And All the Worlds Therein
So recently a friend/writing buddy and I were talking fantasy and she hadn’t read much of the genre. As you all should have guessed by now, fantasy is my world. My game. My happy place. My life.
I told her I’d pick out some titles to help get her going, since she wants to write in the genre, and as they say, the best way to write it is to read it first. A lot.
Which led me to think, “Hey, maybe I should just make a list of fantasy books, from easiest to read to hardest,” for people who aren’t familiar with the genre, since, on second thought, it isn’t always best to start someone new off with Master Tolkien. Even if he is the best. Sometimes you need to warm up to it.
And it is science fiction and fantasy week on Goodreads, so why not? We’re all in the mood, right?
But as fun as it would be, I can’t just go through the list of all the fantasy books that I’ve read in my lifetime and choose the best to represent the genre. This post would never get finished. So I’m limiting myself to 10 “To Read” and 5 “To Not or to Never,” in order of intensity of magic or difficulty in absorbing. More than 5 “To Not” would get depressing. There’s a lot of sad books out there that get labeled as fantasy (spoiler alert: they’re not). The 10 on the list aren’t necessarily the best. They’re just the ones that came quickest to mind. I can’t make a list of the best without wondering if someone important got left out.
So here’s a list (far from complete!) that I’ll probably be sorely tempted to edit in the coming days of high fantasy, low fantasy, alternate reality, magical realism, science fiction, allegory, dystopia and steampunk (because why not? They can be magical!) that will warm you up to the last on the list: greatest, deepest, and most glorious of all, Master Tolkien’s tale of the Lord of the Rings. There are some on this list I haven’t rated or reviewed yet, but they’ll get their turn eventually. So consider this a preview, and happy reading!
The List of Fantasy to Read First:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. High fantasy, allegory, and reality all rolled into one in a style appropriate for any age. It’s easy to grasp and impossible to beat as a first fantasy series. And there’s seven books. So why not?
- The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. This one was a fantastic steampunk-y dystopian science fiction for middle grade readers full of superb humor relating to how people in the future would make sense of our world, develop their own slang, and build anew. With a science fiction element that’s actually well explained. The sequel isn’t bad either, and I love the style.
- The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas. What The Fog Diver is for middle-grade science fiction, The Magic Thief is for wizardry. It’s good. Very good. And very original, proving that even though magic and fantasy are almost as old as mankind, you don’t have to do things the same way every time.
- Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath. Three jewels from Cornelia Funke. Possibly her best, in my humble opinion. Magical realism/high fantasy with a conceit (sorry, magical element for ye uninitiated readers) that is totally believable, thoroughly explained, and appeals to every bookworm’s heart. And read The Thief Lord when you’re done. There’s some bizarre magical realism for you. Just the way we like it.
- The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen. Good low fantasy that proves you can make things work without magic if need be and still be fantastic. After all, it got a BookmarkedOne 9/10. Full review here: https://bookmarkedone.home.blog/2019/07/29/the-false-prince/.
- “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard and “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu. Two award-winning short stories that are mind-boggling science fiction, pushing the boundaries of form and proving that a genre with a highly developed world is still fully viable in the short form. Both are included in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2014, along with some other stories that aren’t half as good.
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. A classic in the world of high fantasy, whatever the critics grumble. I love this book to death, and firmly believe none of the retellings, (yes, even the thoroughly enjoyable Always Neverland) do it justice. It’s weird. It’s bizarre, even. Doesn’t always make perfect sense. And it’s classic fantasy that follows its own set of rules and shows you just how fabulous things can be, while drawing just a little on myth and what everyone knows.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Back to high fantasy. A fantastic one that talks about wizards and how to become one directly, rather than only implying the presence of magic at times like The Lord of the Rings. Mesmerizing descriptions and conceit that leaves you hanging on every word. And the prose is also intoxicating, by the way.
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It’s a hard epic fantasy that will whisk you away. Full of head-on wizards and magic talked about openly and a plot entirely unpredictable. She covers great swaths of things in only a few words and leaves you wondering where you just were. The Tombs of Atuan is perhaps an equally successful sequel.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Read it. All of it. Then write yourself a note in Elvish runes that says he is the Lord of the Books. And read The Hobbit first, because you’ll only have the chance to read these for the first time once. Better do it right.
Now you’re ready to storm the shining silver gates of The Silmarillion, right? Well…maybe not. Go read Tolkien’s essay On the Fairy Story while you’re thinking about it. It will blow your mind more than any other thing I or anyone else can tell you about fantasy.
Which brings us to part II:
What Fantasy/Science Fiction Books Not to Read First
(in order of worst to consider fantasy to…well, slightly less worst)
- A Dance of Cloaks by David Daglish. Just don’t. Don’t read it at all. It’s a worthless piece of garbage. I try not to be cruel when reviewing books, but I can’t be nice on this one. I hate that I even have to acknowledge this as a published book. And, for the record, it barely even qualifies as low fantasy. So please, somebody kick this pornographic book off our section of the shelves.
- The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan. Some nice fight scenes and snarky characters, but to be honest, it isn’t even low fantasy. I know I suggest The False Prince when it’s equally magic-less, but The Crown Tower doesn’t sit as well with me. It’s not what I would suggest as defining the genre to someone just starting it. Hence the BookmarkedOne 5/10. Full review here for the curious: https://bookmarkedone.home.blog/2019/07/31/the-crown-tower/.
- The Sword of Shannarra by Terry Brooks. Too much history lesson-y-ness at the beginning that will bore readers and make them think that all sword and sorcery fantasy is written by stuffy little nerds with thick glasses. Perhaps it picks up later in the book, but the first forty pages or so are too slow to lure a reader in. Sorry.
- Landon Snow by R.K. Mortenson. One should not study theology invented by writers, nor fantasy written by men who are only theologians. Doesn’t work out well. The first one is cute, but after three or four, they no longer even make for good allegories and actually feel like the Scriptures Mortenson reveres are actually being pulled out of context just for the sake of a story series that isn’t that great. To be fair, I read this immediately after The Lord of the Rings. So I could be a little over-demanding about this series intended for young children.
- Land of Stories by Chris Colfer, Half Upon a Time by James Riley, or Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. In particular. I’ve read them. Sometimes I like them. But I’ve yet to come across a fairytale retelling book that actually does the old tales justice while having enough novelty of its own. And yes, I have a right to talk about this! I’m the kid who read the entire volume of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales from cover to cover one summer. And the Arabian Nights. And a handful of Irish tales. I know this stuff, in my blood and my brain. And if I see one more person claim that they know the tales as well as I do and then murder their characters in too much glitter or complete alteration of character and total loss of originality or clinginess to the well-known Disney versions simply from a lack of imagination, well, I might just push them all aside and write my own with a few old-style Vikings and plot twists entirely of my own invention. At this point retellings aren’t entirely fantasy. It’s repetition, almost half fan fiction. And most of it’s bad. So go be inventive! Read and write something that’s either good and old or good and new. Don’t steal what you didn’t invent. At least, not unless you can really do it well.
So that’s the list. For all you new to fantasy out there, I hope it helps. And for the diehard fans who know how much I left out….I’m sorry! Feel free to add comments with your favorites. Who knows, maybe you’ll have read something I haven’t. Surprise me!