Books That Feel Like Fantasy…but Aren’t

The Paladin – C. J. Cherryh

I suggested “Books That Feel Like Fantasy But Aren’t” as a topic for one of our podcasts for the Hourlings Podcast Project. My fellow podcast-inators looked at me like I had two heads. So, I decided to do it as a blog post instead since they clearly weren’t feeling the sheer brilliance of my idea.

OK. So, there are some books that, to me at least, feel like Fantasy even if there’s not a single speculative element in the story. It could be the storytelling tropes being used, the writing style, or other aspects that make the story feel like a Fantasy despite it being otherwise mundane.

Here are some examples:

  • The Paladin — C. J. Cherryh : A great warrior in an Asia-like world spends his time in exile on top of a mountain by himself…until an injured girl beseeches him to teach her warrior skills. A Japanese-flavored story without any bonafide speculative elements, but it feels like a Fantasy. Check out the book here.
  • Shogun — James Clavell : The story of a shipwrecked Englishman who becomes a samurai in 17th-century Japan, and ends up participating in a dynastic struggle. The setting feels exotic enough to be a Fantasy story. Despite the book’s extreme length, it’s a fast-paced read that immerses the reader in the Japanese culture. Check out the book here.
  • Riverside Series — Ellen Kushner : A series of novels taking place largely in the Riverside district of an unnamed medieval city. The stories feature sword duels, a hierarchical class system, an emphasis on manners, and lots of political maneuvering. They are sometimes classed as mannerpunk. Novels include Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword (my personal favorite), and The Fall of the Kings, as well as the Tremontaine anthology series.
  • Silk and Song — Dana Stabenow : A trilogy of novels set in 1322 AD about the granddaughter of Marco Polo, who has to flee disaster and travel almost the entire length of the famous Silk Road. The series features lots of action, close escapes, foreign cultures, and adventure. The individual novels were Everything Under the Heavens, By the Shores of the Middle Sea, and The Land Beyond, but now it’s really only available in an omnibus volume called Silk and Song that collects all three novels together.
If anybody can think of other books that meet the criteria of feeling like Fantasy but not actually containing any speculative elements…please let me know in the comments.


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