Reading Fantasy for Dummies
Must-Read Novels and Series
My Reading Motto:
If you’re like me and you love reading then you know how intimidating it can be to get into a new genre or even “master” one you’ve been reading for years. There are so many sources for what I should read that sometimes I end up just giving up before facing the daunting task of choosing my next book. If you’ve ever had six tabs open in your browser spanning goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble as well as three different fan guides trying to compare reviews, top tens and favorite authors and finally going on tangent after tangent every time you see “suggested books for you!” then you know where I’m coming from.
The other pain I always endure is the purists who believe there are books you must read first in order to understand the evolution of the genre. (If you haven’t read Tolkien you can’t possibly appreciate Game of Thrones!) Some of them even scoff at your opinion if you haven’t read “the basics.” Thus, my advice is to forget all of that. The best route I’ve found is to stop stressing about finding the perfect book and simply try and try again. Books are like pizza; even the bad ones are still pretty good and if you are doing even basic research you aren’t going to find a bad one. Once you discover a book or author you love the whole process becomes a lot easier. If you know you love Brandon Sanderson then read a ton of his books! If you google “books like Name of The Wind” you’ll find tons of great suggestions without having to sift through millions that may or may not fit your taste. Another good source is to look up your favorite authors on goodreads.com. Many review other authors’ books which can be a goldmine for research.
It may seem hypocritical to follow that introduction with a list of books I want you to read and… well… it probably is. However, when I was trying to get back into consistently reading and especially catching up on modern fantasy books I would have killed for a list of suggestions from someone who shared my interests. Thus, here is what I value when reading a book and I hope it connects with you.
The number one thing that captivates me in any book is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters then, no matter how great the world, it’s hard to truly feel that it lives and breathes. I don’t care what happens in the world if I’m not fearful, sad, and thrilled at times for those who inhabit it. I gravitate towards adult fantasy. I don’t mean I need tons of sex and gore to keep me interested, but I like believable characters whose personalities have shades of grey. My favorite books make it hard to pinpoint who is good and bad and rarely is anyone all of one or the other. Realistic characters, like real people, are complicated creatures that aren’t angels or devils. People struggle and some overcome it better than others. I also love authors that don’t spoon feed you the story. They expect you to remember things and they don’t make every event an obvious sign of either things to come or obvious attempts at tricking you into guessing wrong. The best movies/books/stories have parts that aren’t foreshadowing a future event and aren’t absolutely necessary to understand the current plot line. They just add depth to the characters and world and sometimes this is more valuable than a surprising plot turn. (Think: “You really are a funny guy!” scene from Goodfellas.) These authors tend to have such a tightly written style that they will casually touch on things that happened at the beginning of the opening book hundreds of pages or even several books later. They must have thought out the detailed plot structure for the whole series before writing a single word. Finally, I’m not afraid of magic in my fantasy books, but I prefer it to be two things: well explained and also seemingly realistic, at least inside the world it resides.
This list is in no particular order and I’ve only included the books I consider the absolute cream of the crop. This is also a list of somewhat modern fantasy so you won’t find great reads like The Lord of the Rings. I’ll include a brief list of those that just missed the cut at the end. I can’t imagine anyone disliking these books as I’ve fallen in love with them to such a degree that I’ve read many of them twice (something I never used to do). Even now I find myself thinking about them. I love the characters to a sometimes creepy degree. These books will have you up until 2 a.m. nightly ignoring work and responsibilities. Without further ado; here are my must-read fantasy books.
Disclaimer: I don’t consider this a complete list by any stretch of the imagination. These are books I’ve read and I’m sure I’m missing a ton of great ones. I’m going to periodically add to this list so whether you’re reading on medium.com or 8bitbourbon.com (my podcast’s website) please hit me up on Twitter @AndyPolidore with suggestions. I love to hear from people with the same passions as me.
Disclaimer 2: Why is it that so many fantasy books have god awful cover art that seem to suggest the book is a bad romance novel? The authors must have zero input. Pro-tip from your buddy Andy: Don’t use photoshopped pictures of soap opera actors.
