5 fantasy and sci-fi epistolary novels

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May 11, 2017, 11:29 AM EDT (Updated)

Building any fictional world in sci-fi and fantasy can be a real challenge: After all, you have to hold enough back to keep a sense of mystery, yet tell the reader enough so that they become invested in your fictional realm. It's a difficult thing to do in proper balance: Too much information and the reader feels overwhelmed by detail, too little and it's easy to get lost.

Science fiction and fantasy told in nontraditional forms have an even more difficult time accomplishing this, yet the novels below do it expertly. Each of these books does an amazing job conveying character and building a world, all while using letters, reports, emails, interviews and files as a method of storytelling.

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

One of my favorite books of 2016, Sleeping Giants tells its story through interviews, reports, secret files and eyewitness accounts as alien artifacts are found under the Earth in all corners of the globe. Who put them there and why? What could an alien civilization this advanced hope to gain by burying its objects under our soil? It has one narrator, a mysterious man who is studying these artifacts and appears to know more about them than he's willing to share with any of the characters (or the reader). The sequel, Waking Gods, was released in April, and it doesn't disappoint as a follow-up.


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks

Ten years ago, a book was published that changed sci-fi. World War Z was certainly not the first novel told through letters and documents, but it brought that type of storytelling to the mainstream in genre fiction. If you haven't read it, it's well worth worth your time to see what standards it set as it chronicles the different first-hand accounts of survivors of a zombie war that decimated Earth.


The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

This novel defies genre classification as it straddles the divide between "literary" fiction and fantasy. It's a Gothic novel based, in part, on Dracula (another fantasy novel told in letters!) as it tells the story of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. The Historian is told both through letters and oral history; it documents a young woman's search for her father through his own quest for Vlad Tepes' tomb. If you love libraries and maps and musty books and the idea of research but haven't read this novel, you really should.


Robopocalypse - Daniel Wilson

We've covered the zombie war -- now how about the robot uprising? This book chronicles what happens after humanity becomes dependent on an artificial intelligence … and then (predictably because of course) it turns against us. Humanity is virtually wiped out in the initial attack, though there are enough survivors to begin mounting a counter attack. Much like World War Z, this book is structured as a history of that conflict as witnessed those who survived the robot attack and were a part of the resistance.


Illuminae - Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae and its sequel Gemina (which begins about ten minutes after Illuminae ends, so though they've been described as companion novels, you definitely want to read Illuminae first) are space operas told through reports, files, interviews and data. Kristoff and Kaufman do an incredible job building their world in the first book and carrying it through to the second. In the first book, Kady is a teenager who thinks she has normal teen problems … until a war breaks out between two corporations on her planet. Kady manages to escape aboard a ship but doesn't feel safe: no one will tell the passengers what's going on, and it's clear something isn't right. Kady decides it's time to put her hacking skills to use to see what's happening ...

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