We read fantasy for many reasons, and one of the best reasons is to delight in the wild variety of animal characters that act as the companions, guides, benefactors, and occasional thorn-in-the-side of their fictional humans. Here we’ve corralled and caged some of our favorites—from wolves bonded to humans, half-rats on the run from the law, patriarchal anthropomorphic tigers, and uplifted elephants—into a prose-based Noah’s Ark allegory! Check out all the creatures great, small, and telepathic below, and be sure to add your own favorite fantasy animals in the comments.
All of these titles can be found in the Tor Store on iBooks for your December reading needs!
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, by Lawrence Schoen
In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity’s genius—animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets.
To break the Fant’s control of koph, an off-world shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend’s son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.
Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire
The world of Faerie never disappeared; it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Outsiders from birth, these half-human, half-fae children spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas…
Toby ends up with an unlikely companion in the form of Spike, a “Rose Goblin”. Rose Goblins are flower fae, and look like cat shaped rosebushes. Since they’re covered with pink and gray rose thorns, petting them is a risky proposition. They rattle their thorns to talk, and they smell like peat moss and roses. Spike keeps an uneasy peace with Toby’s cats, Cagney and Lacey, and he looooves car rides.
King Rat, by China Mieville
China Mieville’s urban fantasy take on the Pied Piper story takes us into a London only rats know. Saul Garamond is half-rat, so he’s able to fit into tight spaces when necessary, and maybe more important, he can eat just about anything. After he’s framed for his father’s murder, he is rescued by King Rat, and taken on an epic journey. Can the rat kingdom ally with the birds and spiders to defeat the Piper? Or will the Piper’s entrancing music mean the death of them all?
A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
A Companion to Wolves is an “animal companion” story that digs its claws into what such a relationship would actually become. Njall is a young nobleman with a bright future, but when he finds himself drawn to the life of a wolfcarl – a warrior bonded to a fighting wolf – his name, life, and deepest ideas of identity are all challenged. He becomes Isolfr, bonded to the queen wolf, Viradechtis, and joins in the constant fight against trolls and wyverns that keep polite society safe.
But life in the wolfhealls is anything but polite, as Isolf learns how to let another animals culture and sexuality into his own mind. He must decide where his honor lies, and discover the lengths to which he will to go when it, and love for his wolf, drive him.
The Fox Woman, by Kij Johnson
Yoshifuji is a man fascinated by foxes, a man discontented and troubled by the meaning of life. A misstep at court forces him to retire to his long-deserted country estate, to rethink his plans and contemplate the next move that might return him to favor and guarantee his family’s prosperity.
Kitsune is a young fox who is fascinated by the large creatures that have suddenly invaded her world. She is drawn to them and to Yoshifuji. She comes to love him and will do anything to become a human woman to be with him.
Shikujo is Yoshifuji’s wife, ashamed of her husband, yet in love with him and uncertain of her role in his world. She is confused by his fascination with the creatures of the wood, and especially the foxes that she knows in her heart are harbingers of danger. She sees him slipping away and is determined to win him back from the wild…for all that she has her own fox-related secret…
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier. But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right–not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself. And what, readers, could be so important that it will set history back on course?
Obviously it’s a cat.
Princess Arjumand, beloved pet of the spoiled Victorian Tossie Mering, whose descendants are the ones trying to restore Coventry. And that’s to say nothing of the dogs Ned needs to deal with…
Jennie, by Douglas Preston
On a research trip to West Africa, Dr. Hugo Archibald of the Boston Museum of Natural History encounters an orphaned baby chimpanzee. Archibald decides to bring the ape, whom he names Jennie, back to Boston and raise her alongside his own two young children as a kind of scientific experiment. Jennie captures the hearts of everyone she encounters. She believes herself to be a human being. She does almost everything a human child can, from riding a tricycle to fighting over the television with her siblings to communicating in American Sign Language.
Told from shifting points of view of those closest to Jennie, this heartwarming and bittersweet novel forces us to take a closer look at the species that shares 98 percent of our DNA and ask ourselves the question: What does it really mean to be human?
Tailchaser’s Song, by Tad Williams
Tailchaser’s Song is a classic quest, complete with brave deeds, epic songs, and devious villains. The fact that it’s all about cats makes it even better! Fritti Tailchaser is a large ginger tom who leaves his home to search for his friend, Hushpad. Along the way he encounters a variety of other cats, as well as some Growlers (dogs), while trying to avoid the dangers of M’an–those deformed descendants of cats who have strayed so far from a proper, wild, life.
The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett
It’s turtles all the way down! They carry the whole world on their mighty shells. And if that’s not enough animal love, the Librarian is an orangutan! But our favorite critter in the whole series has to be Greebo, Nanny Ogg’s scarred, one-eyed, nigh-homicidal tomcat. He’s eaten at least two vampires, taken down at least one elf, and spent some time as a human. In all of Discworld he fears only the Nac Mac Feegle, a rooster named Legba, and Granny Weatherwax’s little white kitten, You.
