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Step Aside, Shadowfax—6 Books Featuring Fantasy Steeds That Aren’t Horses

Sure, horses are majestic and noble beasts, but why limit yourself to four legs and hooves in fantasy when you could be riding anything from gigantic sandworms to man-eating hippos? Here are six titles that feature alternative steeds for riding into battle on, or just riding to work on.

By Yvonne Ye


Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

The Annurian Empire—the setting for Staveley’s popular series The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne—is back, and it’s disintegrating rapidly. After a disastrous mission gone terribly awry, Gwenna Sharpe must embark on a voyage beyond the edges of any maps in search for the ancient nesting grounds of the giant war hawks—massive, proud birds that can carry an entire Wing of highly skilled soldiers—the empire needs to survive.

American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

 In the early 20th century, the U.S. Congress seriously entertained the proposition of importing hippos into the southern marshlands to be nurtured as an alternative meat source. Sarah Gailey follows that proposition to its logical conclusion: a hair-raising heist on hippo-back. Brutal, brilliant, bold, and brash, American Hippo follows Winslow Houndstooth and his crew of outlaws, con artists, assassins, and their hippo counterparts as they wreak absolute mayhem in the bayous of Louisiana—and take bloody revenge.

The Red Threads of Fortune by Neon Yang

After the explosive ending of The Black Tides of Heaven, Sanao Mokoya—ex-prophet, trained Tensor, rebel, and daughter of the supreme Protector—now spends her days hunting sky-obscuring naga: great, lizard-like beasts that soar through the heavens on clawed wings of leather, whose jaws could slice a man in half. When she meets the mysterious yet enchanting Rider, who can take to the skies on the back of a naga, Mokoya must confront conspiracy and betrayal, buried secrets and deadly magic while navigating her own trauma and grief.

Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Come for the incisive deconstruction of power in a bloody sisterhood of matriarchal nuns; stay for the haqules, the giant, swift-footed, fork-tailed feline steeds that the high-ranking members of the sisterhood ride. Elfreda Raughn wants out of the Sisterhood of Aytrium, which offers her great power at a gruesome cost. Sometimes, that means riding giant cats while making one’s dramatic escape. Sometimes, that also means evading giant cats whilst making one’s dramatic escape, but such are the dangers of infiltrating and rebelling against a cannibalistic priestesshood.

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

If you’ve ever looked at 14th century Europe and thought to yourself that it would be improved by the addition of dinosaurs, look no further. Mercenary and Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky has been betrayed and left for dead, but he won’t let his story end there. Milán crafts a world full of dinosaurs as wildlife, as husbandry, as pets, and of course—as steeds of war.

Dune by Frank Herbert

When the House of Atreides accepts stewardship over the planet of Arrakis, young Paul Atreides is flung into a storm of interstellar intrigue and deadly competition. Arrakis is inhospitable, desolate, and covered primarily in harsh deserts; it is also the only source of melange, a rare and exclusive spice that can both extend life and heighten mental abilities. The catch? The spice is guarded by the giant sandworms of Arrakis, who are made of little more than teeth and territorial instinct. With an upcoming film this fall featuring a powerhouse cast of Oscar Isaac, Timothée Chalamet, and Zendaya, we’re looking forward to at least one scene where a character rides the famed sandworms.

7 thoughts on “Step Aside, Shadowfax—6 Books Featuring Fantasy Steeds That Aren’t Horses

  1. In Seven Blades in Black, our hero Sal rides a bird which bears a very strong resemblance to the Chocobos of the Final Fantasy series, it its a bit less fluffy. Speaking of chocobos, they’ve been around long enough to be considered a classic fantasy mount.

  2. Klootz the telepathic moose from Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier. Klootz is Per Hiero Desteen’s boon companion as he travels through a post-apocalyptic North America. A pretty good dystopian SF book from my youth.

    1. Oh hell yeah, that reminds me of the telepathic flying mules from Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Ozark Trilogy”.

  3. Please don’t forget C. J. Cherryh’s magnificent Finisterre series, including “Rider at the Gate” and “Cloud’s Rider.” The animals in question are ‘nighthorses,’ which are similar to horses in some ways, but far different in most! The Amazon blurb is “Stranded on a distant planet that abounds with fertile farmland, human colonists appear to be in paradise. But all the native animals communicate by telepathy, projecting images that drive humans mad. Only Nighthorses stand between civilization and madness. When a flare of human emotion spreads to all the horses, chaos erupts.”

  4. For some really terrifying steed action, try reading “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper. The “mounts” are the barbed and red-eyed Hippae, who sometimes abduct their human riders, and always cause constant psychological horror and barely controlled panic amongst the aristocrats who insist on saddling them. It’s the first book in the incredible Arbai Trilogy.

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