Want to read the quietly prolific, increasingly popular, and mega-amazing Ursula Vernon (pen name: T. Kingfisher) but don’t know where to start? Well, start here. I’ve broken down her books by category and series so that you can choose your preferred format. While the books aren’t ranked, each book that’s first on the list would be my recommended starting volume, either because it’s the most indicative of Kingfisher’s style or the most broadly accessible. However, if a different story piques your interest, there’s really no wrong place to begin.
Nettle and Bone – Third daughters don’t have to worry about much. Usually. Marra, though, must leave the comforts of her nunnery to defy a wicked prince and rescue her sister. It’s the veneer of standard fantasy fare laid over some very deep meditations on abuse, domestic violence, and duty, all of which Kingfisher handles with compassion and care.
Saint of Steel series – Their god is dead. Their compatriots died of the grief and madness that followed. The few remaining paladins of the Saint of Steel are quite literally soldiering on, but they each have little to live for—until each is drawn into a quest that also happens to feature a very attractive stranger. (It’s less contrived than I’m making it seem.) A planned quartet; start with Paladin’s Grace.
Clocktaur War series – Condemned criminals on a redemption quest (a la Suicide Squad) is a favorite trope of mine, and this duology has all the pathos and action (and romance!) you could want from a band of ragtag unlikely heroes. Comprised of Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine.
Swordheart – Much more in the romance vein, this love story between a woman (who has never studied the blade) and her sword is like classic screwball comedy in a fantasy setting.
Nine Goblins – A novella about goblins trying—for some variation of trying—to get home. Kingfisher is perennially curious about standard fantasy side characters like minions, animal companion, and the like, and here she gives goblins their own voice.
Black Dogs series – A much older series written before Kingfisher had entirely found her voice, this is much more of the standard fantasy fare about a young bookish woman whose family is massacred, who is then caught up in elven affairs. A duology made up of The House of Diamond and The Mountain of Iron.
A House with Good Bones – A Southern Goth-ish book, this one for the entomophobes. There’s another horrible old lady, and you’ll never hear the phrase “nice and normal” without a shudder.
The Twisted Ones – This is what happens if you smush Southern Gothic together with Cosmic Horror. I’m calling it Southern Cosmic and I hope it catches on, but even more than that, I hope you read this book about a woman who, in the course of cleaning out her grandparents’ house, happens upon a madness-inducing mystery.
The Hollow Places – Definitely my favorite of Kingfisher’s horror novels, mostly because I tend to prefer cosmic or Lovecraftian horror to other types. This is profoundly unsettling, and you will never look at willow trees quite the same way ever again.
What Moves the Dead – A retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe, this book is set in a fictional European country and features a genderqueer narrator named Alex returning to see childhood friends after many years. What ka (Alex uses the neopronouns ka/kan) finds is a deep unwellness in kan friends and in the countryside itself.
Digger Unearthed – The 10th anniversary of this Hugo- and Mythopoeic-winning comic just passed, and with it came several new editions courtesy of a very successful Kickstarter. This 700+ page comic features the reluctant adventures of Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Complicated-Tunnels, a wombat who just wants to get home. Unfortunately, several gods, a cult, some hyenas, a bridge “troll” and an oracular slug (yes) end up making this very, very difficult. Don’t be put off by the slightly higher price—this is an omnibus of nearly 800 pages!
The Halcyon Fairy Book – Fairy tales with Kingfisher’s trademark spin, which is to say, a sensible outlook and a slight tendency toward the absurd. Keep in mind that many of these stories appear for free on Kingfisher’s blog or in various magazines as well, although having a single go-to place (and supporting the author!) is certainly something to enjoy.
Toad Words and Other Stories – Also a collection of fairy tales. My personal favorite is “Bluebeard’s Wife,” which is a whole new way of making that classic uncomfortable, but there’s also a whole novella hiding in here!
Jackalope Wives and Other Stories – Mostly fairy tales here too, mostly also available elsewhere online, but with some never-before-seens. I love the quieter “Telling the Bees.” Kingfisher fans (which you’re becoming, right?) will notice the connection between “Godmother” and her new novel Nettle and Bone.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – This was a breakout hit of 2020, since Vernon gave all of us hope that our desperate attempts at stuck-inside-sourdough-starters could become our wizardly familiars, much like Bob is to apprentice baker Mona. Plucky and good-hearted but also only 14, Mona shouldn’t be the one to have to save the city, but the adults have made a mess of things and there’s no one else. That still hits hard, but Vernon always alleviates the heavy truths with amazing humor.
Summer in Orcus – Summer needs a break from anxiety—other people’s anxiety. Her mom is constantly worrying, but Summer would like to have at least a little adventure. Fortunately (or maybe not so fortunately…) Baba Yaga can arrange for that. Note: if you got really into birding in the pandemic, this features lots of birds.
The Raven and the Reindeer – Based on “The Winter Queen” by Hans Christen Andersen, this version has a sapphic romance and a very dark edge.
Bryony and Roses – This “Beauty and the Beast” retelling has your expected beast and your expected race against time, but also your far-less-expected clockwork bees and way more gardening than your standard princess tale.
The Seventh Bride – The lesser-known fairytale “Mr. Fox” gets a retelling here too, complete with adorable (and opinionated) animal companion.
Minor Mage – Oliver wants to help, but he only knows three spells. That doesn’t really seem like enough to end the drought and save his village, but the townsfolk insisted—forcefully—and so Oliver has a quest whether he wants one or not. Though the hero is young, the themes will hit home for much older audiences too.
Illuminations – Rosa, youngest member of the esteemed Mandolinis, just wants to live up to her family name by learning to make illuminations. These magic-infused drawings and paintings have a wide range of powers, but they aren’t supposed to have minds of their own. Or a fondness for shiny things. Or a desire to destroy the family lineage, starting with Rosa herself…
Castle Hangnail – Perfect for fans of Wednesday or anything Addams Family-adjacent, this novel has a gentle hand with serious issues of identity and confidence. Molly, though only 12, knows she’s a witch. Convincing the staff of the dilapidated Castle Hangnail, and the village, and her family and frenemies, however, requires her to apply her witchy gifts like never before.
Nurk – Very much in the vein of Redwall by Brian Jacques, this is technically about the descendant of a side character from Digger, and features illustrations by the author in the same vein as the comic (no need to have read Digger first, though). Unlike his many-great-grandmother Surka, Nurk is not an aggressive shrew. Still, he wants to do something a little adventurous. As is the thing about adventures, though, he gets more than he bargained for.
Hamster Princess series – Princess Harriet Hamsterbone does not want lessons in deportment or dancing. She wants to quest around on her battle quail, looking for bad guys to beat up. Fortunately, a quirk of her curse has left her invincible. Cue the battle sequences and cliff diving! Each book in the series riffs on a different fairy tale, starting with Sleeping Beauty. Start with Harriet the Invincible.
Dragonbreath series – Danny Dragonbreath can’t breathe fire. Yet. Until he gets his most dragonish power he’s stuck dragging his best friend Wendell on less pyrotechnical but still-dangerous adventures, all while trying to keep up in school and avoid the class bullies. Start with Dragonbreath.