13 Standout Fantasy Standalones!

Posted 23rd May 2021 by Sia in Blogathons, Lists, Recommendations / 1 Comment

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Fantasy as a genre is infamous for series that go on forever, but today I want to feature the near-mythical STANDALONES, where the entire story is told in just one book! Shocking, I know, but it does happen, and when it’s done well, it’s very well-done indeed!

Choosing which books to include was HARD, but in the end I decided to focus on 13 (it’s my lucky number, hush) books that are less well-known and don’t get enough love! Which is why many of my favourites, brilliant as they are, aren’t included here – you’ve almost certainly heard of them already. I also tried to include as much variety in length and flavour as I could, so hopefully there’s something here for everyone! So now please allow me to introduce some seriously Standout Standalones, for when your brain (or bank account) isn’t up for a 10-installment series…

The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Gay Indigenous MC, M/M or mlm
Pages: 452
Goodreads

Imprisoned for 'inflammatory writings' by the totalitarian Theocracy, shy intellectual Ashleigh Trine figures his story's over. But when he meets Kieran Trevarde, a hard-hearted gunslinger with a dark magic lurking in his blood, Ash finds that necessity makes strange heroes... and love can change the world.

First up is The God Eaters, which is, frankly, a masterpiece. Self-published before self-publishing really became a thing, it’s a poignant, addictive, tightly-written book about two men who end up in the same prison – a prison for people with Talents, magical abilities that range from empathy to precognition to fire-bending – and break the fuck out of there. Which is not to say that Kieran or Ashes are, either of them, slick con-artist types ala Nick Caffrey of White Collar. This isn’t that kind of story. Getting out is not easy – Kieran in particular has to do some pretty awful things to facilitate their escape – and it’s really just the beginning. In a setting clearly drawn from the American Old West, where government and religion are one and the same, Kieran and Ashes go on the run, only to unearth unbelievable revelations about the source of their Talents and the power behind the Theocracy.

Hajicek’s prose is simply stellar, brilliantly readable and full of breathtaking turns of phrase, similes, and the like. (It also has its moments of being fantastically funny.) A story that could have been a tropey mess is instead wickedly clever and original, with takes on magic and the divine I’ve never seen elsewhere. The characters are wonderful and complete, as full of layers and contradictions, hidden depths and unexpected strengths as any living, breathing person. If you read this one, be prepared for Kieran and Ashes to make a permanent home in your head and your heart, because you won’t be forgetting them any time soon.

That said, although it’s a beautiful book, it also deals with some pretty dark themes; Kieran’s backstory in particular is horrific (seeing his mother murdered, what TV Tropes calls ‘survival prostitution’, being the victim of rape, and becoming a hitman). Most of the worst stuff happens off-page or is only referenced as having happened in the past, but if you’re feeling fragile or just don’t want to deal with that kind of thing, you might want to skip this one.

With that in mind, you can read it for free here, or buy the ebook here!

Havenstar by Glenda Larke
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Representation: Minor gay character, minor F/F couple
Pages: 490
Goodreads

The Eight Stabilities are islands of order surrounded by lethal chaos—and the order is being swallowed by the unstable. The religious leaders of Chantry try to maintain the Stabilities by ordering the necessity of a once in a lifetime pilgrimage across the chaos. And in that ever-changing world, the most important person is a mapmaker who can make a chart of secure pilgrimage routes…

Keris Kaylen is a mapmaker's daughter. When her father is murdered and a mountain disappears, Keris is betrayed by her brother. Forced to flee into the Unstable, she finds her safety is in the hands of a man bonded to the Lord Carasma, the Unmaker…and her ordered life is turned upside-down. Her survival will depend on a map and a place called Havenstar—but she can't reproduce the map, and Havenstar may not even exist…

I guarantee you have never before encountered a setting like Havenstar‘s – a land, and quite possibly a world, which is being devoured by Chaos. Humans can only safely reside in one of the eight Stabilities: areas that are protected from Chaos by being incredibly and rigidly ordered. The Rule – which is in fact thousands of laws that keep the Stabilities, well, stable – is, among other things, fairly sexist, which doesn’t suit our main character Keris at all. She’s an excellent mapmaker – a priceless talent, given that the area between the Stabilities is constantly changing (to the point where mountains randomly go missing!) and so good, accurate maps are in high demand – but as a woman, she can’t take over her father’s shop, or set up her own.

