Skip to content
Answering Your Questions About Reactor: Right here.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Everything in one handy email.

Painting With Words: Great Fantasies That Feature Visual Art


Painting With Words: Great Fantasies That Feature Visual Art

Home / Painting With Words: Great Fantasies That Feature Visual Art
Books Five Books

Painting With Words: Great Fantasies That Feature Visual Art

Five stories that mash-up magic and art in deliciously odd, thoroughly satisfying ways. 


Published on February 13, 2024

Photograph of two artist's palettes and a box of other art supplies, including paintbrushes and paint tubes.

If you want to go down a rabbithole of fun debates over who said it and arguments about whether it’s true, search the famous (infamous?) quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Leaving aside the fact that dancing about architecture seems fabulous — more dancing about everything, I say—there’s a stickiness to this because it’s perfectly said… Whether it was Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa or someone who is always opining at a bar to the person next to them: It was me, you know, that quote; I coulda been a contender. Pithiness aside, you could consider writing about visual art in this same way, but you’d be missing a library of great books. I’ve always loved novels that explore other artforms. The truth is, you can write about anything and show the world a little bit about how you understand what it means, or how what it means can be understood through story.

My new novel The Frame-Up involves an art heist masterminded by a painter who is something more than your average forger, and the painting that’s being stolen and the collection it’s housed in intersect with a secret magical world hidden within our own. The perfect reason to recommend five of my favorite fantasies that mash-up magic and visual art in deliciously odd, thoroughly satisfying ways. 

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

Book cover of The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

Set in a fever-dream of late 1890s New York, portraitist Piero Piambo is highly sought-after by fashionable society but wants nothing more than to escape painting it. When Mrs. Charbuque engages him to paint her offering a huge sum, there’s a catch. He can question her at length, and he must capture her essence, but he can’t see her and he isn’t allowed to ask about her appearance. Their association and the bizarre stories she weaves of her past are absorbing and Piambo’s misadventures with other strange characters in the city make this a mysterious, unpredictable treat. The first novel you read by a writer who becomes a personal favorite is always special in some sense, and this, his fourth published, was my introduction to Jeff Ford and I will always want everyone to read it. 

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Book cover of Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

The Shadowshaper Cypher YA series is my favorite kind of inventive urban fantasy, and it starts here. Sierra Santiago is on summer vacation from Brooklyn’s Octavia Butler High School (yes, you’re in now, aren’t you?), and planning to paint a mural of a dragon at the request of unhappy members of the neighborhood on an unfinished eyesore building called the Tower. But soon things begin to go sideways. Another nearby mural seems to be changing and cries a tear. Her grandfather, who has suffered a stroke, is giving mysterious warnings. And then a zombie crashes a party, chasing Sierra through the night. What follows is the uncovering of her legacy as a Shadowshaper, and a battle filled with vibrant color to protect ancestral magic expressed through art.

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

Book cover of An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

Isobel is a human painter who lives in Whimsy and practices her craft on a sinister clientele: the Fey. Craft in this world is something only humans can do; the Fair Folk can’t create something new. But bargaining for payment by enchantment is a dangerous, precise business. The portrait she does of (smoking hot, shapeshifting) autumn prince Rook does something unforgivable–it depicts human sorrow in his eyes. He kidnaps her and the two of them soon transition from captor and captive, falling in love as they flee the Wild Hunt. Filled with beautiful writing and fun flourishes, this YA is the kind of book you inhale over an afternoon.

Mr. Breakfast by Jonathan Carroll

Carroll’s most recent novel quickly became one of my favorites of his (not a short list, honestly). Stand-up comic Graham Patterson is in his early 40s, dissatisfied with his level of success and newly single after breaking up with the love of his life, Ruth Murphy, because she wanted children. Armed with a new camera and a plan to get from New York to L.A. via road trip, he ends up lured into a tattoo shop along the way, seduced by the tattooist’s portfolio. He ends up choosing a bonkers tattoo that will change his life by allowing him to live out other variations of his own, not something he realizes when he makes the choice. A meditation on life and disappointment and choices filled with Carroll writing at his most metaphysical and poignant. 

The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott

Book cover of The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott

A World Fantasy finalist, this novel is a bonus trilogy in one. Each of the authors wrote a section of this luxurious fantasy centered in Tira Virte, a land where everything from history to significant life events are chronicled in paintings. Sario Grijalva, like some other Grijalva men (they are the most prized artists), possesses the Gift, the ability to do something more than capture a scene, the ability instead to influence the very shape of reality. Obsessed with Saavedra, his cousin, he makes an unprecedented choice that fuels a story that spans centuries. The book uses catalogue descriptions of paintings as an ingenious form of exposition, and Tira Virte and its sweeping politics feel entirely real from the jump. With its ornate, fascinating worldbuilding, this is such a memorable collaboration. Side note: The cover art by Michael Whelan is—fittingly, charmingly—a self-portrait. icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Gwenda Bond


Learn More About Gwenda
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments