It’s an initiative started by the excellent SFF blog Runalong the Shelves to celebrate great SFF books (and great books period) published by small presses. Because small presses don’t have the clout and marketing budget of the Big 5, their offerings are often overlooked by readers and during awards season. So Womble of Runalong the Shelves had the idea to highlight great small press books that might otherwise be overlooked during the month of November and invited a bunch of friends and fellow bloggers to join in. You can read more about the project here.
So here is an overview of some of my favourite small press SFF books of 2022 and why you should check them out. The books are listed by author/editor in alphabetical order. Links go to the respective publisher page.
This is only a snap shot of all the great small press SFF books out there, so I encourage you to check out the other blogs participating for more recommendations.
African-Australian writer Eugen Bacon is clearly a rising star in our genre. Yet the first time I heard of her was, when I was asked to feature her novel Claiming T-Mo, published by Meerkat Press, at the Speculative Fiction Showcase back in 2019.
Eugen Bacon’s latest release is Mage of Fools, also published by the good folks of Meerkat Press. Mage of Fools is a unique science fantasy tale set in the dystopian world of Mafinga, a polluted hellhole where books, reading and imagination are forbidden by law. Protagonist Jasmin is a widowed mother of two young children as well as the owner of a forbidden story machine. Possessing such a machine is punishable by death and when Jasmin’s story machine is discovered, she faces execution. However, she gets a temporary reprieve… for a terrible price. Because the queen of Mafinga, who cannot have children of her own, wants Jasmin’s children…
Mage of Fools is a great SFF novel, that manages to be both grim and hopeful at the same time. And since Eugen Bacon is also a poet, the novel is beautifully written as well.
From future dystopias to the distant past:
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy. British author Adrian Cole is one of the writers who have been holding up the sword and sorcery flag, even when the subgenre was considered hopelessly outdated and dead.
I enjoyed Adrian Cole’s continuation of Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis series. So when I saw that DMR Books, a small press specialising in reprints of classic sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy as well as new works in the spirit of the old, was publishing a new historical fantasy/alternate history novel by Adrian Cole featuring Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusci and the man who drove the Romans back beyond the Limes, I of course had to snap it up.
Now I grew up with the story of Arminius – or Hermann, as he is still known around here – and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, because it happened in my backyard… quite literally. The Hermann Monument near Detmold was a popular destination for outings and school trips during my childhood. This was also when I first learned a simplified and idealised version of Arminus/Hermann’s story.
As a kid, I was always happy to visit Hermann, because how can you not love a 25-meter-tall bronze statue of a barbarian chieftain with a horned helme and a seven meter long sword who stands around on his pedestal on top of a mountain in the Teutoburg Forest holding his sword aloft in the classic He-Man “I have the power” pose (a fact that was not lost on little Cora). And I still love the Hermann Monument, even though it tells us more about the time during which it was built than it tells us about Arminius and his fight against the Romans.
For as I grew older, I learned that pretty much everything I thought I knew about Hermann was wrong, starting with the fact that he wasn’t actually called Hermann but Arminius, that he had Roman military training and used their own tactics against them. Poor Hermann was even in the wrong place, because the actual Varus battle, as it’s now known, took place not in the Teutoburg Forest but roughly 100 kilometres to the North in Kalkriese near Osnabrück. The Kalkriese site was discovered in 1987, when I was in high school, and caused a lot of excitement. Because by this point, it was clear that the battle had not happened in the Teutoburg Forest, but until a farmer unearthed several Roman artefacts in Kalkriese, no one quite knew where it was. I clearly remember the excitement when the Kalkriese finds became known, because might this really be it?
So given my geographic connection to Arminius, I of course had to buy Adrian Cole’s take on the story of Arminius. Now Arminius: Bane of Eagles is alternate history, so Cole’s Arminius is not the Arminius of history, though he is still closer to him than Hermann, the bronze barbarian in the forest. Plus, there are plenty of battles, intrigues and even elder gods. Whether you like sword and sorcery or alternate history about Imperial Rome or just want a suitable read for a trip to the Kalkriese museum and/or the Hermann Monument, check out Arminius: Bane of Eagles by Adrian Cole.
From Rome and Kalkriese in 9 AD to contemporary Minneapolis:
Last Car to Annwn Station by Michael Merriam, published by Queen of Swords Press, is another of those books where the description alone makes you take note. Child protective services attorney Maeve is trying to save a little girl from her abusive but powerful family. The legal system won’t help, but luckily Maeve gets help from her librarian love interest Jill, a bunch of fae and the ghosts of the defunct streetcar network of Minneapolis.
Urban fantasy is another subgenre I’ve always enjoyed. Just as with sword and sorcery, the Big 5 publishers near killed off the subgenre due to overproduction approx. ten to fifteen years ago. Except for a few big name authors with ongoing series, urban fantasy is now the province of small presses and indie authors. Hereby, particularly the small presses have published interesting books that go beyond the clichés associated with the subgenre.
