The Most Perfect SFF Novels Ever Published

I commented recently that The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip was one of the most perfect fantasy novels ever published. As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely true. This is a novel that definitely belongs on any top ten list of best fantasy novels. By the way, it’s only 140 pp, according to Amazon, so it also falls into the different category of really excellent SFF novels that are under 200 pages. I should do a different top ten list about that later. Actually, being short can help lift a book into the perfect category because a short novel that really works is probably beautifully structured. That’s why it can work at that length.

But I want to add, I don’t exactly mean “perfect.” I think I mean something more like “perfectly beautiful.” Each of these stories is a lovely, polished gem. The plotting is tight, the language is lovely, and the themes are, for lack of a better word, uplifting. Some of these stories are sad. But, no matter how well-written or tightly structured a story might be, if it is grim or grimdark, it’s not on this list.

These are in no particular order. I mean, how can you order stories that are all practically perfect? I just put them on the list in the order they occurred to me. Also, I’m noting the page numbers because I realized partway through that all of these are relatively short; some are very short. Page count is of course an imperfect proxy for wordcount, but it’s what book descriptions offer, so that’s what I’m using.

So, onward:

Top Ten Most Perfectly Beautiful SFF Novels Ever Published

1) The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip. 142 pp. I don’t even know what to say about this beautifully crafted, elegantly told story. McKillip at her best. This isn’t her most poetic title — that might be Moonflash. Or, wait, no, Fool’s Run. And I don’t know whether this is my favorite of her novels; it’s near the top, but it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. But it’s tightly plotted and lovely and overall possibly the most perfect.

2) The Book of Atrix Wolfe, also by Patricia McKillip. 254 pp. This one isn’t as tightly plotted, but somehow it works just as well. It’s more powerful and perhaps more poignant. The silence of the central character — not really the protagonist — anyway, her silence is the still point around which the entire story turns.

3) The Truth-Teller’s Tale by Sharon Shinn. 308 pp.

4) The Shape-Changer’s Wife, also by Sharon Shinn. 226 pp.

5) The Last Unicorn by, of course, Peter S Beagle. For some reason, this book is not listed in any form on Amazon. This link goes to Barnes and Noble, where one can find the book without any difficulty. But only in paper. 304 pp. Ah, here’s the same paper edition on Amazon, so it does exist, it was just very difficult to find. Okay, Google informs me that Beagle reclaimed the rights to various of his books in 2021. I bet those books are all in limbo at the moment. One would think it would be super, super easy for him to simply re-publish everything, but I guess there is some sort of holdup.

All right, moving on, and I trust no other book on this list will be so difficult to acquire …

6) The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen. I’m torn because my personal favorite is The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and I have a deep soft spot for my first of Allen’s books, which was The Peach Keeper. But to pick out one as perfect is difficult. I finally settled on this one. 290 pp.

By the way, I see that Sarah Addison Allen has a new book scheduled for release this fall: Other Birds. I have not been as impressed by her most recent titles, but I will certainly want to take a look at this one.

7) Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. 288 pp. This one is different, because it is perfect, but it is also one of the rare stories that offers no significant character arc for either Number Ten Ox or Master Li. It’s like a perfect puzzle with elegant writing, but it’s not … what’s the word I’m looking for … it’s not intense. This is probably a good choice if you’d like a very low-tension story. I can’t imagine a reader being in any doubt about the eventual triumph of the good guys.

8) The Tombs of Atuan. For whatever reason, although LeGuin’s writing is amazing, I don’t personally like most of her books very much. However, I do love this one. It’s 196 pp.

9) Cuckoo’s Egg by CJC. I found myself running out of fantasy, thought of SF, and immediately this title leaped to mind. It’s one of my favorites of CJC’s novels. 320 pp, but that’s still extremely short compared to doorstoppers like Downbelow Station. This is a tightly plotted little masterpiece of a novel. This one and The Book of Atrix Wolfe have two of my very favorite ending lines in all of SFF. Very highly recommended.

10) The Scapegoat by CJC. Once I thought of Cherryh, I couldn’t help but include this powerful novella. It’s just about 70 pp long, so tiny in comparison with everything else here. Very much worth picking up, though you’ll have to get a collection of stories in order to get this one.

There you go, there’s my current list for perfect SFF novels. They’re all short. I know page numbers are an imperfect measure of wordcount, but nothing here is much over 300 pp, many are much shorter, and I do think that’s an asset. One could argue — no doubt various people have argued — that for example Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel is perfect. It’s certainly impressive. It’s also very, very, very slow-paced, which one might expect as it’s 850 pp long. That sure gives the author room to stretch out and take her time, which she does. I will add, when everything (finally!) comes together at the end, it’s with the effect of crashing cymbals at the end of a beautiful piece of music. Stunning. But there’s almost no chance I’ll ever read or listen to this again.

If you were picking out one SFF novel as perfect, what would it be? And is it short, or have you gone for length in your choices?

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16 thoughts on “The Most Perfect SFF Novels Ever Published”

  1. I would have included a Martha Wells book: “Death of a Necromancer” or “Wheel of the Infinite.”
    Elizabeth Bear’s Steles of the Sky is a trilogy, or it’d be another, as is Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen”.

  2. Pete, I personally found the ending of Wheel of the Infinite a bit weak. If not for that, I might agree with you there. As it is, I prefer The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy — I felt the ending really landed for that one. I can’t think of much that didn’t work for me in that series. I should give some thought to “practically perfect series” as a different category.

    For Death of a Necromancer — hmm. Maybe, but there was an awful lot of time spent underground in tunnels and sewers and catacombs and whatnot. That’s true for Tombs of Atuan as well, of course, but I actually got impatient with the catacombs in the former, but not in the latter.

