Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the genres one admits to reading on the first date. And, admittedly, I am as dismissive of sci-fi and fantasy books as the next girl with literary pretensions and an active social life.
But, and I do hope you'll all still respect me in the morning, I count these science fiction and/or fantasy books among my favorite all-time reads (cue the sound of hotness leaving the room).
1. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Key
The Peninsula of Palm has been conquered by two powerful sorcerers (yes, sorcerers. Now shut up and keep reading): Brandin, the King of Ygrath, and Alberico, a warlord from the empire of Barbadior. The two sorcerers conquered the peninsula simultaneously but independently, and divided it in an uneasy balance of power. The plot focuses on a band of rebels from the province of Tigana who wish to restore freedom to their homeland.
So, yes, Tigana is about evil sorcerers and imaginary lands. It is also about the nature of time, the importance of language, and what it means to be truly free.
2. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
I actually did not even know this book was classified as science fiction until I lost my own copy and had to borrow it from the library.
The Blind Assassin begins with Iris who tells us of the day when her sister Laura drove off a bridge. Action then shifts to Laura's story of clandestine meetings with a lover who writes pulpy science fiction and entertains her with a story of a blind assassin and a sacrificial virgin on the planet Zycron. This story within a story gains added meta-ness when it is revealed that Laura authored a novel entitled The Blind Assassin. We return then to Iris who, now an old woman, recalls her early years and the events leading to Laura's death.
It's a freaking Russian nested doll of a novel and it is brilliant. When I read books with multiple narrators I often find myself wishing that I might excise whole characters in order to skip to the narrative(s) that most capture my attention. Atwood manages to create five equally compelling, intricate, articulate stories AND she does it while exploding notions of traditional narrative.
3. Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux
Technically I am cheating a bit here. Is Darconville's Cat really a sci-fi or fantasy novel? Probably not. The core narrative - a love affair gone wrong between college professor Alaric Darconville and college student Isabel Rawsthorne - is very much earth bound. However, once things go south for Alaric and Isabel, the reader enters bizarro world. Is there a Satanic, deeply misogynistic eunuch named Crucifer who lives, hidden, in an attic at Harvard? Yes, there is.
Darconville's Cat is also a bit bizarro world in its structure. Whole chapters are devoted to lists (a catalogue of Crucifer's tomes on the evils of women, for instance); other chapters include a diary, a formal oration, a blank verse play, and an abecedary.
In short, Darconville's Cat is to reading what a heaping spoonful of wasabi is to the palate. It's going to light you up, and your literary tastes will never be the same.
PS: I would include George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series in this list, but the HBO thing has kind of stolen my thunder. Damn you, Peter Dinklage!