FOUR weeks to go! The countdown to Wyrd & Wonder* 2022 continues. Wyrd & Wonder starts May 1, and I’m getting ready by posting some of my favorite Top 5s fantasy reads. This week, I’m sharing my Top 5 Stand Alone Fantasy Reads.
*Not sure what Wyrd & Wonder is? Check out this post first.
Fantasy, more often than not, seems to give rise to series. It seems like every fantasy book I’ve picked up lately is at least a duology. While I love a good series and the ability to take a deep dive into a world, sometimes it’s also nice to have a stand alone book and not get to the cliffhanger at the end and realize there’s another book. (Why hello Skyhunter.) It’s especially distressing when I discover a series, realize it isn’t complete, and then have to anxiously await the next installment. Typically, it takes one to two years for the next book to be published (unless the author is a writing machine like J.D. Robb). But in some cases, it takes decades for the next book to drop. (I’m looking at you Pat Rothfuss!)
So it’s awesome to pick up a book, enjoy it, and not have to worry about when the sequel will be published. And despite the numerous fantasy series I have read and loved, I have found some wonderful stand alone fantasy books, no waiting required. So in no particular order, I present . . .
Top 5 Stand Alone Fantasy Books
A brief note. Throughout this countdown series of Top 5 lists, I’m not going to duplicate titles. Each list will have 5 new titles on it. I’ll probably have some of the same authors, but not the same titles from the previous Top 5 list.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
Although it has a pretty cover, I don’t know that I would have picked up this book except that I received The Ones We’re Meant To Find in one of my monthly OwlCrate subscription boxes. And then it sat on my shelf for nearly nine months. I finally picked it up in February because of my TBR bookcase reading challenge.
I started this book a bit hesitantly as I wasn’t really sure what it was about. This book is set in the future in a climate-critical world, not quite total dystopian but on the brink. I became intrigued by the alternating storylines—Cee’s, written in first person, and Kasey’s, written in third person. In fact, I didn’t pick up on the alternating first to third POV until around chapter 8 because I found myself totally immersed in the story. The world-building is so interesting and complex as He did a fantastic job balancing the two distinct settings (Cee’s versus Kasey’s).
As I finished the book, part of me wondered what the heck I had just read. Yes, it is a kind of dystopian story with an environmental message. But like many fantasy works, at it’s core, I think this is a more philosophical work questioning what we owe each other. Asking tough questions about freedom to live as one chooses versus living for the collective good (a rather current question given covid), about international harm versus societal good, and even about what makes a human human.
Logic ended where love began.The Ones We’re Meant to Find, Joan He
And yet, this is a story about individuals, their journey of discovering who they are and what it means to be family. About the bond between sisters and finding commonality beyond DNA, about each exploring differing world views through the lens of the other. Two sisters who seem quite different and yet are intricately connected.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A dystopian fantasy, Station Eleven is primarily set in a post-pandemic world. (Sound familiar?) The plot moves back and forth in time, showing the story of a Hollywood star from his early days as a film star to fifteen years post-pandemic when the Traveling Symphony, a roaming theater troupe, tours the wasteland remains. The story charts the strange twists of fate that connect the actor and four other characters.
This is a nonlinear adventure that explores human resilience, survival, art, tragedy, and even humor. Mandel weaves an intricate tapestry of dreamlike writing against the harsh reality of a post-pandemic world and does it in a quiet, dark style. The atmosphere of this book is incredible—haunting and unhurried. She does an excellent job of unfolding the world and using the arts to connect the world and the characters. Like Joan He’s book, this one asks tough questions, starting with if survival by itself is sufficient. (Cue the Star Trek theme.)
I haven’t seen the adaptation. I loved the book too much and so I know I would ultimately be disappointed by the adaptation. But if you’ve only seen the adaptation, go read the book. It’s even better.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
There were several Bradbury books I could have chosen for this list. And yet, I picked probably a lesser known one. At least I wasn’t familiar with it until I stumbled across it while randomly browsing the library for October-themed books.
Isn’t it amazing how many incredible books you can find just randomly browsing the library?
The Halloween Tree is set, you guessed it, on Halloween night. Eight costumed boys run to meet their friend Pipkin at the haunted house and encounter a mysterious figure, Mr. Moundshroud, on the way. The boys learn their friend Pipkin is missing and Moundshroud takes them on an adventure of space and time to find him. Bradbury is a master storyteller, using language to create vivid scenes with incredible detail and expression. He weaves history, legend, and social commentary into a wild night’s fantastical romp.
Although I admit the story does feel a wee bit dated (children romp free of parental oversight on Halloween, but then again, it was originally published in 1972), the overall story still holds up. This is a story that can be read and reread every Halloween, and one that can be enjoyed be by younger, middle-grade readers.
Bonus, if you get the audiobook, it’s read by Bronson Pinochet, who does a magnificent job narrating.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
Yes, yes, I know I just
raved about listed Klune’s Under the Whispering Door in the previous post. But I couldn’t not also list his The House in the Cerulean Sea. This was a COVID-fueled virtual library browsing find. In 2020, I was stuck in a 14-day quarantine after I moved to Japan. Happily, my library has virtual browsing for e-books and audiobooks and I stumbled across this gem where the synopsis included details like the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, Extremely Upper Management, and an orphaned Antichrist. How could I resist? I devoured the audiobook. And then listened to it a second time. Then I bought a physical copy. I’ve since gifted several copies because that’s how much I love this book.
