Gentle Books for Trying Times: Fantasies to Make You Smile

Posted 8th May 2021 by Sia in Blogathons, Lists, Recommendations / 7 Comments

Glow books. Heart-home books. Hot chocolate reads. We have quite a few ways to say ‘books that won’t hurt me’, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s a little harder to find Fantasy glow books – Fantasy so often deals with good and evil, saving the kingdom or the world, wars and swords… Even the most beautiful, uplifting, escapist Fantasy can get a little too serious or even grim in places, in other words. And sometimes you just aren’t in the right headspace for even a little grimness, am I right?

I know I’ve been craving stories that are a little gentler, lately, so here are some of my favourites! They come in two flavours: low-stakes, quiet stories where absolutely nothing bad happens; and stories where Exciting Things may happen, but somehow the book still leaves you feeling happy and glow-y. (And it should go without saying, but slight spoiler alert: all these books have happy endings!) I’ve tried to make it clear which type each book is, but feel free to ask me for content warnings or the like if you have any questions!

Without further ado: BEHOLD THE LIST!

The Goblin Emperor (The Goblin Emperor, #1) by Katherine Addison
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Minor queer character
ISBN: 1429946407

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne–or his life.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is an exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

It is obligatory, at this point, to include The Goblin Emperor on feel-good lists – and for good reason! Despite the fact that Maia, the main character, has had an awful childhood and is unexpectedly thrown into a throne that Does Not Want Him, The Goblin Emperor is just one of those books that makes your heart glow. Beautiful prose helps, but personally I think a lot of it is down to Maia, who makes a conscious and stubborn effort to Be Good rather than give in to things like pettiness or frustration. There are some Exciting Moments, where things get a bit scary or sad, but like I said: this is a book that is all but guaranteed to leave you smiling. I would also like to add that the worldbuilding is detailed and amazing, for those of you (like me) who like that sort of thing!

True Love Bites (Hunger Pangs #1) by Joy Demorra
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Disabled Queer MC, Queer MC with anxiety, M/M or mlm

In a world of dwindling hope, love has never mattered more...

Captain Nathan J. Northland had no idea what to expect when he returned home to Lorehaven injured from war, but it certainly wasn't to find himself posted on an island full of vampires. An island whose local vampire dandy lord causes Nathan to feel strange things he'd never felt before. Particularly about fangs.

When Vlad Blutstein agreed to hire Nathan as Captain of the Eyrie Guard, he hadn't been sure what to expect either, but it certainly hadn't been to fall in love with a disabled werewolf. However Vlad has fallen and fallen hard, and that's the problem.

Torn by their allegiances--to family, to duty, and the age-old enmity between vampires and werewolves--the pair find themselves in a difficult situation: to love where the heart wants or to follow where expectation demands.

The situation is complicated further when a mysterious and beguiling figure known only as Lady Ursula crashes into their lives, bringing with her dark omens of death, doom, and destruction in her wake.
And a desperate plea for help neither of them can ignore.
Thrown together in uncertain times and struggling to find their place amidst the rising human empire, the unlikely trio must decide how to face the coming darkness: united as one or divided and alone. One thing is for certain, none of them will ever be the same.

There are two versions of True Love Bites; the Flirting with Fangs edition, and the Fangs and Fluff edition. The only real difference is that the former has some yummy, somewhat kinky sexy scenes, while the latter fades to black on anything past kissing, for those of us who’d rather skip over the explicit stuff. (Normally I’d be one of those readers, but it’s Demorra, so.) Although there’s a pretty big saving-the-world plotline building up in the background, True Love Bites is primarily a romantic fantasy between a disabled werewolf ex-soldier, and a vampire with what you and I would recognise as clinical anxiety. (The relationship will eventually become polyamorous, but in this book it’s just those two.) Although there are some political shenanigans and family dramas to be dealt with, it’s mostly just…lovely, honestly. There is some gentle emotional happenings regarding untangling past traumas and reassurance that nobody is broken, but the story never goes anywhere really dark. The worldbuilding is kept simple but still clever and interesting, and the cast of secondary characters is utterly delightful. Very heartily recommended!

A Rational Arrangement (Arranging Paradise, #1) by L. Rowyn
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Autistic MC, Bisexual MC, Bisexual MC, M/M, M/F/M, polyamory

“But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what's the use in meeting at all? It's like trying to decide what you'll have for dinner without mentioning food.”

