The best books starring sentient animals (that not enough people know about)

Why am I passionate about this?

Being a human is fraught, so I've always been fascinated by stories of sentient animals, long before I sold my first short story at age 19 (about a tiny dragon that lived in a bathtub drain) or my 48th story (which features talking sand cats and is reprinted in my collection The Ramshead Algorithm: And Other Stories). While most of my 90+ published stories star humans, talking animals are a reoccurring motif in my work and in the ????+ books I've read across 40+ years. If you're ready to branch out beyond Watership Down and Redwall, here are 5 books that more fans of sentient animals should know about.

I wrote...

The Ramshead Algorithm: And Other Stories

By KJ Kabza,

Book cover of The Ramshead Algorithm: And Other Stories

What is my book about?

Ramshead Jones has a billionaire father, a dysfunctional family, and a secret nestled in the hedge maze in his backyard: Earth’s only portal to hundreds of other realities. When Ramshead’s unwitting father decides to destroy the hedge maze, Ramshead must use dangerous magic to move the portal—unless the deadly maze of other family secrets that come to light destroys him first.

In The Ramshead Algorithm: And Other Stories, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories from KJ Kabza have been dubbed "Sublime" (Tangent), "Rich" (SFRevu), and "Ethereal" (Quick Sip Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities that not even Ramshead has discovered.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

KJ Kabza Why did I love this book?

The longer you write fiction, the harder it becomes to ignore its mechanics and get swept away in a story.

But KA swept me away and right off a cliff. Mostly known among writers for his novel Little, Big, John Crowley's KA is a shining opus that reflects back humanity's relationship with stories through the eyes of Dar Oakley, a crow whose life, destiny, and very nature becomes entangled with those of the story-telling humans who fascinate him.

KA is a sprawling, slow-burn of a novel, starting with Crowley's detailed portrait of crow culture and morphing into the multi-part tale of Dar Oakley's transformation from an ordinary crow into a being who has seen too much.

For every reader who has ever felt like Dar Oakley—the accidental star of a story who becomes trapped by it, uncertain how to get out—this one's for you.

By John Crowley, Melody Newcomb (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Ka is a beautiful, often dreamlike late masterpiece.” —Los Angeles Times

“One of our country’s absolutely finest novelists.” —Peter Straub, New York Times bestselling author of Interior Darkness and Ghost Story

From award-winning author John Crowley comes an exquisite fantasy novel about a man who tells the story of a crow named Dar Oakley and his impossible lives and deaths in the land of Ka.

A Crow alone is no Crow.

Dar Oakley—the first Crow in all of history with a name of his own—was born two thousand years ago. When a man learns his language, Dar finally gets the…

Book cover of Zucchini

KJ Kabza Why did I love this book?

Zucchini the ferret, born in the Bronx Zoo, leads a bleak life.

When he learns about the outside world, he yearns to escape—but when he does, it's straight into chaos.

I read Zucchini many times as a child and last read it in my 30s, and it's wonderfully more grimdark than I remember. Published in 1982, the book is 1980's-New-York gritty, and so are the hard adult lessons: fighting for your needs is full of risk; betrayal is common; love, compassion, and understanding are scarce; and idealism has an unsustainable cost.

But this makes the bits of joy that Zucchini wrests from the world all the more vivid. The story, like the world, is hard; but the story, like the world, has hope.

By Barbara Dana, Eileen Christelow (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A painfully shy young boy befriends a homeless baby ferret and gets as much comfort as he gives.

Book cover of The Abandoned

KJ Kabza Why did I love this book?

In Paul Galico's The Abandoned (copyright 1950), 8-year-old Peter is transformed into a kitten after a mysterious accident, befriends an older stray, and learns how to behave as a cat as he teaches his new friend about the occasional goodness in people.

I grew up with cats and was obsessed with all things feline, and I couldn't resist this story, in its charmingly British voice, that explained to the reader how to properly behave as one; nor, I imagine, could many other younger cat lovers if they knew about this book.

(Because it if happened to Peter, maybe it could happen to us, and we ought to read this how-to, to be prepared. You know… just in case.) 

By Paul Gallico,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Abandoned as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

London hasn’t been kind to Peter, a lonely boy whose parents are always out at parties, and though Peter would love to have a cat for company, his nanny won’t hear of it. One day, Peter sees a striped kitten in the park across from his house. Crossing the road on his way to the tabby, he is struck by a truck.

Everything is different when Peter comes to: He has fur, whiskers, and claws; he has become a cat himself! But London isn’t any kinder to cats than it is to children. Jennie, a savvy stray who takes charge…

Book cover of The Only Harmless Great Thing

KJ Kabza Why did I love this book?

Technically, Brooke Bolander's The Only Harmless Great Thing is a novella and not a novel.

But this story, set in an alternate universe in which hyperintelligent elephants are forced into toxic factory work, packs so much pathos, vivid description, and (especially!) the world-building around elephant culture—I swoon over the voice in which the elephants tell their stories and myths to the reader—it may as well be three times as long.

This is the most modern book on my list, and it did get some excellent critical attention, including the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. But Bolander's voice of the elephants alone (to say nothing of the other voices, each masterfully different) is so danged magnificent, the more people know of this work, the better.

By Brooke Bolander,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Only Harmless Great Thing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette

Finalist for the Hugo, Locus, Shirley Jackson, and Sturgeon Awards

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.

In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage,…

Book cover of Beachmaster: A Story of Daniel Au Fond

KJ Kabza Why did I love this book?

Tom Shachtman's Beachmaster, in which the sea lion Daniel Au Fond becomes obsessed with deciphering the fragments of an ancient legend—or is it a key but semi-forgotten piece of sea lion oral history?—hit my young world in the midst of my own obsession with "The Cryptic Prophecy" fantasy trope.

Marine mammals are an uncommon choice for sentient animals in fantasy, and all this plus my own permanent obsession with exploration meant that the vast, literally ocean-crossing scale of this story, with its multiple and differing sentient animal cultures, made it irresistible.

Luckily for me, Beachmaster is actually the first book of a trilogy (followed by Wavebender and Driftwhistler), so this was only the beginning. (Consider this paragraph a vote for all 3.)

By Tom Shachtman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fragment from an ancient legend draws Daniel au Fond, a young sea lion and an artist and dreamer who yearns for adventure, into an odyssey in search of the meaning of the legend and a quest for personal discovery

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Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely…

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…

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