I’ve heard people who don’t read science fiction & fantasy say that The Reason they don’t is because they don’t want to get into a long series. It’s all trilogies and quintets and omg-neverending-looking-at-you-Wheel-of-Time processions of books. They say that a good standalone science fiction or fantasy story, one book only, doesn’t exist. I’ve even heard fans of both genres say this. And I’m here to tell you that it’s just plain not true. It exists, in plentitude. So if you’ve been wanting to dip your toe into the science fiction and fantasy genres without having to reserve a whole bookshelf for one series, here are my recommendations to get you started:
Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar & Grille by Steven Brust
If you’re looking for something with the humorous flavor of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but more understandable/cohesive, this is a good one. A fun read. Brust is also one of my favorite fantasy writers, but those all tend to be series.
Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt
One of my top two sci-fi authors, his standalones are as good as his series. This one explores what happens when a farmer in North Dakota digs up something beyond the capability of human technology. McDevitt’s writing often asks more questions than it answers, and is always good for a rumination on humanity.
Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle
One of the masters of fantasy (author of Game of Thrones/Song of Ice & Fire series) turns his hand to sci-fi, with a little help from a friend. An engrossing story about the power of flight, and the power of a dream (not as cheesy as I just made that sound, I promise).
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I originally got hooked on Le Guin with her Earthsea (fantasy) series – which I still love. But her sci-fi is even better. She’s the other one of my top two sci-fi authors. This one in particular I always recommend. It examines what happens when an emissary is dropped into an alien culture where one of the cornerstones of how we understand people/the world (gender) is no longer a given.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein is one of the Big Three of science fiction, and this book is considered his masterpiece. It tells the story of a human who has returned to Earth as an adult after being raised by Martians on the planet Mars. The observations on human culture by an alien outsider who also happens to be human is a particularly interesting story lens. And hey, Kurt Vonnegut called it “A brilliant mind-bender.” So there’s that. 🙂
Honorable mentions: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Changing Planes (book of short stories) by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Who doesn’t love a story about a boy on a magical quest? Gaiman is one of the master voices of the genre, and this is his version of a fairy story for adults. Magic, adventure, mayhem, love, etc. – it’s all packed in here. It also got made into a movie, if you’d rather go that route.
Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley
You didn’t think I could make a list like this without one book all about dragons, did you? 😀 This one probably falls in the Young Adult category. Jake (several years after the book’s events) is telling the story of his first solo expedition on the dragon preserve, the dire situation he stumbled upon, and all that fell out after that. It’s a light but good read.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
This is the book to go to if you want a hearty epic fantasy without the 5- or 12-book commitment. Granted, it is still pretty long, but it’s just the one book. It’s got astonishing world-building, loads of intrigue, and some great characters. You can read my longer review here.
Song of the Beast by Carol Berg
Carol Berg is one of my favorite fantasy authors, because she writes complex characters with a hundred relatable facets that just hook you in. This is no exception, boasting a wonderfully tortured hero. Literally and figuratively. And there are dragons!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Ok, admittedly, I haven’t actually finished this one yet. But what I’ve read so far is good. And it’s been called ‘a tale of magic such as might have been written by the young Jane Austen.’ Which is a pretty solid endorsement from my point of view. And it won Time Magazine’s Best Novel of the Year, so there’s that. If you like English literature (and I mean that in the sense of the country, not just the language), this would be a good choice.
Honorable mentions: To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust, and The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn.
What about you, fellow bookworms? What would you add to the list?
(admittedly, I could’ve made this list much longer, but I had to cut myself off somewhere)