We’ve all imagined what it would be like to find out that magic exists for real. To be in on a wondrous secret that is beautiful, terrifying or, most likely, some combination of the two. Contemporary fantasy plays with this idea. Most of us need a little escapism, especially during quarantine, but some contemporary fantasy takes us even further than that. Adding magic doesn’t necessarily remove the problems of mundanity; it can twist them just enough to expose new ways of looking at the same issues.
If you’re looking for a fresh perspective, some good clean paranormal fun, or a combination of the two, contemporary fantasy has you covered.
Contemporary Fantasy Books That Are Must-Reads!
1. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
When Bree enrolls in a new school, all she wants is a new start. She doesn’t expect to discover a secret society made up of descendants of King Arthur and his court, most of whom are white and wealthy. Although her own magic may have different roots, she is pulled into their club, torn between two dreamy guys (noble Nick and mysterious Selwyn), and forced to reckon with the notion of legacy in ways that her white peers never will be.
2. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
Alexis’s prom night hookup goes spectacularly, horrifically wrong. Thankfully, her coven is there to pick up the pieces. Or, in this case, the body parts. Alexis wrestles with the implications of magic powers that have brought her a tight-knit group of friends, but have also caused terrible harm to an innocent boy. Each witch’s power works a little bit differently, and it’s both a wondrous joy and a heavy responsibility that they carry with them. Pick this one up for the ride or die friendships and Alexis’s heart-meltingly tender crush on her best friend, Roya.
3. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
The fantasy elements here are less misty-eyed enchantment, more straight-up horror. Roma and Juliette belong to rival gangs in 1920s China. (Forgive me for playing fast and loose with the word “contemporary.”) But when people start dying seemingly by their own hands, Roma and Juliette suspect that there is something even more sinister at play. A beast walks the streets of Shanghai, and this may just be the common ground that bring the two of them back together, the way they used to be.
4. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
City of Bones launched the beloved world of the Shadowhunters, and we have never been the same. It all starts with Clary, a seemingly ordinary girl who barely escapes a demon attack with the help of a mysterious and handsome stranger. But it’s not all swoony monster hunters and newfound powers. The threat of demons is growing, and Clary’s mother is missing. She will have to join this secret cadre of supernatural warriors if she and the Shadowhunters are going to have a hope of setting things right. If you love this book as much as we do, great news! You have a whole new expansive world to explore.
5. Daughters of Jubilation by Kara Lee Corthron
Like all of her mothers before her, Evvie has magical abilities that her family calls jubilation. Jubing is one of the few protections that Black southerners have against the racism that pervades their lives under Jim Crow. (Again, this one isn’t strictly contemporary, but it’s sadly all too relevant today.) But her power starts to feel more like a curse when she’s lauded as a hero for narrowly avoiding a harm of her own making and starts seeing a vision of a tall man who threatens her, her family, and the lives they’ve made for themselves. Evvie’s voice is so distinctive that you will swear she’s your best friend and hope she pulls through okay…even when you can feel the dread building.
6. Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Ok so technically this falls more into the sci-fi category, but it’s so good you don’t want to miss it! Sia’s mom was deported, then went missing while making the trek back to the US to reunite with her family. Now, Sia lives with her dad, is getting close with a sweet guy at school, and is surviving. She drives out to the desert at night to mourn her mom, but what if there’s a chance her mom will find a way back to her after all? Short chapters, lyrical language, and a deft shift from straight contemporary into something otherworldly make this a standout that you won’t want to miss.
7. Slayer by Kiersten White
Calling all Buffy fans! If you’ve ever wondered who the Slayer is today, you have to meet Nina. Nina grew up at the Watcher’s Academy, which trains teens to be future guides for Slayers. Her mom is a member of the Watcher’s Council, but Nina has always been more of a healer than a fighter. So she’s totally shocked when she becomes not only the Chosen One, but she’s destined to be the last Slayer ever. Sharp-eyed fans of the original series will spot cameos from a few old favorites, but the new characters will win your heart just the same.
8. The Past and Other Things that Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson
When Dino’s friend July dies, he expects that he will never get the closure he needed. But don’t worry Dino—you’re in a contemporary fantasy book! July comes back as a zombie-esque walking corpse, and Dino is there to help her figure out how to move on—and get a second chance at the closure they know they both need. It’s body horror and a moving meditation on friendships that change over time. What more could you ask for?
9. The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell
Esta travels back in time to 1902 New York to save magic before it dies out completely. In modern day, she’s a skilled thief with the ability to manipulate time, so she’s the only one for the job. With secret societies, old-timey gangs of New York, and the sinister Order on her trail, Esta has her work cut out for her. Luckily, she meets a sweet cinnamon roll of a boy named Harte who just might steal her heart, and they banter their way through a slow burn that will steal yours. The author calls it “magical Newsies without the singing,” and that’s honestly all she had to say.
10. Tithe by Holly Black
The great Holly Black’s debut novel Tithe set the standard for morally gray yet terribly romantic fae/human love stories. Kaye has always been able to see faeries—but nobody believes her. One day, while wandering in the woods, she comes across a beautiful fae prince who has been shot with an arrow. She saves his life, but with Holly Black’s wicked, tricksy fairies, she’s not going to get a happy ending that easily. Kaye’s choice will have dire consequences as she becomes an unwilling pawn in an ancient and vicious power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms.
11. The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Every year in a small seaside town, three girls become possessed by three spirits, sisters long since dead, and they drown boys in the harbor until the season is over. Penny has learned to accept this, but her attachment to the new boy, Bo, makes this year more complicated. Sure enough, it isn’t long before a boy is found dead in the water. Penny is desperate to figure out which girls are possessed before they hurt Bo. Eerie, atmospheric, and romantic, this book will haunt you long after you turn the final page.
12. The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World by Amy Reed
Billy and Lydia are two loners in a small rural town. When they meet by chance, highly unusual phenomena start happening around them. An impossible tornado. An all-consuming fog. A war between dragons and unicorns come to life out of a popular book series. Their friendship seems to be changing the very structure of reality. Given Lydia’s dad’s distance and Billy’s grandma’s abuse, maybe that’s a good thing. The bleakness of their real lives contrasts with the whimsy of the fabulism that just might save them both.