I went ahead and made all of the headers into links to the book or first book in the series (kindle edition). I will keep this as absolutely spoiler free as possible.
If you’ve bothered to read this article then I’m sure you’ve heard of this series whether via the books by George R.R. Martin or the HBO series “Game of Thrones” (which is technically the name of first book in the series) based upon them. I stumbled across Game of Thrones while performing one of my milti-tab research sessions I described in the introduction. I had no idea who George R.R. Martin was and there was no talk of an HBO series at the time. Thus, I went in with little to no expectations and I was blown away. If this series wasn’t the sole thing that lit my recent fire of fantasy reading then it was at least the main inspiration. Do yourself a favor. The HBO series is truly great and getting better with each season, but as with most print-to-screen adaptations it simply doesn’t touch the books. Thus, whether you’ve started the television series or not go back and read Game of Thrones and I guarantee you you’ll be caught up through book 5 inside a few months.
Martin is the master class in character development. Every character is incredibly detailed and unique. No one is free of faults in this series and most of the characters walk perilously between good and evil. You will find yourself hating some characters before begrudgingly respecting and/or even loving them down the line when you come to know them better. You will end up hating characters you thought you loved. These are complex individuals and unpredictable as they come in the genre. Every chapter is titled with a character name and is strictly in their perspective (3rd person) throughout. I simply love this style of writing. It forces the author to be very creative with how they tell the story and it also mimics real life. You don’t know what everyone in a room is thinking so why should you in a book? You see the same events from different perspectives and it’s pure genius. He will also shock you with his story telling. I’m going to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but let’s just say he isn’t afraid kill off feature characters or suddenly introduce new characters that become core to the plot. This is a story of a broken kingdom where large and powerful events are unfolding. Everyone from the incredibly powerful to the incredibly inconsequential are simply fighting to weather the storm and survive in their own unique ways. A Song of Ice and Fire is stuffed with violence, sex, humor and incredibly intricate schemes within schemes of families trying to take the crown of the Seven Kingdoms. I also love how magic is present in the world, but very much in the background due to it being of ancient times and somewhat forgotten. Run, don’t walk, and get this series now. Or, you know, just download it on your Kindle.
Ahhhh yes. I will only show favoritism in this portion of the article. If I had a gun to my head and had to choose a favorite fantasy book/series it would most definitely be The King Killer Chronicle or, as book one is titled, The Name of the Wind (since every series ends up being known by the first book’s title, authors really need to just start naming them that.) Like a great song that touches you in an indescribable way, I can only detail why it’s a tremendous story and not why it resonates with me so powerfully. I love this story so much that I’m heaping praise upon it as my favorite when it hasn’t been finished, though, neither have several series in this list. Book 3 will be the final book in this particular story arc (please, Pat, more in this world!) and is due out who the hell knows when. Rothfuss takes his time.
The Name of the Wind’s story is told through two phases; the present and the past. Kvothe is the main character. Devan Lochees (known as Chronicler) is a traveler who ends up staying, by chance, at Kvothe’s inn. Long story short, Chronicler is, *ahem*, chronicling Kvothe’s story so a small part of the book is the present day, but when Kvothe is dictating his story the book goes first person into his epic adventures.
I’m going to try and keep the reasons I love this book short. Rothfuss creates the most intricate and believable magic system I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s so nuanced and well explained that it seems more science than wizardry. The characters don’t number in the hundreds like Game of Thrones, but the small cast of important ones are fleshed out and likable and surprising and simply wonderful. Kvothe himself grew up in a troupe of traveling players and became a legendary magician, musician, and near mythic creature. You know all of this very early in the book. The question is, what happened in between? Many of the legends of Kvothe were attributed falsely due to him being wildly clever. This is one of my favorite things about the story. Kvothe purposefully creates this aura of being a near god as a shield for the many forces out to get him. However, some of the stories of his power are true. You’ll have to read it to find out. There’s also a tremendously unique love story and awesome supporting characters and a university of magic and… ok I’ll stop there before I get too excited.
