Spotlight on: Fantasy

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Fantasy means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!


What is Fantasy?

For me, fantasy is any fiction that includes magic. Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, sometimes it’s implied, but it is essentially that which can’t be explained by the rules of reality.

There are, I think, quite a lot of fantasy subgenres, and I can’t pretend to be well-versed enough to talk in depth about the nuances between them all. Typically when I talk about fantasy I’m referring to high fantasy, which takes place in an invented world with its own contained magical system and rules of operation. But I also read some urban/low fantasy, in which a sort of magical pocket universe is hidden and largely unknown by society within the bounds of our real world. Magical realism / fabulism falls under the fantasy umbrella for me, though often these contain just one magical element in an otherwise realistic world. Fairy tales and folklore containing magic are also fantasy in my book.

Additionally, fantasy is closely related to science fiction for me (and many others, I believe); while I think there is a definite difference between the two (mainly that science fiction at least attempts to explain how and why its details are possible using known and speculated facts based on our real world and knowledge base whereas magic deals directly with inexplicable otherworldly elements at face value) I also think that both exist on the same spectrum and that some books fall in the middle or contain significant elements from both genres. Typically superhero, paranormal, and dystopian stories fall under science fiction in my mind because they often offer some explanation as to how their otherworldly elements could be compatible with the real world, but depending on how these things are handled in text these will sometimes also fall into the fantasy genre for me. Just as I mentioned some fantasy-leaning sci-fi in my spotlight post for that genre, there will be some sci-fi content included in this post as well, with the understanding that these titles fit under both categories for me, rather than exclusively into one.


My History with Fantasy

Where I felt my last couple of spotlight posts might have suffered for the fact that I’ve come to enjoy those genres only more recently, this one I’m afraid will suffer a bit for the fact that I haven’t been reading as much of it in the last few years, even though fantasy was one of my first favorite genres. I won’t be able to recommend a lot of new releases on the strength of personal experience, though I still have plenty of titles to talk about!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)It’s hard to pinpoint my earliest experiences with this genre, because I was reading about magic long before I kept a reading log or had a grasp on genre differentiations. There was a particular picture book with faerie queens with wands in a forest that I remember loving, though it’s so far back that I can’t seem to track it down even on the internet and am not entirely sure I’d recognize the cover if I did. But I do remember some other fantasy books I started reading in elementary school once I was reading proper chapters- C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (of course), The Spiderwick Chronicles by Toni DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was an early standalone fantasy favorite.

It was the magic itself I was interested in at the beginning- I really fell into those imaginative worlds with their own peculiar rules and creatures. I sped through Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (translated from the German by Anthea Bell), Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries. There was a definite trend toward fantasy romance when I hit middle school, and that was the point at which I came to two of the most formative books of my life: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’s Hawksong and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Hawksong (The Kiesha'ra, #1)To be clear, when I say “formative” I don’t necessarily mean I’m holding these up as lasting favorites, though Hawksong is one of those as well. It’s a bit basic compared to today’s YA fantasies, but it makes some great social points in convincing ways. But when I say Twilight was formative I mean that it was something that I loved at the time, the first series with which I was part of a fandom, and the first book/series that I reread later with an entirely changed perspective. It taught me a lot about what makes a book “work” or not, and what kind of reader I have been at different points in my life, which hasn’t happened as clearly for me with any other genre.

After high school, I became interested in fantasy not so much for the details of those other worlds as for the parallels that could be drawn between the worldly and otherworldly. I’ve come to value complex characterization and politics and social commentary above the magic itself. This is actually part of the reason I’ve read less fantasy in recent years- I’m in the middle of a slow trek through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and while it’s not a flawless set it is a good fit for my current magical taste. The problem is that I don’t reach for long books as easily as I used to, so I’m hesitant to continue while also hesitant to start other fantasies lest I forget the details of this one. The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)I’m also mentally juggling Pierce Brown’s extended Red Rising trilogy and S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, both of which are ongoing. It’s a lot of pages to reread if I can’t keep fantasies straight.


