Interested in Reading Fantasy? There Are So Many Kinds To Choose From!
In my earliest years I was a stereotypical jock in training. All I cared about was being outside, running through the woods abutting my parent’s property. I was an avid fan of soccer, baseball and cross-country running. Anything to escape the boring indoors.
Then the first Harry Potter book came out in America. You know the one I am talking about. An eye-catching cover and all those illustrations at the start of each chapter. My parents got it for me to try to get me to read more. It worked. Before I knew it the book had sucked me in and I was never the same. From that point on there was hardly a week that passed that I wasn’t up to my eyebrows in a book. Every break I had, every trip to practice or a game, there was a book in my hand to pass the time.
Fantasy quickly became my favorite genre to read. To me, it just seemed like these kinds of books had the most creative plots, the most interesting characters, the most powerful plots. In the years since I first picked up that Harry Potter book, I have read many, many works of Fantasy across a number of sub-genres. For the most part I have enjoyed them all. You, dear reader, might have a desire to read a work of fantasy as well, but you might not know where to get started. Perhaps you have already read some fantasy but you are looking for a change of pace. With that in mind, I have broken down a number of sub-genres of fantasy in the paragraphs to follow, and at the end of each are a number of novels that represent that type of fantasy. Before we being, however, it is important that you have a sense of where fantasy literature comes from.
In the history of literature, the supernatural and magical have been around since the beginning. The Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh was chiselled in stone almost four thousand years ago. An epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, it tracks the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, as he seeks fame and eternal life. Stories without counting since this earliest surviving work have included tales of the gods, monsters, and magic in the mythologies and folklore of cultures from all over the world since the earliest days of mankind.
Fantasy, regardless of sub-genre, is grounded in the magical with no true basis in reality. Many of these types of fantasy contain their own tropes or themes that regularly appear in each new generation of stories. It should be noted that, sometimes, a work of fantasy might be placed in multiple sub-genres based upon opinion or perspective. You might disagree with those I have included below as examples of specific sub-genres. I ask that you look past this and instead see each work as a potential foray into a new
Fables tend to be short fictional stories, often written in prose or verse, that feature anthropomorphized animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature, in order to illustrate a particular moral lesson which sometimes may be added explicitly as a pithy maxim or saying at the end of the work itself. Though this type of fantasy writing is short, by focusing on a specific moral they can be a powerful way to both learn or teach something new.
- Aesop’s Fables: Includes twenty classic fables, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Goose Who Laid the Golden Eggs.” Also includes illustrations to bring these creatures to life!
- Favorite African Folktales: Edited by Nelson Mandela, this volume collects thirty-two tales from all over Africa that illustrate lessons about such things as obedience or the dangers of the wilds. Interestingly, some of the stories are almost as old as Africa itself.
- Panchatantra: First recorded 1500 years ago, this is a collection of fables originally created as a means to teach several young princes vital lessons for life.
- Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta: One of the oldest collections of stories in the world, presenting lessons on giving, restraint, renunciation, wisdom, strength, acceptance, truthfulness, resolve, kindness and equanimity.
- Animal Farm: A modern classic written by George Orwell, its setting of a farm in the midst of a revolution illustrates how a struggle against tyranny can result in something far worse.
Fairy Tales are a type of folklore that specifically feature creatures like dwarves, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, goblins, griffins, or witches (to name a few), and usually tend to gravitate around magic or enchantments. Generally speaking, Fairy Tales do not contain more than superficial references to religion nor do they focus too much on actual places, people, and events. It is from stories like these that we get the well known phrase, “Once Upon A Time…” Interestingly enough, some of the earliest fairy tales date back to the Bronze Age, more than six thousand years ago.
- Fairy Tales: A Beautiful Collection of Favorite Fairy Tales: A children’s book of Fairy Tales, it contains eight stories aimed at surprising and delighting children, and serving as their first introduction to fantasy stories.
- Hans Christian Anderson’s Complete Fairy Tales: Some of the most popular tales of Hans Christian Anderson, such as “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Princess on the Pea,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
- Five-minute Stories: Over 50 Tales and Fables: Another great introduction of Fantasy to kids, included in this book are more than 50 east-to-read stories to introduce your children to many new fantasy worlds!
