The best modern fantasy books for people who dislike modern fantasy

Polly Schattel Author Of The Occultists
By Polly Schattel

Who am I?

My name is Polly Schattel, and I’m a novelist, screenwriter, and film director. I wrote and directed the films Sinkhole, Alison, and Quiet River, and my written work includes The Occultists, Shadowdays, and the novella 8:59:29. I grew up loving fantasy—Tolkien, Moorcock, Zelazny—but phased out of it somewhat when I discovered writers like Raymond Carver, EL Doctorow, and Denis Johnson. Their books seemed more adult and more complex, not to mention the prose itself was absolutely transporting. In comparison, the fantasy I’d read often felt quite rushed and thin, with get-it-done prose. I drifted away from genre fiction a bit, but dove back to it with my first novel, the historical dark fantasy The Occultists.

I wrote...

The Occultists

By Polly Schattel,

Book cover of The Occultists

What is my book about?

The Occultists is a historical dark fantasy. In the early 20th Century, young Max Grahame is a prisoner in his life—his mother is sick, his stepfather is a bully of the first order, and he’s trapped in a tiny Appalachian mountain town going nowhere fast. But when he takes a job at the local post office, he finds bizarre and fascinating arcane texts, and his bosses, an elderly couple from Scotland, have odd, curious, and somewhat menacingly magical friends. Max soon learns that all is not what it seems, and this sets off a shocking series of events and revelations—secret cults, séances, betrayals, and a mystical fin-de-siecle chase across the country and the world.

“A delectably moody supernatural nail-biter." - Kirkus Reviews

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The books I picked & why

Mythago Wood

By Robert Holdstock,

Book cover of Mythago Wood

Why did I love this book?

Mythago Wood is the kind of book that pulls you in and settles you down for a great, blanket-comfy, rainy-day read.

Concerning Ryhope Wood, an ancient, primeval forest in England that seems bigger the deeper in you go, it explores human psychology, both personal and collective, particularly the ideas of Carl Jung.

The forest somehow uses human psychology to create “mythagos,” complex unconscious creations built upon human memories and myths, and our hero Stephen Huxley is compelled to learn the secrets of the wood, whether or not he makes it back out alive.

As psychologically astute as it is thrilling, Holdstock’s book won the World Fantasy Award in 1985 and launched a successful series of fantasies that’s even more widely respected today.

By Robert Holdstock,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mythago Wood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Deep within the wildwood lies a place of myth and mystery, from which few return, and of those few, none remain unchanged.

Ryhope Wood may look like a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Herefordshire on the outside, but inside, it is a primeval, intricate labyrinth of trees, impossibly huge, unforgettable ... and stronger than time itself.

Stephen Huxley has already lost his father to the mysteries of Ryhope Wood. On his return from the Second World War, he finds his brother, Christopher, is also in thrall to the mysterious wood, wherein lies a realm where mythic archetypes grow flesh and…

The Solitudes

By John Crowley,

Book cover of The Solitudes

Why did I love this book?

Crowley is the author of the timeless classic Little, Big, of course (which is also essential reading), but his novel, The Solitudes, began a tetralogy that explores history, alternate history, and the grand Hermetic framework which contains it all.

Centering around a historian working to connect an alternate imagined world, Ægypt, with the real one today, Crowley’s readers take a deep dive into the Renaissance world of Giordano Bruno, Doctor Dee, Shakespeare, and others, while simultaneously exploring the arcane world of the present.

It feels strangely akin to something Umberto Eco might come up with if he ever wanted to write fantasy.

As with any Crowley novel, the prose is absolutely gorgeous—a masterclass of beautiful, thoughtful writing. This series has been unjustly overlooked. Give it a try.

By John Crowley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Solitudes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reengaging the ideas of alternate lives, worlds, and worldviews that pulsed through his remarkable Little, Big, John Crowley’s Ægypt series is a landmark in contemporary fiction. The series helped earn Crowley the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and Harold Bloom installed the first two books in the series in his 1993 Western canon. Now, following the Spring 2007 hardcover release of the final book in the series (Endless Things), Overlook is bringing the entire tetralogy back into print and, for the first time, presenting it as a real series. In The Solitudes, the opening of the…


By Peter Straub,

Book cover of Shadowland

Why did I love this book?

There’s a valid argument to be made that Shadowland is perhaps more of a horror novel than fantasy, but it’s never really out-and-out scary.

It’s certainly more magical than bloody, concerning two friends in the 1950s who spend a hallucinatory summer at an uncle’s place in the Vermont woods. And man do things get weird.

After a long, lovely prelude at a boarding school, Tom and Del have to navigate their failing friendship and the strange happenings in the woods, but most of all they have to look out for Del’s uncle Cole, an old-school magician who, it turns out, is far from an avuncular old guardian.

Full of fairy tales and fables and wonderful digressions (with Straub, the digressions are often the point), Shadowland feels timeless in a way Stephen King never does. It might be the best book I’ve ever read.

By Peter Straub,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shadowland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic tale of supernatural horror from the acclaimed author of Koko, The Talisman and Mr X.
Now part of the Voyager Classics collection.


In a private school in New England, a friendship is forged between two boys that will change their lives for ever. As Del Nightingale and Tom Flanagan battle to survive the oppressive regime of bullying and terror overseen by the sadistic headmaster, Del introduces Tom to his world of magic tricks. But when they escape to spend the summer holiday together at Shadowland -…

A Stranger in Olondria

By Sofia Samatar,

Book cover of A Stranger in Olondria

Why did I love this book?

For a more traditional take on fantasy, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is lovely and immersive, a fascinating new world worthy of Ursula Le Guin and Gene Wolfe.

Reportedly, she created Olondria from a combination of regions in Turkey and North Africa, and it feels absolutely fresh and instantly powerful. A teenage merchant becomes haunted by the ghost of a young girl and must find a way to put her to rest.

But the story is really about the power of books and stories and language itself. It’s a love letter to adventure and open seas, harbors, and alleys, and snowy mountains in the distance.

Ms. Samatar holds several advanced degrees in language and literature, including Arabic and various African dialects, and you can feel the joy of her verbal artistry dancing on the page.

Stranger is not to be missed.

By Sofia Samatar,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Stranger in Olondria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl. In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between…

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

By Kai Ashante Wilson,

Book cover of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Why did I love this book?

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Wilson’s debut work, is another wonder among wonders.

It feels like an epic fantasy, but instead of following more Viking-blonde heroes with their magical swords, we’re following hired mercenaries to escort a caravan through dangerous lands.

And instead of the usual fantasy worlds descended from the Western European Middle Ages, we’re in one influenced by re-colonial Africa.

There are magical jungles and magical tigers, and violence and death, and an LGBT love story between smart, dedicated men.

It’s a character study worthy of a literary novel, but the love of words, and the masterful inclusion of various dialects, particularly a kind of medieval hip-hop slang, makes this a truly fascinating read.

By Kai Ashante Wilson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of Wired's Twenty-Five All-Time Favorite Books

Critically acclaimed author Kai Ashante Wilson makes his commercial debut with this striking, wondrous tale of gods and mortals, magic and steel, and life and death that will reshape how you look at sword and sorcery.

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors' artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will…

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