I’m an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction. I read more or less everything—from experimental horror novellas and literary fiction with a magic realist slant to short stories that play around with language and perspective and novels written in lush, poetic prose. Indeed, one of the reasons I adore speculative fiction is because there’s just so much variety in terms of story and style—there’s something for everyone. On days when I’m exhausted or burnt out from work, I relax by reading sci-fi/fantasy books that deliver straightforward but engaging stories, written in lucid and concise prose.
Whether you’re new to speculative fiction or going through a reading slump or just looking for some fantastic stories with accessible prose, these writers should be on your bookshelf.
Examples of Gaiman’s prose: Neverwhere, Stardust, and American Gods
The Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman introduced me to his vast corpus of work—ranging from short stories and screenplays, to comic books and novels for children and adults. Gaiman’s tales deal with grand ideas and myths and are filled with interesting characters, all written in a simple and matter-of-fact prose style, be it the charming fairytale Stardust or Neverwhere where he reimagines a darker and more magical London.
No matter how ambitious his storylines are (especially American Gods), his prose has a very down-to-earth feel to it which makes it so easy to slip into the world of his fantastical stories.
Notable quote: “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” —The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Examples of Sanderson’s prose: Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive
During my university years Brandon Sanderson was one of my go-to fantasy authors. I was fascinated with how he could come up with such intricate magic systems and detailed secondary worlds, and I spent a lot of time arguing with my friends how “Allomancy” (the system of magic present in The Mistborn Saga) worked or what would happen in the next installment of The Stormlight Archives.
It’s always so easy to dive into his novels and follow the characters on their various adventures—but the best bit is that Sanderson explains all the complex rules of magic and combat in such lucid, “invisible” prose. So much so that his manner of writing became the subject of a controversial Wired article and sparked a fierce debate online on the merits of various prose styles.
Notable quote: “You tried to help the people of the market. You mostly failed. This is life. The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone. Trust me, I’ve practiced.” —Oathbringer
Examples of Rothfuss’s prose: The Name of the Wind, The Lightning Tree
Naturally, I read a lot of books during the long months of the pandemic (who didn’t?) and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss emerged a favorite. The high fantasy world reminded me a lot of Middle Earth, but I was also smitten by the narrator’s confident storytelling voice that felt both familiar and refreshing.
Although the whole tale is recounted as a flashback, the novel narrates the very straightforward coming-of-age story of a young boy in a traveling troupe who grows up to be a powerful and notorious wizard, eventually earning the title “Kingkiller”. The prose also has a lovely, lyrical cadence to it, which makes for a smooth reading experience.
Notable quote: “It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.” —The Wise Man’s Fear
Examples of Pratchett’s prose: Discworld, Good Omens
If you prefer your fantasy novels to be paired with satire and hilarity, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are a perfect match. Consisting of 41 novels, the series unfolds on a flat planet carried by four elephants who stand on a giant turtle that slowly moves through space.
The books are written in a light-hearted tone but deal with various socio-political issues. And although some of the tales are interconnected, most of the novels can be read as standalones. You can start at the beginning with The Colour of Magic (featuring the failed wizard Rincewind) or the extremely fun Witches books or simply choose a title that strikes your fancy and let the author pleasantly surprise you.
And while the prose may seem simple, its actually masterfully crafted, with paragraphs building up to the perfect punchline that will make you laugh a lot but also think deeply about the world.
Notable quote: “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” —Lords and Ladies
Examples of Black’s prose: The Folk of the Air, Spiderwick Chronicles
When I pick up a Holly Black novel, I always know I’m going to have a good time. I devoured the three books in her original The Folk of The Air trilogy while also relishing the delicious slow-burn romance that blossoms between Cardan, the fairie prince and Jude, the fierce and scheming human, along with all the magical details of the Faerie realm.
Black’s other books are equally well-paced and full of enchantments, be it The Darkest Part of the Forest, the gorgeously illustrated Spiderwick Chronicles or her adult debut, Book of Night where shadows can take on a life of their own.
Notable quote: “The three of you have one solution to every problem. Murder. No key fits every lock.” Cardan gives us all a stern look, holding up a long-fingered hand with my stolen ruby ring still on one finger. “Someone tries to betray the High King, murder. Someone gives you a harsh look, murder. Someone disrespects you, murder. Someone ruins your laundry, murder.” —The Wicked King
Examples of McGuires’s prose: InCryptid, Every Heart a Doorway
I discovered Seanan McGuire’s work when I read her award-winning novella, Every Heart a Doorway (which even features an asexual protagonist) on a long train ride and was immediately taken in by the premise and the lucid prose.
I quickly went onto read the other books in her Wayward Children series. The stories all take place in a boarding school for children who’ve discovered portals to various magical realms but are now struggling to adjust to mundane reality. Each novella is unique, with a fun and compelling mystery, and makes for excellent comfort reading.
Notable quote: “For us, places we went were home. We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.” —Every Heart a Doorway
Examples of Moreno-Garcia’s prose: Mexican Gothic, The Beautiful Ones
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and I love how she explores different genres in each new novel.
For instance, her much-loved Mexican Gothic is reminiscent of Gothic romances like Rebecca but slowly gives into horror as the protagonist discovers a deadly secret about the family her cousin has married into. Meanwhile, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau reimagines an H.G. Wells novel with a love triangle and political strife set in 19th-century Mexico. Then, in The Beautiful Ones she carefully imitates the decadent tone of a novel of manners, painting portraits of complex characters and their tangled desires.
So, each novel, no matter how inventive, is guaranteed to be an enjoyable reading experience.
Notable quote: “Marriage could hardly be like the passionate romances one read about in books. It seemed to her, in fact, a rotten deal. Men would be solicitous and well behaved when they courted a woman, asking her out to parties and sending her flowers, but once they married, the flowers wilted.” —Mexican Gothic
Examples of McKinley’s prose: The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin
If you’re looking for a writer who will make you relive the joy of bedtime stories, then check out Robin McKinley’s redolent fairytale retellings. Her stories often feature strong women protagonists, lush and evocative prose, and fairytale/medieval-inspired settings.
So, if you have a soft spot for folkloric fantasy, try Deerskin, Spindle’s End or Rose Daughter (all of which put a feminist spin on familiar fairytales), but if you’re keen on heroic fantasy, go for The Blue Sword and its sequel, The Hero and the Crown.
Notable quote: “Tiny fists can hurt quite a lot when they hit you in the face.” —Spindle’s End
Featured photo: Pedro Araújo / Unsplash