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15 Best Weird Fantasy Books

Weird fantasy has to leave me with a “That was great, but what the hell did I just read?” feeling. The books below all fit the bill.

 

15
The Narrator
by Michael Cisco – 2010

It’s weirdly difficult to find any kind of summary of the plot of this book. A narrator that should not have been drafted is thrown into a war he wants nothing to do with. Why didn’t he just run, or hide, you ask? Because he fell under the view of an Edek, creatures who need a human handler to function in our societies. Once an Edek sees you, you will never be unseen.

“Michael Cisco is of a different kind and league from almost anyone writing today, and The Narrator is Cisco at his startling best.”
—China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

14
The Vorrh
by B. Catling – 2012
Book 1 of 3 in The Vorrh Trilogy

Next to the colonial town of Essenwald sits the Vorrh, a vast—perhaps endless—forest. It is a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests. Sentient and magical, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend has it that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart.

Now, a renegade English soldier aims to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a strange bow, he begins his journey, but some fear the consequences of his mission, and a native marksman has been chosen to stop him.

Around them swirl a remarkable cast of characters, including a Cyclops raised by robots and a young girl with tragic curiosity, as well as historical figures, such as writer Raymond Roussel and photographer and Edward Muybridge. While fact and fictional blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate hangs in the balance, under the will of the Vorrh.

“A dizzying trek into the dark heart of fantasy… The Vorrh is not only a work of alternative history, but of alternate literature… For all its eye-gouging, mind-bending spectacle, The Vorrh makes room for hushed poignancy and philosophical heft… otherworldly ideas and images not only connect, but resonate to the bone.”
—NPR

13
Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson – 2013

We’d had to be cut free of our mother’s womb. She’d never have been able to push the two-headed sport that was me and Abby out the usual way. Abby and I were fused, you see. Conjoined twins. Abby’s head, torso, and left arm protruded from my chest. But here’s the real kicker; Abby had the magic, I didn’t. Far as the Family was concerned, Abby was one of them, though cursed, as I was, with the tragic flaw of mortality.

Now adults, Makeda and Abby still share their childhood home. The surgery to separate the two girls gave Abby a permanent limp, but left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo. The daughters of a celestial demigod and a human woman, Makeda and Abby were raised by their magical father, the god of growing things, and they had a highly unusual childhood that made them extremely close. Ever since Abby’s magical talent began to develop, though, in the form of an unearthly singing voice, the sisters have become increasingly distant.

Today, Makeda has decided it’s high time to move out and make her own life among the other nonmagical, claypicken humans—after all, she’s one of them. In Cheerful Rest, a run-down warehouse space, Makeda finds exactly what she’s been looking for: an opportunity to live apart from Abby and begin building her own independent life. There’s even a resident band, led by the charismatic (and attractive) building superintendent.

But when her father goes missing, Makeda will have to discover her own talent—and reconcile with Abby—if she’s to have a hope of saving him.

“Hopkinson has lost none of her gift for salty, Caribbean-Canadian talk…and the relationship between Makeda and Abby always rings true: resentment and anger enduringly intertwined with love and loyalty.”
―Kirkus Reviews

12
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link – 2001

The eleven stories in Kelly Link’s debut collection are funny, spooky, and smart. They all have happy endings. They were all especially written for you.

“Stylistic pyrotechnics light up a bizarre but emotionally truthful landscape. Link’s a writer to watch.”
—Kirkus Reviews

11
Shadow & Claw
by Gene Wolfe – 1980
Book 1 of 2 in The Book of the New Sun series

Shadow & Claw brings together the first two books of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy in one volume:

The Shadow of the Torturer is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession—showing mercy toward his victim.

The Claw of the Conciliator continues the saga of Severian, banished from his home, as he undertakes a mythic quest to discover the awesome power of an ancient relic, and learn the truth about his hidden destiny.

“[A] masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis”
—Publishers Weekly, on The Book of the New Sun

10
The Etched City
by K.J. Bishop – 2003

Gwynn and Raule are rebels on the run, with little in common except being on the losing side of a hard-fought war. Gwynn is a gunslinger from the north, a loner, a survivor, a killer. Raule is a wandering surgeon, a healer who still believes in just—and lost—causes. Bound by a desire to escape the ghosts of the past, together they flee to the teeming city of Ashamoil, where Raule plies her trade among the desperate and destitute, and Gwynn becomes bodyguard and assassin for the household of a corrupt magnate.

There, in the saving and taking of lives, they find themselves immersed in a world where art infects life, dream and waking fuse, and splendid and frightening miracles begin to bloom…

“The plot, with its stories-within-stories and its offhand descriptions of wonders and prodigies, brings to mind the works of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.”
—Locus

9
City of Saints and Madmen
by Jeff VanderMeer – 2001
Book 1 of 2 in the Ambergris series

This collection of four linked novellas is the perfect introduction to VanderMeer’s vividly imagined world.

