A field guide to fantasy animals

From Book Riot: A field guide to fantasy animals.

Fantasy animals — always a popular topic! A field guide is a little different. In theory, a field guide is the sort of book that lets you rapidly identify animals in the field; eg

This is the book which I flipped through to create names with a consistent sound for the Death’s Lady trilogy. Lots of bats in Borneo, I will add, in case you wondered about that. Of course there are a lot of bats nearly everywhere, as there are about 1400 species altogether.

Anyway! Line drawings and/or color images, with brief descriptions of identifying characteristics. That’s what I expect of a field guide. A bit odd to think of something like that for fantasy animals. Most of us can identify a cat, unicorn, or griffin when we see one. Granted, it can be hard to tell a magical cat from a non-magical cat on first sight. A gray cat with green eyes is probably magic, in my experience.

So, let’s take a look!

Well, not at all to my surprise, this post is not at all a field guild. It’s just a list of some of the author’s favorite animals in fantasy novels. That’s fine, but not at all out of the ordinary.

RACE THE SANDS BY SARAH BETH DURST. That’s a book I either have on my TBR pile or plan to get eventually. Sarah Beth Durst is an author who’s a bit unusual for me. Some of her books I really like, some don’t particularly grab me, and it’s not generally clear to me why any given book of hers works or doesn’t work.

KINGDOM OF EXILES BY MAXYM M MARTINEAU. “Leena Edenfrell has a bestiary and she is not afraid to use it. She loves her beasts, but ever since her exile, she has been forced to sell them on the black market…”

No no no! Wow, that sentence is a major, major turn off for me. Nothing could force me to sell any of my dogs to a bad home, which is what that sentence is making me think of. I mean, nothing imaginable in the real world. I am utterly out of sympathy for this person. I’m not interested in what dire circumstances might have put her in this position. No. Absolutely not.

I see that selling her animals like that is a crime. Good. It should be. Regardless, I’m not touching this book.

Moving on:


It’s funny, in a way, that nothing in this book’s several trigger warnings is remotely as triggering for me as the situation above. Oddly, there is no actual description of the important animal companion found in this book. That is mysterious! Is it that hard to describe? Would describing it constitute a spoiler? I’m baffled. Let me take a look at the description on Amazon … hmm. I see no one is describing this animal companion in any terms other than “bizarre.” I must admit, that’s intriguing.

Quite a few others. Hmm. Six more books listed at the linked post.

Of the lot, this one sounds the most interesting to me:


Yumeko is a kind troublemaker who has a way with fantastical Oni but has never left the monastery. That is until she must protect an ancient scroll. Tatsumi is a deadly warrior who is tasked with killing the world’s monsters and his latest assignment is to retrieve a scroll

Yumeko appears to be a kitsune. I have a definite soft spot for kitsune. As it happens, I also like assassins. I think I’ll add a sample to my kindle. I may read actually try that sample sometime this year; who knows?

Click through to read the whole post.

Meanwhile: MY top five animal companions in fantasy:

1)Jhereg, by Steven Brust.

Loiosh is sidekick enough to let Vlad take center stage, but has enough personality of his own that he doesn’t come across as the dreaded Super Obedient Special Robot Animal Friend. Also, this series has some awesome covers.

2) Temeraire by Naomi Novik. In this case, Temeraire is not a sidekick at all, or not for very long. He’s not an animal companion, exactly. He’s a nonhuman companion, with his own priorities and agenda. Someday I may read the rest of this series, but I liked the first books the best and have not felt much urgency to go through the less-good middle books toward those at the end.

3) The trellwolves, in Monette’s and Bear’s A Companion to Wolves. Viradechtis is very much an animal companion in the classic sense. She doesn’t talk. Even though trellwolves are telepathic, Viradechtis is an actual animal, a trellwolf, not a furry person. While I have problems with the believability of some aspects of the social behavior shown by the trellwolves, in story terms, they work very well. I loved the first two books in this series. The third book disappointed me in various ways, though this was largely because I wanted the story to go in directions it didn’t go. Other readers might very well feel differently.

