Sci Fi Friday: Falling in love with fantasy

It’s been…quite some time since I’ve done a Sci Fi Friday post, and since I’ve been reading a hell of a lot of fantasy recently, and posted a list of books for reluctant readers, I started thinking about gateway books for one of my favorite genres: Fantasy. Specifically, fantasy novels targeted towards adults.

This topic has been done to death.

However, while searching for recommendations for my reluctant reader posts I kept stumbling along the same authors

  • JRR Tolkein
  • George RR Martin
  • Brandon Sanderson
  • Robert Jordan
  • Patrick Rothfuss
  • Neil Gaiman

All primarily epic fantasy, all white dudes (I can easily list another fifteen authors of of the same ilk off the top of my head). If a woman is mentioned, it’s either JK Rowling, Ursula Le Guin or NK Jemisin.

Bookish social media has similar books that are commonly recommended to fantasy newcomers:

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  • The Poppy War by RF Kuang
  • The Sapphic Trifecta:
    • The Unbroken by CL Clarke
    • She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
    • The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
  • Anything by VE Schwab (or Victoria Schwab)
  • And anything by Sarah J Maas (SJM if you’re fancy)

A more diverse list, to be sure, once the SJM recs are weeded out, along with the other YA crossovers of Jennifer L Armentrout and Cassandra Clare.

I want to be very clear: I am not knocking any of these authors (except JK Rowling’s transphobic ass), but when you stumble across them time after time it can be a bit…repetitive.

Anywho, fantasy is weird and wonderful and amazing.

But what, exactly, is fantasy? There are so many subgenres to explore, so many different offerings and entry points and when combined with the sometimes toxic gatekeeping of those who consider themselves The One True Fantasy Nerd, stepping into this genre can be a little…daunting.

So here’s my (and quite a few others’) definition of fantasy as a whole: magic. It must involve magic of some sort.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, other than some takeaways from my over twenty years of reading and loving adult fantasy:

  1. You don’t have to read the “classics” if you don’t want to. Not only are the classics completely arbitrarily made, but often were written by racist, misogynist, homophobic cis men and well, there are other authors out there who have taken the originals and made them better. Wikipedia provides great summaries.
  2. You don’t have to enjoy epic fantasy or grimdark fantasy to be a fantasy reader. Read whatever fantasy you want. You’re no less of a reader if you decide to pass on Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree.
  3. If you read fantasy, you are a reader of fantasy. Period.
  4. Explore. Try new things! DNF if you’re not feeling it! Go on an adventure with each book! Which leads me to my last point:
  5. Have fun. In whatever way that means to you.

Without further ado, here are some recommendations for fantasy readers through some popular subgenres, geared towards beginners but there might also be some recommendations that hard-charging, die-hard fantasy lovers will love too!

Blurbs are from Goodreads.

Exploring some common subgenres

Soulless by Gail Carringer

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Steampunk is a fantasy subgenre that has a historical setting (usually an alternate Victorian era) where much of the fantastical things run on steam, there is much gadgetry, and problems are often solved with technology. The line between science fiction and fantasy is fast and loose here, although here is steampunk with a more fantasy element. See also:

  • The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
  • The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker
  • Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Witchmark by CL Polk

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind.

Gaslamp fantasy is the cousin to steampunk (which is a cousin to dieselpunk and solar punk, etc. etc. there are a lot of ‘punk subgenres), with a setting that blends fantasy and historical fiction. There are a couple different definitions to gaslamp fantasy out there, by the way, but I prefer to think of it as having technology similar to Edwardian-pre WWIII that also has magic. Quite a few are set in an alternate history Earth, but not all—and a lot of them are also fantasy of manners type books, which are delightful.

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  • Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Lord of Stariel by AJ Lancaster
  • Song of Blood and Stone by L Penelope

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Portal fantasy is where a person steps from one world (usually ours) to another world through a doorway of some sort. The modes are often magical, which differentiates this subgenre from science fiction’s multiverse. Think Chronicles of Narnia. That’s portal fantasy. It’s a mainstay of young adult and middle grade fantasy, but exists in adult fantasy too!

