Epistolary SFF Novels

Okay, related to the previous post about second-person and second-person-adjacent stylistic choices: I said, I hate this kind of style, except I don’t mind this sort of style if we see it in letters. So, The Tiger’s Daughter, which apparently places most of the story into a single letter, would perhaps work for me. More typical of epistolary novels is This is How You Lose the Time War, which evidently pours a lot of the story into a series of letters exchanged back and forth.

I actually DO like epistolary novels. This may be — I think it probably is — because the second-person-adjacent style of a letter is quite natural. There’s none of the deliberate consciousness of craft that pushes me away from a straight second-person narrative. Anyway, I definitely do like true epistolary novels and also novels written as journal entries and other variants on this theme.

So that obviously invites a second post: Top Ten (or however many) Epistolary SFF novels. I’m not placing these in any order, except I’ll start with the one which some of you were giving a thumbs-up in the last post and then see how many more I can think of:

  1. This is How You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar and Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandment finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, becomes something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Fine, so, I grant, I now remember having read that description before and thinking, Time travel, meh, but maybe I’ll try it. Given your comments, I’m now quite likely to try it one of these days. I don’t HATE time travel, I just don’t really like it.

2. Emergence by David Palmer.

This delightful story, told as diary entries, was first published a zillion years ago, but has since been republished and is available for Kindle. It’s one of the more optimistically framed post-apocalyptic novels, with a delightful, if not entirely believable, twelve-year-old protagonist, Candy Smith-Foster. And a macaw. The sequel, incidentally, is now also available in Kindle format. It’s just about as delightful, though possibly even a little less believable. If you’re into uber-competent protagonists, these are must-reads, especially if you also enjoy animal sidekicks.

3. Touchstone trilogy by Andrea K Höst

Of course we have all read this, right? If I were doing these entries from most-re-read on down, this one would be at the top. I never get tired of it, though I do re-read out of order and emphasize certain scenes and so on.

4. Sorcery and Cecelia by Wrede and Stevermer

I think the first book of this little trilogy is possibly one of the most delightful fantasy novels that has ever been written. It’s certainly the most charming epistolary fantasy novel you’ll find anywhere. I think the first book is the best, but you know, if you’re in the mood for something delightful but not too cutesy, you could not do better than picking up the whole trilogy.

5. Freedom and Necessity by Brust and Bull

On the south coast of England, London man-about-town James Cobham comes to himself in a country inn, with no idea how he got there. Corresponding with his brother, he discovers he has been presumed drowned in a boating accident.

Much, much heavier going. But very well put together. I’ve read it several times and enjoyed it very much; I liked it best the second time I read it rather than the first, because it is complicated and does weave multiple strands together at a rather slow pace.

6. Illuminae trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff

This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.
Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

One of the most fun, and certainly one of the most over-the-top, space opera adventure stories I have ever read. You MUST get these in paper, because the text effects would be MADDENING on a Kindle. (I’m pretty sure. If you’ve read these in ebook form, well, what did you think?) I’ve heard of someone getting this in audio format and no no no do not do that. All the Ascii art and spiralling text and whatever, that would NEVER work.

Here’s my review of Illuminae from a couple of years back. Highly, highly recommended, but have your suspension of disbelief brushed off and ready to go when you open the first book.

7. Flowers for Algernon

Needs no description

8. Dracula

Also needs no descrption

And I’m out. Eight is all I can think of. If anyone’s got another good SFF epistolary novel in mind, drop it in the comments!

I’ll add: I also really enjoyed this non-SFF semi-epistolary romance:

Attachments by Rowell

So if you’ve got an epistolary novel in mind that’s not SFF, by all means, share that as well.

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10 thoughts on “Epistolary SFF Novels”

  1. If diary- based ones like touchstone count, then there’s the Beka Cooper Tortall series, although I don’t revisit that one nearly as often as Alanna and Daine.

  2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. One of my favorite books ever. Because the characters love reading, and make me want to read more intelligently. The audiobook is pretty wonderful, as well. The Netflix movie was nice, but doesn’t come close to the excellence of the book.

  3. Oh! I LOVE Daddy Long Legs! I liked Dear Enemy a whole lot too. I must immediately go find the ancient copies at my mother’s house. Thanks for reminding me of those, Charlotte!

  4. Oh! Just remembered that Becky Chambers’ novella, To Be Taught, if Fortunate, was in the form of a long report/message being sent back to Earth. I think it counts – definitely addresses the reader.

  5. Kathryn McConaughy

    Yes, Sorcery and Cecilia was great! There are actually 4 books in that series, although the 4th (by Stevermer) has a different main character.

  6. Kathryn, huh! I’m not sure I’ve ever read the 4th book! That’s something I need to look up at once. Thanks for letting us know about it.

  7. I’ve sampled the fourth book and didn’t go further. I look forward to your take.

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