My Top Ten Super-Solo-Unsequelled-Standalone Fantasy NovelsMarch 13th, 2010 at 1:00
After yesterday, I’ve been thinking about how many fantasy novels are truly standalone. Girlie Jones declared on Twitter that she doesn’t read fantasy because she’s not interested in waiting for volumes to be written. It’s a fair cop – if the concept of a journey through an elaborate magical world doesn’t grab you from the outset, it’s hard to find a half-decent gateway drug to introduce you to the genre.
Fantasy certainly lends itself to extended series, either of the to-be-continued type or the ‘many standalone novels set in the same world/based around the same character’ type. One of the pleasures of fantasy is the exploration of a world and the ongoing consequences of changes to that world – but that isn’t all that fantasy has to offer and sometimes there is a deep pleasure in a short burst of magical fiction. It’s also a great way to lure a new reader into the genre. I suspect that his many and varied standalone novels are a big part of why Neil Gaiman, for example, has such a broad fanbase.
Standalone novels are, if you are not Neil Gaiman, mostly a luxury for fantasy writers. They turn up at the very beginning of their careers, in many cases, or sidle in from time to time. The accepted wisdom is that standalones simply don’t sell as well as trilogies or series books, even when by the same author.
I wanted to assemble a list of fantasy books I love that are not only standalone, but continue to be so – they don’t share their world or characters with other books. There are no sequels, sideways or direct. @crankynick pointed out on Twitter that I had set myself a hard task because “it’s a rare writer that doesn’t go back to the well if a book takes off.” This is a cynical but let’s face it, not untrue view of how the publishing world works.
By only including pure solo standalone novels in my list, that means I am excluding many great fantasy novels which share a world or character with one or some other of their author’s works, even though they stand perfectly well on their own: such novels as The Hobbit, Valiant, The Curse of Chalion, Anansi Boys. Even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can be excluded on these grounds, I think, as The Ladies of Grace Adieu is very much a sequel and companion volume, while not actually a novel. Thanks to Tehani and Nicole I also learned that Threshold, Sara Douglass’ lovely novel of maths, magic and glassworking is now linked to some of her other novels and no longer counts as a standalone in that pure sense. Damn it! There goes another of my best examples.
So: THE LIST (my top 10 super-solo-unsequelled-standalone fantasy novels) presented below…
Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean
This is one often recommended, with the codicil that actually, it doesn’t have much fantasy in it at all, and is mostly a story about girls attending a glorious liberal arts college in the 1970′s. The fantasy is there though, never far from the surface, and like all the best fantasy novels, it challenges the very idea of magic, and how it works, and where to find it.
The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones
The ghost knows two things: she is dead, and she is one of the four sisters who live neglected in the back of the boys school run by their parents. She does not know what killed her, though, or which sister she is. She’s not even sure how she got here. But her painstaking observations of the sisters may solve her mystery, and save them from the same fate that has befallen her. One of Jones’ sweetest, most intricately tangled stories, and one of the few that doesn’t come with a sequel of some sort.
Shadows Fall, by Simon R Green
I haven’t read this one in years, but it was one of my favourites as a teenager. Shadows Fall is the town where fictional, legendary and mythological characters go when they are forgotten by the real world. It’s an odd mash up of rock stars, superheroes, ghosts and cartoon animals, and one ordinary human returning to his childhood home to find his best friend trapped in her house by a memory, and the town he has forgotten for so long on the brink of destruction.
Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan
As we all know, I don’t have an unbiased bone in my body when it comes to this literary retelling of Snow White and Rose Red with added dwarf smut, extra sexy bear men, and deep psychological trauma. I feel it’s one of the most important fantasy novels published in recent years, precisely because of its powerful themes about trauma and recovery from abuse, over-protectiveness, and indeed, the nature of fantasy itself.
Deerskin, by Robin McKinley
Until recently, this was my go-to novel of fairytale characters recovering from hideous abuse, and creating an astoundingly clarified world from a pretty thin original tale. Deerskin is still an exceptional novel, and while it is lacking in sexy bear men, it makes up for it with many puppies. McKinley has forged a career from excellent standalone fantasy novels, many inspired by fairy tales, the best of which are Beauty and Rose Daughter. Her vampire novel Sunshine, also a standalone is highly recommended.
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
The best literary collaboration of last (and possibly any) decade, this classic tale of modern apocalypse brought so many memorable characters into the fantasy pantheon. Not just Aziraphale and Crowley, the most charismatic angel and devil double act of all time, but others such as the vividly personified Four Horsemen, the earnestly creative gang of children led by Adam… an epic in a true sense of the world, this dark, funny book pretty much ensured that no one else could write a straight-faced fantasy about the Christian Apocalypse, ever again.
Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson
This odd, literary novel set in a trailer park and dripping with nature magic, was published quite a few years ago now by Small Beer Press – and I’ll admit it, I bought it for the title. I came away dazed, confused and not entirely endeared, and yet the writing is so beautiful… more than anything, this book is one of the best I’ve ever read to convey how powerful and utterly strange magic can be.
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton
A Victorian novel about dragons. This one is an extraordinary sociological piece that gives us that rare thing – a truly alien society, conveyed in a cleverly familiar way. The sheer scope of worldbuilding needed to pull this one off is exceptional, and every little detail counts. It’s a book that made me care about dragons, and that’s quite an achievement.
The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker
A clever, witty novel about Smith, a retired assassin doing his best to remain retired, in the face of insurmountable odds. As usual with Baker, the joy in this one is the cast of characters, deftly conveyed. She’s one of those writers who just keeps building up personality quirks until she has a whole story constructed around it, and her dialogue is always worth turning up for.
Olympic Games, by Leslie What
One of the darkest, strangest books I’ve ever read – the problematic relationship between Hera and Zeus takes on all new levels here in the 21st century. The blurb on this one is highly misleading – it suggests a Tom Holtian romp when in fact it’s a disturbing, downright creepy tale of sex, metamorphosis, vengeance, and a pregnancy that could destroy them all.
Some examples suggested by others include:
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Land of Laughs by J Carroll.
Galveston by Sean Stewart.
Perdido St Station by China Mieville
Havenstar by Glenda Noramly (Larke),
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
Clive Barker’s Weaveworld
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
anything by Tim Powers
Okay, that’s it, I’m done. Let me know what I didn’t include that you would have! Make your own lists! Argue happily as to whether fantasy works in a standalone novel anyway. I’m off to bed.