I am a sucker for huge sweeping stories. Two of my all time favorite series are The Black Company and Malazan. At about 10 books each, they are masterpieces of world building, plot intricacies, and character development. But they are not good because they are long; they are good despite being overly long. One of the largest criticisms in Sci-fi and (in particular) Fantasy is that books often are just unnecessarily long and that authors waste too much time filling space when they could have had a much better book had it been shortened to a smaller installment. While there are a large number of fantastic trilogies and series, there are a number of standalones that show that an incredible story can still be accomplished in a much smaller package. Any of the books below are worth checking out and will take you a fraction of the time of a larger series.
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson – There were once divine beings in the city of Elantris, god like entities that could accomplish anything. However, one day the city fell and took its inhabitants with it. Elantris is the story of a paradise turned hell. The glowing divine city suddenly became corrupt and now instead of divine powers it’s inhabitants are granted cursed immortality. They cannot die, but nor do they heal. Any damage done to the body stays, along with the pain. The citizens of Elantris now slowly go insane due to the unrelenting pain they are forced to endure. Occasionally random outsiders will be “blessed” with ascension into the new city. However, with the city’s fall from glory, the blessing has become a death sentence.
The story of Elantris follows a few different characters, but most importantly it shows the story of a newly risen Elantrian named Raoden and the start of his life in the disgraced city. Raoden’s attempts to survive in, and solve the mysteries of, Elantris are fascinating. In addition, the other characters provide a lovely political backdrop to support Raoden’s story and flesh out the creative world. It is a story of tenacity, mystery, and creativity that will have you hooked from page one.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – The future is crap and we ruined the world, but there is still Facebook and World of Warcraft, so who cares? In a post apocalyptic future, humanity has ruined the world but created the ultimate coping mechanism: Oasis. Oasis is part virtual reality, part social media, and part game. It is a tool designed to help people cope with the wasteland that has become their world and provide an escape. The popularity of Oasis has made its creator the richest man in the world – and on his death he left his entire inheritance to whoever can find it hidden inside Oasis.
The story is about the greatest scavenger hunt of all time and a boy who wants it more than anyone. If you have a sense of adventure, like retro videogames, or are looking for something uplifting then this is a good for you. The book is extremely exciting and fun and has a sense of glee that regardless of age will sweep you along for a ride. The scavenger hunt is also in the form of a variety of retro games, so if you are both a reader and a gamer this book with hit a sweetspot.
The Forever War/Armor by Joe Haldeman/John Steakley – First off I am aware there is a sequel to The Forever War, you can pretend it doesn’t exist. These two books by different authors both speak on the same idea: the horror that is war. Both books are about a humanity who has made it to space and is basking in its newfound intergalactic glory. Both books show a humanity that starts space wars for bad reasons (a commentary on the Vietnam War). While both books cover almost all the same aspects of war, they have slightly different focuses.
The Forever War chooses to focus on the pointlessness of war. In this story the combatants are sent light years away from home to fight a war on distant front lines. The problem is that the travel time takes so long that by the time they arrive, the war has changed. The soldiers sign-up, and leave their homes and families who will be long dead and gone by the time they get back. Both the books do a great job of giving you the helplessness of a soldier. In Forever War, the time skips between war fronts are constantly giving soldiers the feeling that despite the horrors they experienced they have accomplished nothing in the long run.
On the other hand Armor chooses to focus on the psychological destruction of soldiers who are trapped on hellish foreign battlefields. Soldiers in this war are wrapped in powerful war machines called armor to help them survive. The armor keeps the soldiers alive in hostile terrain, boosts their combat ability, and most importantly doesn’t let them quit. Armor shows the wear-and-tear on the emotional state of soldiers as they are forced to repeatedly go into combat that they can tell is wrong on a variety of levels, but never quit. The strain on the mind is vividly described and makes you question the worth of the horrors soldiers experience.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – Disclaimer, this book is about as standalone as the original Lord of the Rings book is (it was originally sold as 1 novel). The book is huge, but it is both technically standalone and fantastic so I feel the need to bring it up.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a historical fiction set in England during the Napoleonic wars. The story follows two English gentlemen in an age where magic is dead. Once long ago, magic was freely practiced as a pastime, but overtime died off until it ceases to exist. Norrell is the world’s last practicing magician and Strange is the first new magician to enter the world in ages. The story follows them as they work both together and individually to return magic to England and to win the war against Napoleon.
This is a weird book to recommend because for some it will be their favorite book, and for others it will be “not their thing”. However, either way the book accomplishes some pretty daring things. For starters the setting, prose, and history is very well done and beautiful to read but the big draw to this book is it is written as an actual history book. By this I mean, the book has footnotes out the wazoo referring to fake other texts, it has citations from fake historical magicians in the world, and it is written in the historical narrative perspective. As someone who just spent a lot of time in graduate school it was incredible to see a book that so well mimicked an academic text in fantasy form and really pumped up my enjoyment of the book. For others, they will read it and have no idea why this style is so appealing to weirdos like me.
Any Standalone by Guy Gavriel Kay – Guy Gavriel Kay has a variety of plots amongst his plethora of standalone novels, but they all have a similar overarching feel: far eastern fantasy with a hard hitting emotional journey. Guy Gavriel Kay wins the author award for getting me to cry in the shortest period of time in a book. I feel like an apt comparison is his books feel like the move Up by Pixer: utterly heartbreaking but incredibly uplifting at the same time. The books take on a slower and more dramatic pace, but the amount they accomplish in their short stories is nothing short of extraordinary.