Although I came late to the party, I was one of millions aghast and bereft when the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones ended. I’d only recently become hooked, after watching season two in its entirety one rainy Sunday, so barely two months later I couldn’t believe it was already over.
So what to do? Read the books, naturally. But believing I’d never read any fantasy before, I wondered if George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series would be my cup of tea. So I started looking into exactly what ‘fantasy’ is.
Fantasy takes place in imaginary worlds with their own complex cosmologies – histories, social structures, forms of magic, races, religions, mythologies, flora and fauna - even songs, poetry, and language, are all purely the product of the author’s imagination. The process of ‘worldbuilding’ is extremely important to both writers and readers of fantasy; J.R.R. Tolkien spent years developing Middle-earth for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and it is still considered one of the most fully realized fantasy worlds. These imaginary worlds can exist separately from our own, real world, as in Tolkien, or they can exist in parallel to it with crossover between the two, as in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Sometimes, the imaginary world can exist within an otherwise realistic version of our world, as in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
But wait a minute. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings. I’ve also read The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Even the worlds of Beowulf and Homer’s The Odyssey fit that description.That means I have read, and loved, at least some fantasy already.
Some literary elitists will often pigeonhole fantasy books, particularly series, into a category to be avoided, believing it consists of an interchangeable cast of stock characters populating formulaic plots set in imaginary medieval worlds full of dragons and wizards, all housed behind cheesy cover art. (Guilty as charged.) But even based on just the few examples above, it’s clear that isn’t necessarily so. (Well, maybe they’re onto something with the covers.) Fantasy can go far beyond standard medievalist settings, with stories that play out in alternate versions of the American old west, like in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, in magical realms where animals talk, like the world of Redwall by Brian Jacques, or in gritty urban settings, like that in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.
And far from depicting only simplistic, one-dimensional heroes and villains who represent ultimate good and evil, fantasy characters can also subvert those stereotypes, with protagonists who range from the morally ambiguous to the downright amoral, such as those in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, and Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine.
Like all genre fiction, fantasy has too often been cast as one of literary fiction’s poorer cousins, but ultimately, all good fiction is just a good story, about interesting people, well-told. If a book can deliver those things, who am I to judge it just because somebody shelved it in the ‘Fantasy’ section? Especially since I’ve been reading books from that section for years without even realizing.
Now, back to Game of Thrones – then on to pick my next series. Here is a selection. Which one would you recommend? And which ones have I missed?
A 10-volume series chronicling the complicated world of the Malazan Empire, plagued by bitter warfare, ancient sorcerers, and imperial legions. The series is often compared to Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
A 14-part series that follows private eye and wizard Harry Dresden as he investigates supernatural evil-doings in modern-day Chicago.
Not for the faint of heart, the 12 books of The Sword of Truth series contain some vivid adult themes that will appeal to a more mature fantasy audience.
The Mistborn series, about the failed hero of a prophecy, has all the elements of classic fantasy: a large cast of colorful characters, an original magic system, and lots of action.
Originally planned as a six-book series, The Wheel of Time grew to 14 volumes, three of which were written by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death in 2007.
The series that got everyone reading fantasy without realizing that’s what they were reading. Seven volumes, all magical.
Like many fantasy series, His Dark Materials was intended for a YA audience but is enjoyed by young and old alike.
A classic of children’s literature in seven parts. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is just the first of Lucy, Peter, Edmund, and Susan Pevensie’s epic adventures in the land of Narnia.
With only two of the trilogy’s three novels in print so far, The Kingkiller Chronicle has been described as ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups’.
The mother – or father – of all modern fantasy literature, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the standard by which all fantasy worlds are measured.
This is the series that made reading fantasy cool. There are five of seven books in print so far, with fans chomping at the bit for the eagerly-anticipated sixth, due out (hopefully) next year.
With 39 Discworld books published in the last 30 years, and a 40th due in November of this year, Pratchett is both one of the most prolific and popular fantasy writers today.
Praised for the quality of the writing, Miéville’s popular trilogy is a mash-up of steampunk, dystopian-speculative fiction, horror, and urban fantasy.
The three novels in Abercrombie’s trilogy have been described as gritty, grittier, and grittiest. Repeatedly. So if you like your fantasy sandpaper-rough, this could be the series for you.
The Farseer Trilogy is just one of several series by this prolific author, who writes under both the pen name Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm.
Crime investigation in an alternate version of 1985 England, where the Crimean War still rages, genetic engineering has brought back the Dodo bird and the woolly mammoth, and literary tourists can move in and out of novels at will.
Written between 1946 and 1959, Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is one of the most enduring fantasy series.
Susan Cooper studied under J.R.R. Tolkien at university and has been described as one of his direct successors, based on the strength of this YA series of five novels.
The older folks among us will remember that Ged went to a school for wizards long before that upstart Potter came on the scene.
Set in an alternate, magical version of the old west, King has described his Dark Tower series as his magnum opus.
The traumatic death of his life-bonded partner leaves young Vanyel emotionally and psychically blown open, revealing all of his magic, music and psychic gifts at once and making him a Herald-Mage. First in a trilogy.
Imagine a world where poets are the elite – poets! – who have the power to make their art flesh. That’s the world of The Long Price Quartet.
Best known as the author of four Star Wars novels, Stover is also a favorite in die-hard fantasy circles as the author of one of the most underrated series in the genre: Acts of Caine.
An environmental scientist, fantasy newcomer Newton sets this series in a world on the verge of an ice-age.
Only one of 10 planned books is currently available, so this technically can’t be called a series yet. But based on Sanderson’s reputation and response to the first book, and with the second due out early next year, this could be the next big thing.