To mention you’re reading a novel about magic is to instantly be met with certain ideas. The world’s most famous boy wizard needs no introduction – to booklover or anyone else – and scores of entire magical universes have been conjured by pens as mighty as wands themselves, and made the backdrops of epic fantasy series such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Yet there’s another type of magic too – one more subtle than that of wizards and dragons but just as wondrous. It’s where life exists as we know it but not completely, where possibilities exceed existing definitions, where the fantastical infuses the recognisable so delicately that we barely notice its oddness, and where explanations remain beyond the tips of our reach.
Here’s our pick of five magical books you might not know yet, but that’ll leave you wondering what it is that’s truly real.
5. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
In the town of Bone Gap in rural Illinois, young, beautiful Roza goes missing. Outsider, Finn O’Sullivan, tries to tell his neighbours that she was kidnapped from the cornfields, but when he can’t articulate why or how or by whom, he’s ignored. Only the Beekeeper’s daughter believes there’s more his story, and together she and Finn piece together a string of increasingly dreamlike clues that lead them into the town’s secretive past and reveal the strange, terrifying truth about what happened to Roza. This is a haunting coming-of-age story where questions about empathy and the differences between us are explored through Finn’s struggle to untangle other worlds from his own.
4. St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
A collection of ten short stories set against the eerily magical backdrop of the Florida Everglades, and each as bizarre and beguiling as the book’s title and jacket promise. In tremendous bursts of imagination, Russell captivates with tales of alligator wrestlers at enchanted theme parks, and wolf-life children brought to heal and then reintegrated into society by a band of pioneering nuns. The strength and wonder of nature plays a central role as the characters grapple to find their place in a threatening, changing world. These stories glitter like Russell’s star-strewn skies.
3. The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
This is Pulley’s follow-up to her bestselling debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and another novel that blurs the lines between historical fact and magic. It’s 1859 and an injured opium trader from the East India Company is called from his retirement and sent on a mission deemed too important and dangerous for anyone else. Merrick must travel to Peru in search of quinine, the only known cure for malaria, but in order to obtain it he must venture deep into uncharted jungle and find the holy town of Bedlam, where the statues move at sundown, the priest trades in the impossible and anyone who crosses the border dies. A fast-paced, epic journey with prose so eloquent that the fantastical feel real.
2. Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat
New Venice is “the pearl of the Arctic,” a city originally built on utopian ideals but that by the time this novel takes place in 1908, is deeply in peril. An menacing black airship looms over the snow and the Secret Police are hunting down the author of a radical pamphlet that calls for revolt. Their main suspect is Brentford Orsini, and it’s through his viewpoint we are dragged by the scruff into a story of political intrigue and magical surrealism, as he tries to evade their grip. This is a literary epic that defies categorisation; part steampunk adventure, part decedent mystic fable and part twisty-turny thriller, all in the most stunning polar landscape.
1. The Hidden Letters of Velta B. by Gina Ochsner
Inara is on her deathbed but before her life ends, she’s determined that her young son, Maris, will know the truth about their family’s history. From their tiny home in a small Latvian town on the edge of the forest, she reveals her past to Maris, as well as that of the town itself; a place in which people did unspeakable thing to each other under the Soviet Union but were then forced to live side-by-side after its demise. She must also explain Maris to himself, specifically the significance of his enormous, exceptional ears, with which he hears the terrible secrets everyone around him is desperate to forget. This is a book both tragic and compelling, about how hard it is to forgive and move forwards, but how important it is to try.