I spend a lot of my time thinking about the way we classify things (which may be one reason I became a librarian). This is probably most apparent in my Twitter feed, where I can often be found ruminating on the different kinds of genre fiction and their endless subgenres and overlaps and combinations. A listserv discussion about how to classify Marie Rutkoski’s excellent The Winner’s Curse (more on this title later) has me thinking a lot about fantasy novels without any magic, and about what is really required for a book to be fantasy.
I think a lot of readers are under the impression that fantasy requires magic as a matter of course. If it doesn’t have magic, then it must at least have beings that don’t exist in our own world, like dragons. This is an easy, though incorrect, assumption to make. Most fantasy novels do have magic. But not all.
Fantasy is, in my opinion, the genre with the most creative potential. Writers can quite literally do anything in a fantasy novel. It doesn’t matter if it could never happen in our own world – that’s the whole point. That’s what makes it exciting. You should be reading about things that could never possibly exist or happen. And you don’t need magic to achieve that.
Most of these magic-free books are what is usually called high fantasy, which is defined by a setting in an entirely imaginary world. It makes sense that not every imaginary world dreamt of by writers would involve magic or dragons. Nevertheless, if the world isn’t our own, it’s fantasy.
So why does this matter? From a librarian’s standpoint, it’s vital for readers’ advisory. It would be foolish to recommend a magic-heavy book to someone looking for readalikes to the Winner’s Curse, which has no magic at all. Most likely, people looking for more of the same want thoughtful worldbuilding, intense romance, and a minimal amount of strange words and concepts. So, why not just give them a bunch of historical fiction? Yes, these things could be achieved with historical fiction, but historical fiction doesn’t also provide a reading experience that sparks the imagination in quite the same way. Historical fiction is still limited by history. (It also has a harder time not spoiling the ending.)
Magic-free fantasy is a good entry point for readers who are just beginning to dip their toes into the genre. But beyond that, it’s important to recognize that yes, these stories are fantasy, because fantasy is awesome, in all meanings of the word. It’s hugely variable, has immense depth, and tells readers that you can literally find anything you can possibly imagine within the pages of a book. Including a completely new world without magic. (Denying that certain things are fantasy is also often done – however unintentionally – as a way to denigrate the genre as a whole. Think of someone saying, “Oh, I don’t read fantasy,” followed by the reply, “Well, it’s not really fantasy since there’s no magic.” The implications are there.)
Below are a few middle grade and YA fantasy titles without magic. They take place in imaginary worlds, fully-formed with complex cultures that you won’t find on Earth. Descriptions are from Worldcat. My own comments are in bracketed italics. Please comment with other titles you know of – even adult titles. I’m curious to see what others are out there.
The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
An aristocratic girl who is a member of a warmongering and enslaving
empire purchases a slave, an act that sets in motion a rebellion that
might overthrow her world as well as her heart. [I read somewhere this is going to be a trilogy, but now I can’t remember where I found that piece of information.]
The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
a brutal competition to be selected to impersonate the king’s
long-missing son in an effort to avoid a civil war. [Book two: The Runaway King; Book three: The Shadow Throne.]
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt
When hard times among the People revive the old stories of the hero
Jackaroo, an innkeeper’s daughter follows her own quest to unlock the
secret reality behind the legend. [Voigt wrote three other books set in the same world, loosely connected to one another but set many years apart. Together, they’re called the Kingdom series. They include, in order, Jackaroo, On Fortune’s Wheel, The Wings of a Falcon, and Elske. I highly recommend them all, though my favorite is On Fortune’s Wheel.]
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Gen flaunts his ingenuity as a thief and relishes the adventure which
takes him to a remote temple of the gods where he will attempt to steal a
precious stone. [This is the first in the Queen’s Thief series, which includes The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings. It’s been many years since I’ve read these, but to the best of my memory, they contain no magic.]
Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
A boy fleeing from criminal charges falls in with a charlatan, his dwarf
attendant, and an urchin girl, travels with them about the kingdom of
Westmark, and ultimately arrives at the palace where the king is
grieving over the loss of his daughter. [These books are even more of a distant memory, but the Internet agrees with my recollection that they’re magic-free.]