Stand-alone fantasy books for those new to the genre

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The fantasy genre can be intimidating. It doesn’t help that prevailing gender stereotypes can put most people off. People think of the fantasy genre and think of elves, endless walking, endless building the world of The Lord of the Rings, or the dragons, the sinister violence, the network of characters and the complex politics of A song of ice and fire. And of course, they’re thinking big, bulky paperbacks that run in series that take up entire shelves and might never reach their conclusion. Which isn’t appealing to someone who just wants to try something new.

The good news is that the fantasy genre is not limited to dragons and elves. Now more than ever, the fantasy genre is an exciting genre where we see more and more worlds populated by fascinating, non-Western magical characters and systems. We come across more books by writers who aren’t cis, straight white men, more books that are quick reads or good love stories, books that are genre-flexing and folksy, or soft and character-based .

I’ve collected 10 of these amazing books here. And guess what? None of them are the start of a series. All of these fantastic stand-alone books, I’m happy to report, are one and done. You can dive into an Africanfuturistic post-apocalyptic world. Riddle about a mysterious noir spin on a magical school by a non-binary author. Stroll through a lush late-night circus or listen to soulful music fueled by forbidden magic.

These stand-alone fantasy books are some of my all-time favorites, and each provides a great gateway into the world of modern fantasy, a world of bold stories, incredible magic systems, and living world-building. Enjoy!

Stand-alone fantasy books for beginners

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In this action-packed short story, the Ku Klux Klan is host to clawed, bloodthirsty parasites that feed on hatred. Maryse, her sword that rings with generations of desire for revenge, and her sniper and ex-military friends fight these monsters. They will have to bring down the Klan before the sorcery of the film The birth of a nation comes to life.

The fast-paced short story is part action movie and part meditation on racist hatred, and as a bonus, it’s deeply saturated with black folklore and magic. It’s only 192 pages, making it a quick read!

Spinning Silver book cover

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

A Jewish girl named Miriam is the daughter of a pawnbroker who is not good at claiming his money. She must take over, growing tougher and bolder – but her prosperity attracts the attention of the Staryk, fearsome winter creatures that travel the ice road. Meanwhile, clever Irina is engaged to a cruel Tsar and must find a way to protect herself from the demonic fire in her stomach.

This is a rich and complex fantasy novel informed by a variety of fairy tales, from Rumpelstiltskin and Cinderella to the myth of Hades and Persephone. It is beautifully written and brings together a series of stories to create a truly vivid and wonderful tale.

Who's Afraid of Death book cover

Who’s Afraid of Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Technically, who is afraid of death is science fiction – it’s set in a world so far past technological collapse that the mystic has returned to his world. Onyesonwu is a stubborn and brave mixed-race child. Her father was an invader who molested her mother, and because of this her community assumes she will become violent – but as she grows she learns more and more about the magic within her, becoming stronger both to protect themselves and to help create a better world.

Okorafor’s world of masquerades, sand and storms, spiders, female friendship and more creates a devastating and wondrous story. This book embarrassed me once by making me cry very hard on a plane. You have been warned.

Magic for Liars book cover

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is a non-magical person investigating a crime at a high school for magic users – where her highly successful, highly magical twin sister teaches theoretical magic. And here’s the thing: Ivy is kind of a liar. She tells herself that she’s happy alone, that she’s not jealous of her sister, that she can quite handle a murder case. But it all comes to a head as the mystery unfolds.

This is Gailey’s first novel, and their writing is fantastic, diving into brotherhood, into how magic would and wouldn’t change who people are, into discovering what we are capable of. A really great mystery, funny with a punch of a good ending.

Cast iron book cover

Cast iron by Destiny Soria

It’s Prohibition-era Boston, and hemopaths, people whose blood gives them mind-control powers, haunt underground clubs, creating music and theater that bends the hearts of viewers. . Best friends Corrine and Ada must try to stay safe as the haemopaths are hunted, threatened by the horrific existence of Haversham Asylum.

It’s a quick read with a fantastic depiction of true female friendship, realistic sentimental romance, and a truly beautifully portrayed magic system.

book cover of The Snow Child

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

In a classic fairy tale, a husband and wife who have always wanted a child make one out of snow – and it comes to life. The story has many different ideas about what’s to come next, but they all agree on the end result: eventually, the Snow Child melts.

This surreal novel depicts an elderly couple living their lives in the harsh, icy, and glittering world of Alaska, which one day fashions a child out of snow. The characters feel very real, and the book is a great story about relationships, friendships, survival, and family, making it a great introduction to fantasy stories for people who have read more contemporary and historical fiction.

Kindred book cover

Parentage by Octavia E. Butler

In 1976, a black woman named Dana is unpacking her new home with her husband when she suddenly feels dizzy – and finds herself in the early 19th century. And it keeps happening. And to her horror, she begins to realize that the plantation owner’s young white son, Rufus, is her ancestor – and that she is sent back in time to this extremely dangerous time in order to save his life.

It’s a modern classic that Butler described as “a kind of sinister fantasy”. Dana must figure out how to survive in the pre-war South as an educated black woman during unpredictable times. It’s a chilling novel that explores the privilege, power, and historical horrors of slavery. If you like graphic novels, there’s also an illustrated version adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.

cover of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern’s Nocturnal Circus

This one is a classic that introduced many readers to the fantasy genre. Two magicians make a bet, each raising a magical child with plans to pit them against each other, hoping to find out who can win. The book is atmospheric, with most taking place in a beautiful black and white circus that feels visceral and real. The two illusionists, Celia and Marco, create an aesthetic of wonder that draws you in as a reader, and their interactions and creations are mesmerizing. Combined with short and readable chapters, it makes for a novel that has captured the hearts of many readers.

book cover for gods of jade and shadow

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Casiopea Tun dreams of a world of adventure and freedom, far from her cruel family and her dismissal. She gets it when she accidentally frees the Mayan god of death and must partner with him to take back the throne of the underworld from her brother.

They travel through a richly portrayed 1920s Mexico, from Yucatán to Mexico City and beyond, pursued by Casiopea’s cruel cousin Martín. The world is fun and the pace moves fast – the book has the vibe of a classic fairy tale tale, coupled with a swirl of Mayan myth.


I hope you enjoyed this list of standalone fantasy books. Want more fantastic recommendations? Check out this list of 20 must-have feel-good fantasies, check out the best fantasy books you’ve never heard of, or dive into books inspired by AAPI folklore or Latin authors.

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