I read a ground epic fantasy. The bigger the better. When it comes to reading enjoyment, it’s hard to beat a story over 800 pages, especially if it’s part of a massive series.
Lately, however, I’ve started to fit smaller books into my reading schedule. It helps me explore a more diverse range of voices and approach my ever-too-high annual reading goal… but most importantly, these relatively tiny tomes have shown me how big ideas can fill a small space while still being impactful and profound. significant.
I’ve come across many interesting books with shorter page counts in recent years, and they often grapple with huge concepts despite their size. Hyper-focused narratives developing around a single unifying idea have as much (if not more) to offer than SFF’s biggest and baddest tomes.
Need a break from the heavy books? Here are five little books (less than 300 pages) that are full of big ideas.
Prosper’s 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 actions of its creator?
Prosper’s Demon, a delightfully sardonic compact yarn, is ready and willing to ponder these questions in its ~100 pages. The unnamed exorcist serves as the 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 exorcises and the humans who harbor them. He does not do want to hurt people, but that’s an unfortunate side effect of his methods. His thankless job pushes him to a solitary existence mixed with sarcasm and laconic exchanges with the filthy demonic creatures he encounters.
Prosper of Schanz presents our protagonist with quite a dilemma. The man is a magnate, spearheading scientific advances and artistic prowess beyond the world’s wildest dreams. He wants to raise a philosopher-king based on pure moral principles. It’s such a shame that Prosper is possessed and the demon is behind some of his greatest ideas and accomplishments.
The exorcist is torn between duty and appreciation of the demon’s work. The creature is a hellish creation and the exorcist knows that only harm can come from letting it flourish in Prosper’s psyche.
By default, the Exorcist has the fate of the world’s greatest advances in the palm of his hand, and he must decide whether to eliminate the demon and risk killing Prosper in the process. Prosper’s Demon manages to balance his spiritual view on demonic possession with big moral questions about the nature of art and progress. It’s bite-sized, sure, but it’s utterly satisfying nonetheless.
A Psalm for the wild mounts by Becky Chambers: Chasing dreams and exploring the unknown
Living on a small moon, Dex works for a company in a big city and begins to feel bogged down by their day-to-day routine. Years ago, robots and humans agreed to go their separate ways, with the mechanical beings heading to the uninhabited side of the moon, the Wilds. Now the humans live in relative peace, but Dex feels they can do something about it. betterSomething After.
So Dex quits and buys a wagon. They roam the human lands serving people tea and listening to their stories. They help solve people’s problems, if only by listening.
Then Dex begins to want to explore further. They travel through nature, where they meet Mosscap, an infinitely curious and benevolent robot who wants to learn everything he can about humans.
The book resonated with me – Dex’s story reflects my journey in many ways, and I imagine it would do the same for other readers. Dissatisfied with their work and uncertain of the future, Dex takes the plunge. They move on without knowing what awaits them. If you’ve ever quit a job or sought out a new opportunity in hopes of a better life, you’ve had the experience of Dex. Then Dex realizes they still want After. The uncertainty that accompanies any life decision can lead to feelings of unease. To follow one’s dreams is to abandon oneself to the future, which is never fixed.
A Psalm for the wild mounts offers a thoughtful and heartfelt exploration of Dex’s journey of self-discovery in its ~160 pages. And the sequel to come, A prayer for shy crownsfurther delves into these crucial concepts and issues.
Every heart a door by Seanan McGuire: On belonging and misunderstanding
by Seanan McGuire capricious children series keeps growing and growing. Each book focuses on a child who ventured into a fantasy portal world where he felt he really belonged, only to be brought back to the “real” world (our world). Every heart a door kicks off the series with the story of Nancy Whitman, a girl who returns from the Halls of the Dead to the real world fast, loud and chaotic.
Eleanor West welcomes Nancy to her boarding school, providing a loving home and friends who can relate, on some level, to her experience.
Every heart a door may seem light and unassuming at first, but McGuire quickly reveals the darkness that comes from feeling like you don’t belong. The grief these children feel can lead to terrible acts and decisions that shake the foundations of what Eleanor West has built. Nancy finds herself at the center of a murder mystery and, returning from the land of the dead, suspicion arises. Nancy must navigate her new home, her grief at losing the old one, and the suspicious looks of her new classmates who believe she is killing other students.
All capricious children The series (seven novels to date, with more in the works) delves into the concept of belonging without detracting from the darker 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 tolerant portal worlds. Everyone fits in somewhere, and even the spooky portal lands on the surface can provide McGuire’s characters with the sense of belonging they desperately need.
Tender is the flesh by Agustina Bazterrica: On Humanity’s Response to the Crisis
This one can hit near you, so proceed with caution. But also note that it is one hundred percent worth reading.
At Agustina Bazterrica Tender is the flesh, a virus is decimating the earth’s animal population, rendering almost all creatures inedible. This leads to “The Transition”, which legalizes cannibalism and starts an industry to raise humans for consumption.
Marcos works in a “special meat” factory, as the book dubs them, and a wealthy client offers him a “head”, a human female raised to be eaten. Marcos goes through the stages, wondering if the governments of the world manufactured the virus to wipe out the population and/or make a profit. It attaches itself to the “head” which it now shelters. His father languishes in a house and his sister refuses to offer any help to care for him.
Marcos’ world unfolds around him and he painfully follows a routine to keep his composure. Tender is the flesh strikes close to home for reasons that I hope are tragically obvious. It tackles head-on humanity’s collective response to a world-shaking virus, grappling with the grim issues that arise from a global crisis. This is incredibly prescient news, originally published in 2017.
You probably understood that Tender East Flesh is not for the faint of heart. You need to be in the right frame of mind to read it – understand that, go into it knowing it’s heavy and tough, and it’s easily a five-star read. And at 220 pages, it’s as brief as it is devastating.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke: 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 and thousands of years of human development in the space of 300 pages.
2001 begins with the ancestors of mankind, more ape than man, avoiding predators and searching for food. When the mysterious monolith appears and inspires creatures to throw, strike and hunt, they enter a new era of evolution.
Fast forward to modern times, and humans have arrived on the moon. Traveling to our lunar sibling isn’t exactly common, but it’s doable for the wealthy. Explorers discover another monolith buried under the moon’s surface, and when they find it, a signal is broadcast to Jupiter.
In 2001, astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, along with three crew members suspended in cryo-sleep and the sentient computer HAL 9000, boarded the spacecraft. discovery one on their way to Jupiter in hopes of finding another monolith…and answers about its origin.
From its opening lines to its breathtaking climax, 2001: A Space Odyssey ruminates on the nature of humanity. Who are we and what is our goal? Do we even to have a goal? The novel explores possible answers while leaving plenty of room for interpretation.
To date, I have not read a science fiction story that more effectively shows how small and insignificant we really are on the universal stage. 2001: A Space Odyssey welcomes questions and basks in the uncertainty that pervades our existence. But don’t worry, there’s still a glimmer of hope in the book’s final moments.
What are your favorite little books that offer big ideas and explore important questions? Let me know 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 voraciously reads epic fantasy and science fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with bookworm-like fervor. His favorite books are: The divine cities Robert Jackson Bennett Series, The long way to an angry little planet by Becky Chambers, and The House of the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.