I’m a mid to hardcore fantasy fan. I gush about unreal worlds and cry over fictional deaths. I’ve been known to occasionally recite Elven poetry. I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid and I find that, like many things, it can be off putting to figure out where to start. Or even where to take your second step once you’ve gone through the big fantasy franchises. There is so much good fantasy out there — new voices and traditional ones that should get more love in the mainstream. This is a list, not for the connoisseur and by no means comprehensive, for people who want to get into the prose part of their favorite tv, film or game genre. Let’s dive in, shall we?
If you’ve read/watched Game of Thrones and loved it…
Allow me to introduce you to one Joe Abercrombie and more particularly to his creation: Monzcarro Murcutto. Best Served Cold is a stand-alone revenge tale. It’s funny, it’s gory, it’s a cruel world with bastards, monsters and liars to grace it. And if you enjoy this book, there’s plenty more to read from the same world.
His short story “Two’s Company” is currently available on tor.com as well.
If you loved Lord of the Rings…
I have a few for you, depending on why you liked The Lord of the Rings. Into the epic nature of the battles between good and evil? Then perhaps Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. This starts after the heroes failed and the dark lord won. The magic system is stellar and there’s a heist thrown in for good measure.
Into The Lord of the Rings more for the epic scale? Well… then there’s really no substitute for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in terms of massive coherent battles for the fate of the world. It’s a fourteen book commitment, if you get into it. It’s worth it.
More into the language? Guy Gavriel Kay assisted Christopher Tolkien in his compilations of JRR’s work and writes exquisite secondary worlds based on specific historical times and places. I’d suggest starting with A Song for Arbonne.
Finally, if you got into the deep end of Lord of the Rings and love the Silmarillion, let me direct you to Jacqueline Carey’s delish deconstructive retelling of the Lord of the Rings, from a Morgoth/Sauron perspective. Read the first line and you’ll know if it’s for you.
If you’re a Harry Potter pal…
I suggest you go check out Diana Wynne Jones. She’s the fairy godmother of fantasy and her work ranges from squarely middle grade to “YA before there was YA”. Start with the The Dark Lord of Derkholm or The Merlin Conspiracy or Howl’s Moving Castle. These stories are full of wild magic and fantastical fractured fairytale worlds. The first is the tale of reluctant Dark Lord and his family — five griffin children, two human ones and a wife who makes miniature galaxies. The second is about finding the next Merlin — it’s chock full of English mythology, escapes, curses and worlds between worlds.
You might be familiar with Howl’s Moving Castle from the Hayao Miyazaki adaptation — and this is a rare case where I feel like both the book and the very different adaptation are excellent and worth your time. Young Sophie Hatter takes up with Wizard Howl after a curse ages her to ninety. This book has mixed-up identities and accidental magic that comes with a price. Sophie is a brilliant heroine, Howl is enigmatic, his apprentice is adorable and the fire demon Calcifer — well. He’s a demon. One must be careful with demons.
Alternately, I suggest Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle. A bunch of the creatures from Harry Potter are traditional English monsters and fairies. You’ll find bogarts and red caps and ghosts in this story of a girl uprooted from NYC and her friend Tamsin — who died three hundred years ago.
If you liked fantasy as a kid, and fell out of love with it as you got older…
I have a name for you, my friend. A precious name. N. K. Jemisin. She’s the one for you. I’d recommend starting with The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s the first in a trilogy, but each installment stands alone. It’s a young woman thrown into a poisonous royal court in a country whose power derives from the enslavement of gods. Actually, she isn’t ‘thrown’ in. She’s walking in, looking for answers about her mother’s murder.
If you are reading this and going, “but I like science fiction…”
Ancillary Justice. If you haven’t read that, it’s your next stop. The point of view is a ship’s AI — both as confined to a single human-shaped segment and as hundreds of said segments. It won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke, the Locus and the BSFA. It begins a trilogy that’s all available. It’s a tight read that will challenge you. It’s wonderful. I’m very much in love with it.
If you are reading this to judge the things I’m recommending, being yourself a well accomplished fantasy enthusiast…
Tricky. Very tricky. But I may have someone for you. Some book. Have you read The Innkeeper’s Song? It’s out of print, but you can find it if you try and it’s beautiful.
This is one of my very favorite books to recommend, and it’s difficult to describe. It’s not very long, but it’s packed with perspectives. The language is haunting, enchanting and regularly heartbreaking. It’s about love and death and stories, and handles those topics with casual originality.
If you happen to have read it already, write to me. You’re a rare breed and clearly we should talk.