At some point early on in the pandemic, I stopped being able to read sci-fi and fantasy. Something switched off in my brain and suddenly two of the genres I’ve loved all of my life became impenetrable. For a while I just read other kinds of books. Then I started trying SFF again — to no avail. I couldn’t connect. I hope that one day I’ll find joy in space operas and epic fantasy again. Until then, I’ve been embracing a different kind of SFF: the lightly magical, the just-a-little-bit speculative.
These are just a few of the books with just a hint of magic that I’ve enjoyed over the past two and a half years. Some of them aren’t really genre books — they’re contemporary fiction with a little magic, or character studies set in an imagined future. Some of them are, indeed, straight-up fantasy or sci-fi, but without a lot of complicated worldbuilding. Speculative elements play a role in these stories — vampires, mysterious illnesses, brain implants, dragons — but they don’t take center stage. For me, these books have been lifelines: they allow me to step away from the mundane realities of the world we live in — but not too far away. I may not be able to connect to space battles and sword-wielding magicians on world-saving quests right now, but a trans archivist vampire? Women who turn into dragons? A version of Hollywood controlled by the fae? Gimme.
Maybe you, like me, find yourself unable to relate to the kinds of books you once loved. Maybe you’re a contemporary fiction reader who wants to try something different. Whatever your reasons for being genre-shy, I hope these excellent queer books bring just the right amount of magic into your reading life.
Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman
This is a gorgeous contemporary love story about fandoms, archives, storytelling, academia, and queer and trans culture — with one magical twist: the main character is a vampire. Sol has been lying low and staying alive by living in his basement office, but when he meets the widow of a famous lesbian TV writer, he slowly begins to venture out into the world again. There’s so much going on in this novel; it’s a unique perspective on vampires and what it means to be alive, dead, in-between.
My Volcano by John Elizabeth Stintzi
This book is not gentle on the brain. It is extremely weird and extremely speculative. It starts with a volcano that begins growing in Central Park one day in 2016, and only gets weirder from there. People are swallowed by giant bugs, discover alternate versions of themselves, get transported back in time thousands of years — and that’s just the beginning. But somehow amidst all this absurdity, Stintzi captures something very true and specific about what it feels like to be a human on this bewildering planet.
Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang
I love this collection of stories of the prose alone, which is stunning. Chang wields words like almost no other writer I can think of: every sentence is hefty, exact, musical. The stories, too, are incredible: they’re about queer Asian American women, mostly Taiwanese immigrants and their children, in all sorts of situations. There are a lot of ghosts, a lot of transformation, a lot of myth that bends into reality. Magic permeates every story and yet they all feel sharply real. It’s a book about the mysteries of world.
Greenland by David Santos Donaldson
This is not a genre book at all, but it does play with time and magic in some truly startling ways. Kip is an Afro-Caribbean written who locks himself in his Brooklyn basement to finish his historical novel about the Black Egyptian lover of E.M. Forster. Things soon get weird, and their stories begin to merge — emotionally, spiritually, physically. It’s easily my favorite book of the year, and one of the most innovative and moving novels I’ve ever read.
Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
After reading this and The Chosen and The Beautiful, I’m convinced that Vo is the master of the lightly-magical historical. In her dark and beguiling reimagining of 1930s Hollywood, the motion picture industry is controlled by the fae — and they have their own agenda. Luli Wei is a Chinese American actress trying to make a name for herself in a racist industry that views women like her as disposable. Vo’s prose is dreamy, and the several sapphic romances in this novel are beautifully done.
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
This historical novel doesn’t read like a fantasy — even though it’s about dragons. It reads like a lush alternate history, a poignant queer coming-of-age story, and a family drama. One day in 1955, half a million women transform into dragons and fly away into the sky. Alex is only a child when it happens, but it profoundly affects her life — her beloved aunt dragons, while her mother remains behind. Her story unfolds as a fictional autobiography, woven through with ephemera about the history of dragoning. It’s a gorgeous book about rage, power, belonging, and silence.
After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang
This is yet another quietly magical dragon book! Eli is a biracial American medical student who arrives in Beijing to study the strange disease that killed his grandmother and to learn more about the place she called home. There he meets Kai, a college student who spends his free time rescuing and rehabilitating wild dragons — a population that’s steadily waning. The two slowly fall in love while trying to figure out why so many dragons are dying.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
This is a sci-fi novel, set on a different planet in a future in which humanity has finally figured out how to live in harmony with the earth. It’s the story of the unlikely friendship between a traveling tea monk who’s searching for purpose and a robot who ventures out of the wilderness to check in with humans to see what they need. But nothing about it feels like sci-fi. It’s about work and craft and ritual, finding meaning and brewing tea, friendship and adventure. It’s one of the softest books I’ve ever read.
Grievers by adrienne maree brown
This beautiful book is full of rage and sorrow and softness and heartbreak. It’s set in a future Detroit, ravaged by a mysterious illness. Residents of the city, mostly Black, are suddenly struck in the middle of their ordinary lives, and become unresponsive, stilled in place until they eventually die. Dune’s mother is the first person to contract the illness, and in the months after she dies, Dune rides around the city on her bike, collecting the stories of the dead and dying. It’s a fierce and moving ode to the sacredness of grieving, and what happens, when, as a society, we don’t make space to process loss.
We are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
This thoughtful book charts the way massive technological changes affect the lives of one family. In a near future U.S., Pilots, brain implants designed to increase focus and productivity, have become the norm. Val and Julie only want what’s best for their two kids, so when their older son begs for one, they get him a Pilot. But it soon becomes apparent that Pilots aren’t so simple and harmless, and as the years go by, Val, Julie, and their kids struggle to adjust to their new reality.
Looking for more queer SFF? Check out this list of the best new queer SFF of 2022, these amazing queer retellings coming out this year, and this list of some of the best queer sci-fi. And if it’s lightly magical books you’re after, we’ve got you covered with books with a touch of magic, historical fiction with a hint of magic, and LGBTQIA+ magical realism and fabulisum.