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Child of a Hidden Sea by AM Dellamonica
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
  • The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

The Raven and the Reindeer by T Kingfisher

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?

Fairy Tale Retellings are the ultimate callback to fantasy’s origins as oral tradition. They can be remixed in just about any way imaginable and combined into countless other genres and subgenres, which is so cool in my mind, because the possibilities are literally endless despite the fact that certain story structures remain the same.

  • Ella, the Slayer by AW Exley
  • A Spindle Splintered by Alix E Harrow
  • Burning Roses by SL Huang
  • Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir
  • Beauty and the Beast by KM Shea
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark 

In 1915, The Birth of a Nation cast a spell across America, swelling the Klan’s ranks and drinking deep from the darkest thoughts of white folk. All across the nation they ride, spreading fear and violence among the vulnerable. They plan to bring Hell to Earth. But even Ku Kluxes can die.

Literary Fantasy Retellings are the cousin to Fairy-Tale Retellings, except these sources pull from literary works (either literary fiction or another genre).

  • Dowry of Blood by ST Gibson
  • The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall
  • Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Veering towards high fantasy…and some of its forms

High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy but honestly I think they are two different things that can be related to each other sometimes. You know how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares? I feel that all epic fantasy is high fantasy but not all high fantasy is epic fantasy.

So this is high fantasy: it takes place in a secondary world and has magic. That’s it. That’s high fantasy in a nutshell. In contrast, low fantasy takes place in either our world or some version of it, and there’s magic. With these definitions, there’s a lot of bleed and spillover between subgenres, as in the previous section any of those can be either high or low fantasy, depending on their setting. To recap: high/low fantay involves setting, not literary merit.

Here are some common subgenres and tropes seen in high fantasy.

Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In the ancient city of Bassa, Danso is a clever scholar on the cusp of achieving greatness—only he doesn’t want it. Instead, he prefers to chase forbidden stories about what lies outside the city walls. The Bassai elite claim there is nothing of interest. The city’s immigrants are sworn to secrecy. But when Danso stumbles across a warrior wielding magic that shouldn’t exist, he’s put on a collision course with Bassa’s darkest secrets.

Epic Fantasy is one of the most popular forms of fantasy fiction—and for good reason. The sweeping scope of the plot, the complex worldbuilding, a wide cast of characters—it is truly epic. And the page-length tends to reflect that. These are weighty books, and while the genre has taken a decidedly grimdark turn in the past fifteen years (grimdark is gritty fantasy filled with anti-heroes and amoral characters), there’s a lot of variety. While epic fantasy has been long dominated by whyte cis men, it has always been a diverse subgenre, and now more authors are getting marketed—and exploring the effects of colonization and their culture’s histories.

  • The Bone Ships by RJ Barker
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin
  • Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  • The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
  • The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

Medieval fantasy is just that…fantasy set in a medieval-ish world that has magic. Think King Arthur, and you’ve got medieval fantasy. George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones is another famous example. The Curse of Chalion is not entirely medieval fantasy, but more renaissance…but it’s close enough and very, very good. Anywho, this is often wrapped up into epic fantasy as well.

  • The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
  • When Fox is A Thousand by Larissa Lai
  • The Story of Silence by Alex Meyers
  • Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by KJ Parker
  • See also other time-period inspired secondary fantasies:
    • Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
    • The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
    • Torn by Rowenna Miller

Rage of Dragons by Eva Winter

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Military fantasy is fantasy trope (and sub-subgenre of several fantasy subgenres, if you want to be really confused) where the military and battles play a huge role, and the main character is in the military. It can also be split into other subgenres like gunpowder fantasy, grimdark, cannonpunk, and gaslamp fantasy, medieval, among others. I picked Rage of Dragons because it’s awesome, epic and has dragons. Dragons are always a win.

  • The Unbroken by CL Clark
  • The Poppy War by RF Kuang
  • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
  • She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle. But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving.

