8 Decades of SFF with Low, Intimate Stakes

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8 Decades of SFF with Low, Intimate Stakes

Every so often on Twitter, I see people talking about a desire for low stakes SFF. As a writer and reader who loves these stories, it always fills me with a tinge of sadness to know that people genuinely want these stories (the tweets come from readers, agents, publishers, authors, so basically everyone) and still feel they often get lost in the more well-known books with large, epic stakes.

Book series such as A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones), The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time or, more recently books such as The Poppy War or series like The Sacred Throne where the stakes revolve around saving the world (or not). Where the characters struggle to win a throne (or destroy the throne entirely). Stories that lend themselves to a lot of action or at least several impressive battle scenes.

Very often, though, if you look closely at the way a lot of people discuss these books, it’s not the big stakes that form the central plot that people care about. Look at, for example, the fan commentary leading up to the release of Game of Thrones’s final TV season and the discussion about what the ending may be. While we all care about who sits on the Iron Throne, many of us do so not because we have care overly much about the future of countless of unnamed Westerosi. We care because the show made us care about these characters as individuals. It presented us these big, world-shaking moments and turned them into deeply, intensely personal stakes for the characters which, in turn, means we’re invested in their success (or failure) as individuals rather than out of any kind of concern for the good of Westeros as a whole. For another example that needs little elaboration: if the much smaller and personal stakes didn’t matter, The Lord of the Rings would have ended shortly after Sauron is defeated. But they matter and so it doesn’t.

Books that celebrate smaller, more intimate stakes (and shout-out to Eric Smith for introducing me to the phrasing!) and eschew focusing on the larger stakes, though, can feel like they’re far and few between or like they never existed in the first place, which is a shame because people have always written these types of stories too, even won acclaim with them.

As such, the last time I saw this mentioned, I asked my Twitter timeline if I should do a thread of books focusing on smaller stakes. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ and I made a thread that evening. But Twitter threads get lost to the ether quite easily and I wanted to have a record of these for future reference. So, here I am, writing an introduction a post collecting the stories I mentioned in that Twitter thread for ease of reference for everyone.

Like I said at the time, my definition for inclusion on the list is two-fold:

  • No galaxy/world/kingdom-changing plot unless it’s the B-plot (and ideally a C-plot).
  • The book must have been memorable to me for its small stakes.

And, yes, that means pretty much all the books on this list are books I’ve read. It also means that I have a clearly defined limit I can use to err on the side of caution. This isn’t a complete list of all the books I’ve read which centre around small, intimate stakes. It’s just a list of the books that stood out to me at the time I made the thread.

Caveat: Due to the fact that I read some of these a long time ago, it is possible that the most detail I can give a book is “Well, I remember the small stakes being very powerful and gripping”.

For this list, I’ve decided to break the books up into decades just to illustrate that they have, indeed, always been published. That said, this list leans heavily towards modern SFF due to my own interests and desires not to link authors more than, at most, twice.

Without further ado, let’s look at books with intimate stakes in SFF fiction!

1920s

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees may contain a quest to save a city, but it’s far more a quest of a father determined to save his child. It’s a story of ordinary people trying to do what seems right to them.

The Charwoman’s Shadow by Lord Dunsany a story about a young man who, in wanting to learn sorcery, discovers an old woman with no shadow and sets out to solve the mystery.

We’re skipping the 1930s, yes.

1940s

Iron and Gold by Hilda Vaughan may be hard to track down – I’m not sure if the Honno edition is still in print, but I highly recommend it – but it’s an intimate retelling of The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach and captures the Welsh landscape breathtakingly well.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake may seem like an odd choice. It is, after all, a chunkster, but it is a quiet book filled with love for the setting and the characters as they live their lives.

We’re skipping the 50s too.

1960s

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle likely needs no introduction, but for those who need it: this is the story of a unicorn who is looking for others of her kind. It has some of the subtlest, quietest narrative strands. There isn’t a part of this lyrical book that isn’t understated.

The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fairy story which may hold echoes of epic fantasy, but it’s largely focused on the exploration of Faery and the celebration in Wootton Major.

The Owl Service by Alan Gardner is a retelling of Blodeuwedd, centring itself in its Welsh valley setting and the way the narrative of Blodeuwedd keeps playing over and over and the generational trauma that that causes.

1970s

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper is technically the third in a series that is all about big and epic stakes, but this book is super-focused on the relationship between Jane and the Greenwitch, as well as the importance of kindness from one individual to another. The emphasis is strongly on the low and intimate stakes rather than the battle between good and evil.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula LeGuin is, first and foremost, a story about identity, but also about stepping out into the world and living on one’s own terms.

Beauty by Robin McKinley is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and focuses strongly on Beauty’s life with delightful references to domesticity and focusing on the way Beauty and her family settles into their new lives.

1980s

Seaward by Susan Cooper, which is admittedly one of my favourite books ever, is all about growing up in gorgeous, lush mythology and has the sweetest first love arc ever. It’s all about its two protagonists dealing with grief and personal loss as well as discovering who they are.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip is all about a fisherman’s daughter who curses the sea for taking her father from her. It focuses strongly on her friendship with the prince and a magician the village hires to help them once monsters show up off-shore. It’s just as much about Peri growing up as it is discovering what draws the prince to the sea again and again.

Little, Big by John Crowley is a generational story about a family that lives right beside an otherworld with lyrical prose and subtle touches of magic throughout.

