The times we live in are bleak. In an increasingly horrifying world, some turn to horror—a genre that understands their fears—to find solace. Others need something a little different; they need a story that distracts from anxiety rather than confronts it. This list is for those readers, the ones who want to read lush, lovely fantasies that are beautifully written and utterly transporting.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
There are books you read and enjoy but, once put away, never think of again. This lush, melancholy story from the banks of the Thames has never left me since I turned the last page. In a tale that feels timeless, a wounded stranger washes up into an ancient inn on a cold winter night. In his arms is a lifeless child, who, against all odds, is later revived. Her life is a miracle and her identity a mystery. Her fate? That may be a matter for magic.
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
The first novel in the Harp and Ring Sequence series introduces a high-fantasy world of poets and power. Poets were once capable of great magic. Though their power has diminished, they’re still highly regarded. Lin wants to join their ranks as the first recognized female poet. Her personal quest becomes intertwined with a much larger conflict, as a dark power sweeps through the kingdom. The adventure that unfolds is lyrical in every sense.
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Did you know “fantasy of manners” was a sub-genre you needed in your life? Now you do. This lush standalone fantasy takes place among the prim and proper high-society set in a world inspired by La Belle Époque. Antonina Beaulieu is in the grand city of Loisail for her first Grand Season, pushed by her family on a search for a suitable husband. Complicating the matter, though, are her barely restrained telekinetic abilities.
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
“Lovely” doesn’t necessarily mean light and airy. This Russian folklore retelling is appropriately dark, but its blend of romance, history, and myth glitters on the page. (Valente could rewrite a phone book and the case would be the same.) The story retells the legend of Koschei the Deathless and young Marya Morevna, who becomes his unusual bride. Set against the backdrop of Russia’s Communist Revolution, the story is a push-and-pull contest between our world and the realm of myth.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
There is no better balm for real-life stress than this fantasy standard. If you haven’t read it, now’s the time. If you’ve got it on your shelf already, pull it down again. The story is about a lone unicorn’s journey to discover whether she’s the last of her kind. But Beagle has much more to say on the subject of loneliness and belonging. You’ll fall in love with the unicorn but also the cast of oddballs who join in her quest—their quest, really—to find purpose. Classic fantasy archetypes with heart and humor.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Few contemporary authors delve as deeply and effectively into magical realism stylings as McLemore. All of their books are lovely, but this story of two best friends is particularly lush and dreamlike. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists; Sam is known both for his painted moons and his little-known past. “Othered” by the world, they’re inseparable. That bond must hold when the witchy Bonner sisters come for Miel’s roses. A beautiful fable with loving trans representation.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I had the pleasure of experiencing Circe for the first time in audiobook form, which allowed Miller’s crisp, exacting prose to spring to life. This was a book made for oral storytelling, much like the original Greek myths it refashions. Every word in this epic retelling is perfectly chosen, and Circe’s voice cuts through the story like a delicate, sharpened knife. The effect? You feel every emotion along with immortal Circe—when she aches, when she laughs, and when she turns men into pigs.
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Who’s to say urban fantasy can’t also be delicate and lovely in the telling? A mix of urban and historical fantasy, this novella has the queer scene of 1940s San Francisco as its backdrop. Magic courses through the veins of this city, but the lives of the women at the center of this deceptive little story are what will take your breath away. The spell here is how real danger and prejudice can be matched by real happiness.
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
If you prefer your delight in bite-sized portions, this heaping pile of Malaysian mythos-infused speculative fiction is for you. This spritely collection is strange and strangely uplifting, with a strong (and funny) feminist undercurrent. Repeatedly, the mundanity of the “real” world is interrupted by the supernatural—or a newfound awareness that the supernatural happens to be as natural as anything else. The stories are as vivid and vibrant as the legends and creatures that inform them.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
Samatar is an author for lovers of prose, and this novel is a book for those who understand the power of stories. Jevick, a merchant’s son, was raised on his father’s tales of Olondria, a prosperous, literate utopia for an inquisitive young boy. Now he has the opportunity to travel there himself, only to find misfortune: in the political strife of this new land and in his own haunting by a young ghost. Jevick’s observations and challenges unfold poetically with vivid, immersive detail.
Need additional magical pick-me-ups and other lovely fantasies? Try these Book Riot picks.