There’s often said to be a divide between genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre can be looked down on as being too popular and not going deep enough into complex subject matters, while literary fare is categorized as stylistically pompous and hard to approach. But as someone who enjoys both thoroughly, I quote that one wise little girl from the Old El Paso commercial: Why not both? Why not books that mix stunning prose and strange, thought-provoking fantasy elements? So here are some literary fantasy novels that bridge both kinds of fictional worlds.
10 Literary Fantasy Novels with Stunning Prose
If you’ve ever wandered around in a big, foreign city before, you know what it feels like to be well and truly lost. A mix of awe-inspiring and terrifying, it’s this kind of space that Owen King builds for us, brick by brick, in THE CURATOR. Set in a city referred to as “the Fairest,” Dora is on a mission to find out what happened to her brother after he died, but fate has other plans. Rebellion and war threaten not just Dora’s quest but the whole nation, thwarting her efforts at every turn. This is the kind of novel wherein the setting is a character in and off itself, and the depth of the characters and gorgeous writing are not to be missed.
From New York Times bestselling author Owen King comes a Dickensian fantasy of illusion and charm where cats are revered as religious figures, thieves are noble, scholars are revolutionaries, and conjurers are the most wonderful criminals you can imagine.
It begins in an unnamed city nicknamed “the Fairest”, it is distinguished by many things from the river fair to the mountains that split the municipality in half; its theaters and many museums; the Morgue Ship; and, like all cities, but maybe especially so, by its essential unmappability.
Dora, a former domestic servant at the university has a secret desire—to find where her brother went after he died, believing that the answer lies within The Museum of Psykical Research, where he worked when Dora was a child. With the city amidst a revolutionary upheaval, where citizens like Robert Barnes, her lover and a student radical, are now in positions of authority, Dora contrives to gain the curatorship of the half-forgotten museum only to find it all but burnt to the ground, with the neighboring museums oddly untouched. Robert offers her one of these, The National Museum of the Worker. However, neither this museum, nor the street it is hidden away on, nor Dora herself, are what they at first appear to be. Set against the backdrop of a nation on the verge of collapse, Dora’s search for the truth behind the mystery she’s long concealed will unravel a monstrous conspiracy and bring her to the edge of worlds.
Praise for Owen King:
“King writes with witty verve.” —Entertainment Weekly
“[Owen King] has a captivating energy, a precision and a fondness for people that are rare…King loves people as well as words.” —The New York Times
You know how when everything seems to be going right for you, sometimes life kicks in and ruins everything? Raziela Nolan knows that pattern all too well. She was madly in love and on her way to becoming a doctor in 1920s New Orleans when she suddenly dies. Understandably not ready to let go, she chooses to stay behind and observe as life and love continue to unfold. A stunning character study on grief and love, THE MERCY OF THIN AIR will take your breath away (and probably warrant the grabbing of tissues).
New Orleans, 1920s. Raziela Nolan is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she dies in a tragic accident. In an instant, she leaves behind her one true love and her dream of becoming a doctor -- but somehow, she still remains. Immediately after her death, Razi chooses to stay between -- a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it.
From this remarkable vantage point, Razi narrates the stories of her lost love, Andrew, and the relationship of Amy and Scott, a couple whose house she haunts almost seventy-five years later. The Mercy of Thin Air entwines these two fateful and redemptive love stories that echo across three generations. From ambitious, forward-thinking Razi, who illegally slips birth control guides into library books; to hip Web designer Amy, who begins to fall off the edge of grief; to Eugenia, caught between since the Civil War, the characters in this wondrous novel sing with life. Evoking the power of love, memory, and time, The Mercy of Thin Air culminates in a startling finish that will leave readers breathless.
Blending enchanting language and fantastical concepts is nothing new for authors in the subgenre of magical realism. Characterized by its realistic worldview with a few fantasy elements thrown in, these works use the supernatural to get at the heart of the human experience. Case in point: WHO SLASHED CELANIRE’S THROAT? follows Celanire, who was mutilated and left for dead as a baby. Why? Well, that’s what she’s hoping to figure out. Having survived the horrific ordeal, she travels the world to find out the answers to her past and right the wrongs committed against her, all while leaving unintended destruction in her wake.
From the winner of the New Academy Prize in Literature (the alternative to the Nobel Prize), critically-acclaimed author Maryse Condé blends magical realism and a true story to create an unforgettable masterpiece.
On one hand, beautiful Celanire—a woman mutilated at birth and left for dead—appears today to be a saint; she is a tireless worker who has turned numerous neglected institutions into schools for motherless children. But she is also a woman apprehended by demons, as death and misfortune seem to follow in her wake. Traveling from Guadeloupe to West Africa to Peru, the mysterious, seductive, and disarming Celanire is driven to uncover the truth of her past at any cost and avenge the crimes committed against her.
