Mention “fairies” and many people will think of something like Tinkerbell, as imagined by Disney. But in The Cruel Prince, Holly Black harks back to a more traditional model. The faeries of The Folk of the Air trilogy are glamorous yet dangerous, their magic thrilling but terrifying. Whether we’re in suburbia or the Seelie Court, any magical encounter could have horrible, potentially fatal consequences, lending Black’s writing a grittiness and realism that fans love. After all, who wouldn’t want to believe there really could be a magical world just beyond our reach? Or that an ordinary person, like Jude, could triumph over impossible odds through her own resourcefulness, with or without the help of a sexy faerie? So whether you’re pining for more eerie Fair Folk or you just want to slip into a fantastical parallel world, one of these 15 books will fit the bill.
1. Tithe, by Holly Black
Tithe is Holly Black’s debut YA novel. It’s the first book in her Modern Faerie Tales trilogy and breaks ground revisited in The Folk of the Air, but with more of a “suburban fantasy” bent. Kaye is a teenager who can see fairies. While staying with her grandmother in New Jersey, she saves Roiben, a mysterious Faerie knight. As their chance encounter pulls Kaye into the deadly conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, she’ll have to use all her wits and magic to survive. Tithe is a great introduction to the urban fantasy genre. There are kelpies, changelings, and Fairy Queens alongside raves, underaged drinking, and cheating boyfriends. Its sequels, Valiant and Iron Heart, tie in with Kaye’s adventures. I have a particular soft spot for Valiant, which is a kind of Beauty and the Beast story between a homeless teen and a troll in New York City.
2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
“Be careful what you wish for” is the moral of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. English magic has lain dormant for centuries until Mr. Norrell appears on the scene, promising to bring back respectable magic that will help the Brits win the Napoleonic Wars. But an ill-advised deal with a sinister faerie and the emergence of Jonathan Strange, a daring rival magician, opens the door to a much wilder and more dangerous side of magic. Susanna Clarke combines period drama and mythology with consummate skill. Her alternative version of Regency England is not so different from our own, despite its tricksters, black magic, shadowy faerie worlds, and legendary Raven King. And with a writing style that emulates Austen or Dickens, copious worldbuilding footnotes, and charcoal illustrations, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell really does feel like a product of its period setting.
3. Lost Boy, by Christina Henry
Lost Boy isn’t exactly a book about the Fair Folk, though Tinkerbell does appear. Instead, it focuses on the Lost Boys, specifically Jamie, Peter Pan’s favorite, who is also the future Captain Hook. Peter is just as alien and terrifying as any fairy, and the Lost Boys are essentially changeling victims, stolen away to the deathtrap that is Neverland. In the spirit of The Cruel Prince, Henry examines Peter Pan without the rosy spectacles of fantasy and serves us cold hard reality. Peter’s sociopathic tendencies are laid bare, and children fighting adult pirates tends to have predictably fatal results. Injury, exposure, starvation, and disease are all serious threats, along with the “Many-Eyed,” spider-like monsters that prey upon the poor kids. But despite all these physical dangers, the main drama is Jamie’s gradual transition from devoted minion to Peter’s implacable enemy. This process reads like a survival from an abusive relationship (but with magic) making Lost Boy a stellar villain origin story.
4. Poison, by Chris Wooding
Changelings and malevolent phaeries kick off the story of Poison, a teenage girl who sets out to rescue her beloved baby sister stolen away by the Fae. From surviving a night in a cannibalistic witch’s house to infiltrating a Spider-monster’s lair, Poison is willing to risk anything to save her sister. But the Realm of Phaerie is a treacherous place, and Poison’s only hope may be the mysterious, aloof Hierophant… Poison is a tightly plotted, fast-paced YA action fantasy with a generous dash of horror. The Phaerie Court is darkly glamorous, though its courtiers are just as cut-throat and spiteful as Prince Cardan and his peers. Each step of Poison’s journey raises the stakes and introduces thrillingly fresh horrors. Its metafictional plot twists and revelations are cleverly foreshowed but shocking all the same, making Poison a satisfying trip that’ll stay with you long after you read it.