So she runs away.

Besides the unique setting, what makes Havenstar really special is that Larke doesn’t paint the situation as black and white. Another author would have made the Chantry – aka, the Church – blandly and simplistically Bad; after all, they’re the ones enforcing the Rule responsible for ruining Keris’ life before she could even have one. But the thing is that the Chantry believe what they preach – they’re not out to oppress, but to protect – and they’re also not wrong; the Rule does protect the Stabilities, so it’s not as easy as saying ‘these are the bad guys’. And not everyone who opposes the Chantry is morally impeccable either. We’re even presented with very understandable and even sympathetic reasons people might ally themselves with the Unmaker, who is the indisputable Ultimate Bad Guy.

Basically, it’s complicated, and I love that. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that Larke is an amazing writer, who makes you feel all the feels even for the characters you really don’t want to like, with prose that sucks you in and is absolutely not letting you go until you turn the final page. Fabulous.

Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Asexual MC, open relationships/polyamory
Pages: 695
Goodreads

Emras is the most diligent of students, and she wants nothing more than to become royal scribe for the intelligent and beautiful Princess Lasva. And Emras gets her wish.

But life becomes complicated in ways she could never have foreseen. For though Emras adores the princess, she has been charged with a secret mission for the queen: to search her new home for signs of the evil magical influence of Norsunder—a kingdom once thought legendary, but now known to be real. Emras knows nothing of magic, but finds a knowledgeable and willing tutor in the barbaric land of Marloven Hesea.

Was the queen right? Is there a connection between Norsunder and Marloven Hesea? And if Emras was acting on orders from her queen, why is she now on trial?

Banner of the Damned is a standalone story set in the same world (albeit 400 years later) as Smith’s Inda books – but you really don’t need to worry about them. Banner clocks in at juuuust under 700 pages, and it is a languorous, delicious feast of a book. If you want fast-paced action, this is definitely not for you, but if you’re happy to spend 300 pages reading about jewels and the language of fans and politicking, in a country that genuinely does not know what violence or war are – and then spend the next 300 pages reading about the same people adapting to living in a warrior-culture? *chef’s kiss* Pure perfection.

I just recently finished a reread of this, and it swallowed me whole. The amount of detail poured into the worldbuilding! The normalised queerness, the Birth Spell, a world (not country) where monogamy is not the default! And pages and pages of fantastical, stunning gowns and hair-magic and verbal trickery and history-keeping – it’s just indulgent. Decadent, even. And then the second half of the book, which is all learning-magic and treaty-making and Teaching These Idiots That War Is Bad – the culture-shock, and the power of words and courtesy and making people feel appreciated – it’s all just ridiculously awesome.

Not fast-paced. At all. But truly wonderful for worldbuilding-addicts, anyone who enjoys a lingering pace, and fans of (relatively) low-stakes fantasy!

The Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick
Genres: Portal Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour
Pages: 320
Goodreads

Lémabantunk, the Glorious City, is a place of peace and plenty. But it is also a land of swift and severe justice. Young Darroti has been accused of the murder of a highborn woman who had chosen the life of a Mendicant, a holy beggar whose blessing brings forgiveness. Now his entire family must share his shame, and his punishment--exile to an unknown world.

Grieving for the life they have left behind, Darroti and his family find themselves in a hostile land--an all-too-familiar American future, a country under attack in a world torn by hatred and war. There, each tries to cope in their own way.

Some will surrender to despair. Some will strive to preserve the old ways. Some will be lured by the new world's temptations. And some, sustained by extraordinary love, will find a way to heal the family's grief and give them hope.

The Necessary Beggar is an immigrant story – but this family aren’t refugees from some foreign conflict; they come from a whole ‘nother world. And although we never get to see that world, except in the memories and dreams of the characters, they very much bring it with them. In so many ways, their story is identical to that of immigrants everywhere (except that this family were banished because one of them committed murder, and immigrants and refugees are not criminals!) but by making the metaphor literal – by making these characters come literally from another world, rather than just another country – Palwick slips under the prejudices and hard hearts to leave empathy and wonder there instead. This book was pivotal in breaking me away from my family’s conservative politics, and it’s not even a ‘message book’ – it’s a deep, beautiful, powerful story, mixing the mundane with the magical in a way not quite like any other book I know. It’s a story about compassion, and human connection; about seeing past differences and building something new out of them. It packs a hell of a lot of punch, for a book that’s not even 350 pages – and yet the pacing is perfect. The Necessary Beggar is exactly as long as it needs to be; not a word longer, or a sentence shorter. I don’t say this often, but this is a book full of grace, and it’s definitely one to bolster your hope for humankind, your belief in kindness and good people. It’s a book that always makes me smile, and maaaaybe makes me tear up too (but in a good way!) If you’re looking for something that will leave your heart glowing, this is it.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 405
Goodreads