Heist Fantasy is pretty mjuch Ocean’s Eleven with magic. They are often fast-paced and humorous, mostly to combat the high stakes of what happens when thieves get caught (don’t mistake humorous for lacking gore though—some have gore aplenty). Oh, and they usually have an ensemble cast.

  • The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron
  • The Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan
  • The Prophecy Con by Patrick Weekes

Jade City by Fonda Lee

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities. When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Urban High Fantasy is a very overshadowed (and hard to capture) subgenre, mostly because urban fantasy (I’ll get to that in a minute) dominates the shelves, and urban high fantasy bleeds a little into epic fantasy. But urban high fantasy is urban fantasy (dealing with people and creatures living together in urban environments with modern-ish technology) in a secondary world setting. Whew. That was a mouthful.

Real World, Alternate Realities

I love alternate history and historical fantasy, and in an alternate universe I would have smartly chopped this post into like, four other posts instead of doing one mega post and yet here we are. Stuck in this reality. 2200 words deep.

This is low fantasy…which just means that it’s set on Earth. And even though alternate reality is stuck in a world that is mostly the same except for the crucial “what if X was different?” question, there’s so much creativity here. A lot of alternate reality also ties into the steampunk and gaslamp subgenres for…obvious reasons.

The Inheritance of Orquidéa Divina by Zoraida Córdova

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low or empty, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—even for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed, leaving them with more questions than answers.

Historical Fantasy is a loose term for the mishmash of fantasy and historical fiction, and the fantasy version of science fiction’s alternate history. However, in its own category, it combines a more literary prose with fantastical elements and history. Think The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Below are some read-alikes. Not necessarily the same time period, but a similarity of lush prose and well-described settings, and magic that is more subtle and fantastical than a documented system.

  • The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

Regency/Napoleonic Fantasy is a lovely sub-sub genre of historical fantasy and alternate history that taps into both the fantasy market and lovers of this era. There are a lot of popular books, from Susanna Clarke to Naomi Novik, and this sub-sub genre spans the gambit of everything from dragons to subtler magics.

  • The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
  • Murder, Magic and What We Wore by Kelly Jones
  • Burning Bright by Melissa McShane
  • Sorcery and Cecilia by Patrica C Wrede

Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Disgraced witch Harrietta Lee has made a lot of mistakes in her life; there’s a reason she’s got a sizable burn scar slapped across the side of her neck and a formal letter of excommunication from the international underground magical community. But who has time to dwell on the past when you’re trying to make rent in New York? Things are mostly clean and simple, until her next odd job is brought to her by a representative of a powerful corporate family—a family she once had close personal ties to.

Urban Fantasy (in this case, more rural but whatever) is fantasy set in a contemporary world—and in a city—with magic and magical creatures…and quite often the main character must solve a mystery of some sort. There’s a focus on adventure in urban fantasy. The Dresden Files are one of the most popular UF series, but this subgenre was built by women (think Ann Rice and Laurell K Hamilton, and *slightly* later authors from the mid-00s like Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, Charlaine Harris and Kelley Armstrong, and now dominated by Seanan McGuire and Rebecca Roanhorse).

  • Minion by LA Banks
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • Charming by James Elliott
  • Spawn of Lilith by Dana Fredsti
  • Beast by Krishna Udayasankar
  • See also: Rural Fantasy (same concept, but small town/rural areas), not to be confused with the more romantic, mystical fantasy of Sarah Addison Allen and Karen Hawkins.
    • The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe
    • Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
    • Elemental by Whitney Hill
    • Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • And Paranormal Fantasy (where the romance drives the plot and there’s an HEA promised). Karen Marie Moning, Kelsey Cole, JR Ward and Nalini Singh are big names in this thriving subgenre.
    • Shadow Blade by Seressia Glass
    • Immortal by Valjeanne Jeffers
    • Tiger Eye by Marjorie M Liu
  • And lastly (kinda), Magical Rom Coms. I don’t now what to call this one, because magical chick lit is not…it’s not a great term. But this is for books that are light women’s fiction with magic. Think Sophie Kinsella, but with magic.
    • Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper
    • The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
    • Enchanted, Inc. by Shanna Swendson

YA Crossovers

YA is okay, friends! YA fantasy is a bustling genre, with similar subgenres to adult fantasy, although in YA fantasy there’s been a trend towards high fantasy featuring royalty, and now a shift to more contemporary fantasy. Big names include Victoria Aveyard, Leigh Bardugo, Cassandra Clare and yes…SJM (who is borderline YA).

