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10 Fantasy Books with Lovely, Lyrical Prose

By Faye Bi (@faye_bi)

Ah, words. I love them. And I love when I read a book that’s full of beautiful, glistening sentences; pearls of dewdrops on flower petals at dawn.

But seriously, nothing makes me happier as a reader than to really be able to feel that an author has not only beautifully juggled metaphors, imagery and word choice, she made it look like a dance. (It should be no surprise that there are quite a few short story collections and poets on this list, and a whole lot of retellings.) Thus, I present you ten of my favorite books with lovely, lyrical prose.

 

LipsTouchThreeTimes 1. Lips Touch, Three Times, Laini Taylor
Lips Touch, Three Times was Laini Taylor’s National Book Award-nominated collection of three short stories, each centered on a dangerous kiss. Bonus: each story is preceded by a wordless graphic novel drawn by Laini’s husband, Jim Di Bartolo. An excerpt from the first story, “Goblin Fruit”:

The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls. Like Kizzy.

THE WORDS! Basically, I’m Kizzy and Laini’s writing is kissing.

 
Chime 2. Chime, Franny Billingsley
Another National Book Award nominee, Chime opens in early 20th century England with a young woman, Briony, who believes she’s a witch and that her powers have harmed many people. It’s a beautiful book about sisters and family and self-loathing, and has one of the best book boyfriends of all time. Hey Eldric and Briony, sign me up for that Bad Boys Club.

Guess what it is that turns plants to coal.
Pressure.
Guess what it is that turns limestone to marble.
Pressure.
Guess what it is that turns Briony’s heart to stone.
Pressure.
Pressure is uncomfortable, but so are the gallows. Keep your secrets, wolfgirl. Dance your fists with Eldric’s, snatch lightning from the gods. Howl at the moon, at the blood-red moon. Let your mouth be a cavern of stars.

Chime came out twelve years after Franny Billingsley’s previous book, The Folk Keeper. Which means those twelve years were spent making every word perfect, am I right?

 
PrettyMonsters 3. Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link
If there was a competition for weirdest brain, Kelly Link would win it, and I mean that in the best way possible. Pretty Monsters is her young-adult short story collection with bonus spot illustrations by Shaun Tan. The stories explore a multitude of themes such as textuality, reality, death, myth, and magic, all with mystery and some element of the fantastic. Here’s the down-low on the faery handbag:

The faery handbag: It’s huge and black and kind of hairy. Even when your eyes are closed, it feels black. As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar or black quicksand or when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.

Faeries live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.

You can’t tell from the excerpt, but Kelly Link is a master of the short story form. In a couple of paragraphs she tells us everything we need to know, and she then does the slow reveal with the punchline at the end. BAM.

 
ThomastheRhymer 4. Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner
This book will make you love words. Thomas the Rhymer is a novelization of the ballad, elegantly told from the perspective of four people: Gavin and Meg, the elderly couple who take in Thomas, Thomas, and his wife, Elspeth—and all four bring separate pieces of the puzzle to come together. Each voice is distinct, but the words just flow like honey:

“My name’s Thomas. I’m called Harper, and sometimes Rhymer, when I busy myself to make something new, instead of robbing dead men’s songs.”
“Newfangledness,” Meg sniffed. “There’s no dishonor in holding to the old and true.”
Thomas smiled. “Newfangedness indeed. But the lords who hold old lands like new songs to honor them. And who are we to dispute with them?”

For a novel about words (and the truth of words), Ellen’s language is so subtle, lyrical, and magical, some passages near left me in tears.

 
PlainKate 5. Plain Kate, Erin Bow
Erin Bow is a physicist-turned-poet-turned-novelist, and her poet soul shines through in Plain Kate. Carver Kate can make beautiful things out of wood, but also has basically the worst luck in the world. Inspired by Russian folklore, this original fairytale is full of is rich in hold-on-let-me-read-that-again passages, ones that are tragic and heartbreaking and ones that are hilarious and snort-worthy:

Taggle was absorbed in the meat pie. “It’s covered in bread,” he huffed. “What fool has covered meat with bread?”

Also, look out Faithful, Taggle might just be giving you a run for the money for Best Fantasy Cat.

 
TheScorpioRaces 6. The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater
I don’t always click with Maggie Stiefvater’s books, but I am totally in awe with her writing—boy can she string a sentence together! Set in a small town off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s, the novel features Puck and Sean, two of the riders in the Scorpio Races, which are huge cultural and sporting event for the entire island…because the water horses maim and kill people.

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

Every scene is dripping with atmosphere; I can hear hooves pounding and taste the salty air. And save me some of those November Cakes!

 
KissingtheWitch 7. Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, Emma Donoghue
Kissing the Witch is Emma Donahue’s short story collection of reinvented fairytale retellings (“Old Tales in New Skins” is a pretty accurate description) one of which, most notably, includes Cinderella running away with the fairy godmother instead of the prince.

I was beautiful, or so my father told me. My oval mirror showed me a face with nothing written on it. I had suitors aplenty but wanted none of them: their doggish devotion seemed too easily won. I had an appetite for magic, even then. I wanted something improbably and perfect as a red rose just opening.

Sigh. Emma Donoghue could write an IKEA manual and I’m pretty sure it’d be beautiful.

 
TheGirlWhoCircumnavigatedFairyland 8. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne Valente
This is the book that made me a Catherynne Valente convert. It’s poetic and refined, a homage to portal fantasies everywhere—but modern and original in its own right. September is a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha who is taken to Fairyland, a place of awesome puns and metaphors made real.

Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

Like others on this list, this is a story about stories, clever and heartbreaking and courageous. It’s also full of beautiful lines about reading, books, bookish people, libraries and the transformative power of words.

 
RosesandBones 9. Roses and Bones: Myths, Tales, and Secrets, Francesca Lia Block
Roses and Bones, a bind-up of three previously published works, is the sole reason why the title of this post is “Fantasy Books” and not “Fantasy Novels,” because “Psyche in a Dress” is told in verse. Each word, as with poetry done right, is spectacular. Francesca Lia Block does a spin on Greek myths, fairytales and the stunning second story, “Echo.”

Flowers are reincarnation. They come out of the earth of our ashes. Nothing else looks so soul-like.

Yow-ee.

 
NightCircus 10. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
No lovely, lyrical prose list would be complete without a mention of The Night Circus. It’s 80% atmosphere and 20% plot, and 100% words that are utterly dreamy and magical. I’m pretty sure it’s about two dueling magicians who fall in love, but who cares? The circus is in town!

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.

In that case, my soul has a black-and-white striped canvas tent. Also, Sirens people, reveurs are the easiest group cosplay ever. We already have our Sirens red. Who’s with me?

 

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