only performs at night, but there is far more to the show than just the daring acrobats overhead.



By Jordan Ifueko

The premise of Raybearer can be summed up into one intriguing question: What if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy? 

With an incredibly skilled hand, Jordan Ifueko weaves an unforgettable tale about loyalty and desire, vengeance and justice, and identity and belonging. 

Teeming with wonderfully dimensional characters and carefully crafted worldbuilding, this debut novel has set the bar much higher for the next generation of YA fantasy.

the wolf of oren-yaro

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By K.S. Villoso

First released in 2018 and reintroduced traditionally in 2020, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the latest blueprint for character-focused epic fantasy

Following a notoriously ruthless queen who is hellbent on keeping her kingdom together, this story delivers a uniquely provocative narrative that leaves readers wanting more. Intriguing, compelling, and most of all, addictive.