10 Great Contemporary Fantasies to Get Lost In

S. Zainab Williams

Executive Director, Content

S. Zainab would like to think she bleeds ink but the very idea makes her feel faint. She writes fantasy and horror, and is currently clutching a manuscript while groping in the dark. Find her on Twitter: @szainabwilliams.

Sponsored by The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert.

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get…



I don’t care what anyone says, I’m not ashamed to admit that I occasionally require an escape hatch. And when everything looks like a raw bundle of nerves, I need to believe magic exists somewhere beneath the rubble of our inexorable warring.

So when it’s all gone pear-shaped, I pop in my earbuds and walk around the city for a couple of hours, getting lost in my favorite soundtrack and David Bowie’s charisma as he tells me I remind him of the babe. Or I’ll read a fantasy book. And few things help me believe magic exists in this world more than a book that presents a familiar reality…with a twist of magic:

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

My love for Terry Pratchett borders on irritating, which is why I decided to talk about Good Omens first. In Good Omens, the world is coming to an end and the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley aren’t happy about it because they’ve made nice little nests for themselves on our plane of existence. Because they’re in a pinch, the reps of Heaven and Hell work out a plan to stop the End Times. How they’ll cook up this recipe for resistance when its main ingredient—the Antichrist—is missing remains to be seen. Read the book to find out if they succeed, or if everyone explodes like Agnes Nutter did. As you might expect from Pratchett and Gaiman, this is a fun, whimsical story packed with the quirkiest characters.

practical magicPractical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Yeah, more witches, and this isn’t the last of them. The movie is good, and yes, you should watch it for the thirtieth time, but also—and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this—read the book. Alice Hoffman’s writing is effortlessly transportive and the story is romantic and cozy and sororal. Gillian and Sally come from a long line of witches. Which would be fun and excellent, except the Owens women are cursed in love due to a betrayal that occurred a long, long time ago. The Owens sisters grow up wanting nothing more than to escape their fate and the confines of their small (-minded) town, but curses aren’t so easily averted. If you fall in love with this story like I did, you’ll want to pick up the recently-published prequel, The Rules of Magic.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and the world of Akata Witch cemented her place in my heart. Sunny is a young woman living in Nigeria, having moved there from New York with her family. It’s hard enough to fit in and make friends when you’re a teenage newcomer, but Sunny’s albinism makes her even more of an outcast. Until she meets Chichi and Orlu, who introduce her to a world she didn’t know existed and to power she didn’t know existed within her. With new abilities and friends in tow, Sunny goes on a mission to track down kidnapper Black Hat Otokoto. This is a particularly good pick if you want to explore contemporary realities in other parts of the world. And the second book, Akata Warrior, is out now.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Everyone screamed about this book when it came out. I like to imagine I screamed the loudest. Sierra Santiago is an artist who thought she’d be spending summer vacation dancing it up at parties, hanging out with her friends, and painting a mural. But a dark shadow has fallen over her Brooklyn neighborhood and her community comprised of extended family, both blood and otherwise. What Sierra didn’t know, and is quickly finding out, is that her bloodline is connected to a supernatural order, and old affiliations are coming back to haunt her and her family. Oh, and she also has to work her way through young love, NBD. I had so much fun getting to know the Bed-Stuy neighborhood through Sierra’s eyes, and meeting her hilarious/cool group of friends. The second book, Shadowhouse Fall, is also out.

daughter of smoke and bone coverDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

What a beauty of mythology, romance, and setting (this book made me put Prague on my “Travel to in this lifetime” list). Karou is everything you wanted to be as a young person: gorgeous, blue-haired, artistically gifted, and mysterious. She leads a double life—one with an otherworldly family she keeps secret, and another going to art school, hanging out with her best friend, and avoiding her painfully beautiful ex-boyfriend. But her strange-yet-comfortable-enough life falls apart when Karou has a frightening encounter with a wholly new creature named Akiva, and as she stumbles into the life-altering secrets her surrogate family has been keeping from her.

labyrinth lost cover imageLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

We’re taking it back to Brooklyn. The first book in the Brooklyn Brujas series, Labyrinth Lost, follows Alex, a reluctant bruja who, unfortunately for her, is the most powerful witch in a generation. But Alex is so unwilling to claim her power that she makes a terrible mistake. One that sends her entire family away. The only way Alex can get them back is by taking a daring journey, and the only person who can help her is a brujo she can’t trust. Normally, I’d say “peace out bro,” but when your family’s on the line, you make the tough choices.

in other landsIn Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Look, not all of us would be pleased about attending a school of magic. Especially if your school of magic turned out to be a rather unmagical place with no heating and if, every time you sullenly ventured back, your phone melted in your bag. Elliot is not happy about how things are going. He got recruited into a school in a magical place off limits to the casual human, but all anyone cares about is war. He’s also not happy about his forced truce with his classmate, the tropiest hero in all the land—good looks, celebrity family, happy home life, the love of all. Everything Elliot doesn’t have. But, what Elliot does have is a beautiful elf in his life, aaaand plenty of trouble ahead as he grows up and wrestles with his education in the Borderlands. This book drips sarcasm and existential crises, and it’s sure to make you LOL a few times.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Because I apparently and unsurprisingly can’t read enough cynical Harry Potter read-alikes, let’s talk about one of my favorites. Carry On is a wonderful book that made me all sorts of sad and lonely-hearted once I finished. Simon Snow is a hot mess. Where’s Hermione to save him from himself? Never mind, he has Penny, who is a smart and wonderfully self-possessed young woman. He also has a nemesis in the shape of a charismatic Baz. It’s Simon’s last year at the Watford School of Magicks and, needless to say, he’s not doing a great job at being the chosen one. In fact, he’s kind of a doofus. But it’s a joy to watch him flub, and to watch his romantic life develop. SO SATISFYING. I loved this book from head to tail, even though it broke my heart a little.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

I live for a book that brings the world of faerie to the world of humdrum reality. Even if, after reading said book, I decide maybe I want nothing to do with those horrid creatures. The Cruel Prince presents a pretty grim, and super fascinating vision of the fey. I mean, I think we all knew there was a good chance they would be as cruel and cunning as the old stories say. Jude learns all about it the hard way after she and her sisters are taken from their suburban home and forced to live among fairies. Despised and mistreated as she is, all she grows up wanting to do is be one of them, or at least make a name for herself at Court. But she has a long journey ahead, full of twists and turns, and terrible realizations about who she is and what new directions her future will take.

Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson (May 8)

Okay, I haven’t read this book yet, but you can bet I will because it hits me in all the right spots. Mainly because Mila Flores and her best friend Riley are dabbling in witchcraft. Also because Mila uses an ancient grimoire to successfully execute necromancy. Although Mila was able to bring back her best friend and two mean girls, none of them remember their cause of death, so how to solve? A mystery wrapped in witchcraft = gimme.