The best magical realism books by women writers

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a writer who loves all kinds of fiction, but I’m most passionate about magical realism and related genres (like fabulism and speculative fiction). I love when writers skirt several genres, especially when their use of the “strange” holds a funhouse mirror up to our world and allows us to see a deeper truth. My favorite writers craft prose that rivals poetry and delve into their characters’ interior worlds; for me, one of fiction’s greatest magic tricks is the ability to enter another’s world and create empathy. The five authors on this list do all of these things and more, and they serve as some of my greatest inspirations.  


I wrote...

Girl Country: and Other Stories

By Jacqueline Vogtman,

Book cover of Girl Country: and Other Stories

What is my book about?

Girl Country is a collection of literary short stories, most of which fall under the umbrella of “magical realism,” with a smattering of fabulism, speculative fiction, and historical fiction. The stories range from medieval Europe to the near-future of the American Midwest, populated by mothers and monsters, mermaids and milkmaids, nuns and bus drivers—women in every walk of life, but particularly working-class women, navigating the intersection of the mundane and the magical.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Orange World and Other Stories

Jacqueline Vogtman Why did I love this book?

In Orange World, Karen Russell guides readers expertly through a multitude of weird worlds, but in her hands the weird becomes familiar as we enter her characters’ inner lives.

The title story—about a mother striking a deal with the devil to protect her child, only this deal involves breastfeeding the devil himself—struck a chord with me, as my collection also focuses on motherhood, and I wrote many of the stories while in the throes of taking care of my young child.

Other standouts in Russell’s collection are “Bog Girl,” a love story between an ordinary teenage boy and a two-thousand-year-old bog girl; and “The Prospectors” a Depression-era ghost story. I’m inspired by Russell’s level of inventiveness and empathy, her richness of language, and her wide-ranging settings. 

By Karen Russell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Orange World and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I loved Orange World... a collection of short stories in which demons live in drains, bog women come back from the dead and trees can grow inside the human body' Daisy Johnson, New Statesman BOOK OF THE YEAR

'A rare combination of literary brilliance and unbridled entertainment' Mark Haddon

These exuberant, unforgettable stories showcase Karen Russell's comedic and imaginative talent for creating outlandish predicaments that uncannily mirror our inner lives. In 'The Bad Graft', a couple on a road trip stop in Joshua Tree National Park, where the spirit of a giant tree accidentally infects the young woman, their fates…


Book cover of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories

Jacqueline Vogtman Why did I love this book?

When I first read Machado’s short story collection, it felt like someone had shaken me awake, slapped me, poured cold water over my head—the possibilities for what short fiction could do were blown wide open.

It’s hard to categorize this book as “magical realism,” as it is so much more than that: it’s reimagined fairy tales and horror stories; it’s speculative fiction and sci-fi and fabulism; it’s pop-culture experimentation, all seen through a feminist and queer lens.

Most importantly, though, it’s a book where language is treated as something alive and form something to be played with. Standout stories are “The Husband Stitch” (arguably her most “famous” story) and “Especially Heinous” (because I’m a Law & Order superfan and because the story is so inventive, funny, and penetrating).

By Carmen Maria Machado,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Her Body and Other Parties as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FICTION PRIZE 2017
SHORTLISTED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL DYLAN THOMAS PRIZE 2018

'Brilliantly inventive and blazingly smart' Garth Greenwell

'Impossible, imperfect, unforgettable' Roxane Gay

'A wild thing ... covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi' New York Times

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A…


Book cover of The Rock Eaters: Stories

Jacqueline Vogtman Why did I love this book?

Rock Eaters broke me out of a reading slump and was the most exciting discovery for me since Her Body and Other Parties.

It’s one of those collections where, after finishing each story, I thought, “I wish I had written that!” My favorites include “The Stones of Sorrow Lake,” about a town where residents grow a rock in their bodies in response to their first grief, and “Thoughts and Prayers,” a devastating story where strange angels appear on rooftops after a school shooting.

Like Machado, Peynado writes in a range of genres that expands to sci-fi and speculative fiction, but what I love most about these stories is how they serve as perfect metaphors for our world and how their strangeness reveals deeper meanings about our society, our relationships, ourselves. 