Fantasy Classics and Staples

Usually I focus specifically on classics for this section of the post, but I think the only book I’ve read that properly fits the category is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I’d be surprised if you haven’t already heard of; but I do feel that I’ve read a fair number of popular fantasy staples over the years, particularly series. I can’t say these are the most original selections from the genre, although if you’re fairly new to fantasy I think any of them would be an okay place to start to get a feel for what sort of magic you’re interested in- popular must be popular for a reason. I’ll organize these by age range, MG -> YA -> NA -> Adult.

The Giver by Lois Lowry features a utopian/dystopian society in which the twelve year-old protagonist learns the shocking truth behind how his community keeps the peace.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is the first book in his Percy Jackson series, in which a young boy (Percy) attends a summer camp for demi-gods, where he learns how the Greek gods and all of their power fit into the modern era.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, #1)Eragon by Christopher Paolini is a dragon-focused fantasy; a farm boy stumbles upon a strange stone that hatches into a dragon, forever altering destiny for both the boy and the empire.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs features a group of unusual children hiding from their monstrous enemies in a loop of time at the end of WWII.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a paranormal story in which a group of private school boys and a girl named Blue search for a legendary, ancient Welsh king.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo follows a girl with long-hidden magic who becomes caught in a battle for power led by the Darkling; set in the same world, the Six of Crows duology features a band of skilled outcasts, for whom an elaborate heist turns into a quest for survival and revenge.

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is an urban fantasy in which a New York teen learns that there’s more to her home city- and her family legacy- than she ever knew. Spin-off books set in the same shadowhunter world include Clockwork Priness, Lady Midnightand Chain of Gold.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a romance-focused fae fantasy (modelled on Beauty and the Beast) in which a mortal girl must break a fifty-year curse and stop a war for the High Lord(s) she loves.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is an interplanetary dystopian set far into the future in which a lowly boy from the mines of Mars rebels against the color Caste system by infiltrating an elite and brutal Institute.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman includes a magical college where the protagonist learns that the magical setting of his favorite childhood books is a real place, and darker than he ever could have imagined.

Saga, Vol. 1A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a low fantasy romance in which shared enemies bring together unusual alliances as one witch with suppressed powers learns she may hold the key to uniting the four races (humans, vampires, witches, and daemons) before centuries of separation drive them extinct.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is a comic series following an interracial family whose warring planets try to exterminate them in order to perpetuate their own power struggle and the myth that their peoples are incompatible with peace.


Further Fantasy Recommendations

I’ve enjoyed all of the series above in their own ways, in their own times, but there’s plenty more to the genre than commercially successful series. Here are some others that are maybe a bit lesser known or a bit controversial to fit into the fantasy bracket and/or just fantasy books that I’d love to see more people read:

Follow Me to GroundIf you want magical realism / fabulism: Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, Lanny by Max Porter, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

If you want magical horror: Bird Box by Josh Malerman, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

If you want literary fantasy: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

If you want low/urban fantasy:  The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Philosopher's Flight (The Philosophers Series, #1)

If you want gods: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Stand by Stephen King

If you want high fantasy: Stardust by Neil Gaiman, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

If you want a sci-fi/fantasy blend: The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Early Riser by Jasper Fforde


Fantasy on my TBR:

There’s actually quite a long list, despite (or perhaps because) I haven’t been reading as much fantasy lately- I’m hoping to finish what’s published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series this summer (I have two books left) and move on from GRRM… I might do some sort of “try a chapter” posts in upcoming months to help me prioritize what to start next when the time comes. Some of the fantasy titles on my list that you may be familiar with are: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer (I know, but I can’t not), The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson,The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. I’m actually currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House as well and in a serious mood to reread her Six of Crows; I need to get fantasy back into my regular reading, so please, drop all the recommendations in the comments!


Why Read Fantasy?