During a time of great upheaval, the citizens of Venice make a pact that will change the world. The landsmen of the city broker a treaty with a water-dwelling tribe of deepsmen, cementing the alliance through marriage. The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed–and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deepswoman becomes punishable by death. Any “bastard” child must be destroyed.

This is an Earth where the legends of the deep are true–where the people of the ocean are as real and as dangerous as the people of the land. This is the world of intrigue and betrayal that Kit Whitfield brings to life in an unforgettable alternate history: the tale of Anne, the youngest princess of a faltering England, struggling to survive in a troubled court, and Henry, a bastard abandoned on the shore to face his bewildering destiny, finding himself a pawn in a game he does not understand.Yet even a pawn may checkmate a king.

In the world of In Great Waters, the royal families of Europe – at least, the countries with coasts – all have merfolk blood, ensuring each country’s shipping and shores are protected by the merfolk of their region. But England in particular is in trouble, as generations of marrying distant and not-so-distant cousins has done predictably bad things to their bloodline, and the Crown Prince is not going to make a good or even functional king.

Enter Henry, who is that most illegal of things: a first-generation child of a mer mother and a human father. Abandoned by his tribe where his human blood is a weakness, he is scooped up by nobles desperate to see a better candidate on the throne than the Crown Prince.

Whitfield is a genuis at worldbuilding, and her attention to detail is incredible. Henry doesn’t come out of the ocean walking and talking like a ‘landsman’; although more intelligent than the ‘deepsmen’ of his tribe, his understanding of everything from language to light is nothing like yours or mine. Whitfield doesn’t drag out the process of his learning, but does make it clear that there’s a lot to learn, and even goes so far as to think about what a boy raised in the sea would think about the straight lines that don’t exist in nature, but that humans build into almost everything.

On the other side of the line is Anne, a young English princess whose upbringing couldn’t be more different from Henry’s, letting us see what ‘royal families with mer blood’ look like from the inside. Among other things, it gives her an up-close perspective on the possibility of civil war as the court and country alike become more and more uneasy about her uncle Phillip becoming king.

This isn’t Young Adult, and it’s not a romance. It’s historical fantasy where the politics stretch even under the sea, where the deepsmen are nothing like the sparkly mermaids you’ll find on birthday cakes but are, instead, fierce and deadly and capable of destroying armadas. So if you like your sea-creatures with sharp teeth, and your historical fantasy detailed and clever? This is what you’re looking for.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Brown disabled MC
Pages: 704
Goodreads

An epic fantasy standalone novel from the author of the stunning Wars of Light and Shadow series.

When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king's beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown's right-hand man command the kingdom's deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose 'interesting' background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society.

As the princess's trail vanishes outside the citadel's gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael's investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin's famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain's dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil?

It would be so easy to write a missing princess story where the princess is a helpless damsel in distress, but that’s absolutely not the case here. The main characters – the captain of the royal guard and the ‘barbarian-born’ captain of the city guard – manage to piece together that Anja’s vanishing goes beyond any theory they could come up with, and Wurts has written us a sweet but fierce and intelligent princess you can’t help rooting for. Even before we get to meet her, what we hear about her from others has the reader anxious to find her safe and sound, and I think it’s pretty impressive to make me care about a character before we’re even introduced!

Wurts’ prose here is difficult to describe, because part of me wants to say it has a slower pacing…except that it also kind of doesn’t; things are constantly happening, even if they’re not always part of the high-stakes action, and To Ride Hell’s Chasm is as much about politics and sorcery as it is a missing princess. Wurts manages to impart a lot of information incredibly deftly throughout the book, and although the rhythm of her writing might take some getting used to (at least, it did for me) once you’re in sync with it it’s absolutely wonderful. This is much more complex and layered than a missing-person’s/detective-mystery type of story, and demands a lot more of your attention – but it’s well worth the price. It’s a door-stopper of a novel with great worldbuilding, an incredible cast, and carefully unfolding high stakes, and if you’re okay with a more detailed, slightly slower pacing, I recommend it strongly!

