I read a lot of epic fantasy. The bigger the better. When it comes to reading pleasure, it’s hard to beat a sprawling 800+ page story, especially when it’s part of a massive series.
Lately, though, I’ve started incorporating smaller books into my reading schedule. It helps me explore a more diverse set of voices and approach my always-too-high annual reading goal… but mostly, these relatively small tomes have shown me how big ideas can fill a small space and still be impactful and deeply meaningful. to be.
I’ve come across countless valuable books with shorter pages in recent years, and despite their size, they often struggle with big concepts. Hyper-focused stories spanning a single unifying idea have just as much (if not more) to offer than SFF’s biggest, worst tomes.
Need a break from big books? Here are five small books (under 300 pages) that pack big ideas.
The demon of Prosper by KJ Parker: On the value of art and the influence of creators
Does art have intrinsic value? Can its value to society change based on the actions of its creator?
The demon of Prosper, a wonderfully sardonic, compact yarn, is ready and willing to ponder these questions within its ~100 pages. The unnamed exorcist serves as a de facto protagonist, though he’s far from admirable. He hates his job, but someone has to do it. He causes immense pain to the demons he casts out and the people who host them. Not him want to to hurt people, but it’s an unfortunate side effect of his methods. His thankless work drives him into a solitary existence laced with sarcasm and brief exchanges with the filthy demonic creatures he encounters.
Prosper of Schanz presents our protagonist with quite a dilemma. The man is a tycoon, leading scientific progress and artistic achievements beyond the world’s wildest dreams. He wants to raise a philosopher-king based on pure, moral principles. It’s a real shame that Prosper is possessed and that the demon is behind some of his greatest ideas and achievements.
The exorcist is torn between duty and appreciation for the demon’s work. The creature is an infernal creation, and the exorcist knows that evil can only come by letting it flourish in Prosper’s psyche.
By default, the exorcist has the fate of the world’s greatest advancement in the palm of his hand, and he must decide whether to eliminate the demon and risk killing Prosper in the process. The demon of Prosper manages to balance his witty view of demonic possession with great moral questions about the nature of art and progress. It’s bite-sized, sure, but it’s completely satisfying nonetheless.
A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers: On Following Your Dreams and Exploring the Unknown
Dex lives on a small moon, works for a company in a big city and begins to get stuck in their routine day in and day out. Years ago, the robots and humans agreed to part, with the mechanical creatures heading for the uninhabited side of the moon, the Wilds. Now people live in relative peace, but Dex feels they can do something bettersomething Lake.
So Dex stops and buys a car. They travel through the human lands to serve people tea and listen to their stories. They help to solve people’s problems, if only by offering a listening ear.
Then Dex starts to get the itch to explore further. They cross the wilderness, where they encounter Mosscap, an endlessly curious and kind-hearted robot eager to learn all about humans.
The book resonated with me – Dex’s story reflects my journey in many ways, and I imagine the same would be true for other readers. Unhappy with their job and unsure of what’s next, Dex takes a leap. They move forward without knowing what awaits them. If you’ve ever quit a job or looked for a new opportunity in the hope of a better life, you’ve lived through Dex’s experience. Then Dex realizes they still want… Lake† The uncertainty that accompanies any life decision can lead to a sense of unease. Following your dreams means giving in to the future, which is never set in stone.
A Psalm for the Wild Built offers a thoughtful, heartfelt exploration of Dex’s journey of self-discovery within its ~160 pages. And the upcoming sequel, A Prayer for the Crown-Shytakes a closer look at those crucial concepts and questions.
Every heart a doorway by Seanan McGuire: About belonging and being misunderstood
Seanan McGuire’s Quirky Kids series continues to grow and grow. Each book focuses on a child venturing into a fantastic portal world where they felt they really belong, only to be brought back to the ‘real’ world again (us world). Every heart a doorway launches the series with the story of Nancy Whitman, a girl who returns from the Halls of the Dead to the fast, loud and chaotic real world.