First, because it’s fun! This is perhaps the most creative and inventive of all genres, in that literally anything goes. Second, because as far-fetched as some of the content may be, this is a genre that tends toward celebration of and commentary on the real world. Many fantasies are based in real cultural practices and lore, and/or use plot and characterization to comment on the possibilities and limitations of government, the power of the individual, the flaws of society, etc. The most outlandish setups are often thinly-veiled disguises for real issues- it may be a wild genre, but it’s certainly not frivolous. The magic is often a way of emphasizing a point or emotion that the reader will be able to identify or sympathize with.


Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for fantasy, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂


The Literary Elephant



36 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Fantasy”

  1. This is a great post! Like you, I read more fantasy when I was younger and these days hardly ever turn to it. You’ve reminded me that it’s a broader category than I maybe give it credit for, and I’ll definitely be following up some of your recommendations – maybe for literary fantasy and/or magical realism to ease me back in!

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    1. Thank you! For some reason fantasy seems a lot more popular among younger audiences. I wonder if older readers just don’t consider fantasy a very serious genre, which is a shame because I think it can really do a lot under the surface. Even so, it definitely has gotten harder to reach for in recent years for me too and it’s hard to pinpoint why. I’d love to get back to it! I hope my recommendations will be a good fit to get you excited about the genre again as well! 🙂


  2. Interesting! I think I define fantasy a bit differently to you; for example, I wouldn’t define Red Rising or The Giver as fantasy. I’m not sure my definition is very sound, but essentially I guess fantasy for me takes place in an imaginary world, rather than a future version of our own world. There’s also some books I’d define as speculative fiction rather than fantasy because the real-world elements are so dominant (Ninth House is an edge case for me).

    I read a lot of fantasy when I was a child, but have struggled with the genre as an adult, despite being a big reader of SF and speculative fiction. I love GRRM but have ended up turning to SF readalikes such as the Expanse series rather than fantasy novels. A lot of people have recommended The Priory of the Orange Tree, but I’m a bit put off by its length…

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    1. That’s fair! And I agree with where you’re coming from. Typically I think of future versions of our world as speculative or dystopian, both of which are more sci-fi than fantasy to me on principle, but I think the the level of inventiveness and how those details are being used is what tips the scale toward fantasy for me, or at least puts those books in the middle between sci-fi and fantasy so that I would count them in both genres. When Darrow is made into a Gold for instance in Red Rising, the book is more focused on the personal and political consequences of it rather than on the science of how such a thing would be possible or what that sort of procedure being possible would mean for humanity at large, which I think is more of a fantasy tactic than a sci-fi one even though it’s not presented as something that happens magically. But it’s certainly a challenging and subjective line to draw! It’s been too long since I’ve read The Giver to be able to dissect that one very deeply; I put it in this post based on my first impression but it’s possible I could change my mind about it if I read it again today. And I’m not far enough in Ninth House yet to be entirely sure which categories it’ll best fit for me in the end- if this post series has taught me anything it’s that somehow I ended up with a different sense of where to draw genre lines than other readers have!

      I’m gathering that it’s common to enjoy fantasy more when younger, and move away from it in favor of more realistic fare as an adult. That’s an interesting trend I don’t entirely understand, but you’re definitely not alone. And I’m in the same boat with Priory! I’m told it reads fast but it’s always difficult deciding to pick up something that long, especially when you’ve been away from the genre!

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      1. I guess for me, both The Giver and Red Rising could be called speculative rather than SF – especially The Giver because it is so light on detail. (I didn’t like Red Rising so don’t remember it well, but for me the Mars setting pushed it towards SF).

        GRRM has a really interesting essay (in Dreamsongs 2 in the UK, don’t know where it’s published elsewhere) where he argues that the boundaries between fantasy and SF (and horror!) are essentially meaningless. I can definitely see what he’s getting at, and I love genre-crossing, but I still struggle with pure fantasy!

