Sometimes I pick up a science fiction novel for the wondrous amounts of “Pew! Pew! Pew!,” or binge-read a high fantasy series for the glorious sword-wielding and dragon-slaying. But on some days, I turn towards speculative fiction for quiet contemplation rather than adventure.
Expansive world-building and larger-than-life realities are instrumental in SFF—and are part of why the genre is so addictive. But beyond its epic imagination, science fiction and fantasy also offer profound observations on humanity.
I personally find speculative literature helpful in deepening my understanding of myself and the world around me. And the vehicle of this understanding is through dimensional and well-developed characters.
With that, whenever you’re in the mood for self-reflection and introspection, these 10 character-focused SFF books offer opportunities for quiet contemplation.
This unique novella is set in a hidden underwater society built by mer-people descended from African slave women. With a shared past of pain and trauma, the community’s memories are solely remembered by their historian.
Delving into themes of cultural loss and intergenerational trauma, The Deep offers a provocative tale of survival and healing—both individually and as a community.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Told through the eyes of her handmaiden, this lyrically-written novella follows the rise of Empress In-yo, who marries for a political alliance and finds neither love nor support in her husband's court.
Unapologetic in its feminist ideals and condemnation of monarchy, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a careful love letter to powerful women erased and forgotten from the pages of our history.
Here and Now and Then
Forced to reconcile his present and future lives, and the families he's made in both timelines, Kim Stewart fights to protect his connection to both and threatens to destroy the fabric of history.
This is a great read if you like stories with strong family themes and impossible choices.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold
Set in a quaint Tokyo café that offers customers a one-time chance to travel back in time, this translated novel answers the classic question: If you could travel to your past, what would you do differently?
It follows four different visitors, the love that they desire, and the interpersonal relationships that shape them. While the premise may seem a little cliché, this short book still manages to shine with thoughtful observations on the value of human connection.
In the Watchful City
Set in a surveillance city-state with unimaginable biotechnological advances, this novel follows Anima, a semi-omnipotent watcher who uses ae/aer pronouns.
Amina's role is to observe the city's citizens. But a chance encounter with a mysterious visitor and their cabinet of curiosities leads to æ doubting ær purpose and the protection promised by the city of Ora.
Imaginative and visceral, this novella is an Asian-centric science fantasy that’s bound to entice avid fans of cyberpunk.
Klara and the Sun
For readers intrigued by AI, this critically acclaimed novel tells the tale of Klara, an Artificial Friend who enjoys people-watching and observing the world through innocent, optimistic eyes.
Set in an imagined future of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, Klara and the Sun is an insightful examination of human behavior.
Light from Uncommon Stars
Following the imperfect lives of three women—a cursed violinist, a transgender runaway, and a retired starship captain—as their destinies become entangled, Light from Uncommon Stars offers a moving story about found family and long-lasting connections made over freshly-made doughnuts.
Truly, this book perfectly encapsulates the quieter, softer side of science fiction. Highly recommended for readers who want a contemporary, character-focused feel in their sci-fi stories.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
Drawing inspiration from wuxia and history, this story begins when a young nun finds herself in the company of bandits who are both mischievous and desperate to find their place in the world.
This is a very thought-provoking novella revolving around identity, religion, and the lengths taken in order to guarantee survival.
The Weight of the Stars
In this novel set in the distant future of Earth, an unlikely friendship blossoms between a furious loner with a broken arm and a Black girl hailing from the wrong side of town. As they grow closer, they look towards the stars, each carrying the weight of their secrets.
Impeccably written and steeped in emotion, this novel is guaranteed to tug on readers’ heartstrings.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
This fantasy tells the complicated story of Queen Talyien, the only daughter of a tyrant, and an ambitious ruler who is determined to unite her people, even if they’d rather see her dead.
At first glance, this book seems to be an outlier on my list. But trust me, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the very definition of a character-focused fantasy.
Set in a world inspired by pre-colonial Philippines, the story is told through the eyes of a resigned queen, allowing for insightful explorations of family, gender, and legacy against the larger backdrop of political strife.