I have a confession to make. I love the idea of fantasy fiction, but avid a genre reader as I am, I end up preferring science fiction to fantasy 4 times out of 5. This isn’t because there isn’t good fantasy out there – it’s because I can’t stand reading about elves. Or the cliched triumph of good over absolute evil. There’s a place for escapist fiction, but I like my genre fiction to reflect and comment on the world in which I actually live – science fiction usually does that by building on the present and extrapolating.
Good fantasy, in my opinion, does this by offering commentary on the past. Feudal societies were unpleasant places to live. The medieval era was sorely lacking in an understanding of hygiene, medicine, and science. Racism, sexism, and classism were normal parts of life. I prefer my fantasy to either comment on what these past societies were actually like (with all their flaws), or subvert the tropes that most fantasy fiction seems to accept as necessary. Now, not everyone is going to like all of these books, but I’m hoping there’s something on my list for everyone.
So, without further ado, I present 5 fantastic books that break the fantasy genre mold.
“One For The Morning Glory” is a fantasy novel in the vein of “The Princess Bride” (which I also highly recommend, especially if you’ve only ever seen the movie adaptation) – it’s a humorous take on the genre itself, but also a compelling story in its own right. I think it can best be described as a “self-aware fairy tale.”
The story follows the life of young prince Amatus, who suffers a magical accident as an infant that leaves him with only the right half of his body. The story follows Amatus’ journey into adulthood with his four magical Companions, as he recovers his missing half one limb at a time. What makes this story so delightful isn’t just the strange premise – Barnes plays with language and the conventions of the genre itself, using intentional malapropisms throughout the text. He refers to the wild beasts of the plains as “gazebos” and early firearms as “pismires.” The characters refer to their own role within the story, in a way that doesn’t feel self-indulgent or strained.
I will warn readers that this book does become somewhat dark later on. Parts of the story can be violent and disturbing, so parents should take a look before deciding it’s appropriate for their kids. But it’s definitely worth your time to find a copy of “One For The Morning Glory” – it’s out of print, but affordable used copies are easy to find online.
“Dealing With Dragons,” the first book of Patricia C. Wrede’s “Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” is a fantastic young adult novel that adults will love, too. In the novel, the Princess Cimorene is bored by all the “proper” activities her parents expect her to enjoy, and surreptitiously learns to cook, fence, and speak a little Latin in her free time. When she learns her parents plan to marry her off to an incredibly boring prince, she runs away and asks a dragon to take her “captive.” She becomes friends with the dragon, Kazul, although she spends much of her time turning away knights and princes who arrive hoping to rescue her. While in Kazul’s service, Cimorene learns of an evil plot by a band of wizards, which she must foil. (Luckily, it turns out that soapy lemon water causes wizards to melt…)
These are a refreshing alternative to you typical damsel-in-distress story. The women in the novels don’t come across as overbearing, preachy, or insincere the way so many “strong female” characters do. And there are some great male characters, too, including a young king who is delighted to meet a princess who can keep up with him on his adventures.
Another story that’s something of a self-aware fairytale, Stardust starts out with a pretty cliche premise: a young man, Tristran, goes on a quest to retrieve a fallen star to impress a girl who has ambivalent feelings about him. Once he crosses into the magic land of faerie, things start to become a little complicated. It turns out the fallen star is actually a woman named Yvaine. As witches and power-hungry princes chase after Yvaine to use her for their own nefarious ends, Tristran becomes her protector – not necessarily because he’s much of a hero, but mainly because she’s been crippled by a broken leg in her fall from the sky. There are a few twists which make this story much more compelling than your traditional fairy tale – for one, Yvaine eventually confronts the witch who has been hunting her, and resolves the conflict with only a few words and no violence. There’s a few other elements that undermine genre expectations, but I don’t want to spoil the story.
It’s a quick and fun read, and Gaiman’s use of language is delightful – so pick it up and give it a try. A word of warning: don’t watch the movie as a substitute. It’s actually a good movie, but some major plot elements are changed or left out to make the story more exciting. Read the book first.
Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” was groundbreaking when it was published in the 60s, and it’s still very different from most fantasy books today. The story is a fairly traditional tale following a young wizard, Ged, who inadvertently releases a great evil upon the world of Earthsea, and his quest to defeat it. The novel’s approach to magic is unique and engaging – each person and object in this archipelago world has a “true name,” which must be discovered in order to perform magic.
One of the best things about this book is how it deals with race. Le Guin reverses the typical European-centered fantasy mold, and makes all of the main characters – and, indeed, most of the inhabitants of the world – people of color. Some are obviously meant to be African, others with characteristics of other ethnicities, perhaps Native American or Southeast Asian. There is a race of pale people who are feared by all and (perhaps unfairly) considered evil. While stereotyping is no less wrong when simply reversed, the setting brings the subtle racism of many other fantasy worlds into sharp relief. Le Guin is careful never to make race the focus of the story, and doesn’t allow it to distract from the plot. She doesn’t make any attempt to use the characters’ race as a “statement” on the subject.
“A Wizard of Earthsea” is only the first of five books and a number of short stories, which can be read in sequence or as stand-alone pieces. All of the books in the Earthsea Cycle are fairly short reads which still manage to maintain an epic scope – and they’re all extremely well-written.
The last book I’d like to recommend is “A Game of Thrones,” the first in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (and, yes, the basis for the HBO series of the same name). This is one of the more powerful fantasy series to be written in years – but it’s not for everyone. “A Game of Thrones” takes a realistic view of medieval life and feudal society, depicting the nobility of the land of Westeros as they engage in wars and political backstabbing at the expense of the people they claim to serve. In the north, malevolent and magical creatures threaten to invade and lay waste to the land, but most of the nobility are so tied up in their attempts to obtain power that they don’t even notice. (It will be interesting to see how this comes back to haunt them in later books.)
Women and minorities are not treated well in this world – but Martin’s characters are anything but weak, and the narrative isn’t exploitative. The young Arya Stark refuses to be forced to embroider and sew, instead learning to sword fight – a skill which later saves her life. Her mother, Lady Catelyn, is politically astute and self-sufficient. Danaerys Targaryen, a princess in exile, gradually frees herself from under the heel of her abusive brother and gains herself an army by the sheer force of her charisma. And there are two major characters with disabilities: Tyrion Lannister, who suffers from various birth defects and dwarfism, but who is probably the most intelligent and interesting character in the story; and 8-year-old Bran Stark, who is crippled from the waist down in a fall, but is depicted without condescension or pity. There’s even a couple of characters who are strongly implied in the books to be gay – and who are explicitly depicted as having a relationship in the HBO series. And those are just a few members of the expansive cast of characters. Every character, likable or not, has realistic motivations and often a sympathetic backstory. People in Martin’s world are treated as people first and foremost – no one is good or evil.
“A Game of Thrones” is a very dark book. The series only gets harder to read as it goes on – Martin has something of a reputation for killing off his characters after readers become attached to them. And while I’ve yet to read about a major character experiencing rape, it’s definitely present in the background. The story is heart-wrenching, but so is the reality of war. Again, this is not a series for everyone – but if you’re interested in fantasy that shows how women and people with disabilities would have realistically coped with an extremely repressive society – sometimes, but not always, even managing to thrive, you should pick up this book, and maybe the rest of the series.
Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list – just a few of my favorites. What fantasy books would Care2 readers suggest for a summer reading list?
Photo credit: Zitona via Flickr