One aspect of urban fantasy that was very common in the early days of the subgenre in the 1930s and 1940s, long before it had a name, is haunted machinery. Weird Tales, Unknown and other SFF mags of the 1940s are chock-ful of stories about haunted, possessed or self-aware radios, typewriters, printing presses, bulldozers and yes, trains and streetcars. Yet somehow, this side of the subgenre completely vanished (Christine by Stephen King, published in 1983, was probably the last hurray of the haunted machinery trope), when urban fantasy was revived in the 1980s and 1990s and went into overdrive in the early 2000s.
Last Car to Annwn Station brings this aspect of urban fantasy back, because ghostly remnants of Minneapolis’ defunct streetcar system (taken out of service in 1954 according to Wikipedia) play an important role in the novel. And honestly, the haunted streetcars were what originally sold me on the novel, though I’m also always game for a good lesbian love story. Because in Germany, a lot of cities retained their tram and streetcar networks, even as they went away elsewhere, including my hometown of Bremen. As a result, trams and streetcars are an integral part of urbanity for me – to the point that cities not having them feel somehow weird to me. So of course I was going to read an urban fantasy novel featuring ghostly streetcars, a lesbian love story and a kid in danger. And so should you, because Last Car to Annwn Station is a great novel.
From urban to secondary world fantasy:
Marie Vibbert has long made a name for herself with short fiction published in Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction and other places. Her three novels to date, Galactic Hell Cats, MegaDeath (co-authored with Tony Quinn) and The Gods Awoke, have all been published by small presses
Marie Vibbert is better known for science fiction, but The Gods Awoke, published by Journey Press in August 2022, is fantasy. The novel tells the story of Hitra, high priestess of Revestre, who in addition to the usual political and theological problems she has to deal with, suddenly finds herself faced with the god she serves suddenly manifesting and throwing the city into chaos.
Now I have never been a huge fan of religion in SFF. Religion is a necessary element of worldbuilding, but when a story focusses too much on a fictional or real world religion, my eyes tend to glaze over and the book tends to hit the wall. See my rants about the many scenes in the Foundation TV series that focus on a fictional religion that doesn’t even appear in the books.
So while I like Marie Vibbert’s work, I normally wouldn’t have picked up a novel about a fictional religion. However, Gideon Marcus, publisher of Journey Press, is a friend of mine and also does not much care for religion in SFF. Indeed, we must be the only two people in the universe who intensely dislike Roger Zelazny’s 1963 religion-focussed story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”. And if Gideon liked a novel about a fantasy religion enough to publish it, then I was pretty sure I would enjoy it, too.
This brings me to another thing that’s great about small presses. Because small presses tend to focus on a specific niche or subgenre, you often know what to expect. Of the five small press SFF books featured in this post, I personally know four of the publishers and trust them to deliver great books in their specific niche.
So check out The Gods Awoke by Marie Vibbert, if you want to see what would happen when believers suddenly find themselves faced with the actual deity they worship, especially if that deity is angry…
From fantasy gods to the zealous Puritanism of 17th century New England:
Even though she has won the British Fantasy Award, Jen Williams is one of those authors who don’t get nearly enough attention, especially outside the UK. Her name never comes up, when discussing contemporary sword and sorcery authors, even though her Copper Cat trilogy and her Winnowing Flame trilogy are series that sword and sorcery fans would absolutely enjoy.
The novella Seven Dead Sisters, published by PS Publishing‘s Absinthe Books imprint, is not sword and sorcery but horror. However, sword and sorcery and cosmic horror are siblings separated at birth (I wrote a whole essay about that for the 2022 Necronomicon souvenir book) and I could absolutely see Seven Dead Sisters appearing in an issue of Weird Tales next to a Conan, Kull or Jirel of Joiry story.
Seven Dead Sisters is the story of Alizon Grey, a young woman sentenced to death for witchcraft and for murdering her abusive father. She also is absolutely guilty of the latter, because she did murder her father before he could kill her.
We first meet Alizon, as she is driven to her execution in the back of a cart. The cart is attacked by something unseen and monstrous, the guards are killed and Alizon can escape. Now she must flee through horror infested woods before either the men who want to burn her at the stake or the monster can get her. And during her flight, the reader experiences the story of Alizon and her family via flashbacks.
Seven Dead Sisters by Jen Williams will almost certainly be on my Hugo ballot next year and it might be on yours, too. So check it out.
As I said above, this is only a snapshot of the many great SFF books published by small presses. All links go to the publisher website, which will lead you to the rest of the respective small press’ catalogue and even more great books to check out.
Also check out the other participating blogs and the hashtag #SmallPressBigStories on Twitter for even more recommendation.