Taylor’s Overly-Detailed Fantasy Recommendation Post
I’m that person who is always super eager to recommend books to friends, acquaintances, random strangers I meet at social events… so I thought I would write a blog post about books I wholeheartedly recommend. Hopefully you can find a book here that intrigues you!
Recommendations for this list or for me in general are ALWAYS welcome! Please feel free to comment here or get in touch with me on Facebook or Twitter (I’m @TGFitzG). I’ll delete any comments that berate me for including/not including certain books. Don’t be a dickwad.
One quick note: this ‘author’ website will probably be unfinished for a while and I’ll probably be messing around with it a lot when I’m not writing, so don’t feel the need to go poking around too much. Or if you do, don’t criticize.
Fantasy recommendations: a minefield of overzealous fans
Fantasy can be an intimidating genre to get into, and if you look for recommendations online, even those recommendations can be overwhelming. People seem determined to recommend massive series that span fourteen books (looking at you, Wheel of Time) or even series where they say “it takes a few books to get into it, and you’ll probably hate it at first, but I promise it’s worth it!” (which is what I always see people say about Malazan, and also why I refuse to ever read those books… don’t try to convince me otherwise, Malazan stans.) How these people expect to convince people to keep reading fantasy, I have no idea. So yeah. I’m not here to recommend Wheel of Time. Or Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire either.
Some people are pretty new to fantasy and just aren’t sure where to begin. All of the following suggestions could also be interesting for you–I certainly won’t suggest anything that only a super fantasy nerd could love. Some people might get into fantasy wanting everything to feel like Tolkien–and sure, if you’re into Tolkien, you’ll find plenty of books and series that try to capture that feel. But fantasy as a genre has moved so far beyond Tolkien it’s incredible. So I want to focus on more modern fantasy for the most part. That’s not a dismissal of Tolkien or those who followed close behind him, but a celebration of what’s available now. The genre is huge, and ever-widening.
How this post works
I’ve written up some of my favorite fantasy books to recommend. These might not necessarily be all of my favorite fantasy books in general, but my go-to recs, especially when I’m talking to people who don’t read widely in the genre.
I’ll probably expand this post as time goes on and I read more, so it isn’t even an exhaustive list of fantasy I recommend.
I’ve tried to include a lot of links for where to buy. I don’t want to just link to Amazon by default, so I’ve also included links to BookDepository and also IndieBound, which offers a better way to support local bookstores in your area. All my Amazon links go to Amazon.co.uk, but you can usually replace the ‘.co.uk’ part of the link with ‘.com’ for the American version.
BUT many of these books are also available at your local library! Or if you don’t want to go to your library, many libraries also use this magical app called Overdrive, where you have access to your library’s ebook library. It’s a game-changer, people, if you don’t insist on reading hard copy.
I’ve also included links to book reviews I’ve written off-site, if available. For some of the past few years I’ve been contributing reviews to Cannonball Read, a big group-review initiative that also raises money for Cancer Research! Here’s some information about them, and you can find all of my reviews (not all fantasy) here. Maybe I’ll include Goodreads links at some point, but I don’t really use Goodreads that often so *shrug*.
I’ve tried to make every link open in a new window, but I may have missed some. Sorry if so.
Note: all images in this post currently come from IndieBound, so they represent the US covers, until I’m not too lazy to change them to the covers I prefer (which is usually the UK ones).
This post is a little large, so here’s a handy Table of Contents for you:
- Want something that is fantasy, but not SUPER fantasy?
- Are you a history buff who feels like venturing into a world where the ending isn’t already available to read on Wikipedia?
- Fond of fairy tales but don’t want the moralizing?
- Feeling nostalgic but want a fresh take?
- Want some epic fantasy that doesn’t feel like a Tolkien rip-off?
- Want some fantasy that isn’t based on Medieval Europe?
- Looking for some humor with your fantasy?
