I grew up on fantasy. My favorite childhood climbing tree was named “Narnia” and my friends and I once had a lively game of “Quidditch” on a frozen pond (it involved a blend of hockey rules and Quidditch rules, with brooms instead of hockey sticks). Fantasy novels with young protagonists are nostalgic for me, and I still pull out A Wrinkle in Time or The Book of Three when I’m having a bad day.
Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for a good fantasy novel that was written with adults in mind. It took me a while to find “grown up” fantasy books I connected with, and it felt for a while as if all of the memorable fantasy worlds had been hijacked by 12-year-olds. Over the years, though, I’ve found more and more well-written, compelling fantasy books that interact with the world on a more adult level. Here are a few that have captured my imagination.
The Golem and the Jinni – by Helene Wecker
This book uses the evocative backdrop of late 19th century New York—with all of its immigrant communities and people trying to create new lives for themselves—to explore questions of what it means to be human through the eyes of two magical beings. Chava is a golem, brought to life by a rabbi with an eye for the dark arts. She ends up in the Jewish section of New York, trying to blend in with the humans around her and make a way for herself. Ahmed, a Jinni, lives in the New York neighborhood of Little Syria, his spirit burning and restless. The historical fiction elements of this book blend seamlessly with the fantastical aspects, and create a truly compelling read.
The Snow Child – by Eowyn Ivey
Set in the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s, this book follows a childless couple as they meet (and accept into their family) a magical girl made of snow. It’s a beautiful blend of deeply felt historical fiction and ethereal Russian fairy tale elements. This book resonated with me on several levels—it contains poignant moments of human joy and suffering as well as a kind of magical realism that I found to be quite captivating.
In the Night Garden – by Catherynne Valente
This book has a strange beauty that is hard to define. In an Arabian Nights type motif, a young orphan girl tells tale after tale (and sometimes many tales within tales) to a runaway prince. The stories interweave into a complex tapestry–including tales of stars who bleed light, of towered maidens who turn into beasts, of seaworthy ships grown from live trees. There are stories with roots in many languages and traditions, and the overall effect of the blend of tales is darkly ethereal and fascinating.
Uprooted – by Naomi Novik
When I started this book, it seemed like a fairly straightforward re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it soon turned into something far more rich and complex, in a darkly compelling way. The world, which is based partly in Eastern European folklore, opens up in unexpected ways over the course of the story, as the characters face a sinister evil that lurks in the nearby Wood. It’s an unusual and intriguing read, and one that I will not soon forget.