Wisteria Vasilver does wish to marry. Truly. But though she lives in Paradise, arranging a match is full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary ... or perhaps just for her.

Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, expects he'll wed -- someday. But not now, and never to a rich icicle of a woman like Miss Vasilver. No matter how much his parents might want the match, or his house might need her dowry. Besides, he has his own problems -- most of them people who need his help as a mind-healer.

Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey, would be more than happy to help Striker with his financial troubles, and not just to ensure that Miss Vasilver's dowry doesn't tempt Striker into marriage. If only he could find some way to make his proud, stubborn friend accept the money!

Can three people of such different temperaments ever find their way to a more perfect Paradise?

A long, comfortably sprawling polyamorous romance in a kind of Regency Fantasy setting (except that, actually, this civilization is what evolved out of the survivors of a post-environmental collapse Earth leaving and making a home on a new planet), A Rational Arrangement is a low-stakes story about courting and marriage, with balls, giant talking cats, and an autistic protagonist whose approach to wedding proposals is indistinguishable from her business proposals. (As an autistic person, I can tell you that this makes SO MUCH SENSE, but will probably make the rest of you laugh – which you’re encouraged to do!) If I remember correctly, there is a brief instance of one of the characters being kidnapped and tortured, but it happens off-page and is a very minor part of the story.

Heart of Stone by Johannes T. Evans
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Historical Fantasy
Representation: M/M or mlm, ADHD MC, autistic MC

The year is 1764, and following a glowing recommendation from his last employer, Henry Coffey, vampire, takes on a new personal secretary: young Theophilus Essex.

The man is quite unlike any secretary - or any man, for that matter - that Henry has ever met.

'Heart of Stone' is a slowly unfolding period romance between a vampire and his inimitably devoted clerk: lushly depicted in flowing, lovingly appended prose, we follow the slow understanding these two men grasp of one another, and the cross of their two worlds into each other's.

Henry Coffey, immortal and ever-oscillating between periods of delighted focus upon his current passion project, is charming, witty, and seems utterly incapable of closing his mouth for more than a few moments; in contrast, Theophilus Essex is quiet and keenly focused, adopting an ever-flat affect, but as time goes on, he relaxes in his employer's presence.

Craving resounding intimacy but with an ever aware of the polite boundaries for their situation, Coffey and Essex perform a slow dance as they grow closer to one another, and find themselves entangled.

Heart of Stone is another low-stakes fantasy (pun unintended, I swear), a slow and sweet story where the reader gets to watch two lovely people figure out they’re in love, with the stress-free certainty that a happy ending is assured. It’s all pining and minor misunderstandings, beautiful prose married to a languorous pace that makes this a perfect read for when the rest of the world feels too busy or too loud (or both). Evans has also done some seriously amazing worldbuilding, although for the most part it’s very much in the background, and not particularly plot-relevant or influencing the story too much. I just wanted to mention it for those other readers who, like me, swoon for wonderful worldbuilding!

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) by Catherynne M. Valente
Genres: Portal Fantasy
ISBN: 0312649614

Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.
With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.

If you have not yet discovered the beauty of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, then I envy you, because there’s nothing like reading it for the first time. September is a young girl who leaps at the chance to travel to Fairyland, and has many adventures therein, spanning the full range of Valente’s incredible imagination. Like all the best Middle Grade books, the Fairyland series does not talk down to its readers, and I assure you adults can and do fall in love with it as well. Valente does not pretend that children don’t have to go through hardships or try to tell them that life is always perfect, but there’s a strong ribbon of hope woven through these books, and lots of quiet, clever lessons and messages just as applicable to grown-ups as to kids. The prose is clever and poetic, and there’s just so many magical ideas and creatures to unpack here, like witches who have wooden spoons instead of wands and friends who are half-wyvern, half-library! Seriously, these are the most wonderful pick-me-up books, and you will absolutely not regret giving them a go.

And as an aside, this is the only Portal Fantasy series I’ve ever seen to have a perfect ending, and I do mean perfect.

