The best fantasy novels no one ever calls fantasy novels

The Books I Picked & Why

Beloved

By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

I first read Beloved years ago in Argentina, over three wonderstruck days in a cold room in the Andes. It was one of the busiest times in my life, but everything stopped when I opened Morrison’s masterpiece. This tale of slavery’s long shadow over the lives of a Black family in Ohio is breathtaking on many levels—language, characterization, tragic moral force—but it is also, to its very core, a fantasy novel. This is magic, not metaphor. The dead return and take up sustained physical life among the living. What could be more fantastical? Of course, there’s an idea that “the fantasy readership” isn’t looking for earth-shaking literary novels, but that idea has more traction among those who talk about fantasy readers than the readers themselves. The latter are an avid, omnivorous bunch. Hand them something as brilliant as Beloved and come back in three days.


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Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino

Book cover of Invisible Cities

Why this book?

Invisible Cities, all by itself, blew the walls off my notions of what a novel could be. Picture it: Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, likely stoned, certainly world-weary, kicked back on cushions in the Great Khan’s palace. That’s it. They talk. And yet the book overflows with movement and discovery. Polo speaks of the cities he’s visited; Khan describes those he dreams his empire might contain. As the night progresses, the cities pass from odd to eerie to utterly fantastical: cities built like spiderwebs over canyons, cities enslaved by the very accuracy of their astrologers, cities whose people all have doubles in a netherworld below. And the tension! For looming behind these mad dreams is an ever-deepening paranoia about what humanity could become.

Calvino, like others on this list, is denied the “fantasy writer” label because he’s a literary darllng. Of course, that’s nonsense. This is fearless, genre-shredding fantasy, and reading it changed me forever.


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One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Why this book?

So much has been written about One Hundred Years—and so many prisoners of Comp Lit 101 have been broadsided by its strangeness—that I’m tempted to beg you to forget everything you’ve heard and dive in. But that’s insufficient advice. Before going off to the Colombian village that time forgot, you should also discard your ideas about story structure. Take pacing: months can pass in a sentence or two in Gabo’s masterpiece—but on the next page, the sun may stop in the sky. Or character: the tangible reality of these people is breathtaking—but are they all shards of the same few souls we began with? This novel casts a spell like no other. I’ll never forget my first read of its final pages: their feverish velocity, and the utter magic with which they transform the novel before your eyes. At least once in your life, I hope you can surrender fully to that magic. Safety not guaranteed.


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A Question of Power

By Bessie Head

Book cover of A Question of Power

Why this book?

Do you like a good scare? Well, Stephen King is one kind of scary, but A Question of Power is something else altogether: a descent into a sunless valley writhing with monsters. We know that these monsters dwell in the mind of the main character, Elizabeth. But there’s no safety in knowing that, for we’re locked in with them. If we sometimes climb a tree and feel a fresh breeze on our faces, it’s with the knowledge that those tentacles can slither up and snatch us back into hell at a moment’s notice. And they do. 

I didn’t start with what many consider the most important facts of this novel: that Elizabeth is a mixed-race woman born in South Africa and exiled to Botswana. And those are vital facts. But Elizabeth is also one luminous, suffering soul. Watching her fight her way out of that dark valley is a terrifying experience. But when at last she feels the sun on her face—oh, we feel it too.


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Blindness

By José Saramago

Book cover of Blindness

Why this book?

A mere glimpse at the plot of this novel—blindness sweeps over the world in a global tsunami—should establish that it’s a fantasy. But once again, publishing labels are destiny Blindness was published as that other thing, literary fiction. Who cares? The story’s riveting. We spend nearly all our time with a self-effacing woman (“the doctor’s wife”), whose immunity to the blindness plague is as mysterious as the plague itself. As society crumbles into gang rule (the blind killing or enslaving the blind), the doctor’s wife has to choose between helping evil, dying herself, or keeping her sight an absolute secret. It’s the classic What if? scenario I’m always seeking in fantasy, written in fire by a modern master. I couldn’t put it down.


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