You know the kind of book I mean. You find it in the “Fiction & Literature” section of Barnes & Noble, and you’re confused because, hey, isn’t that a fantasy novel? Or you find it in the “Fantasy” section—except isn’t it a little too grounded in the real world to really be fantasy?
Of course, spotting these books is easier now that we can order everything online, but you still run into the problem of how to describe them. They’re fantasy, but not! They’re realistic, but only kind of! They’re urban fantasy, but don’t those usually have magical creatures of some kind—vampires or werewolves or witches or ghosts? They’re magical realism, except, let’s be honest here, magical realism is a very specific genre, and most of what we call magical realism nowadays isn’t that at all.
These books may be hard to describe, but despite this (or maybe because of it), they’re often my favorites. The ones that live in the liminal space between fantasy and reality. The ones that have just enough magic to screw everything up—or, sometimes, to set everything right again.
The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman
Of all the books on this list, Lehrman’s debut—which features “hekamists,” people with witchlike powers who cook their spells into food—comes the closest to actual urban fantasy. But it’s not, because while urban fantasy tends to put its magical element front and center, this book uses hekamists and their magic as a jumping-off point for the intertwining stories of its four non-magical narrators. Lehrman weaves her magic so seamlessly into the world of the story that sometimes you almost forget that it’s kind of a fantasy novel.
This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee
You’ve read Frankenstein, right? And you’ve read the (often sexist) debates about whether it’s reeeeally science fiction, right? Well, your next step should probably be reading This Monstrous Thing, a reimagined history of how Mary Shelley’s novel came to be. Like Frankenstein itself, this one doesn’t just blur the line between historical fiction and fantasy; it also blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi, with a touch of steampunk for a little extra flavor. Bonus points for an excellent supporting cast that includes a queer lady character who totally deserves her own book.
Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
This one has a werewolf in it! Or, uh, maybe it doesn’t! Or it does, but only kind of? You actually don’t find out for sure until the very end of the book, so I won’t spoil it for you. But I will tell you this much: The book takes place over the course of one night, during which protagonist Drew waits for the full moon to turn him into a wolf. That’s it. That’s the plot. But oh, goodness, don’t read this one unless you are fully prepared to be utterly wrecked.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
This book tells the story of a marriage. This book also tells the story of a magic phone that lets main character Georgie communicate with her husband in the past. It’s not quite time travel, but it’s not quite not time travel. The phone is a singular magical object in an otherwise completely realistic world—and also a plot device that’s so deceptively simple, you kind of think there’s no way it could actually work. And yet, it does. Plus, the timelines tie together so very, very satisfyingly. Plus, sentences written by Rainbow Rowell. Hello.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King
This is a contemporary story and a futuristic dystopian story at the same time—except we only see the dystopian future through the eyes of Glory, a teenaged girl who drinks the remains of a dead bat (mixed with beer!) and suddenly develops the power to look at anyone in the world and glimpse their future. These glimpses fit together to form a terrifyingly Fury Road-esque vision of a future where women are treated little better than cattle. But unlike Furiosa and Katniss and all our other favorite dystopian heroines, Glory can’t do anything for the future but witness (sorry-not-sorry, Mad Max fans) as she continues to live her own life here in the present.
Top image from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Lindsay Ribar likes concerts, wine, Due South fanfic, cat pictures, and actual cats. Her third novel, Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies (June 7), has been described as “wow, kinda weird!” and “pretty feminist for a book about boys” and “kind of disturbing? but in a cool way?” by her friends. Ask her about her Harry Potter tattoo.