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Whodunits that ask, "what if...?"

By Kobo • March 19, 2023Recommended Reading

Get into speculative crime fiction: a genre that blends the best of sci-fi and fantasy with old-fashioned detective novels.

For readers who've had a taste of the added depth and intrigue that comes with crime fiction set against speculative backdrops, here are books that deliver more mystery in scenarios (just) beyond our world. Whether it be a sentient spaceship, a system of magic as complex as quantum mechanics, or a civilization living for generations in fear of going outdoors, each of these books incorporates exciting dimensions that will transport you to enchanting worlds you'll want to keep exploring long after the case is closed.

Wool by Hugh Howey

When the sheriff of an underground civilization chooses to engage in the ritual of "cleaning," which entails venturing on a one-way ticket to the toxic surface to clean the camera that provides the only view outside, a new sheriff is drawn from the sub-class of engineers who work in the "down deep" keeping the whole silo running. Rookie sheriff Juliette is stunned by the appointment, but she uses her new investigative privileges (and more) to unearth forbidden knowledge about the roots of this subterranean society.

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The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

This Nebula Award–winning novella is part of Aliette de Bodard’s beloved Xuya universe, a series that imagines a world in which the space age has borne expansive galactic empires inspired by Vietnamese culture. The story is a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes reimagining about an eccentric scholar and the sentient spaceship she teams up with to solve a murder mystery. Long Chau is looking for a corpse to study, and The Shadow’s Child is a former military transport ship that now brews “tea,” or mind-altering drugs, for space travelers. When the corpse Long Chau was going to study ends up having been the victim of murder, she can’t help but investigate, bringing The Shadow’s Child along for the ride.

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The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Magic maps, a murder mystery, and intrigue—need I say more? Nell Young’s primary passion in life is cartography, but she lost her job and reputation years ago after a nasty argument with her father, a legendary figure in the field, over a cheap gas station map. Now, her father has been found dead, with that same cheap highway map stowed away in his desk. Nell discovers that the map is extremely rare and valuable, and that there’s a collector who has been trying to find and destroy every copy of it that’s out there. Now Nell must embark on a journey to figure out what secrets her father knew, and what power lies in these maps.

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A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

In the first full-length novel from P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe, a series set in an alternate version of Cairo in the early 20th century, we follow Fatma el-Sha’arawi as she pursues a mysterious murderer. Fatma is an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and has an impressive track record of having saved the universe from destruction in the past, as depicted in Clark’s novelette A Dead Djinn in Cairo. This time around, the members of a secret brotherhood are murdered by a masked figure claiming to be al-Jahiz, the very man the brotherhood was dedicated to. Decades prior, al-Jahiz brought magic back into the world, and now he has presumably returned, using his abilities to stir unrest to condemn the modern age for its misdoings. Fatma and her colleagues must uncover the truth behind his return, and determine whether he is who he says he is at all.

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The Conductors by Nicole Glover 

In the first book of Nicole Glover’s Murder and Magic series, we are introduced to Hetty Rhodes, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now uses her magic skills to investigate crimes with her husband Benjy. When a friend is murdered, Hetty and Benjy are sent on a complicated journey to find answers, uncovering secrets that first lead to more questions. The book jumps between Hetty’s present investigating this murder mystery, and her past working with the Underground Railroad and looking for her missing sister.

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Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

In a galaxy in which humans live in colonies strewn across distances too fast to cross physically, individuals can datacast (and backup) their consciousnesses into alternate bodies or "sleeves." Takeshi Kovacs, a convict and former elite soldier, is enlisted by a billionaire to catch whoever murdered his last body just before his mind was backed up. On the trail of the killer, Kovacs ventures into the darkest corners of society where concepts like law and justice hardly matter.

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The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian 

Finally, we’ve got a cozy mystery series that has plenty of magic, as well as humor and charm! Alchemist Zoe Faust has just moved to Portland in hopes of getting a fresh start and leaving her past life behind. But when a gargoyle stowaway seeks her help deciphering an ancient text, and a murder occurs on the front porch of her new home, Zoe can’t put her alchemical knowledge behind her. And thus begin the investigative adventures of the most unlikely amateur sleuthing pair, Zoe and her new gargoyle friend, Dorian.

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