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Non-human genders, genderqueered gender roles
Pages: 388
Goodreads

Onna can write the parameters of a spell faster than any of the young men in her village school. But despite her incredible abilities, she’s denied a place at the nation’s premier arcane academy. Undaunted, she sails to the bustling city-state of Hexos, hoping to find a place at a university where they don’t think there’s anything untoward about providing a woman with a magical education. But as soon as Onna arrives, she’s drawn into the mysterious murder of four trolls.

Tsira is a troll who never quite fit into her clan, despite being the leader’s daughter. She decides to strike out on her own and look for work in a human city, but on her way she stumbles upon the body of a half-dead human soldier in the snow. As she slowly nurses him back to health, an unlikely bond forms between them, one that is tested when an unknown mage makes an attempt on Tsira’s life. Soon, unbeknownst to each other, Onna and Tsira both begin devoting their considerable talents to finding out who is targeting trolls, before their homeland is torn apart…

I will never stop calling this the ‘trolls not gender roles’ book! Unnatural Magic is a huge amount of fun, written in a voice that is sneakily wry and mischievous, and the whole book itself is just so damn clever. The worldbuilding is excellent but never overwhelming, and I challenge you not to fall head-over-heels for the entire cast; we have a magical prodigy, a troll who’s Not Having It, and a ragamuffin ex-soldier who really needs someone to take him home and feed him, please.

It’s not that Unnatural Magic is a comedy – there’s some sexism to deal with in the beginning, not to mention the murders described in the blurb, and it has some very poignant and pointed points here and there. But it’s one of those stories that make you grin like an idiot as you read, where you vanish into ‘one more chapter’ and look up to find it’s bedtime already. It’s exciting and brilliant; it has that indefinable sparkle that just makes you feel happy, even if sad or scary things happen sometimes. I love it for the prose, the weird and wonderful setting, the freaking amazing cast, and the frankly ridiculous number of times it made me laugh out loud while I was reading. It’s quick and clever and utterly delightful – and if you find that you love it, there’s even another standalone set in the same world for you to feast on afterwards!

The Waking Engine by David Edison
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Portal Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Gay MC
Pages: 400
Goodreads

Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die.
Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found.

Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker.

Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.

Are you looking for weird? Because this one is weird. According to The Waking Engine, when we die, we just wake up in another world, with all our memories and (usually) our adult body, and get to make a new life for ourselves. But when souls eventually decide they want true oblivion, they come to the City Unspoken, where those who seek it can find the True Death.

Except that they can’t, just now. There’s a problem. And it’s going to get nasty.

The Waking Engine gives us a bizarre cast of historical figures (NIXON AND CLEOPATRA, ANYONE?), non-humans, gods, liches, bigger-than-gods-gods, fairies that take cyberpunk way too seriously, and noble teenage girls who kill each other over poor fashion choices because it’s not like they can Die For Real, Anyway. Our main character, Cooper, is recently of New York and is supposedly part of some Grand Design – except for how his hosts immediately realise that they have the wrong person, and ditch him to get swept up into a weird and terrifying army-cult that worships the lich lords. And that’s only one of a baroque tangle of intersecting plotlines…

There’s no getting away from the fact that The Waking Engine has plenty of horrific and gory moments, with torture and murder and body-horror aplenty. Equally, it has moments of breathtaking beauty, and I’m pretty confident that the contrast is deliberate, but this is not the book for anyone who isn’t okay to read about half-fae daughters torturing their mortal fathers and death-cults skinning angels. I wouldn’t call it grimdark, but it definitely walks the line. On the other hand, I can guarantee you have never read anything like this before, because there simply isn’t anything out there to compare. So if you want weird, dark, and wonderful? This is exactly that.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 302
Goodreads

From Hannu Rajaniemi, one of the most exciting science fiction writers in the last decade, comes an awe-inspiring account of the afterlife and what happens when it spills over into the world of the living.

Loss is a thing of the past. Murder is obsolete. Death is just the beginning.

