Spring is blooming around us, birds are returning to the trees, the weather is finally warming… just as many of us are having to stay inside to ride out a global pandemic. While these are stressful times for all of us, the good news is that there are plenty of beautiful, escapist fantasies out there to fill that nature void, pique our curiosity about the environment, and celebrate our magical planet.
I work seasonally as a ranger with the National Park Service, and my time in the Smokey Bear hat always inspires the stories I put on paper. My editor has described my upcoming release Sunshield as “eco-fantasy”—an adventure where the rugged wilderness plays as big a role as the protagonists venturing through it. I love this fusion of two of the biggest passions in my life—epic magical adventures and our incredible natural world. Here are six of my favorite eco-fantasies from other authors—settle in with one and strike off into the wilderness… without breaking quarantine!
The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
The concept of everything in nature having a spirit is such a beautiful, romantic thought. Except… what if all of those spirits were bent on killing you? That’s the premise of Durst’s Queens of Renthia series, which follows different heroines as they wield their magic to control the murderous urges of every single tree, rock, cloud, and stream. Prepare to whizz through soaring treetops and prowl through the mysterious forest floor while spirits—sometimes cute, sometimes gruesome, but always deadly—swarm around you. I love Durst’s choice of having a mother as the protagonist of the second book, The Reluctant Queen—mothers so rarely get to be the heroines of fantasy stories, and it’s such a treat to see one fight for her country while still nurturing her children.
Great for: Hikers who have ever skinned a knee or stubbed a toe and wanted revenge.
The Bees by Laline Paull
Remember Watership Down? The classic tale of brutal rabbit politics set against an idyllic English countryside? The Bees is like that, only with honeybees. And feminism. And this incredible high fantasy vibe, with queens and heirs and sinister court intrigue. Set in a hive and following the story of Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee, this book sings with nature’s poetry. Flowers whisper and call out to the pollen-collecting foragers. The hive hums with secret messages and strange powers. Threats loom in the outside world—spiders setting their snares, manmade structures poisoning and starving the hive, and the strange, intangible curse of climate change. Both a fascinating look at bee social structure and a commentary on our changing world, The Bees left me positively ringing (okay, I could have chosen buzzing here, but that seemed too easy).
Great for: Crunchy activists who want something cerebral to read while their zero-waste sourdough rises.
The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
While most of the entries on this list are recent releases, I had to feature this foundational part of my childhood. The Moorchild follows the story of Saaski, one of the mythical Moor Folk who, after landing in some trouble, is swapped for a human baby. As a changeling, she finds herself rejected by the other village children and drawn to the high, misty moors without understanding why. This book captivated my young imagination with the real-life herbs and rituals that frightened Saaski, the sylvan world of the mysterious Folk, and the thrilling wildness of the moor.
A content warning—there are a few chapters featuring a band of gypsies, and the representation is poor. When I recently read this book to my children, we talked about how this was a disrespectful portrayal of Romani people. If you’re giving this book to kids, I encourage you to have a similar conversation. For my kids, it helped them understand they can identify problematic content while still enjoying the other aspects of the story.
Great for: The wild, barefoot child in all of us convinced the fae are out there somewhere.
Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
This middle-grade book, by Coretta Scott King award-winner Jewell Parker Rhodes, is a lush dive into magical realism, set in the Louisiana bayou at the time of the Gulf oil spill. The story follows Maddy, a New Orleans girl spending the summer with her mysterious Grandmère. Through her grandmother’s tales and the beauty of the bayou, Maddy discovers magic in herself and the world around her, from firefly companions to whispers in her mind to mermaids in the swamp. I love how Maddy uses her magic to combat environmental degradation—it feels intensely here-and-now while remaining uplifting for young readers. Rich with African folklore and natural splendor, this book is perfect for long summer evenings on the screen porch.
Great for: Big dreamers, bug chasers, and those who find magic in both the mundane and the extraordinary.
Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier
This is a different pick from the others. Rather than being saturated in nature-based magic, I love this book for its stirring sense of adventure. This is a book! About! Maps! Fantasy cartography, people! Tall ships and compasses and sea monsters! If you’re like me, this book will sing to your wild explorer’s soul. I loved the lived-in feel to the island world and the way the sea was embroidered into the culture of St. John del Mar. I loved the intertwining of myth and science, and the glimpses into the crucial art and skill of historic mapmaking. The standalone sequel, Song of the Abyss, is equally swashbuckling.
Great for: Map nerds, explorers, mermaids and/or harpies.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe is the companion to The Song of Achilles, but it’s easily read as a standalone (although… you should totally read Achilles too). Not only are Miller’s two Greek mythology novels wrenching, vivid works, but they’re thick with elemental spirits and deities. Follow Circe, disgraced daughter of Helios, god of the sun, as she hones her skills in herbalism and witchcraft among the beasts and wilderness of Aeaea. Venture with her as she shapes the fates of gods and men with her draughts and spells. Lovers of the classics will appreciate all the entwining threads of familiar deities and heroes, while tired climate crusaders can fulfill their dreams of running away to a remote island and becoming a fearsome witch.
Great for: Fans of myths, monsters, and the ability to turn enemies into swine.
Emily B. Martin is a park ranger during the summer and an author/illustrator the rest of the year. An avid hiker and explorer, her experiences as a ranger help inform the characters and worlds of The Outlaw Road duology and the Creatures of Light trilogy. When not patrolling national parks such as Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains, or the Boy Scouts’ Philmont Scout Ranch, she lives in South Carolina with her husband, Will, and two daughters, Lucy and Amelia. Her new book, Sunshield, will be out on May 26, 2020 from Harper Voyager.