Some of the recommendations also have sub-recommendations underneath, as in other books that fit this category but that I haven’t done a huge write-up under. I expect these lists will also expand as time goes on…
You won’t find that many grimdark recommendations here, mostly because I’ve grown really tired of the subgenre. (For those who don’t know, grimdark is the subgenre of fantasy where everyone swears and fucks and totally sucks, and there are no heroes, and also maybe everyone dies at the end). I also don’t read any urban fantasy (unless Terry Pratchett’s the Watch books count?), so I’m afraid you’ll have to go elsewhere for your vampire and werewolf sexy adventures.
Want something that is fantasy, but not SUPER fantasy?
Not everyone wants elves and dwarves and dragons and complicated magic systems in their fantasy. The best part is–there’s so much more out there to read. One of the more conventional books I’m going to suggest is Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. This book is a new-fantasy classic—for a reason. It’s basically a heist novel set in a fantasy world.
An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying. (Summary from IndieBound)
Locke Lamora is a great one to start out with because it’s not about the magic. Sure, it’s set in a fantasy world (one vaguely reminiscent of early-modern Venice, plus alchemy) but Locke can’t use magic himself–unless you count his wits. There are no elves, no dwarves, and certainly no dragons. I credit this book (and Dave Gresham for recommending it to me) for getting me back into fantasy as an adult.
Another plus? Sure, it’s a series (and an unfinished one at that) but it’s not one of those series where the story is incomplete unless you finish all fourteen books. This one works pretty well even as a standalone. If you like it, go ahead and read the sequels (one of them features pirates!) but this one offers a satisfying solution on its own.
Not quite right for you? You could also check out…
- Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, about a fantasy kingdom conquered by a sorcerer determined to stamp out its very name. This one has more magic and a more traditional feel, but it’s not overwhelming: mostly it’s a big heap of political intrigue. Best of all, it’s a standalone fantasy, so you don’t have to commit to a whole series of books to find out the ending. (Review on Cannonball Read forthcoming, because I’m behind).
- The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (aka The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, if you’re in the US), by Stuart Turton. I’m a little hesitant to recommend this book, because it is, to be honest, kind of bonkers. But that’s the fun of it, really. It’s basically a mystery with fantasy elements. I don’t want to explain too much, because trust me: this is one of those books that is better if you go into it not knowing anything. In fact, I recommend just reading my review on Cannonball Read and trying not to read the Amazon blurb.
A history buff who feels like venturing into a world where the ending isn’t already available to read on Wikipedia?
One of my recent finds (as of this year) is the author Guy Gavriel Kay. Tigana is perhaps his best-loved classic (see above), but my first introduction was The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is heavily inspired by Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and El Cid.
The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan – poet, diplomat, soldier – until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.
Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites’ most celebrated – and feared – military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south. In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve – for a time – the same master. Tangled in their interwoven fate is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose skills may not be enough to heal the coming pain as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond. (Summary from Amazon.co.uk, though edited by me)
I actually didn’t know that much about this historical period when I read, so I had no guesses as to what might happen, but I didn’t need to. I absolutely loved the reworking of historical factions into three separate, competing religions and cultures, and especially the fact that the novel attempted to find the good–and the bad–in all of them. Kay works together multiple character perspectives to show the complexity of this world that made me weep for the loss of beauty and culture and humanity. (For more on this one, you can read my review for Cannonball Read).
(But maybe still don’t check out Wikipedia before you read this one if you want to be surprised.)
Not really for you? Consider instead…
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This book is basically Dickens, with magic. It makes fun of armchair academics. I loved it. Read my review on Cannonball Read.
- His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1), by Naomi Novik. Napoleonic wars–with dragons. The writing and characterization is very evocative of literature from this period (at times it reads almost Jane Austen-esque, especially with Captain Lawrence’s views on classy society). (I have a link to my Cannonball Read review, but be warned: I review both the first and the second in the same review. So beware of spoilers).
- See also my description of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy in the next section’s other recommendations.
Fond of fairy tales but don’t want the moralizing?