Eleanor West welcomes Nancy to her boarding school and offers a loving home and friends who can relate to her experience on some level.
Every heart a doorway may seem light and humble at first, but McGuire soon reveals the darkness that comes from feeling like you don’t belong. The heartbreak these children feel can lead to terrible actions and decisions that shake the very foundation of what Eleanor West has built. Nancy finds herself at the center of a murder mystery, and after returning from the land of the dead, suspicion hits her. Nancy must navigate her new home, her grief at the loss of her old one, and the suspicious looks of her new classmates who think she’s killing other students.
The entire Quirky Kids series (seven novellas so far, with more to come) delves into the concept of belonging without shying away from the dark experiences of alienation and isolation. The countless protagonists have been mistreated, misunderstood, bullied or even abused for who they are, leading them to their more accepting portal worlds. Everyone fits in somewhere, and even the scary portal lands can give McGuire’s characters a sense of belonging that they so desperately need.
Tender is the flesh by Agustina Bazterrica: On Humanity’s Response to a Crisis
It can get close to home, so be careful. But also note that it is one hundred percent worth reading.
At Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the flesh, a virus is decimating the Earth’s animal population, rendering nearly all creatures inedible. This leads to “The Transition”, which legalizes cannibalism and kick-starts an industry to breed humans for consumption.
Marcos works at a “special meat” factory, as the book calls them, and a wealthy customer presents him with a “head,” a human female raised to be eaten. Going through the motions, Marcos wonders if the world’s governments invented the virus to wipe out the population and/or make a profit. He becomes attached to the “head” that he now houses. His father languishes in a house and his sister refuses to offer any help in caring for him.
Marcos’s world unravels around him and he plods through a routine to keep his composure. Tender is the flesh hits close to home for reasons I hope are tragically obvious. It tackles humanity’s collective response to an earth-shattering virus head-on and grapples with the grim problems arising from a global crisis. It’s an incredibly prescient novella, originally published in 2017.
You probably understood that tender Is The meat is not for the faint of heart. You have to have the right attitude to read it – understand this, go in knowing it’s heavy and hard, and it’s easily a five star read. And at 220 pages, it’s as short as it is devastating.
2001: A space odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke: About how very, very small we are in the grand scheme of things
While my previous pick captures a specific moment in time, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A space odyssey highlights thousands upon thousands of years of human development in the span of 300 pages.
2001 begins with the ancestors of mankind, more apes than humans, avoiding predators and foraging for food. When the mysterious monolith appears and inspires the creatures to throw and bash and hunt, they enter a new era of evolution.
Fast forward to modern times, and humans have reached the moon. Traveling to our moon sibling isn’t quite mundane, but it’s doable for the wealthy. Explorers discover another monolith buried beneath the moon’s surface, and when they discover it, it sends out a signal to Saturn.
In 2001, astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole — along with three cryo-sleep crew members and the sentient computer HAL 9000 — boarded the spaceship. Discovery One heading to Saturn in hopes of finding another monolith…and answers about its origin.
From the opening lines to the mind-boggling climax, 2001: A space odyssey broods over the nature of humanity. Who are we and what is our goal? do we even? to have a target? The novel explores possible answers and leaves much to interpretation.
To date, I have not read a science fiction story that more effectively illustrates how small and insignificant we are on the universal stage. 2001: A space odyssey welcomes the questions and basks in the uncertainty that permeates our existence. But don’t worry, there is still a glimmer of hope to be found in the final moments of the book.
What are your favorite little books that offer big ideas and explore weighty questions? Let me know in the comments!
Cole Rush writes words. Many of them. For the most part, you can find those words on The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1† He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science fiction, seeking out stories of gigantic proportions and devouring them with a bookworm-like fervor. His favorite books are: The divine cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The long way to a small, angry planet by Becky Chambers, and The house in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.