Six Standalone Fantasy Novels that Stand Out

There’s a certain satisfaction in picking up a fantasy novel and knowing it’s a standalone. For one, you won’t have to wait a year, or two, or even five before you find out what happens next. In that time you’ve invariably forgotten much of the first, or previous book anyway, so a lot of the time you have to reread to get up to speed. Also, you won’t end up picking up an interesting looking fantasy novel from the shelves, starting it, then realizing it’s actually book two of a trilogy, or book four in a ten book series.

With Blood of the Four, we wanted to build a big, epic world full of fascinating characters, and tell a story that comes to a definite end. The reader will hopefully end up satisfied, the story threads come together. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t other stories that could be told about that vast world of Quandis…

We were partly inspired by other great standalone fantasy novels we’ve read, but because we read so broadly in so many different genres, when we discussed making this list, we also wanted to take a broad definition of fantasy. Here are just a small selection of our favorite fantastical epics, with a few words about why we think they work so well. We came up with the list together, then split them up, three a piece.

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Setting the Stakes in Storytelling

Everyone turns up for a car chase at the end of the world, and the cars won’t start.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is a movie of exquisite direction, and I’m madly in love with the action scenes. Violence in Cuarón’s movie is sudden and unemphasized: the camera doesn’t flinch, the sound mixing doesn’t dwell, and that gives the action a terrible power. Children of Men knows a subtle secret.

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Half-Assed in a Half-Shell — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

While 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III didn’t do well enough to warrant a fourth film, the heroes in a half-shell continued unabated in various forms throughout the rest of the 1990s and the 2000s, both in comic books and on screen. The most successful was the animated series, which ran from 1987-1996. That was followed by a live-action series called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation in 1997, which only lasted a season; a 2007 animated sequel to the three live-action films called TMNT; and two new animated series, one from 2003-2009 and another from 2012-2017 (another would debut in 2018). Plus the Turtles continued to be published in comics from Mirage, as well as Image and more recently IDW.

And then in 2014, a new film was made.

[“Remember that thing you used to say when we were kids?” “You made me promise never to say it again.” “Forget about that! Still got one in the tank?” “I’ve been holding it in for years!”]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

What Manga, Anime, and Japanese History Teaches Us About Loving Robots

After losing to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open a couple of years ago, tennis star Serena Williams said, “As much as I would like to be a robot, I am not. I try to. But, you know, I do the best that I can.”

The implication is that if Williams were a robot, she would be a perfect, match-winning machine. A consequence of being human is our inherent fallibility. How many Western narratives are built on this very premise of robotic perfection and efficiency?  The Terminator can, well, “terminate” with such precision because the T-800 is a cyborg from the future. Marvel’s Ultron is a superpowered threat because of the cutting-edge technology that goes into creating the villain. Ava’s advanced programming in Ex Machina makes us recognize that, of course, the A.I.’s cunning can outwit a human. And let’s not even talk about the menacing efficiency of the security robots in Chopping Mall! Point is: if we’re looking for reference material to support the thesis that “technology is scary,” there’s plenty at our fingertips.

[But robots don’t have to be murder machines!]

The Monster at the End of This Episode — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Saints of Imperfection”

One of the themes of the second season of Discovery is fixing what was broken—or at least off-kilter—in the first season. Some of these are carried a bit too far. Honestly, I don’t need Pike not liking holographic communicators to “justify” why they didn’t have them in “The Cage” in 1964. (I also don’t need them to explain why the Enterprise used printouts in that failed pilot episode.)

But with this episode, they address one of the biggest fuckups of season one, the death of Hugh Culber in “Despite Yourself.”

[“Mr. Stamets, are you ready to execute this very bold, deeply insane plan of yours?”]

Pull List: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and DIE and the Lure of Nostalgia

Looking back on something you once loved deeply is a double-edged sword. Sometimes you revisit the past and find it not nearly as hospitable and compelling as you thought, and sometimes you find fresh new ways to engage with the material.

For this month’s Pull List we’re taking a trip down memory lane with two comics that take very different approaches to nostalgia. DIE asks what it means to confront the past while Buffy the Vampire Slayer excavates all the best bits from the way back when and pairs them with contemporary sensibilities. So when I tell you to call your local comic shop ASAP to place your order, you better be pulling out your phone.

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A Transformed Woman: Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.”

“Either become a woman, or make me a cat.”

The image of a beast hiding deep within an enchanted forest in an enchanted castle, waiting to be transformed through love, is generally associated with, well, male beasts. The beasts also typically have a frightening appearance: they are often bears, or lions, or something too terrifying to describe.

But sometimes, that enchanted beast is a girl. As in Madame d’Aulnoy’s novelette, “The White Cat.”

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I Must Be Writing for Both of Us: Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Set in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Wild Life takes the narrative frame of a journal, written across a period of weeks, by Charlotte Bridger Drummond—single mother of five boys, ardent public feminist, professional adventure-romance writer—wherein she has a wilderness experience of her own. Her housekeeper’s granddaughter has gone missing on a trip with her father to the logging camp where he works. Charlotte, repulsed by the company of men but functional within it, takes it upon herself to join the search, as the housekeeper is too old and the mother too frail. At once a work of historical fiction, a speculative romance in the traditional sense, and a broader feminist commentary on genre fiction, Gloss’s novel is a subtle and thorough piece of art.

