For a longer essay on the subgenre, check out the guest post I wrote for Keikii @ Keikii Eats Books!
Often, when someone mentions fantasy, we think of large-scale stories where the fate of the world is at stake. Though there have been shifts and pushbacks regarding other aspects seen as typical of fantasy (for example, a move from black-white to grey-grey or grey-black morality, a move from pseudo-medieval, etc.), more mundane stories with a small scope, relatively ordinary, not overly badass characters, and little action remain rather rare.
My obsession with this subgenre started with The Healers’ Road. A book with almost no action and zero plot, that relies only on characters…and yet works? I was impressed. Impressed, and wanting more. Since then, I have managed to find a few books that scratch that particular itch. Judging from discussions, I’m not the only one interested in calmer fantasy stories, either. So here it is.
- The Balance Academy series by S.E. Robertson – Probably the purest example. In The Healers’ Road, two, well, healers from very different backgrounds have to travel together for two years. He thinks she’s spoiled, she thinks he’s rude. Despite initial misunderstandings and conflict, they slowly become friends and go through a lot of character growth. No plot beyond that, almost no action. Second book, The Healers’ Home is about them settling down in a small town and didn’t disappoint either.
- Ravenwood by Nathan Lowell – A 53 y/o travelling herbalist on her way to a new mentor arrives in a newly established village and, despite initial misgivings, decides to stay around for the winter and help them.
- Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin – Not a standalone. Regardless, it’s a quiet and thoughtful and mature sort of story that felt real, some parts almost painfully so. The characterisation in particular is where the book really shines. They’re all broken in one way or another and the bittersweet ending fits the story well. It’s not the subtlest of books, but the general theme of struggling against their society, because of disability, because of gender…that I could appreciate.
- The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss – Another non-standalone, a novella following a week in the daily life of Auri, a minor character from the Kingkiller Chronicle.
- In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan – Covers five years in the life of a teenager who got invited to attend a school in the fantasy world on the other side of a wall. He’s a die-hard pacifist, more than a bit of an annoying asshole, and unlike his friends, has no real special abilities. It’s part (unsubtle) deconstruction/satire of portal fantasy tropes, part coming of age story with many fuckups and growing pains and a surprising amount of feels.
Books featuring everyday life of nobility:
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – A sweet guy is forced to become emperor after his family is killed in a crash. Nearly all of the search for suspects happens offscreen, the main focus is the “dealing with going from basically nothing to emperor overnight” bit.
- Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner – Fantasy of Manners about Richard St. Vier, a famous duellist and his mysterious ex-student boyfriend, Alec. Who is a lovable little shit and one of my favourite characters.
- The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein – Arthurian fantasy more concerned with fucked up family dynamics than anything else. Also written entirely in second-person.
- Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox – Follows the life of a vintner who fell in love with an angel, spanning several decades. Lovely descriptions of life in the French countryside.
- Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk – If you don’t mind religious themes (I found it a bit odd) and a sharp turn towards realism and grittiness in the middle. Follows the lives of inhabitants of an imaginary Polish village. I read it translated to a language other than English, so I’m not 100% sure, but the prose was pretty damn good.
- The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan – My favourite book of all times. Hard to describe. It’s set in a boarding school for kids/teens with disabilities where some really, really weird shit is going on. Shenanigans ensue. Colourful characters, beautiful prose, many layers, a lot of things left to the reader to puzzle together.
- Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox – Romance with speculative elements happening just after the end of WWII. Archeologist is fired after a violent flashback episode, takes up one last job in a small English village, where he meets an eccentric, motorcycle-riding, atheist vicar. And the church he’s been sent to document has a rather unusual secret. Excellent writing, excellent characters, just amazing overall.
- The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley – Magical realism retelling of Beowulf that takes place in the suburbs. Lovely prose, plot that’s like watching a trainwreck in slow motion.
- Sourdough by Robin Sloan – A short, sweet, downright therapeutic book about a lonely programmer whose life is changed by magic sourdough starter. It’s a pure, joyful delight to read and will make you hungry.
- All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater – The Sorias are a family of saints who can grant miracles that give physical manifestations to people’s inner darkness. The story follows a snippet in their lives after a pair of strangers – one pilgrim and one not – arrive to Bicho Raro. Lovely prose, a lot of introspection and dealing with inner demons.
Other books that could scratch the itch:
- The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker – As the title says, it follows a golem and a djinni in 1899 New York and features a lot of small insights into the lives of everyone around them.
- Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers – This is technically sci-fi. Still, although the first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, had more plot than I expected from the way people describe it, it’s very character-focused, very heartwarming, and I loved it. The second book, A Closed and Common Orbit is even better. And the third, Record of a Spaceborn Few, is the purest of pure slice of life.
- Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire – A novella set in a boarding school for children who returned from portal worlds. Wonderfully written.
- Vita Nostra by Sergey & Maria Dyachenko – Another magic school book, with some of the most unique magic (very much non-Sandersonian), a very dark setting, and some interesting themes. No larger plot.
- Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman – A young woman runs away to escape abuse and the book follows her journey and character development from there. There’s a vague objective of finding out more about World Serpents, but it’s pushed completely in the background while Tess and her journey take the spotlight. Whether the series is slice of life will depend on the sequel, but I’d say this book definitely is.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – A literary story following the lives of people before/during/after a plague wipes out most of the human population and society collapses. Not fantasy, not quite sci-fi, but I’d still call it speculative. And it wrecked me. The characters’ reactions are absolutely on point, the prose is lovely, it highlights the fragility of modern comforts perfectly, and it’s just so deeply, deeply sad.
My goodreads shelf, also containing books I’ve been recommended as slice of life but haven’t read yet and books I read but didn’t like enough to put on the masterlist, can be found here.
To be updated on a regular basis (last update: Nov 6th 2019).