In the city of Ambergris, a would-be suitor discovers a sunlit street can become a killing ground in the blink of an eye.

An artist receives an invitation to a beheading and finds himself enchanted.

A patient in a mental institution is convinced he’s imagined a city called Ambergris, invented its every last detail, and that he’s really from a place called Chicago.

Ambergris is a cruelly beautiful metropolis—a haven for artists and thieves, for composers and murderers. And once there, anything can happen. These tales of Ambergris include the World Fantasy Award-winning novella, The Transformation of Martin Lake.

8
In the Night Garden
by Catherynne M. Valente – 2006
Book 1 of 2 in The Orphan’s Tales series

Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history. And what tales she tells!

Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars—each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered “mermaid” to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales—even, and especially, their teller.

“The narrative is a nested, many-faceted thing, ever circling back to the girl in the palace garden and the prince she is telling the tales to in a wonderful interpretation of what fairy tales ought to be.”
—Booklist, starred review

7
Rats and Gargoyles
by Mary Gentle – 1990

It is a nameless city somewhere between past and future, a mythic realm at the “heart of the world,” where wicked Rat Lords have reduced all humankind to slaves, and god-daemons make the decision to end all existence.

This energizes a compelling quest for survival, and prompts the powerful White Crow to order an uprising against this chaotic strike that threatens them all. Among those who respond to her are the defiant Prince Lucas of Candover, a student at the University of Crime, and no mans’s slave; and Zari, the young Katayan woman who is destined to become the living Memory of all that follows. And others rally to join them in one final desperate revolt, hoping to create a magic powerful enough to reshape the very nature of how they live.

“Gentle paints her mystical and occult world in the nightmare images of Hieronymus Bosch, drawing deeply on Rosicrucian and Hermetic lore, while at the same time creating idiosyncratic and believable characters.”
—Publishers Weekly

6
The Third Policeman
by Flann O’Brien – 1967

Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two-dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist/philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to “Atomic Theory” and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity (which turns out to be just down the road), and de Selby’s view that the earth is not round but “sausage-shaped.” With the help of his newly found soul named “Joe, ” he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policeman present to him.

“More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence…”
—Bookslut

5
Lagoon
by Nnedi Okorafor – 2014

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between seventeen million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

“Lagoon mixes a traditional trope of SF—first contact with visitors from the stars—with African magical realism to create a lyrical, poetic mash-up examining social deprivation, religious excess and the power of story on our lives.”
—The Guardian

4
Perdido Street Station
by China Miéville – 2000
Book 1 of 3 in the New Crobuzon series

Perdido Street Station borrows from steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, and a few other genres that couldn’t run away fast enough.

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to no one—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.

“Miéville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic.”
—Publishers Weekly

3
This Book is Full of Spiders
by David Wong – 2012
Book 2 of 3 in the John Dies at the End series

My wife hates it when I read this book because there are actually spiders all over the cover.

As I’m writing this, my heavy metal station on Pandora is screaming, “I WANNA GET PYSCHO!” which is perfect for this book, because This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It gets seriously bizarre and creepy.

It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and yes, I’m including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that list.

Two reluctant and generally irresponsible heroes are aware of huge invisible spiders that live in people’s heads due to their earlier ingestion of a drug called Soy Sauce. While they try to stay out of trouble (the kids, not the spiders), Armageddon finds them anyway. Hilarity and horror ensue.

“[A] phantasmagoria of horror, humor—and even insight into the nature of paranoia, perception, and identity.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

2
The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde – 2001
Book 1 of 7 in the Thursday Next series

Fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse will love visiting Jasper Fforde’s Great Britain, circa 1985, when time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously: it’s a bibliophile’s dream.

England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection. But when someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career.

“For sheer inventiveness his book is hard to beat. The Eyre Affair is an exuberant mélange of crime, comedy and alternative history.”
—Houston Chronicle

1
Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake – 1946
Book 1 of 4 in the Gormenghast series

Titus Groan is completely different from any fantasy book I’ve ever read. It’s surreal, poetic, brutal, and brilliant. Its characters, who have all wrapped themselves in different kinds of madness, plod and scramble their way through the seemingly endless sprawl of Gormenghast Castle. They vie for power, plot vengeance, and engage in long-followed but nonsensical rituals.

Author Peake’s wild, weird imagination puts this book in the echelon of The Lord of the Rings, while being completely different from it in every way. There is no quest here, no magic to speak of, no curious non-humans, and not even an obvious protagonist.

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