Lots of science fiction and fantasy novels have twist endings — but a few of them have twists so startling, they actually change your understanding of what's been going on in the whole book. The coolest twist endings turn the whole reality of the story on its head and leave you rethinking everything you've read thus far.
Here are some of the most mind-bending, story-redefining twist endings from science fiction and fantasy books.
Top image: Detail from cover art of The Man in the High Castle by Jaime P. Keenan.
Ender's Game (by Orson Scott Card): This one caught us totally off guard the first time we read it. Ender's in Battle School training to fight the Buggers for most of the book. After he gets promoted to Command School, Ender starts a new set of training simulations to test his ability to lead fleets in war. During his final simulation, Ender sacrifices an entire fleet to defeat the enemy and destroy the alien homeworld. He thinks he'll be expelled for breaking the rules of the game, but it turns out that no one cares. In fact, his teachers are all celebrating his victory because it was not really a simulation. Ender was really commanding an army, and he really committed xenocide.
Rant (by Chuck Palahniuk): Rant tells the story of Rant Casey, who has an unusually strong tolerance for diseases and toxins and gets himself bitten by poisonous spiders for fun. He eventually leaves his small town for a bigger city. It turns out that Rant lives in a dystopian world where the upper class only comes out during the day, and the lower class is allowed on the streets at night. He joins up with a group of the low class nighttimers for "Party Crashing," a demolition derby where the crashers slam their cars into other vehicles with the night's flag (a mattress, words on the windows, etc.) There's another twist, though: the people in this world discovered that if you crash your car in a certain mental state, you'll travel backward in time. Rant winds up being killed during a Party Crashing event, but his body is never found, so his friends assume he went back in time. He may have gone to the past to rescue his mother from a version of himself in another timeline. That version, called Green Taylor Simms, has been going back to the past to father his own ancestors, kill them, and make himself a superhuman. (Here's one person's "Splintered Time Theory."))
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (by Robert Louis Stevenson): The classic tale is narrated by Mr. Utterson, who is good friends with Dr. Jekyll. Utterson investigates the connection between Jekyll and the evil Hyde and in a twist at the end, he discovers that the two are the same person. It turns out that Jekyll has been leading a double life thanks to drug he created that split his good and evil personalities. Of course, today the ending of this story isn't exactly a surprise. To readers who hadn't been spoiled already, however, it could have been pretty shocking.
Dragonsbane (by Barbara Hambly): This book turns the "knight slays a dragon" trope on its head. Lord John Aversin is the only living person in the kingdom who has ever killed a dragon, and thus, he is called the "dragonsbane." However, when a messenger comes to enlist John's aid in defeating the dragon, the truth comes out. John actually killed the dragon using a lance dipped in a poison brewed by his wife, a witch named Jenny (who serves as the POV character). Though John's dragon slaying was less honorable than everyone believed, John is still the only one who can help. The messenger convinces John that the king will provide aid for the lord's people if he slays this new dragon, so John agrees. Jenny makes a new poison and John goes forth to slay the dragon, only for both knight and dragon to end up near death. The dragon convinces Jenny to save its life in exchange for healing spells that will allow her to heal John, and this is where another part of the twist comes in: the dragon helps them save the kingdom from a sorceress who has had the king under her spell. Ultimately, the story is about Jenny being torn between her family and her magic, and not so much about her husband the knight. She chooses to accept the dragon's offer to transform into a dragon herself, but misses her family and returns home as a human.
Use of Weapons (by Iain M. Banks): This novel tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a soldier working for the Culture in their crusade to spread their perceived utopia and enlightenment across the galaxy. The Culture's methods require people like Zakalwe to help them shape lesser societies to their peaceful vision through manipulating politics and war. In Use of Weapons, Zakalwe is called out of retirement to help agents of the Culture prevent a region he previously stabilized from going to war. There are two narratives: one following Zakalwe on his current mission, and the other telling his life story in backward chronological order. As the flashback timeline goes on, it is revealed that Zakalwe was originally in line to rule a planet outside the Culture, but his cousin Elethiomel had attempted to seize it for himself. In an effort to make Cheradenine give up, Elethiomel killed his cousin's sister, made a chair from her bones, and sent it to Cheradenine. Zakalwe tried to kill himself after that and eventually became the guilt-ridden man in the novel. At least, that's what the author wants you to think. The last chapter reveals a major plot twist: it turns out that Cheradenine Zakalwe is a name the main character assumed after the real Cheradenine successfully killed himself. He is in fact the crazy cousin, Elethiomel, who has been trying to atone for his crime by working for the Culture to spread peace.