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      2. Ah, I see! I would not argue that placement- I think for me it’s more that these books exist sort of between genres and I tend to take an “all that applies” approach. Which I think puts me near GRRM’s opinion, though I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the boundaries are meaningless. But I do agree that SF/F/horror have a lot in common, and that it can be hard to draw lines between them especially when they begin borrowing elements from each other. (And depending on the content speculative novels would probably fit under one of those three genres for me as well.) There are definitely some books that seem firmly to belong in one camp or the other and I can see how very science-based SF for instance can seem sort of incompatible with say, high fantasy or the sort of horror that relies on jump scares over psychology. And vice versa. But with the books that are more nebulously between these genres it does seem kind of pointless to me to split hairs rather than put them in the hands of sci-fi AND fantasy AND horror readers. It seems like there’s plenty of overlap, though I would argue that the distinctions have been made for a reason- it doesn’t seem unreasonable to have specific preferences or dislikes within that web!

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      3. Yeah, I don’t think my own definitions of these genres are very well thought-through! I do think the distinctions are helpful, though, as I think reader expectations are important – in the same way as I’d defend the label ‘literary fiction’, I think it is good to know going in whether a novel is hard SF or speculative or actually more fantastical. I think I use the term ‘speculative’ so much to pick up precisely on those novels that fall between different genres – although I’m also a huge fan of novels that are explicitly cross-genre, like Nina Allan’s books, which draw from both fantasy and SF. Really interesting discussion, thanks for starting it!

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      4. Thank you for commenting! 🙂 Discussing how genres vary for different readers is exactly what I was going for with these posts, so I’m glad it’s working! It’s definitely challenged me to rethink my definitions of different genres and why, which I appreciate. And I think you’re right about reader expectations being very important in how genres are used- the main purpose of genres as labels is (imo) guiding readers toward new books they might be interested in, and without considering what readers are looking for seems to defeat the purpose. Using speculative as a between-genres label also makes a lot of sense; it’s hard to put that term under genre without making exceptions when it comes to actual content so perhaps considering it as more of a bridge-genre is the way to go!

        (Also, I hadn’t heard of Nina Allan but have just looked up some of her work and am very intrigued!)

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      1. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s read Priory has said the size is deceptive, but I have to agree that it makes it seem less approachable!

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  3. Great post!! I use a pretty similar definition of fantasy (anything that contains magic), which means that I consider some books fantasy that others wouldn’t. Your history with fantasy is interesting – I hadn’t realized this until now but many of my childhood/teenage favorites were fantasy books as well! I don’t read nearly as much fantasy as I used to, but I’ll look into your recommendations (especially the magical realism list) 😀

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    1. Thanks! It sounds like we’ve had a pretty similar approach to this genre! Back when I read a lot of my childhood favorites I didn’t even know what a genre was, so it’s been surprising putting these posts together and seeing what patterns emerge from those early reading days. I hope you’ll have a good time with any of these recommendations you pick up! 🙂

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  4. I really love your spotlight posts! Also because I love all the genres you spotlight, lol. We have a very similar definition of fantasy, but I might not consider magical realism or fabulism as fantasy. For me most of fantasy is about an unusual world made to feel normal, while magical realism takes the familiar and makes it feel unusual. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m probably splitting hairs, but they feel different for me. So for example Follow Me to Ground isn’t in the same lump in my mind as the other fantasy reads. But I agree on why read fantasy—I love how it can explore complex issues while being very fun to read! Also, literally all of the books on your TBR are ones I’ve been meaning to read. 🤣 The Priory of the Orange Tree and Bear and the Nightingale, especially. But TPotOT just looks so long, I don’t know if I’m up for it.

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    1. Ah, thanks so much! I was really hoping this series wouldn’t come across as “here’s another list of books I’ve read,” haha.

      That makes sense! I definitely think that magical realism / fabulism have different approaches and aims than say, high fantasy, and I would definitely clarify in a review if I’m talking about magical realism rather than just calling a book (like Follow Me to Ground) fantasy- though it is ultimately a branch that fits in the larger fantasy tree for me. I agree that it’s a worthwhile distinction though, and I can see the purpose behind separating them entirely.

