5 Books That Push Their Genre’s Boundaries

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Johann Thorsson

Staff Writer

Johann Thorsson is a native of Iceland, but spends much of his time in Bookland. He has lived in a few parts of the world but currently lives in Iceland with a pretty woman and a mischievous son who resembles Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) more each day. He has a complicated but ultimately useless degree in bioinformatics from a very pretty college in England. His favorite books are 1984, Flowers for Algernon and The English Patient. He hopes one day to call himself a writer without feeling like he's just fooling himself. Blog: Johann Thorsson - On Book and Writing Twitter: @johannthors

You know how books are put into certain genres; thriller, fantasy, horror and so forth. It’s meant to help us navigate the world of books and find something that we’re likely to enjoy. But then there are books hanging out in their genres, just pointing at the others going “I ain’t with them.”

Here are five of those books.

1. Zone Onezone one by colson whitehead

I really liked this book. I devoured it. It is a zombie book where very little actually happens and I loved every single page of it. I wish books like this were easier to find. Fans of normal gore-infested zombie fare should leave this alone, as they will probably be disappointed. Fans of really well-written books, regardless of the genre it will be placed in at the bookstore, should buy this one.

In his excellent Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer says the following about Zone One:

It is a literary triumph that embeds the classic zombie scenarios within a superlative study of the main character.

So yeah, it’s a zombie novel. Only it’s not.

SouthernReach2. The Southern Reach Trilogy

There is something going on in Area X. There is an invisible border you can cross and the jungle around you turns… strange. So far, eleven expeditions have entered Area X and all of them have ended badly. The book starts as we follow expedition 12 into Area X, a team of four women whose names we don’t know. Annihilation, the first book in the trilogy, opens as an science fiction eco-thriller of sorts but plays around with elements of fantasy and horror. Amazon has the trilogy shelved in Science fiction / dystopian, but it’s really not.

It’s a book about man’s disregard for nature, and about strange lighthouses. It’s a mystery and a straight eco sci-fi. Only it’s not.

the magicians front proof.indd3. The Magicians

This is a fantasy, clear and simple. A boy named Quentin Coldwater goes to a school to learn magic. Only, it’s really not. The focus in The Magicians is on Quentin’s reaction to what goes on, and not on the magic itself. If Harry Potter is “what if there was a school for magic and normal kids could go?” then The Magicians is “what if there really was a school for magic, and teenagers could go?”.

It is a sort of Harry Potter for grown-ups, the book people who read Harry Potter as teenagers might love. Only I’m not sure they would.

In that Vendermeer way, The Magicians might be described as a literary triumph that embeds the (now) classic school-of-magic scenarios within a superlative study of the main character.

The Magicians is a fantasy about teenagers who go to a school for magic. Only it’s not.

Station Eleven4. Station Eleven

These days it seems that every other novel is a post-apocalyptic novel, right? Well Station Eleven is one of those. Only it’s not. Station Eleven is about a handful of characters and their lives just before and some time after a virus kills almost everyone in the world. While it truly is a post-apocalyptic novel, there is little of the “trope” here, and I suspect many will find it a little slow-going (if they are looking for gunfights and the slow dread of The Road). While Station Eleven does have firefights and death cults,  mostly we are getting to know the people the book is about, not what happens to them.

Station Eleven is a Book Riot favorite post-apocalyptic novel. Only it’s not.

we have always lived in the castle5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This little book tells the story of Blackwood sisters, who live as semi shut-ins in a big house in a small town. The rest of the family died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl during dinner, with just the sisters and a senile uncle surviving. It’s a horror story of sorts, as the sisters keep losing control and end up as complete shut-ins in a collapsed house. Children tell stories about them, stories they hear as they peek out.

The creeping dread of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is outdone by Jackson’s sublime prose and storytelling chops. Neil Gaiman himself says it’s one of his favorite books.

It’s a horror/dark fantasy story, only it’s not.


Now it’s your turn: please let me know about about your favorite genre-defying novels. Or tell me why I’m wrong.