Fantasy has always intimidated me. New worlds. Complex societies. Classes of magic I don’t understand. Unfamiliar, extravagant names making up a cast of characters I can’t possibly keep track of.
Forget it. I’ll stick to horror.
But then I read a book last year that I later realized was classified as dark fantasy, and I sort of liked it. And another one that was apparently historical fantasy. Also fun. And some works of magical realism. I really liked those, too. Had I just been wrong about an entire genre for 42 years?
It turns out that the fantasy I have trouble getting into is known as high — or epic — fantasy. High fantasy is usually set in a fictional world, one that typically has magical elements. These books have high page counts, high character counts, and high stakes. Oftentimes, there is an epic quest.
Meanwhile, the books I’ve been drawn to as of late are apparently low fantasy. Some elements of magic intrude into the otherwise normal world we’re most familiar with. These types of fantasy can also often overlap with other genres.
Seems like the perfect way to dip a toe into an unfamiliar genre, right?
So if, like me, you thought you didn’t like fantasy, here are a bunch of books it didn’t occur to me were fantasy until after the fact. In the moment, I just thought they were…fun.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
When I first picked up Riot Baby, it was because I thought it was horror. The premise had echoes of all those other horror books I’d read in the past in which a child realizes they have the otherworldly power to see ghosts or deaths or the future. Apparently, however, the book is marketed as a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. What are genres even? In Onyebuchi’s novel, a young girl realizes she has the power to see other people’s futures. When her brother is incarcerated, she struggles with seeing her brother suffer and wonders whether it’s wrong to use her burgeoning power to lash out. This book grapples with racism in America and with the love we carry for family.
Nimona by ND Stevenson
It feels like an eternity since I first read Nimona. At the time, I picked it up because I was a huge fan of Stevenson’s Lumberjanes series. The eponymous Nimona is a feisty shapeshifter who begs a not-so-evil villain to let her be his sidekick. The heart of this graphic novel is in the friendship that develops between them. The surprise is in the dark turn it all takes. The character development, the humor, and the charm are so all-encompassing that I barely noticed I was reading a book with dragons and magic and, well, fantasy-type stuff.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
When it comes to fantasy, genre overlap is often the key in making me a fan. And this particular collection is a delicious mix of horror, speculative fiction, magical realism, and feminism. Machado’s short stories play with the question of what it means to be a woman and who is allowed to claim ownership of women’s bodies. What I found most refreshing was how unapologetic her protagonists were when it came to their own sexual appetites. This world of sexually voracious women was one I wouldn’t mind living in, despite the terrors that tended to lurk in dark corners.
The Adventure Zone by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Justin McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
The book cover pictured here — and linked to above — is the first in a series of graphic novels. There are five books in all…so far. Anyway. The graphic novels are based on a comedic podcast of the same name, that itself follows an IRL Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Stephanie, you’re probably saying to yourself. It’s a book set within the world of D&D. Of course it’s fantasy. But when I first read it, I was so dazzled by the humor with which the characters interacted, I didn’t give a frak what genre it was. I promise you there are LOLs on every page.
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
This sci-fi/fantasy was built on such an interesting premise, I couldn’t resist it. In an America beset by a pandemic, a young woman signs up for a one-way ticket to the future so she can work as a bonded laborer, paying for the life-saving treatment her boyfriend desperately needs. But something gets screwed up, and our poor protagonist is sent five years further than originally intended. Lost and alone, she must navigate this new world and do her darndest to find the man she left behind.
Hotel Dare by Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre
This all-ages graphic novel was a hit with both me and my child. In it, our protagonist and her two adopted siblings are sent to spend the summer with their estranged grandmother in her rundown hotel. They’re tasked with fixing up the place, but they soon discover that each hotel room contains a portal to another world. In accessing these worlds, however, they begin to collide, racing toward impending doom. Can these three children and their grandmother save all the worlds?
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
This YA work of contemporary fantasy is set in Nigeria, where a young albino girl — born in America but living in West Africa — finds that she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. When she discovers her latent magical powers, however, she finds belonging in a small group of other similarly powered students. But things get real serious real quick when they’re asked to catch a criminal who also has magical powers. I always love a good tale of misfits saving the world.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
This one’s a classic in the world of magical realism, but one I didn’t read until recently. There is some contention about whether magical realism counts as fantasy. But its definition — a story in which the world is firmly grounded in reality, but with magical elements — sounds a whole lot like that of low fantasy. Anyway. In Esquivel’s novel, Tita’s longing for love is thwarted by her mother, who insists she remain single so she can stay home and provide care as her mother ages. Throughout the book, Tita turns to cooking in order to magically convey her emotions.
Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
Another book with a bit of genre overlap, in this YA romance, young protagonist Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love. Why? She’s suddenly developed a magical power in which, upon observing a couple’s first kiss, she sees a vision of their entire love story, from beginning all the way to its heartbreaking end. But then, while taking ballroom dancing lessons, she finds herself falling in love. But how can she trust it when she knows that all love must inevitably end?
