The sense of wonder in sci-fi and fantasy can come from many places: the vastness of space, the intricacy of a magic system, the inventiveness of new worlds, the all-consuming power of fabled gods, etc. For me, a sense of wonder and a sense of mystery are closely linked—big, important questions are often at the heart of both. My first novel, Noumenon, focused on the generations-long investigation of a strange alien artifact encompassing a star. My latest novel, The Helm of Midnight, follows a Regulator who—while in pursuit of an enchanted death mask that contains the gruesome knowledge of a long-dead serial killer—discovers her entire world is built on lies.
Whether it’s the traditional gumshoe approach of a series like The Dresden Files, or the more subtly-investigative storylines like many found in The Witcher, I enjoy mystery plots as much as I enjoy mysteries woven into the world building. Here are six SFF investigative mysteries that ask you to break out your magnifying glass and zero in on the unknown.
By Marina Lostetter
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
It’s not often one is tasked with investigating their own death, but that’s the position Yskandr finds himself in from the get-go in this space opera of vast proportions.
The Yskandr we meet is not flesh and bone, but an imago, essentially a self-aware memory implanted in our main character, Mahit. The imago was given to Mahit in order to help her integrate into her new station as Yskandr’s ambassadorial successor. He is both real and unreal, a part of Mahit and yet separate. The imago’s memories end fifteen years before the death of the man himself, and are thus only tangentially helpful to the puzzle of his own murder.
What follows is a story of political subterfuge, assassination, and creation. Empires are messy, complicated things, and existential threats to control and power are often met with full-bodied violence. Fans of Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe (which includes stories like The Tea Master and the Detective, found further on this list) will appreciate the complexities of A Memory Called Empire.
The Sin and the Steel by Ryan Van Loan
The Sin and the Steel is a fantasy for readers keen on The Golden Age of Piracy who might already be fans of stories like Tim Power’s On Stranger Tides.
The prose is captivating, the world building all-encompassing, and while the main characters, Buc and Eld, are an investigative team that shares many of the Sherlock/Watson hallmarks, I hesitate to call them Sherlockian because their dynamic is much more complex than that. Eld is a veteran with wisdom beyond his years, and Buc is a brilliant but flawed observer. Yet, Buc is free of the class-related pretentiousness that a lot of Sherlockian detective characters are prone to. She is not a pampered, misunderstood individual of privilege√quite the opposite. And Buc and Eld’s clients don’t simply hire them to investigate, they hire them (or, er, encourage them, shall we say) to solve the problem even if that means sinking ships and angering gods.
The story is ultimately a tale of adventure, filled with swashbuckling, magic wielding, and overwhelming supernatural forces.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Not all investigations are performed by detectives; sometimes they’re performed by a determined teen and the ghost he accidentally summoned. In this YA paranormal romance, Yadriel is a trans boy trying to navigate a world of gendered magic. He knows the type of magic he wields affirms his gender, but not everyone who has pledged themselves to Lady Death and become fully-fledged members of the brujax see it that way.
When a family emergency prompts him to prove that his magic is his, things go awry. Enter Julian, a dead boy from Yadriel’s school who didn’t know he was dead until Yadriel inadvertently summoned his spirit. Now that Julian is conscious, he refuses to leave Yadriel alone until they find out exactly what happened to him.
The story’s emotional core is built right into the premise: boy falls in love with ghost. But it’s certainly not love at first sight. It’s only over the course of their investigation into Julian’s death that Yadriel steadily falls. This is a star-crossed-lovers story à la The Little Mermaid, with vivid world building and a beautiful, achingly-earnest exploration of what it means to live fully as ourselves, no matter how others might see us.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
This is a wonderfully imagined space opera in de Bodard’s Xuya universe, which itself sports a vibrant setting, intricate scientific concepts, and a plethora of interesting characters.
The Tea Master and the Detective is more or less what it says on the tin; it is a Sherlockian-style mystery, where The Shadow’s Child, a mindship (which can be oversimplified as human-spaceship hybrid), plays the Watson-esque foil (complete with war-time backstory) to brilliant-yet-eccentric detective, Long Chau. But to simply call it Sherlockian misses the intricacies brought to the characters via the alternate history aspect of the worldbuilding, in which China, not Europe, first colonized the Americas.
It is a well-woven tale of murder and intrigue, but it’s the relationship between The Shadow’s Child and Long Chau—as well as the depth of character they individually display—that makes this such a memorable read. If the oligarchies of Dune and the habitats of Ringworld are your chosen fare, then this investigative tale is for you.
The Perfect Assassin by K.A. Doore
A reluctant assassin becomes a desperate investigator in this secondary-world fantasy that focuses in on what a life is really worth.
Set in the desert city of Ghadid, much of the world’s power an economy rests on the control of water. Our main character, Amastan, belongs to a family of assassins who are more like elite city protectors than murderers-for-higher, but he’s still understandably dubious about becoming a professional killer. Even when the targets are water-wasters and infiltrators, and the contracts are all officially sanctioned by the drum chiefs.
When a drum chief winds up dead, it soon becomes clear that someone is taking aim at Amastan’s family—framing them for the murder, and putting targets on their backs. He sets out to discover who the real killer is, before they all take the fall and the city’s protections are fatally weakened.
With tense scenes full of restless spirits, water magic, and plenty of parkour, this is a fun action-based mystery. Fans of Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand and Rati Mehrotra’s Markswoman will be swiftly drawn into the city and shadows of Ghadid.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
An Unkindness of Magicians is a dark, modern-day urban fantasy in which the fate of the underground order of magicians is determined by a series of duels. Each political house employs a champion to vie for supremacy on their behalf, and much of the book follows Sydney, a magical interloper battling on behalf of an old household, though her ultimate goal is to tear down the system.
But underneath the competitive spectacle is something more sinister. There’s a serial killer on the loose, and the deaths are somehow tied to recent magical failings. It’s a mystery within a mystery, where discovering the killer is not only an essential goal, but a clue to where the most influential houses actually derive their literal power, and why that power might be fading. It’s not up to a detective, but instead Harper—an outsider to the Unseen World—to figure out who is committing the murders. Her stakes are very personal: the killer took her best friend.
The magic in Howard’s work is extremely visceral, as are the consequences of said magic. The duels often end bloody—a result not just of the battle, but of harnessing so much power. If you’re a fan of competition-centric fantasy like The Goblet of Fire or The Hunger Games, but want to see that competition in an adult book, this one’s for you.
Investigative tales come in all shapes and sizes, and when combined with specfic elements, can bring an entirely new dimension to that sensawunda you seek. What are your favorite SFF books featuring investigations?
Marina Lostetter is the author of The Helm of Midnight, the dark and stunning first novel in a new trilogy that combines the intricate worldbuilding and rigorous magic system of the best of epic fantasy with a dark and chilling thriller. The Helm of Midnight is available anywhere books are sold 04/13/21.
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