Fantasy Favourites pt.2: Standalones
The fantasy-genre is still heavily dominated by series, which can be frustrating when you’re craving fantasy, but aren’t ready to commit to a 7-book epic. Luckily, there’s still plenty of wonderful standalones out there, a few of which I’ll be covering in this part 2 to my Fantasy-Favourite series. Like in part one, these books are listed in roughly the order in which I read them, and all of them I’ve rated anywhere between 4.5 and 5-stars.
1. The Gracekeepers and The Gloaming both by Kirsty Logan Starting off my list, I’m immediately cheating by placing two books in the spot of one. I didn’t see a better way to do so however, as both these books are some of my oldest and dearest fantasy standalones of all time, and hold a shared close place in my heart. If you’ve spent any time on my blog or talking to me about books, my love for Kirsty Logan as an author isn’t going to be a surprise to you. That love started here.
The Gracekeepers is set in a world drowned by water and has strong themes of grief, isolation and mourning throughout it. The ocean has irreparably changed world, and divided its people into those inhabiting the mainland ("landlockers") and those who float on the sea ("damplings"). Callanish is a Gracekeeper, responsible for administering shoreside burials, laying the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. North is a dampling circus performer with a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. The two of them cross paths when a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives - offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.
The Gloaming is set in the same world, on a more intimate island-setting, and can be read completely separate from The Gracekeepers. Here, where magic is more than the stuff of fairytales and folklore, we follow an unorthodox family of five in the wake of a tragedy that changed their lives forever. It’s a brilliant magical realist tale of grief, love, longing and homesickness for a place you can’t return to.
I often recommend Kirsty Logans books in tandem with Emily St. John Mandel work, as both capture that stunning feeling of melancholic hope that I adored. Kirsty Logans work came to me at the exact right place and time, helping me deal with grief and change, and will for that reason always have a prominent place among my favourites.
2. Arcadia by Iain Pearce The next book on the list has nothing in common with the previous, other than the way I found it; namely based off the recommendation of one of my favourite booktubers/authors Jen Campbell.
We begin our story against the backdrop of Cold-War England, where ex-spy-turned-novelist Henry Lytten is writing a fantasy novel in order to escape the troubles of his current time. He finds an unlikely confidante in Rosie, an inquisitive young neighbor who, while chasing after Lytten's cat one day, stumbles through a doorway in his cellar and into a stunning and unfamiliar bucolic landscape. A landscape remarkably similar to that of the book which Lytten has been writing.
What follows is a refractory tale, part portal-fantasy, part sci-fi dystopian, part Alice Through the Looking Glass and part Cloud Atlas.
Arcadia explores the magic of world-building and storytelling on an almost meta-level, but does it so effortlessly well that it never felt pretentious to me. If you enjoy stories about stories in particular, this is a modern classic you cannot pass up.
As someone who grew up on retellings of ancient Greek mythology, and actually enjoyed Latin in grammar-school, because of its stories, there was bound to be a retelling on this list. There were plenty of options to pick from (stay tuned for my Mythology-recommendations post that will be coming soon), but the choice for Circe was an easy one. She has always been one of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in Greek Mythology to me, partly because she always appears as a secondary character in another hero’s story, but never gets her own voice. Here, Madeline Miller jumps in to change that, and does so in the best way possible.
Circe is a story about Gods, mythological creatures and witchcraft, but is still one of the more personal and relatable “coming of age-fantasies” I’ve read. If you’re intimidated by the recent flood of Greek retellings and want to skip straight to the best one out there; this is the way to go in my opinion.
Staying with “Classical Greek vibes”, we have the shortest but perhaps most complex book to describe. Piranesi is definitely more on the literary, rather than genre-fiction side of things, and is packed to the brim with mystery, atmosphere and questions, not all of which are answered throughout. I highly recommend you go into this story as blind as possible, so I’ll keep the description short.
We open our story with a man only known as Piranesi, wandering the infinite corridors of The House Between its half-drowned, never-ending halls filled with classical marbled statuary however, this mysterious building is anything but a regular home. It evokes everything from Olympus to Atlantis to, most clearly, the ‘imaginary prisons’ of 18th-century titular artist. There is one other living person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person. A terrible truth begins to unravel; about The Other, The House and a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.
5. The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton From Classical Greek influences, we move over to something more Shakespearean with this (very loose) retelling of King Lear with a more diverse, feminist and fantastical twist. My love for this novel lies in its phenomenal character work, lushly vivid insular setting, steeped in wild magic, and absolute stunning lyrical writing.
As the book on this list with the lowest Goodreads-rating on average, I understand that this isn’t the biggest crowd pleaser. Tessa Gratton was done dirty by her marketers who compared this to Game of Thrones, setting completely the wrong expectations for the audience. Contrary to Martin’s brutal and fast-paced approach to hard fantasy, Gratton’s story is “softer”, more reflective and slower in pace. Luckily for me, that was exactly what I loved about it.
The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained the isle of Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of lands and political unrest. The king's three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Reagan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm's only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign. But their father will not choose an heir until all the prophesised circumstances are met. Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.
Few subgenres have held as many disappointments to me as the dark-academia-trend that has been blowing up in previous years. Although I love it in theory, I think I may have burned myself out on so much angsty sameness. I have however had much luck with the very specific sub-subgenre of “weird academia”, that includes books like All’s Well and Bunny by Mona Awad, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire and of course Vita Nostra. Very little about this novel is traditional; from the influences of the original Russian, the disorienting setting, to its insistence not to explain or “spoon-feed” you information. After all, both you ánd the characters are smart enough to figure it out for yourselves, right…? I wouldn’t recommend Vita Nostra as a first entry into fantasy, but for you “veterans” out there who want Dark-Academia like you’ve never experienced it; this one is for you. 16-year old Sasha is vacationing with her mom at the beach, when she meets a mysterious man who makes her an unusual proposition. The next day Sacha suddenly finds herself vomiting up golden coins… This even kicks off an epic coming of age fantasy novel, involving a magical university (but not in the way you expect), strange characters that seem barely human and at times absolute mind-melting philosophy and metaphysics.
7. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune Coming of the strange and disorienting Vita Nostra, you might want to give your mind a little rest, and read some cosy fantasy. Look no further: I have just the book you need.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a whimsical tale for an adult audience that reads like middle-grade. We follow Linus; a by-the-books-caseworker, employed by the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, where he spends his days behind a desk overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages. One day, Linus is summoned by Extremely Upper Management, and sent on his first field-mission to the mysterious Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist.
With threats of end of days, and rumours that the enigmatic caretaker Arthur Parnassus has no control over his wards, Linus must set things straight. He soon finds that the orphanages inhabitants aren’t quite what he expected, and that the word “home” means more than a word written on his files.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find nothing does the trick of “cosy-feels” like a story about found-family, and The House in the Cerulean Sea scratches that itch perfectly. Additionally the author has a second, very similar novel out by the title of Under the Whispering Door. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other as well.
8. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger Speaking of cosy-vibes, Elatsoe was one of my cosiest reads of last year. Similar to The House in the Cerulean Sea, it reads like a middle-grade and is packed with beautiful themes of family and belonging, but with a slightly more melancholic undertone. If that hasn’t convinced you yet; our protagonist is an asexual, Lipan- Apachean girl who has the happiest ghost-dog as a companion. What more could I want in a book…?
Elatsoe is set in an America very similar to our own, but for a few small differences. This America has been physically shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.
Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family.
When her beloved cousin is the victim of a racially fuelled murder in their small town that wants no prying eyes, Ellie must use all her wits, skills and friends to get to the bottom of the secrets buried under her nose.
9. From Dust a Flame by Rebecca Podos From Dust a Flame is a Jewish-inspired contemporary-fantasy with themes of family, self-discovery and retracing your (cultural and familial) roots at its core. We follow 17-year old Hannah and her adoptive brother Gabe, who’ve never had a place to truly call home. Every year-or-so their free-spirited mum uproots the family to move cross country; no trails left behind, no extended family to inform, and no explanations provided. That silence is forcefully broken when Hannah falls victim to a curse that mutates her body in impossible ways overnight. Their search for answers leads Gabe and Hannah down the path of her Jewish ancestry, along myths, legends and the tragic history that their family has carried for generations.
10. Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins or American Gods by Neil Gaiman My most recent addition to my favourites-list reminded me a lot of another book I’ve read years ago; hence why I’m shoving two titles in one slot again. The spotlight goes to The Library at Mount Char for being the most underrated of the two, as almost every fantasy-fan is aware of Neil Gaimans work. Both these novels share a story of a man caught up in a supernatural battle between (former) Gods in modern day America. Both are witty, brutal and feature a remarkable pantheon of a cast that you won’t soon forget about. I honestly don’t want to say anything more, as both these books are best experienced blind, but you can find synopsises for both on their respective Goodreads-pages which I’ve linked.
Perhaps these books have sparked your fantasy fever, and leave you craving more. In that case, be sure to check out my Fantasy Favourites: Part 1 for some series and fantasy in other forms of media. Or maybe just get excited with me, over some books that are on my TBR, that I have a feeling might my future favourite 5-star reads as well.
Never the Wind by Francesco Dimitri Let's face it: any fantasy novel with a disabled protagonist is going to grab my attention from the get-go and this sounded beyond promising. This historical fantasy follows a blind teenager and his family, chasing dreams of rebirth and reinvention. Set in the same world as The Book of Hidden Things and pitched as perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman, Donna Tartt and Haruki Murakami, I have such high hopes for this one.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djéli Clark This book had all the keywords to end up on this list. It’s an urban fantasy with an alchemy-based magic system, set in an 20th century Egypt. It also happens to be by an author whom short-fiction I’ve enjoyed in the past ánd I’ve heard nothing but great things from reviewers I trust about it. unfortunately, this book has been extremely heard to come by in the Netherlands, but as soon as I mention to do just that (for a reasonable shipping-price), I’ll make sure to free the space on my monthly TBR for it.
Ambergris trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer I’m frankly embarrassed to have to put this book on this list again. The Ambergris Trilogy has been a 5-star prediction ánd a TBR-veteran for years now. I own the book, I already love the author and I’m soooo intrigued by the concept. I’m also soooo scared to invest my time in this 700 page brick and not love it. Someone put this book in my hands already: it’s time I get to reading it, especially since all this time since I bought it, its siren-call hasn't let up for me in the slightest.
The Boneshard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Few books have been as often recommended to me as The Bone Shard Daughter, any time I mention my love for Foundryside and the Mistborn trilogy. With a alchemy-like magic-system focussing on bone-shard-constructs, and a plot that combines memories, political intrigue and a bit of family feud; this has all the elements and potential to be great.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay Although I don't know the exact plot of A Brightness Long Ago, I have heard nothing but greatness from friends and reviewers I trust. This promises to be a slightly melancholic character-drive, historical fantasy, that deals with the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune's wheel. Sign me up please!
The First Binding by R.R. Virdi Pitched as "for fans of The Kingkiller Chronicles", you know I'm going to be all over that. This is the start of a new Epic fantasy series, about a legendary hero recounting the story of his life, perhaps not quite unbiasedly. "All legends are born of truths. And just as much lies. These are mine. Judge me for what you will. But you will hear my story first."