As a writer, I’m relatively new to speculative fiction. But as a reader and a lightly superstitious human, I can’t deny the pull of the unusual, the not-quite-real. I love books featuring elements that seem unimaginable, but are portrayed so lucidly that after I finish reading I have to re-orient myself back into our world.
These are some of my favourite Canadian books featuring speculative elements. Whether it’s fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, or generally not-quite-real, Canadian speculative fiction is vast and thrilling.
The Amateurs, by Liz Harmer
A haunting and all-too-human story about the limits of our nostalgia, what we’re willing to sacrifice for possibility. Time travel is commonplace thanks to Port, a time-travel portal that’ll transport you anywhen you want to go. The catch is, you don’t—or can’t—come back. People have become so consumed by the possibility of another existence that the world’s population is quickly reduced to almost nothing as people blip away in droves.
Nostalgia may be my favourite drug, and this book really struck several conflicting chords in me. And as someone who lived in Hamilton for a time, I loved seeing it represented here: wild, open, and empty. Different yet comforting, the home and possibility I’m still nostalgic for.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
Lovers of speculative fiction, particularly fantasy, have no end of European-inspired settings and tropes to wade through. In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson throws all of that out the window and creates a post-apocalyptic Toronto vivid with Afro-Caribbean folklore, mythology, and culture that doesn’t water itself down.
Filipino mythology is woven into the fabric of The Quiet Is Loud, and I’m always eager for stories featuring non-Western folklore.
Even That Wildest Hope, by Seyward Goodhand
This book of fabulist short stories tumbled me around like a pebble in a volcano and I loved every second of it. Goodhand’s prose is so precise, inventive, and visceral that it seems like it must be magic. The characters in these stories are often strange, otherworldly creatures that somehow feel achingly familiar. This collection is a lucid fever dream, using the most unreal scenarios to shine a clear light on very human questions.
The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley
Spec-fic purists, hear me out: historical romance with paranormal and sci-fi elements. I can’t think of a much more speculative-friendly opening line than, “He sent his mind in search of me that morning.”
Nicola Marter has psychometric abilities—she can see the entire history of an object just by touching it. When she encounters a relic rumoured to have belonged to Russia’s Empress Catherine, Nicola turns to an old psychic friend to help her see into the past to find the truth. In The Firebird, Kearsley, a former museum curator, folds these speculative elements into historical fiction that’s nuanced, engaging and—importantly to a dilettante historian like me—well researched.
Gutter Child, by Jael Richardson
In the Mainland, there are white Mainlanders, and there are Black Sossi—also known as Gutter people. Fourteen-year-old Elimina is a Gutter child raised by a Mainlander, unaware of the expectation of her very existence. Sossi must work off a reparation debt to the Mainlander state, a result of an ancestral war in which their own homeland was colonized. This Redemption Freedom is tantalizingly possible, but incredibly difficult to attain. Elimina quickly learns that any advantages she gained in her Mainlander upbringing mean little, and she’s left with many questions about her own identity and future, and the ways history distorts the truth.
Hall of Smoke, by HM Long
Hessa is a priestess of the goddess of war, Eang—a goddess who has suddenly gone silent. While Hessa tries to parse this sudden abandonment, she discovers that her entire village has been attacked by raiders, and she is now the only Eangen warrior left alive. She embarks on a quest to find answers and win back Eang’s favour, along the way encountering fickle gods bent on war amongst each other. This is a rich world where the fantastical is commonplace, where gods are mortal, and where human allegiances are thrown into question.
The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter
I read this novel months ago and I’m still thinking about it. The first book in a series, The Rage of Dragons is an African-inspired epic fantasy set in a world of continual war. The Omehi people are rigidly caste-based, with those at the top blessed with abilities such as controlling dragons, wielding enervating magic, and transforming into super-powerful warriors. It’s a story of the lies told by destiny and what happens when a single person decides to push against the shaky foundations of power. It’s also ruined me for almost every fantastical battle scene in every movie—to me they all could do with an Enraged Ingonyama or two!
Songs for the End of the World, by Saleema Nawaz
This novel’s existence may itself be an example of a real-life supernatural happening. Published during our current COVID-19 pandemic, Songs for the End of the World begins at the outbreak of a rampant novel coronavirus pandemic originating in China—yet it was written between 2013 and 2019. There are some differences between our COVID-19 and the novel’s ARAMIS (not least of which is Nawaz’s much more palatable virus acronym), but it feels eerily prescient all the same. To me though, a good dystopian story probes deeper than the disaster, and this novel is an insightful character study revealing how we can endure, adapt, break apart, and come together.
When Freya Tanangco was ten, she dreamed of her mother's death right before it happened. That’s when she realized she was a veker, someone with enhanced mental abilities and who is scorned as a result. Freya's adult life has been spent in hiding: from the troubled literary legacy created by her author father, and from the scrutiny of a society in which vekers often meet with violence.
When her prophetic dreams take a dangerous turn, Freya finds herself increasingly forced to sacrifice her own anonymity—and the fragile safety that comes with it—in order to protect those around her.
Interwoven with themes of Filipino Canadian and mixed-race identity, fantastical elements from Norse and Filipino mythology, and tarot card symbolism, The Quiet Is Loud is an intergenerational tale of familial love and betrayal, and what happens when we refuse to let others tell our stories for us.
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