      Ah, it’s so fun that we have such similar taste in books! I’d love to see your thoughts on any of the fantasies on my TBR- and perhaps we could fit in another buddy read at some point! 🙂 I’ve been told Priory reads a lot faster than it looks (and it’s a standalone!) which is encouraging, but I’ve definitely been putting it off bc of the length as well. Someday I’ll just have to go ahead and give it a proper chance!

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      1. Definitely not! These posts always make me rethink what I know of a genre. 😄 Which is fun, because it’s something I’ve always assumed but never really articulated.

        Glad that made sense! Though I have to admit, when I hear fantasy I often think high fantasy, so anything that takes place in our world and with no magical world doesn’t really register as fantasy for me.

        Yes we could do another buddy read at some point! 💖 Let me know if you’ll be free for it again. 😄 Oooh, that is encouraging! But then again, it’s not only the length—it really takes me awhile to get used to the map and terms and conventions of a new fantasy world. We’ll see!

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      2. Thank you! 🙂 I’ve been having lots of fun putting some deeper thought into genres this year, I’ve been relying on gut instinct for so long!

        That’s definitely fair, high fantasy is definitely what first comes to mind when I hear fantasy as well. I’m curious, would magical realism fit better under another genre for you, or do you prefer it to stand completely alone? I also think it’s a good point that fantasy books do often take extra patience for learning specific vocab and world details, as you mention with Priory… magical realism doesn’t have that factor! Perhaps despite their magic these two groups do belong farther apart than I’ve been placing them.

        Great! We can definitely make it happen! 🙂

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      3. Hmm for me magical realism is under its own umbrella, though I’ve been lazy shelving in GR recently so some are still under fantasy. Many times I find that books that incorporate magical realism are also literary, so I might shelve them as litfic instead. I find that I don’t usually reach for hardcore fantasy/sci-fi anymore but am always intrigued by books with speculative/fabulist elements. But bah, we can all have our own categories anyway! 🙂

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      4. I agree! I tend to reach for speculative/fabulist elements far more easily these days as well, and it’s nice to have at least that little bit of magic in my reading. 🙂 I hope you continue to find some favorites in those categories going forward, even if they’re not strictly fantasy!

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  5. love these genre spotlight posts! another great fantasy series that i remember really loving a few years back is the Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta ☺ its a YA fantasy trilogy that starts out a little tropey with the first book, Finnikin of the Rock, but gets so good after! i dont know if id love it as much if i reread it now, but i remember being so absorbed while reading them!

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    1. Thanks so much! 🙂
      I haven’t heard much about that series, but I do recognize the name Finnikin so I must have seen it around. I’m glad you persevered and ended up loving it! Books/series that start out tropey and then surprise you can be very fun, I think. And “absorbing” is a great descriptor for fantasy in general! I think this is the genre I’m most likely to binge read, feeling like I can’t get enough!

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  6. I’ve really gotten into reading more fantasy in the last two or so years, and I’m really enjoying myself. I didn’t read it for a while because I wasn’t sure how other bloggers would respond to reviews. The more I review genre fiction (and I may just be seeing what I want to see), the more it seems like other bloggers are reviewing commercially successful books. Maybe we’re all subtly encouraging each other?

    I think my definition of science fiction differs from yours a smidge. Basically, there has to be an element that may or may not be real that the author attempts to explain with science. This is why The Martian (real science) and Star Wars (pew pew lasers) would BOTH be science fiction. Working in a library, I find that patrons who are into fantasy are really NOT into sci-fi, and vice versa, which is another reason I keep these genres apart. I tend to only recognize a cross-genre when there is both magic and science that the author explains. In The Snow Queen cycle by Joan D. Vinge, what one tribe thinks is magic (and they explain it with perfect logic!) is actually science and technology created by another tribe (and it’s explained, too!).

