Top of the freshman class
There were so many great literary debuts in 2018, fresh new voices that galvanized fiction this year. Here are the 10 first-time novelists who most wowed us — telling stories like we haven’t heard them told before, digging deep into imagined (but prescient) worlds of past, present, and future.
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
By the time she turned 25 in August, Tomi Adeyemi had sold her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, for seven figures; spent 20 consecutive weeks on the New York Times best-seller list; and started work on a movie adaptation with a major film studio. To say she’s the year’s biggest debut would be an understatement. The first in a trilogy, Blood and Bone is a Black Lives Matter-inspired fantasy with awe-inspiring world-building reminiscent of Harry Potter. It has completely shaken up the YA space.
Brass, by Xhenet Aliu
Perhaps the most unsung novel on this list. Aliu followed up her superb short-story collection Domesticated Wild Things with this layered, personal meditation on the American Dream. The novel captures working-class and immigrant experiences with gritty authenticity; it turns increasingly experimental in form, developing into a shatteringly good mother-daughter love letter. Don’t sleep on this one.
The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara
Cassara’s passionate portrait of the ’80s Harlem queer ball scene was inspired by Paris Is Burning and is perfect companion reading to Ryan Murphy’s breakout TV series Pose. But the novel is wholly its own artwork, messy and vibrant and propulsive. The dialogue runs hot, the melodrama sings, and its ensemble of lost, beautiful souls proves unforgettable.
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi
No first novel excited me more than this utterly original character study steeped in Nigerian mythology. Emezi is a fearless writer talented enough to upend Western conventions of storytelling while remaining, even to the least familiar reader, totally engrossing. She tells the story of Ada, who undergoes serious trauma in her life as she relocates from Nigeria to the U.S., and offers a bold take on identity and mental illness. Emezi recently signed a high-profile two-book deal off this successful launch, and I can’t wait to see what it produces.
Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday
A big acquisition that lived up to the hype. Halliday’s innovative Asymmetry begins as a sharp, very New York romance between a publishing assistant and a great literary figure, before evolving into something much more surprising — and thoughtful. It’s a work of ingenuity that rewards multiple readings. And given the aforementioned literary man’s likely basis on Philip Roth, his characterization in the wake of the novelist’s death proves surprisingly, deeply poignant.
Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson
In a year filled with retellings of Greek myths (including one of our favorite books of the year), Everything Under should rank as the most unexpectedly dazzling. Johnson revitalizes Oedipus through a completely deconstructive approach that somehow never falls apart. This thing is haunted, ruminating on big topics like language and gender to question what Oedipus’ inevitable tragedy says about who we are — today.
The Golden State, by Lydia Kiesling
Lydia Kiesling knows nuance. This tender, lush book —centered on a new single mom who ditches city life for the Northern California desert — profoundly depicts young motherhood and its challenges as I haven’t quite read before. Against the backdrop of this country’s deep divisions and unhealed wounds, her story emerges as an emphatically American one.
The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon
The best way to pitch this book is probably to quote it. R.O. Kwon, who spent many years writing The Incendiaries, realizes her sentences like poetry, each more thematically evocative and dense with imagery than the last. Find your way into her poetic rhythms and you’ll be immersed in a story of extremism, love, and loss that comes to a fiery conclusion.
There There, by Tommy Orange
There There doesn’t read like a first book. A transfixing panorama of Native American life, Tommy Orange’s novel instead builds like an epic. It grew out of a personal mission for Orange: to introduce a singular collection of voices from a community relegated to the margins — no matter how intrinsically American they may be — moving away from the often problematic depictions of reservation life. The result is one of 2018’s very best books. Indeed, reception to There There was instantly rapturous, and the novel is in its 13th printing a mere six months after it was first published. Folks, that’s rare for a literary debut.
Cherry, by Nico Walker
The stories behind this one are almost as fascinating as the semi-autobiographical novel itself: Walker, a former Army medic, wrote it from prison, where he’s serving an 11-year sentence for bank robbery, and after the book published to great interest, it inspired a Hollywood bidding war like no other. In Cherry, Walker draws from his own experiences for an unforgettable, visceral, startlingly raw exploration of opioid addiction and the lingering costs of war.
10 more great debuts
- Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin
- My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
- Fruit of the Drunken Tree, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
- A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza
- She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore
- Some Hell, by Patrick Nathan
- Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao
- We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed
- Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg
- Restless Souls, by Dan Sheehan
And in case you missed it, check out our 10 best books of 2018.