Originally published in 2000, almost twenty years ago, Wild Life is nonetheless recent enough to have a digital trail of reviews in genre spaces. A brief search reveals a contemporaneous essay at Strange Horizons, one from Jo Walton here at in 2010, and more. For me, though, this was a first read—as I suspect it will be for many others—and I’ll approach it as such. Saga’s new editions of Gloss’s previous novels are a significant boon to an audience unfamiliar, like myself, with her longform work.

[A review.]

QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre is considered one of the major works of 20th century Haitian literature—when I picked up the new English translation by Kaiama L. Glover, however, I wasn’t aware that I would also be able to include it in my QUILTBAG+ SFF Classics column. Yet the title character, Hadriana, displays attraction to people regardless of gender, and at a key point in the novel, she describes her sexual awakening with another young woman. This wasn’t the book I had been planning on reviewing this week, but I was very happy that it fit into the column.

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Speaking Truth Through Time Loops: Russian Doll and “Now Wait for This Week”

A woman in New York City finds herself doomed to perpetually celebrate her early-mid-life birthday, cycling through the same rote interactions with friends and searching for a way to escape the pattern while struggling to convince anyone of what she’s going through. This describes the plot of the Netflix series Russian Doll, but it also encapsulates the essence of Alice Sola Kim’s short story “Now Wait for This Week,” which appears in Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams’ anthology A People’s Future of the United States and bears striking similarities to the show.

In Russian Doll, the protagonist, Nadia, resurrects in the bathroom of her birthday party every time she dies, which usually doesn’t take more than a few hours; in Kim’s story, the narrator’s friend Bonnie finds herself reliving the same week over and over, ending up back at her birthday, death or no. Both narratives build to a breaking point in which repetition becomes its own transcendently powerful ritual; both feature women who, in their increasingly frenzied quest to convey the truth of their quandary to everyone else, endure a familiar cycle of trauma and gaslighting. Perhaps most crucially, both come to realize that they can’t move the fulcrum of their pocket universes alone: they’re not on a solitary hero’s journey, but one that requires collective action and a redefinition of what it means to descend into the labyrinth of the psyche and emerge intact.

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Gone to the Dogs: City by Clifford D. Simak

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Sometimes, a book hits you like a ton of bricks. That’s what happened to me when I read City by Clifford D. Simak. It didn’t have a lot of adventure, or mighty heroes, chases, or battles in it, but I still found it absolutely enthralling. The humans are probably the least interesting characters in the book, with a collection of robots, dogs, ants, and other creatures stealing the stage. It’s one of the first books I ever encountered that dealt with the ultimate fate of the human race, and left a big impression on my younger self. Re-reading it reminded me how much I enjoyed Simak’s fiction. His work is not as well remembered as it should be, and hopefully this review will do a little bit to rectify that problem.

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My Sci-Fi/Fantasy OTPs Are All Beta Couples

I’ve written tens of thousands of words of fanfiction for various fandoms, and I’ve always found myself drawn not to the main romantic leads, but to the secondary Beta Couples. While the main pairings were doing the eternal dance of unresolved sexual tension will-they-won’t-they, the supporting characters would partner up with an incredible amount of ease. Sometimes they’d even wind up married or have kids before the main couple had even kissed! How I Met Your Mother has a great scene that visualizes this: while the main characters aimlessly make jokes about Canada, a couple in the background meets, gets married, gets pregnant, watches their kid graduate college, and grows old together.

In a nutshell, that’s the Beta Couple. Just add in Cylon copies, flash-forwards, Reaver fights, and straight-up magic when this archetype shows up in science fiction and fantasy.

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Oathbringer Reread: Chapter Sixty-Five

Greetings, fellow soldiers and scholars! This week our intrepid friend Alice is imprisoned in an icy cage of power outages and snowstorms and hence won’t be joining us, but Aubree and I are ready to don our colorful caps and journey through the Oathgate to Azimir with Dalinar. What will he find here? Edgedancers? Noodles? Pancakes? Maybe even… essays and agreements?! Come along and find out on this week’s edition of Politics Made (Not) Fun and (Never) Easy!

[It’s written entirely in a single rhythmic meter!]

Series: Oathbringer Reread

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Life is Now a Movie: What Story is it Telling?

At last, it’s nigh: the biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien that’s been steadily looming, though it was little more than a rumor until recent times. We got a few casting choices dropped like breadcrumbs over the last year, then some still images, and now we’ve got our first official trailer. Something to look at, theorize and marvel over until May 10 (or at least the next trailer drops).

Will this movie be like Finding Neverland or Goodbye Christopher Robin or The Man Who Invented Christmas? These biographical dramas sure are the rage now. So what’s in Tolkien’s, then? Let’s talk about it!

[“Tell me a story…”]

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