Whoever said less is more wasn’t much of a literature buff. When it comes to a good read, why stop at just the one genre? After all, there are so many great books that find their ambitions can’t be contained in a single, definable framework. These books stretch borders and combine storytelling elements in a way that invigorates each genre they touch, be it fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, or something else altogether. Here are a few literary works that break barriers, combining genre tropes and standards to produce entirely unique, enthralling stories.
The Familiar, Vol. 1, by Mark Z. Danielewski
It’s mighty difficult to fence the 880-page first volume of a planned 27 (!) into one genre. This story can’t even be contained on one continent, hopping from California to Singapore to Venice. In addition to geography, Danielewski covers a lot of literary territory, and there’s only more (and more and more) to come. This first volume serves as a pilot episode of sorts, setting up twisting, diverse branches of story and characters. Yet all these roads spring from one central narrative, that of a young girl and her father setting out one day to buy a dog but winding up with very different challenges. From that arc, Danielewski moves us through a stream of different points of view, including those of gang members, scientists, and addicts, each chapter styled to fit the new voice. You better start reading now—you’ve got a long way to go.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
With the glut of recent end-of-the-world novels, a little dystopia fatigue is understandable. What makes Station Eleven such a cool drink of water is that while it does center on the end of civilization—here induced by a raging flu outbreak—its focus is less on the disaster and more on the victims, the survivors, and those who must continue on. The apocalyptic setting puts the novel squarely in sci-fi territory, but its character-driven complexities make a single genre insufficient to contain it. The driving force behind the narrative is the Traveling Symphony, a Shakespeare troupe that travels North America’s dark roads to bring cultural diversions to settlements of survivors. The players’ mission dovetails with Mandel’s beautiful glimpses of a pre-catastrophe world and explores what it means to be human, in a world where that definition seems more up for grabs than ever before.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
Mitchell proved himself a master at multiple story lines in Cloud Atlas, and he’s up to his old tricks here, albeit in a more streamlined fashion. There’s a definitive star of The Bone Clocks, and it’s Holly Sykes, the glue that holds all the interconnected narratives together. Holly’s story begins as a sort of a fantastical bildungsroman: as a teenager, she’s a veritable lightning rod for strange, mystical phenomena. The events that take place in her youth echo through every decade of her life, a journey we undertake with her, and affect every life she touches. Mitchell blends his signature lit-fic style with elements of magical realism, dystopia, and straight-up fantasy to produce a captivating, time-spanning, globe-trotting tale, wholly uncategorizable and utterly affecting.
The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler
Is there anything more fulfilling than a book about books? Swyler’s savvy enough to know the answer is no, and thus centers her debut on Simon, a young librarian, with a, shall we say, dysfunctional family background involving a whole lot of circus folk. As so often happens, a mysterious book shows up on his doorstep one day. The book is a log from an 18th-century traveling carnival, which would be odd enough, but it also details strange reports of magic and misfortune, including the drowning of a circus mermaid. As it happens, Simon’s family tree is filled with women who’ve met watery ends, and all on the same date. Part historical thriller, part mystery, and part fantasy, The Book of Speculation traces this family curse and unravels a quandary generations in the making.
California, by Eden Lepucki
Hope you weren’t too awfully serious about that dystopia fatigue, because here’s another slice of brilliance that happens to take place postapocalypse. As in Station Eleven, calamity is a set-piece for a more human drama. (Though, I’ll add here, what makes California‘s apocalypse so real is its multilayered causes. The events play out in a slow, inevitable way that hits disturbingly close to home. But I digress.) The crux of this novel is a marriage. Having fled their toppled city home, Frida and Cal are roughing it in the wilderness, trying to locate their new normal…then they discover Frida’s pregnant. We could watch how the prospect of a baby alters their relationship even in the halcyon days of civilization—a dramatic shift would still occur if they had electricity and toasters and cable and hot showers—but placing them in a world filled with uncertainty heightens the tension further, as they grapple with not only how to survive, but how to raise a child in their broken environment.
The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
The Supernatural Enhancements defies all attempts to define it. Cantero has crafted a Southern gothic whodunit with traces of surrealism and a fascination with banter that rivals a Wes Anderson script—all told in epistolary style, through journal entries, letters, brief notes, security footage, and the odd cipher. It’s a wonderful, whimsical romp that starts with that most hallowed literary impetus: the arrival of a life-changing letter, in this case addressed to twentysomething A., who learns he is the long-lost heir to a grand estate in Virginia. But this house has seen tragedy, most recently when A.’s cousin jumped to his death from a second-story window. When A. and his mute companion, Niamh, journey to claim his inheritance, they become entangled in a mystery that encompasses not only a haunted house, but a secret society. This book doesn’t just bend genres, it absorbs them—all of them.