The Man in the High Castle (by Philip K. Dick): In Dick's alternate history novel, the Axis powers won World War II and basically split the world. There are multiple plotlines following different characters, and several of these characters have read a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. This book is to the characters what Dick's novel is to us, but it is an alternate history in which the Allies won World War II. That alternate history is also fictional, with Britain becoming the dominant superpower after a Cold War between them and the US. One of the themes of The Man in the High Castle is the concept of multiple realities. The twist at the end of the novel reveals that the characters might be living a lie, and the real world lies in Abendsen's book. In fact, at least one character travels to that reality.
Power of Three (by Diana Wynne Jones): There are three races in Jones' novel: the Dorig, the Lymen, and the Giants. The story follows three Lyman children with magical gifts on their quest to undo a curse placed on their people long ago. As the three explore the moor where they live, they meet a pair of Giants... and it turns out that the Giants are humans. The Dorig and the Lymen are in fact tiny people. The "Giants," the siblings, and some Dorigs must save their moor from destruction and deactivate the source of the Lyman curse.
Bone Dance (by Emma Bull): In a post-apocalyptic future, Sparrow makes a living buying and selling videos from before the disaster. Sparrow also seeks information on the Horsemen, experimental people who had the psychic ability to jump from body to body. Sparrow regularly experiences blackouts and has no memory of what happened during those times. The second half of the book reveals that Sparrow is in fact a genetically engineered human with no gender, created as a "horse" for the Horsemen to control.
The Transall Saga (by Gary Paulsen): This novel follows Mark, a young hiker who happens upon a mysterious light and finds himself transported to a strange world. His survival skills help him adjust as he adapts to life in this new place. Eventually, Mark finds people and begins to see similarities between this world and his own. Halfway through the story, Mark meets someone else from his world and discovers that he is not in a different world but a different time. In this future, a mutated form of Ebola virus has driven humanity to near extinction. Eventually, Mark makes it back home and ends up trying to find a cure.
I Am Legend (by Richard Matheson): The twist in this classic seems to offer such a shift in perspective that it totally deserves a place on this list. After a plague wiped out most of humanity and caused them to come back to life as vampires, Robert Neville is the only man left. He hunts the vampires as they sleep by day, but he still wants to know just what happened with the plague. Eventually, he finds out that the vampires aren't just mindless monsters — they are sentient and angry that he has been killing them off. In the end, Robert isn't a legend because he is the last human. He is a legend because he became a feared monster in the eyes of the vampires, who are now the majority species in the world.
Planet of the Apes (by Pierre Boulle): This is the novel that the various Planet of the Apes films have been based on, but you still might not be expecting the twist in the book version. At the beginning of the novel, a couple on a space vacation find a message, containing the story of a man named Ulysse Mérou. From here, the story is Ulysse's message. He and his crew leave Earth in 2500, landing on a planet where apes are the intelligent species and humans are mindless creatures. The apes capture his party, but Ulysse manages to prove his intelligence and was given his liberty. The twist starts when the apes discovered the truth about their past. They were once dominated by humans, but their ancestors overthrew their oppressors, who became the primitive creatures Ulysse saw on his arrival. Ulysse flees the planet when some of the apes decide that humans must be destroyed, only to arrive on a future Earth where apes rule the planet. This is when he left his message in space. It turns out that the couple who discovered it were chimpanzees themselves, who doubt that a human could have written the story.
What are your favorite mind-blowing twist endings that turn a whole book on its head?