Quick! Give us five books about dragons. Or girls disguising themselves as boys. Or magic systems with particularly high costs. When authors are releasing their new books out into the world, we like to pick their brains for a quintet of similar books that might have inspired them. Or, as with our “And Related Subjects” essays, we want authors to list books that have nothing to do with their creative process, but that address a fascinating topic or reversal in genre. Since 2015, we’ve been asking authors to share serious or cheeky book recommendations for our Five Books About… series. With over 100 lists, that’s close to 500 books to check out (minus any overlap, which are probably books you doubly want to check out). Read through some of our best lists (so far) for the books that compel great authors to write.
No surprise, many authors are fascinated with portals and other entry points to fantasy worlds. V.E. Schwab points out magical doors, from the well-known to the obscure, while Soman Chainani cracks open beloved books to recall their first lines. Lavie Tidhar shares the classic SF stories that shaped his novel Central Station (including the digitality vs. physicality in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), while Madeline Ashby visits five company towns that inspired her eponymous one.
Heroes and villains make appearances in many of our lists, with these classic archetypes often intertwined: Myke Cole waxes poetic about the horrendous mistakes that make flawed characters so fascinating, while Zen Cho hails the inconvenient women who acted as forebears to her “unlikeable” protagonist Prunella Gentleman. Max Gladstone tracks down the weirdest spies, Patrick Hemstreet follows psychonauts from Dune to Cloud Atlas, and Marc Turner explains why you do not want your enemy to bring a stormbringer to a sword fight. And while Aliette de Bodard shudders at memories of The Other Mother and her fellow creepy monsters, Fran Wilde examines the notion of the monstrous, lurking in the dark corners of our subconscious but minding their own business until humans piss them off.
Like a great book, many of these lists are built on reversals. Rachel Hartman thinks even the most ecstatic of atheists will dig into these theological fantasies. We know how tricky unreliable narrators can make a story (Avery Hastings knows a few), but Kate Elliott surprises us with how much intact family relationships complicate everything. And one might argue that Cinder shouldn’t have recycled an old fairytale, or that Howl’s Moving Castle is too meandering, but Kathleen Baldwin loves these literary rule-breakers.
Some of the best lists are truly “WTF”: Nick Courage provides a primer for the pop stars—”whether they’re fleshy marionettes of literal spiders from Mars… or just run-of-the-mill Satanists and serial killers”—trying to kill you with their music. Marc Turner courts danger (and the possibility of getting flamebroiled) when he puts dragons in their place. And Eric Smith jumps from Starship Troopers to Mort(e) to identify five giant insects ruining everyone’s day.
Not to worry about the bugs, however, as there are five books about fantastic horses. Because horses are goddamn majestic.