I will admit that at first, I did not like the main character Linus. I almost put down the book because I felt he was so rigid. But the story was so enchanting and whimsical and the prose was so beautiful, I stuck with it and wow, I’m so happy I did. The book has great character development, wonderful world-building, and imaginative characters. I fell in love with each and every one of the orphans. And I came around to loving Linus too.
As lovely and wonderful as the story is, this story is also a timely read. Because this is a story about being different, about living authentically, about fighting prejudices and stereotypes, and about changing the system by changing the minds of one person at a time. This is a story that also asks tough questions. That requires us to question our preconceived notions. That examines what it means to be a family, to be our authentic self, to be alive instead of just living.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
A Top 5 list isn’t complete without a Neil Gaiman book. In fact, I could fill this entire list with his books since most of Gaiman’s books are single-serve, which is simply delightful.
In Neverwhere, we meet Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish businessman, who is moving to London to start a new job and a new life. But one single act of kindness hurls him from the everyday world of London Above into the at once familiar but bizarre world of London Below, a place under the streets of London where monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armor and pales girls in black velvet reside. This is a city for those who have fallen between the cracks and for those never meant to walk in the world above. A place that’s Neverwhere.
This modern fairy-tale encompasses all the Gaiman-ness we love, including brilliant characters, complex storytelling, and witty dialogue. This story manages to be dark and light, scary and heart-warming all at once. I’ve read and reread this book a dozen or more times now and each time I find another gem, another clever twist of phrase or poignant detail that makes Gaiman’s stories so magical.
And alright, this isn’t technically, *technically* in the strictest sense of the word, a stand alone because he wrote a novella set in the world of London Below staring the Marquis de Carabas. But you do not have to read the novella to read this book and vice-versa because How the Marquis Got His Coat Back (featured in the anthology Rouges) is only tangentially connected to Neverwhere. Gaiman has also alluded/promised to revisit the world of London Below. Rumors of a sequel, tentatively entitled The Seven Sisters, have swirled around for several years now. Since any sequel is still yet to happen, I still consider this a single serve fantasy book.
Bonus: Gaiman himself narrates the audiobook. So even if you’ve already read it, I highly recommend also listening to the audiobook because he is a master storyteller.
I had several other books I could have included on this list. I consciously chose not to include any stand alone classic fantasy, like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (who invented the gothic novel thankyouverymuch), Dracula by Bram Stoker (the vampire book all others strive to be), any of Jules Verne’s novels (who doesn’t want to adventure around the world?), or The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (a psychological and philosophical fantasy work). First, because these books are classics for a reason. And second, they don’t need my recommendation because see first reason.
However, there were two books that almost made the list, but both had some flaws that didn’t quite raise them to a 5-star, Top 5 read.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about January Scaller, a ward living in a mansion filled with treasures. Then she finds a book. A book that tells a tale of secret doors and foreign lands, and reveals a story of peril and adventure The story switches between January’s story and the book she found entitled The Ten Thousand Doors. It opens with beautiful imagery with immediately captivated me. I found the writing style to be flowing and dreamy, which fit perfectly with the story.
This is a wonderful literary fantasy featuring books and I loved the focus on the power of words and the idea of doors between worlds. And yet, a closer read also provides a view on race, imperialism, immigration, class, and male power.
I thought there were a couple of areas that could have been fleshed out a bit to make this a stronger story. For example, the dreamy prose, while perfect for the feel of the book, failed a bit in the action scenes. The tension just didn’t build enough in these scenes. But this debut novel is a solid 4-star magical read.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix
Another single serve fantasy that wasn’t quite a 5 star read, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a fun, magical adventure set in 1983 London. Reminiscent of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, this London also has a hidden side. But instead of London below, this is more London beyond with magical/mythical beings existing in or adjacent to the “real” world.
The main character Susan comes to London to search for the father she never knew and then is drawn into the arcane business of the booksellers whose secret sideline is to ensure that mythic entities and dormant legends do not disastrously intrude into the modern world. What makes this story is mostly the world-building. Nix used recognizable London landmarks (circa 1983) and surrounding landmarks, like the Old Man of Coniston (a famous mountain in the Lake District). Plus, he used enough specific details, such as boiler suits (what I’d call coveralls) and uniquely British foods (Branston pickle sandwiches) to give this a distinctly English feel. With the story is set in the 1980s, there is an especially vibrant and authentic feel. For example, no cell phones so the characters have to look for phone boxes.
But the story starts off a bit oddly, almost awkwardly, like I was dumped into the middle of the story instead of the beginning. About halfway through chapter one, I went back to the beginning to see if I had missed something. Eventually, the story even outs and the awkward start makes sense once the story finds its stride. I also wished that the bookshops and bookselling featured more prominently. But overall, a fun, engaging fantasy adventure with enough left of this world that Nix could revisit it again.
What stand alone fantasy books do you recommend? Share your faves in the comments.
A couple of notes on this post: