If you want an engrossing book or two that will help you enforce social distancing and keep you inside for as long as possible, consider these long series or massive tomes (or, in a few instances, both) that don’t have anything to do with pandemics.
Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon) – This extra-large standalone does revolve around the end of the world, but it’s not from disease. It’s from dragons! The large cast, international scope, and deep historical and cultural worldbuilding make this a true epic.
The Shadow quartet (Lila Bowen) – A biracial bisexual transman fights monsters in the old west. Is that somehow not enough for you? Well, he’s a shapeshifter, a horse-tamer, a cowpoke, and just the most awesome badass. Four books is still too few for this amazing hero and amazing world, but they’ll keep you going for a while.
The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) – Now is a good time to dig into a classic or two, and if you haven’t read it, this is a masterpiece of fantasy retelling, of historical fantasy, and of feminist SFF. It’s the story of King Arthur from the perspective of the women, especially the much-maligned Morgan le Fay.
American Elsewhere (Robert Jackson Bennett) – Though I’m arguably a bigger fan of his Divine Cities trilogy, American Elsewhere is a single novel about how suburbia will twist you into unknowable angles before it destroys you. And while Bennett’s trilogies feature time-jumps between the novels, which can be initially disorienting, this single book is one long, uninterrupted descent into madness (and maybe back out of it?).
Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) – Dense and Dickensian, these three books will keep you occupied with the saga of Titus, heir to a dilapidated castle and strange, empty rituals. Peake charts his infancy through his rebellion with prose that’s the literary equivalent of Edward Gorey drawings—macabre, gloomy, and delightful.
The Great Book of Amber (Roger Zelazny) – This is actually ten books in one. No, not metaphorically—it’s actually a compilation of Zelazny’s ten books about the city-state of Amber, which is the platonic ideal of all civilization. When Corwin wakes up in a hospital bed, he doesn’t know where he is or who he is. That changes rapidly as he finds himself on a path toward Amber—and maybe also to Chaos, its immortal opposite and eternal rival.
The Secret Books of Venus (Tanith Lee) – It’s always surprising to me how few people have read Tanith Lee given how prolific and talented she was. Well, here’s your chance: these four books feature a Venice-that-might-have-been, romantic and erotic and deadly, at four distinct times in its not-history.
The Dark Tower octet (Stephen King) – Clocking in at more than 4,200 pages, this will keep you entertained for quite a while. Roland, the gunslinger, quests across the multiverse to find vengeance and redemption, but he may not be equal to the universe-ending forces arrayed against him. Also, “19” is a number of ill omen throughout.
The Lumatere Chronicles (Melina Marchetta) – These Australian novels are absolutely stunning and profoundly hopeful despite the heartbreak they contain. Many characters try to overcome their trauma and fight for a nation that was stolen from them as they wander the land as refugees. Please note that these books deal extensively with war crimes and rape, in a way that is sensitive but unflinching, from trauma through long-term recovery.
The Books of Pellinor (Alison Croggon) – Imagine Lord of the Rings, but with lots of female characters. Maerad is not pulled from an idyllic hamlet, but rescued from slavery before being pulled into a quest full of danger, magic, and sacrifice. The magic comes from bards who use song and music for their magic, giving the books a bittersweet beauty even in their darkest moments.
The Vlad Taltos novels – There are currently 15 (!) of a proposed 19-book series (there’s that 19 again) about a human criminal living in a world ruled by a race of more powerful, longer-lived humanoids called Dragaerans. Vlad solves and commits crimes with equal aplomb as a petty mob boss, but eventually falls in love, joins a political movement, and gets embroiled in the fate of the empire.
His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman) – If you’ve never read these modern classics, it’s time to jump into Lyra’s world, in which people’s souls take animal form and oppressive forces threaten freedom. There are two companion books, Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, as well as the new Book of Dust trilogy, which only has two of three books published thus far, but both are impressively long. Bonus: the HBO show wrapped up very recently, so you can watch it before or after you start for some extra entertainment.
The Way of the Witch (Jan Siegel) – This little-known trilogy features a place I wish more fantasy authors would feature: Atlantis, at least in the first book. Featuring some stunning imagery and deep imagination, Fern’s journey from curious young girl to accomplished witch will keep you thinking even after you’re finished.
The Books of Ambha (Tahsa Suri) – These two companion novels follow two sisters, one of whom is forced into serving an empire that steals and enslaves her mother’s people, and the other desperate to save the empire lest it lead to more of the violence she’s already experienced. These are deeply thoughtful examinations of colonialism and resistance as well as beautiful and imaginative works that stand on their own, but are even better together.
Area X or The Southern Reach trilogy (Jeff Vandermeer) – So is this Climate Horror, or Biopunk, or some other term for a genre that Vandermeer is helping to define? I’m not sure, but I do know that these novels were profoundly unsettling (I had to make my husband come sit with me) and truly incredible. And once you’re done with book one, Annihilation, you can watch the movie and compare what I found to be very different but equally interesting works.
The Inheritance Trilogy – Everyone’s read Jemsin’s Broken Earth trilogy, but have you read this earlier one? What begins with Yeine, summoned to the heart of the empire in order to serve its rulers and its gods, becomes the story of creating power rather than bowing to it. Plus, the ebook(s) edition includes two additional novellas. Quantity, quality, and value.
The Books of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe) – Intermittently dreamlike and gritty, Wolfe is one of those authors who writes from instinct, and his instincts are spot on. Severain begins as an apprentice torturer, but becomes a rebel, a sorcerer, and many other things before he’s done making his way through a world that runs on a strange hybrid of ancient technology and new magic.
House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) – Are you working from home and thinking, gosh, what would happen if my home also became a nightmare? For the few brave souls who like to be frightened, this lengthy and convoluted set of nested tales is perfect for taking your mind off regular anxieties and giving you much bigger ones.
1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) – Another author you should get to know if you haven’t already, Murakami builds surreal worlds with very down-to-earth characters and prose. 1Q84 had to be published in Japan in three volumes, but in the US you can get it as one big chonk of a book, and enjoy settling in with fitness instructor-turned-assassin Aomame, who uncovers a mystery while trying to get justice for the abused women of Japan.