I recently put together this list for my brother to encourage him to read more in order to learn valuable lessons about writing (and also because you can’t be a writer without being a reader, honestly). These are, by the nature of the exercise, tailored towards a specific person, but it might be useful for more than. They are all available on Scribd for $9 a month!
Descriptions are the publishers’ blurbs from Scribd, not my own.
The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty (ebook & audio)
Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to question all she believes. For the warrior tells her an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling birds of prey are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In Daevabad, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. A young prince dreams of rebellion. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for…
Read for: Worldbuilding, multiple POV, political intrigue, strong female characters, great villains, complicated characters.
Taylor’s thoughts: This one might be my favourite trilogy of the past ten years. The first one is the weakest (especially the long travel sequence) but it has such great characters and conflicts (especially characters wanting certain things and other characters getting in their way) and the worldbuilding being based on Islamic folklore with djinns feels really fresh. Christian also loved this one!
The Tethered Mage, Melissa Caruso (audio)
In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled – taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.
Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that could threaten the entire empire.
Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations. But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.
Read for: 1st person narrative, strong female characters, political intrigue, great antagonist, internal vs. external conflict, character arcs, worldbuilding, inter-personal conflict
Taylor’s thoughts: Another of my favourite recent trilogies (the second one even features the best love triangle ever). It has a very cool historical-inspired world (Venice) with great magic and just is a really engaging story with a likeable protagonist who is forced out of her comfort zone. P.S. Caruso is the one who does WONDERFUL Twitter threads about writing/editing/revising; I really recommend following her.
Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft (audio)
Mild-mannered headmaster Thomas Senlin prefers his adventures to be safely contained within the pages of a book. So when he loses his new bride shortly after embarking on the honeymoon of their dreams, he is ill-prepared for the trouble that follows.
To find her, Senlin must enter the Tower of Babel – a world of geniuses and tyrants, of menace and wonder, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. He must endure betrayal, assassination attempts and the long guns of a flying fortress. And if he hopes to ever see his wife again, he will have to do more than just survive . . . this quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
Read for: Cool worldbuilding, character evolution, character goals, multiple levels of conflict (outward/inward), writing style, weaving in flashbacks/memories
Taylor’s thoughts: This is a great example of a super cool premise (‘what if the Tower of Babel never fell?’) and humanizing it, creating an actually compelling story. Senlin is a great example of a flawed character who evolves under the pressure of his goals and constantly being denied his goals, as well as being always pushed out of his comfort zone. The writing style is a little old-fashioned but it fits perfectly with the book. It can be a little slow sometimes, though.
Vicious, V.E. Schwab (ebook)
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
Read for: Antiheroes, multi-POV, great conflict between pro- and antagonist, unsympathetic protagonists
Taylor’s thoughts: This is more speculative fiction/sci fi than fantasy, a really cool take on superheroes. It’s a refreshing change from the normal Marvel and DC superhero worlds with no expansive mythos–just a story about two amoral assholes fighting it out. I think I suggested another V.E. Schwab to read at some point? This one is adult though.
A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (ebook & audio)
Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons. There’s Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There’s Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London…
Read for: Multi-POV, strong female character, characters’ goals & decisions drive the story, fun worldbuilding
Taylor’s thoughts: This is another one where the premise (multiple Londons with different layers of magic) is carried into a really fun story. It’s been a while since I read it, but I really enjoyed it when I did.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R.R. Martin (audio)
A young, naïve but courageous hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall towers above his rivals – in stature if not experience. Tagging along with him is his diminutive squire, a boy called Egg – whose true identity must be hidden from all he and Dunk encounter: for in reality he is Aegon Targaryen, and one day he will be king. Improbable heroes though they be, great destinies lie ahead for Dunk and Egg; as do powerful foes, royal intrigue, and outrageous exploits.
Read for: Storytelling in miniature/writing novellas, political intrigue, worldbuilding (obviously), character building through internal narration
Taylor’s thoughts: This is a collection of novellas, but each one has a distinct plot, so it may be easier to study. My book club read this one recently and everyone loved it. Martin actually deserves his status as one of the modern greats of fantasy.
The Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir (YA) (ebook & audio)
What if you were the spark that could ignite a revolution? For years Laia has lived in fear. Fear of the Empire, fear of the Martials, fear of truly living at all. Born as a Scholar, she’s never had much of a choice. For Elias it’s the opposite. He has seen too much on his path to becoming a Mask, one of the Empire’s elite soldiers. With the Masks’ help the Empire has conquered a continent and enslaved thousands of Scholars, all in the name of power. When Laia’s brother is taken she must force herself to help the Resistance, the only people who have a chance of saving him. She must spy on the Commandant, ruthless overseer of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is the training ground for Masks and the very place that Elias is planning to escape. If he succeeds, he will be named deserter. If found, the punishment will be death. But once Laia and Elias meet, they find that their destinies are intertwined and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire. In the ashes of a broken world one person can make a difference. One voice in the dark can be heard. The price of freedom is always high and this time that price might demand everything, even life itself.
Read for: Multi-POV, internal/external conflict, strong female characters, two-sided story
Taylor’s thoughts: This one is a great example of story outshining worldbuilding, which YA often does really well. The worldbuilding is, to be honest, really bland here (pseudo-Rome, society split up into discrete castes, etc.). But Elias and Laia are both compelling, even though they’re on opposite sides.