BookTok can be incredibly polarizing, though its impact on book publishing is indisputable. It’s also a great place to find science fiction and fantasy recommendations — if you know how to look past the big name titles that inundate the platform.
Over the past few years, BookTokers have built massive audiences by sharing their favorites from a particular genre, showing off gorgeously overflowing book shelves, or sharing reading strategies — like using color coded sticky notes to annotate and track favorite scenes. In particular, BookTok has popularized a style of video review where readers declare love and obsession over an emotionally evocative book and its characters, or a book with a high level of “spice” (BookTok’s way of indicating how smutty a book is.)
Thus, the books that have become overwhelmingly popular on TikTok are those that provoke an intense, emotional response. Perhaps no author has benefited more from this than Colleen Hoover, the author who outsold the Bible last year. Fantasy romance has also found a loyal audience in BookTokers, who have glommed onto the adventure and spice found within their pages. TikTok is also one of the few platforms to have demonstrably increased book sales, to such an extent that a lot of bookstores — including major chains like Barnes & Noble — now have a “BookTok” table or featured area.
BookTok has courted both ire from critics who push back against the kinds of books that tend to become popular with the audience — and the type of drama that tends to blow up on the platform. At the same time, BookTok has made the act of gushing about books more accessible, and become a kind of fan hub for books. Whether you only get an echo chamber of the same best-sellers or find creators who shout out truly hidden gems ultimately comes down to who you follow. The platform has introduced me to science fiction and fantasy books I hadn’t heard of, compelled me to dig into a book that I’d been putting off reading for a while, and given me a small community to gush over a book with.
But it’s a lot of work to wade through the many creators and videos. And so I wanted to share my favorite SFF books that BookTokers ultimately led me to or kept me in the loop about — ranging from science fiction novellas to literary fantasy to spicy romantic fantasies to genuine classics that I’d long let molder on my to read lists.
The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown
A number of BookTokers compared this underrated book to Alien, a film that I’ve always been way too scared to watch. But I love horror in written form — somehow what my brain creates is more tolerable than physical images — and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The Scourge Between Stars blends science fiction and horror in a classic alien suspense style story. It follows a space crew, helmed by Jacklyn Albright (nicknamed Jack) heading back to Earth after a failed colony mission.
It’s a quick read — both slim and fast-paced — and hits all the notes that you’d want if you’re in the mood for a monster-in-the-house kind of time. While it reads more like a thriller, it explores science fiction concepts like spacefaring, intergenerational trauma, scarcity, and what it means to survive a failed mission in space. Some of these core questions could use a little more unpacking — but for a debut, it’s pretty impressive.
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang
The best-seller was already on my to-read list, as author R.F. Kuang had established her reputation as a fantasy powerhouse after publishing the Poppy War trilogy. However, I bumped the book to the top of my stack as it gained visibility through BookTok drama — specifically from an early reviewer saying that she rated the book “0 stars” as a result of feeling attacked as a white woman. Like other BookTokers, my curiosity was piqued.
The book is excellent, and one of Polygon’s best of 2022. From our blurb:
In this masterful, lengthy book, R.F. Kuang sharply critiques British imperialism and the bureaucratic institutions that hold it up — particularly academic scholarship and monarchy. Historical fiction intertwines with fantasy, as a cohort of four students pursue translation studies at Oxford’s Babel.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
I hadn’t read YA fantasy in a number of years — I don’t have anything against the genre, and used to really love it. I simply felt totally intimidated and out of the loop with what to read. Legendborn came onto my radar after some of my favorite SFF BookTokers praised it for being inventive with the genre tropes, and for putting a Black girl at the helm of the story. It felt like kismet when I was walking around my neighborhood and saw the two books in the series displayed in a bookstore window — so I took it as a sign to buy both.
I was instantly hooked. Legendborn is a retelling of Arthurian legend starring Bree Matthews, a 16-year-old girl in a UNC Chapel Hill program for gifted high school students. But she can see monsters she shouldn’t be able to. As she attempts to figure out where that magic is coming from, she gets swept into a secret society that is dangerous both for the magical threats within, and because of how much the white landed society loathes the idea of a Black girl in their midst.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
While BookTok didn’t “make” me read the Earthsea Cycle — I finally got a gorgeously illustrated omnibus from the library that I’d been waiting on for ages — I found TikTokers’ stories of what the series meant to them very moving. When I love a series, I’ll typically try to find beautiful pieces of writing around the book’s impact, just to get a clearer picture of what others have also found moving.
