Fantasy fiction is important. It is now one of the most culturally significant forms of entertainment since the cultural phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of Thrones took the world by storm. The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s seminal A Song of Ice and Fire has put magic and dragons at the forefront of cultural consciousness. There hasn’t been anything so purely epic fantasy this popular since Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings.
However epic fantasy is just a small part of the whole genre. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is without a doubt one of the most popular series of books and movie series of all time. It has become part of society. References to the series are everywhere, and most people understand those references. Wands, wizards, quidditch, Voldemort, ‘expelliarmus’, and the lightning scar are all well-known aspects of the series, that without reading most people will know they’re from Harry Potter, or at least associate them with Harry Potter.
Fantasy is more than A Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. The purpose of this article is to share, what I believe (based on the books I have read, personally, along with some recommendations from r/Fantasy on Reddit).
Below you will find eight books I think are a great way for people who have maybe watched Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings to step a little further into the genre of fantasy.
I will admit that the breadth of reading will be inherently limited. I can only read so many books so there will have been glaringly obvious books that deserved to have been included by anyone familiar with the genre, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.
Likewise, I have excluded Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I feel that any fans of the genre or those who are interested in the genre often started at one of these points of reference.
Lord of the Silver Bow – David Gemmell
The first on my list is the Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell. Technically this book is historical/mythical fiction. This book is the first of a trilogy of books that takes place leading up to, and during, the Trojan War. The book tells the story of Helikaon of Dardanos, Andromache, priestess of Thera, and Argurios, famed warrior of Mykene.
Helikaon is Prince Aeneas of Aeniad fame, founder of the Roman people. He is the centrepiece of this story, and you’ll find yourself truly rooting for him early on. Gemmell knows how to make his readers like his characters. He is loyal to his men and a fierce warrior in the Greek tradition.
Andromache had a significantly lesser role in the Iliad, but in this, she’s on equal footing with the men who dominate myth. Where once she was the wife of Hektor, here she is a priestess of Thera sold to Troy by her father. She refuses to abide by the demands of men and does what she wills. She is often told she cannot do something, and I found a great joy in watching her surprise the expectations of those around her.
Lastly of these main characters is Argurios. The Mykene are the leaders of the Greeks, and the Trojans loathe the Mykene people and their warmongering king, Agamemnon. Argurios takes passage on Helikaon’s boat, and in doing so abides by laws that turn his own people against him. He accompanies Helikaon to the temple, and while beset by Mykene warriors, Argurios is bound by law to defend his companion and does so. He becomes an enemy to his own people and the Trojans. His arc in this novel is probably the most interesting, especially when he meets a Trojan princess.
The book is an easy read, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek myth will enjoy this retelling of the Trojans.
You’ll meet Odysseus early on, and you’ll love his swagger and bragging. He tells yarns worthy of his Odyssey, however, he isn’t a Hero in the typical tradition. He is no Helikaon. He’s an older man who has been a pirate and a smuggler. His charm, however, wins through, and no matter his roguish nature, you’re sure to love this man who would go remembered throughout history.
Suggested reading: Lion of Macedon – David Gemmell, Legend – David Gemmell, Conan – Robert E. Howard, Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed.
Guns of the Dawn – Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pride and Prejudice meet Sharpe. That’s the premise of this book that, honestly, put me off a little. Except when I read the damn thing it was utterly gripping. The Marshwic’s eldest sister, Emily, is conscripted to the front of a war between a newly founded republic and her home kingdom of Lascanne. All the men of the land have been conscripted to the front to stem the tide of a war that everyone is promised will be over soon. This clearly isn’t the case, as Emily is put into action early on.
While this novel seems like a Regency/Napoleonic war novel, it isn’t. It is a fascinating story of a woman’s struggle in a man’s world. Emily faces a number of threats, from flintlock guns to a man’s unwanted advances. It deals with the harsh reality of camp life as a female soldier. However, Emily still finds romance in the strangest of places.
The fantastical elements in this book are far and few between. Sorcery is rare in this world and is derived solely from the king. We don’t see it often, but when we do, I found it to be captivating and explosive. It is a light brush stroke throughout the story that highlights actions scenes. It portrays the magic as truly spectacular, and it steals every scene it is featured in, but it is never overused so that it really appears to be a truly magical experience.
The novel seems straightforward, but if you pay attention to the story, you quickly realise all isn’t as it seems. The villains may not be evil, and the heroes may not be doing the right thing. Emily Marshwic remains a moral compass throughout, and you’ll enjoy her story no matter the path she takes.
Suggested reading: Promise of Blood – Brian McClellan, The Thousand Names – Django Wexler, Empire in Black and Gold – Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Theft of Swords – Michael J Sullivan
Michael J Sullivan’s Theft of Swords is a very easy read. Any fans of Lord of the Rings will find this to be a more modern style of the clichés that Tolkien effectively founded. His prose is simple, and his plot is seemingly straightforward. The real selling point for this book is the brilliant dynamic between Hadrian and Royce. Hadrian is a charming and amiable man who is prone to niceties, as opposed to grim, murderous Royce. They’re a pair of thieves who from the onset amused me with their dynamic.
Sullivan’s world is heavy on world building, but this book is for anyone who liked Tolkien’s world-building but wants a bit more darkness in their tales.
The dwarves and elves are second-class citizens following the rise of a powerful human empire that has since collapsed into squabbling kingdoms. Elves are enslaved and dwarves are in ghettos. Anyone familiar with the Dragon Age lore will be familiar with this sort of society.
The two are skilled thieves and killers, and in this book, they take the wrong job and end up on the wrong side of a kingdom. So they do the smartest thing they can think of. They kidnap the son of the king of whom they are framed for having murdered.
They’re fine with a blade, but they’re not the sharpest tools at times. Manipulated and pushed where they never want to go. These two are prone to getting caught up in events that change the world when all they want is to get a decent payout.
The books are worth reading for these two alone. These started off as self-published novellas that I disliked originally, however when I picked up the properly edited novel that was published in stores, I was hooked. I was a hundred or so pages in before I immediately went and bought the other two books in the trilogy.
If you’re looking to get into fantasy and you liked the Lord of the Rings movies these are definitely for you.
However, those not too familiar with the genre may find the world-building elements heavy from the get-go. We’re quickly introduced to fantastical gods, churches, names, and races that may seem to take away from the plot.
I still firmly believe this is worth reading for anyone who is looking for a sort of “grown-up” Lord of the Rings. It has its problems, but it’s still worth your while for dipping your toes into epic fantasy.
Suggested reading: The Traitor’s Blade – Sebastien de Castell, Way of Shadows – Brent Weeks.
Mort – Terry Pratchett
Mort was the very first Terry Pratchett novel I read. It was bloody brilliant. Simple as. Pratchett’s turn of phrase is utterly singular. He can explain something obscure and peculiar with a tea metaphor. His humour and charm are delightful for any reader. The Discworld began as spoof or satire of the fantasy genre. It was written to be the “Blazing Saddles” of westerns to the fantasy genre. They became far more serious, though no less humorous.
In Mort, we meet a young man who is “all knees”, named Mortimer, or Mort for short. He’s a boy who’s too awkward to do just about anything. Then Death comes calling. The Grim Reaper is equipped with a scythe and a sword for special folk. He rides on a supernatural steed named … Binky. From this, you’ll get the gist of what this book might be like.
Death is looking for an apprentice, and of all the people on the Discworld, he chooses Mort. To be expected though. The Discworld rests atop four elephants, who stand on the great Atuin, the celestial turtle, in space.
Death is neither fearsome nor cruel, he simply does the Duty. He is often interested in humans and their thinking. He loves kittens and enjoys a good curry. He observes humanity with something close to humour, though he feels feelings and emotions for the most part.
Over the course of the story Mort slowly begins to take on Death’s role. During one of his trips doing the Duty, he doesn’t reap when he should have reaped. Leaving a small bit of very confused reality that doesn’t quite match up to what the rest of the Disc’s reality is. When the world knows you’re dead, but you’re not dead, it’s a bit hard telling people what to do. They think you’re dead, and rightly so because so do the universe.
Death invited me onto the Disc with humour and grace, and that surprised me. The wit of Pratchett is evident to anyone who reads a few lines from the books, and you’ll find yourself quickly reading through this book and reaching for another Pratchett novel. I picked up Reaper Man. It’s a book about Death getting fired and looking for a job.
Suggested reading: Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, American Gods – Neil Gaiman, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams.
The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
When I read this book at first, I read it walking to the supermarket, walking home, missed classes, and lost sleep. I fell in love with these books and Joe Abercrombie’s style. He quickly became one of my favourite authors. In the Blade Itself we are presented with a number of fantasy clichés. The barbarian, the swordsman, the inquisitor, the archer, and the wizard are all featured as the main characters in this book.
For those who are newer to fantasy, this book is later on this list because of the inclusion of more worldbuilding and magic than many on this list. The use of monster-like creatures, spirits, demons, and a lot of magic fireballs and shenanigans.
Abercrombie’s post-modern take on the fantasy genre, for me, was a breath of fresh air in fantasy. He was the first of the alleged “grimdark” authors of the last ten years that I read and started a love of the sub-genre of grimdark.
Few books start with cliffhangers. Well, that’s because that wouldn’t really make sense. However Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself starts with a literal cliffhanger for one character, and things only go downhill from there (heh).
You’ll meet some memorable characters in these books. So well realised, you’ll start to think of them a little like a person. Joe has a knack for creating characters that are fleshed out brilliantly. His characters are lovable despite their many, many, many flaws.
The first of these is Logan Ninefingers, and say one thing for Logan Ninefingers, say he’s a survivor. Logan is the Bloody Nine, a barbarian chieftain who is tired of violence. He has left a bloody path in the North, and now most everyone wants him dead. He wants to leave, and his crimson past, behind him for good. However in his trudging journey south, he gets caught up a wizard’s plots. He wants to be a better man than he has been but the world conspires against him.
Enter Sand dan Glokta. He clicks and taps his way into the novel. Glokta is an expert torturer who learned his craft from vivid experience. He was once a handsome and talented swordsman, but now he is a hunched, toothless wretch we know … and come to love. Glokta is morally bankrupt, cruel, and manipulative. However, over the course of the novel, we find that Glokta is not what he seems.
Ferro Maljinn is a former slave who is on a murderous rampage against any of the soldiers of the empire who enslaved her. She gets in over her head and is saved last minute by the above-mentioned wizard’s assistant who seems intent on bringing her to meet him. Ferro is a violent woman with no intentions of being bound to anyone, but circumstance demands otherwise.
Then we meet Jezal dan Luthar. This dashing officer is the golden boy of the Union. He’s a young nobleman with a charming streak, but he’s also a bit of a coward. He’s earned his commission from the military with his father’s coin. You’ll certainly want him to get his comeuppance.
These characters should be awful and unreadable. Logan is a philosopher under his scarred exterior, carrying his cross made of dead bodies. He’s endearing and humorous in his lack of understanding of the finer parts of civilisation. Glokta’s inner monologue is filled with self-loathing for what he has become. He wonders why he does what he does, and that answer is a fascinating revelation later in the story. Jezal is pulled into the story entirely unwillingly, compelled by a rather intimidating wizard. The same wizard who Logan meets.
Bayaz, first of the magi, is our resident Gandalf-like wizard. However, he’s a man with a plan and he intends to execute it however he can. Bayaz is the lynchpin of the story and he drags the characters and the reader on a fast-paced romp that you positively lose yourself in.
Suggested reading: Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence, The Warded Man (The Painted Man [UK ed.]) – Peter V. Brett, The Black Company – Glen Cook, The Falcon Throne – Karen Miller.
Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb wrote a beautiful series of books based around the bastard called Fitz. Hobb created a character that feels like a person, and by the end of the book, he’s like a friend. I have never loved and hoped for a character as I have for Fitz. Fitz is the son of the heir to the Six Duchies kingdom, Chivalry Farseer. The Farseers are a very unique line of rulers whose names are given for the ideals they hope to live up to. King Shrewd Farseer has three sons: Chivalry, Verity, and Regal. It’s a fascinating system that makes you remember people more easily that other styles of fantasy names (like Dungeons and Dragons’ Drizzt do’Urden).
Fitz is brought to Buckkeep, and trained as an assassin. A tool of the Farseers to maintain their control over the Six Duchies. He is raised to fight, to poison, and to manipulate. He is tasked to carry out the king’s justice, a secret sort, where he kills those who are a threat to the kingdom’s stability.
Fitz’s life is a difficult one. He’s mistreated by many in his home, and he’s afflicted by a rare gift, the Wit. A power that allows him to bond with animals, and to understand them. However this is looked down on as an abhorrent curse.
Of all the characters Fitz meets, the one who has the biggest impact on him, is Burrich. He was close friend to Fitz’s father, and takes him under his wing in the stables. The bond they form is heartwarming beyond sense, and though he often gives Fitz a clout for being a fool, he loves Fitz like a son, and the reader will love Burrich too.
There is only so much I can say about Fitz before I start to gush, but Hobb deserves the praise.
He’s a foolish boy who makes dumb choices, but from inside his head everything makes a tonne of sense. We root for him and we want him to succeed in his dumb ideas. I’ve read all of Fitz’s books now and I would consider him a friend.
His trials have made me angry, and his failures and successes have brought me to tears more than once.
Read Fitz. Do it.
Suggested reading: The Magician’s Guild – Trudy Canavan, Magician – Raymond E. Feist.
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind is a step in a different direction in terms of worldbuilding and magic. Patrick Rothfuss’s groundbreaking epic fantasy novel about the life of Kvothe the Kingkiller, the Bloodless, the Arcanist.
Kvothe’s story can be liked to Harry Potter’s own, and anyone familiar with Rowling’s series will find the beats of this story familiar. Young boy has shitty childhood. Young boy goes to magic school and learns some pretty impressive sorcery and whatnot. Lots of shenanigans ensue as a result of lessons and life in the university.
