Whenever I try to convince a friend to read fantasy, they tend to assume that fantasy is all about teenagers teaming up with elves to fight off a mindless horde commanded by an evil overlord. They can’t relate to it, they can’t suspend their disbelief, and they don’t feel like they’d learn anything from it. I understand all of that.
I had another friend tell me that he’d rather read sci-fi because it’s more serious, more intellectually nuanced, more scientific—less silly. And I understand that, too. In fact, I drifted away from fantasy in my late teens for that very same reason. Not only was it started to feel silly, but I was growing tired of coming of age stories. I had already made it past that milestone. I felt like I had outgrown the genre.
But fantasy is a genre with many subdivisions. Not every fantasy book has elves, dwarves, dragons, or magic. Not all of them are about young men going on the hero’s journey, many of them are nuanced and deep. Even so, when I tried to go back to fantasy as an adult, I had so much trouble finding a book that resonated with me that I nearly gave up on the genre all over again.
Eventually, though, I found a few authors who made me fall back in love with the fantasy as an adult. If you’re skeptical of fantasy but open-minded enough to give it a try, maybe you’ll like these suggestions.
There are a few reasons why people shy away from fantasy:
- The best fantasy books are old and boring, and I get that. the Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, and JRR Tolkien is notorious for taking several pages to describe a feast. I understand how revolutionary and influential Tolkien was, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will find his books enjoyable to read nowadays.
- Fantasy books are too silly. I understand this one, too. When I was reading Robert Jordan’s renowned Wheel of Time series, I had trouble getting into it because of the talking trees, goofy ogres, and mindless trolloc hordes.
- Fantasy is for kids. The most famous fantasy books are about teenagers coming of age and becoming heroes. That includes the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, Wizard of Earthsea, and the Wheel of Time.
- The hero’s journey isn’t interesting. This one got me. We’ve all seen Star Wars. How many more times do we need to hear about a farm boy who reluctantly goes on an adventure, encounters strife, and ultimately emerges a hero?
- Fantasy doesn’t cover interesting issues. For a lot of people, the cool thing about sci-fi is that it speculates about science, philosophy, and politics, making it more than just an entertaining story. You can learn while being entertained.
These reasons all make sense. I had all of those same thoughts myself. And that’s coming from someone who absolutely loved fantasy stories growing up. Before I could read, my mother read the Chronicles of Narnia to me, I spent grade five secretly reading the Lord of the Rings instead of listening to my teacher, we read Harry Potter in grade six, and then in high school, I fell in love with all of David Gemmel’s books.
But then I grew up, and I didn’t want to read fantasy anymore. I thought that fantasy was for kids. After all, I had been a kid reading fantasy books for kids.
- Lucy is eight when the Chronicles of Narnia begin.
- The Harry Potter books are about going to school.
- When the Lord of the Rings starts, Frodo had never even had a job, let alone a wife or kids
Now, that isn’t to say that there isn’t genius in these books. The Chronicles of Narnia are full of Christian symbolism that only an adult would pick up on, and the Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most influential book in all of fantasy. Still, they’re books about kids, and so no wonder they can feel childish.
As of writing this article, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin is the most popular adult fantasy book (and series), and it’s been so immensely successful that it’s starting to change the reputation of the fantasy genre overall. Adults are realizing that not all fantasy is written for children. However, that might give you the impression that what separates a kid’s fantasy novel from an adult fantasy novel is the amount of violence and sex, or even just how complicated the plot is. There’s more to it than that, though.
A kid’s fantasy novel might be about the stresses of school, or fitting in, finding love, or figuring out their role in the world—things that kids think about. When we read these books as adults, they can ring hollow because we aren’t dealing with those issues anymore. The protagonists in adult fantasy novels are often adults, they’re often married, they might have kids, and they think like adults.
I recently read a great sci-fi thriller, Dark Matter, about a husband who becomes separated from his wife and son and needs to find a way back to them before it’s too late. That plot gripped me because it mirrored my nightmares. If that book had been from the perspective of the kid trying to get back to his mother and father, eh, maybe not so resonant.
The next concern is that fantasy books are silly make-believe stories that aren’t plausible or realistic enough to take seriously. I get that. Some of the appeal of hard science fiction is that even though it’s in the future, it’s firmly rooted in science, allowing you to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself into the story. With fantasy, instead of being rooted in quantum physics or whatnot, the more realistic books tend to be rooted in anthropology and history, which can give it that same feeling of realness. Different scientific fields, but science nonetheless.
