Standalone Fantasy Books for Newbies to the Genre

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

The fantasy genre can be intimidating. It doesn’t help that the dominant stereotypes of the genre can be a turn-off for most people. People think of the fantasy genre and think of the elves, the endless walking, the never-ending world-building of Lord of the Rings, or the dragons, the grim violence, the web of characters, and intricate politics of A Song of Ice and Fire. And of course, they think of big, chunky paperbacks that run in series that take whole shelves and might never reach their conclusion. Which isn’t appealing to someone who just wants to try out something new.

The good news is that the fantasy genre is not just dragons and elves. Now more than ever, the fantasy genre is an exciting one where we are seeing more and more worlds that are being populated by fascinating, non-Western characters and magical systems. We are encountering more books by writers who aren’t cis, straight white men, more books that are fast reads or good love stories, books that are genre-bending and folkloric, or soft and character-based.

I’ve gathered 10 of those amazing books here. And guess what? None of them are the start to a series. All of these standalone fantasy books, I’m happy to report, are one and done. You can dive into an Africanfuturist post-apocalyptic world. Puzzle over a mystery noir spin on a magical school by a nonbinary author. Walk through a lush, late-night circus, or listen to soul-stirring music powered by forbidden magic.

These standalone fantasy books are some of my own all-time favorites, and each provides an excellent gateway into the world of modern fantasy, a world of daring stories, unbelievable magical systems, and vivid worldbuilding. Enjoy!

Standalone Fantasy Books for Beginners

cover of Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark; illustration of raised Black hands in front of a KKK hood

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In this action-packed novella, the Ku Klux Klan are hosts to clawed, bloodthirsty parasites that feed on hatred. Maryse, her sword that rings with generations of longing for vengeance, and her sharpshooter and ex-military friends, fight these monsters. They’ll have to bring down the Klan before the sorcery of film The Birth of a Nation comes to life.

The fast-paced novella is equal parts action film and meditation on racist hate, and as a bonus, it’s deeply saturated with Black folklore and magic. It’s just 192 pages, which makes it a speedy read!

Book cover of Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

A Jewish girl named Miryem is daughter to a moneylender who isn’t good at demanding his money back. She has to take over, growing increasingly hard and bold — but her prosperity attracts the attention of the Staryk, frightening winter creatures who travel on the ice road. Meanwhile, smart Irina is engaged to a cruel tsar, and has to find a way to protect herself against the demonic fire in his stomach.

This is a rich and complex fantasy novel informed by a variety of fairy tales, from Rumpelstiltskin to Cinderella to the myth of Hades and Persephone. It’s written beautifully and brings together a series of narratives to create a really vivid and wonderful tale.

Who Fears Death book cover

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Technically, Who Fears Death is sci-fi — it takes place in a world that’s so far past technological collapse that the mystical has come back into its world. Onyesonwu is a stubborn, brave mixed-race child. Her father was an invader who assaulted her mother, and because of that her community assumes she’ll become violent — but as she grows, she learns more and more about the magic that’s inside her, growing stronger both to protect herself and to help create a better world.

Okorafor’s world of masquerades, sand and storm, spiders, female friendship, and more, all creates a devastating and wonderful story. This book once embarrassed me by making me cry really hard on a plane. You’ve been warned.

Magic for Liars book cover

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is a non-magical person investigating a crime at a high school for magic users — where his very magical and very successful twin sister teaches theoretical magic. And here’s the thing: Ivy is kind of a liar. She tells herself she’s happy alone, that she isn’t jealous of her sister, that she can totally handle a murder case. But it all comes to a head as the mystery unspools.

This is Gailey’s first novel, and their writing is fantastic, delving into sisterhood, into the ways that magic would and wouldn’t change who people are, into discovering what we’re capable of. A really great mystery, funny with a gut punch of a good ending.

Iron Cast book cover

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

It’s Prohibition-era Boston, and hemopaths, people whose blood gives them mind-controlling powers, haunt the underground clubs, creating music and theater that bends spectators’ hearts. Best friends Corrine and Ada have to try and stay safe as hemopaths are hunted, threatened by the horrific existence of the Haversham Asylum.

It’s a fast read with a fantastic portrayal of a true female friendship, some realistic feeling romance, and a really beautifully described magical system.

The Snow Child book cover

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

In a classic fairy tale, a husband and wife who have always wanted a child make one out of snow — and it comes alive. The story has many different ideas of what comes next, but they all agree on the end result: eventually, the snow child melts.

This surrealist novel depicts an older couple living their lives in the harsh, icy, glittering world of Alaska, who one day shape a child out of snow. The characters feel very real, and the book is a really great story about relationships, friendships, survival, and family, making this a great introduction to fantastical stories for people who have been reading more contemporary and historical fiction.

Kindred book cover

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

In 1976, a Black woman named Dana is unpacking her new home with her husband when she suddenly feels dizzy — and finds herself in the early 19th century. And it keeps happening. And to her horror, she begins to realize that the young white son of the plantation’s owner, Rufus, is her ancestor — and she’s being sent back in time to this intensely dangerous time period in order to save his life.

This is a modern classic that Butler described as “a kind of grim fantasy.” Dana has to figure out how to survive in the antebellum South as an educated Black woman for unpredictable periods of time. It’s a frightening novel that digs into privilege, power, and the historical horrors of slavery. If you like graphic novels, there is also an illustrated version adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.

cover of The Night Circus byErin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This one is a classic that has introduced many readers to the fantasy genre. Two magicians make a bet, each raising a magical child with plans to set them against each other, hoping to discover who can come out on top. The book is atmospheric, most of it taking place within a gorgeous black-and-white circus that feels visceral and real. The two illusionists, Celia and Marco, create an aesthetic of wonder that draws you in as a reader, and their interactions and creations are fascinating. Paired with short, readable chapters, it makes for a novel that has captured the hearts of many, many readers.

book cover for gods of jade and shadow

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Casiopea Tun dreams of a world of adventure and freedom, far from her cruel family and their dismissal. She gets it when she accidentally frees the Mayan god of death, and must partner up with him to recapture the throne of the underworld back from his brother.

They travel through a lushly described 1920s Mexico, from the Yucatán up to Mexico City and onward, pursued by Casiopea’s cruel cousin Martín. The world is fun and the pace moves quickly — the book has the mood of a classic fairy tale retelling, paired up with a whirl of Mayan myth.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of standalone fantasy books. Want more fantasy recommendations? Check out this list of 20 must-read feel-good fantasies, discover the best fantasy books that you’ve never heard of, or dig into books inspired by AAPI folklore or by Latine authors.