Books off the Beaten Path: 15 Small Press Reads If You Want Something Different
Publishing has trends like any other industry, and while many of those trends are exciting and interesting, sometimes what you want is not what’s on offer. Fortunately, there’s far more available than what the major publishing houses are putting out. Small presses can have some big stories, so here are fifteen of my favorites to get you off the beaten path.
1. Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Tom, Metonymy Press
Our narrator takes us from her home in Gloom to the enchanted but dangerous Street of Miracles, where femmes fight to survive with occasional help from the saint-goddess known as the First Femme. When yet another young femme turns up murdered, the narrator, a kung fu expert, joins forces with other badass ladies to take revenge on violent men. The prose ranges from first person narrative to poems addressed to a knife to letters to the narrator’s beloved younger sister. This is magical realism at its finest.
Also, anything Metonymy Press puts out is guaranteed to be solid gold (although not SFF). Check out Small Beauty for a gut punch of gorgeousness, and the upcoming Dear Twin, too!
2. The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams, Edge Press
This is such an original premise and such a perfectly wrought world that I’m shocked no one else seems to have read it. It feels like an early Ursula K. LeGuin, without quite the ponderous, slow-and-steady prose. (No shade to LeGuin, goddess of goddesses—the woman took her time is all.) This moves at a faster clip through the story of Fox and Cam, young lovers who come from a culture of travelers.
Young adults are encouraged to explore up and down the cliffside settlements as far as they wish, and settle in the place that feels most right to them, but Cam never stops feeling the urge to explore upward, while Fox never stops feeling pulled down to the base of the cliff. Their journeys are quiet, emotional explorations of what it means to find your place in the wider world.
3. The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman, Aqueduct Press
Wow. I said it when I was a few pages in, and again when I finished—just: wow. This book has some incredible worldbuilding and some very deep things to say about individual desire versus cultural expectations, queer love, and the unending search for the divine. Also, much as I enjoy epic fantasy, the incessant barrage of Teens In Charge has been wearing on me. Mature adults who are carrying personal burdens—but not the weight of nations—are such a relief to read.
4. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Big Mouth House
Fantasy satire is difficult, and it often follows in Sir Terry Pratchet’s wake by imitating his frenetic and exceedingly British humor (so many puns). In Other Lands is not imitating anyone. It has a unique brand of humor that relies on hilariously biting criticism of epic fantasy’s reliance on violence, ethnocentrism, and gender roles.
Elliot, a no-nonsense pacifist with unshakable—if somewhat abrasive—opinions, enters the magical Borderlands and promptly sets about changing what he sees as wrong. He also does his level best to woo an elven warrior, even though elves there are matriarchal, and his beloved fears offending his delicate male sensibilities. Searingly smart and wickedly funny, this one should have won all the awards.
5. Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki, University of Minnesota Press
This is a spiritual precursor to Ring, but since it’s far more pensive than the fast-moving Koji Suzuki book, it doesn’t immediately register that the two have much in common. Death Sentences focuses heavily on the Surrealist movement of the ’30s and ’40s, but also on a bleak future in which a particular Surrealist manuscript has driven huge numbers of people into madness or worse. The text is not “contagious” like the video in Ring, but it does have similarly far-reaching and horrific consequences.
6. The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones, Two Dollar Radio
This book is not for everyone, as it can get dreamlike and obscure. Remy lives in a society that mines crystals of many colors to sell to the cities, a straightforward occupation that gave rise to a very unusual folk belief. The miners believe that every living thing possesses a hundred crystals (mostly a metaphor, but not quite), which decrease with illness and misfortune, and that death occurs when the count drops to zero.
But there are rumors of rare black crystals, which can restore a person’s crystal count. Remy wants to find these crystals to save her sick mother, while Remy’s brother, imprisoned far off in one of the cities, might know an even deeper secret of what’s really in the mines.
7. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, Two Dollar Radio
This book is even more so not for everyone. I read it, put it down, and was not sure (1) what I had read, (2) who the characters were, or (3) whether there had been a plot—but in a good way, I swear! It’s deeply weird but fascinatingly written, and if you want to try something genuinely experimental that isn’t poncy or Guy-in-Your-MFA trashy, this is it.
8. Archivist Wasp and Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Big Mouth House and Mythic Delirium respectively
A post-apocalyptic world brimful of ghosts and bristling with danger, sprawling dreamlike under strange constellations, this is like Gene Wolfe and Lovecraft (circa The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath) had a baby that featured actual women. I reread Archivist Wasp several times as I waited for the followup, Latchkey, which did justice to that incredible debut.
9. The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste, Journalstone
I know I’ve raved about this book before—and I’ll do it again, because it’s great. It won the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel, a well-deserved honor for this utterly new and creative “rustpunk” story of best friends trying to survive a mysterious plague that turns girls into creatures of iron and glass. The blue collar town doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to, but Phoebe, the local wild child, will risk anything to do what’s right for Jacqueline, even at the cost of her family or her own heart.
10. Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi, Yen Press
Oh, this book is so cute. Penguins start appearing in a sleepy town, and fourth-grader Aoyama decides, with all the dignity of his years and confidence of his youth, to discover the meaning of this strange phenomenon. Together with help from his friends, he performs research, goes on fact-finding missions, and takes copious notes, all while pondering the mysteries of growing up. If you enjoy it, there’s also a manga and an anime film.
11. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher, Red Wombat Tea Company
I could have picked any of T. Kingfisher’s books to include here, since they’re all wonderful and snarky and creative as heck, but I like Summer in Orcus because it’s a very fresh take on the stock portal fantasy. Summer ends up in a world with Chaos Antelopes, Honor Geese, and many other strange creatures as she learns about herself and tries to put a great wrong to rights.
12. Prime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, JABberwocky Literary Agency
Amelia is bitter, tired, and barely hanging on. The Mexican economy is shot, her half-finished degree isn’t getting her a job, her relationships are a mess, and the only thing she has going for her is a for-pay friendship with an aging movie star. But no matter how impossible, Amelia can’t stop dreaming of Mars.
There are colonies there, and long ago, she swore she’d get there, but is such a strange dream worth clinging to in the life she’s been forced to accept? I cannot convey how much I love reading about a heroine who isn’t trying to get us on her side—to be likable. She has good reason for her anger and resentment, and her choices between bad and bad make so much sense. I absolutely love her, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia for creating her.
13. A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney, Word Horde
SFF has always been hung up on Western Europe, so I’m very glad to see not just Kiste’s “rustpunk,” but also some great “swampunk,” as well. Set in the bayous of Maryland, this opens with a woman in stainless white searching the deep swamp wilderness for her name, and only gets more mysterious, creative, and amazing with every subsequent chapter. African-American art is at the forefront of the novel, drawing parallels between the worlds and colors that go unseen in many spaces.
14. The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories by A. C. Wise, Lethe Press
This collection of short stories doesn’t have a single weak link, but standouts for me personally were “Final Girl Theory,” about a fictional horror film that leads a fan to a very surreal meetings; “Juliet and Juliet(te): A Romance of Alternate Worlds,” about queer love defying the genre trope that prefers dead lesbians; and “Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew,” a gorgeously evocative tale of a girl raised by underwater nuns. As you can tell, these stories run quite the gamut, proving that A. C. Wise is one to watch.
15. Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong, Scribe Press
The youngest daughter of a North Korean family, Bari has unusual powers just like her beloved grandmother, but they aren’t enough to protect her from the hardships that take her all over the country and then all around the world, searching for the place where she can belong. Part fairy tale, part generational saga, and part personal tale, this book is all kinds of incredible.
(featured image: Journalstone)
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