Fantasy is a genre I have a deep love for. From fantasy integrated into our everyday lives to high fantasy, I have read almost all of it. In recent weeks though, I have been seeing a trend that has me frustrated:people recommending fantasy novels based entirely on the romance that may or may not be within it. Now I could write an essay on the topic, but I will refrain. One thing I will say is that when the main focus of a book war, romance will never be the focus.
So here are five fantasy novels with romance not at the focus ranging from middle grade to adult in order from shortest to longest. I have also included content warnings at the bottom of all of my recommendations for you to take into consideration. There are some content warnings that are applied generally to the series, but also ones that are only or two books specifically. I do recommend that you look up specific content warnings for each book as the series progresses.
- Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
If you’re looking for a short book, this one’s for you. This is a middle grade no and follows our main character Jam. one day, Jam meets Pet, which emerges from her mother’s painting with a little of her blood and through this comes to realize there is something haunting her best friend’s Redemption house. This book hits hard and fast and packs an emotional punch like nothing you’ll ever seen before all into 276 pages. The point of view is at first a little jarring, I will admit it, but it is in the style that Akwaeke Emezi writes in and writes beautifully. Once you get into the book and become acquainted with the writing style, the book only becomes more mesmerizing. The dynamic between Pet and Jam is something of legend. This dynamic adds so much texture to the novel and allows for you to breathe despite all the things occurring within the novel.
CW: graphic; child abuse; violence; moderate pedophilia; sexual assault
- Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
Descendant of the Crane is a book near and dear to my heart. This is also a middle grade young adult fantasy. The story follows Hesina, a reluctant queen as she uncovers the murder of her father as she enlists the help of a Seer, a treasonist act. If you’re looking for fantasy inspired by Chinese mythos, this one is it. And not only is the old and new cover art absolutely gorgeous, but so is the writing and the characterization. While there is definitely a mixed bag in terms of opinions, I can’t help but love it even more. Hesina is such an interesting lead and the cast of supporting characters help the story shine. Considering this was Joan He’s debut, it’s absolutely glowing. (If you read it and love it, please consider buying the updated American paperback this fall to support her.)
CW: death of a parent; death; torture; alluded mass murder; suicide; murder; slavery; war; animal cruelty.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
This is the first adult recommendation on the list. Taking place in the tunnels of London, this novel blends fantasy with reality effortlessly. It’s a little creepy and a little understated, but it’s a novel that demands it and at the same time Neil Gaiman can definitely deliver. The world building within this is believable and also completely farfetched. For me it is the only Neil Gaiman novel that I’ve ever read, but you can tell that he’s had a long career from the words on the page alone. The characters, especially those within the underground, leap off the page and engage you in the world that exists. And to be honest it’s been a few years since I’ve read the book but every so often I do have to think back to it which is not a privilege I give to all books I’ve read. Who knows, maybe this show will be the year I reread it.
CW body horror; animal abuse
- The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
I would like to start off this recommendation by acknowledging the harm that TikTok has done in representing this novel. I have seen some people talk about it by describing only the “romance” between two of the characters. I’m gonna dispute that by saying this is a fantasy series about war and it spent over 100 pages describing brutal actions done by the invading force and that is just the first novel. Our main character literally commits genocide and you’re saying that the main focus is romance. NO. Despite this, what makes the book so great is the character dynamics and the growth that our main character experiences throughout the novels.
It’s imperative that I warn you now this book is not light in any way it and heavily parallels the Rape of Nanking and the Opium Wars, among other events within Chinese history. All of these things are immensely brutal histories that have to be reckoned with and this novel, while it parallels them, is a complete fantasy. The magic system and the overall world building is absolutely amazing. RF Kuang does an absolutely masterful job at controlling the character arcs and building the world that we become immersed in. Despite the brutality of the series, it’s worth the read. The first book of the series is The Poppy War, then The Dragon Republic and the final The Burning God. All three books of the trilogy are currently out and ready for you to read at your own discretion.
CW: genocide; colorism; racism; mass rape; sexual assault; forced marriage; PTSD; sterilization; medical experimentation; scars; dead bodies; decapitation and dismemberment; genocide; war; physical assault’ torture; captivity and confinement; military violence; arson; flooding; bullying and hazing.
- The Burning Series by Evan Winter
Despite the name of the first book, Dragons are not as heavily featured as it might make you think, so heed my warning. The series is Xhosa inspired and has dragons and demons; what more do you need? It follows Tau as he decides to desert the compelled military service until his father dies which sends him on a revenge fueled path of destruction. Your main frustration is going to be Tau himself. Not because he’s boring, but because he puts himself in some of the worst situations possible. While the war is not as heavily featured in the first book, the book is not less brutal for it. There is a slight romantic interaction between Tau and another character but it goes nowhere and is usually pushed aside for the revenge Tau longs to carry out. The first book in the series is The Rage of Dragons, then The Fires of Vengeance, the third book is currently unreleased but called The Lord of Demons, and the 4th book is untitled with no projected release. As a slight warning because the series is currently unfinished, the content warnings are subject to change as more books are released.
CW: Violence; death; gore; sexual content; torture; sexual assault; rape; slavery; blood; genocide; suicidal thoughts; the death of a parent.