Footnotes in fiction are a tricky business. Handled poorly, they can be the bane of a reader’s existence (1). But in the right hands and the right circumstances, footnotes open up entirely new narrative possibilities (2).
Footnotes can add context, build lore and history, introduce new characters, misdirect where desired, or even just make you snort out loud (3). Authors can wield them like scalpels or flaunt them like magic tricks.
There’s no shortage of clever ways to use them, essentially—as proven by the five books and series below (4).
The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
Lyons’ buzzy debut plays with all manner of form, telling its story, primarily, in retrospect, with events of the narrative revealed primarily in a conversation between a thief, Kihrin, and his jailer, Talon. Both tell the story of Kihrin’s life (5) in alternating chapters. Framing this conversation are footnotes from a third source, whose attachment to the story becomes clearer toward the end of the novel. It’s through these outside footnotes that we learn the most about the history, the magic, and the world that have come to bear on poor, battered Kihrin.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
The grand dame of footnotes in modern fantasy (6), Clarke’s shelf-bending standalone serves up a number of pages that are as much or more footnotes and supplementary text as actual narrative. The result is a work altogether complete: a comprehensive alternate history of English magic, the Napoleonic Wars, and the titular Daedalus-and-Icarus pair at the center of both. It’s the closest novel to a magical textbook as you’re going to get outside of Brakebills.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
While notable for its intriguing use of footnotes, House of Leaves uses far more than just those bottom-of-the-page musings to subvert the typical fiction-reading experience. To call it experimental is an understatement (7). At its core is a story about a house that’s disturbingly larger on the inside than on the outside. But in unraveling that mystery, the reader is challenged to rethink the bare concept of the novel as a form. Everything is up for grabs: typography, page layout, and, of course, footnotes that cite sources. While technically more horror than fantasy, it’s a gobsmacking feat that can’t be ignored.
The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
This series-starter is about a boy magician named Nathaniel and a djinni named Bartemeaus, whom Nathaniel summons (8) in an attempt to make a name for himself in the highly structured class society of a highly magical alternate mid-20th century England. The novel switches between their dual POVs to unwind its story of magical mischief and political skullduggery. Even though Bartimaeus is a first person narrator, he also gets to shine in frequent footnotes that expand upon his personality in ways no typical narrative tool would allow. He riffs on just about everything—the people he meets, the stupid things they want—and offers insights into the unsavory position of his kind. Without them, it would be a very different book.
Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
Only the Thursday Next series would be so daring as to introduce the “footnoterphone.” In this second book of the series, Thursday Next, world-renowned literary detective, receives her first call via the device. You, the reader, get to watch the ensuing conversation happen between the page text and footnotes, which is probably as disorienting for Thursday as it is for you (9). Please be advised, however, if making a call: it’s best to know the title and page number at which your party can be reached.
1. I have to jog all the way down to the bottom of the page to read several sentences that don’t relate directly to the sentences I have just read, which I now must read again because I’ve forgotten what they said?
2. Like watching an argument between two characters who may never have met but have a lot to say to each other nonetheless.
3. Insert here basically anything written by Terry Pratchett (†).
4. Yes, we know we’ve left out many, many, many other fantasy books that use footnotes well. Don’t yell at us—just share your favorites in the comments!
5. You see, Talon is a shapeshifter and has absorbed some of Kihrin’s memories—and the memories of those around him, because she ate them (‡).
6. Though David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is arguably fantastical enough to fit on this list, it isn’t usually classified as fantasy. Dude sure loved his footnotes, though.
7. To call it a “mindf***” is not (♦).
8. Bartemeaus would prefer to say “enslaves against his will.”
9. Kind of like reading this blog post, probably.
‡ Ate the people, we mean. Not the memories. You know how shapeshifting demons are.
♦ You know what the stars stand for. This is a family website.
What’s your favorite use of footnotes in a fantasy novel?