Fantasy fiction is best known for its giant, door-stopping series that come in trilogies or longer. Of course, not everyone wants to embark on a ten-book project. And even if you love series, sometimes it’s nice to read a standalone story that provides a satisfying resolution within a single book. With that in mind, I’ve set out to provide a list of ten fantasy stories that have all the thrills of a series but stand alone as a single volume.
The first thing I should note is that this list is for novel-length works only, although there are tons of great fantasy novellas out there. I also decided that I was only going to list one book by each individual author, which meant making some tough decisions (especially when it comes to Neil Gaiman’s writing). Finally, I wanted each of these books to be a true standalone with no sequel on the way. That means no Goblin Emperor or Elantris! Even with those limitations, I found plenty of standalone fantasy stories I love—enough that I struggled to cap this list at ten. Shout out to some stories that almost made it on here: The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, and The Steel Seraglio by Linda, Louise, and Mike Carey.
Some of the entries on this list are well-known bestsellers; others, not as much. I hope that everyone who reads this will find at least one book that’s new to them.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
When I set out to create this list, I knew The Last Unicorn had to be on it—it is my favorite of all classic fantasy novels. With its lyrical writing, The Last Unicorn sweeps me away into its timeless story of a unicorn who fears she may be the last of her kind and sets out on a journey to find others. While Peter S. Beagle has returned to this world with some short stories and a novelette, The Last Unicorn remains a standalone novel.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a modern-day classic—one that’s even received an adaptation from the BBC. The story follows two Regency-era magicians who are prophesized to bring magic back to England. The two start out as mentor and student but are soon at odds, and their rivalry threatens to destroy them. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a huge tome of a novel, but I enjoyed every moment of it. Clarke writes in the style of nineteenth-century authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and her narration brims with sly humor. The use of footnotes is simply delightful, with asides that range from commentary on the characters and events to stories-within-stories. It’s a fiendishly clever novel that fully deserves its high renown.
The Devourers by Indra Das
I nearly quit reading The Devourers early on, but I’m so glad I didn’t. In modern-day Kolkata, India, Alok encounters a man who claims to be half werewolf and who has a set of mysterious texts he needs transcribed. From these texts arises the dark story of shapeshifters in Mughal India. The Devourers centers around the rape of a human woman by a male shapeshifter, and the brutality of that section had me struggling with the story. But then the narration is handed squarely to the woman, Cyrah, whose anger and determination make her voice unforgettable. The Devourers is a story about monsters and the monstrous ways we can treat each other, but it’s also a story that insists on holding its characters accountable for their actions. Finally, The Devourers happens to be one of the queerest stories I’ve ever read, embracing fluidity of gender and sexuality.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are both fantastic authors whose work sparkles with humor and humanity. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with both Gaiman and Pratchett, and I have no doubt that Gaiman’s American Gods makes many people’s list of best standalone fantasy novels. But the authorial team-up of Gaiman and Pratchett is a match made in literary heaven, and as a result, I’ve read Good Omens more times than I can count. The end of the world is nigh, and someone’s misplaced the Antichrist. Can you imagine a more hilarious take on the end of the world? I sure can’t.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
Sadly, I had never read this fantasy classic until last year. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld tells the tale of Sybel, an isolated wizard who lives alone with her menagerie of powerful and magical creatures. Then Sybel finds herself raising the secret son of a king, and her quiet life collides with the world of powerful men. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld explores themes of forgiveness, revenge, love, and power. It’s also exquisitely written and has the feel of an original fairy tale, with all the emotional strength of the very best fables and legends.
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
Sunshine is one of my all-time favorite books, and I go back to it whenever I need a comfort read. Sunshine needs a break from working at the family bakery and heads out to her grandma’s cabin in the woods. Alone. At night. Which is unwise in a world where humans are barely hanging on in the fight against vampires… I don’t know what I love most about Sunshine, because there’s just so much about it that’s great. McKinley writes Sunshine’s narration in the first person, unleashing a stream of consciousness that’s both hilarious and deeply personal. Perhaps because of that, we see the world she creates only in glimpses, but you know there’s plenty more going on beneath the surface. Sunshine herself is a heroine both flawed and courageous who’s only beginning to learn the extent of her own power.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
What happens when Christian missionaries go to fairyland to convert the fae? It could be the start of a comedy, but in the highly capable hands of Jeannette Ng, it becomes a haunting Gothic fantasy tale. Catherine Helston pursues her missionary brother to the fairy realm of Arcadia and encounters a world where everything she takes for granted, from physics to faith, is questioned. Under the Pendulum Sun is a disconcerting read, with Catherine constantly in peril of falling under the sway of Arcadia’s insanity. Intricate and thoughtful, Under the Pendulum Sun is a book whose depths I’ve yet to fully explore.
Ariah by B.R. Sanders
After reading Foz Meadows’ glowing review, I rushed to find a copy of Ariah, a coming-of-age story that’s a spiritual sibling to The Goblin Emperor. Ariah did not disappoint. I immediately fell under the spell of this immersive story about home, love, identity, and family. In this intensely character-focused novel, the young elf Ariah is a shaper, with the ability to feel others’ emotions…but Ariah often gets so lost in the feelings of others that he loses himself. Over the course of the story, Ariah struggles with himself, his place in society, and his growing knowledge of both the complexity and injustice of the world he lives in.
Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
I’ve read quite a few books where magic is tied to artistic creation, but the young adult novel Iron Cast outshines all the rest. This Prohibition era-inspired fantasy imagines a world where certain people can use the arts to cast magic but all acts of magic are banned. Best friends Ada and Corinne perform at an illegal club, a sort of magical speakeasy, but also run cons to make ends meet. When Ada gets arrested and confined to an asylum, it’s only the beginning of the duo’s troubles. Iron Cast presents a luscious setting and an emotionally-laden plot that kept me on the edge of my seat. Perhaps most of all, I adore Iron Cast’s focus on female friendship, something which can be all too scarce in fantasy novels.
City of Bones by Martha Wells
Martha Wells has recently entered the spotlight with her delightful, award-winning science fiction novella All Systems Red, but she’s also got a fabulous backlist. City of Bones wars with Death of the Necromancer for my favorite Martha Wells novel, but City of Bones undoubtedly wins the place of “Best Standalone by Martha Wells.” The post-apocalyptic fantasy world displays the author’s characteristic imagination, and the plot never fails to keep me gripped to the page. Khat, our protagonist, works as a relics trader and treasure hunter to keep himself afloat in a city where he’s a non-citizen. When an expedition hires him on as a guide, he finds himself involved in a search for a relic of unprecedented power.
Originally published in December 2018.
Sarah Waites has been reading science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. Her book blog, The Illustrated Page, reviews SFF books through a queer feminist lens. You can follow her on Twitter.