My Favourite Fantasy Standalone Novels
On December 13, when I began my two-part post on my Favourite Epic Fantasy series, I promised that I would post on standalone novels “laterz.”
As part of the background to that post, I also explained that the drive to pen lists was partly because I’d received a few communications along the lines of:
“I don’t normally read fantasy but I enjoyed your books (HL: thank you!) and would like to read more, so what would you recommend?”
The best way to recommend seemed to be sharing what I have liked over the years. With this list though, it’s just “Fantasy” because I honestly couldn’t think of 10 standalone epic fantasy novels—epic really does seem to run to series! I should also note that I tried to stick to one book per author, otherwise around four on my list would be by Guy Gavriel Kay. And yes, I know my reading “slip” is now showing, but hey—just sayin’
I am very open though to hearing your suggestions for further, specifically epic—but in fact any!—standalone fantasy reading: comment at will!
I also note that:
- The list is in alphabetical order by author, so there is no preference implied by the order in which the books appear
- I am not including children’s fiction—these are all Adult or at least YA/Crossover reads. I will post on Children’s/YA books as a separate topic(s).
Although I was subsequently to read a huge number of retellings of the Arthurian legends (possibly too many in fact!) The Mists of Avalon was the very first such retelling I encountered—and I loved it! I was enthralled by its interweaving of Celtic myth and real history, and the combination of politics and battles and magic, romantic and sexual relationships—but most of all that the entire story was told from the perspective of the women in the Arthurian cycle. That was definitely a first for me in my Fantasy reading and one I liked, opening up the notion that women’s history and women’s voices in and through storytelling had something to say: something that mattered.
I suspect The Paladin is one of CJ Cherryh’s less-known works, but I’ve loved it since first re-reading. Set in a medieval Sino-Japanese conceived world, it tells the story of Taizu, a young woman with a vengeance mission, and Shoka, the former general and warlord living in exile on the edge of the realm. The heart of the book is not the epic quest, but the relationship between Taizu and Shoka—and in particular, for me, the character of Shoka, who is a patchwork of expereince and disillusion, self interest, guile, and reluctant integrity, that is perhaps best ‘caught’ by a companion’s summation toward the end of the book: “It was him, in all that glitter. Same eyes, same mouth. Same conniving scoundrel.”
This is another book—and writer, sadly—that you don’t hear a lot about now, but The Princess of Flames is such a great story, with a skilfully drawn medieval world, and an interesting but not overly elaborate magic system that draws on a version of the tarot deck. The characters are fascinating and well-drawn, with the story picking up both the tensions and power-plays within a family, with similar forces playing out on a different scale within and between realms. Elfrid, the central protagonist, is a wonderful heroine: a woman forced by situation to become a soldier of fortune, who feels very ‘real’ both emotionally and in that role.
This is the first Fantasy novel I can recall reading which brought faerie and magic so strongly into the contemporary everyday world, but also did so in a way that had overtones of Horror. In that sense it made quite an impression and I particularly liked the way traditional figures such as Oberon, Titania and Puck were re-imagined in an American setting and with a new twist added to the old stories.
Confession—I first read Neverwhere very recently, but I still feel it may be quite my favourite Neil Gaiman book (with the ‘possible’ exception of The Graveyard Book.). I just love the whole idea of an alternate realm below London (“London Below”—and yes, it does predate Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, just in case you’re wondering) and the sheer imagination of the story, the world—with elements such as the Floating Market, the Earl’s Court and the Angelus—and an array of wonderful characters. I love the central characters of Door, the Marquis, and Richard Mayhew—of course—but I think its a toss up between the ‘Russian Doll’ nature of Islington, and the villains Croup and Vandemar, for the characters I can’t help enjoying the most. This is a fun, but most of all a really imaginative read. Did I say I love it already? Well, I definitely do!
I know, I know, you’re going to say there are sequels to Dragonsbane, but to me it’s like the movie Matrix–there’s really only one movie and the sequels don’t really exist! The thing I love about Dragonsbane is that it is perfect, whole and complete just as it is—and I love the story, which at one level is about the nature of power, and duty, and the choices we make about those things as societies and individuals; at another about a reluctant dragon slayer, who is unheroic in his approach to the task but heroic in being prepared to take it on; and about a woman stepping fully into her power—and all the authentic Hambly interplay between these elements. Plus featuring one of my all-time favourite dragons: Morkeleb the Black.
I think this story is technically “magic realism” although to me it is more a kind of historical urban fantasy—beginning in a 19th century New York that is to all intents and purposes real—except for the magic: a white horse that rediscovers flight, a pursuit that traverses a century, a bridge of light to infinity… But really the heart of the book is the world, and the world is New York—Manhattan and Brooklyn and Up State—in a variant of ‘Gangs of New York’ meets ‘Westside Story.’ It’s a rich, mythic, and utterly fabulous world, more than well worth a read.
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the few fantasy novelists I can think of who has written more standalone novels than series—and Tigana is one of my favourites. Like many of Kay’s novels it is based on real history (in this case that of renaissance Italy) but transforms it into a distinctive story. Like most of Kay’s standalones it is also “magic-light” although there is always a thread of magic in the story—but the element that makes the story wonderful is the emotional realism and depth of the characters. Dianora, in particular, is probably one of my favourite fantasy heroines.
Patricia McKillip is one of my most-loved authors, and her Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy featured as one of my favourite Epic Fantasy series. I have also enjoyed many of her standalones, but The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was the first one I read and has been an enduring favourite. Like many of McKillip’s novels it is written in a very poetic (but not inaccessible) style that suits the High Fantasy-Romantic tale involving mythic beasts, high magic, warring kingdoms, doomed love, the price of power and of vengeance, and the heroine’s journey toward understanding of both herself and others. A classic Fantasy novel, in my opinion, which fittingly won the World Fantasy Award in 1975 and was reprinted by Gollancz as one of its Fantasy Masterworks series.
Although not a retelling like The Mists of Avalon, this story also owes a debt to the Arthurian cycle. As the story unfolds we learn that the main character, a freebooting, Renaissance-era sword-for-hire, is actually infused by the spirit of Arthur, and through Arthur, the older hero archetype of Sigurd/Sigismund (may I say, really loved that aspect to the story.) He also gets caught up in the Ottoman seige of Vienna, which was indeed an epic battle of its day, although I tend to think of this story as a nice mix of myth and history, rather than epic fantasy per se. But it’s a longstanding favourite and one which also plays to my love of swashbuckling and adventurous storytelling. As for the Dark—it’s definitely not your bog-standard epic “dark”, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what I mean.
So there you have it—ten of my favourite standalone, (largely Adult) Fantasy reads—but tell me, what would you add to the list?