Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2023 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Summer Reader Poll 2021: Meet Our Expert Judges

Here they come, by shuttle pod and dragonback and all manner of fantastic means (okay, but mostly by email and conference call) — our esteemed expert judges for this year's summer poll!

As many of you may know by now, our summer polls aren't straight-up popularity contest. Instead, we take your votes and turn them over to a group of fantastic authors and critics, who'll use them to curate a final list of 50 of the most out-of-this-world sci-fi and fantasy reads of the past ten years. And if you haven't voted yet, what are you waiting for?

Amal El-Mohtar
Ainslie Coghill / Ario Photography
Ario Photography
Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar is a critic for both NPR Books and the New York Times (though we had her first, neener neener), and the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning author of "Seasons of Glass and Iron" and co-author with Max Gladstone This is How You Lose the Time War. In his Book Concierge recommendation, Jason Sheehan called Time War "brilliant, mind-bending and approachable all at the same time." Amal lives in Canada, has two high-quality cats and is very fond of owls.

"I think SF/F over the past ten years has had a number of reckonings with itself from different angles and on different axes," she says. "A huge watershed moment for me was the list of Nebula Award winners in 2014: for the first time in the award's history, every winner was a woman (including fellow judge Ann Leckie, for Ancillary Justice). The awards coincided with the publication of Women Destroy Science Fiction, an enormous project by Lightspeed magazine, edited by Christie Yant, that saw 109 women working together to showcase fiction and essays with a breadth and depth I'd never seen assembled in a single volume. It also launched a series of Destroy anthologies spotlighting work by people belonging to several different marginalized groups, and — with deliberate irony — built connections and conversations between contributors, editors, artists, designers and readers that would go on to seed several more projects.

This made me feel more clearly than ever that progress for marginalized groups happens when conversations between them happen; when we're no longer appealing to the taste and literacy of a hegemonic few, but appealing to each other, being legible to each other, building space and envisioning futures together. I think the last several years of spectacular work have really borne that out."

Ann Leckie
/ Mission Photo
Mission Photo
Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie is the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of the Ancillary series and The Raven Tower. Ancillary Justice, the first in the series, was part of the very first Book Concierge back in 2013 — "Come for the page-turning action, and stay for the astonishing character development and world building that will leave you in awe," said critic Annalee Newitz.

"The last ten years have been amazing for science fiction and fantasy!" Leckie says. "So many new voices — not voices that are new to the field exactly, because readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy have always been a beautifully varied bunch of folks, but new to the wide recognition they deserve. I feel like there's been an opening to what publishers and editors see as having broad appeal. I don't know what made it happen, exactly, but I'm just so happy to see so much amazing work coming out."

Tochi Onyebuchi
/ Christina Orlando
Christina Orlando
Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Riot Baby — a 2020 Concierge pick (are you sensing a theme here?) and finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and NAACP Image Awards. His other works include War Girls and Beasts Made of Night, and he's also an NPR Books critic.

"In the past decade, two things braided together to help make the field of SFF as thrilling and filled with brain/heart-busting work as it is," he says. "With the gates weakened by our forebears, the children and grandchildren of Empire entered. And they brought with them not only the social and theoretical concerns that characterized their worldview, but also stylistic daring and formal innovation. There have been literary experiments in SFF before this decade, but now the field is truly becoming a place where you come to regularly see literature-as-form gloriously pushed to its extremes."

Fonda Lee
/ Courtesy of Fonda Lee
Courtesy of Fonda Lee
Fonda Lee

And Fonda Lee is the World Fantasy Award-winning creator of the Green Bone Saga (also beloved of the Concierge!) and the novels Zeroboxer, Exo and Cross Fire. She's also a former corporate strategist and black belt martial artist who loves action movies, which I can say as a reader really comes through in her work!

Lee says she had a "wow" moment "around 2018 or 2019 when I was looking at lists of books soon to be released and saw not one, not two, but a dozen debut novels by Asian American fantasy authors, and dozens more by authors of all backgrounds, with stories set in a far greater variety of cultures and time periods than I could've imagined back when I was writing Jade City in 2014-2016. At that time, I was afraid my novel was too different from the norm and no one would publish it. Now I feel as if I have to always work at the top of my game just to keep up. It's a wonderful feeling."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.
News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.