With her characteristic blend of magical realism and fantasy, and inspired by a true story, Maryse Condé hauntingly imagines Celanire in an unforgettable novel—a most dazzling addition to the deeply prolific and widely celebrated author’s brilliant body of work.
Magical places and miraculous healing are common motifs in magical realism, but Sue Rainsford takes it to the next level in FOLLOW ME TO GROUND. The story follows Ada, who lives with her father and helps to heal nearby villagers with the Ground, a magic place that can help people with their maladies if they are buried in there for a short time. However, Ada’s world is changed when she meets the charming Samson, and she must decide what she wants out of life and what she’s willing to give up. This book is an examination of the nature of sacrifice, healing, and family ties that is sure to leave you stunned.
One of Literary Hub’s Favorite Books of the Year
“Seethingly assured…like all the best horror, [Follow Me to Ground] is an impressive balancing act between judicious withholding and unnerving reveals.” —The Guardian
A “legitimately frightening” (The New York Times Book Review) debut novel about an otherworldly young woman, her father, and her lover that culminates in a shocking moment of betrayal.
“You’ve never encountered a father-daughter story like Rainsford’s slim debut” (Entertainment Weekly). Ada and her father, touched by the power to heal illness, live on the edge of a village where they help sick locals—or “Cures”—by cracking open their damaged bodies or temporarily burying them in the reviving, dangerous Ground nearby. Ada, a being both more and less than human, is mostly uninterested in the Cures, until she meets a man named Samson—and they quickly strike up an affair. Soon, Ada is torn between her old way of life and new possibilities with her lover, and eventually she comes to a decision that will forever change Samson, the town, and the Ground itself.
“Visceral in its descriptions…this unworldly story is a well-crafted and eerie exploration of desire…beautifully intoxicating” (Shelf Awareness). In Ada, award-winning author Sue Rainsford has created an utterly bewitching heroine, one who challenges conventional ideas of womanhood and the secrets of the body. “A triumph of imagination and myth-bending…equal parts beauty and horror [Follow Me to Ground is] unlike anything you will read this year” (Téa Obreht).
If there was ever a master of bridging literary definitions and constraints, it’s the great Stephen King. His bibliography alone is proof enough of that; King has written bestselling novels and short stories in tons of different genres. But if you’re looking to dive into a book that spans both the literary genre and fantasy genre, then pick up GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX. Gwendy is a shy but smart twelve-year-old girl living in Castle Rock, Maine, whose biggest concern is getting teased. Or at least it was, until she receives a mysterious box from a strange man in exchange for keeping it safe. The box produces magical little gifts, but it also carries some dark and dire consequences surrounding its use, making Gwendy wonder what it is she’s gotten herself into.
Even in the fantastical worlds created by magical realism, the different isn’t always welcome. Take Leidah Pietersdatter, born in nineteenth-century Norway with blue skin and webbed feet. Her mother, Maeva, knows that this is a story unlikely to end well, doing everything to protect her daughter from the suspicious and superstitious townsfolk. And as Leidah grows up, her mother’s efforts only increase, revealing a web of dark secrets around Maeva’s past and Leidah’s birthright. BECOMING LEIDAH is a twisted kind of folklore wherein the beast is not what she appears, and the beauty is in the bond of this small, protective family.
An utterly gripping love story set in nineteenth-century Norway, about a woman rescued from the sea, the fisherman who marries her, their tiny and unusually gifted daughter, and the shapeshifter who follows their every move, perfect for fans of Alice Hoffman, Yangsze Choo, Eowyn Ivey, and Neil Gaiman.
The sky opens up... I hear them laugh.
They don’t feel the sadness in the air.
They don’t feel the danger coming, riding in on the wind.
In the hinterlands of old Norway, Leidah Pietersdatter is born blue-skinned, with webbed hands and feet. Upon every turn of season, her mother, Maeva, worries as her daughter’s peculiarities blossom—inside the root of the tiny child, a strange power is taking hold.
Maeva tries to hide the girl from the suspicious townsfolk of the austere village of Ørken, just as she conceals her own magical ancestry from her daughter. And Maeva’s adoring husband, Pieter, wants nothing more than for his new family to be accepted by all. But unlike Pieter, who is blinded by love, Maeva is aware that the villagers, who profess a rigid faith to the new God and claim to have abandoned the old ways, are watching for any sign of transgression—and are eager to pounce and punish.
