The Ten Strangest Races in Fantasy Literature
To me one of the most wonderful things about reading fantasy is the chance to encounter strange and magical beings that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. Ferocious and exotic warriors, wise immortals, fey creatures as beautiful as they are mysterious, people made from wood or stone, animals that walk and talk like humans, and humans who can fly or throw fire with a thought. These races that never were, offer us the chance to sample new perspectives on life, question the very things that make us human, or just imagine what it would be like to have the body of a giant or the ability to fry a person’s brain by looking at them funny.
But in a genre peopled by a suspiciously large quantities of elves and dwarves it can be hard to find truly original beings to liven up your fantasy reading. So I’ve gathered together ten of the strangest, most interesting and most thought-provoking races in fantasy literature for your amusement.
Please keep your limbs inside the ride at all times, don’t attempt to pet the Gallivespians and don’t do anything at all to attract the Weaver’s attention. Please also be aware that this is a list of races from fantasy novels only. I’ve avoided tabletop roleplaying games to make sure that we don’t just disappear into the D&D Monster Manual. That goes for mythology, folklore, films, TV, and video games too.
Finally I’ll mention that I’ve kept to a strict rule of one race per author or setting. That’s to prevent authors like Steven Erikson, Margaret Wells, Stephen Hunt, and especially China Miéville from taking over the entire list.
Ok! Let’s look at the first exhibit.
1. Gallivespians – Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
The title and bearing of a haughty French aristocrat, the body of a wingless pixie and the poisoned spurs of a platypus; with these powers combined you get – the Gallivespians!
The name Gallivespian is actually a play on words. The ‘vesp’ part of it comes from the Latin word for wasp; so you could roughly translate the whole word to mean ‘gall-wasp people’. It’s an apt name considering their tendency to ride around on large dragonflies and their willingness to sting anyone who gets in their way.
Don’t think that Gallivespian venom can be shrugged off like a wasp-sting either. One dose is enough to agonise and paralyse an adult human for hours at a time. Injected in sufficient quantities or in somewhere vulnerable, like the throat; it can be fatal. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Gallivespians do not get on with the humans who also inhabit their version of Earth. And by ‘don’t get on with’ I mean ‘are engaged in a war of extermination with’. This is because the big bad of the His Dark Materials multiverse, (organised religion), has declared the Gallivespians to be demonic. Though I’m not sure whether that is because of their size, their stingers, or their relatively advanced grasp of science.
Whatever the reason; this war makes for an embattled and ruthless race of tiny people; far less cute than your garden variety fairies or Borrowers. They are excellent foils for the tweenage/teenage protagonists of the books; tiny enough to be captured or crushed by a small child but deadly enough to incapacitate or kill any human they manage to catch off guard.
Overall they make for great characters. Think about stumbling across a flying black widow spider. Then imagine that the spider looks more or less human and is incredibly arrogant. How would you interact with such a being? Would you be charmed? Fascinated? Or terrified?
2. Sodiumites/Amberglows – Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne
Did you know that there are two different kinds of streetlamps in the UK? Well there are: the old models, which use low pressure sodium vapour and give off an amber light and the more modern lamps, which use a variety of techniques in order to radiate bright white light.
Hardly the most exciting fact you’ve ever learned; I’m sure. But what if I were to tell you that, just as trees house the souls of Dryads, every streetlamp in London is home to a ferocious spirit of living glass and sentient light? Or that those spirits are divided into two warring tribes; the female Sodiumites, or Amberglows, and the male Blankleits, or Whities? And that both are capable of attacking their foes with deadly blasts of actinic energy? And that the Sodiumites can combine that energy into more powerful attacks by gathering together and engaging in weaponised circle-dancing?
Do find streetlamps interesting now? I do.
Consider how much more fun weddings would be if the inevitable conga line or dancing circle allowed the guests to annihilate their enemies with photon blasts.
This, to me, is what makes urban fantasy so awesome. Following in the footsteps of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere; authors like Tom Pollock have taken everyday parts of the urban landscape and infused them with magic to build new mythologies amongst the office blocks and underpasses. Sodiumites may not stand out so much besides the Pavement Priests and Sewermanders that populate the world of the Skyscraper Throne, but they shine like diamonds in the sea of werewolves, vampires, witches, and demons that fill out most of the population of Urban Fantasyland.
