Novels provide a beautiful escape from the world, and we’ve dearly needed that escape in 2018. But fictional stories and real-world issues are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by the content of the 12 novels on this list. Tackling everything from motherhood to religious extremism to grief, these books deliver enthralling tales that are as entertaining as they are powerful. So if you’re looking for a great read that will stick with you long after the final page, we suggest picking one from this list. These are by no means the only captivating books published this year, but they’re our absolute favorites.
If you’re looking for an intelligent, sci-fi take on gender equity, racism and anxiety, that’s what Hugo Award-winner Mary Robinette Kowal delivers in The Calculating Stars. Set in a 1950s America which has just seen its Eastern seaboard wiped out by a meteor, the first book in the Lady Astronaut series follows Jewish mathematician and pilot Elma York in the International Aerospace Coalition, an agency tasked with space colonization. Elma must navigate the agency’s boys club, her own ignorance of institutional racism and a fear of public speaking, even as she becomes the public face of space exploration in America. It’s a gripping and enlightening look at a past that might have been, as we face our own environmental dangers and societal obstacles in the present. —Josh Jackson
Southernmost begins as an almost Biblical flood threatens a small town in Tennessee and concludes in the calm sea air of Key West. In between, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp, cast out of his own congregation after coming to the aid of two gay men, goes on the lam with his son rather than sacrifice their relationship to an acrimonious divorce. The result, in Silas House’s modern retelling of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, is one of the kinder, gentler page-turners you’ll encounter. Though it never turns a blind eye to the cruelties of which we’re capable, Southernmost is nonetheless assured in its belief that we can learn from, grow with, and find sustenance in each other. I devoured it like a thriller, standing in a pool in New Orleans one weekend this summer, crying all the while. —Matt Brennan
Blending folklore and reality has become Sarah Perry’s calling card, but in Melmoth, she adds timely questions about complicity to her haunting gothic style. The novel opens to find Helen Franklin in self-imposed exile in Prague, punishing herself for a wrong she feels she committed years ago. But when a friend begins talking about Melmoth, a woman who beckons people to travel the world with her bearing witness to humanity’s cruelty, Helen fears she might become the next target and researches accounts of those who have been taken. The novel’s edge-of-your-seat dread is engaging, but the story’s heart is the way in which Perry centers complicity as an evil we all must grapple, either in the face of wrong or in its aftermath. —Bridey Heing
Winner of the 2018 National Book Award, The Friend delivers a raw yet sweet meditation on grief through the lens of a woman’s bond with a Great Dane. Saddled with the animal after the dog’s owner, who was the woman’s best friend and mentor, dies, the protagonist obsessively devotes herself to the dog’s care. In exploring the pair’s relationship, Sigrid Nunez writes a moving story that highlights the messy process of grieving and the unique salve of friendship. —Frannie Jackson
Girls Burn Brighter is the required heartbreak readers need in 2018. Following two young women bonded by friendship in rural India, Shobha Rao’s novel explores what happens when an act of violence sends the women on opposite trajectories; Poornima is forced into an abusive arranged marriage, while Savitha disappears into India’s underworld. Rao’s greatest feat is weaving despair with hope, revealing that redemption is possible while still respecting the weight of past trauma. Tackling modern-day slavery, patriarchal norms and cultural expectations, the novel delivers a powerful read that will haunt you in the best way. —Frannie Jackson
Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters came out a month after Madeline Miller’s blockbuster Circe, but while the two books each highlight a woman previously labeled “villainous” by patriarchal norms, Teller’s Agnes earned only a fraction of the attention that Miller’s Circe did. This is a shame, as the Evil Stepmother has long been an effective villainous archetype—second only to the Witch. Teller dismantles the archetype’s inherent villainy in writing both the independent Agnes and the unforgiving, patriarchal world in which Agnes and her daughters—one pox-scarred, one biracial—are forced to survive. With the Cinderella character positioned as a generally good if privileged fey girl bound by classist patriarchal expectations as well, All the Ever Afters is not an inversion of fairy tale archetypes but rather a searing illumination of the cultural artifacts that force us to think in terms of such archetypes in the first place. —Alexis Gunderson