I feel I’m missing out on so much trying to do a mini-review so I’ll just say this; if you love fantasy worlds that live and breathe, adventures that truly capture the idea of “epic” and/or any books that make you truly care about the characters then you will simply love these books. Am I currently wearing a necklace with a symbol from the books which I purchased from Rothfuss’ blog? So what if I am? Kvothe’s tale is one no one should miss.
In the last year or so I decided to go on a self-published streak in the fantasy world. After a books ranging from really bad to really mediocre I stumbled upon Blood Song (book one in the A Raven’s Shadow series) by Anthony Ryan which, at the time, was 99 cents. The book starts out like your typical fantasy medieval times book and I was lulled into thinking I was in for another generic read. Boy was I wrong. This book delivers in so many ways. The protagonist, Vaelin Al Sorna, is complex and interesting. He is a descendant from an important man who leaves him at the gates of the Brothers of the Sixth Order. He soon finds he has talents none of the others have. The band of brothers are all varying and interesting characters with many shades of grey. Vaelin will soon discover he is caught up in forces he couldn’t imagine.
To find a self published book that stands toe-to-toe with the power houses of the industry was an exhilarating experience. Anthony is a great friend of the 8bit Bourbon podcast(ok he re-tweeted us a couple times). Follow him on Twitter @writer_anthony. I’ve already pre-ordered the second release in the trilogy, Tower Lord. Since reading the book, he has been published by Penguin Group and his book is still a steal on kindle for $6.99. Blood Song has achieved the elusive five full stars average review on amazon. It’s awesome to see a formerly self-published author catch fire like he has. This book is complex and tightly written. It will have you guessing until the very end and hiding such a complex and unpredictable story into a seemingly cookie cutter fantasy novel was the real brilliance that kept me coming back. The main character is likable and funny and oh so badass. This guy is the next big thing in fantasy. Get involved now so you can tell everyone “I told you so.”
Mark Lawrence is another great friend of the 8bit Bourbon program. The Broken Empire is another fantasy trilogy starting with book one: Prince of Thorns. If you like your fantasy dark, this is a good place to start. Prince Jorg Ancrath was nine when he watched his mother and brother get slaughtered in front of his very eyes as he hung from the thorns of a nearby briar patch. (Hence, the Prince of Thorns.) Jorg ranges in age in book one from 13 to 15, but don’t let that fool you; his life has turned him dark and jaded and more full of venom than any adult could match. He isn’t afraid of death and, in fact, literally stares it down many times. He joins a gang of traveling thugs and even these cold blooded killers are fearful of the kid with the dark hair and dark eyes. He decides to return to his father’s castle and take back what is rightfully his. He has no idea what awaits him.
I’m going to be honest. I read book one and, though I enjoyed it immensely, I almost gave up on the series. I found it to be an action-packed page-turner, but I thought it was too short for the epic story it was telling and I was afraid Mark Lawrence had tried to tell a series type tale in the span of 300 pages. Book two and three put any fears to rest. Book one might be a page turner that leaves you a bit unfulfilled, but book two and three are masterpieces. Without spoiling too much, Mark Lawrence is able to combine fantasy with a touch of sci-fi and connect the past and the future in a way I never saw coming. This series, when taken as a whole, is one of my favorites of the last decade. Jorg is as complicated and dark a character that you’ll ever find yourself rooting for. Like Kvothe from Name of the Wind, Jorg shows the author’s brilliance by surprising you time after time with incredibly clever schemes that attempt to surpass seemingly impossible odds. I’m often left scratching my head in awe at how much thought must have gone into crafting the wit (and humor) of Jorg and the world he seeks to dominate. This is another series that ties in everything from beginning to end and leaves very few if any loose ends. Lawrence also ends this story arc completely (though he will revisit the world in his next book, Prince of Fools) which impresses me because most authors would milk this cash cow for all it’s worth. The Broken Empire is great and is absolutely worth your time and money.