5. The Changeling, by Victor LaValle
The Changeling is a dark fairy tale for modern times. Apollo, one of New York City’s only black booksellers, is happily married with a baby son. But when his wife Emma does the unthinkable, Apollo is forced to embark on a fairy tale quest to save his family. While Holly Black excels at spinning fantasy out of teenage experiences, LaValle shows us what happens when race and fairy tales intersect in America (#BeingaFairyTaleHeroWhileBlack). Sure, Apollo enters deep dark woods and faces trolls, but he also has to navigate white neighborhoods and racist cops. LaValle weaves changelings, trolls, and witches into a meditation on parenthood (especially black fatherhood), online privacy, bereavement, and ingrained racism. Like all good fairy tales, The Changeling traces the fine line between the magical and the mundane, exposing ugly truths in the process.
6. Spiggot’s Quest, by Garry Kilworth
Garry Kilworth’s Knights of Liöfwende series is aimed at children, but it’s still a witty send-up of every medieval fantasy trope you’ve ever seen. Spiggot is a boggart (a hobbit-like fairy) who dreams of adventure. His wish is granted when he meets Jack, a human who stumbles into Faerieland. Together they set off to deliver a set of magical armor to the Fairy King, hoping that he’ll help Jack get home in return. This seemingly simple task soon gets off track as princesses, evil wizards, and talking animals appear. Liöfwende is a colorful, chaotic mirror image of England that overlaps the human world exactly, as the cover art makes clear. It’s full of magical races and courtly intrigue, though less menacing in tone than The Cruel Prince. If you need a break from grim fairy tales, Spiggot’s Quest is a joy.
7. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman brings his trademark dark wit to fairy stories as he introduces us to the village of Wall, which stands on the border between England and a neighboring magical world. Victoriana meets medieval fantasy as Tristran, a resident of Wall, sets out into Faerie to find a fallen star for his “beloved.” Unfortunately an evil witch and the lords of Stormhold are also searching for the star, who turns out to be a young woman named Yvaine. Stardust is funny and weird, emulating the style of fantasy writers of yesteryear (like Hope Mirrlees) with just a hint of nastiness to keep things interesting. Tristran and Yvaine are a great action couple, and they’re supported by a host of quirky allies, enemies, and background characters—the ghostly Stormhold brothers, all murdered by each other, deserve a special mention. Stardust expertly walks the line between subverting familiar conventions and delivering a satisfying fairy tale fantasy.
8. The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
Alice’s grandmother lives shrouded in mystery at her estate, the Hazel Wood, where she wrote Tales from the Hinterland, a famous collection of twisted folk tales. That’s all Alice knows, until her grandmother dies and her mother vanishes. With no other clues, Alice sets out for the Hazel Wood with Ellery, a Hinterland megafan, completely unprepared for whatever she might find. Albert does a great job of building suspense and a creepy, fairy tale-like atmosphere that’s grounded in the modern day. Alice is a compelling heroine, stalked by bad luck and her otherworldly heritage. The Hazel Wood is a kind of latter day Alice In Wonderland that will delight Lewis Carroll fans, while fairytale connoisseurs will especially love the hair-raising extracts from Tales from the Hinterland that guide Alice on her adventures.
9. The Field Guide, by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi
The Field Guide is the first book of The Spiderwick Chronicles, another early offering from Holly Black. Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace are not thrilled when their mother moves them to the Spiderwick Estate in rural Maine. However, when they find a strange book entitled “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastic World Around You,” they are eager to explore the hidden world of faeries. Unfortunately the faeries are equally determined to keep them out. The adventures of the Grace children, battling goblins and uncovering secrets, have become classics of children’s literature, partly thanks to Tony DiTerlizzi’s iconic illustrations. Traditional fairy-related folk wisdom (remember to wear red!) backs up the beguiling worldbuilding you’d expect from its creators. The Spiderwick Chronicles hints at the more mature faerie world and themes explored in The Folk of the Air trilogy, even sharing key plot points. The reading level, action, and mild peril of The Field Guide is ideal for bedtime stories.
10. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
I’m still eagerly waiting for Book Three of The Kingkiller Chronicle, but The Name of the Wind remains a strong debut. After his family is slaughtered by supposedly mythical supernatural beings, Kvothe vows vengeance. To track down their killers, he attends the University, where he excels at magic, builds his reputation as a musician and adventurer, and flirts with true love, all while searching for information and following leads that he hopes will take him to his enemies. Kvothe is a bit of a Mary Stu, but there’s something compelling about his overwhelming self-confidence and talent. The framing device—older innkeeper Kvothe telling his story—hints at some kind of humbling and life-changing event, but The Name of the Wind is mostly a rollicking action-adventure steeped in myth and magic. Its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, leads Kvothe deeper into fairy culture and the wilder side of magic. But for my money, The Name of the Wind is still the better book, perfectly establishing its characters and world.
11. Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch
Billed as “Harry Potter for adults,” Rivers of London explores the secret magical underworld of modern day London. Peter Grant is a rather mediocre officer of the Metropolitan Police, but after an encounter with a ghost reveals his aptitude for magic, Peter is recruited as an apprentice wizard, investigating supernatural crimes. Aaronovitch really puts the “urban” in urban fantasy. The City of London is a character in its own right, not least because Peter has to adjudicate disputes between its river gods. He’s also tasked with tracking down a violent entity possessing the people of London with the help of his mentor, Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, and his Met liaison, Constable Lesley May. As a detective drama, it’s violent and gory (be warned: the villain likes to rip people’s faces off) so this is definitely not for children. Still, the mystery is engrossing and the supernatural characters are all based on local legends, offering a fascinating glimpse into the almost forgotten folklore of London and its buried rivers.
12. Midnight Never Come, by Marie Brennan
If you’re dying to immerse yourself in a fairy court, Midnight Never Come is hard to beat. Historical fiction meets high fantasy as Brennan transports us to the Onyx Court, secreted away in catacombs beneath Tudor London. Queen Invidiana rules Faerie England there with an iron fist, subtly influencing the politics of Elizabeth I’s court above. Lune is one of her agents, tasked with manipulating Lord Walsingham, the Virgin Queen’s spymaster, until she finds an unlikely ally in Michael Deven, one of Walsingham’s own agents. Working together, they might be able to free the human and faerie worlds from Invidiana’s clutches, but at what cost? Elizabeth I’s alliance with a faerie queen is a very cool concept, and Brennan clearly does her research; Elizabethan England feels as vibrant and fantastic as the Onyx Court. Naturally there is much plotting and betrayal in both courts, all of which eventually ties together in a brilliant finale.
13. Cutie and the Beast, by E. J. Russell
Cutie and the Beast is a bit of a departure from The Cruel Prince, being an LGBTQ romcom, urban fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. David is the cheerful but clumsy human secretary to Dr. Alun Kendrick, a psychologist who’s also a cursed Faerie Knight exiled to the human world. Together they run a counselling service for supernatural creatures living incognito among humans. Supernatural therapy is a lot of fun—think a dragon with a hoarding problem and werewolves grappling with anger management issues. Cutie and the Beast is bursting with clever modern twists to familiar mythology, mixed with a workplace romance that takes a sharp turn into faerie politics. Curses must be broken after all, which involves perilous trips to the Seelie Court, devious magical plots, and of course, true love’s kiss.
14. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor
Demons and angels replace fairies in Laini Taylor’s YA fantasy, but her tale of an extremely cool teenager living a double life is reminiscent of some of Holly Black’s best work. We meet Karou in Prague, where she’s an art student moonlighting as an errand girl for her adopted family, a group of chimaera. These human-animal hybrids live in a magical shop straddling the human world and Elsewhere, a parallel world where chimaera and angels are at war. But when Karou meets an angel named Akiva, she’s launched straight into a paranormal Romeo and Juliet saga. Taylor’s writing is funny and pacy, and she has a real talent for painting word pictures; Prague has rarely sounded so attractive. Chimaera society and its magic are fascinating and beautifully evoked. Daughter of Smoke and Bone leans a little too heavily on certain YA tropes, especially in its romance, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and creative fantasy.
15. In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
For another more lighthearted take on parallel fantasy worlds, try In Other Lands. Our protagonist is Elliot, a bookish, snarky teenager who crosses the “Wall” to attend a training school in the Other Lands, a magical world populated by fantasy races. Once there, he becomes best friends with Serene-in-the-Heart-of-Chaos, a badass warrior elf maiden, and Luke Sunborn, an athletic golden boy. We follow the trio’s schooling, which includes at least one major political and/or personal incident per year. In Other Lands affectionately mocks fantasy classics like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, skillfully mixing comedy and serious messages. Brennan’s comic timing is superb, and she deftly deconstructs typical (Medieval European) fantasy tropes. I particularly enjoyed the race of matriarchal elves and their gender-flipped sexism. Coming out, unhealthy relationships, body dysmorphia, and childhood neglect are also themes, making In Other Lands a funny, moving LGBTQ+ fantasy to treasure.