Most of my regulars on the blog are presumably avid fantasy readers like myself, but my romance reading challenge has made me wonder what books I might recommend for those who aren’t. After all, fantasy can certainly be an intimidating genre to step into. It’s incredibly difficult to find standalone novels, or to find books that will suit your non-fantasy interests.
Fortunately, I have dabbled in various types of fantasy, so I have a few different recommendations for you. The list below was made with my own reading challenges in mind–usually, comprised of five books, one of which is a classic and one of which there is an adaptation–and I’ve thrown together a couple of different categories to give a variety of fantasy options.
Beyond that, I can only say that I’m unwilling to recommend books I haven’t read, so this is by no means a comprehensive list of the best of fantasy. I should also mention that there are some books on this list that were not to my own personal taste, but were written well enough that I can at least, in good conscience, suggest them.
To Begin: The Classics
The Hobbit: J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the best-known fantasy authors. While his Lord of the Rings series is likely the best-known of his works, The Hobbit is a standalone novel set in the same world that will allow a new reader to test the waters before jumping into the more daunting Lord of the Rings trilogy. The book follows Bilbo Baggins as he’s roped into a quest to help some dwarves reclaim their home from an ancient dragon. It’s full of adventure, with several smaller side-quests in their journey to the mountain, and even better, it had been written as a children’s book, so it’s a relatively easy read.
To Consider: Length
Tess of the Road: As I said before, finding really good stand-alone fantasy novels is next to impossible (although, for those who love the genre, being given only a single book in which to fall in love with and enjoy a world can be a major tragedy) but Rachel Hartman wrote a good one here. Like The Hobbit, Tess of the Road is set in an already-existing world (RE: Seraphina), but can be read on its own. Tess is a character who tries to ignore her trauma until one day she leaves her toxic family behind and begins to walk. Her journey takes her across the land, through two countries, where she accidentally changes the lives of nearly everyone she comes across, and overall just learns the importance of “walking on.” It does deal with depression, suicidal thoughts, and the aftermath of sexual assault, but in a way that is respectful and vastly better handled than most fantasy novels.
Eye of the World: In opposition to the stand-alones, we have an epic fifteen-book series, if you count the prequel. Wheel of Time is also getting a TV adaptation before long. Eye of the World is a good introduction both to the series and to the genre as a whole, as it uses some tried and true fantasy tropes without making them boring. With a nifty magic system and an expansive world, but without Tolkien’s habit of spending pages and pages on description alone, Wheel of Time is a good traditional fantasy series to start with. Eye of the World follows a small cast of characters as protagonist Rand, along with his friends, flee their homes under the guidance of their Gandalf-figure, Moiraine. Their goal is to find safety in Tar Valon, but it’s a long journey. Enemies and danger can crop up anywhere, and it’s going to take a lot of effort just to stay alive.
To Consider: Genre
A Court of Thorns and Roses: For readers who enjoy books full of romance, Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is probably as good a segue into the fantasy genre as there is. Both A Court of Thorns and Roses and Throne of Glass include heavy romance elements, but the former is, in my humble opinion, better written. It’s also shorter as a series. The book is about a human, Feyre, who gets drawn into the land of the Fae and, through her connection to love-interest Tamlin, also draws the ire of Fae Queen Amarantha. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling, though the target audience is definitely New Adult at the very least. I wasn’t a major fan of the series, but I can at least see its appeal.
Raven Boys: If realistic fiction is more your style, then something from the urban fantasy department is probably going to be up your alley. Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys has a magic system to it, but it’s subtle, creepy. At times, especially later in the series, it can also feel like horror. The series follows Blue Sargent and her newfound group of friends as they investigate the possibility of a dead Welsh King who can grant a wish to whoever finds him. The book includes pyschics and a really weird forest and a twist ending that is going to break your heart. It’s also pretty short, and fast-paced to boot.
Cinder: For a more dystopian flare, we go to Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first of the Lunar Chronicles series. Toeing the line between science fiction and fantasy, Cinder is a Cinderella retelling about the titular cyborg who finds herself pinned between love and duty. There’s a deadly plague sweeping the nation, and a ruthless Lunar queen who is willing to give them the antidote for a steep price. Knowing it’s a Cinderella retelling makes the romance elements less cringey, and, better yet, family play a big part.
Stardust: A quirky, standalone novel by Neil Gaiman himself, Stardust is the perfect book to read for a book/movie comparison. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen or read either, but the movie is certainly as intriguing as the book. It is also one of the only books on my list that has a single movie, one that’s also enjoyable to watch and read. Stardust follows the protagonist, Tristan, who extracts a promise from his crush that if he brings back a star, she’ll marry him. Tristan crosses into the more magical realm, but finds the star in human form, and as they journey back to his realm (and get into plenty of antics along the way), can’t help but fall in love with the star-girl. It’s a cute read.
