There’s something irresistible about reading about worlds-that-could-have-been, worlds full of astonishing sights and sounds and a million enticing scents. Worlds that take familiar places and things and make something new out of them, creating combinations that you wish existed in the real world. Writing that does this—in addition to providing readers with a good story—is my favorite kind, both as a reader seeking escape and a writer who wants to create similar havens for others.
Here’s a sampling for you.
“Young Woman in a Garden” by Delia Sherman
This glimmering novelette explores a fictional painter from the perspective of his descendant, who wants to write a thesis on his life and work and has much to discover—and be intrigued by—when she starts digging into his papers.
When I think of the images in this story, I’m reminded of the cottagecore aesthetic—and not just because the story is set in the French countryside: Sherman’s descriptions make you feel like you’re walking through a series of paintings neatly tied together, but with much more going on in the world beyond the frame. Some of the most crucial moments in the story literally feel like watching an artist at work, and I envy Sherman’s writing for that.
“The Rainbow Flame” by Shveta Thakrar
I love finding a fantasy story with a desi background out in the wild. Our cultures are nothing if not rich with myths, colors, and intricate details—and therefore endless material for fantasy writers. Thakrar makes the most of them in this story about stories and time, weaving narratives the way Indian folktales often do. The story reminds me of Diwali nights and anklets on the feet of dancers and the chorus of a busy market while also making me think about questioning traditions—and how they change with the people who follow them. A great read for the upcoming Diwali weekend.
“Nameless in the Winged Court” by Rowenna Miller
When Floret got married to the king of the flower people, they changed her name and stayed away from her. She had grown up in the wilds and under the care of a human. This was, to the flower people, “unnatural.” Alone and stripped of her name, Floret tries to find a place at the court, but finds herself increasingly isolated and lonely. Is there hope of things changing, of being accepted as she is, of finding joy and freedom?
When it comes to imagery, you can’t go wrong with flowers. Sad and relatable as this story is at times, it still made me wish I were a character in a Beatrix Potter book rather than a 20-something trying to create magic on her laptop screen.
“Of Letters They Are Made” by Jonathan Edelstein
Edelstein’s story describes a world where people can literally conjure stories you can see and hear—but only if they have been recorded in their true form, allowing tales from centuries past and civilisations that are now extinct to live on as if you were there when they were first told. It also means, unfortunately, that a telling that doesn’t capture the words as they were originally spoken won’t live on. This is how languages and ancient cultures perish.
I could write an entire essay about the world Edelstein has created, but for this list I want to focus on the simple brilliance of his writing—right from the beginning, the words impress upon your mind a grand scene that will be hard to forget. It was this story that made me fall in love with languages and writing in a way I hadn’t considered before, despite being a writer and speaking three languages. It showed me that there’s no limit to how beautiful a world you can create if you use your words with care.
“The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan
I love everything Brennan writes—and I’ve yet to read all of her work—but if you had to start somewhere with her writing, I’d suggest this heist story. There’s thrills, drama, a bit of romance, all written with such liveliness that you might as be standing in the market square as the thief runs past you and disappears as if into another dimension. Brennan has created a magnificent city to serve as the setting for a theft that takes place openly, in front of crowds. Both the heist and the writing create a spectacle that I can only dream of emulating in my own writing.
“The Ruby of the Summer King” by Mari Ness
The premise is simple: the Summer King falls in love with the Winter Queen and sets off to her court. It isn’t easy when seasons meet, not when other seasons and months have their eyes on you, when the Summer King is so terrified by black that he keeps the torches lit at night and the Winter Queen so familiar with whites, greys, and blues that the mere sight of red is an unforgettable gift. How does love work when two people with such different worlds meet?
Ness’s story answers that—and how beautifully! I could describe it with a dozen different adjectives—lush, lyrical, magical, enchanting, charming, breathtaking, and so on, and they’d still fail to capture the imagery (and the characters!) of Ness’s story. I’ve read countless fantasy short stories at this point, but none has stayed with me and influenced my writing the way this one has.
“The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee
While every story on this list is a beauty, I’m saving the best for the last: Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells is the only one left on the space station that held the Temple where she lived—for she is now dead, as is everyone else, their home destroyed by the Fleet Lords. It’s lonely, but being a Temple Cat, she knows she can’t abandon the place and the history it holds. Then she meets a Starship—the one which destroyed her world, no less—and decisions have to be made.
Lee’s story, one of the several that Beneath Ceaseless Skies has published during their “Science Fantasy” months, brings the best of both worlds—the beauty of space and the beauty of our earthly cultures—together in a way that left me crying the first time I read it. I could blame it on the fact that it features the ghost of a cat, but the tears came from the realisation that even if I had all of cat’s nine lives, I will never be able to write anything so beautiful.
Ratika Deshpande, Order of Truthwatchers, is the editor of The Metronome, a bi-monthly magazine for people who want to study psychology and make a career in the field.