In 1938, death is no longer feared but exploited. Since the discovery of the afterlife, the British Empire has extended its reach into Summerland, a metropolis for the recently deceased.

Yet Britain isn't the only contender for power in this life and the next. The Soviets have spies in Summerland, and the technology to build their own god.
When SIS agent Rachel White gets a lead on one of the Soviet moles, blowing the whistle puts her hard-earned career at risk. The spy has friends in high places, and she will have to go rogue to bring him in.

But how do you catch a man who's already dead?

Summerland is also pretty weird, and also a lot about death, but it’s far less grim: it’s a 1930s setting where the afterlife is no longer a question, but a definite place you can even send mail to and take telephone calls from. Spirits rent the bodies of mediums to attend parties, while the Russians continue to build their own god out of a hivemind that started with Lenin (if I remember correctly). So the premise alone is ridiculously cool and interesting, but Rajaniemi also spins a bloody good story; I’ve never particularly cared for spy-thrillers, but when some of those spies are spirits??? And in an alternate history that is so cleverly detailed? With crisp prose and complicated characters and a story that doesn’t let up for a second? Ohmygodsyes.

I had to double-check the page count for this one, because I couldn’t believe so much story was packed into so few pages without ever feeling rushed, only exciting. So if you’d rather not lug around a 900-page epic, but still want an epic story that is weird and historical and has ghost-spies??? This is the book you’ve been looking for.

Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambly
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Pages: 341
Goodreads

After she has a premonition that her sister will die when she takes her marriage vows, a young wizard attempts to stop the wedding

It’s normal for a young girl to be jealous of her sister’s impending wedding, and Kyra is jealous indeed. A plain looking young magic student whose incipient wizardly abilities have done nothing to attract the attentions of the boys of her town, she is not surprised to learn that her sister has caught the eye of one of the city’s wealthiest merchants. But she is alarmed by some of the signs that are coming up in her prognostication lessons. Water turns to blood, the death card haunts her tarot practice, and finally she has a specific vision: that her sister will die the day she takes her vows. Using every trick in her small magic arsenal, Kyra attempts to disrupt the wedding, going up against a force more powerful than any magic: an impatient bride.

Barbara Hambly is one of my auto-buy authors simply for her prose, which is luscious and decadent and gorgeous. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she has a wry sense of humour and enjoys subverting reader expectations, especially when it comes to romances and couple dynamics. Stranger at the Wedding is just deliciously beautiful and lush, even while it also deals with complicated family dynamics and a sister who is determined to make sure her sister doesn’t die at her wedding! Definitely not the book for anyone who gets bored by description, but Hambly’s magic always feels properly magical and her stories always manage to be beautiful even when dealing with very ugly topics and happenings. Although if I remember correctly (it’s been a while since I read it) Stranger at the Wedding never gets very dark, and the relatively low stakes (not saving the world, just a wedding) does help keep some of the pressure off, even while the story manages to have enough going on – and the genuine mystery of who’s out to murder the bride – to keep your attention glued to the page.

Very much recommended for fans of luscious prose, and if you enjoy Stranger at the Wedding, make sure to look up Hambly’s other fantasy novels – she has quite a few!

Hunting by Andrea K. Höst
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Pages: 266
Goodreads

Ash Lenthard doesn’t call herself a vigilante. She’s merely prone to random acts of derring-do, and occasional exhibitions of tomfoolery. Her friends, the Huntsmen, have never stepped over the line while patrolling the streets of Luinhall.

That was before the murder of Ash’s beloved guardian, Genevieve.

Now, Ash Lenthard is out for blood and even when the hunt sends her to the palace, on a collision course with a past identity she would do anything to forget, Ash cannot, will not, back down.

It is utterly criminal that Andrea K Höst is not more well-known, but if you are lucky enough to be encountering her work for the first time, Hunting is a pretty excellent place to start. Höst always manages to come up with really unique concepts for her worldbuilding, while always being able to get them across very deftly; no info-dumping here, my friends. For Hunting, we have a world with an incredibly cool theology wherein nobles and royals must be accepted by Luin, god of the earth, before being bound to their land, which shouldn’t be relevant to Ash trying to find her adopted aunt’s killer, except that one of the investigators sweeps her up, makes her his page, and installs her in the palace to try and find out what’s going on, bringing her into contact with nobles and royals aplenty.