I would also mention that Good Omens is another Neil Gaiman book with a really good adaptation, but it’s not strictly fantasy, and the adaptation is a series instead of a movie, so make of that what you will.
To Consider: Age Range
I have two quick side-notes before we get into this. First is my general dislike of labeling “young adult” as a genre. Age range and genres are two very different categories, which is why this is in a different section than the genre heading. Secondly, there’s a decent amount of middle grade fantasy, but I really didn’t get into fantasy until I was old enough to read YA, so I apologize for the lack of suggestions in the MG department.
Tale of Despereaux: This is a cute, short book about a mouse and a rat and about just how damaging expectations can be. It’s also very much about forgiveness, not because you are supposed to, but because it is really the only way to save oneself. Despereaux is a brave mouse who loves to read and who falls head over heels for the princess. Roscuro is a dungeon rat who loves the light but who realizes how much the world is going to hate him just for being a rat, and the terrible things he does out of spite. Kate DiCamillo writes it almost like a fairy tale, or a bedtime story, and it’s really just such a wholesome book. There’s no magic, and the setting doesn’t require too much memorization on the reader’s part, which makes it an easy book to add to your list.
Graceling: Kristin Cashore’s debut, Graceling follows Katsa and her new friend Po as they try to unravel the mystery of a kidnapping. The magic system isn’t terribly complex, and it’s your standard medieval-type setting, but the book focuses on the internal conflict of the protagonist, and doesn’t shy away from topics like periods and birth control (which, trust me, is a rare find in fantasy novels). The Graceling Realm series includes three standalone novels and now a fourth book that could be the first of a duology, each of which are primarily centered around female characters learning to accept themselves.
A Darker Shade of Magic: Of the handful of V. E. Schwab books I’ve read, her Shades of Magic series is my favorite. It features four separate Londons, each with different levels of magic. Kell, the protagonist, is from Red London, which is full of magic, and is one of only two men who can walk between the worlds. But his London gets roped into the plots of White London, a version that is growing sickly and corrupt, and it will take all of Kell’s wit–and the help of his newfound friend, Lila Bard–to save anyone. It’s intense, fast-paced, and intriguing, and has a sort of multiverse that isn’t common in the fantasy genre.
Eragon: Essentially an homage to the fantasy genre, written by a 15-years-old Christopher Paolini, Eragon is the first of a four-book series that likewise takes place in another world. It follows the titular Eragon as he discovers magic and dragons, and becomes a target because of it. There’s an evil king, an oddball witch, elves and dwarves and other fantastical creatures, and a pretty straightforward magic system based off of language. If you want to read a book that could encapsulate what it means to be a fantasy book, Eragon is probably a good one to add to your list.
The Magicians: If you don’t mind a anti-hero, one who can grate on the nerves at times, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a good book. Basically Harry Potter, but much darker (and written by an author who, as far as I am aware, hasn’t dug himself irreparably into a political hole), the book follows Quentin Coldwater and a few of his friends as they discover a magic college called Brakebills, and with it, a terribly monster from another world. When I say it’s dark, I mean it gets really dark (especially in the TV adaptation, which I am admittedly more familiar with), with ruthless deaths, awful deities, and dangerous magic.
Rage of Dragons: Although the book seems thick, it is a fast-paced read. Rage of Dragons is an epic fantasy book written by Evan Winters and follows a plot that is a staple in the genre: one of revenge. When Tau witnesses the death of a loved one, he’s determined to make the ones responsible pay, but in this world, you’re either a noble, or you’re canon-fodder, and Tau is no noble. He dedicates his life to becoming the best swordsman, ignoring all else. But although his skills become impressive, it’s never far from the reader’s mind just how tragic the whole thing is.
To Consider: Magic
Night Circus: One of the best things about fantasy is its setting. Magic is a staple, so of course most of the above books have some form of magic system in them, but I wanted to highlight two final books specifically for their magic. And the first, of course, is Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. Similar in vibe to Raven Boys, but a lot less creepy, Night Circus involves two star-crossed lovers, both of them magicians caught in a sort of battle-to-the-death that takes place in a circus. Yet it never feels like a dark narrative. The writing style infuses the awe and wonder one feels when watching a real-life magician perform their tricks, their secrets unknown to all but the magician themselves.
A Song of Wraiths & Ruin: To finish this list, we have Roseanne Brown’s A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, in which circumstances put the two protagonists on the same path, where one must kill the other. Although its pitched almost as a romance, Brown focuses more on just how big it is to take someone’s life, even a stranger’s, even on behalf of a loved one. The setting feels reminiscent of real-world history, of West-African folklore, and Brown will throw you into her world headfirst and let you figure out the details.