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.
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?