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An Introductory Guide to Reading Fantasy

Editor’s Note: Fantasy encompasses a HUGE body of works. There is literally something in fantasy for everyone. But where to begin if you’ve never tried fantasy before? Here is one reader’s picks for first time fantasy readers. As with all lists, your mileage may vary. Let us know your picks in the comments!

The Reader by Charlie-Bowater (detail)If a reader wanted to dive into the romance genre, they might start with Pride and Prejudice. If they aspired to read a thriller, they might give The Da Vinci Code a try.

The fantasy genre is unlike any other. It has a long and glorious history as well as a healthy population of new, popular titles and future classics. So where to start in fantasy? There are so many wonderful books out in the world, it’s nearly impossible to decide.

For each sub-genre, I’ve identified the single title I believe would be the perfect starting point for a reader looking to jump in with both feet. These books are representative of their sub-genre, easy, ap

proachable reads, and books that can be a stepping stone to other amazing stories. Here it goes!

Classic Fantasy

A Wizard of Earthsea (cover)I’m sure most would expect The Hobbit to be book number one on the list for classic fantasy. And sure, it makes the back-up list. But The Hobbit can be off-putting with its dense language and slow start. Instead, I’m recommending A Wizard of Earthsea by none other than the fabulous Ursula K. Le Guin.

Sparrowhawk’s journey from boy to man is relatable and nuanced, and his island-by-island exploration of the Archipelago make for the perfect starting place for classic fantasy.

Back-up Titles: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

The Hobbit (cover) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (cover)

Literary Fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (cover)Now, I’ll admit. Literary titles are not really my jam. I find them long-winded, preachy, and slow. But there are still winners to be found within the literary fantasy sub-genre. Case and point: The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Neil Gaiman’s prose is utterly delightful, and this story of an unnamed man reflecting on his childhood is sure to tug the heartstrings of every reader. Add that with a short book that clocks in under 200 pages and you’ve got a winner!

Back-up Title: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist (sm cover)

Historical Fantasy

The Golem and The Jinni (cover)One of my favorite and one of the quietest sub-genres of fantasy is historical fantasy. These books take place in a real period of time but include clear fantasy elements. History itself isn’t the most exciting of topics for most, so books in the historical fantasy genre have to find a way to bring the reader into the past in unique and interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker accomplishes all this in spectacular fashion. Taking place in turn-of-the-19th Century New York, readers meet a golem in the Jewish community who befriends a jinni freed from his lamp and living in the Middle Eastern community. Balancing the cultures, histories, and fantasy elements in a compelling story is what puts The Golem and the Jinni on the list.

Back-up Titles: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Scorpio Races (cover) The Night Circus (cover)

Middle Grade Fantasy

The Giver (cover)Yes, we’re all adults here. And yes, several of these titles are young adult. But reading middle grade fantasy gives us the opportunity to experience stories that are simpler in both plot and language, but still accomplish all that adult and young adult books do.

The Giver by Lois Lowry has been a favorite of mine for something like twenty years. It’s a staple in middle-school classes and for good reason! Jonas’s exploration of history and emotion is touching, and the post-apocalyptic worldbuilding make this the perfect place to get started in middle grade fantasy.

Back-up Title: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

The Monstrumologist (cover)

Supernatural Fantasy

Air Awakens (cover)Who doesn’t want to have a superpower? And who doesn’t want to read about people learning to use their superpower with varying degrees of success?

I chose Air Awakens as a great introductory novel to the supernatural fantasy sub-genre. Vhalla learning to use her powers over wind and air is the underdog story we all need. It’s easy to read but still has delightful prose. The characters fit into classic tropes while still putting a unique spin on them. Add in the addictive next four books in the series, and this one’s a winner!

Back-up Titles: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo and Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

Shadow and Bone (cover) Rebel of the Sands (cover)

Secondary-World Fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic (cover)Books that don’t take place on Earth? Count me in! There are thousands of stories that take place on worlds created by the author, and some of them are simply breathtaking (including the Archipelago of the Earthsea Cycle).

A Darker Shade of Magic gets this one for me. It takes place in four Londons. Not one. Not two. But FOUR Londons. And while London is a real place here on Earth, Schwab gives us three more that are decidedly elsewhere. The combination of real-world and secondary-world makes A Darker Shade of Magic a great stepping stone to the rest of the amazing books of this subgenre.

Back-up Titles: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Throne of Glass (cover) Red Queen (cover)

Science Fantasy

Treason (cover)Yes, there is fantasy in space! Many of the stories that take place in space are categorized as science fiction. But in reality, many of them have elements of fantasy in them. So I’m including them here!

My recommendation for science fantasy is Orson Scott Card’s relatively unknown novel Treason. Following Lanik in his exile as a rad (a person who grows excess body parts), Treason is a bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The reader will slowly fall into a world (or in this case, planet) that is exceedingly weirder with every page, but in all the best ways. It’s quirky and interesting and a ball of fun, and readers that enjoy it will find a full catalog of books with OSC on the front.

