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.
- Chalice by Robin McKinley
- 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.
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.
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.
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – This is technically sci-fi. Still, although it had more plot than I expected from the way people describe it, it’s very character-focused, very heartwarming, and I loved it. And the second book (review) is even better.
- 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.
- 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.
To be updated on a regular basis.