The best fantasy books with talking animals for adults

James Stoddard Author Of The Back of the Beyond
By James Stoddard

The Books I Picked & Why

The Unicorn Sonata

By Peter S. Beagle

Book cover of The Unicorn Sonata

Why this book?

Peter Beagle is best known for his fantasy novel, The Last Unicorn, but other than featuring unicorns, this book is unrelated. It’s a beautiful story about thirteen-year-old Josephina Rivera. Her parents don’t have time for her, so she hangs out at a music store, where she is drawn to the music played by a mysterious young boy. This soon leads her across a magical border into a land peopled by unicorns, fauns, and other magical creatures. But the story is about more than mythic animals; it’s a poignant, inspiring tale about life, sacrifice, and the love between a girl and her grandmother. Don’t expect a children’s book. Though kids might like it, one has to have lived a while to fully appreciate it. 

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Bambi: A Life in the Woods

By Felix Salten, Richard Cowdrey

Book cover of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Why this book?

I’ve never seen the Disney movie, so I can’t compare, but the book isn’t your typical children’s fare. Although I wrote The Back of the Beyond before reading Bambi, there is a similarity, in that Bambi also depicts animals as they really are: predatory, sometimes merciless, often confused by the acts of humans. The hunting scenes, seen from the forest animals’ perspective, aren’t easy to read. Nonetheless, there is great beauty as we follow Bambi from the moment of his birth through his journey to adulthood. I came away with a greater appreciation for nature. The brief chapter depicting the exchange of the last two leaves left on a branch, facing the prospect of their autumnal falling, is worth the read by itself.

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Hiero's Journey

By Sterling E. Lanier

Book cover of Hiero's Journey

Why this book?

Technically, though it has a fantasy feel, this is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story concerning Per Hiero Desteen, a sort of Knight’s Templar dedicated to recovering the knowledge lost after a nuclear holocaust. Hiero fights antilife telepaths and mutated monsters in a journey to discover a lost, ancient secret in time to save humanity from destruction. Fun stuff, but the charm of the book lies in his telepathic mount, Klootz, a bull morse (think of a giant moose), and Gorm, a telepathic bear who joins him on his mission. Long after you’ve forgotten the battles, the charm of the animals remains.

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The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

By Patricia A. McKillip

Book cover of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Why this book?

Patricia McKillip is most famous for her other fantasy books, but this one is her first novel, which won the 1975 World Fantasy Award. Unlike many other fantasies, it’s done on a small scale. The beautiful heroine, Sybel, lives alone on a mountain with magical beasts: the Boar Cyrin, the Dragon Gyld, the Black Swan of Terleth, the tawny Lyon Gules, the Cat Moriah, and the falcon Ter. Icy and emotionless, Sybel’s world is changed when the prince of the land brings a baby for her to raise. The story, filled with lovely, sparse prose, takes several turns. Be warned that the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Also, because the book is relatively short, the personalities of the animals aren’t really individualized. Nonetheless, it’s a unique, interesting read.  

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The Chronicles of Narnia: 7 Books in 1 Paperback

By C.S. Lewis, Pauline Baynes

Book cover of The Chronicles of Narnia: 7 Books in 1 Paperback

Why this book?

I know these are an obvious choice, but I can’t resist including them. I read them the first time over Christmas break when I was in college, going through them one after another, so they became a blur. It wasn’t until I read them again a few years ago that I realized how well they hold up for adults. I don’t find any one of them particularly better than the others, though if you’re unfamiliar with them, it's probably best to start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which introduces Narnia. The Magician’s Nephew is sometimes listed as chronologically first, but it’s a much different book, and not a good introduction to Lewis’ world. They’re entertaining adventure tales for both children and adults, filled with lovable characters.

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