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
I will read anything written by T. Kingfisher. ANYTHING. She drew me in with her horror, creepy and with just the right amount of humor. She charmed me and my 8-year-old with her Hamster Princess series, written under her real name (Ursula Vernon). So when she put out a dark fantasy, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and dive in. In this book about a princess determined to save her older sister from an abusive prince, this author’s well developed characters and delightful sense of humor remain fully intact. But what I love the most is that it’s feminist AF, showing that, with determination, a woman can break the shackles that seek to keep her powerless in the face of powerful men.
Acts of Violet by Margarita Montimore
This one was such a fun read, with just the right amount of magic to get me hooked. Once upon a time, well-known musician Violet Volk pulled a literal disappearing act. Her sister, filled with resentment, has tried to move on, but with the 10 year anniversary of Violet’s disappearance approaching, it gets harder and harder. And then there are the things she can’t explain: troubling sleepwalking episodes and odd coincidences. Is magic really real? Is Violet still out there somewhere? And can her sister ever forgive her?
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
Another work of magical realism, this book was mesmerizing. Life in the Montoya household has always been odd, and the unexplainable has always been brushed under the rug. Eventually, everyone but the titular matriarch leaves home…until they receive word that Orquídea Divina is about to die. She invites them to her funeral, urging them home to collect their inheritance. When they arrive, instead of the answers they’d hoped for, Orquídea Divina transforms into a tree and magical gifts begin to manifest in her descendants. What does it all mean? They end up traveling to Ecuador — where Orquídea Divina’s story began — to find out.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
I read this historical fantasy (two genres I usually avoid) when I was going through a witchy phase. And, well, witches are apparently pretty common in the world of fantasy. In this novel, which takes place in 1893 in the town of New Salem, witches have been wiped out. In fact, the only promise of power to be found by women is in the ballot box. But when three previously estranged sisters run into each other for the first time in years, they decide to bring witchcraft to the burgeoning suffragist movement. Chaos ensues. Delightfully fun chaos.
Fairy Tale by Stephen King
There was a time when I’d wait with bated breath for the next Stephen King book. As I’ve come to discover new and exciting horror authors, that has become less true. But I truly enjoyed this more recent title, about a teen who inherits the keys to a parallel world…one that needs saving. This coming-of-age fantasy was downright epic, like all of my favorite Stephen King doorstoppers.
This short story collection is chock full of everything from dystopian sci-fi to magical realism. Fu uses a mix of the real and the fantastic to explore the contradictions inherent in human nature. If you’re still uneasy about dipping a toe into fantasy, these bite-sized treats may be just what you need.
The Shadow Glass by Josh Winning
This book is billed as both horror and dark fantasy, but what really drew me in was the ’80s-tastic nostalgia of it all. I’ve written about this one before but, as a reminder, The Shadow Glass is a story in which the puppets from a cult favorite fantasy film come alive, threatening London and, perhaps, the world. The book is rife with references to such ’80s favorites as The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, E.T., and more, all in service to a narrative in which fox-like creatures battle hideous monsters for control over a world that seems to have emerged from the power of imagination alone. Who could resist that!?
Self-Portrait with Nothing by Aimee Pokwatka
In this dark sci-fi/fantasy, our protagonist learns that her biological mother — a reclusive artist who abandoned her when she was just an infant — has died. But Ula Frost wasn’t a typical artist, and rumors abound. Because it’s been said that this painter’s portraits actually summon the subjects’ doppelgangers from parallel universes. Could it be true? Could the real Ula still be out there? This story is a wild ride that gets progressively more and more bonkers.
Once & Future by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora
In this long-running comic series, a young man discovers that his grandmother is a retired monster hunter and, well, it seems she needs to come out of retirement. You see, some very bad actors are attempting to resurrect King Arthur so that he can reclaim England and, according to Duncan’s Gran, this can only spell doom. Built around legends and myths, this series — with its juxtaposition between the oldest tales ever told and the present day — is a whole lot of fun.
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
Here’s another overtly feminist tale. (Maybe feminism is the key to getting me to pick up more fantasy novels?) In this one, women pushed to lead lives of submission instead become dragons in what is known as the Mass Dragoning of 1955. Because this transformation is tied to women’s bodies, it is considered a taboo topic. But one young woman who was left behind has questions. Caught between a mother who refuses to acknowledge the existence of dragons (but who seems to have magical powers of protection?) and an aunt who transformed into one, our young narrator struggles to find her way in a world that doesn’t seem invested in her or in her dreams. Will she embrace her own inner dragon, or find another way entirely? I’m obsessed with this book.
That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming (May 23, 2023)
Finally, here’s one I’m looking forward to. It’s the first in a romcom fantasy and, honestly, I would read it based upon the title alone. But the book’s description is similarly hilarious. In writing about a handsome demon our protagonist ends up on a quest with, for example, we’re treated to the sentence, “On the bright side, at least he keeps burning off his shirt.” SOLD.
If this list of fantasy books for those who don’t like fantasy warms you up to the genre, I suggest edging your way into this list of the 22 best fantasy books of all time next.