I was more of a sci-fi teen — and I still lean sci-fi — but as an adult I decided I wanted to make up for missing other seminal fantasy series during my childhood. So, in the last few years I’ve made it my goal to read His Dark Materials, The Lord of the Rings, and more. I started A Wizard of Earthsea early this year, and it just felt different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. I needed to be in conversation with others to really understand what the fantasy genre owed to this series — and the more I read and watched, the more I was blown away. So far my favorite is Tehanu, the fourth book in the series, published 18 years after the initial trilogy. I love the commentary it makes on the first three books — themselves already so unique for their time. I’m still savoring the final two books, knowing that I’ll only get to read them for the first time once. Next up: The Left Hand of Darkness.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Ann Older
This underrated gem came on my radar when one of my favorite book influencers recommended it as a sapphic read. It’s a cozy mystery romance that also happens to be set on Jupiter. Humans have made the gas giant habitable by creating a series of domed living spaces that connect to one another, looped together by a public transit system that is prey to some of the gravitational quirks of the planet.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable rainy day read that mixes together some hard-boiled noir tropes (the down-on-her-luck detective, and the scientist who specializes in her field), some light commentary on the climate crisis, and a second chance sapphic romance. The novella pairs well with a cup of black tea.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
When I worked as a bookseller in 2020, so many of my colleagues recommended this book, but also struggled to explain to me why they felt it was so good, mostly promising a “good plot twist.” I am, unfortunately, not a person who puts a lot of stock in a plot twist — if anything, it bothers me when books aren’t interesting outside of it. And when people praise books so strongly based on that twist, it makes me worry the rest of the book isn’t actually that good. So I let the recommendation slide, in favor of other books in my long-suffering to read stack.
But TikTok kept surfacing the book on my feed, and by 2022 I decided it was worth a shot. I ended up enjoying the book for its tone more than its story; it reminded me of The Starless Sea, but much slimmer. It’s very much a Matryoshka doll of storytelling, with lots of repetitive, lyrical language which fits the esoteric plot. I also feel like I owe my colleagues a serious apology, because I finally understand why explaining the book’s plot was so difficult. I wouldn’t have done it any better!
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
I loved Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and didn’t know he’d written a science fiction book years before, until I saw SFF BookTokers mention it (often comparing it to Douglas Adams.) I figured I was in for a funny time, but I underestimated how delightfully tongue-in-cheek and referential this would be. It reads less like hard science fiction, and more like what is described on the book jacket: The main character is literally figuring out how to live safely in a science fiction universe, replete with genre quirks and threats.
Charles Yu plays the main character, working as a time travel technician who helps people work out timeline inconsistencies and essentially save themselves from themselves. It leans hard on metafiction, which means I typically recommend it to people who I know have a particular taste for it, or enjoy that kind of cheeky humor.
Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros
Thank you again @redtowerbooks and @entangledpub for this ARC of Fourth Wing I’m hinestly loving it! #fourthwing #newadultfantay #fantasyromance #bookrecommendations #bookrecs #booktok #fantasybooktok♬ Epic Music(863502) - Draganov89
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this fantasy romance. It’s a fun trope soup that reminds me of the YA books I liked years ago — think Eragon meets Divergent, but with some smut. The book follows Violet Sorrengail as she competes in a series of dangerous trials in order to become a dragon rider, and of course, she must navigate a love triangle between the overprotective childhood friend and the emo sworn-to-hate battalion leader she is attracted to, against her better judgment. It has a lot in common with A Court of Thorns and Roses — absentee parent, found family, powerful magic wielding, annoying nicknames — a series I bounced off of. But if you like Feyre and Rhysand’s dynamic in A Court of Mist and Fury, and are sick of hearing the word “mated,” then Fourth Wing might be worth a try.
Fourth Wing’s protagonist also has the same disability I do; namely unstable joints that make her extremely injury prone. There’s solid discussion of chronic pain and the kinds of challenges that Violet has to manage to become a dragon rider. One of my favorite moments is a training montage which culminates not in Violet somehow triumphing over her physical limitations, but rather her team fabricating an assistive device for her.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic was one of my favorite fast-paced, blockbuster-style reads in 2020 — and while I knew Moreno-Garcia had a great back catalogue, I was a bit intimidated by where to start. Instead I just read each new book she released in the following years, including Velvet was the Night and The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (I’m impatiently awaiting my Silver Nitrate hold.)
But while I waited for new releases, a BookToker I follow kept mentioning Gods of Jade and Shadow as her absolute favorite, so I made the leap. The book is a historical fantasy, starring a young woman who goes on an adventure with the Mayan god of death. It has all the hallmarks of a Moreno-Garcia fantasy — it stars a small town woman in Mexico, who feels she is meant for something more, and embarks on a dangerous mission to get it. I was sucked in from the very first page.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
While I started this series off of a bookseller’s recommendation, it’s BookTok that has kept me in the loop on when the next book in the series is coming out. The series has become a favorite comfort science fiction read of all time for me, which — if you have read any of them — probably can tell you the exact kind of sarcastic I am.
The Murderbot Diaries stars the titular Murderbot, a genderless robot who has a surprisingly human capacity for wanting to fuck off of work by streaming entertainment in its helmet. This security robot essentially jailbreaks itself in order to do more fun things — such as wandering around a station, or making independent decisions — like the world’s most terrifying ROM hack. Throughout the series, the crew wrestles with the idea of what makes an entity human, trying to treat Murderbot as a human despite its repeated protestations. And yet the societal rules that the machine chafes against bear so much resemblance to everyday life under capitalism. I can’t wait to read System Collapse.