Epic fantasy generally is set in an alternative, fictional and often massive world complete with history, mythology, races, ideals, cultures, and more. What is important is that the rules that govern this world are internally consistent. Often this means the story is set in a magical environment with rules to a certain extent to make events consistent, and generally the plot follows a single hero or group of heroes as they attempt some grand undertaking. The plot itself often has a partial focus on the heritage or nature of the heroes involved in the story, with many examples of them being presented as an orphan or an unusual sibling with an extraordinary talent for magic and/or fighting. Struggles against evil forces often tend to be the main focus of the central plot as well. This type of fantasy has generally been my favorite to read, as I enjoy the massive scale and how the events that take place in the plot can have such far reaching impacts on the worlds in which the stories take place.
- The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit(4 books): The books that are to a significant degree responsible for the development of modern epic fantasy, the plots of which would have a large impact on many writers over the past several decades. If you thought the movies were amazing, the books are even better.
- The Wheel of Time Series (15 books): One of the greatest works in epic fantasy, it follows the exploits of the reborn messiah of the world who is destined to stop the Dark One from breaking free of his prison, though in the process of doing so he may destroy the world. An amazing series, you could spend weeks going through the ~12,000 pages and 4.4 million words of this story.
- A Song of Ice and Fire (5 books): Another modern contribution to epic fantasy, the story covers the events of a dynastic struggle along side a fight to prevent a genocide of all the living. Though there are many similarities with the HBO series, the plot does diverge a bit and it is possible the series will have a different ending once the final novels are published.
- Stormlight Archive (3+ books): A newer epic fantasy still in the process of being written by the master who finished The Wheel of Time series, Brandon Sanderson. The result of over 10 years of planning, writing, and world building, the first book opens with a tale that will likely rival The Wheel of Time by its completion.
- The Name of the Wind (3 books by completion): Slightly different than the books listed above, though all the better for its take on the genre. To me this is one of my favorite works of fantasy due to its poetic brilliance and evocative imagery. The characters and their motivations are so real you can almost touch them. Honestly any words I might type will fall short of doing this series justice.
What Samwise Gamgee Taught Me About Life
Quotes from Samwise in Lord Of The Rings that taught me life lessons
Low Fantasy is the opposite of epic fantasy. It is generally very realistic and only contains a few elements from the fantasy genre. When magical phenomena are encountered by the stories characters, their first reactions tend to be shock, surprise, or wonder given their previous lack of knowledge. Indeed, sometimes the fantasy elements involved are often just enough to blur the boundary between what is real and what is psychological or supernatural.
- Harry Potter (7 books): The books that got me started on the path to reading in my adult life, the Harry Potter series had me dreaming that I too would one day receive an owl inviting me to learn magic in England. Sadly that did not happen, but the magic in the words of these novels still stick with me to this day. The movies themselves are amazing as well.
- The Indian in the Cupboard (5 books): A series of stories about how, through the use of a magic skeleton key from his grandmother, one young boy is able to bring a little plastic Indian toy to life.
Sword and Sorcery
Sword and Sorcery is related to epic fantasy to a significant degree, but where it diverges is the consistent focus on sword-wielding heroes in their personal battles through life, rather than world-shattering events. There is sometimes an element of romance present as well. This sub-genre I am not as familiar with, though I did really enjoy the stories about Conan the Barbarian
- Conan the Barbarian: A classic work of fiction originally written in the 1930s, this collection covers 17 works about the greatest barbarian in english literature.
Historical Fantasy is fantasy engaged with a specific time period and setting, most often the Middle Ages though other eras have seen some focus by authors as well. Elements included in the typical Middle Ages works include monarchical governments, feudal social structures, warfare based around medieval weapons, organizations, and strategies. The magical creatures in stories of this nature are often specific to the time period and location in which the plot is based.
- The Powder Mage (3 books): set within a world where mages control gunpowder and bullets, a general must defend his country from both war and insurrection. A unique blend of magic and technology, and well worth the read.
- The First Law Trilogy (3 books): According to the Amazon blurb (which I think touches on how great this series is), the books deal with murderous conspiracies, old scores, and how the differences between hero and villain are often just perspectives.