The novel has two parts, the frame narrative and the past narrative. The story of the legend of Kvothe is told after some some unspecified event that now leads him to hide in the middle of Newarre (Rothfuss has a lot of linguistic puns and references throughout his books). A famous storyteller finds him and Kvothe agrees to tell his story to the chronicler. Which begins the main story within the book.
Kvothe is the child of travelling performers. We’re shown that Kvothe is exceptionally talented for a child his age, and is offered tutelage by Abenthy, an arcanist from the University. Kvothe will eventually go to this University to study magic and crafts, but not before he has to deal with trauma and adversity.
The novel opens with arguably my favourite page in any book. “A Silence of Three” is a beautiful piece of writing that opens and closes the book. The prose throughout the novel is peerless. Rothfuss spent ten years working on the Name of the Wind and it shows. Sentences themselves are beautiful. I know people could read the book for its prose alone.
For me, re-reading the book is a treat. Every time I read the book I pick up on new little details. The depth of this book makes re-reads worth it, but you’re first read of the tales of Kvothe will be enchanting. He’ll capture your heart in about seven words.
Suggested reading: Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence (again, mostly because of the prose in that book. Damn fine words put together in some damn good sentences), The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch, The Innocent Mage – Karen Miller.
The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson
I was put off this book early on by the heavy world-building and magic in the novel. It has a lot of made of words and adjective-noun/noun-noun combinations throughout the story. Lord Ruler’s, Final Empire, Steel Inquisitors, and Mistborn are all terms used early on. There are peasants called the Skaa, monsters called Koloss, and shapeshifters called kandra. While there is an extreme amount of fantastical elements, Sanderson has an amazing knack for simplifying all of these elements into easily understandable concepts and he gives information in dips and dabs. He explains his magic like a video game instruction manual. Each part is fully explained systematically as it is introduced into the narrative.
The main character is the city bound skaa Vin, an urchin who’s bound to a gang boss due to her unique gifts, which turns out to be a rare form of the magic. She’s called a Mistborn, and she can absorb metals into her body to give her astounding abilities that includes near-flight. She meets Kelsier, the leader of a band of talented thieves, who offers her a role in their next job. He intends to pull a heist on the Lord Ruler himself, however Kelsier has an ulterior motive.
Kelsier takes Vin under his wing and teaches her all he knows about being a Mistborn. He makes her into a truly capable thief and fighter.
Sanderson writes in a very simple way that makes for easy reading, despite the heavy elements of the fantastical. The book isn’t too difficult, however for those who aren’t particularly acquainted with fantasy it can be a significant change in “difficulty”. It takes a lot of the tropes of fantasy and toys with them.
The book’s initial premise immediately hooked me. “What if the prophesied hero fails in his quest, and the evil tyrant takes over the world?” That’s the world the Lord Ruler has made himself master of. It constantly rains ash, and mist fills the air every night. It’s not a world like ours, but the human sentiments throughout are familiar nonetheless.
Some books that I’ve had recommended for this category are books I have not read, and I can’t confidently recommend a book I have not read.
However, there are some that have been repeated to me enough they warrant mentioning with a brief synopsis.
Suggested reading: The myriad of other novels Sanderson has produced, The Black Prism – Brent Weeks, The Vagrant – Peter Newman, The Summoner – Gail Z. Martin.
A retelling of Star Wars if it took place in Middle Earth. Eragon is a coming of age novel of a boy who finds a dragon egg, and starts a quest to kill an evil king.
It’s an easy read, mostly for teenagers. However there are many adults who like it.
One of the inspirations of Eragon, is Anne McCaffrey’S Dragonflight. A powerful psychic young girl bonds to a sentient dragon.
Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula Le Guin’s story of a young boy becoming a magician. It’s details the saga of a boy growing into a sorcerous saviour.
Eye of the World
Robert Jordan’s epic saga, Wheel of Time, begins with this book. A young farm boy is prophesied to be the hero of the world who destroys the equivalent of Satan. It has many elements ripped straight from Lord of the Rings, but Jordan does an excellent job of making this world his own.
For a more diverse collection please see this Reddit thread! Nothing is more diverse than a tonne of people and their opinions. Beginner fantasy recommendations.
These eight books, while biased, are simple of the basic go-to novels I often recommend to friends for reading the fantasy genre.
They’re varyingly fantastical. Certain books have more protagonists using magic and world-building, like Mistborn, Assassin’s Apprentice and Mort, however they’re tiered in the density by which I’d start reading them for those with a passing interest in fantasy.
This list isn’t for everyone who is interested in fantasy, but that’s bound to happen. Taste is subjective, and few things more so than books. I’ve based this list solely on books I’ve read.
I hope this list helps you find something you like.