Like misfortunes, fantasy novels rarely come singly.
Maybe it’s because the great grand-daddy of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote a trilogy with an in-universe standalone novel and collection of related material. Maybe it’s just good business to write a series.
Whatever the reason, it can feel like a commitment to pick up a new fantasy. You could be in for one book, or three, or you know, a jillion.
Unless of course, that book is the rarest of all speculative novels — a stand-alone.
Stand-alone fantasy novels are beautiful things. You read one book, and get one complete story, with all the resolution you need. You can close the book with a satisfying thunk at the end, knowing that the characters have completed their journeys, and that all the ends are more or less tucked in neatly.
If you like your fantasy to come packaged in one convenient volume, here is a list of one-book fantasies.
(Full disclosure, guys: I haven’t read all of them yet. This is a reading list I researched for myself.)
For this list, I stuck to two rules. The books had to be published more or less recently (the oldest book here is from 2008), and they had to be true stand-alones, not part of an author’s pre-existing fictional universe; just one perfect bubble of fiction, floating on its own.
Named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR, Uprooted is a fairy tale featuring a peasant girl, a kingdom in danger, wizards, and the deep, dark woods. This may sound like a well-worn fairy tale, but this book is incredible. It’s filled with magic, and the villain is truly frightening. I’m listening to the audiobook, narrated by Julia Emelin, (whose voice is almost hypnotic). I’ve been glued to my headphones ever since I picked it up. I started listening to this book for the magic, but I stayed because I fell in love with the willful protagonist, Agnieszka.
Redemption in Indigo, which won Barbados’s Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2008, follows Paama. When she leaves her idiotic husband, she is given a magical gift by the djombi, or the undying ones: a Chaos Stick. But this gift makes her the target of a supernatural creature that wants the power for himself. This is Lord’s first novel (she’s gone on to write science fiction) and it’s the retelling of a Sengalese folk tale. The reviews I’ve read have said great things about the funny moments in this book, and I can’t wait to read it.
This one’s been on my list for almost a year. Named on the of the best books of 2015 by Publisher’s Weekly, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps follows Demane, an earthbound demi-god who is seen by the men around him as a sorcerer. He’s part of a mercenary party traveling through a dangerous wilderness. I’ve read wonderful things about the story, the prose, and the relationship between Demane and the Captain, the leader of the party.
The youngest son of an emperor is catapulted into court when his father and three older brothers are killed in an airship accident. After living his entire life in exile, he’s unprepared for the intrigues of court. This is a coming of age story set in a complex steampunk world, filled with goblins and elves. It was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula awards in 2014 and took home the Locus. (Look, I’m going to level with you, here. I saw the title Goblin Emperor and my mind immediately went to David Bowie in Labyrinth and said “Amazon, take my money!”)
Speaking of “take my money,” The Ballad of Black Tom, about sorcery in New York in The Jazz Age, is a very recent release. It was dropped on Feb. 16, and it’s an answer to H.P. Lovecraft’s most racist work, The Horror at Red Hook. The novel centers on Charles Thomas Tester, a salesman who works hard to make sure that he and his father have enough to eat by selling magical objects to sorcerers. The everyday evils of racism are not new to Tom, but when he meets the rich eccentric Robert Suydam, he’s brought into contact with another kind of evil. The elder kind.
Choo’s first novel is about the Chinese tradition of ghost marriage, a tradition in which one (or both) participants are dead. In this novel, the bride in question is Li Lan, a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times. Because her parents’ financial troubles have made it hard for her to find a husband, she is married off to the spirit of a wealthy young man who has recently died, and finds herself suddenly pulled into the world of the afterlife.
Part Romeo and Juliet, part Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Night Circus is a book that feels like a movie. Celia and Marco are two talented magicians who have been raised by their masters to duel with one another, to prove — once and for all — which school of magic is better. Their stage is Le Cirque des Rêves, a magnificent black and white circus that pops up without warning, and only at night. Celia and Marco duel for years, outdoing each other’s magic, and over that time they make the mistake of falling in love.