In her first work of fiction, writer Olivia Laing blurs the lines between her own biography and her protagonist’s to capture the frenetic anxiety of 2017. Crudo centers on Kathy, who has just turned 40 and is soon getting married, as she navigates her own changing life against the backdrop of Brexit, the Trump residency, the migrant crisis, climate change and the myriad other catastrophes that dominate the news cycle. Set over the summer and written in real time, Laing magpies together bits of her own life with Kathy Acker’s life to weave a vibrant story, tapped into the global zeitgeist without losing its sense of purpose. In the way Kathy grapples with her own changing sense of self, and the place of the personal of a world in constant crisis, the reader finds catharsis and heart. —Bridey Heing
Warlight’s protagonist is Nathaniel, a researcher for the U.K.’s Foreign Office reflecting on his wartime childhood from the relative “safety” of the late 1950s. If the mystery of his mother’s wartime work for the British government sets the plot in motion, though, it’s akin to one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin’s’; more than anything else, Warlight captures the mood of the postwar period—world-weary, urbane, slightly seedy—and in the process defines it. “It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been,” Nathaniel remembers. “The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself. It allowed one to be rule-less. Everything had already happened. Hadn’t it?” With Warlight, Michael Ondaatje reveals the color of the postwar period and, perhaps, the temper of our times. —Matt Brennan
For a book whose premise reads, as we described it in our review, like an “above-average, of-the-cultural-moment romp,” Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing delivers unexpected delights and pathos. Without spoiling this puzzle-filled adventure for you, let’s just say that protagonist April May’s journey from wry nobody to godlike avatar of all human culture is incredibly humane, incisive and, as promised, absolutely remarkable; you will feel smarter and more complete for having read it. If nothing else, you’ll be less inclined to take art and artists (and Michael Bay’s vision of Transformers as feeling beings) for granted going forward. —Alexis Gunderson
Inspired by 20th century Chinese history, The Poppy War kicks off R.F. Kuang’s epic fantasy trilogy. What begins as a magical school tale—peasant girl Rin tests into the best military academy in the country and hones her mysterious powers with the help of drugs—gradually transforms into a brutal exploration of warfare and its cost. This novel is not for everyone; chapter 21 is inspired by the 1937 Rape of Nanjing and results in a devastating read. But if you can handle the content, Kuang’s novel delivers a thrilling, powerful saga that will leave you clamoring for the sequel, The Dragon Republic, ahead of its Summer 2019 release. —Frannie Jackson
R.O. Kwon’s debut novel, which took her 10 years to write, was legendary even before it became a bestseller. The Incendiaries is rooted in Kwon’s own experience of losing her faith and follows college student Will, who falls in love with fellow student Phoebe. But their relationship becomes strained when Phoebe joins a Christian cult led by a charismatic and manipulative man. Will’s attempts to save Phoebe only alienate her further, until she takes part in a terrorist attack on American soil. Sharp and perceptive, Kwon’s critically acclaimed novel explores the intersection of faith, class and intimacy, while leaving the reader guessing as to who—if anyone—is fully telling the truth. —Bridey Heing
Madeline Miller has mastered two specific skills: writing gorgeous prose and reimagining ancient Greek literature in powerful ways. Her 2011 debut novel, The Song of Achilles, drew from The Iliad to weave a captivating saga with the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus at its center. And now she’s returned with Circe, a novel starring the intriguing sorceress briefly mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey. Through Miller’s lyrical writing, Circe transforms from a sweet, overlooked goddess to an extraordinary witch banished by Zeus to a deserted island. Men may have gotten the glory in Greek epics, but in 2018, Circe is fiction’s most compelling protagonist.
If you only read one novel on this list, make it this one. —Frannie Jackson