Following both mother and daughter from the shadows and through time, an inquisitive shapeshifter waits for the Fates to spin their web, and for Maeva to finally reclaim who she once was. And as Maeva’s elusive past begins to beckon, she realizes that she must help her daughter navigate and control her own singular birthright if the child is to survive the human world.
But the protective love Pieter has for his family is threatening the secure life they have slowly built and increasingly becoming a tragic obstacle. Witnessing this, Maeva comes to a drastic conclusion: she must make Leidah promise to keep a secret from Pieter—a perilous one that may eventually free them all.
If you’re looking for a trippy literary fantasy unlike anything you’ve ever read before (and I do mean wholly unlike anything you’ve ever read), then you need to get your hands on OUR ECSTATIC DAYS. Our protagonist, Kristin, is having a bit of a rough pregnancy, made only more stressful by the sudden and ever-growing appearance of a lake in the middle of Hollywood. What’s worse, she becomes convinced that the lake’s one purpose is to take her son away from her, and she must fight the god that awaits below in those watery depths. Strange yet beautiful, this wild read is an absolute must for any David Lynch fans out there.
In the waning summer days, a lake appears almost overnight in the middle of Los Angeles. Out of fear and love, a young single mother commits a desperate act: convinced that the lake means to take her small son from her, she determines to stop it and becomes the lake's Dominatrix-Oracle, "the Queen of the Zed Night." Acclaimed by many critics as Steve Erickson's greatest novel, Our Ecstatic Days takes place on the forbidden landscape of a defiant heart.
Looking to up the tension in your next literary read? Then look no further than this gothic murder mystery! THINGS IN JARS follows Bridie Devine, a female detective in Victorian London tasked with finding a nobleman’s missing secret child, who appears to have been kidnapped for her supernatural abilities. Bridie will need to use all of her cunning, and even confront her own past, in order to uncover a kidnapping ring hunting special children. Full of fun characters and surprising twists, this is a perfect blend of masterful prose and fantastical themes.
In this “miraculous and thrilling” (Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author) mystery for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation, Victorian London comes to life as an intrepid female sleuth wades through a murky world of collectors and criminals to recover a remarkable child.
Bridie Devine—flame-haired, pipe-smoking detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing secrets about her past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, Things in Jars is a stunning, “richly woven tapestry of fantasy, folklore, and history” (Booklist, starred review) that explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
Who doesn’t love a tale of sibling rivalry? Helen and Rachel McCallister aren’t exactly well-matched; Helen is a bitter, crafty older sister and Rachel is as sweet as sugar and totally blind. When their parents are killed in a car accident, Helen decides to keep Rachel close by telling her that the world is a terrible, sinister place that would kill her in an instant. But Rachel is willing to take the leap and make her own way in the world, whether Helen thinks she can or not. THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF ROAM is a tall tale full of morals and hard truths, including that sometimes the people who “love” us don’t want what’s best for us.
From the celebrated author of Big Fish comes an imaginative, moving novel about two sisters, their dark legacy, and the magical town that entwines them.
Helen and Rachel McCallister, who live in a town called Roam, are as different as sisters can be: Helen, older, bitter, and conniving; Rachel, beautiful, naïve—and blind. When their parents die suddenly, Rachel has to rely on Helen for everything, but Helen embraces her role in all the wrong ways, convincing Rachel that the world is a dark and dangerous place she couldn’t possibly survive on her own…or so Helen believes, until Rachel makes a surprising choice that turns both their worlds upside down.
In this new novel, southern literary master Daniel Wallace returns to the tradition of tall tales and folklore made memorable in his bestselling novel Big Fish. Wildly inventive and beautifully written, The Kings and Queens of Roam is a big-hearted tale of family and the ties that bind.
Sometimes, the glue that holds a family together is one person, and for the Montoya family, that person is the matriarch, Orquídea Divina. So when she invites her far-flung family to come to her funeral, they arrive in hopes of understanding her better…but instead they witness her turning into a ceiba tree. It’s only seven years later that her gifts to her family, specifically Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon, begin to manifest—and just in time, as there is a killer looking to make sure that the family line goes no further. Full of familial intrigue, THE INHERITANCE OF ORQUÍDEA DIVINA is as intense as it is magical.
Perfect for fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, and Sarah Addison Allen, a family searches for the truth hidden in their past in this “expertly woven tale of family power, threaded with as much mystery as magic” (V.E. Schwab, #1 New York Times bestselling author).
The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—not for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed into a ceiba tree, leaving them with more questions than answers.
Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings and powers. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, her descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked back.
Alternating between Orquídea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a “spellbinding tale, both timeless and fresh, that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Prepare to fall in love” (Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author).
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