We often talk about genre-defying fantasy books. But what does that mean exactly? Sometimes, genre-defying fantasy uses a non-conventional format to tell a story. More often than not, it means that a book uses elements of different kinds of genres — what we usually call genre-blending or genre-bending. This type of book can also defy the classic genre conventions to create something new. But overall, I think that genre-defying fantasy books have two main characteristics. First, they have a strong fantasy element. Even if they dip into sci-fi or horror for example. Second, it’s difficult to put them inside a single box. You know when someone pitches you a book as fantasy meets this or that, with a bit of this other thing sprinkled in? Yep, that’s a genre-defying fantasy book.
I’d say all of the books I picked for this list are pretty unique. They have different degrees of magical/fantasy elements — but they’re always important to the story. Putting that aside, I tried to pick a wide array of books so that anyone can find something to love. Whether that’s a space fantasy, a darkly magical horror novel, or a speculative short story collection.
Without further ado, let’s explore these 20 incredibly unique genre-defying fantasy books!
20 Genre-Defying Fantasy Books You Need to Read
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
We’re kicking things off with a book that plays with format! Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is a magical coming-of-age story told as if it were a real memoir. The book follows a young trans girl who just ran away from her abusive home. She winds up with a group of trans femmes who live in a pleasure district. This is a place she can finally call home, and these people have become her true family. When one of them is brutally murdered, our protagonist and her new family form a vigilante gang so that they can fight back.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I love Gideon the Ninth, mostly because of how well it blends all these different genres. It’s inherently a space opera. But necromantic magic is very important, and it has elements of horror and mystery too. The book follows the eponymous Gideon, an accomplished swordswoman who is recruited by her nemesis Harrow in order to become one of the Emperor’s trusted necromancers. Gideon is now Harrow’s cavalier, even though they hate each other’s guts. Now they have no choice but to work together if they want to unearth (and survive) the mysteries of the First House.
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
Moving on to an incredible book that is told in an unconventional format — a first person plural narrator! But that’s not the only thing unusual about Barry’s novel. It also mixes historical fiction with magical realism to tell a story about a sports team. We Ride Upon Sticks follows the 1989 Danvers High field hockey team. They’re on an incredible winning streak — and could potentially win the state championship. Danvers High is located in what used to be Salem village. And as it turns out, the dark forces that helped their forebears might be the key to winning the whole thing.
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
The Spear Cuts Through Water is a wonderful Russian doll-esque novel that tells a story within a story. It also mixes fantasy and literary fiction to create a super unique and epic adventure! The book mainly follows the story of a trapped deity whose quest is to end the tyrannical reign of the Moon Throne. In order to do that, two warriors named Jun and Keema help her escape her prison. Over the next few days, the three of them embark on a journey in search of the deity’s freedom — and a way to get rid of the royal family for good.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
She Who Became the Sun is one of those books that somehow has very little magic involved, yet it’s undoubtedly a fantasy novel. It also delves into literary and historical fiction as it reimagines the rise of real-life Emperor Zhu and the foundation of the Ming dynasty in China. The story follows a girl who was destined for nothingness while her brother was destined for greatness. When he dies though, the girl has a burning desire to survive. So she decides to take his name and his fate.
The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter
This is a dark fantasy novel with an urban setting. What’s more, it also has elements of horror and a good ol’ fashioned mystery at its core. The Helm of Midnight begins when a team of thieves steal the deadly mask of Louis Chabron. He was a legendary serial killer who terrorized the city a long time ago. The problem is that this mask is imbued with the powers of Chabron, which means that the murders have started again. It is up to Krona Hirvath and her team of Regulators to find this insatiable killer before he takes even more lives.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
If there’s a book that you can’t fit into a specific mold, it’s definitely Build Your House Around My Body! This story mixes so many different genres — from magical realism to mystery and horror. Plus there are some literary and historical fiction elements thrown in for good measure. It all comes together to paint a vivid picture of Vietnamese history and folklore as it follows two women whose fates are inexplicably linked, even though they go missing decades apart.
The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu
Next is another urban fantasy book that has some horror and mystery/thriller elements thrown in. The Library of the Dead follows Ropa, a ghost talker who speaks to Edinburgh’s dead for a living. When one of them whispers about a child’s disappearance and of a mysterious figure who is bewitching children, Ropa takes it upon herself to investigate. But Edinburgh is full of dark corners and deadly secrets — which Ropa will have to face if she wants to find the missing child and whoever took him.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Did someone ask for a paranormal fantasy that has the bleak style of neo-noir? Well, that’s the genre-defying magic of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novels! Certain Dark Things plays with different conventions of vampire lore to create an entirely unique story set in Mexico City. The book follows Domingo, a street kid whose life is forever changed when he runs into the dangerous vampire Atl. She’s on the run from the rival vampire clan, and she ends up teaming up with Domingo to get out of the city. Let’s just hope they make it out alive.