3. Csestriim – Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne
Spoiler Warning: While I won’t be going into the specifics of the plot; the existence, nature, and backstory of the Csestriim could all be considered serious spoilers for the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish the series.
There are other races on this list that could pass for human in the right circumstances. But only the Csestriim look identical to humans; which is one of the reasons they’re so frightening. Because although they look human the Csestriim do not think like us, or at least not like most of us. They are a race of perfect sociopaths, utterly lacking in emotion or conscience.
As if that wasn’t bad enough the Csestriim are infinitely more competent than any human could ever be. Every single one is an ageless immortal who has existed since before the first human drew breath. They’re like Tolkien’s elves but without the pointy ears or redeeming qualities. And Stavely really focuses on just how powerful an advantage the knowledge of the ages provides to these immortal creatures. A woman could spend a lifetime learning the ways of the sword and become one of the greatest warriors the world has ever seen. But pit her against someone who has spent ten lifetimes doing the same thing? Or a hundred lifetimes? It’s just no contest.
And the Csestriim don’t just study fighting techniques. They experience history first-hand. They study human expressions, emotions, and motivations until they can pass for a human without even thinking about it. They can manipulate people, events, and even the course of nations with the same thoughtless ease that you or I would use to brush crumbs of a sleeve. Thinking too much about the Csestriim is an invitation to paranoia. Like the Cylons in Battestar Galactica or the Replicants in Blade Runner, anyone could be one of the Csestriim. And even when they’re revealed it’s impossible for the reader, let alone the characters, to decipher their true plans because they are such utterly calculating and accomplished liars.
In the world of the Unhewn Throne humans were born when the Csestriim were afflicted by a profound and mystical event which caused all of their children to be born mortal and subject to emotion. The Csestriim wish to remove these weaknesses from their descendants by reversing that event, piece by piece. Honestly I’d be all in favour of the immortality thing if it didn’t come bundled with being turned into an emotionless husk.
In an odd twist to the tale; a particular character reveals that the Csestriim have already partially succeeded in their task and that the humans of the Unhewn Throne have had their minds or soul lessened in some unfathomable way. It makes me wonder what fundamental emotions or qualities Stavely believes that humans lack.
4. Steammen – Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian
Often when fantasy authors write about artificial races like golems or Warforged they focus on the same existential themes as their sci-fi counterparts. Can something that was made ever be truly alive? Does it possess a soul? Even if it does will those selfish organics ever accept that fact and embrace their artificial children?
The Steammen sidestep all those issues; then stomp on them with wild and furious glee. Yes Steammen were created to serve an ancient human civilisation at some point. But the history of Stephen Hunt’s world stretches back far enough that no normal citizen now knows who created the Steammen or why. Instead of viewing humans as creators, the Steammen treat them with a kind of condescending affection; poor little soft-bodies, so weak and frail and lacking in steam-hammer arms.
They have a point. Wise and wily artificial intelligences inhabiting mighty steam-powered robot-bodies; the Steammen pretty much outclass humans in every way. On top of that each Steamman is highly specialised, having been designed to fulfil a particular role.
Steam-Knights are like a cross between an angry centaur and a tank; with their horse-like legs, six vicious weapon-arms and tendency to go berserk. Steammen inventors and intellectuals can control multiple bodies, (called Mu-Bodies), at once in order to create new and advanced technologies as quickly as possible. Because while organic lifeforms might be happy to wait around for evolution to happen to them the Steammen are quite determined to evolve themselves thank you very much.
Unlike some artificial races the Steammen are intensely alive. They need to ‘eat’ coal or coke to burn in their boiler-hearts in order to keep on functioning. They can drown, they can be tortured, their metal organs can be punctured, and above all they feel emotions every bit as deeply as humans. They are staunch friends, faithful servants, and appalling enemies. They can also be possessed by the divine beings called Steamo-Loas during steampunk style quasi-Voodoo religious ceremonies, (I swear that I’m not making this up).
Like many of the characters and situations in the Jackelian series; the Steammen are totally over the top and really rather fun. Definitely worth spending time with.
5. T’lan Imass – Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen
Tolkien used his knowledge of Norse mythology, Christian/Abrahamic mythology, medieval history, and English Literature to create his races. Steven Erikson, I suspect, drew on his archaeological training when dreaming up the T’lan Imass. Have a look at their backstory and see if you agree.
