When we think "fantasy," we usually think
big: enormous castles besieged by large dragons, sweeping, multi-generational epics about kingdoms and queendoms, and hefty, hardcover book series that seem to go on forever. Fantasy fiction tends to work well on a large scale, with plenty of room for world-building and grand adventures. But when a fantasy short story is done well, it's done really well. Fantasy stories only have so much space to create entire universes and systems of magic, and then deliver a satisfying conclusion. So fantasy writers working with low word counts have to be all the more creative about their imaginary worlds. Here are some of the best fantasy stories that you can read online, for free, right now.
Of course, when it comes to fantasy, it's not all dragons and hobbits and games of thrones. These fantasy tales run the gamut. Here you'll find stories about werewolves' daughters going to finishing school, scenes of magic on the wintry Boston transit system, and at least one guide to the ogres of East Africa. And all of these short stories can be read on a lunch break or while crammed onto the commuter train, to add just a little more magic to your day:
"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell
"The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin creates strange and beautiful cities in her fantasy novels, like
The Broken Earth Trilogy and The Inheritance Trilogy. But in "The City Born Great," she re-creates a city you may have heard of before: New York. In this inventive tale, New York has grown old enough that it is time for it to be "born," but only if one reluctant midwife can keep its ancient enemies at bay.
"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman
You can hardly talk about fantasy short stories without talking about
. The story American Gods author Neil Gaiman "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is classic Gaiman from start to finish: It's a dark journey to find a terrible truth, with plenty of magic and ancient myth along the way. If you want more Neil Gaiman after reading through this short tale, try his novels, or one of the many film and TV adaptations of his work, including Stardust, Coraline, American Gods, and Good Omens.
"As Good As New" by Charlie Jane Anders
The "three wishes" is a trope as old as fantasy itself — you know the one. Someone is granted three wishes, and they inevitably choose unwisely, and everything goes to hell. In
"As Good as New", Charlie Jane Anders — author of and All the Birds in the Sky — puts a new spin on the whole genie-in-the-bottle thing with this wholly original story, set after the end of the world. When you're the last human on earth, after all, you have to be careful with what you wish for. The City in the Middle of the Night
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula Le Guin
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" exists somewhere between fantasy and speculative fiction. Without spoiling too much, it's a lovely, horrifying story that builds a utopian city of dreams and then asks us to consider the hidden costs of a "perfect" world. Who suffers so that others can live out their fantasies? It's classic Ursula K. Le Guin, and after reading it, you'll definitely want to check out some of her novels, including her iconic work The Left Hand of Darkness.
"One True Love" by Malinda Lo
Princes and princesses and true love are all staples of the high fantasy genre. In
"One True Love," a little princess is born in the midst of tragedy. Even worse, a prophecy at her birth foretells that if she ever finds her elusive "one true love," it shall be the downfall of the king. And if you've ever read a princess story before, you already know that prophecies are not so easily prevented. Malinda Lo, the author of Ash , is known for her retellings that challenge the status quo, and if that sounds like something up your alley, you'll be hooked on this story and her novels.
'The Snow Train' by Ken Liu
"The Snow Train" is a departure from kings and princesses in far away realms. And by that I mean, it's set in Boston. A story about snow and magical transit systems (and a little bit about the American Dream), The Snow Train takes one young boy from his foster home to a very surreal train ride. It'll put you in a very particular mood — one that you won't be able to break free from for quite a while.
'Ogres of East Africa' by Sofia Samatar
If you like ogres, inventive storytelling formats, or the brilliant mind of Sofia Samatar, then you're going to want to drop everything and read
"Ogres of East Africa." It's a story told through an ogre cataloger's notes, and it's sheer creative genius. As the author learns more about the lives of ogres, we gradually learn about his own life, too.
'The Smallest Dragonboy' by Anne McCaffrey
If you don't automatically want to read a story entitled
" The Smallest Dragonboy," then I just don't know what to tell you. Anne McCaffrey is the undisputed queen of kid-and-dragon fiction (sorry, George R.R. Martin), and this is a delightful short installment of her fantasy/sci-fi series set on the dragon-filled planet of Pern. And if you simply need more Anna McCaffrey after reading it, some other famous fantasy authors have recommendations for you.
'Seasons of Glass and Iron' by Amal El–Mohtar
Some of the best fantasy takes old fairy tales and gives them a fresh twist.
" Seasons of Glass and Iron" is exactly that: Tabitha and Amira are both trapped in different tales. Tabitha must march around the world until she wears out seven pairs of iron shoes, and Amira sits atop a glass mountain, waiting for her prince. But when Tabitha accidentally climbs Amira's mountain, both stories go flying off the rails.
'Godmeat' by Martin Cahill
"Godmeat" so... you know... proceed at your own risk and read at your own discretion. But if the idea of murdering ancient godlike beasts and then cutting them up into steaks appeals to your fantasy brain, then does literally mean "god meat," Godmeat is the creepy, weird, wildly imaginative story for you (just maybe don't read it while eating).
You may have noticed that many of these stories appeared in the same literary journals. If you're in the mood for more fantasy short stories, you might want to consider buying copies of
or Uncanny Magazine Lightspeed Magazine. This post was originally published on May 16, 2018. It was updated on June 6, 2019.