One of the things you get used to as a fantasy fan is that each new book is a commitment. Some people commit to other people, marriages, children, careers…. When fantasy fans start a new book, they do it knowing that they may still have to be reading about these characters 20 years later.
As a guide for those who maybe want a fling rather than a marriage, we asked Twitter to suggest standalone fantasies, and you did not disappoint: From Goblin Emperors to Fox Women to Raven Kings, here are 17 of your favorites!
Golden Key—Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott
Golden Key was written in three sections by the three different authors, and follows multiple generations of the Grijalva family. The Grijalvas are a family of painters whose work subtly affects the course of life around them. Once in each generation, one of the women in the family is sent to Court to be the mistress to the ruling Duke’s Heir. However, their hold on their magical powers and influence in the Court is threatened when one of their members finds a way to extend his life, and becomes obsessed with preserving his first love at all costs.
Tigana—Guy Gavriel Kay
Tigana is an exploration of conquest and rebellion. Brandin, the King of Ygrath, and Alberico, a warlord from the empire of Barbadior, have taken over the Tigana province, and maintain a tense truce. Rebels try to keep the memory of free Tigana alive as they work to overthrow the rulers. Rather than being a straight story of revolution, the book is a nuanced look at power, patriotism, and how national pride shapes identity. Kay also gives us a fascinating mythical creature, called the riselka, which is based on the Slavic crop-nurturing water nymph called a Rusalka. In Tigana, seeing a riselka is a portent of great change in a person’s life.
Wheel of the Infinite is an epic, in its way. Maskelle is the Voice of the Adversary, a priestess of very high rank within the Celestial Empire. When Maskelle rebels against the Celestial Emperor, she finds herself cast out from society. At the opening of the novel, she’s been summoned to the Temple for the remaking of the Wheel of the Infinite. But something is going wrong with the Wheel, and soon it becomes clear that only Maskelle and the swordsman Rian can save the world from calamity.
Deerskin is a tough, dark fairy tale about rape and its aftermath. It takes the French tale of “Donkeyskin” and delves into the emotions between the daughter and father, the daughter’s attempts to become a whole person apart from her family, and the magical powers that emerge as she grows older. In this story, healing is possible, but it doesn’t come from love or romance; it can come only with time. Lissar, the young daughter, is given this time, and channels her need for healing and family into caring for a family of orphaned dogs, until she’s finally ready to confront her past.
The Fox Woman—Kij Johnson
Like Wheel of the Infinite, The Fox Woman begins with a character who has fallen into disgrace. Yoshifuji, lover of foxes and ponderer of meaning, is forced to move to his long-deserted country estate after a problem at Court. His wife Shikujo is ashamed, but still loves her husband. His increasing preoccupation with the foxes worries her, as she knows how dangerous they can be. And then there’s Kitsune, a young fox who finds herself drawn to Yoshifuji. Will she become human to be with him? Will Shikujo reveal her own secrets? Will Yoshifuji be able to save his family from disgrace?
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke’s debut novel was a decade in the writing, but once released, it was hailed by fans of fantasy, Regency Romance, and alternative history. Here’s why:
“‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never could.’”
Who could resist that? The plot, briefly, is that Mr. Norrell, a cantankerous older gentleman, and Jonathan Strange, a more romantic younger man, bring magic back to England after a long period of extinction. The two men don’t agree on much. Naturally, the Duke of Wellington wants to use it for the Napoleonic Wars, and there’s talk of a Raven King, and emissaries from Faerie, but really the point of the book is to relax into another world on an October night.
The Night Circus—Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a piece of playful surrealism. In an alternate London, a wandering circus performs only from sunset to sunrise, appears without warning, and pack up for new locations with no notice. It soon attracts a group of obsessive fans who call themselves “rêveurs”—dreamers. Of course, the trick to the circus is that all the magic is real; and of course, there’s a dark side to all the fun. Best of all, the book scoffs at divisions between genre and literary fiction, and adult vs. YA.
The Last Unicorn—Peter S. Beagle
Does anything still need to be said about The Last Unicorn? Peter Beagle’s haunting fantasy, that perfectly balances elegiac prose with tough-minded plot twists, seems more like a perfect found artifact than a book written by a human. But in case you don’t know: Unicorn learns she is last Unicorn, must defeat Red Bull and Evil King to save other Unicorns. Schmendrick the Crap Magician must become better at Magic, help Unicorn. Molly Grue, Former Idealist, must help Unicorn, while mourning the loss of her youth. The book works as both a commentary on fairy tale and fantasy tropes, as well a genuinely moving story in itself.