Naomi Novik’s (see above) foray into fairy tales has won her many fans and plenty of awards as well. And for good reason. Uprooted is absolutely wonderful, starting out with vaguely Beauty and the Beast vibes that morphs into something so much more. The best part? The worldbuilding. The names and culture evoke medieval Poland, providing a fresh take and a pretty scary adversary.
Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest’s dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value behind.
Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she’s everything Agnieszka is not – beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia he takes. (Summary from Amazon.co.uk)
This is the book that I’ve been recommending more than any other over the past couple years. It’s fantasy, and unmistakably so, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with magic systems and rules. The second half of the book wanders perhaps a little far from what makes it great, but overall it’s one of my top fantasy books ever.
Fair warning: this book contains the steamiest sex scene I think I’ve ever read. But it’s not hot because of intimately-described anatomical parts and actions—more like because it doesn’t do that at all.
Not quite for you? Consider instead…
- Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. Her follow-up to Uprooted, this one switches to a Slavik-inspired world, playing on the fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin. Yes, really. I have some quibbles with this one, but if you’d told me two years ago my favorite book of last year would have been a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, I would have laughed in your face. And I would have been SO wrong. Read my review on Cannonball Read.
- The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden. I loved the whole Winternight Trilogy, which is set in medieval Russia and plays Christianity and folkloric beliefs against each other. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of those trilogies that I think actually improves on the first book instead of letting it down. It also becomes more historically-inspired as the trilogy goes on, making it another option for people who want to try out historical fantasy. If possible, read this one when it’s snowing. Read my review on Cannonball Read.
Feeling nostalgic but want a fresh take?
Maybe you grew up reading old-fashioned fantasy, like Tolkien or C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. That’s what fantasy feels like to you–but also, you really don’t need to reread Narnia again. And maybe you’re not so happy about the ending Lewis inflicted on Susan.
So give Laura Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds a try. It is heavily Narnia inspired, but instead of rehashing the whole ‘through the Wardrobe’ trope, it focuses on what life would have been like for the Pevensies after they came back from Narnia the first time.
Six years ago, sisters Evelyn and Philippa Hapwell were swept away to a strange and beautiful kingdom called the Woodlands, where they lived for years. But ever since they returned to their lives in post-WWII England, they have struggled to adjust.
Ev desperately wants to return to the Woodlands, and Philippa just wants to move on. When Ev goes missing, Philippa must confront the depth of her sister’s despair and the painful truths they’ve been running from. As the weeks unfold, Philippa wonders if Ev truly did find a way home, or if the weight of their worlds pulled her under. (Summary from IndieBound)
I will never stop recommending this book, partly because Laura is amazing and a great follow on Twitter, but also because it is just heart-achingly beautiful. I devoured this book in a day and wept almost the whole time, and I loved every minute of it. The best part? #VengeanceForSusan. Check out more about it in my review for Cannonball Read.
Note: some people might not like YA, and that’s fine. But just know that this isn’t a Hunger Games rip-off infested with love triangles (I also loved The Hunger Games and am partial to love triangles, but that’s beside the point). The Light Between Worlds explores the complex emotions of belonging and identity in ways that feel heartrendingly real. (Because it’s YA, Weymouth is careful to point out trigger warnings with this one, including suicidal thoughts and self-harm).
Want some epic fantasy that doesn’t feel like a Tolkien rip-off?
Here’s where I wander into some dangerous territory. I’m not going to suggest any Brandon Sanderson. Sorry, fanboys—Mistborn was great but damn, it was a struggle to get through the rest of the trilogy. So instead I’m going to suggest one of my favorite epic fantasy trilogies from the last decade: Brian Staveley’s The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, which begins with The Emperor’s Blades. It’s complete, so no waiting for the final installment. I’ll focus on the first book here.
The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. And after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can act, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.
The Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. Lastly Kaden, heir to the empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways, which Kaden must master to unlock ancient powers. But when an imperial delegation arrives, has he learnt enough to keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move? (Summary from Amazon).
