Often when we think of the Fantasy genre, our minds immediately go to the High Fantasy world of Middle-Earth, filled with humanoid creatures foreign to our own world, such as Elves, Hobbits, and Orcs. A medieval inspired setting full of action, adventure and confusing names!
For book fans that are yet to dip their toes in the dark, bottomless pool that is the Fantasy genre, there can be some hesitancy. Don’t worry though, I’m here to be your lifeguard as you dive on in, and to point out the shallow areas where you won’t drown under the dense waves of world-building, languages foreign to any on earth, and absurd amounts of description about banquets and feasts (believe me, this is far more common than you’d think).
Okay, I’ll stop with the pool analogy and get to the point. To anyone wanting to step into the Fantasy genre, I have a list of five great entry points. For this list, I will be avoiding Tolkien and George R R Martin, as they can be very dense for new readers. I have, however, selected five diverse and entertaining books that will get you hooked:
Assassin’s Apprentice (Farseer #1) by Robin Hobb:
This first book on the list is a staple of the genre. Assassin’s Apprentice follows Fitz, the bastard son of Prince Chivalry (because Charming was taken) Farseer. Being born into a kingdom on the brink of civil war and the reason that his once royal father is forced to abdicate his right to the throne, Fitz is despised for just existing. Only the king’s Fool, who is possibly the best character of the series, and the woodland creatures that he feels a connection with seem to treat Fitz with any fondness.
When Fitz learns that his connection with these animals is a trait of a magical ability that comes from his royal lineage, known as Wit, he is forced to learn how to be an assassin. The only thing is that his mentor will do anything in his power to undermine and even potentially kill Fitz. This book takes the reader through the political workings of the Six Duchies while remaining interesting and action packed. With a world that’s easy to understand and an ensemble of side characters that you will adore, Hobb has created a series that is perfect for any fantasy newcomer.
Guards! Guards! (Discworld #8) By Terry Pratchett:
Okay, you probably saw the 8 there in the title and were very confused, but I can assure you that this book is possibly the best entry point into the absurd series known as Discworld. Just a little bit of important background information for Pratchett’s very weird, very fun series: it is set on a flat disc-shaped world that sits atop four elephants riding on the back of a turtle through space. Strange, I know, however Pratchett has a knack for making peculiar stories in peculiar settings somehow relatable and relevant.
Guards! Guards! Follows the characters that get lost in a lot of Fantasy media. This is the City Watch, the once nameless guards that a hero or villain sneaks past while on their adventures, who Pratchett gives life to beyond being set pieces in someone else’s story. The band of misfits this book follows are some of the funniest, most endearing characters I have read.
Don’t be mistaken though, Pratchett’s stories may be absurdist fantasy, however he touches on real-world issues in satiric ways and with reverence that will make you ponder more than you thought you would. Touching on discourses ranging from sexism and gender diversity to institutionalised religion, Pratchett holds up a fun-house mirror to our world and reflects so many issues. Absurd, humorous and insightful, that would be the best way to describe the Discworld series.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Anyone who knows me has probably heard of this book by now. Where Pratchett uses humour and absurdity to reflect the real world, Kuang uses brutality. This darkly eloquent novel is inspired by Chinese history, telling the stories of real-world atrocities in a fantasy setting. It also challenges the stranglehold that Eurocentric inspiration has over the fantasy genre.
Follow Rin, a dark-skinned peasant girl living in poverty in the southern part of Nikan. The unwanted, adoptive daughter of Opium dealers, Rin is desperate to get away from her traumatic life. This desperation turns to determination as she studies for an exam to be accepted into the country’s most prestigious military academy and receive a free-ride out of her miserable existence while proving to everyone that she is more than just her past.
However, once she is accepted into the academy Rin must still prove her worth to the privileged rich kids of the Nikan Warlords. It’s safe to say that they are a brutal and tough audience to win over, however as Rin struggles both physically and mentally to keep up with her peers, she learns that she has an ability thought to be the thing of myths, Shamanism.
Featuring gorgeous writing that depicts fluid battle scenes that are vividly and violently detailed, a protagonist that you love to hate, and references to real world events that will have you spending hours researching the history that inspired this grimdark masterpiece. While this can be an intense story and I would put a content warning on this book, this is such an amazing way to get you hooked on the genre.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
So, at first glance The Priory of the Orange Tree can seem daunting. It’s an 800-page beast of a book filled with all that stuff I said earlier about; extreme world-building, confusing words and names, and mythical creatures that honestly, we all kind of wish were real. However, this book does it all correctly and even better, it has any information you might need in the back pages. Equipped with a list of important names, a glossary of all the fun, made-up words and phrases, and a timeline of the important events leading up to the start of the novel, you will have plenty of help navigating the splendid world Shannon has created.
Shannon’s graceful prose brings gorgeously vivid imagery that just dances around in your mind, even after you have finished this mammoth text. This feminist fantasy creates a vibrant and fully realised world told through the lens of a diverse cast of P.O.C. and queer characters. This is a world of magic, where a covert group of mages, known as the Priory of the Orange Tree (yes, like the book title), is tasked to ensure the survival of the Royal Family’s lineage due to a magical connection with the big bad evil, the Nameless One, a horde of fire-breathing dragons devoted to chaos.
Like the other fantasy books that I have listed, this one also tends to reflect real-world issues back at us, as the genre is prone to do. Two of the four perspectives we read from detail the story of a queen who, despite the control and power she should have, is treated as though her importance and leadership is dependent on her womb and its ability to keep the royal lineage going. With all the political intrigue (and the dragons) of Game of Thrones while diversifying the cast to reflect the multicultural world we live in, and with far less food description, Shannon has created a fantasy book that is beautifully detailed while still being approachable to new audiences.
The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) by Brandon Sanderson
This is another staple of the genre. If you ask a fantasy fan to list authors that they have read, there’s a very high chance that Sanderson will be mentioned. One big trope within the Fantasy genre is the Chosen One, the hero who is destined to fight the big bad evil and save the world, but what happens if that hero loses? This is the basic premise of The Final Empire, set in a world where the Dark Lord has won and their dystopian, tyrannical rule casts a grim haze quite literally over the land. After a thousand years under this oppressive domination, a group of thieves are tired of waiting for a prophesied hero and decide to take action themselves. Sanderson himself describes this book as a fantasy heist movie (think Ocean’s Eleven with a brilliant magical system and amazingly choreographed fight scenes), which is just such a great premise. Now, what makes this book even better is the detailed and astute magical system Sanderson created, Allomancy.
Unlike a lot of magic in books that seems limitless and wild, Allomancy follows a strict set of rules that make it so much easier for someone to follow and allows for a more interesting payoff when the characters manipulate these rules in creative ways that readers didn’t think were possible.
This magical system and the way it is expressed within the novel is what makes this so accessible to newcomers to the genre. Sanderson’s novel allows the reader to learn how the magical system works alongside the main protagonist, Vin. This book takes tropes that are well-known and loved and manipulates them into a wonderfully subversive adventure.
Written by Tyler Ryan Wood