The stories I like the best are the ones that surprise you. What you think is a high fantasy takes a hard turn into sci-fi or—more exciting—contemporary. Or a book that starts as contemporary but turns very willingly into demonic possession. They jump genres, you could say. And they’re honestly my favorite. They help remind me that not every story fits so neatly in a box, and nothing ever should (except for maybe pet spiders). Stories are held by the walls you make for them.
So why stick to the rules?
A lot of my recs are portal fantasies, you’ll find. I have a theory that when you add a portal, you give yourself free reign to do absolutely anything. Want to write a YA rom-com where the heroine is the descendant of a priestess who lived in her family’s shrine? And you want to add a magical well and time-traveling—but you want to also add demons? Well, friends, I’ve got good and bad news. The good news is that you can read that right now! The bad news is that someone already beat you to it.
Here are a few of my favorite genre-jumping masterpieces.
First up is The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. When you first meet this story, you think it’s about a 40-year-old caseworker charged with investigating an orphanage, but this case turns out to be a little different than all of the others. While the story is soft and warm, like a hug from your favorite friend in a post-COVID19 world, it also tackles the weighty subjects of home and acceptance and, above all, the fear of strangers, and the labels we put on them before we ever meet them. It’s both a contemporary look at a quiet and small corporate life and an unexpected high fantasy full of firebirds, slime monsters, and the Antichrist. The strangest thing yet? By the end, it leaves you satisfied and happy and whole.
Much like The House in the Cerulean Sea, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a masterclass in balancing contemporary struggles in a fantastical world. It’s both a portal fantasy within the country Ingary, but also a portal fantasy into our world as well. When the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie Hatter as an 80-year-old woman, she must go undercover as the cleaning lady in a mysterious wizard’s moving castle to break it. But what you think is a simple high fantasy jumps—quite unexpectedly—into a contemporary family drama that plays out both in the magical moving castle and also Howl’s home country of Wales. Real-world Wales. Howl is Welsh, you see. And a good-for-nothing graduate student at that. Howl’s Moving Castle is a portal fantasy, a domestic family drama, and a regency rom-com rolled into one—and who doesn’t want to read that?
But if domestic family struggles aren’t your style, may I recommend Good Omens? Though I love the book, written by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, I think Amazon’s adaptation somehow improves upon the original narration. While Crowley and Aziraphale dance around each other in the book, in the series they downright make googly eyes toward each other. What begins as a supernatural adventure full of demons and angels morphs almost seamlessly into a contemporary opposites-attract workplace rom-com with high fantasy stakes, where two business rivals end up realizing that the corporations they’re working for are corrupt, and turn in their two-weeks notices as dramatically as possible. (Can you tell I have a thing for workplace AUs?)
Remember when I mentioned a YA heroine who falls down a well? Well. Do I have the rec for you. Rumiko Takahashi’s manga Inuyasha and its anime adaption are everything I could ever want from a quasi-historical, folkloric masterpiece. Inuyasha is about a young woman from present-day Tokyo who falls down a well in her family’s shrine, and ends up in feudal Japan where she frees a half-demon her ancestor cursed to sleep for eternity. And thus begins the story of Inuyasha. It has everything: a curse! Magic! A half-dog demon! A love triangle! The heroine doing trig homework while traveling across feudal Japan! It’s zany and heartfelt. Honestly I’ve been chasing the high that I got from episode 13 of the anime for over ten years.
I’ll let you know when I catch it.
My last rec is a weird one, but since I’m screaming about cross-species lovers and moving houses and the Antichrist, I’m not going to waste my shot. If you’re a gamer like me, and you like fun gameplay, cool storylines, diverse and interesting characters, and beautiful illustrations—oh, and food! Lots of food!—then you have to play Trinket Studio’s Battle Chef Brigade. I stumbled upon it a few years ago and I didn’t really get what it was about—but the second I started playing it, I fell in love. You play as Mina, a young woman raised in her family’s Chinese-inspired restaurant, who wants to become one of the greatest Battle Chefs in the kingdom. If you’re looking for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a side-scrolling puzzle element and a lot of cool food, then you cannot miss this game. Both the solo campaign and the multiplayer element are fun—but be warned, if you kill the dragon and take the dragon heart when I’m clearly trying to make dragon heart chorizo… our friendship will be over.
Now I kinda feel like revisiting all these stories again. How soon is too soon to reread The House in the Cerulean Sea? …Asking for a friend.
What are some of your favorite genre-jumping masterpieces?
Originally published in July 2020.
Ashley Poston is the author of the Once Upon a Con series (Quirk Books), Heart of Iron, and Soul of Stars (HarperCollins). Her fangirl heart has taken her everywhere from the houses of Hollywood screenwriters to the stages of music festivals to geeked-out conventions (in cosplay, of course). When she’s not inventing new recipes with peanut butter, having passionate dance-offs with her cat, or geeking out all over the internet, she writes books. She lives in small-town South Carolina, where you can see the stars impossibly well.