The Imass were a proto-human race of Neolithic hunter-gatherers that lived hundreds of thousands of years before the present day of the Malazan setting. The T’lan Imass are the survivors of that race; if survivors is the right word for an army of the undead.
The Imass once fought a war of annihilation against the ancient and mighty Jaghut, (highly individualistic beings that look like oversized orcs from Warhammer or Warcraft and possess tremendous powers of Elder Ice Magic). The purpose of this war was to ensure that no Jaghut ever again took on the mantle of Tyrant, (as one once did), and attempted to conquer the world. When the Jaghut built walls out of giant glaciers to protect themselves, the Imass took an even more extreme step to overcome these barriers; they committed voluntary self-genocide, transforming themselves en-masse into deathless skeletons capable of turning into clouds of dust and travelling on the wind. And so the T’lan Imass were born; creatures capable of outmanoeuvring or outlasting any obstacle in their way.
Fans of Game of Thrones or the books it’s based on might be amused to learn that the Imass altered themselves using the power of Elder Fire, (called Tellan in the Malazan world). This may seem strange, since necromancy in fantasy is usually associated with rot, decay, and negative energy rather than fire. But think of fire in terms of scorching desert heat; the T’lan Imass are walking fossils that have been mummified by the simple process of having every scrap of life and moisture seared out of their skeletal remains.
This is a people out of time. Their weapons are swords of flint and spears of bone and their clothing consists of scraps of desiccated leather and the hides of animals that have long since vanished from the world. They remain as steadfast and merciless as the day they abandoned their humanity, despite the crushing boredom created by eons of endless struggle.
And all of this is, arguably, pointless. The Imass sacrificed themselves so that their descendants, (humans and other fledgling races), could live free from tyranny. But the Jaghut as a people really aren’t interested in tyranny as a way to pass the time. Humans and their cousins, on the other hand, absolutely love tyranny and engage in every conceivable form of it, along with many other unpleasant behaviours, in pretty much every book ever written about the Malazan world.
So that’s the T’lan Imass; primordial, genocidal, relentless, and ultimately noble in a twisted sort of way. They are a breath of fresh burning air in the fetid tombs of the restless dead. (Also their shamans are usually shapeshifters so you can add giant mummified cave bears and an honest-to-goodness were-bone-dragon to the list of reasons to check these guys out.)
6. Rhydanne – Steph Swainston’s Castle
Lithe, fleet-footed and inured to the cold; the cat-eyed Rhydanne are an offshoot of humanity, perfectly suited to the icy mountaintops they call home. This is actually explained in the Castle (Fourlands) books as being caused by the forces of evolution, rather than some magical accident or helpful deity. Which makes sense to me; high altitude dwelling peoples in the real world have larger hearts and lungs, and thicker blood than the average human; the Rhydanne are a somewhat logical progression of that evolutionary process, (with the insanely over the top climbing skills of a mountain goat and running speed of a cheetah thrown in for good measure).
Rhydanne are a race of nomadic loners who live on a diet of meat and alcohol; where possible they prefer to combine the two into a horrendous stew made of game, blood, and whiskey. This copious consumption of alcohol allows the Rhydanne’s bodies to synthesize the natural anti-freeze that lets them survive in a climate which would quickly kill an unprepared human. That just goes to show that you can have a race of alcoholic mountain-dwellers without forcing them to be short, bearded, and axe-wielding.
A far cry from the gold hungry dwarves, Rhydanne are hunter gatherers who have few possessions and no respect at all for the concept of property. In one book this leads the Rhydanne into a conflict with Awian settlers who encroach on their territory and start putting up fences and keeping domestic animals. The Rhydanne object to the Awians scaring off game and cannot comprehend the idea that they shouldn’t hunt slow and stupid prey animals just because someone put up some wooden planks around them. (Awians are a considerably less interesting race than Rhydanne. They started out as birds and somehow evolved into humans with wings who can no longer fly. Worst evolutionary decision made by a species of birds since dodos decided to forget the concept of fear.)
Although there are and have been human cultures in the real world with similar values and worldviews to the Rhydanne, their complete dismissal of the laws and customs of what we are pleased to call civilisation makes them more intriguing, to me at least, than any amount of anti-freeze blood or cheetah-like running speed. It certainly makes for an interesting conflict that is far more morally grey than the classic fantasy riff of Light versus Dark/Good versus Evil.