Thief of Songs (Twin Kingdoms Romances Book 1) by M.C.A. Hogarth
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Nonbinary hermaphrodite MC, Pansexual MC, Agender asexual secondary character, NB/M, polyamory

The lowland conquerers have taken everything from him, or so the composer Amet Emendexte-ilye was taught: prestige, autonomy, wealth, and most importantly, magic. But when one of them steals his fiancee, Amet avenges himself on them all by writing music and giving it away in defiance of the lowland laws. It is a very satisfactory vengeance, or so he thinks, until he discovers the kingdom's royal composer is planning to debut Amet's work—as folk music!

So he's riding east to set the record straight. But he has no idea how compelling a decadent lowland hermaphrodite can be. And before it's over, this thief of songs may be stealing more than his music....

A lyrical romance, set in a second world fantasy. Leave the world behind today!

Heat Level: ** (not-explicit, some sensual thoughts) Relationship: Hermaphrodite/male with poly asexual neuter third Length: Novel

Aaand it’s back to the romances! This is an unbelievably sweet, beautiful story written in gorgeous prose, in a fantasy world that is just designed to be pretty and wonderful. It’s wholly indulgent – the green-haired character on the cover? Their hair changes colour with the seasons! By magic! Just because!!! There are no big world-ending stakes here; both the main characters are very passionate about music, and the disagreement means a lot to them, but you know they’re going to work it out. This is the book you want if you’re craving jewels and gorgeous clothes and just sheer loveliness, okay? With the bonus that everything is queer and absolutely nothing hurts!

I also strongly recommend the sequel, but you do need to read Thief of Songs first for it to make sense!

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, #1) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Very minor brief glimpse of polyamory
ISBN: 0061137588

Troubled young Fawn Bluefield seeks a life beyond her family's farm. Enroute to the city, she encounters a patrol of Lakewalkers. The necromancers armed with human bone knives fight "malices", immortal entities that draw out life, enslaving humans and animals. Dag saves Fawn from a malice - at a devastating cost. Their fates are now bound in a remarkable journey.

The Sharing Knife quartet is one in which Exciting Things do happen – monsters need slaying, and so do bandits – but these books still have this incredible warm glow to them. There’s romance at the heart of this series too (most Glow Books have romance in them somewhere, I don’t make the rules) but it’s quite a non-traditional one, in that Dag is more than twice Fawn’s age – but their dynamic works in a really healthy, joyful way that is a delight to read. Despite missing a hand, Dag is incredibly accomplished and competent, whereas Fawn is ignorant about the world but fiercely curious and incredibly clever. The series follows their relationship from their first meeting, through to them searching for a place where they can make a life together, as neither Fawn’s people nor Dag’s long-lived and slightly magical Patrollers are happy about the their relationship. Despite that, it’s absolutely a series of Glow Books; Bujold’s prose is lovely and her ways of writing about people being people are peerless. Superficially, the story seems so simple, but it’s given a richness and depth another author probably couldn’t have pulled off, and these books just make you happy. I reread the entire series at least once a year, every year!

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Nonbinary secondary character
ISBN: 1614504636

Halla is a housekeeper who has suddenly inherited her great-uncle's estate... and, unfortunately, his relatives. Sarkis is an immortal swordsman trapped in a prison of enchanted steel. When Halla draws the sword that imprisons him, Sarkis finds himself attempting to defend his new wielder against everything from bandits and roving inquisitors to her own in-laws... and the sword itself may prove to be the greatest threat of all.

Okay, Swordheart does open with the main character, Halla, trying to come up with a way to kill herself, and I know that can be triggering. But…it’s all very silly and funny? Even poor Halla thinks it’s ridiculous. She’s trying to fall on a sword, like they do in the ballads, and is realising that the ballads are very scant on practical details, when…a magic man comes out of the sword.

(Also, she’s not actually suicidal or depressed. It just seems like the only escape from her horrible relations who are keeping her locked in her room until she marries her clammy cousin. Whereas if she dies before getting married, her nieces get her money, and that’s important to her, so. Thus the attempted falling-on-the-sword.)

This book will make you laugh. I promise. It is hysterically funny (like all of Ursula Vernon/T Kingfisher’s books, please go read them all immediately). The man in the sword is Very Serious and Halla is Very Not (she asks so many questions, she is so wonderful and practical and I love her, and in the end so does sword-man, so it all works out), and it’s all a freaking ridiculous-clever-snarky romantic comedy. With an epically awesome nonbinary lawyer-priest to help things along.

