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Hold Up, Aren’t Fantasy Books for Kids?
OK, everybody, stay calm! This is not a drill! We are talking about fantasy books, and you, my dear reader, have the fortune and misfortune to hear it from me – not only a massive fan but also a fantasy scholar. This means that
- you can trust me to choose some valuable reading materials, and
- I will go deeper into detail about fantasy itself.
Now that we’ve settled that, let’s talk business. Fantasy has long been scorned and ignored as literature for kids or just not serious enough. *SCOFF* People forget that fantasy has always been written by adults and discussed in detail by those same adults.
How did this even happen? Somewhere around the nineteenth century, people started noticing some downsides to the massive industrial revolution. Spoiler alert: it involved pollution, increased poverty, and illnesses in big cities. So they looked to children with the romanticist view that kids are connected to nature and, thus, pure. (For anyone who has one of those cousins who screams bloody murder at all times, I know you know that this is easily disputed 😉.)
The growing interest in children sought to preserve that innocence and shifted from morality tales into more imaginative spheres, taking cues from mythology, folklore, and romance (as in knight tales, not love stories). Then came along one particular John, who figured he could make something out of it. So he started creating new worlds – a whole new mythology, in fact. Soon enough, some friends joined him, and they started this little thing called the Oxford School of Literature … and what do you know, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia are a hit!
The only thing was that Tolkien and Lewis published their books under the guise of children’s literature because it was easier to break into that market than to compete for attention with modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. And that’s where the negative connection comes from.
Thankfully, the trends have shifted, so if anyone ever tells you that fantasy is for kids, show them the sheer horrors one finds in Game of Thrones and then slap them with one tonne of the same series. One or the other will get the message across.
Some of The Best Fantasy Books to Ease Yourself Into
Now, with all prejudice cast aside, it may be prudent to start with some beginner choices (just in case you haven’t read enough fantasy in your life):
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There is no better entry into fantasy than this absolute classic about the Biblical apocalypse going wrong. When an angel and a demon set out to raise the prophesied child of Satan, chaos ensues. Also, they are raising the wrong child – not that anyone could tell the difference. You’ll also learn about the planet Earth’s zodiac sign, some funky motorcyclists, and just what it is about cats that frighten Hellhounds. To top it all with a wonderful cherry, there is a marvellous adaptation on Amazon Prime with season 2 coming soon.
- Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. This is a modern-age retelling of the legend of King Arthur, set in the American South. Now’s the time to celebrate Black History Month with a tale that takes a deliberately forgotten part of history and puts it in a truly legendary setting.
- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. In this classic fairytale retelling, an older couple struggling to conceive decides to make a child out of snow. They do live in Alaska, after all. The surprise – the child comes alive. The problem? It will melt eventually. This is a magical tale about love, family, and walking that extra mile for those you care about.
- The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1) by Brandon Sanderson. Once you’re done with those, you can set yourself off on a journey into a fantasy series. The premise is easy enough: a much-loathed autocratic king is making everyone’s lives miserable until Kelsier, currently imprisoned, finds himself wielding the power of the Mistborn. Assembling a rag-tag team of misfits, Kelsier sets out to dethrone the evil king. But how much can a band of criminals do?
- Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. Because seeing this book on my to-read list just made me buy it (finally). Mooncakes is a story about a baking witch and non-binary werewolf who find themselves not only minding a magical shop but also investigating some freaky occurrences in their hometown. The beautiful art is just a bonus to this quick and comforting read.
And to make sure you’re entirely hooked, here are a few more examples:
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
- Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
- Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
- Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
10 YA Fantasy Books to Explore
There’s no denying that young adult (YA) fantasy is slightly different from what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote about Middle Earth. For starters, you can expect YA fantasy to deal with themes that concern late teens and early twenty-somethings, and lemme tell you, that is not destroying the One Ring.
For some excellent YA books, check your local library for these:
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. This little series does not get enough love. About a hundred years ago, the Builders created the City of Ember and set it up for human survival. But now, the stores are running out of necessities. When Lina and Doon, two teens, discover a piece of parchment with something that looks like an instruction manual, they start to wonder whether it means a safe exit from the city. This fast-paced, highly imaginative series will leave you wanting more.
- Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Meggy and Moe are a dream team. They are perfectly happy with their quiet life until some rather strange faces resurface from Moe’s past, revealing that he can bring fictional characters from books to life by reading aloud. And the dark side? These characters want his talents. Oh, and that suspicious book he’s been hiding. But let’s pretend we didn’t see that. The chase begins, and father and daughter must face many dangers, including those within them.
- Redwall by Brian Jacques. The Redwall Abbey is a peaceful place. No one would suspect it may be hiding secrets about a lost ancient weapon that is the only tool that can defeat the impending doom. A monk apprentice named Matthias – not your most skilled apprentice at that – sets out to find it. Did I mention that Matthias is a mouse? This book gives church mice a completely different meaning and has some luscious mouth-watering food descriptions to boot!
- The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. This is a cheat entry on the list. Rick Riordan has so many books that cover all pantheons that even if you’ve read Percy Jackson (i.e. the protagonist and the possible thief), you can just proceed with all other books. Percy is a half-blood, so to speak. Mother, human, father … Poseidon. When he learns about his heritage, Percy joins the crowd of demigods to train, pick fights, and (maybe if his crush is watching) save the world.
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. When a child is born in the kingdom of Frell, a fairy godmother bestows a talent on them. When a less-than-reasonable fairy, Lucinda, gives Ella the talent of obedience, the poor girl is just set for drama. Traditional female roles are critically examined, and your good-old Cinderella tale is ripped to shreds. Frankly, I love the movie too, although, be warned, it is quite different from the novel.
Other popular choices for YA readers include:
- An Affair of Poisons by Addie Thorley
- All of us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Kiel
- Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
- Sabriel by Garth Nix
Fantasy Book Series You Must Read!
Once you’re already in the genre, there are just some books you must read. Fantasy generally loves long epic series, and frankly speaking, it is easy to get hooked on these worlds and root for protagonists as they advance in their adventures. Here are some of the best series out there:
- Discworld by Terry Pratchett. With a whopping 41 novels, Discworld may seem scary to tackle, but these books are just pure gold. Terry Pratchett is a master storyteller of fantasy and subversion. Don’t expect dwarves to be all about mining in this one. Or the elves to be your fair-haired wise counsellors. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A great space turtle floats lazily towards an unknown destination, carrying four elephants on her back, who, in turn, carry the world – Discworld. And on the disc – magic and madness happen. Discworld novels are divided into smaller series, and I highly recommend starting with Guards! Guards! or Equal Rites for a great fantasy feel.
- Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. You know what? You cannot not read the books to which we owe everything we know about fantasy. As you’re aware, Frodo is tasked with destroying the evil ring that used to belong to Sauron, the emperor of darkness. But neither Sauron nor the ring wants to be destroyed.
- The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist. An orphan with a heart of gold and a strange talent becomes the apprentice of one of the strongest magic-wielders in the entire Kingdom of the Isles. Unsurprisingly, it is not as easy as that – talent can only get you so far. With his discomfort with magic, can he save anyone, let alone a kingdom?
- Vlad Taltos by Steven Burst. Vlad is the only human on a planet inhabited by tall sorcerers, Dragaerans. Did I mention Vlad is a hitman? Even sorcerers have to die somehow, and when one engages in a heist and theft, Vlad is sent on a mission that might just be more than what he bargained for.
- The Scholomance by Naomi Novik. Do you know how people say Hogwarts is dangerous, and nobody does anything about it? Well, Hogwarts is nothing compared to this magical school where education is not about grades but survival. No teachers or helpers, monsters lurking around every corner, and you cannot drop out (just drop dead). When El (yes, short for Galardiel) joins the school, she seems to be taking it just fine, thanks to her massive power. But if that power threatens to kill other students, does that make El just as much of a threat?
Make sure not to run out of reading material with just a few more excellent series:
- The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne
- Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Because it would be utterly unfair not to include them here, even if they get a bit preachy at times.
Bonus: Fantasy Books that Pleasantly Surprised Me
To skip the good old revision at the end, I am including a few books/series that blew my mind when I really didn’t expect them to:
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A genre-crossing book about childhood trauma, this novel explores a coven of three unusual witches living at the end of the lane and a deceptive duckpond that may hide all knowledge in the world.
- The Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde. This is meta-fantasy, if there ever was one. Thursday Next is a literary detective working for the Swindon Police Department. When someone starts changing book endings, it’s up to Thursday to discover what in the bloody dodo is going on. Plock!
- A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. Every wizard has a unique talent in this magical world, and Mona’s is bread baking (pastry included). But how can bread help anyone in a horde against a military assault?!
- The Alchemyst (or The Nicholas Flamel series) by Michael Scott. Twins destined to either save or destroy the world, the immortal Frenchman, and a super snarky Celtic goddess walk into a bar. They appear on the other side of the planet just in time to join the legendary fight for the Philosopher’s Stone, secret knowledge, and the power to annihilate everything.
- The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. You know how fantasy is always filled with chosen ones, mystical powers, sudden prodigies, etc.? But do you ever wonder what happens to all those poor background characters that have to deal with it? This book does 😉.
And just in case you’re looking for similar vibes, check out our action and adventure suggestions for more books to fall in love with!