Oh – and they all think she’s a boy. Because she has a pretty complicated backstory of her own and a history she’s running from, and even though all she wants is justice, what she ends up getting is a plot so terrible it even includes the gods.

Hunting is not even 300 pages, but never feels rushed or like the story doesn’t have enough room to breathe; the pacing is perfect, the writing both economical and elegant, and Ash herself will have you cackling with her snark and her ‘no fucks to give’ attitude towards nobility. What makes her different is that she’s excellent at pretending to give a fuck, and knows how to keep her temper and impulses under control. It’s a combination of characteristics I don’t see that often, and would get the book major points from me even if I didn’t also adore the worldbuilding (which I do) and didn’t get completely sucked into the story (which I very much did). Whatever your tastes, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying themselves with this book!

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Portal Fantasy
Representation: Japanese MC, multiple queer MCs and secondary characters, F/F or wlw, secondary polyamory
Pages: 367
Goodreads

In the Cities of Coin and Spice and In the Night Garden introduced readers to the unique and intoxicating imagination of Catherynne M. Valente. Now she weaves a lyrically erotic spell of a place where the grotesque and the beautiful reside and the passport to our most secret fantasies begins with a stranger’s kiss.…

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

I have yet to read a Valente book I did not adore, but Palimpsest was my first of her novels and it is still one of my dearest. If you want weirdness and ridiculously stunning prose from the book you’re reading, Valente is always the right choice, and Palimpsest is pretty much the epitome of stunning-and-weird. The city of Palimpsest resides in another world, one where veterans have animal limbs and bees are made of magic and clockwork and trains can fall in love with the right passenger. It has rich and poor but all of it is decadent, just in different ways, and all of it is utterly, breathtakingly magical. Almost everyone who visits it falls in love with it and wishes to stay there forever.

The problem is, you can only get there by having sex with someone who has been there. Those who do have tiny maps appear on their bodies, the part of Palimpsest that is tied to them, that you’ll go to if you have sex with them. To reach every part of the city, well…it’s going to take quite a lot of sex.

And that might make you expect Palimpsest to be smutty, maybe even tagged as erotica, but it absolutely isn’t. The sex scenes are rarely very graphic and never what I’d call explicit; that’s not the point of the book, the story. The point is four different people tied together in four different parts of our world, and tied together by the city they visit in their dreams. The point is the decadent prose and the poetry of it and the magic, the sacrifice and want and how ‘home’ means a thousand different things to a thousand different people. It’s about a beekeeper and a locksmith and a bookbinder and a student chasing their dreams, chasing their hearts, finding home in a thousand different places in another world. The sex and the queerness is a part of it, yes, definitely, but it’s not the main part. I’m not even sure it’s the important part.

This is the standalone for those who want to be transported, who want the pleasure-pain of wishing a story was real and you could fall into it, and who want strangeness and wonder and very lush prose.

The Velocity of Revolution by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour, open love, queer MCs
Pages: 368
Goodreads

From the author of the Maradaine saga comes a new steampunk fantasy novel that explores a chaotic city on the verge of revolution.

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi's skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália's presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion.

The most recently-published book on this list, I wasn’t going to include it until I saw it only had 59 ratings on Goodreads, which is just unacceptable. You need to know about this book!!! It’s a dieselpunk (meaning motorbikes and magic!!!) urban fantasy set in a world nothing like ours, and you can read my full review of it here, but the short version… Folx, this is so good. I called it powerful, punk, poignant in my review, and I stand by it. It’s about found-family and revolution and reclaiming your heritage, it’s about colonialism and indoctrination and racism and poverty, and yes, that makes it sound super grim, and I guess in some ways it is – but it’s also incredibly hopeful, and the action is awesome, and it’s a revolution that has your heart beating so fast in your chest. It’s fierce and brilliant, and the worldbuilding is incredible (brace yourself, the attitudes towards sex are not what you’re used to), and the cast…even the ones you despise in the beginning, you adore by the end. So if you want Fast and Furious but with magic, and complicated, and also with the most mouthwatering tacos in existence??? Please give this a go. Pretty please.

I guess I have to stop this list somewhere, as much as I want to keep going! I hope there’s something on this list for you, and that you’ll let me know if you’ve read any of these already! (Or know of any other amazing standalones I might be interested in…)

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