7. Foliates – Jeffrey Ford’s The Well-Built City
The Foliates are only fleetingly described in Ford’s writing; which makes the few fragments of information we do get about them all the more tantalising. They are an all but extinct species of fire-eyed humanoid plants grown to be soldiers in a war against an equally shadowy and mysterious race; the red-scaled fish people known as the O.
The Foliates creator was a woman called Pa-ni-ta who hailed from a line of people that could direct the energy of a vast and magical wilderness called the Beyond. The Beyond is a place drenched in psychological symbolism and tends to play fast and loose with time, space, and expectation. This raises a lot of questions about the true nature and motivations of the surviving Foliates.
Chief among them; why didn’t Pa-ni-ta just make ents if she wanted to fight a war? Well the Foliates have a major advantage over other races: they shed a seed when they die which allows them to grow a whole new body come the spring. It’s an interesting ability, taking advantage of the cycle of the seasons in order to be eternally reborn no matter how many times you’re slain. Though the O eventually managed to use their mastery of biological magic, (or magical science if you prefer), to find a way round this ability.
Pa-ni-ta’s soldiers were gifted with a variety of other curious powers and characteristics. Their bodies flower and fade with the passing seasons. They can cause parts of their body to sprout and shift into useful shapes, like arrow shafts or clusters of elongating tendrils that stab into an opponent’s body then burst out through his chest or skull. One Foliate even penetrates a dead human’s brain with a thorny spike and steals (or rescues) his consciousness from death. These beings are truly embodiments of nature at its wildest, cruellest and most wonderful.
8. The Ghouls of Nehwon – Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser
The term ghoul means different things to different people, especially SFF readers. Some will think of slobbering undead monstrosities or carrion-eating demons. Those who’ve read more esoteric books might imagine greenish, dog-faced former humans with reversed feet that eat corpses, and live in the Dreamlands. Anime lovers will probably picture masked man-eaters from Tokyo with transforming abilities and implausibly awesome hair.
Fritz Leiber had quite another take on ghouls. He decided they were basically humans. They just happened to be humans with completely transparent flesh, blood and organs, giving them the appearance of walking skeletons or living anatomy models.
While their looks alone are pretty disturbing these creatures are ghoulish in another way: they are cannibals who prey on and devour normal humans. Their reason (or excuse) for doing this is quite fascinating in a morbid sort of way. It’s kind of like real-world racism taken to its illogical extreme. The ghouls of Nehwon believe that their glasslike flesh and blood are “pure” while the opaque flesh of the “mudmen” (that’s you and me), is inherently dirty and corrupt, like stagnant swamp-water. So in order to purify the human race they capture and devour as many mudmen as they can get their hands on.
Creepy though it is the symbolism makes a horrible kind of sense if you ignore morality and logic. If you’re lucky enough to survive a ghoul attack you can actually the see the flesh and blood of their victims being digested and slowly becoming see-through, or pure, in their crystal-clear bellies. To me Fritz Leiber’s ghouls are a reminder of the kind of vile acts humans are capable of when they apply abstract symbolism to the colour of another human’s skin.
In fairness; not all ghouls are a hundred percent dedicated to the belief that all non-ghouls need to be immediately eaten. Fritz Leiber was nothing if not a randy old so-and-so. So there is documented proof of at least one ghoul-woman who took a human lover for a while. Though she did compensate by whispering sweet nothings to her paramour about how one day she might just tear out that pretty jugular of his with the filed-down fangs she called teeth.
Lovecraft’s ghouls seem almost cute in comparison.
9. Raksura – Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura and Tales of the Raksura
There’s great a term that I came across recently: one-hat race. It means a race in a SFF setting who all seem to share a single defining trait or theme, like a culture that consists entirely of fierce fighters, mischievous tricksters, or mad scientists.
The Raksura are the complete opposite of this trope. To push this analogy to its limits, the Raksura have more hats than the prize-winning contestant at a novelty-hat balancing convention. First off they’re shapeshifters. Sometimes they look more or less human but, when needed, they can take on a more powerful saurian form equipped with claws, spines, tails, and scales. What that form, and their human one, looks like depends on which of two interconnected sub-species they belong to.
The tall willowy Aeriat become winged and lethal. The shorter stockier Arbora have to make do with tough bodies made for climbing and general survivability. Don’t feel too sorry for the Arbora though because they’re generally the only Raksura with any practical skills beyond killing things, intimidating things, and scouting.