Speaking of terrible cover art… thank baby Jesus someone decided to update The Black Prism to something infinitely better than the dangerous romance novel art it originally featured that I’ve included so you would believe me (and because I couldn’t find the new artwork in a large enough resolution for this article.) They say “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but even with my brother pressing me hard to read this series, it took me a while to get over it. Good thing I did because this is as enjoyable a read as there is in fantasy. I mentioned before that I usually shy away from books that feature magic in the forefront unless it’s incredibly well done. Well, though the magic system in this isn’t exactly “believable” like Name of the Wind’s was to me, it’s awesome and permeates the entire world Weeks builds. Everything depends on light and color. Drafting is how you transform light into powerful substances called luxin. Each different color of light creates a different luxin with different abilities. Only the Prism is able to draft every color as well as split white light into whatever color he pleases. (Others need to wear colored goggles or absorb their color from something that is already that color.)
Gavin Guile is one of your main character and Prism of the Seven Satrapies. He is the most famous and probably the most powerful man in the world. The Seven Satrapies are distinct countries that are loosely ruled by a centralist government, but are semi-independent and more directly ruled by their own satrap (one person). There is only supposed to be one Prism that always dies after serving for multiples of seven years. (7, 14, 21 etc) Gavin and his brother Dazen both had the powers of Prism and this exception to the rule caused a civil war that the realm barely survived. Gavin knows he’s weakening and only has five years to achieve five impossible goals. To complicate things he receives a note that he may have a 15 year old bastard. Kip is his name and the story is told through the eyes of these two characters. Kip is an average kid from a rural town that is suddenly thrown into war, magic and chaos. These events send him on a journey that leads to the home of his supposed father and Prism of the Seven Satrapies, Gavin Guile. Gavin is incredibly clever and, when combined with his unmatched raw power, is capable of seemingly impossible things. He will need to harness every bit of his capabilities if he wants to complete the lofty objectives he’s set for himself in the increasingly short time available to him all while hiding secrets that only he must ever know. You will love Gavin at times and distrust him immensely at others. There are surprises and plot twists galore. The world fuses gunpowder technology with the magic system perfectly. I’m so jealous you’re going to be able to enjoy Lightbringer for the first time. Both books are stunning achievements. Book three comes out this year so catch up now.
If you even dabble in fantasy you’ve probably heard the name Brandon Sanderson. He became known to me when he finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series after Jordan’s untimely death. (Brief aside: The first three books of said series were some of the best reading memories of my life, but the series started to really drag somewhere thereafter and I never made it past book seven. This seems to be the danger of a truly epic 14,000 page series like Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan, though, breathed life into adult fantasy with world building that is still second to none and I thank him for that. R.I.P.) Since then Sanderson has absolutely exploded. The first of his books I read was Mistborn book one. The series is still my favorite from his exponentially growing collection. He has everything from novellas to young adult books to Mistborn spinoffs to two brand new worlds that have come out in only a handful of years. Brandon Sanderson is a prolific author.
While some of the other books on this list include extremely important and powerful female characters, Mistborn is the only one that features a true female lead named Vin. Vin starts out as a street rat before discovering she has hidden powers she never could have imagined. Kelsier is the leader of the underground movement to overthrow the evil Lord Ruler who is basically a god-king. Kelsier takes Vin under his wing. Both characters are unique and they play off each other very well. The story changes over the course of the trilogy and several characters fade from prominent roles while others enter into them, but Vin is a constant. Mistborn features a somewhat similar magic system to Lightbringer where, instead of different wavelengths of light, various metals can be ingested to give different powers. Also, only the most powerful are able to harness multiple metals and only the Mistborn (think Prism in Lightbringer) are able to use them all. (Very slight spoiler: there’s much more to it than that.) I love how he makes the magic system seem almost physics based where figuring out clever ways to combine the various powers are like an athlete performing a tricky maneuver. It leads to moments that make you marvel at the creative genius of Sanderson as well as allowing a badass female protagonist seem completely plausible. (Something many authors fail miserably to properly represent.)