(And genuinely, you need to read all of Ursula Vernon’s books, particularly the ones set in this verse. Swordheart is a standalone, and I chose it rather than any of the others to feature here because the baddies are villainous relatives rather than, you know, the fate of cities and kingdoms being up for grabs. But you should definitely read the rest too, because they’re so much fun!)

Chalice by Robin McKinley
ISBN: 0399246762

As the newly appointed Chalice, Mirasol is the most important member of the Master’s Circle. It is her duty to bind the Circle, the land and its people together with their new Master. But the new Master of Willowlands is a Priest of Fire, only drawn back into the human world by the sudden death of his brother. No one knows if it is even possible for him to live amongst his people. Mirasol wants the Master to have his chance, but her only training is as a beekeeper. How can she help settle their demesne during these troubled times and bind it to a Priest of Fire, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone?
A captivating tale that reveals the healing power of duty and honour, love and honey.

Robin McKinley has a gift for quiet but brilliant fantasy novels, and I would recommend them all, but the one which is probably the gentlest of the lot is Chalice. It’s about a beekeeper who unexpectedly becomes a vital part of the magics which keep her home county – think of it as a county, it’s easier – safe and healthy. Between her lack of experience, and a Master (think Lord of the Manor) who can’t safely touch other humans, it is A Lot. Despite that, though, Chalice reads like dripping honey – lovely and slow and sweet. There’s a little bit of Exciting Things towards the very end, but this is an excellent book for lowering your blood pressure.

(And I urge you to check out McKinley’s other books, especially Pegasus, Spindle’s End, and Sunshine – although Sunshine has scary vampire shenanigans, so, not the gentlest read, even if it is mostly about baking!)

A Brother's Price by Wen Spencer
Genres: Secondary World No Magic
Representation: Polyamory/group-marriage
ISBN: 0451460383

In a world where males are rarely born, they've become a commodity-traded and sold like property. Jerin Whistler has come of age for marriage and his handsome features have come to the attention of the royal princesses. But such attentions can be dangerous-especially as Jerin uncovers the dark mysteries the royal family is hiding.

This is very much one of those books in which Exciting Things happen – if I remember correctly the book opens with the main character’s family rescuing a princess when her guard come under attack, and there are kidnappings and such later on, but to me this is still a Glow Book. It’s set in a semi-industrial world where men are born very rarely, and thus are very precious; the society is obviously a matriarchy. The gender roles are pretty flipped around – well-bred men are expected to embody qualities most readers would consider feminine – and group-marriage is the normalised default in this world. It’s solidly a romance between the main character, Jerrin, and the royal princesses, of all people, but there’s a fair bit of adventure, action, and politicking to spice things up.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Secondary brown character
ISBN: 1681193434

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family's mountain cave . . . if only they'd let her leave it. Her family thinks she's too young to fly on her own, but she's determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she's transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she's the fiercest creature in these mountains--and now she's found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time . . . won't she?

A classic fantasy with terrific girl power, perfect for fans of Shannon Hale and Jessica Day George.

Listen, I don’t care how old you are, Dragon With a Chocolate Heart is perfect for all ages. It’s one of those MG books that don’t talk down to its readers, and there’s plenty for grown-ups to enjoy here, layers that younger readers might not pick up on consciously, but that are definitely there. It’s sweet and funny and unexpectedly deep at times, and you will adore Aventurine, I promise. She is grumpy and growly and stubborn and you will want to adopt her before the book is over. And I mean…it’s about a dragon who decides to work in a chocolate shop!!! I mean, come on – what more could you possibly need to hear?!

Also, yes, I’m featuring both the UK and US covers, because they are both beautiful and this is my blog and I do what I want, so there!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Portia Rosenberg
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: Secondary Black character
ISBN: 1582344167

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative -- the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

This is an utterly enormous book, but sometimes those are the best, am I right? If you haven’t read it, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a historical fantasy mostly set in England, and as the blurb says, it’s about the resurgence of magic. What really makes this a Glow Book is the writing style and narrative voice, which is wry and clever and very much lets the reader in on the joke even when the characters don’t get it. I think you’ll know within a chapter or two if the style suits you, but if it does, then you should be braced for a number of Exciting Things, some of which are Not Nice, but I don’t remember it ever getting truly dark – even when Not Nice things are touched upon, the book always has this vibe of Everything Will Turn Out Okay that makes it bearable. It you want to disappear into a massive story that sucks you in but doesn’t ask you to work too hard, this is the perfect book for you – especially if you like historical fiction/fantasy!