- Outlander series (4 books): a historical fantasy that follows the life of Claire Randall, a former WWII combat nurse, who journeys back from 1945 to 1743 to live in a Scotland torn apart by war and conflict. A bit more romance than you might be used to, but I really enjoyed how it meshed with the historical events in which the main character finds herself. So successful has this series been that it has turned into a Starz original series.
- The Complete Instrumentalities of the Night (4 books): I debated placing this in the epic fantasy section, but given the historical overtones related to the period of the early crusades I ended up placing it here. In this series, politics, religion and whole kingdoms collide in their pursuit of dominance over a Mediterranean-esque world similar to our own during the 13th century. One of my all-time favorites by one of my favorite authors, Glen Cook.
Dark and Grimdark Fantasy
Dark and Grimdark Fantasy is known for its unsettling themes, these types of stories often combine elements of fantasy with horror, with the aim of sparking terror in the reader. Overall the setting or elements in works of this nature tend to be gloomy and aim to spark dread in the reader or characters. The best of these works will often present main characters that have the characteristics of both heroes and villains, ultimately forcing the reading to decide how to categorize them at the end of the story.
- Annals of the Black Company (10 books): One of my absolute favorite series by Glen Cook, the main characters in this series are hard mercenaries who will do anything to get the job done while surviving, even if it means enlisting with the forces of an evil empire. All the characters are grey, and despite all the bad things that happen, I still couldn’t help rooting for Croaker and his allies.
- The Broken Empire (3 books): A series about a prince who loses his throne and sets out to reclaim it and his revenge against his father. These three books see a main character that has both good and evil within him struggle to rise from bandit, to king, to emperor. A great read.
- Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories: A series of fantasy stories by H.P. Lovecraft that served to reinvent the horror genre in the 20th century. In these stories, our world is presented as a outpost of dwindling sanity in a chaotic and malevolent universe.
LitRPG or Literary Role Playing Game is a relatively new literary genre that combines the conventions of RPGs with fantasy novels, though it has been used in works of science-fiction as well. For a work to be categorized as a LitRPG, a core component of the story must include games or game-like challenges, as well as visible RPG statistics and information such as levels, character traits like strength and intelligence, and loot or items that increases or decreases the strength of the characters thereby making it easier or more difficult for them to overcome the challenges included in the plot. The majority of books in this sub-genre are published as ebooks, all of which I have either purchased for my Fire HD10 tablet or read via Kindle Unlimited (most recently mostly the latter as a lot more of these books are being self-published lately).
- Challenger’s Call: Downfall and Rise (4+ books): The novel begins with a broken hero who is engages in virtual reality RPG games as a way to cope with the pain of his injuries from a freak accident. Only one night he wakes up in a world just like the game his father helped design. What follows are his efforts to save seven worlds in the care of a beautiful woman in multiple bodies from the monsters and men who would take and destroy all.
- First Login (The World Book 1) (5+ books): One of my favorite litrpg/gamelit series, this story follows the exploits of Jason and his friends as they make the transition to playing The World in Full-Immersion Virtual Reality in an attempt to become full-time professional gamers. Epic in scale and containing a great plot, the author himself says that he has tons of ideas for this storyline and will likely go beyond 10+ books. I highly recommend it.
- The Land: Founding (Chaos Seeds Book 1) (7+ books): The first book of litRPG fiction I read and what sparked my passion to absorb everything written for this sub-genre. While playing an online game, Richter is tricked into entering a world of great danger and even more opportunity. From his first day, Richter must learn of the dangers The Land presents and come up with ways to survive, even thrive. A chaos seed, Richter has the possibility to attain great power, and he is going to need it. Definitely one of my favorite all-time series.
There you have it! An overview of fantasy and some of its sub-genres, as well as books that I enjoyed reading and that you might wish to pick up to gain more exposure to these kinds of stories. I wish you all happy reading!
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This article contains some affiliate links to books that I recommend as initial journeys into specific sub-genres of fantasy. It is my hope that, even in reading one, you will become hooked on a whole new realm of reading. If you choose to purchase these books via my affiliate links, you will help support my writing and research at no additional cost to you.