Back-up Titles: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff and Artemis by Andy Weir

Illuminae (cover) Artemis (cover)

Romantic Fantasy

A Court of Thorns and Roses (cover small)I would be untrue to myself if I made a list of must-read fantasy and didn’t include romantic fantasy. Many of the titles already mentioned include elements of romance, but others stand above the rest.

While I had a supremely difficult time narrowing this one down, I’ve got to give it to A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. It’s a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast and the foundation of one of the best fantasy romances out there.

Back-up Titles: Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Stolen Songbird (cover) Daughter of Smoke & Bone (cover)

Cultural Fantasy

A Star-Touched Queen (sm cover)Yes, all books contain some element of culture, whether real-world or secondary. But some stories embody a different culture with such clarity and completion that readers are transported to not just a place, but an ideology.

A Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi is one such read. Deep-set in Indian mythology, Maya’s world includes horoscopes, palaces with thousands of locked doors, and reincarnation pools. Add in some lovely storytelling and this is a must read!

Back-up Titles: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

An Ember In The Ashes (cover) The Bear and the Nightingale (cover)

Contemporary Fantasy

The Magicians (cover)And last but not least, the fantasy books that take place in modern times: the contemporary fantasy books! These are stories that include cell phones, subways, and cable. And this category was actually pretty easy for me. It’s got to be Lev Grossman’s The Magicians!

Between the charm of Brakebills, the relatable quirkiness of Quentin, or the dreamy book obsession of Fillory, The Magicians is a delightful dive into the world of modern fantasy reads.

Back-up Titles: Vicious by V. E. Schwab and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Vicious (cover) The Raven Boys (cover)

It goes without saying (and yet here I’m saying it anyway), that I’m only one person and I simply cannot read every book in every subgenre. So if you have any books to add (or subgenres to include), let me know!

Title image by Charlie-Bowater.

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7 Comments

  1. ScarletBea says:

    Interesting article, as it shows not only age differences but also American vs. Europe.
    Being an european older person, I don’t know more than half the books you mention and I wouldn’t exactly choose the others as starting points.

    Anyway, all this to say, anyone wanting to read fantasy should just go to a bookshop and read the blurbs, and get the one that’s the most interesting – yes, a real physical bookshop, hehe
    Once they’ve read a couple, then they can start asking for recommendations based on what they know they like or not 🙂

  2. David says:

    I’m a lifelong lover of fantasy, and I have to say I hated many of the books on this list. There is a real YA bias here. I am absolutely NOT saying there is inherently anything wrong with YA, but there is something about the tone and focus that frequently puts me off. Again, nothing wrong with underscoring your own favorites, but I wonder if it would be better to make it clear that list skews toward a particular approach to fantasy which is definitely not representative of the scope of the genre. If I were to dip into fantasy for the first time, based on this list, I’d conclude I hate fantasy.

    Also, and perhaps a bit of a quibble, but as a writer of historical fiction, I can tell you The Da Vinci Code is not in the genre. I’d say it’s a straight-up thriller with some historical content.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      Good points here. I’ve added a note at the top explaining it is only one reader’s opinion, not a definitive list. We thought that was clear from the opening, but I guess we missed the mark. Thanks for commenting!

  3. J says:

    Psst, the link for this article in the header calls it “An guide to reading fantasy”. Not exactly confidence-instilling grammar there! 😛

    “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is too culty for me, and I’d never touch anything by OSC, and I don’t think I could’ve made it thru The Magicians and still wanted to live after I was done…I understand why some people enjoy it, but “approachable”?…and honestly, “History itself isn’t the most exciting of topics for most” has to be one of the most depressing sentences I’ve ever read (outside of The Magicians). The WHOLE OF HISTORY is unexciting to most ppl now? Yikes! This article starts off by saying “Fantasy encompasses a HUGE body of works. There is literally something in fantasy for everyone.” and IMO you could change fantasy out for history and it’s just as true!
    If you find yourself agreeing with history being boring, pls seek out new historical fiction and history books, b/c _seriously_…

    But obviously this is going to be a very YMMV kinda list. Certainly some on here are books I’ve enjoyed (tho I didn’t think Court of Thorn and Roses was exactly GOOD, just…fun? I hear the next one is better tho so I’m gonna read it someday I swear) and some I do want to give a try.
    And I really don’t know what I’d actually recommend to someone who doesn’t read fantasy. I met someone a couple years back who admitted to “not reading” I guess…anything. I was floored. I wish I’d gotten to know her better and been able to recommend something, fantastical or otherwise… Life without books just sounds so diminished, but I rarely find it easy to recommend things even to people I know really well.

  4. Michael says:

    CONTEMPORARY FANTASY, should definitely have some Stephen King as a Book example!
    Any way, it’s a really good article
    !

  5. Kara Copple says:

    Thanks for making this list. I’ve been reading a lot of classic fantasy lately and am looking to branch out into different sub genres for a bit more variety. So this list is a good starting point with plenty of books I’ve never even heard of.

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