  3. Laurie Marks’ Fire Logic/Earth Logic. I go back and forth as to which novel I like better, but together the two of them make about as perfect a story as I’ve ever read.

  4. I wonder if there’s more to the short-books trend here than just a long book having more chances to go wrong? I wouldn’t hesitate to declare LORD OF THE RINGS the best fantasy, and a great book full stop, but it isn’t flawless.

    On the other hand, as an initial reaction I think WATERSHIP DOWN probably is perfect, though it’s quite a bit longer than the other books listed here. (I suppose purists could also debate whether it’s SFF within the meaning of the act.)

  5. Alison, I’ve got Fire Logic buried somewhere in the depths of my TBR pile — maybe I ought to move it up a bit.

    Craig, it’s definitely fantasy as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure I’d call it perfect, but it’s certainly right up there.

  6. I second ‘Abhorsen’, which is beautiful and strange and SO GOOD. Except, you’re right, it is a trilogy. But Sabriel as a single self-contained book is probably as close to perfect as any book could be – if dark at times.
    If we’re talking single shortish stories, I would say either The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, or The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss. Both of them are incredibly lovely, and both are short, at 240 and 149 pages respectively.
    I would also add Chalice by Robin McKinley.

  7. You may have to read Earth Logic after Fire Logic to get a real sense of how perfect the story is. The two books are as profound an anti war statement as I’ve ever read. Love the cook in the second book.

    I love all of Sharon Shinn’s books, and her trilogy for young adults is great. I understand she has a new book coming out?

  8. I’d nominate Scorpio Races; love the setting and characters. It feels like you could really go there

  9. I loved The Scorpio Races and really ought to re-read it.

    I agree about Chalice! That’s such a warm story.

    Alison, yes, she said she’s working with a smaller press to bring out something. I’m not sure what it is. She was working on a novel that was more complex and had a lot of characters, but I’m not sure whether she’s finished that yet. I’m sure she’ll let me know when the book comes out, and you can bet I’ll mention it right away.

  10. To me, the most perfect fantasy novel is The Curse of Chalion by Lois Mcmaster Bujold. I love the moral depth of the characters, the delightfully imagined world, and especially the way the plot loops around to make the beginning essential to the conclusion and ties the whole thing tightly together.

    I also love Sharon Shinn (my favourite there is Troubled Waters) and am very glad for news of a new book :) Guy Gavriel Kay puts a high polish on all his books, but in my opinion some are little too contrived (though still excellent). The one of his I think comes closest to perfect is A Song for Arbonne, again because of the satisfaction of the tying up of theme and plot. I have hopes that Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles may be a perfect book in 3 long volumes when it is finally complete.

    So I guess my taste for perfection tends toward longer stories. Though it does give them more chances to go wrong, when it’s done right and the plot and theme is tied tightly together, the extra length just gives them more scope for greatness.

  11. I have to agree with The Curse of Chalion and A Song for Arbonne- also The Hallowed Hunt is up there. They are all great novels. Patricia McKillip writes beautiful books but I’m not sure they have the emotional heft that Lois McMaster Bukold and GGK and even Sharon Shinn bring to their books. I would include Rachel and Andrea Hosts books as those I reread over and over – does that make them perfect?

  12. Highly re-readable may not mean perfect, but it’s a huge complement, so thank you!

    I think I know what you mean about McKillip; her books are stylistically so beautiful, but that might sometimes shift them from emotional toward intellectual. But I find that they do have a … not sure how to put this … a quiet profundity that sets certain moments apart. For me, the end of The Book of Atrix Wolfe offers that kind of moment. So does the interaction between the dragon and the king in The Cygnet and the Firebird. And between Luna Pellinor and Caladrius/Rook at the end of Song for the Basilisk. Lots of moments that make me pause and close my eyes in appreciation.

    The Curse of Chalion is way up at the top, I agree. It’s longer, but tightly plotted. Interesting to think about longer books with truly tight plots. This is one.

  13. If I were picking a Bujold, it would probably be either Paladin of Souls or Memory. I like the Curse of Chalion and it’s probably time I reread it, but I love Ista’s arc from Paladin so much. Memory probably leans to much on the books before it to stand alone.

    Wheel of the Infinite would be on my list. The ending is calm, but I don’t find it weak. I love the feeling of life continuing.

    I would include Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. It’s the second in the Enchanted Forest series, but you don’t have to have read the first. It is aimed at a younger audience but I deeply enjoy it as an adult. It does such a good job balancing the enjoyment of fairy tale tropes with subverting them, and developing a romance without letting go of the action parts of the plot, and creating deeply enjoyable secondary characters.

    Last year I discovered The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard and I can’t tell you how much I love it. It is long and does have a slow pace, especially at the beginning, but still works wonderfully for me.

  14. OtterB, I forgot about Wrede’s Dragon books, but they’re great and I should re-read them. I can easily imagine that I’d agree with you about including one on a list like this. I read them as an adult and agree that they’re wonderful for younger readers or adults.

    I loved Paladin of Souls, but I don’t think it’s as tightly plotted as The Curse of Chalion.

    I KNOW, RIGHT? That’s definitely how I feel about The Hands of the Emperor. FAR from perfect, but I love it to pieces. Supposedly Goddard is working on a direct sequel. I sure hope so.

  15. Off topic – I just wanted to leave a note about how glad I am I found this blog. Rachel (by her own great writing) has attracted a community with the most excellent taste in books! (ie. Just like mine) I discovered Andrea K Host and Martha Wells through this site, and almost all my other favourite new reads have been recommendations in here.
    This thread has provided some more I’m eager to try. Thank you all!

  16. Thank you, Melanie! I’ve gotten most of my new-to-me suggestions for authors and books from commenters here for years. It’s truly excellent to have built a community of readers with similar tastes.

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