Even though I have enjoyed books since I was six months old (at least according to my mother), I used to be a snob about genre. When I thought about science fiction or fantasy, I thought about pimply teen-aged boys with Cheeto-stained fingers playing Dungeons & Dragons. I was a nerd, but I wasn’t that kind of nerd. After meeting several science fiction writers in college, I decided to expand my genre horizons. I learned that many books categorized as fiction had elements of science fiction and fantasy. I also realized that genre books were not necessarily silly or poorly written. Don’t judge a book by its cover or where it is shelved in the bookstore or library. If you’re looking to expand your reading horizons, these are some of my favorite books that defy genre labels.
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Two master magicians pit their protégées, Celia and Marco, against each other in a dangerous battle to see whose magic is the most powerful. Celia’s father cuts her fingers and forces her to learn to heal them with her mind. Marco is taken from an orphanage by the man in the grey suit and spends a lonely childhood surrounded by books. The venue of their epic challenge is a magical traveling circus that only opens at night, known as Le Cirque des Rêves or The Circus of Dreams. The stakes get even higher when Celia and Marco fall in love. Morgenstern’s writing is incredibly cinematic. Take for example, this description of the clock that was specially made for the circus:
The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played (page 138).
This is the kind of book that you want to immediately see turned into a movie, except maybe not because the movie would never match the beauty of the images that are in your head. Every little detail of the circus is meticulously rendered, from the snacks they sell to the gorgeous ice garden to the carousel where the animals actually breathe. Even minor characters like Bailey, a boy who loves the circus, and Herr Thiessen, the clock-maker, are fully alive on the page. The Night Circus is a book that reminds me of why I love to read. If this book cannot capture your imagination, I’m not sure any book can.
2. The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker: An unusual friendship develops between two non-human creatures, a golem (a person made out of clay from Jewish mythology) and a jinni (a fire spirit of Arab myth) in New York City in 1899. Chava, the golem, was created to be a rich man’s submissive wife, but she arrives in New York confused and alone when her master dies on the transatlantic voyage. The jinni, Ahmad, is trapped in a flask for a thousand years until a tinsmith accidentally releases him. The golem fears accidentally harming a human while the jinni is an angry hedonist who uses people. The writing is gorgeous; late nineteenth century New York City is so lovingly rendered that it becomes a character in the story. If you think that speculative fiction can’t be deep, this fantastical tale that exposes the loneliness of the immigrant experience while questioning what it means to be human will change your mind.
3. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: If you haven’t read any of Margaret Atwood’s books since the perennial high school reading list favorite, The Handmaid’s Tale, give this intriguing post-apocalyptic novel a chance. In the present, Snowman appears to be the last (natural-born) man on Earth. He spends his days forging for supplies and caring for the Crakers, a group of genetically-engineered humans. In the past, Snowman was Jimmy, a boy living a world very similar to ours, with rich people walling themselves off in compounds and genetically altered animals providing both fodder for fast food restaurants and human organs for transplant. When Snowman isn’t fighting to survive, he reflects on his childhood friend, Crake, a mad genius, and the mysterious woman that they both loved, Oryx. The elusive Oryx, a former victim of human trafficking and child prostitute, is a fascinating character.
Looking at her, you knew that a woman of such beauty, slightness, and one-time poverty must have led a difficult life, but that this life would not have consisted in scrubbing floors (page 115).
Snowman first becomes obsessed with Oryx when he sees her on a pornographic web site at eight years old. This dystopian tale continues in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.
4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Bending genre in all the best possible ways, Outlander is a historical fiction romance with a dash of science fiction in the form of time travel. In 1945, British nurse Claire Randall is on a belated honeymoon with her husband, Frank, when she touches an ancient stone and falls back in time to 1743. Her fate soon becomes enmeshed with a young Scottish warrior, Jamie Fraser. I avoided this book for a while because I can’t think of time travel without thinking of the cartoon dog, Mr. Peabody, although I don’t recall Mr. Peabody and Sherman meeting any sexy, kilt-wearing Scotsmen in their travels. If you’re still leery of books that aren’t realistic, time travel is the only supernatural element in Outlander. Don’t let the romance label scare you away, either. Contrary to the stereotype that romance novels have weak plots and vapid characters, Outlander tells an interesting story that is rich in historical detail and compelling characters. Claire is no damsel in distress; she’s a strong, thoroughly modern woman. Jamie is no mindless hunk; he’s a smart, loyal, complicated man. While Outlander is the most traditionally romantic book in this series, I have read up to book seven, and I’m still enjoying the story. At this point, reading these books feels like seeing what my friend Claire is up to. If you like a series that you can really sink your teeth into, Gabaldon is giving George R.R. Martin a run for his money with eight books and almost 7,000 pages dedicated to Claire’s story. The Outlander series is now a television show on Starz, starring the very dreamy Sam Heughan as Jamie. For those who love the ladies, Caitriona Balfe as Claire is equally gorgeous.
5. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: This book shattered two of my preconceived notions about genre — that I don’t like fantasy books or books written for children. I must have picked this book up in the store and put it back down more than a dozen times, thinking that it sounded silly, but when I finally read the book, it was exciting, vivid, and delightful. Riggs has done something unique in this trilogy by using a collection of strange, vintage photographs that he found in flea markets to help tell the story. The weird pictures provide a fresh and interesting twist to the “teen saves the world” trope that has been so popular the last few years. Our hero, Jacob, loved his grandfather’s outlandish tales and collection of bizarre photos when he was a little boy. As he gets older, he outgrows the stories. After his grandfather’s unexpected and violent death, Jacob travels to the remote Welsh island where his grandfather spent his childhood and learns that his stories were not what they seemed. If you pick up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, make sure you buy or reserve the second and third books, Hollow City and The Library of Souls, because once you start reading, you won’t want to stop. If your kids (or you), loved Harry Potter, you will love this trilogy as well.
6. Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley: I always thought that fantasy novels were not my cup of tea, but then my coworker loaned this book to me and I was shocked by how much I loved it. If you are put off by the stereotype that the science fiction and fantasy genres are a boys’ club, you will enjoy this decidedly feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend from the point of view of the women. Morgaine is a high priestess of Avalon and the half-sister of King Arthur. The book follows her life as her Goddess-worshiping Pagan religion comes under attack from the emerging Christian religion. If you are a fan of the Game of Thrones television show or books, you will enjoy this book’s medieval setting, sex scandals, and political power struggles.
7. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: Aging rock star Judas Coyne has an annoying personal assistant, a much younger Goth ex-stripper girlfriend nicknamed Georgia, and a collection of macabre objects. Judas gets way more than he bargained for when he buys a ghost off the Internet for $1,000. Soon he and Georgia are in a fight for their lives against the vengeful spirit. Joe Hill actually the son of Stephen King, but he writes under a pen name because he doesn’t want to ride on his father’s coattails. Kudos to him, because I wouldn’t let the fact that Stephen King has never met my mother keep me from claiming to be his daughter if I was trying to get published. Hill does read like a younger, hipper, more rock n’ roll Stephen King, and like his dad, his books have an unexpected amount of heart for the horror genre. Heart-Shaped Box is a fun, creepy ride with memorable characters.
8. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks: When it comes to the undead, I have always been more a vampire person than a zombie person. (One hopes that this is one of the dimensions of compatibility that eHarmony tests). But I was captivated by this collection of vignettes that tell the story of how humanity defeated a zombie plague. Brooks was inspired by Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, and World War Z reads like non-fiction. There are no main characters, but the story is gripping and the writing brilliant. I’m still haunted by the image of zombie skeletons walking across the ocean floor. I never saw the Brad Pitt movie adaptation but I have heard that it had little in common with book other than the title. Whether you loved or hated the movie, give the book a chance.
9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Once vampires turned into sex symbols, they lost a great deal of their fear factor. Let the Right One In is a vampire novel that brings scary back. Oskar is a lonely, bullied twelve-year-old boy who is fascinated by a killer who has committed several gruesome, mutilation murders. He befriends Eli, the new girl who lives in the apartment next door. Eli doesn’t seem to feel the cold, she smells rotten, and she only comes out at night. This is not a vampire you daydream about taking to the prom. Set in Sweden, the wintry landscape adds to the dark, violent horror of this story. The book has been made into two terrifying films — a Swedish version, Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, and an English adaptation, Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves.
10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Are you a pop culture nerd? Were you obsessed with video games as a kid? Do you heart the eighties? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to read Ready Player One. It’s 2044 and most of humanity escapes the dismal conditions on Earth by logging into a virtual world called the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, a strange combination of Steve Jobs and Gandalf, has willed his two hundred and forty billion dollar fortune to whoever can solve an elaborate puzzle encrypted into the OASIS. To solve the puzzle, one must have a vast knowledge of the pop culture of Halliday’s favorite decade, the 1980s. Wade Watts is just a teenage kid living in a trailer park in Oklahoma when he solves the first part of the puzzle and is catapulted into an incredible adventure. This book is action-packed and I couldn’t put it down.
What are your favorite books that transcend genre? What books do you recommend to people who think they don’t like speculative fiction?
Kelly McCarty is a graduate of Hollins University who has lived in Roanoke, Virginia her entire life. She is a reading addict who crushes the 50 Book Challenge every year. Her favorite book of all-time is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. She loves to bake and describes herself as “the kind of girl that any man would love to have — as a grandmother.” Her work has been published in Paprika Southern magazine.