4) Every dog that ever appeared in a story by Robin McKinley, but perhaps particularly suitable for this post, the hellhound that appears in the story of the same name. I like him for this post because he is not exactly a normal dog, and so far all the animal companions I’ve listed are something different from, more than, ordinary animals.

5) Although I eventually got tired of telepathic cats, I do really like the giant telepathic cats in the Raithskar series by Garrett and Heydron. Partly that’s because I read these before I got tired of telepathic cats in fantasy, but mostly that’s because the authors handle these cats really well. This is another example of an animal sidekick, Keeshah, who has a mind and agenda of his own. Mostly obedient to his human, that obedience has limits, particularly when the human’s ideas push too hard against the cat’s own instincts. Quite well done, and the whole series is well put together. I liked it a lot and have read it quite a few times.

Okay! Which animal companion is your favorite? And is the animal companion a true animal, a nonhuman person, or somewhere in between?

Please Feel Free to Share:


9 thoughts on “A field guide to fantasy animals”

  1. favorite? probably the nighthorses as a class. Burn probably of the bunch.

    I can tell you it is not going to be a cat, I am thoroughly sick of cats being ‘special.”

  2. Oh yes, Elaine, I love the nighthorses (especially Burn) though I would never want to partner with one!

    I like all of McKinley’s animal companions, especially in her early books — Talat and Sungold/Tsornin and Narknon. They behave exactly like very smart & loyal animals, but they’re not at all humans on four legs. Doranna Durgin also does excellent magical animals who still think & behave mostly like animals, particularly in Dun Lady’s Jess (where a horse gets turned into a human, and doesn’t like it), and A Feral Darkness (which has an epileptic corgi who might be pre-cognitive).

    I can’t think of many recent books with animal companions though — all my examples are from the 80s and 90s. I have a suspicion they may be considered old-fashioned / out of date these days, which is a shame. I love them! If you ever wanted to write a book with multiple King Charles Cavalier spaniels… ;)

  3. Not quite fantasy, but I love Cub in Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’. He is so thoroughly wolfish, while being totally devoted to Marcus.
    In a genre-bending sci-fi YA by Timothy Zahn called ‘Dragon and Thief’, there’s a delightful dragon companion. Since the dragon is an honorable warrior-poet, and his chosen-by-circumstance host is a petty thief, a really interesting relationship develops.
    I agree, I love Robin McKinley’s animal companions.

  4. When this came up last time, Bansh (Pillars of the Sky) was probably my favorite. Nothing has changed. Elizabeth Bear does great animals–the Jackals in Bone and Jewel Creatures are good, too.

  5. Kathryn McConaughy

    Despite what y’all said about cats…
    Some of the cats in Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windless. Very different from most of his other work in tone. Also, Harry’s dog Mouse in the final novella in Brief Cases.

  6. I immediately thought of Cloud’s Rider too! Haven’t read that book for years and years, but still sticks in my memory. As for cats, Greebo was pretty good.

  7. I thought of Bansh, but by the time I thought of her, I already had five and thought I’d better stop before it turned into an endless list.

    I like Cloud a lot, but I didn’t much care for the actual books — that always pushes me away from including the nighthorses when I do a list like this.

    Mary Beth, yes, absolutely, I love Tsornin and McKinley’s other horses … and cats … and dogs. She does wonderful animals, and if I had to pick another favorite of hers, maybe the dogs in Deerskin. They are such believable dogs!

  8. I like the elvensteeds in Mercedes Lackey’s Bedlam’s Bard and SERRAted Edge books. There are some continuity issues, so their exact abilities and sentience varies, but they are pretty smart, loyal, extremely fast, and can turn themselves into any kind of vehicle. So incredibly practical! You have a horse that can be a car or a motorbike or a jet ski or whatever you need without added costs. They don’t use petrol so I guess they are environmentally friendly too. :)

    Also the fae wolves in Annette Marie’s Guild Codex books are kind of cool.

  9. First one that came to mind was Lying Cat from the Saga comics – he can only say one word, but does so to great effect (if someone lies in his presence he says “lying”).

    The Tortall books have a few really good animal companions, particularly the wild magic series’ wolf pack.

    Lots of good animal characters in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books, but not sure if I have a particular favorite.

    Also, oddly partial to the water horses in Scorpio Races, even if they’d happily murder me.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top