Point of Hopes (Astreiant, #1) by Melissa Scott, Lisa A. Barnett
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Queernorm world, pre-M/M, matriarchy, Queer MCs

Nicolas Rathe is a pointsman, a dedicated watchman in the great city of Astreiant. During the annual trade fair, with a city filled with travelers and merchants, someone is stealing children. The populace is getting angry and frightened and convinced that a foreigner must be to blame. Rathe calls on the aid of both an out-of-work soldier, the handsome Philip Eslingen, and the necromancer Istre b’Estorr.

The art of astrology is a very real power in the kingdom and plays as much a role in politics as greed and intrigue. Rathe finds himself struggling to find the children before a major astrological event brings about catastrophe.

The Astreiant series is near and dear to my heart. They’re detective stories! At least, officially; Astreient is a city in a vaguely Elizabethan world, and the Pointsmen are the closest thing they have to police – they’re supposed to investigate dubious derring-do and catch criminals. Rathe, one of the two main characters, is a pointsman, and when the book opens he’s looking into a number of missing children cases. Eventually he crosses paths with Eslingen, an ex-soldier who is also something of a dandy, and with some help the two figure out what’s going on. Each book focuses on a different crime, but the pacing of these books is so indulgent and delicious that it never feels tense or high-pressure – at least not until the very last moments of the case. The setting is a huge part of what makes this series so lovely; it’s a world where astrology is very much a Real Thing, and super, super important; there’s also necromancy, although that remains strictly in the background, and magic that can be done with flower arrangements. I also love the fact that it’s a queernorm matriarchy, where, as far as I can tell, marriage between a man and a woman is pretty rare, extreme, and mostly a business arrangement – most people seem to look to a same-sex partner for love and romance. All together, it reads like historical fantasy, with some intriguing mysteries, great character dynamics (Rathe and Eslingen do get together after the first book, and no, I don’t consider that a spoiler at all, it’s a given), wonderful prose, and utterly delightful worldbuilding. If you’re okay with the fact that some of the cases they investigate involve murder, then there shouldn’t be anything else to distress you in these books!

Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison
Genres: Fantasy

"Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?"—Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This

“A 78-year-old friend staying at my house picked up Travel Light, and a few hours later she said, ‘Oh, I wish I’d known there were books like this when I was younger!’ So, read it now—think of all those wasted years!”—Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea

A wonderful story that will transport you into Halla’s world where a basilisk might be met in the desert, heroes are taken to Valhalla by Valkyries, and a fortune might be made with a word to the right horse.

This short and fabulous book transports the reader from a cave in the forest to a dragon’s lair to the wonders of early Constantinople. It’s dense yet light, happy, deep, sad, amazing, and short enough that once it’s read all at once you’ll have time to read it again.

“The enchantments of Travel Light contain more truth, more straight talking, a grittier, harder-edged view of the world than any of the mundane descriptions of daily life you will find in … science fiction stories.”— Paul Kincaid, SF Site

“A gem of a book.”— Strange Horizons

“Every page is full of magic and wonder….well worth seeking out.”— Rambles

“Combines the best of Rowling and Pullman, being full of magic and fantasy with the hard edge of reality sharp at its edges.”— The New Review

Travel Light is a wry, clever, imaginative, and unexpectedly deep fairytale for grown-ups. (Or anyone, really!) There’s a lot about it that’s simply delightful – a baby princess raised first by bears, then by dragons! – but there’s a vein of something richer underneath it all. Although the Norse aspects are a little more obvious – there are Valkyries and much mention of Odin and the Norns – I think Mitchison blurred the lines between a lot of different mythologies in this story; part of it seems to be saying that all stories are aspects of one story that encompasses them all… I just read this for the first time recently, and I’m still thinking about it. But there’s no question that it’s a lot of fun, with Mitchison quick to poke a bit of silliness in the direction of serious grown-ups, and it’s a comfortably short read if you want something to curl up with for just an afternoon or two!

