The fantasy genre is not exactly known for brevity. Its shelves are populated by long book and longer series, full of magic, intrigue, and immersive worldbuilding. Many of the top authors in the field routinely release books which clock in at 1000+ pages, and these books only tell one small section of a larger story. George RR Martin’s still incomplete A Song of Ice and Fire series takes up more space on my shelf, for example, than all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books combined. Fans of the fantasy genre–myself included–love immersing ourselves in a long series, and it gives me great joy that at least one popular genre encourages reading longer works.
And yet, it is often difficult to get new readers into the fantasy genre precisely because of the thickness of the average fantasy novel. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to recommend a favorite book or series to an interested potential reader only to have them hesitate because they weren’t sure if they wanted to commit to 1000+ pages, much less many 1000+ page books (unless, or until HBO or Netflix picks up an adaptation). As a fan of the genre, and as a writer, I found this exceedingly frustrating, but, with time, I came to accept it as part of the reality of being a fantasy fan.
Recently, however, I’ve read a number of fantasy novellas. During my reread of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, I came across “The Finder” in the collection, Tales of Earthsea. While the story, which focuses on the founding of the School at Roke, is part of the Earthsea cycle, it, in my mind, stands on its own as well. Like many of the stories here, knowing the larger story of the Earthsea cycle enhances the reader’s experience, but it is not necessary to enjoy the novella on its own. “The Finder” is one of my favorite fantasy stories. It focusses on smaller characters and tells a personal, coming of age story tinged with magic and filled with wonder. Clocking in at exactly 100 pages, it is an excellent introduction to Le Guin and her most famous fantasy world.
Fine, you might say. That’s Ursula Le Guin. Even her novels are short. She can do in 200 pages what might take Patrick Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson a thousand. Fair point, but there are wordier writers who wrote fantasy novellas as well.
The version of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin which is included in The Unfinished Tales clocks in at a mere 92 pages. I recently reread The Unfinished Tales before watching The Rings of Power (since it includes a lot of second-age stories), and I was reminded of how much I like it. Without spoiling the story, it’s a classic love tragedy that reminds me a bit of Romeo and Juliet with a Dragon. While the Tolkien estate has released a longer, “complete” version, which is just over 300 pages, the 90ish-page version reads like a complete story to me. Much like the Le Guin story, this story occurs many years prior to The Lord of the Rings, and, as such, it stands on its own and one does not need to have read the more famous trilogy to “get” this one.
Similarly, George RR Martin, who, if anything, is more wordy than Tolkien, wrote a series of novellas about a hedge knight named Dunk and his Squire, Egg. While these stories have been criticized by fans, that criticism stems more from their frustration that Martin has written them instead if finishing his main series rather than from any criticism of the actual stories. The novellas themselves are fun, and would make a perfect introduction to Martin’s world for somebody who might be reluctant to commit to reading the thousands of pages of the main series.
This year, I will be seeking out more fantasy novellas, both as a means of introducing new readers to my favorite genre and as quick visits to worlds I love.