By Brenda Peynado,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Rock Eaters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A story collection, in the vein of Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, spanning worlds and dimensions, using strange and speculative elements to tackle issues ranging from class differences to immigration to first-generation experiences to xenophobia
 
What does it mean to be other? What does it mean to love in a world determined to keep us apart?
 
These questions murmur in the heart of each of Brenda Peynado's strange and singular stories. Threaded with magic, transcending time and place, these stories explore what it means to cross borders and break down walls, personally and politically. In one…


Book cover of By Light We Knew Our Names: Stories

Jacqueline Vogtman Why did I love this book?

Full disclosure: Anne is a dear friend and was an MFA workshop-mate of mine.

But even if she wasn’t, I’m confident this would still be one of my favorite collections. There is so much magic in Valente’s writing, in the gorgeous prose but also in the content of the stories: ghosts, pink dolphins, tiny librarians, Northern Lights.

Much of the magic is not supernatural, but just the magic of the natural world, and Valente is a master of place; I’ve always admired her use of setting. Many of the stories deal with loss, grief, and pain, but the magic acts as a way to transcend these things, which is what I aim to do in my stories as well.

By Anne Valente,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked By Light We Knew Our Names as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across 13 stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief.


Book cover of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories

Jacqueline Vogtman Why did I love this book?

This was one of the books (along with Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector) that inspired me to pursue fiction writing rather than poetry.

For the longest time, poetry was my preferred genre, and while I had dabbled in writing fiction, I struggled. It wasn’t until reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt near the end of my undergrad that I realized fiction doesn’t have to be straight realism—it can be magical, strange, symbolic, weird, fabulist, dreamlike.

Two of Bender’s stories that had the most impact on me were “The Rememberer,” where the narrator’s lover experiences reverse evolution,” and “Drunken Mimi,” a love story between an imp and a mermaid. Maybe not coincidentally, my book also contains a story about a mermaid. 

By Aimee Bender,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Girl in the Flammable Skirt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt Aimee Bender has created a world where nothing is quite as it seems. From a man suffering from reverse evolution to a lonely wife who waits for her husband to return from war; to a small town where one girl has a hand made of fire and another has one made of ice. These stories of men and women whose lives are shaped and sometimes twisted by the power of extraordinary desires take us to a place far beyond the imagination.


You might also like...

Legacy of the Witch

By Kirsten Weiss,

Book cover of Legacy of the Witch

Kirsten Weiss Author Of The Mysteries of Tarot: A Work of the Imagination

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

When I joined the Peace Corps in the early nineties, I wasn’t allowed to take much luggage. I decided to bring a Tarot deck, figuring I’d finally have time to learn it while parked in an Estonian forest. That Tarot deck opened up a world of Renaissance mysticism and magic, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Tarot cards and readings feature prominently in many of my cozy mystery novels, not the least of which are the Tea and Tarot mysteries. Now my imaginary Tarot reader from that series, Hyperion Night, has recently written his own Tarot guidebook, The Mysteries of Tarot.

Kirsten's book list on how to read Tarot

What is my book about?

Seeker: As societies grow increasingly fragmented, hopelessness, nihilism, division, and despair are on the rise. But there is another way—a way of mystery and magic, of wholeness and transformation. Do you dare take the first step? Our path is not for the faint-hearted, but for seekers of ancient truths...

Legacy of the Witch is a spellbinding, interactive tale of a woman’s midlife quest to understand the complexities of her own heart. A paranormal women’s fiction murder mystery for anyone who’s wondered if there might be more to their own life than meets the eye…

Legacy of the Witch

By Kirsten Weiss,

What is this book about?

Seeker: As societies grow increasingly fragmented, hopelessness, nihilism, division and despair are on the rise. But there is another way—a way of mystery and magic, of wholeness and transformation. Do you dare take the first step? Our path is not for the faint-hearted, but for seekers of ancient truths.

All April wants is to start over after her husband’s sudden death. She’s conjuring a new path—finally getting her degree and planning her new business in bucolic Pennsylvania Dutch country. Joining an online mystery school seems like harmless fun.

But when a murdered man leaves her a cryptic message, she catches…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in magical realism, human behavior, and mermaids?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about magical realism, human behavior, and mermaids.

Magical Realism Explore 421 books about magical realism
Human Behavior Explore 33 books about human behavior
Mermaids Explore 45 books about mermaids