The Empress of Timbra (Hidden Histories, #1) by Karen Healey, Robyn Fleming
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Autistic MC, very minor glimpse of M/M and F/F

Fourteen-year-old Taver didn't know he was a nobleman's bastard until his real father died. Eleven-year-old Elaku has always known she was the bastard daughter of the same nobleman - and the Empress's Witch. When the two siblings meet in the Empress of Timbra's palace, neither is aware that treachery and war threaten their home - and that they must rely on their magic, their wits, and each other to have any chance of victory.

Empress of Timbra, how do I love thee? *happy sigh* I adore this book, and I can absolutely understand why the authors felt the need to self-publish, because a traditional publisher would have hysterics trying to figure out if this is YA or not. The main characters are both children, but this is one of those stories where adult readers can see more going on than the characters themselves can. It definitely has Exciting Things in it – there’s questions about who should be heir to the throne, political shenanigans, and pirates! – but it is a book that never fails to have me grinning like an idiot when I read it. It’s a story about family and magic with lots of subtly stunning worldbuilding, and I dare you not to fall head over heels for both the main characters!

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Portal Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MC, multiple gay characters, M/M or mlm
ISBN: 1618731203

“What’s your name?”
“Serena?” Elliot asked.
“Serene,” said Serene. “My full name is Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.”
Elliot’s mouth fell open. “That is badass.”

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border—unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and—best of all as far as Elliot is concerned—mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

I’ll admit, I hesitated over including In Other Lands, because there are definitely achy moments and painful topics touched upon. But this has been the book my bestie and I turn to whenever we’re feeling bruised for years now. I can only say that yes, there are moments that will squeeze your heart – but this is still a book you end up hugging tight to your chest while rolling around on the bed in delight.

It’s basically ‘snarky bisexual goes to magic school and is Not Impressed’, and it is amazing. This is not a fast-paced book; it’s wonderfully long, covering the shenanigans of Elliot and his friends year by year, so quite a lot of it has a slice-of-life feel: there is archery practice and visiting each other over the summer and looking for elven pornography in the library, and also a school play. There are also adventure-bits, and Brennan subverts quite a few traditional fantasy tropes – most obviously the glorification of violence. Elliot does not think violence is cool. It’s kind of awesome. And as much as you will want to shake the grown-ups in the book, it will make you laugh so much, I promise.

…But it’s not a total absence-of-grimness, so please keep that in mind!

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month, with an introduction by Danielle Sucher, ranks among the year’s most exquisite treasures. This beautiful volume of short fictions and poems takes as its inspiration the author's tasting of 28 different kinds of honey, one per day. Each tasting leads to a different literary creation, each entry beginning with a description of the honey in terms that will be familiar to wine connoisseurs: "Day 3--Sag Harbor, NY, Early Spring Honey," which has a color "pale and clear as snowmelt" and the smell "cool sugar crystals," but also brings to mind "a stingless jellyfish I once held in my hand in Oman." The taste? " the end of winter...[when] you can still see clumps of snow on the ground and the air is heavy with damp..." The differences between the types of honey allow El-Mohtar to move back and forth between the poetic and the more casually contemporary, with the experiment of the tasting as the unifying structure. A perfect gift, a hidden treasure, a delight for the senses.

The Honey Month isn’t a novel at all; it’s a collection of musings on different honeys, with a short story or poem inspired by each honey. It’s a beautiful, gentle, languorous book with utterly gorgeous prose, effectively one long, sweet meditation on honey and magic. There’s absolutely no pressure, high-stakes, or Exciting Things here; the book reads like the best kind of dream.

Which feels like a great place to wrap this up! What do you folx think? Have you read any of these? Or do you know of any other ‘gentle’ fantasy books I’ve missed? Drop them in the comments!

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7 responses to “Gentle Books for Trying Times: Fantasies to Make You Smile

  1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was such a lovely book, and I really like the sound of The Honey Month, I’ll have to add that to my TBR!

  2. I really liked Spindle’s End and Beauty (and the Robin Hood one?) so will try Chalice! Been meaning to read Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell too. I’m enjoying Tamora Pierce books as feel-good fantasy reads at the minute.

    • I think I have yet to come across a Robin McKinley book I didn’t love. I hope you like Chalice! And I’ve heard very good things about Tamora Pierce’s books being feel-good 🙂

  3. So many of these are on my TBR – I’ve heard fantastic things about In Other Lands, Swordheart and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I love the sound of Heart of Stone. I will never got love The Goblin Emperor – I’m due a re-read of that one!

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