Wise Child by Monica Furlong is a story set in a quiet, medieval Scottish village. Wise Child focuses on the importance of every day life and accepting people for who they are.

1990s

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox is a story about the love between a vintner and an angel. Focusing on their meetings, it includes many glimpses into Sobran's life as well.

Wizards Tale by Kurt Busiek and David Wenzel is about a wizard who really wants to be bad and just... keeps on doing good.

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip is a retelling of Tam Lin and it’s one of the dreamiest, most lyrical retellings I’ve had. This story is all about Rois’s love for Corbet Lynn and the way that love and lust can consume a person.

2000s

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint is… A book I admit I genuinely do not recall except thinking it focuses on low stakes. I’m informed a lot of De Lint’s novels actually have bigger stakes, but I mostly remember them because of their smaller stakes. His works absolutely centre the more intimate stakes that one would expect from a list about books focusing on low, intimate stakes.

Fitcher’s Brides by Gregory Frost is a mash-up retelling of Bluebeard and Fitcher’s Bird, set in 1800s New York State. It’s focused on the Charter sisters and their choices when their father is swayed to join a cult.

Tooth & Claw by Jo Walton is a fantasy-of-manners with cannibalistic dragons. Being a fantasy-of-manners, the story is all about social structure.

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier is about Caitrin finding a new home. There are some elements of larger stakes, as the story is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that focuses as much on the people cursed with the Beast than on the romance between the titular characters, but at its heart it’s a story about individual people learning to trust and to love.

2010s

A Promise Broken by Lynn E. O’Connacht (that’s me!) focuses on a small girl dealing with grief as well as on the community looking after her (and other children). There are some relatively big stakes in the background, but it’s Eiryn and her relationships to the people around her that are what makes this story tick.

Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis is actually about a nation-changing event, but the focus is so strongly on Cassandra learning she does not have to do everything alone and on saving her school that it totally counts. It’s all about Cassandra and her relationship to the people at her new school and her family, as well as family secrets that end up uncovered.

The Mermarium by Amanda N. Butler is a verse novel about mermaids and sisterhood and found family. It's a quiet, evocative story about dealing with trauma and healing.

Water into Wine by Joyce Chng features big stakes in the background, but it's ALL ABOUT the small stakes of a family just trying to survive while war is happening around them.

City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault may, at first glance, sound like it's more about big stakes, but it's really all about the way the characters interact. It's a book filled to the brim with small, intimate stakes that add up to creating bigger stakes.

Help Wanted by J. Emery is an NA novella about friendship and questioning one's identity. And also birthday presents and magic. It's all about the gradual changes in our lives and dealing with them.

An Unexpected Invitation by Ceillie Simkiss is a fantasy novella that centres around attending a friend's wedding when travelling to them means being incredibly motion sick and how to accept help from friends.

Under Her Spell by Bridget Essex is an expanded edition of a series of novellas I read when they were initially released under a pen name. They are soft and pure f/f stories about moving into a small community and love. The book's bound to be delightful!

The Faerie Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green by Nicky Kyle is a novelette (I think) about friendship and wanting more from life than what initially seems possible and likely.

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a mystery and all about what happened to a corpse after it turns out to have been murdered. ONE DAY I WILL HAVE PROPER WORDS FOR THIS BOOK. ONE DAY.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is all about a small community that relies on racing. Also kelpies, which automatically makes it awesome in my opinion, but really. It's all about the relationships in a small, isolated community.

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill is all about a small group of people trying to keep ancient arts alive and the importance of art in general. (I’m told there’s also going to be a sequel!)

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is all about self-identity, persoonhood and found family. Also caring about one another.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis has some pretty big stakes, but they're all background for the smaller stakes of family, community and working together even after the worst has happened/is happening.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish post-apocalyptic story that centres around tea ceremonies and the protagonist discovering her place in the world, rather than overthrowing the admittedly very dystopian regime.

Emyr’s Smile by Amy Rae Durreson may be best read after The Lodestone of Ys, but it's a sweet m/m story and two men dealing with their emotions. (CN: On-page sex)

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace is, perhaps, another book you might not expect to find here, given the hints we get of the world's past and the ending, but the focus is strongly on Wasp's desire to be free I couldn't leave it off.

A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman is the third in a series, but arguably the least big stakes of them all. It's all about a lesbian queen and her found family solving a mystery.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is a delightful story inspired by Jane Austen's work that focuses, largely, on delivering a low-conflict fantasy-of-manners story.

Unbound and Free by Becca Lusher is the first of her Historical Aekhartain books. This one is all about Demairo and his friends, who help him deal with his abusive father and an island intent on killing everyone who sets foot on it. It’s a story about family and belonging.

Mindtouch by M.C.A. Hogarth is the first in the Dreamhealers Saga. This is an SF story about students just trying to get through university. And friendship. And dealing with anxiety and the harmful impact of stereotypes. Contains space elves, pretty much. Personally, I would recommend Dreamhearth over Mindtouch for low, intimate stakes because it’s all about settling into (adult) life and a new community. Highlight of the book is off-screen pet death (as opposed to the on-screen child dying in one’s arms that marks the climax of Mindtouch), but I don’t think it reads well on its own. You really need the grounding of the first two books to make it work.

Chime by Franny Billingsley is all about witches and family and self-love. Also unreliable narrators and small communities and one's place in them as we grow older.

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