6 Speculative Novels Full of Ennui

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Emily Wenstrom

Staff Writer

By day, Emily Wenstrom is a content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstorm, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.. Her Chronicles of the Third Realm War series includes Mud (#1), Tides (#2), Rain (#0), and more to come. Follow her on Twitter @ejwenstrom.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy book are full of fiery heroes, feisty villains, and wild adventures. Quests through the galaxy. Taking down dragons. Raising armies of necromancers. All sorts of action-y, plot-driven goodness. But that’s not always what you’re in the mood for. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced a period of languishing this spring. And, yeah, it’s been weird, dark, difficult times. The anxieties, the grief, the restlessness catches up with us all at times. Even when there isn’t a pandemic going on, a person just gets into an occasional bout of ennui. When this happens, finding a bit of ennui in your fiction, too, can be a cathartic release. With that in mind, here are six moody speculative novels that are full of ennui.

The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V. E. Schwab

After Addie makes an ill-advised deal with a dark god to trade her soul so she can live forever, she finds it came at an unexpected cost: No one will ever remember her. At least until she stumbles upon a boy just as lost as she is.

Where to start…Everyone in this book has ennui. Though of course much of the book’s 2020 success must go to V.E. Schwab’s imagination and talent, as well as her loyal and well-earned following, I’d also argue this book touched on a certain mood that was present during the pandemic. Time stopped having its usual meaning. Moments slipped into each other. We flailed for meaning in a world where we were all disconnected.

How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

Before Yu’s Chinatown Interior won the National Book Award, there was this gem, which despite being wholly original, clever, funny and heartfelt, did not reach a single other reader I know. (Other than a couple I force-fed it to. It was for their own good.)

This story follows a lonely time travel machine repairman as he tries to heal his heart and his family by hunting down his father, who went missing (or perhaps abandoned his family?) when he was very young. Amid a tropey lark through space and time, this novel explores the hole that’s left behind within a family when a parent is suddenly gone — regardless of the reason. Ennui levels are off the charts here.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

This was a followup novel to one of my all-time favorites, Wilson’s The Family Fang, which is so packed with absurdity it almost felt speculative to me. True story: At The Family Fang’s conclusion, Annie stars in a film with the same premise as this second novel from Wilson: A nanny takes on the task of caring for children who spontaneously set themselves on fire.

The characters are familiar too — in a good way. In Nothing to See Here, rather than a high-action romp as one might expect from such a combustible premise, readers delve into characters just as lost as defunct as in Family Fang, and once again caught in arrested development, who can’t seem to figure out what they want or who they are.

Ennui? Check.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Like many gothic novels, there’s a lot of ennui in the moods of Mexican Gothic, rooted in the estate, the rundown town around it, and its dark history. After all, it all starts with the heroine Noemí making a trek from her vivacious society life to a downtrodden small town to help her cousin, who has written to her with accusations her new husband is trying to poison her. However, Noemí herself is dazzling, and thank goodness for that. She brings a much-needed spark to a book that is otherwise surrounded by ennui.

The greatest embodiment of ennui in this novel actually comes from Francis, the youngest member of the Doyle family, who wishes to be freed of the family’s haunted entanglement with the estate but can’t seem to break free.

scott pilgrim volume one

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Everyone who has survived the terrible transition from teen to post-school adulthood has lived the ennui of Scott Pilgrim. Feeling aimless as he tries to find his way in the world, Scott is flailing. Then on top of it all he falls in love with the wrong girl and has to battle her seven evil exes.

This graphic novel is utterly charming in its snark and quirky gaming humor, which gives a lot of pep to a character who is, let’s be honest, (intentionally) kind of a drag.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

All the characters of this novel seem to have a healthy dose of ennui, and a good spell of angst to go with it. They are, after all, teens. Perhaps even more to the point, the arrangement of Catherine House — to disconnect from the world entirely for three years to seclude yourself within the academy for a post-secondary education — seems designed specifically to draw in students with unresolved issues, an unsettling premise at the open. But even more than that, it’s the house. This creaky old mansion has its own ennui, and as the layers of its secrets start to slowly peel back, it’s pretty easy to understand why.

In the mood for more speculative fiction? Check out these speculative story collections to enjoy in 2021.