10 Great Magical Books for Adults


We’re just as excited as the next guy over the news that J.K. Rowling is writing a novel for adults, and like everyone else, we’re dying to know all the details. Rowling, however, is keeping a tight lid, which leaves us to sit around and speculate, an activity, to be fair, that we rather enjoy. While we don’t know if her new novel is slated to include any magic at all, we like to imagine that it will — after all, she is rather practiced at writing it — but we hope it won’t be another straight-up fantasy novel. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of wonderful and magical books for adults to inspire the great Ms. Rowling (and tide us over!). Now, don’t get us wrong: while there are plenty of fantasy books for adults — Lev Grossman has made a recent splash with his magical college novel The Magicians and its recent sequel The Magician King, and we don’t think anyone would argue that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is for children, here we’re focusing on non-genre books (that is, not strictly fantasy or sci-fi) that nevertheless manage to include some awe-inspiring magic. Click through to read our list of ten great works of literary fiction that just happen to have a little magic in them, and if we’ve left off your favorite fantastical book for grown-ups, do let us know in the comments!

The Master and Margarita , Mikhail Bulgakov

In this hilarious, lip-lickingly sinister novel, the Devil visits 1930’s Moscow and stirs up some serious mischief. Satan and his pals, including the gun-toting, back-talking giant cat known as Behemoth, harass the pretentious literary elite and the newly rich, seek to add a new member to their retinue, and cause general mayhem among the public. Though the magic in this novel is inherent in its premise, we are particularly fond of the magic show the Devil puts on at the Variety Theatre, which ends in women running nakedly through the street, their money evaporating, and Behemoth giggling.

The Tempest , William Shakespeare

In the most magical of Shakespeare’s plays (save, of course, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which could also have made this list) Prospero, the exiled sorcerer and Duke of Milan, has been stranded on an island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda, whom he dearly wishes to restore to her rightful place in society, their deformed servant Caliban, and the spirit Ariel. Though the play takes its title from the storm Prospero conjures to exact his revenge, the story is really about the magic of something much more mundane and poignant: the relationship between father and daughter, what each wishes for the other, and what happens when the latter grows up.

Like Water for Chocolate , Laura Esquivel

We all know that food can have an enormous effect on people — and we even like to tell ourselves that the way we cook food can have an effect on the taste. After all, cookies really do seem to be a little bit better when they’re “made with love,” don’t they? But in Esquivel’s novel, fifteen year old Tita cooks up a few magical dishes indeed, accidentally infusing the food she makes with her feelings, and influencing the people who eat it in more than subtle ways — stay away from that quail in rose petal sauce, we’re warning you.

Aurorarama , Jean-Christophe Valtat

The National described this novel as “what Jules Verne would write if woken from the dead and offered a dose of mushrooms,” which may even be understating the point a bit. Set in the alternative-reality Arctic city of New Venice, an unexplained airship looming in the sky above, the novel blends magic, allegory surreal adventures, and women who won’t stay dead to whip up a lush phantasmagoria of literary delight.

Mr. Fox , Helen Oyeyemi

In Oyeyemi’s prismatic retelling of the Bluebeard fable, author St. John Fox is ensnared in a love triangle between his wife, Daphne, and his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe. However, over the course of the book’s linked narratives, it soon becomes clear that Mary Foxe is quite a bit more than imaginary, even if she’s a little bit less than actual — she’s a fairy tale character, a muse, a ghost, a spirit. However, Oyeyemi is quick to undercut her own story’s magic — in one episode, Mary’s lover beheads her upon her request, as she believes that the act will turn her into a princess. “That is not what happened,” Oyeyemi tells us.

One Hundred Years of Solitude , Gabriel García Márquez

Perhaps the most famous work of magical realism in the modern canon, Márquez’s masterpiece has its roots in myth and symbols — symbols like the ghosts that visit the characters throughout the novel — and constantly juxtaposes the supernatural with the literal, weaving a beautiful story of love and time and family across generations. Here, the magic is just as figurative as it is literal.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , Haruki Murakami

In this strange, lush novel, the magic might be construed as dreams, or the dreams as magic. It’s unclear — the novel constantly has one foot in the illusory and one in the actual, a stance that, as uncomfortable as it may be, makes for some wonderful prose. If you accept, however, as we did when we read the book, that what happens to manchild Toru Okada at the bottom of the well has some basis in reality (at least in the world of the novel), then that seems like some serious magic to us. Unless there’s a trapdoor or something.

The House of the Spirits , Isabel Allende

Another sweeping family epic with magical undertones, this novel follows the Trueba family over four generations. Clara, the youngest daughter, is clairvoyant and telekinetic, predicting the future (even the death of her green-haired sister Rosa the Beautiful) and eventually communicating with the dead.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell , Susanna Clarke

There may be some contention as to whether this novel is a “fantasy” novel or not — but for our money it’s in a completely different category than classical fantasy literature like The Lord of the Rings. Clarke herself has said, “I think the novel is viewed as something new … blending together a few genres – such as fantasy and adventure and pastiche historical – plus there’s the whole thing about slightly knowing footnotes commenting on the story.” Indeed, the early-nineteenth century tale is like historical fiction, with just a few spellbooks thrown in for good measure, and is much more concerned with the tension between reason and madness than the typical fantasy fight between good and evil. And it’s definitely for grownups.

Midnight’s Children , Salman Rushdie

In Rushdie’s novel, when India became an independent country at midnight on August 15th, 1947, all of the one thousand and one children born in India’s first hour of independence were imbued with special magic, the potency of their powers increasing the closer they were born to midnight. Saleem Sinai was one of only two children born on the exact stroke of midnight — the other, of course, becomes his nemesis. Saleem, using his considerable telepathic powers, must call a Midnight Children’s Conference to discover their talents and to save the nation.