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur
Folklorn is a literary family saga that delves deep into Korean myth. The story follows Elsa Park, a particle physicist who is running from her family’s ghosts. Thanks to her mother, Elsa knows the women in her family are cursed to repeat the narrative lines of their ancestors. So when tragedy strikes and the spectral woman comes back to haunt Elsa, she goes back home. There she’ll finally learn the truth about her family among her mother’s dark handwritten stories.
Dwellers by Eliza Victoria
Dwellers is a dark fantasy novel that has some very strong elements of mystery and suspense. It might not mix tons of different genres, but it certainly comes together to create something entirely new! The story follows cousins who belong to a clan of dwellers — people with the ability to inhabit the bodies and lives of others. This time, they have taken the bodies of brothers Jonah and Louis. The problem is, an injury has left them trapped inside the brothers’ house. And things get more complicated once they find the dead body in the basement.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Now The Library at Mount Char is definitely one of those dark, WTF-did-I-just-read kind of fantasy books. It’s heavy on the horror, with a little mystery thrown in. But it’s still undoubtedly a work of fantasy. The story follows a woman named Carolyn. She had a normal childhood, up until the moment a man she calls Father took her in. Father took her and a bunch of other orphaned children to his ancient Library, where he taught them different branches of his god-like powers. The problem is, Father just went missing and his Library is up for grabs. There’s a war coming, and whoever controls its power will basically become the new God.
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
When We Were Birds is a magical love story at its core. But it’s also a work of literary fiction, plus a crime subplot woven in. The story follows Yejide and Darwin, who both have a strange relationship with death. Yejide is the latest woman in her family to take up the mantle of reaper — helping the dead cross into the underworld. Darwin on the other side is a grave digger who was taught by his mother to avoid any interaction with death. The two of them meet by their city’s largest and oldest cemetery, and that’s where their story begins.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung
It’s pretty common for short story collections to blend all kinds of genres to tell the most magical and genre-defying stories, which is definitely the case with Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny. This Korean collection in translation uses elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and a good amount of horror to talk about the cruelties of the modern world — specifically focusing on capitalism and the patriarchy. All 10 stories are quite surreal and unsettling, and they will probably haunt you long after you finish them.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Next, this genre-defying fantasy novella does an incredible job of reimagining real historical events with a horror twist! In Ring Shout, Clark reimagines the Ku Klux Klan as literal demons, who benefited by the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation. More powerful than ever, this deadly group is trying to bring Hell to Earth. Only Maryse Boudreaux and her fellow resistance fighters stand between them, as they fight tooth and nail to send the demons back to Hell. Let’s just hope Maryse, her trusty sword, and her friends can stop the Klan in time.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Moving on to Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland, which is a strange mix of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and mystery. The story follows a young pregnant girl named Vern. She escaped from the only life she’s ever known inside a cult-like compound and headed into the forest. There, she gave birth to twins. But the compound refuses to let her go — so Vern has to become something more in order to protect her new family. To understand what is happening to Vern, she’ll have to look to the past and to the future. Only then will she learn the truth.
The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi
The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is a dark fantasy novel full of fairy tales that toes the line with romance and gothic horror. The story follows Indigo Maxwell-Casteñada, an heiress married to a scholar who believes in fairy tales. They thought they would live happily ever after, and Indigo asked only one thing of her new husband. That he didn’t pry into her past. He was happy to oblige, but everything changed now that Indigo’s aunt is dying. Because of that, the couple go to Indigo’s childhood home where all her secrets will slowly unravel as her groom is forced to choose between reality and fantasy.
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Next comes another short story collection that you might not think of as fantasy, and a personal favorite! Machado uses elements of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, and horror to tell these incredibly haunting stories about women and the violence inflicted upon their bodies. All eight stories in Her Body and Other Parties are strange and unsettling — full of doppelgängers, ghostly prom dresses, and unwanted houseguests. But they’re also incredibly original and together they form a great work of genre-defying fantasy.
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Three Parts Dead is a fun urban fantasy novel with immaculate steampunk vibes and a murder mystery at its core. The story follows Tara, a lawyer with a very important task. She has to help bring her client back to life before the city descends into chaos. That’s because her client is Kos, the god who rules over Alt Coulomb. Without Him, the technology that powers His city will fail — and its citizens will certainly riot. But then Tara discovers that Kos was actually murdered, and that’s when things get really complicated.
Saturnalia by Stephanie Feldman
Our last genre-defying fantasy book of the day is Saturnalia. This book has a dystopian setting, and elements of thrillers as well as some eco-horror. In this novel, the Saturnalia carnival has become a meaningful holiday for Americans. Especially for our protagonist Nina. It’s been three years since she left the elite Saturn Club, and yet Saturnalia is still a cruel reminder of the night that changed her life. This year, she’s brought back into the fold when a member of the Saturn Club (and her only friend) calls Nina and asks for her help. Unable to decline, Nina dons her blackest dress and goes to the biggest party of the year — where she’ll have to confront her past if she wants to have a future.