The best part about this one for me is the basic premise: the story is told by the three children of the emperor, each one representing a different ‘plotline’ (Kaden is magic, Valyn military, Adare politics). But they interact and conflict in so many different ways over the course of the trilogy, each believing they are focused on the right path. Surprisingly, I found Valyn’s the most interesting storyline, though all three are absolutely vital for the progression of the plot. And the worldbuilding is interesting as well (don’t expect anything Tolkienesque here, or even Martinesque for that matter!)
I read this trilogy before I swore off grimdark, so I don’t know if I would love it as much if I read it now. One of the siblings’ storylines is extremely dark. But I loved the worldbuilding, the political intrigue, and the multi-POV storyline–this one hits so many buttons for me, I think I’d still love it. And it has definitely been an influence on my own writing in the past few years.
If you’re interested but not sure you want to commit to a trilogy, I also recommend Staveley’s spin-off novel, Skullsworn. Read my review of Skullsworn on Cannonball Read.
Shout out to Ali Gennaro here, who recommended this trilogy to Christian while I was unfortunately right there and had recently finished the final book. Sorry for getting a little overexcited when you were trying to tell him why he should read it!
Want some fantasy that isn’t based on Medieval Europe?
I’ve been encountering a lot more fantasy that isn’t just based on medieval Europe, which is great because it automatically feels fresh! (And if you’re all about medieval Europe feeling fantasy, you’re golden because there’s still lots of that going around too). But I can also tell, looking back on some of the books I’ve read over the last decade, is that there’s ‘good because it’s not the same as everything else’ and ‘oh my gosh this is actually GOOD’. City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty, is one of those.
Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… Be careful what you wish for. (Summary from BookDepository; note that the IndieBound summary tells more of the plot)
Nahri is a fun protagonist, but I find the alternate protagonist/point of view character, Ali, to be even more intriguing. But the worldbuilding is the real MVP here. The joy partly comes from not knowing what to expect, because it’s building on completely un-Tolkienesque ideas. (My review for Cannonball Read is, hopefully, forthcoming).
City of Brass isn’t YA, so don’t be one of those people who assume all fantasy written by women MUST be YA. However, it is one of those almost-NA (‘New Adult’) fantasy novels, where the characters are in their early twenties. (I think those in the ‘biz call this ‘crossover appeal’). They’re not teenagers, but they’re not grizzled adults either. I really enjoy these, partly because this is the sort of target audience I write for as well. (So if you have any recommendations for this genre, especially fantasy political intrigue ones, please send ’em my way!)
Edit as of 03-2021: I can confirm that this whole trilogy is fantastic, each improving on the one before. This one also gets Christian’s seal of approval.
Looking for some humor with your fantasy?
Okay, so the obvious suggestion here is TERRY PRATCHETT, OH MY GOD, READ GUARDS! GUARDS! BUT I will instead recommend a book that both Christian and I enjoyed this year, at (approximately) the same time: Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames.
Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best – the meanest, dirtiest, most feared and admired crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.
But their glory days are long past; the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then a former bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help: his daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy horde one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of impossible mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.
It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld. (Summary from Amazon)
Let’s get this over with first: if you haven’t already figured it out, the mercenary bands are spoofing on rock-and-roll bands. This is the basic premise of the book, and there are plenty of references throughout. Christian no doubt caught more of them than I did, but I picked up on a fair few. It’s also even clear that the band members are based on certain rock-band profiles: Clay is the bass guitarist, Mat is the drummer. (I stand by my argument that Moog is the synth player). You don’t have to love rock to enjoy this, but it certainly wouldn’t help.
The novel isn’t flawless. There’s a lot of coincidence and some easily-solved obstacles. And it’s deeeefinitely more of a ‘bro’ book than a lot of the others I’ve listed. But there’s a lot of joy and a lot of heart too, and so many laughs. I love this one just for those times when Christian let out a huge guffaw when listening. Read my review on Cannonball Read.
Not for you? Maybe check out…
- Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett. Sorry-not-sorry. This book contains the line ‘Her bosom rose and fell like an empire’, which remains my favorite written line of literature in any language. Suck it, Shakespeare. Read my review on Cannonball Read.