At a recent meeting of my book club, one of my friends told us about how a guy friend was teaching her how to play Dungeons and Dragons and had suggested that she read Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World, the first installment of the Wheel of Time series. I refrained from rolling my eyes about the guy friend’s recommendations. Sure, The Wheel of Time is beloved of fantasy fans the world over, but it’s neither the easiest nor the friendliest series to get into. With fourteen volumes, a prequel, and two companion books, the series is over 10,000 pages long. There are dozens of characters to keep track of, intertwining plot lines, multiple cultures, and a long span of history to keep in mind.
And did I mention Jordan’s tendency to describe everything? Down to the buttons on women’s dresses.
My friend’s frustration got me thinking. Where do you start if you’re new to adult fantasy? It’s a massive genre with all sorts of sub-genres from all over the world. It seems like everything is 800 pages long and part of an ongoing twenty-book series where you need to remember every last thing the characters said, did or ate or else you will have no idea what’s going on. It’s daunting, to say the least.
You could look at lists of award-winners to find the ‘best of the best’. The Hugos, the Nebulas, the World Fantasy Award, the Campbell Award, the Tiptree Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Aurealis Award, etc., etc.. The list goes on. As potential guides, they mostly work, though the award winners might be books in the middle of a long series, not be a reader’s taste, or– especially with the older awards like the Hugos– be very much a product of their time and so be offensive to twenty-first-century readers.
The public library is another great place to look. Librarians are known for their bookish knowledge and can probably steer you toward something you’ll like. In my life, there is one librarian in particular who is partially responsible for my love of books, because I enjoyed every book she recommended to me.
But if you don’t have access to a library and you just have some trusty rusty book blogs to guide you, here are a few of my suggestions to get you started with adult fantasy. They will either be standalone novels or trilogies of books with 500 pages or less. They’re also by American or British authors because that is what I am familiar with. I’m trying to branch out and read more books from around the world, but so far my world fantasy reads have been limited. If anyone has any suggestions, please list them in the comments. I’d love to hear about them.
Published in 2000
When Cazaril, a man broken in body by years of slavery, returns to castle where he once served, seeking any menial job available, he finds himself assigned to the position of secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess, the Royesse Iselle. When Iselle and her younger brother Teidez, the heir to the throne, are summoned to the royal capital by their ailing and childless half-brother, Cazaril is thrust back into the deadly court politics he thought he had left behind. But politics are not the only danger to Iselle’s household, for a dreadful curse lies upon Chalion. Cazaril must find a way to break the curse or find damnation for himself and disaster for his country.
Though this is technically the first book of a series, the World of the Five Gods, The Curse of Chalion works as a standalone novel. Its sequel, Paladin of Souls, deals with side characters from the first book. You do not need to read Paladin of Souls for The Curse of Chalion to make sense. Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona novellas are also set in The World of the Five Gods, though in a different time and place. I would recommend those books, too, as they are short and lovely reads, though they have a much smaller scale than most works of fantasy.
Published from 1970-1979
The Crystal Cave
The Hollow Hills
The Last Enchantment
The legends of King Arthur have been told and retold for centuries, but rarely from the point of view of Merlin, the strange magician who was Arthur’s right-hand man in some tales, his mentor in others, and was often responsible for prophecies about the legendary king and his reign. The Crystal Cave opens with Merlin as an old man looking back at his life, beginning with his precocious childhood and initial training with magic. The story follows him through his youth, his role in arranging Arthur’s conception and later education, and then through most of Arthur’s reign. It is a beautiful, engaging story.
And yes, there are actually four books in Stewart’s Arthurian Saga, but the fourth, The Wicked Day, is from the point of view of Mordred, and in my opinion, is not as good. The first three books tell a complete story on their own.
published in 1996
Richard Mayhew is living an entirely normal life. He has a good job, a comfortable London apartment, an ambitious fianceé, and a steady- if not very exciting- social life. Then one evening he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on the sidewalk. Her name is Door. This act of charity knocks him out of the reality he has always known and sends him into the dark tunnels and caverns of London Below, where nothing is as it seems and everyone is dangerous. To find his way back to the reality of London Above, Richard embarks on a quest to help Door find the people who killed her family. But assassins are on their trail and treachery is closer than they think.
This book was my introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work, and although other stories like American Gods and Stardust have gotten more attention over the years, this one is still my favorite. It’s an urban fantasy, but one that is entirely different from any other urban fantasy I’ve ever read.
Published from 2017-2019
The Bear and the Nightingale
The Girl in the Tower
The Winter of the Witch
Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya as her family calls her, is a strange girl who can see the fairytale spirits in her home in the forests of northern Russia during the fourteenth century. This is a time when Christianity is overtaking the old beliefs, and the household spirits and forest creatures are slowly fading in obscurity. When a strict new priest accompanies Vasya’s new stepmother to their little village, dark forces begin to rise out of the forests, threatening the village and potentially all of Russia. To defeat this enemy, there must be a terrible sacrifice- one that Vasya is not prepared to make.
But while, by the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, one foe seems to have been vanquished, neither Vasya’s troubles nor Russia’s are over, for in the last two books magical forces conspire with foreign armies to bring the land under the sway of darkness. Vasya must find her way through the tangled plots and magic and discover her own strength if she is to protect her family and save Russia from the encroaching chaos.
I have loved this trilogy from the beginning for many reasons. Vasya is the heroine I wish more characters were like- strong and sure of herself, and able to lead people without denigrating other women, their work, or desires. Arden’s prose is beautiful without being overwritten, and it’s obvious that she loves and respects Russia, its history, and its folktales.
Published from 1954-1955
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King
When Frodo Baggins, an ordinary hobbit, inherits a beautiful golden ring from his cousin Bilbo, he discovers that it is not just a bauble that will turn him invisible when he wears it. The little ring is the One Ring, forged centuries ago by the dark lord Sauron, who is relentlessly hunting for it. For if Sauron regains the One Ring, it will return his strength to him, giving him power over all life on Middle-earth. When the wizard Gandalf tells him the Ring can only be destroyed in the fiery chasm where it was made- in the very heart of Sauron’s realm- Frodo and a group of faithful companions set out to destroy the Ring.
Obviously, this brief description encompasses only a part of the brilliance that is The Lord of the Rings, which has been my favorite book for more than twenty years. Though the language can be a challenge for some, if you stick with it for a couple of chapters you’ll discover that it is more accessible than you think. Its beauty and the power of its narrative never fail to move me, and it provides wisdom about the nature of good and evil, the power of hope in the face of despair, and how friendship can overcome all obstacles.