No judgements on what you like reading, or if you read something targeted towards an age group that’s not your own. Go ahead and feel free to enjoy them (there’s a big market for YA books geared towards adults), but please remember that teens’ spaces are teens’ spaces, and we just…might not want to intrude upon that.

YA is the best for escapist fiction, IMO. Not only is it often quite fun, but there seems to always be a thread of hope embedded into the core of YA fantasy, and I really like that.

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods. Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents.

This is a Gothic and moodily atmospheric take on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and it’s just so eerily delightful. Lonely islands, isolated manor, twelve sisters slowly dying one by one after attending nights of glittering balls. Salt swept rocks and mourning gowns. I’m shivering just remembering it.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus—which a mysterious teenage mage attempts (and fails) to wipe from her memory. The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

This is King Arthur like you’ve never seen him before, complete with secret college societies and an urban fantasy/dark academia twist that just feels so damn fun. The romance aspect is a bit meh (there’s a budding love triangle), but the rest of it is just really fantastic.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death. Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

I really adored this military fantasy offering. Not only was it an insightful take down of the patriarchy, but it also a really solid military fantasy. Seriously. I don’t see that often in YA (or elsewhere in adult fantasy, let’s be real), but this was good. And The Chosen One trope was very well executed. This was one of my favorite reads of 2021, although it feels like I read it forever ago because 2021 has been a year and a century smashed together.

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

Jetta’s family is famed as the most talented troupe of shadow players in the land. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets seem to move without string or stick a trade secret, they say. In truth, Jetta can see the souls of the recently departed and bind them to the puppets with her blood. But the old ways are forbidden ever since the colonial army conquered their country, so Jetta must never show never tell. Her skill and fame are her family’s way to earn a spot aboard the royal ship to Aquitan, where shadow plays are the latest rage, and where rumor has it the Mad King has a spring that cures his ills. Because seeing spirits is not the only thing that plagues Jetta.

I really enjoyed this epic fantasy offering. It combines the familiar trope of special girl with powers + evil government + the boy and turned it into something new and exciting, with Southeast Asian and French colonialism influences, a main character with mental illness, and a take on necromancy that really different.

Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summonings or she’ll “burn everything down.” However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.

Whew. This one is an emotional roller coaster ride (check those trigger warnings before you read it), but it is so worth it. I knew I was going to be in for a ride when reading the author’s note, but the way Lewis works words and twists emotions is just breathtakingly awe-inspiring. Plus, necromancy!

Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier

Before an ambush by enemy soldiers, Lord Cassia was an engineer’s apprentice on a mission entrusted by the king. But when plague sweeps over the land, leaving countless dead and devastating the kingdom, even Cas’ title cannot save him from a rotting prison cell and a merciless sickness. Three years later, Cas wants only to return to his home in the mountains and forget past horrors. But home is not what he remembers. His castle has become a refuge for the royal court. And they have brought their enemies with them.

This is YA epic fantasy at its finest, with a well-realized world, complex cast of characters, and a murder-mystery plot that is very easy to solve but still absolutely riveting. Lucier’s sparse prose captures her world beautifully, and evokes emotions and relationships that had me in tears (good tears, I swear) through at least 75% of the book).

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie.

Admittedly, I have not read this one, but it has a bunch of fantastic review and has a smart, resourceful heroine. Plus, it’s f/f, kinda dark academia, and is a skewering takedown of patriarchal societies.

What fantasy would you recommend for newcomers to the genre?

Points taken away if you mention any of my most-recommended authors.

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