For example, instead of imagining what it would be like if time travel or the multiverse existed, you’re imagining what it would be like if our species evolved a little bit differently. Or instead of imagining what a futuristic war might look like, we’re imagining what past wars actually did look like.
When I started reading fantasy as an adult, I wanted something that felt real, and that was as scientifically plausible as a hard sci-fi novel, with real consequences for every action. There’s plenty of that. It’s just not always easy to find.
Another thing that can make fantasy books feel childish is that they’re often about a noble hero who goes up against a mindless evil horde. In Star Wars, for instance, Luke is against the Empire and its army of evil stormtroopers. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo is against Sauron and his army of evil orcs; and in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy is up against the White Witch and her evil animal minions. There’s no nuance, there, and that isn’t how the world really works, so again, it can ring hollow.
There’s a reason why so many fantasy (and sci-fi) authors do that. First of all, sometimes it can be rooted in religious ideas. Perhaps Christian authors like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis are writing about what they believe to be true: fighting against the Devil and his horde of demons.
But there’s another reason, too. It’s easy to root for a hero who kills a hundred stormtroopers. It’s much harder to root for someone who kills a hundred people, all of whom are just soldiers bravely doing their duty for the country they happen to have been born in. So I understand why fantasy authors create these mindless hordes to serve as fodder for their heroes. But if we wave those moral quandaries aside, we’re removing the nuance and thus creating a more childish tale.
There are good adult fantasy books where there are multiple sides vying for power, rightly and wrongly, all with believable reasons for doing what they’re doing, sympathetic or not, and where war and death are given moral weight. A Game of Thrones might again come to mind, and that’s certainly one example of it, but there are other authors who handle that issue in more optimistic ways, and, I think, with more nuance.
If you’re at all like me, I think you may enjoy these fantasy books and authors.
(By the way, all of these links are affiliate links to Amazon.com.)
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay has won numerous literary awards, and he was appointed to the Order of Canada “for his contributions to the field of speculative fiction as an internationally celebrated author.” He’s best known for writing historical fiction with a hint of the surreal. You might call it magical realism. However, even though his books are technically fantasy, nothing about the plot, setting, or characters should feel implausible or silly because all the major events in his stories have actually happened.
The Lions of Al-Rassan was inspired by the famous knight Sir Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the national hero of Spain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, and I wouldn’t recommend looking up why Rodrigo is so famous, but the story is based on the Muslim occupation of Spain in the 11th century.
However, Kay’s books are technically high fantasy because Kay invents his own worlds, religions, and characters. The novel doesn’t take place in Moorish Spain, it takes place in Asharite Esperaña. It isn’t about a religious war between Islam and Christianity, it’s about a religious war between the Asharites and the Jaddites. And Kay isn’t actually writing about Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, he’s just being inspired by his personality and history.
There are a few reasons why I love his approach to fantasy so much:
- Kay takes what the people of the time believed and he makes it real. For example, in 8th-century China, they believed that an unburied body would leave behind a tormented spirit. So in his book inspired by 8th-century China, there’s a battlefield where the screams of ghosts can be heard. That way we experience the world in the same way that the people of the time experienced the world.
- The magical elements are just there for decoration, to make the worlds feel wondrous. He might add a second moon, say. But regardless of these fantasy flourishes, the plot revolves around the people. There’s no deus ex machina where a magic spell saves the day.
- Because Kay is creating fictional versions of historical characters, he can take liberties with their personalities and thoughts. That means that he doesn’t need to guess whether a Rodrigo really loved his wife or not, he can just be inspired by him and create a good story around it.
Perhaps more importantly, we also get the benefits of having a story that’s rooted in real people, cultures, and conflicts. For instance, because the book is based on a real conflict, there are nuanced characters and motivations on either side of it. In fact, instead of focusing the story on just Rodrigo, Kay chose to build the story around three main protagonists: Rodrigo (inspired by a famous Spanish knight), Jehane (inspired by an important Jewish doctor), and Ammar (inspired by an acclaimed Arab poet). Instead of making it a story about Jaddite heroes against the evil Asharite horde, it’s a story about bigotry and tolerance in an age of religious war and conquest.
Sometimes books dealing with themes as lofty as bigotry and tolerance can seem preachy, but Guy Gavriel Kay is great at this. He’s not trying to convince anyone of anything, he’s just trying to present our history in a way that’s real. To do this, he reads the historical records from the time and consults the top modern historians, which makes sense, but what I thought was interesting is that he also reads the poetry and stories that were being written at the time. That way he can understand the nuances of how these people actually felt about what was happening around them. (He tends to include poets as main characters, too, so that he has an excuse to bring in their perspective. In this case, Ammar is the poet, and his character is based on Ab? Bakr Mu?ammad ibn ?Amm?r.)