A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Hamilton
This is the remarkable story of one endearing dog’s search for his purpose over the course of several lives. More than just another charming dog story, A Dog’s Purpose touches on the universal quest for an answer to life’s most basic question: Why are we here?
Surprised to find himself reborn as a rambunctious golden-haired puppy after a tragically short life as a stray mutt, Bailey’s search for his new life’s meaning leads him into the loving arms of 8-year-old Ethan. During their countless adventures Bailey joyously discovers how to be a good dog.
But this life as a beloved family pet is not the end of Bailey’s journey. Reborn as a puppy yet again, Bailey wonders–will he ever find his purpose?
Heartwarming, insightful, and often laugh-out-loud funny, A Dog’s Purpose is not only the emotional and hilarious story of a dog’s many lives, but also a dog’s-eye commentary on human relationships and the unbreakable bonds between man and man’s best friend. This moving and beautifully crafted story teaches us that love never dies, that our true friends are always with us, and that every creature on earth is born with a purpose.
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series features one of the greatest fictional animal lovers, Rubeus Hagrid. Hagrid literally sees the best in every creature, be they dragon, hippogriff, blast-ended skrewt, or humble flobberworm. (Plus his cabin, already the most welcoming place at Hogwarts, is made even better by Fang the Irish Wolfhound.) And while Scabbers turns out to be less than ideal as an animal companion, Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks, and Hedwig, The Greatest Owl of All Time, more than make up for him.
The Builders, by Daniel Polansky
Yeah, the last job didn’t end well.
The Captain’s company has kept a low profile since then, eking out an existence in the shadow of the war they lost. But that doesn’t mean the memories have faded, or even that the wounds have scarred. It’s all still fresh to the Captain. He finally sees a shot at vengeance, but how many of his old company are left? And how many will join the old mouse on one last tour? Opossum sniper Boudica, stoat assassin Bonsoir, and the sinister salamander named Cinnabar all answer his call, but will they be enough to settle the score? The Builders are out in the world raising all kinds of hell right now, plus you can read an excerpt here!
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Kzinti are a race of warrior cats, somewhat similar to anthropomorphic tigers. The males prize heroic acts in battle above all else, and earn their names through valorous deeds. The females are treated as chattel, and at a certain point alien biotech was used to drop them to a level of sub-sentience. Telepaths occur occasionally, and are forced to ingest certain drugs to enhance their power. Kzinti fur is usually a combination of yellow, orange, and black, but the rare fully-black cubs are inducted into the cult of the Black Priests. The Kzinti are featured throughout the Ringworld books (in fact the Ringworld is a home to one of the few groups of intelligent female Kzinrretti) and have appeared Star Trek: The Animated Series.
The Golden Compass, By Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s fantasy already earned a place on this list thanks to Iorek Byrnison the armored bear. But what puts this book over the top, animal-wise, is the inclusion of the shape-shifting daemons! Each human has a daemon (kind of a personification of their soul?) which takes on different animal forms until their human goes through puberty, at which point they set into one form. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, changes shape constantly, but favors being a pine marten, Lord Asriel’s s a regal snow leopard, and Mrs. Coulter’s is a treacherous golden monkey.
Through Wolf’s Eyes, by Jane Lindskjold
Firekeeper has no memory of her human family, but her pack has raised her well. When she decides to reenter human society, a blue-eyed wolf named Blind Seer comes with her, and they soon befriend a peregrine falcon named elation. The two animals have to help their human navigate a complex new world of court politics, as rival factions fight for the throne, and Firekeeper’s life is threatened.
Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb
Nighteyes is a flea-infested pup when Fitz buys him, planning to release him into the wild. The wolf has other plans, though, and stays with Fitz until the man allows them to Wit-bond, and Nighteyes shares his skills, and his real name. Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him sectetly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill–and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Babel fish, “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” It’s small and yellow, looks a little like a Terran leech, and fits fairly well in a human ear canal. As for food “It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.” It also has both proved and disproved the existence of God. Pretty good for a tiny little space fish.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Sandworms live underground on the desert planet Arrakis. They excrete the spice mélange, which is the preferred party drug of the people of the Dune universe. They’re also known as Shai-Hulud, and look sort of like huge lampreys, with rows of crystalline teeth. They can grow to be over a thousand feet long. Riding a sandworm is a rite of passage among the Fremen, the indigenous population of Arrakis, and it becomes the key point in Paul Atreides rise to power, as his mastery of, um, wormsmanship gains him loyalty from his people, eventually leading to near-worship.
Beastmaster’s Planet, by Andre Norton
Telepathically linked to his team animals, Storm served valiantly in the war that eventually defeated the alien Xiks, though victory could not prevent the aliens from destroying Earth. With his homeworld gone, Storm emigrated to the colonized frontier planet Arzor. Will he be able to use his skills as Beast Master, and the loyalty of his animal partners, to save his new home?
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next is a literary detective in Jasper Fforde’s series about an alternate Great Britain where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality, and literature is taken very, very seriously. At the intersection of literature and cloning is Pickwick, Thursday’s pet dodo, and at the intersection of literature and detection is Thursday’s biggest case! When someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career.