If book genres were pieces of clothing, then fantasy would be my favorite, worn-out pair of blue jeans. If you want to escape your own world and observe one that is usually both less complicated and more bleak than your own, with fascinating characters that almost never exist in real life, this is the list for you.
- The Farseer Trilogy, Robin HobbThis world is beautiful. Especially when you get to the description of the mountains and those wonderful stone objects that would almost certainly be killed by a movie director. It is also medieval and consequently sexist, but that doesn’t make its best characters any less winsome. There is a refreshing throwback to the ideas of honor and integrity, but it isn’t overbearing, nor does it take away from the inherent cynicism of many of the characters. The magic is genuinely interesting, and is one of the few books I’ve read that actually attempts to answer the question “If magic exists, why is its use in battle limited to eleventh hour rabbit-out-of-hat type victories, complete with church choir scores and lots of light?”
- The Mistborn Series, Brandon SandersonIf you haven’t read this yet, you’re missing out. A female protagonist whose author managed to paint her as independent while finding a less lazy way to indicate femininity than ‘effortless sexiness’. The world is fascinating. Although the ‘what if the Dark Lord had won’ idea falls slightly flat in my opinion (it’s the same as a world where the Dark Lord hasn’t yet been defeated, which is covered by a fair number of authors), there’s plenty to sustain interest, what with the idea of Allomancy, the probing of privilege and trauma, and the nuanced treatment of what happens after you beat the bad guy.
- The Underland Chronicles, Suzanne CollinsThis series is slightly less gritty in tone, with a twelve year old (who sounds about sixteen) as the protagonist. But it’s Suzanne Collins pre-Hunger Games, and it’s got the same sharply novel perspective on saving the world as her more popular series, The Hunger Games. It’s not alternative universe exactly, with Gregor entering the Underland through his NYC apartment. But it’s definitely fantasy, with the giant talking bats, rats and (eurgh!) cockroaches. For young adult fiction, it has one of the best portrayals of battle hardening I’ve ever read, and an incredibly sympathetic treatment of prejudice, bias and traditionalism. Its realistic in how it kills important characters and refused to have a ‘happy ending’, and it gets points for including a crabby old Rat as an extremely enjoyable greybeard character and an adorable toddler as a Princess.
- The First Law Series, Joe AbercrombieIf you’re a seasoned reader of this genre, you’ll note the subtle self-satire that the author employs almost from the beginning, and uses to amplify twists and turns until the plot is no longer familiar. Which can be confusing, because the setting is. There is no bad guy in this series – just a bunch of people who happen to want different things. There is no noble leader – just a lazy douchebag with a point to prove. There is no true love – just love (?). There is no antihero – just a terribly unfortunate man who is unapologetically bitter. There is no overturning of the social order – just reordering. And yet there are swords, wizards, distressed damsels, noblemen, peasants, soldiers, robbers, vigilantes, and empires. It takes a while to pick up, but the dry humor and the realistic characters move it along nicely.
- His Dark Materials, Philip PullmanSinister and sweet in equal measure, this book is an overwhelming mashup of magic, mystery, action, romance, philosophy, science, and religion. And Pullman isn’t posturing – it’s all smart and researched. The story is an achingly beautiful one about coming of age in the most unfamiliar of fantasy settings. It is a chronicle, most importantly, of the loss of innocence on one’s own terms. It is an ardent supporter of individual autonomy. By the time we’re finished with Lyra, our minds and hearts are so used to being stirred simultaneously, that it is a while before anything else is good enough.