The best part of this trilogy is how tightly written the story is from beginning to end. Sanderson 100% had this story sketched out before beginning book one and it will keep you guessing until the very end. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. When you finish it immediately go purchase Sanderson’s newest book The Way of Kings, the first in his new Robert Jordan-esque mega epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive (ten books planned) . The first entry is a 10/10 and the only reason it isn’t on this list is because Mistborn is complete and ready to read right now. I’m also worried he may be spreading himself a little too thin with the immense amount of material he puts out. Brandon: please stop everything else and work on the Stormlight books. It has greatest of all time potential. Thank you in advance, -Your fans. However, if anyone can handle it Brandon Sanderson can.
Just Missed List:
Limiting this list to six books/series was very difficult. I really wanted to highlight my favorites and not give you three years of reading. Here are a few more I also consider must reads… after you complete all of your above assignements. Don’t shy away from them just because they didn’t make the glorious Andy Polidore golden six.
The only reason this series didn’t make the list is because it’s a) technically sci-fi and b) a very hard read. Simmons weaves the stories of 6 completely unique and independent characters who will, in the end, all come to intersect. I’ve only read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, but these two books complete a story arc. I haven’t gotten into the other books inside this world, but these two are spectacular. Dan Simmons is almost too smart for his own good. The characters’ stories are sad, scary and sometimes disturbing. You will not be able to guess what’s coming next. This is my favorite sci-fi read in years.
What’s this? A single book? Not a trilogy or a 15 book series? That’s right. Once again this book is more sci-fi, but it still lands squarely in the realm of nerdy so it makes the just missed list. Ready Player One is the story of a billionaire who hides his fortune inside a massively multiplayer video game and a poor nobody trying to be the one to solve the many puzzles. The billionaire is obsessed with 1980's pop culture and, thus, if you are a child of this time you must read this book if if only for nostalgia. I felt the idea was brilliant and is what made it such a fun ride, but the execution was only decent so it missed out on the sexy six. It’s a great read and a real page turner. If you’re looking for a relatively easy read that delivers this is a good choice.
If you like your fantasy drenched in blood, this trilogy is for you. One of the main characters, Ninefingers, is hilarious and crazy and, at times, a blood thirsty monster. Abercrombie does a tremendous job describing small scale combat in ways that make you cringe. This series reads almost like a video game with huge boss battles and character progression. I loved this series, but it didn’t change my life like some of the others. Still… I will be reading more by Joe Abercrombie in the future. His books are page turners and filled with humor and gore. What more could you want?
This book is more medieval historical fiction than fantasy. You won’t find any magic here; just regular people struggling in a tale that has massive scope. Tom Builder wants to build a cathedral, but must first find basic work to prove his skill. His travels pull him into political tug of war and a new love affair after his original wife dies during childbirth. The book spans over 50 years and is rife with heartbreak and struggle. No character is safe from the wake of the truly powerful and the characters have to make increasingly compromising decisions to keep themselves and the ones they love safe. I’ve probably said epic enough in this article, but this book makes you feel like you’ve traveled the 50 years yourself. It’s hard and super long and at times extremely upsetting, but it’s worth the struggle. World Without End is the semi-sequel in the same basic world, but years in the future and with different characters that are only somewhat related. It’s also a worthwhile read, but Pillars is the true classic.
Too Long/Didn’t Read:
It’s a great time to be a fan of fantasy. That most of these books came out in the last decade is a sign of how much talent and interest is permeating the genre recently. Game of Thrones catching fire with everyone from my girlfriend to my parents is a sign of just how far we’ve come.
Thank you for allowing me to share these fantastic memories with you. It gives me joy and makes me jealous to think of others reading these masterpieces for the first time. If you didn’t have the stomach to make it through all of the text, feel free to skip my thoughts and just click the links to explore the books for yourself. Just make sure you read at least one of them. I promise you none will disappoint.
Tell me what I’m missing! I plan to update this for a long, long time and I’m always looking for something to read; fantasy, sci-fi or anything else. Pass it along.
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