I read one lot of epic fantasy. The bigger the better. When it comes to reading pleasure, it’s hard to beat a sweeping story of more than 800 pages – especially if it’s part of a massive series.
Lately, though, I’ve started putting smaller books into my curriculum. It helps me explore a more diverse range of voices and approach my ever-too-high annual readings … but for the most part, these relatively small tomes have shown me how great ideas can fill a small space and still feel effective and deeply meaningful.
I have come across several valuable books with shorter page numbers in recent years and they often struggle with great concepts despite their size. Hyper-focused narratives that expand on a single unifying idea have as much (if not more) to offer as SFF’s biggest, worst tomes.
Do you need a break from big books? Here are five small books (under 300 pages) that fill a lot with great ideas.
Prospers Demon 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 deeds of its creator?
Prospers Demon, a nice sardonic, compact yarn, is ready and willing to consider these issues on its ~ 100 pages. The nameless exorcist acts as a de facto protagonist, though he is far from admirable. He hates his job, but someone has to do it. He causes immense pain to the demons he expels and the people who host them. He does not do that will have to hurt people, but it is an unfortunate side effect of his methods. His ungrateful work drives him to a lonely life filled with sarcasm and concise exchanges of opinions with the disgusting demonic creatures he encounters.
Prosper of Schanz poses quite a dilemma for our protagonist. The man is a great man who is at the forefront of 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 shame that Prosper is obsessed and that the demon is behind some of his greatest ideas and exploits.
The exorcist is torn between duty and appreciation of the demon’s work. The creature is a creature of hell, and the exorcist knows that only evil can come from letting it flourish in Prosper’s psyche.
By default, the exorcist has the fate of the world’s greatest progress in his hollow hand, and he must decide whether he wants to eliminate the demon and risk killing Prosper in the process. Prospers Demon manages to balance his witty bid for demonic obsession with major moral questions about the nature and progress of art. It’s definitely biting, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
A hymn for the wild by Becky Chambers: About Following Your Dreams and Exploring the Unknown
Dex, who lives on a small moon, works for a company in a big city and begins to feel bound down by everyday life, every day. Years ago, robots and humans agreed to separate, with the mechanical beings on their way to the uninhabited side of the moon, Wilds. Now people live in relative peace, but Dex feels they can do something bettersomething more.
So Dex quits and buys a cart. They travel around human lands and serve people tea and listen to their stories. They help solve people’s problems, even if it’s just by borrowing a penny.
Then Dex begins to feel like exploring further. They cross into nature, where they meet Mosscap, an infinitely curious and kind-hearted robot who wants to learn everything it can about humans.
The book resonated with me – Dex’s story reflects my journey in many ways, and I imagine the same would be the case for other readers. Dex is unhappy with their work and unsure of what to do, and takes a leap. They move forward without knowing what lies ahead. If you’ve ever quit your job or sought a new job in the hope of a better life, you’ve lived Dex’s experience. Then Dex realizes they still want to more. The uncertainty that comes with any life decision can lead to a feeling of discomfort. To follow your dreams means to give into the future, which is never carved in stone.
A hymn for the wild offers a thoughtful, heartfelt exploration of Dex’s journey to self-discovery within its ~ 160 pages. And the upcoming sequel, A prayer for the crowneddives even further into these crucial concepts and questions.
Each heart a doorway by Seanan McGuire: About belonging and being misunderstood
Seanan McGuire’s wayward children the series keeps growing and growing. Each book focuses on a child who ventured into an amazing portal world, where they felt like they really belonged, only to be led back to the “real” world (our world). Each heart a doorway launches the series with the story of Nancy Whitman, a girl returning from the Halls of the Dead to the fast-paced, loud and chaotic real world.
Eleanor West welcomes Nancy to her boarding school and offers a loving home and friends who on some level can relate to her experience.
Every heart A doorway may seem light and unassuming at first, but McGuire quickly reveals the darkness that stems from the feeling that you do not belong. The heartache that these children feel can lead to terrible actions and decisions that shake the foundation of what Eleanor West has built. Nancy is at the center of a murder mystery, and when she returns from the land of the dead, suspicion comes. Nancy has to navigate her new home, her grief over losing her old one and the mistrustful glances from her new classmates who think she’s killing other students.
all wayward children series (to date seven short stories, with more on the way) dive into the concept of belonging without departing from the darker experiences of alienation and isolation. The countless protagonists have been abused, misunderstood, bullied or even abused for who they are, which has led them to their more accepting portal worlds. Everyone fits in somewhere, and even the scary portals on the surface can give McGuire’s characters the sense of belonging they so desperately need.
Tender is the flesh by Agustina Bazterrica: On Humanity’s Response to Crisis
This can hit close to home, so proceed with caution. But also note that it is one hundred percent worth reading.
Hos Agustina Bazterrica Tender is the flesh, a virus decimates the animal population on earth, making almost all creatures inedible. This leads to “The Transition”, which legalizes cannibalism and kickstarts an industry to educate people for consumption.
Marcos works in a “special meat” factory, as the book calls them, and a wealthy client gives him a “head”, a human woman who is brought up to be eaten. Marcos goes through the motions and questions whether the world governments have produced the virus to kill the population and / or make money. He becomes attached to the “head” he now houses. His father withers away in a home and his sister refuses to offer any help to look after him.
Marcos’ world revolves around him, and he trudges through a routine to stay calm. Tender is the flesh hitting close to home for reasons that I hope are tragically obvious. It tackles humanity’s collective response to a world-shaking virus head-on and fights the grim problems that arise from a worldwide crisis. It is an incredibly foresighted short story, originally published in 2017.
You have probably collected it Tender Is The meat are not for the faint of heart. You have to be in the right mindset to read it – understand this, go in knowing that it is heavy and hard and that it is easily a five star read. And at 220 pages, it’s as short as it is destructive.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke: On how much, very small we are in the big picture
Whereas my previous choice captures a particular moment in time, Arthur C. Clarkes 2001: A Space Odyssey highlights thousands and thousands of years of human development over 300 pages.
2001 begins with the ancestors of mankind, more apes than men, avoiding predators and foraging for food. As the mysterious monolith emerges and inspires the creatures to throw and bask and hunt, they enter a new evolutionary era.
Fast forward to modern times and humans have reached the moon. Traveling to our lunar siblings is not entirely common, but it can be done for the rich. Explorers discover another monolith buried beneath the moon’s surface, and as they reveal it, a signal is emitted toward Saturn.
In 2001, astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole – along with three crew members suspended in cryo-sleep and the sensitive computer HAL 9000 – boarded the spacecraft Discovery One on its way to Saturn in hopes of finding another monolith … and answers about its origins.
From its opening lines all the way through its astonishing climax, 2001: A Space Odyssey considering the nature of mankind. Who are we and what is our purpose? We even do have a purpose? The novel explores possible answers and leaves some up for interpretation.
To date, I have not read a sci-fi story that more effectively drives home how small and insignificant we are on the universal stage. 2001: A Space Odyssey welcomes the questions and basks in the uncertainty that characterizes our existence. But don’t worry, there is still a touch of hope to be found in the last moments of the book.
What are your favorite little books that offer great ideas and explore weighty questions? Tell me in the comments!
Cole Rush writes words. Many of them. For the most part, you can find these words on The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ ColeRush1. He reads ferocious epic fantasy and science fiction, seeks out stories of gigantic proportions and devours them with a bookworm fervor. His favorite books are: The divine cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The long road to a small, angry planet by Becky Chambers, and The house in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.