The Best Books About Magic for Adults - 2024

December 1, 2023

Do you love magic, but don’t typically read fantasy? Literature-lovers rejoice: there’s enchantment to be found in the everyday world (of fiction). Supernatural and mythic abilities, creatures, beasts, and fairies, and even magic portals. You’ll recognize the worlds the characters of these novels inhabit, but be charmed and enchanted out of your own. Here are the top books with magic for 2024, from classics to new releases:

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi 

A riff on“Hansel and Gretel,” this tale is darkly witty, poignant, and deliciously bizarre. Reading Oyeyemi is like falling into a fairy tale, but just as you think you’ve found the expected breadcrumbs to familiarity, they morph or disappear: “Her sentences are like grabbing onto the tail of a vibrant, living creature” (NYT). Gingerbread is about the relationships that make a place home and a family a family, and how we find ourselves in each. Even if it takes magical, slightly toxic baked goods to get there.

Victory City by Salman Rushdie

An epic, layered myth with enchanting world-building that’s about world-building itself. In response to war and corruption, a goddess-channeling girl attempts to build a better empire in southern India. “A grand entertainment, in a tale with many strands, by an ascended master of modern legends,” (Kirkus), this read is equal parts magical and historic, mythological catharsis for the politically and liberal minded.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Baked with hereditary magical abilities, this story is about family, empathy, and the lengths young people must go to integrate or stand apart from the world they're born into. At the age of nine, our protagonist discovers that she can taste people’s feelings through the food they make. NPR likens the novel to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in its focus on the hypocrisies and phoniness of the adult world–except it does a much better job at turning inward. An intimate read, this novel’s subtle flavors linger long after it’s finished.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What does a love affair in a war zone need? Doors. Not just any doors, but magic portals that can whisk people to other countries, presumably to safety, and a better life–even if that means leaving behind one’s entire family. The threat of danger is always prevalent in Exit West, but our eye is always on how the characters will find their feet and invent a new sense of self. Surreal, magical, captivating, Hamid’s fiction “captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road” (NYT). That review was written in 2017. Sadly, it continues to resonate.

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Finally, an original fairy tale for grown-ups! “Dark academia” meets Jules Verne with a dusting of Austen-esque romance in this journey to the far north, where our namesake protagonist seeks to complete her ground-breaking research on the fae. Set in the past but freshly modern, this read is full of wonder and dry wit. Other reviews claim that the read is too dry, too academic, and that the characters are flat, the romance unsatisfying. They’re missing the point: this isn’t so much about two professors, or the tight-knit Scandinavian village they grow to love; as it’s about MAGIC. The fae are the focus, and how they overlap with the human world. You’ll be whisked away into a fantasy, bolstered by the novel’s intellectual center.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

As savvy readers know, magic is best when employed towards a higher purpose. The Changeling is perhaps one of the best examples of this, exploring themes of masculinity, race, parenthood, and urban life through a pastiche of myths, literature, and pop culture. Though late to announce itself, the horrific magic in this novel pays off hugely. As NYT says of LaValle’s writing, “If monsters are your subject, writing like an angel helps.” LaValle weaves an intelligent, unique folklore about the deep seated anxieties that threaten to turn us into “changelings”--i.e. strip us of our humanity, make us unrecognizable.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Though nearly two decades old, Susanna Clarke’s novel remains a classic in literary magic, what Neil Gaiman called "the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years" (Washington Post), which, if he still agrees with his assessment, would make it the finest in the last 90 years. In case you’ve been living under a rock: the story is set in England in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic War. Two magicians rise to fame, a fusty magician-scholar-bibliophile and a dashing, entrepreneurial showman. Their rivalry is a clash of ideologies that can either help or hinder their country. Though rife with magic–faeries, incantations, spell books–Clarke’s novel has the heft and authority of a historical account. If there are any magic-loving academics / anglophiles / fans of Austen-esque prose out there who haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, clear your reading list and get yourself a copy.

About the Author: Sasha Bailyn lives in New York state surrounded by trees and her son’s pillows forts. She writes memoir and magical realism. For regular content on the life of a bibliophile / writer / mother / magician, follow her on Substack.

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