    I’d also leave horror out if the magic isn’t explained, because otherwise every creature feature would be considered fantasy instead a subgenre of horror. Bird Box has something mysterious going on, but we don’t know that it’s magic. Coraline makes sense to me as fantasy-horror because the way the Other Mother’s magic works is explained (and I’m totally basing this off my many viewings of the movie and not having read the book): she sews a doll with button eyes to see what makes children miserable so she can lure them into the Other World and destroy their souls.

    Some of my favorite fantasy include Mechanica and Venturess by Betsy Cornwell, The Descent series by S.M. Reine (IT’S A HUGE SERIES), Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown, and, most days, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books.

    Did you include Circe in your historical fiction post, too, or was that The Song of Achilles?

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    1. I definitely think that the bloggers (and other reviewers) we follow have an influence on what we read, even if it’s subtle! I try not to let potential disinterest in reviews influence what I’m reading, but my tastes and content have changed significantly in the time I’ve been blogging and I’m sure the bloggers I follow are at least partially responsible. 🙂

      I agree completely with your SF definition- I was pretty hasty with my explanation in this post so as not to shift the focus too far from fantasy, though perhaps I brushed past too quickly. It’s interesting that you’ve noticed at the library a lot of preference for one vs the other, as the line between SF/F seems like one of the blurriest genre boundaries to me! I think you’re taking a very good approach to separate them so thoroughly if your patrons are particular about which they want to read; personally I tend to use the “every genre that could possible apply” approach, which I know isn’t ideal in every circumstance, and probably wouldn’t work so well at the library!

      I see your point about horror and magic being separate, and I’m sure I’ll have to look more closely at where I draw that line by the time I spotlight horror, since fantasy is surely to come up again at that point. I think for me, horror is anything intended to scare, and fantasy is anything otherworldly that isn’t explained rationally (as it would be with SF); I would say both Bird Box and Coraline count as horror for me as well, though they also fit in fantasy in my mind because their otherworldly elements are not explained. I think there can be a lot of overlap between sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Another commentor noted that George R. R. Martin has an essay in which he argues the boundaries between those three are meaningless! I don’t entirely agree, but I do think they have a lot in common.

      Thanks for including some favorites! I haven’t read any from your list, though I’ve long wanted to read Like Water for Chocolate and your review of the first S.M. Reine book really piqued my interest! I think I found your blog in the midst of your Valdemar readings and have struggled a bit to follow along without coming in at the beginning. But I don’t think I’ve heard of Betsy Cornwell’s or Mary Brown’s books at all! I’ll have to check them out.

      Both of Miller’s novels were in my historical fiction post! I could have included both here as well, but the focus seemed more on the human characters in TSoA whereas Circe includes more gods, so I decided to just pick the one this time.


      1. I’m on the last book of the first series in the Descent world. It’s SO GOOD. I can’t wait to review the whole thing. I’m not even sure what I’m going to say yet — it’s one of those books that make you feel in love with the novel, but you can’t pinpoint why without sounding like you’re spouting off cliches.

        Just today I was putting together my sci-fi/fantasy newsletter for June, and I was thinking about your post. As I was inserting the synopsis for each book, I noticed just how different the words are in each review: the science fiction books are so “Across the six-planet expanse of the Gaia system, the Earthlike Gretia struggles to stabilize in the wake of an interplanetary war.” And the fantasy books are more “On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.”

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      2. Ooh, I’m eager to see your thoughts on the series! I can absolutely agree that it can be difficult writing reviews for books/series that you love. Somehow the list of complaints in a negative review practically writes itself while articulating what’s great about something you loved remains elusive!

        That’s very interesting, doing a synopsis comparison! Planets vs. mages sounds about right. I definitely think that SF books are more focused on taking the known external world to its next steps, whereas fantasy seems more interested in characters, and can make the external details as impossible as it likes while building up believable/sympathetic characters. The difference between the two definitely goes a bit deeper for me than the science vs magic on the surface- I think the genres differ in spirit as well, in what sort of effect they’re trying to achieve for the reader. Surprisingly, though SF is usually based in fact, I think it primarily aims to speculate, whereas fantasy, with all of its impossibilities, aims to highlight aspects of life that are already happening in the real world. (Societal rifts, internal character struggles, racial disparaities, etc.)

