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!
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. 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. 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.
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 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 Midnight, and 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.
A 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:
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 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.
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