When we think about fantasy novels, we usually picture these epic, sweeping stories full of magic and battles and maybe even dragons. Those novels are super fun and a great source of escapism. But fantasy is also the perfect genre to explore philosophical conundrums through a speculative lens. Which is why we sometimes find ourselves in front of quieter, thought-provoking fantasy stories that completely change our worlds. You know, the kind of stories that will leave you staring at a blank wall for days as you try to figure out how you feel about a certain phrase — or that make you question something you took for granted until that moment. Those thought-provoking fantasy novels are exactly what I’m going to discuss today!
When I say that thought-provoking fantasy books are quieter, I don’t mean they lack thrills. I just mean that they’re more contemplative; they take their time to explore the different themes they’re trying to tackle. Still, I tried to pick a nice variety of philosophical fantasy, which means some of these stories will be more epic, while others are in the literary and magical realism categories. Either way, I’m sure that anyone can find a thought-provoking fantasy book to love on this list!
So, without further ado, let’s jump into these eight thought-provoking fantasy books you won’t be able to put down.
Thought-Provoking Fantasy Books
Babel by R.F. Kuang
One of the reasons I loved Babel so much is because of how thought-provoking it is. It’s constantly talking about language and translation — and how they can be used as tools of oppression. It also poses an amazing question: is violence necessary in order to enact change? The story follows a boy we’ll come to know as Robin, who was taken from his home in Canton and brought to Oxford to study at the Royal Institute of Translation. That’s where Britain does most of its silver-working — creating magic through translation. But this academic utopia is not what it seems, and soon, Robin and his cohort will have to decide if they can live with it or fight to change it.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The next book is a little more difficult to explain, and it’s actually best if you don’t know much about it before you read it. But it is absolutely full of philosophical musings and often explores themes of self, transformation, freedom, and the presence of something mystical. Piranesi is the story of a man living inside an extraordinary house. A place with rooms full of statues, labyrinthian halls — and even entire oceans living within. This man, Piranesi, spends his days exploring this place, looking for a Great and Secret Knowledge.
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
At its core, this book asks what is “real” — even using philosophers as characters in the novel that try to answer this question. This was all prompted by the phenomenon of hearing voices, which Ozeki researched in order to write The Book of Form and Emptiness. The story follows Benny Oh, a young boy who began hearing voices after he lost his father. These voices belong to the objects around him, and they lead him to a whole new world full of street artists and philosophers. And believe me, they’ll change Benny’s life forever.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Okay, hear me out on this one. I know The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is one of the most popular books of the past few years. And while the magic is not as grand or epic as some of the other novels, I think it does a wonderful job of exploring the topics of art, memory, love, and the notion that “ideas are wilder than memories.” It’s definitely thought-provoking! For those of you unfamiliar with this book, the story follows a woman named Addie who makes a Faustian bargain with a creature of darkness in order to live forever. These things have consequences, of course, and now Addie is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Until 300 years later, when a young man remembers her name.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro always writes philosophical stories, no matter the genre. But this thought-provoking fantasy novel is particularly special! Touching upon themes of memory (as both blessing and curse), justice, and forgiveness, The Buried Giant follows a couple who lives in post-Arthurian England. Their names are Axl and Beatrice, and in a world in which no one has long-term memory, they somehow remember they might have a son. Thus, they travel to a neighboring village, hoping to find him.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Next, She Who Became the Sun is a historical fantasy novel that is constantly exploring human morality, desire, identity, as well as more philosophical musings on war. The story follows an unnamed girl who is destined for nothingness. Her brother Zhu Chongba, on the other hand, has always been destined for greatness. But when he unexpectedly dies, the girl decides she wants to survive. So she takes his name and his fate for herself. Thus begins her journey, one which will inevitably lead to a throne. Oh, and did I mention this reimagines the story of the founding emperor of China’s Ming dynasty?
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur
Folklorn is full of philosophical musings about belonging, family, and themes like nature vs. nurture. Steeped in Korean myth, the story follows a particle physicist named Elsa Park. Her family is cursed to repeat their ancestors’ narrative lives, which is one of the reasons why Elsa can see their ghosts. When tragedy strikes, Elsa must return home. There, she’ll finally find the answers to her family’s secrets amongst her mother’s handwritten stories.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Last but certainly not least, N.K. Jemisin’s sci-fi/fantasy novel The Fifth Season is also deeply thought-provoking! The whole thing is full of ethical dilemmas about the nature of humanity and themes like environmentalism. The book follows Essun, whose husband just murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter. To make things worse, her world is descending into Stillness — which means the land is dying, and people fight for scarce resources. But Essun doesn’t care that the world is falling apart, and so she embarks on a dangerous quest to save her daughter.