        I’m glad I managed to time the post to coincide with your SF/F newsletter, I’ve had a good time hashing out the differences/similarities with you! 🙂

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  7. Like you, I read a lot of fantasy as a kid and have moved away from it as I’ve gotten older. A LOT of kids/YA books seem to be fantasy-oriented. J.R.R. Tolkien was basically required reading in my family and I loved C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander too. When I was in university, it was kind of looked down on as genre fiction and I kind of just stopped reading it. I also don’t love getting involved in long book series and that rules out quite a few fantasy books! I do however love magic realism and your post has made me wonder if my early enjoyment of fantasy has led to that.

    Would you classify dystopian fiction as fantasy? I was surprised to see you mention The Giver but I can kind of see where you’re coming from too.

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    1. So much fantasy seems aimed at young readers! I came to J.R.R. Tolkien surprisingly late, and have been putting off LOTR after not liking The Hobbit as much as I’d hoped… I think I really would have enjoyed those books more as a kid.
      Fortunately I didn’t feel much of that pressure in college to set aside genre fiction, though the focus in class was certainly more on lit fic and classics, which kept me busy enough that it was hard to read much else on the side. I suppose in the end whether fantasy was looked down upon by my university or not, school did play a role in my reading less of it!
      I think you’re right about long series as well- a lot of fantasy books require more time commitment, which just seems harder in general as an adult. Luckily magical realism pieces are often standalones! 🙂

      Typically I’d call dystopian an off-shoot of sci-fi, though for me it depends on how directly the dystopian world is being linked to present society and realistic speculation of technology and ways of life evolving from what we’ve got to whatever’s in the book. If there’s a lot that’s made up and not explained/rationalized it leans more toward fantasy for me. With The Giver, the inability to see colors and feel emotions and whatnot (it’s been a while since I read the book, I hope I’m remembering it right!) are props for the plot/thought experiment rather than scientific explorations. But I’d probably say this is a case of either/or- I would definitely not argue The Giver being classified as sci-fi, I just think it fits in both based on the way that otherworldly element is used. (But again, it’s been a while, I could be remembering it wrong!)

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      1. I started with The Hobbit and was a little older when I first read LOTR. In the third grade, I won a character costume contest when I dressed up as Bilbo Baggins!

        Your argument re: dystopian fiction completely makes sense. I never really thought about it before but I’d probably classify it closer to sci-fi yet you’re right that some veer closer to fantasy. It can be a very fine line between the two.

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      2. Ah, I’ll bet you were an excellent Bilbo! 3rd grade probably put you at just the right height for the role. 🙂

        Thanks, I’m glad I made sense! Another discussion I’ve had in the comments here about where to draw the line between sci-fi and fantasy has left me thinking that perhaps subgenres like dystopian and speculative fiction simply belong more comfortably between genres, as a way to bridge the gap. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs too far to say categories like these belong slightly outside of the bigger genres, but dystopian is definitely a subset that’s bound to have some exceptions no matter which way it’s classified. I think it’s interesting to ponder, at any rate.

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      3. It’s definitely an interesting thing to ponder. I think of both fantasy and sci fi as involving a lot of world building whereas dystopian fiction seems to me to take the world as we know it and twist it a bit. But you could probably make an argument in another direction too!


  8. I really love your Spotlight series. I realise that I need and I want to read more fantasy books and I also have on my TBR list such books as Ninth House and The Poppy War. As Laura also referred to above, I would personally probably consider a few books that you mentioned as “dystopian” rather than “fantasy” even if they have completely unbelievable elements, which means they are even closer to sci-fi. Having said that, I think your definition is very fair and fantasy is such a broad genre anyway, so it does not matter too much. Speaking of magic, I really recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as an excellent fantasy book – I know I mentioned it before, but it is simply amazing.


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