The War of the Flowers—Tad Williams
Sort of a rock’n’roll Neverending Story, The War of the Flowers starts as one type of book and quickly becomes another. Theo Vilmos’ life quickly goes from not-great to terrible: To start, he’s turning 30, but as a rock singer, has to surround himself with much younger guys. He’s beginning to wonder if he’s wasting his time. Then his girlfriend miscarries their child and dumps him, and he learns that his mother is dying of cancer. Unsure how to continue his life, he retreats to a cabin to read his great-uncle’s fantastical book about Faerie while he considers his future. But then, as he learns that the book isn’t exactly fiction, he finds that his future might be decided for him…
Are Alec and Richard St Vier in love? Or are they dueling? Is there a difference? Ellen Kiushner’s foundational mannerpunk novel tells an intimate story of twisting emotions, court intrigue, and drinking chocolate, where a city’s fortune turns on the latest gossip. The rigid class system demands that men’s honor be upheld through combat when necessary, and Richard St Vier, a Master Swordsman, can take contracts as he chooses. But when Alec is kidnapped by one of the city’s most powerful Lords, St Vier has to decide how far he’s willing to go to get him back.
The Folding Knife—K.J. Parker
The mysterious K.J. Parker gives us an equally mysterious book with The Folding Knife. We follow a man named Basso Severus, once powerful and feared, as he leaves the Republic in poverty. Why? The next 400 pages chronicle about 30 years of his life, through war, economic collapse, family tragedy, and murder, all the while teaching us the history of the knife he carries with him. This isn’t a conventional epic fantasy.
Song of the Beast—Carol Berg
Carol Berg’s Colorado Book Award-winning novel asks, “How much is required of a man chosen by a god?”
Aidan McAllister was the most famous musician in his kingdom, until, upon turning 21, he was imprisoned by the king. Now, 17 years later, his hands and voice are ruined; he has no hope, no future, and no idea why he was jailed. But he is determined to find out the truth and face his enemies. His quest will involve dragons, non-humans, and exposing the truth about the pantheon of gods that rule his society.
Those Who Hunt the Night—Barbara Hambly
When Tor.com ran an excerpt of Those Who Hunt by Night a few years ago, Ms. Hambly wrote an introduction, where she talked about her original idea:
…I thought, “If someone was murdering vampires in their lairs during the daytime, they’d have to hire a Day Man to do the investigation. And they’d have to kill him afterwards.” And then, “If he was smart enough for them to need his help, he’d be smart enough to know what they intended to do.”
The novel, set in the early 20th century, travels from Paris to London as the Day Man, James Asher, recruits his physician wife to help him unravel the mystery, while keeping a few steps ahead of his employers.
Rats and Gargoyles—Mary Gentle
On the one hand, Rat Lords have decreed that all humans are their slaves. On the other, God-Daemons have decided to end all of existence. With the odds stacked against them, a small group of humans led by White Crow attempt to start a revolution. She is helped by a Prince who refuses the shackles of slavery, and a young Katayan woman who is destined to become humanity’s Living Memory. With so much power working against them, will they be able to create a magic strong enough to save themselves, let alone all of humanity?
Emerald House Rising—Peg Kerr
Jena is the daughter of the Gemcutter. Her father supplies jewels and amulets to royalty, and more than a few of them have their own magic. She has learned well, and even created a few pieces of her own, but the law of her land says she must marry, not carry on her father’s work. However, as her own magical abilities grow, the powerful Lord Morgan recognizes her gifts, and realizes that she must set out on a far different path than an ordinary girl. The two will have to become true partners if they are to avert a war—and save the kingdom.
Elantris was the luminous capital of Arelon until its magic failed. Now the Elantrians, once demigods, are as shrunken and powerless as their city is fallen and ruined. When Princess Sarene arrives to wed the Crown Prince, Raoden, she hopes to find love and bring hope to her new people. When she finds that Raoden is dead, she still attempts to protect her adopted city from the cunning of the usurper Hrathen. As the two struggle, neither suspects the truth: Prince Raoden lives, cursed, but still working to uncover the secret of Elantris’ magic, and restore Arelon to its former glory.
The Goblin Emperor—Katherine Addison
One of the most delightful books of the year. Maia, half-goblin, must rule a nation of caste-obsessed elves, most of whom hate him. He is the rare emperor who doesn’t want to rule, but as he gets drawn into Court intrigue, he soon learns that he may be the best half-elf for the job. This is a fantasy novel that doesn’t concern itself with epic battles, dragons, and fair maidens; instead it focuses on bureaucracy, court intrigue, and the ongoing murder investigation that becomes all the more labyrinthine as Maia draws nearer to his father’s assassins.