The downside to this, of course, is that his books aren’t neat and tidy. There are a lot of characters and motivations to keep track of, not unlike, say, Game of Thrones. Except unlike Game of Thrones, most of Kay’s books are standalone novels. So although the books aren’t light and breezy to read, they do move along at a good pace, get intense in the middle, and have a satisfying (and often devastating) conclusion.
Another difference between Guy Gavriel Kay and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones is the tone of the books. Game of Thrones is full of violence, torture, incest, and sex, painting it as a grim and dark world. The Lions of Al-Rassan, on the other hand, while equally tragic, is more hopeful and romantic.
If you’d rather read about another fragment of history, each of his books covers a different culture in a different period of time. Here are a few of them:
- A Song for Arbonne, inspired by the Albigensian Crusade in medieval France. It takes place in the 13th century and is all about knights, bards, blood feuds, and doomed romance.
- Sailing to Sarantium, inspired by Byzantium in 550 BC. I haven’t read it and I don’t want to risk reading about or giving away spoilers.
- The Last Light of the Sun, inspired by the Viking invasions during the 9th century. This one is about revenge and also fatherhood.
- Under Heaven, inspired by the 8th century Tang Dynasty in Imperial China. It’s about a 30-year-old former soldier who was given far too great a gift, and it has the most interesting and unusual plot I’ve ever read. I loved it, and it might be Kay’s best novel. It starts rather slow, though, so I’m hesitant to recommend it as a first read. (River of Stars Comes after this one.)
- Children of Earth and Sky, and taking place in a world based on Italy, Istanbul and the Balkans in the 15th century. I haven’t read this one either, so again, I’m trying to avoid looking into it beforehand.
If you realize that you like this genre, there are other authors who write historical fiction with a hint of fantasy, too:
- Bernard Cornwell, who wrote The Winter King (about King Arthur), which I read and enjoyed, and The Last Kingdom, which I bought but haven’t gotten to yet.
- Jo Walton, who wrote Lent. It’s about a priest in 15th century Florence who believes that he can see demons, and who is worried that the Pope is becoming corrupt. The character is real, all of the events are real, and it’s arguably 100% historical. But halfway through, boy does it ever get trippy and fantastical. I don’t want to spoil it. You probably shouldn’t even read the plot synopses on the back of the book. Do be warned that it’s dry, though, especially in the first half.
- Gene Wolfe, I’ve read some of his other books, but the book that’s famous for being historical with a hint of fantasy is Devil in the Forest.
Again, just to warn you. I love these authors and books, and you might as well. But keep in mind that they can be a bit dry. They can be complicated. If you want something lighter, there are some other good choices.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold is perhaps the most critically acclaimed fantasy author alive today, having won the Hugo Award four times for best novel, and twice for best series. She also won the Nebula Award twice. The Hugo and the Nebula awards are the premier awards in science fiction, showing that her fantasy novels are taken seriously by people who care deeply about science.
The Curse of Chalion is the first novel in one of her award-winning series, and the sequel (Paladin of Souls) won a Hugo Award for best novel. The Curse of Chalion has also won awards outside of the fantasy genre, including the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, showing that she’s taken seriously by people who care about literature in general, not just fantasy.
However, although Lois McMaster Bujold is winning sci-fi and literature awards, this novel is very much high fantasy, and much more so than Guy Gavriel Kay. In a weird coincidence, this world is loosely based on southern Europe during the time of the Reconquista (just like the Lions of Al-Rassan), but this world is wholly imagined, with its own unique cultures and religions that aren’t directly comparable to existing ones. Her worlds are also richer in magic, and that magic has a bigger influence on her plots.
However, despite Bujold’s books being deeply in the realm of high fantasy, they still feel real because of how well she understands human nature. If Kay’s novels feel real because they represent real history, Bujold’s books feel real because they’re about real people. I fell in love with the characters in her books, all of who feel real.
The book is about an immensely likeable man named Cazaril, who dutifully went to war for his kingdom but was then betrayed by his own royal court, who tried to have him killed. The book begins with him returning home after having managed to fake his death, but he’s returning home to the people who betrayed him, and he still doesn’t know who his enemies are, or why they want him dead. He tries to hide his identity until he can figure out who wants him killed.
This plot reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo, with all the mystery, plotting, and revenge—which I loved. There’s a fantasy aspect to it, too, though. On his way back home, Cazaril witnesses a dark ritual and slowly realizes that there is a curse over the kingdom of Chalion.