With me so far? Great.
Raksura come from a huge forest of giant trees and are most suited to living hundreds of feet off the ground. A bit like bees, they build great hive-like structures called Colonies in the branches of these trees and form complex social organisations based on castes such as Hunters, Warriors, and the magic-using Mentors as well as different family lines and webs of individual loyalty.
That whole mess is ruled over by a Queen, often aided by so called Sister-Queens and Daughter-Queens who aren’t necessarily her sisters or daughters. Queens come from the Aeriat sub-species; they’re winged forms grow over decades and centuries until they reach draconic proportions. They can also suppress other Raksura’s shapeshifting abilities by thinking about it.
Fertile male Aeriat are called Consorts and are expected to fulfil the role of a princess in a classic fairy-tale. They lie around being pretty and passive, collect lovely jewellery, indulge in some light diplomacy, and ultimately raise their Queen’s children. However; their winged forms never stop growing either so if they live long enough they become giant monsters called Line-Grandfathers who are potentially bigger than their Colony’s Queen and don’t have to take crap from anyone.
Despite being clannish, argumentative and tangled up with various traditions and prejudices Raksura society is quite Utopian in some ways. Queens and fertile female Arbora have perfect control over their own fertility. Which is probably why Raksura really don’t care about who sleeps with who or which gender either partner belongs to. On the other hand Raksura care more about family lines than a world renowned horse breeder and wars have been fought over Consorts who, Helen of Troy style, wandered off with the wrong Queen.
I’ve missed out quite a bit of detail in order to fit these creatures into this list. Martha Wells has created enough intricacies and oddities in Raksura society, history, and biology to fill another dozen books. And although the latest novel in her Books of the Raksura series, The Arbors of the Sun, is meant to be the last, I truly hope that she will return to this fascinating species in time.
10. Weavers – China Miéville’s Bas-Lag
China Miéville is one sick puppy with a flair for weird and disturbing races. All kinds of horrors walk, crawl, or fly across Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag. But of all them, stranger than the scarab-headed women who make sculptures from their own excreta, creepier than the spike-tailed human hands that possess people, are the Weavers.
On the face of it Weavers don’t sound that odd. They’re giant spiders and those have been part of the fantasy writing playbook for almost as long as elves. But these spiders are different. And not just because some of their legs end in blades and two of their legs are actually slender human arms. Think of a vast web of causality stretching through and between the world we see and the many other layers of reality beyond it. Every action, event, thought, and feeling that ever was or will be is a part of that web. Now, consider the spiders which might inhabit such a web.
The Weavers simply don’t function on quite the same plane of existence as ordinary mortals, which makes their actions seem functionally insane. They communicate with a mixture of stream-of-consciousness style poetry and casual violence. They appear uninterested in the usual spider motivations of hunting and feeding. Instead they focus on making the Web in their immediate vicinity more aesthetically pleasing. This could involve taking down a predator which is damaging the fabric of reality, collecting vast amounts of scissors, or just flaying a militiaman down to the bone because “he looked prettier that way”.
Every interaction with a Weaver is unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. Their motivations are as puzzling as the rambling doggerel they call speech. They phase in and out of our reality at will and comprehend it with senses that we don’t even have names for. Their very presence is enough to make the world around them less comprehensible to human minds. Simply put: the Weavers are rather more alien than most of the actual aliens you might find if you left the rolling hills of fantasy and ventured out into the teeming worlds of science fiction.
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And there you have it; the ten strangest races in fantasy literature.
I must admit that a few otherwise interesting races like Gugs and Pelgranes didn’t make this list because I just couldn’t find enough scraps of information about them to really sink my teeth into. Jim Butcher’s Vord would have earned a place here as well if they weren’t so suspiciously similar to the Zerg from Starcraft.
Honourable mentions go to The Blue Electric Angels, Cactacae, Cho-Ja, Craynarbians, Dhracians, Dwei, Dwenda, Enteri, Fjeltroll, Flikkermen, Graspers, K’Chain Che’Malle, Khepri, Kiriath, Moranth, New-Men, Non-Men, Tiste-Andi, Twkmen, and Vodyanoi.
Have fun looking all of those races up. Or ask me, here in the comments or over on Twitter, if you want to know more about any of them. Or maybe you could tell me in the comments where I went wrong and which fantasy races should have made the cut?