Amidst the decaying splendour and poisonous intrigue of Chalion’s ancient capital, Cardegoss, Cazaril is forced to encounter both old enemies and surprising allies, as he seeks to lift the curse of misfortune that clings to the royal family of Chalion, and to all who come too close to them…
This is a novel where characters who seem like villains might not be, and characters who feel like heroes might fail. In fact, the next book in the series is about an entirely different character (who is a minor character in this book), so the survival of Cazaril is far from guaranteed.
As with Guy Gavriel Kay, Bujold seems to be a bit of a romantic. The book contains many flawed and despicable characters, but it’s ultimately the heartening story of Cazaril, an endearingly good person I couldn’t help but care about.
The only downside is that, as with Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, these more nuanced characters means that there’s more to keep track of. Plus, because it takes place in a wholly imagined world, there are some new terms to grapple with at the beginning. Once you can get the names of the characters and locations straight, though, this book flows fairly smoothly and has a good intensity to it.
The Waterborn by Greg Keyes
The first two books are about adults with adult problems, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with a classic hero’s journey, especially if you aren’t bored with that plot yet. There’s also nothing wrong with a book that’s easier to get into and that flows a bit faster. The Waterborn is that book.
Kay and Bujold have twisting and nuanced plots that are hard to understand but surprising and rewarding in the end. This book is the opposite of that. It’s quick to get into, quick to read, and deeply enjoyable, but for better and worse, the plot is fairly simple.
If you think plots like A Game of Thrones are too convoluted, confusing, or boring, maybe try this instead. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. Nobody is calling it a masterpiece. But it’s one of my all-time favourite fantasy novels, it hooked me right away, and one of the only books I’ve read twice.
I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve read a bit of anthropology, and as I was reading through this book, I kept thinking that these cultures and problems felt oddly more real than the other fantasy books I was reading at the time. I saw another reviewer describe it as “a new fantasy which was old at the same time, one which rang true and solid.” I went to look up the author, and as it turns out, he’s got a degree in anthropology. No wonder his invented cultures ring true—they’re a mishmash of real ones.
What I enjoy about Greg Keyes is that he’s taken various ancient myths and religions and imagined them as if they were real. What would it be like if the beliefs of Native American tribes or Celts or Egyptians were real? What if meadows and forests really were owned by petty gods? What if Pharoahs really did have the power of a god? It’s not so different from what Guy Gavriel Kay does, except that these religions aren’t just a decoration, they form the basis for the plot. These gods are the tricksters and manipulators of these cultures, and these events could never take place in our real world.
The book has two main characters: Perker and Hezhi. Perkar is a young warrior who lives in a small polytheistic cattle-herding society. With each new generation of children, their land is being splintered ever smaller, but they’re a smaller clan, and they aren’t powerful enough to conquer land from their enemies. So this new generation of young men is facing the prospect of having nowhere to live, and thus no ability to start their own families. Their king is a good man and is sympathetic to their plight, and so he leaves with the young men on a journey to seek out the help of a local god who has helped them in the past. Unfortunately, these are immature young men who are seeking glory, and things go terribly, horrendously wrong.
Hezhi is the young princess of a monotheistic society. Her life is blessed in many ways, and she has every material desire. However, there is something evil taking place in the palace. Her cousin has gone missing, is probably dead. In fact, many royals are seemingly being quietly killed, and perhaps with the permission of the King. Hezhi is trying to unravel this mystery, hoping to save her cousin, or at least trying to avoid her own impending murder.
Through all of this, there’s the metaphor of the smaller gods of the springs and creeks flowing into the more powerful river god, who is forever consuming them. Those who worship these smaller gods thus have a fear and a hatred for this far more powerful god of the river.
This story is archetypical. It is about a hero, however flawed. There are magic swords. There are powerful gods. But despite all of that, it still manages to feel relatable, making it a good introduction to fantasy.
If you’re skeptical about fantasy but want to give it a try, I’d recommend starting with one of these three books, depending on your preferences:
- The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay: for people who love history, who are intrigued by the setting of medieval Spain, or who want the fantasy kept fairly light and realistic.
- The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold: for people who want deep character development and drama, and an intense and thrilling mystery.
- The Waterborn by Greg Keyes: for people who want a quick, fun, and satisfying hero’s journey and dark mystery in a land that’s anthropologically awesome.
If you decide to read any of these books, let me know what you think in the comments below. Also, if you know of any books I might like, I’d love to hear your recommendations.
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