Fantasy can be a difficult genre for beginners to penetrate, and in a sense, that’s fitting. The foundations of the genre rely on invention and reinvention, pushing boundaries, and infusing the known with the unknown.
Where do you even begin when the worlds are unfamiliar (and sprawling), and you can’t fight your way through the hordes of wizards and magicians, faeries and pixies, elves and dwarves, fallen gods and avenging angels? Well, there’s an answer to that question. Dozens, in fact.
Assuming you’re familiar with the genre’s mainstream staples like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings (if not, to your shopping cart!), here are a few must-haves for your fantasy starter kit. They will ease you into this diverse, unpredictable reading experience—and hook you for years to come.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
Besides being one of the biggest inspirations for those participating in the annual NaNoWriMo challenge, The Night Circus is a dazzling revelation of love, magic, and mystery. At its center is a circus, specifically Le Cirque des Reves, an ethereal and enigmatic traveling revue that unfurls its striking black-and-white tents without warning. Each night, it mesmerizes visitors. But these visitors are ignorant of the far bigger show happening backstage between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, unwitting players in a game they’ve been groomed for their whole lives.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
It was hard to whittle down Gaiman’s presence on this list to just one book, as he’s one of the most accessible authors working in fantasy. Neverwhere is as good a launching point as any, particularly since its central plot arc is an ode to discovering hidden worlds. Beneath the streets of London is, in fact, another London, one most folks don’t see, filled with magic and monsters, bazaars and the bizarre. A single Good Samaritan deed knocks Richard Mayhew into this world, where danger and delight go hand in and hand.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s Earthsea series is on par with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for their importance in both fantasy and young adult literature, but the series has remained under the radar for non-genre readers. It’s a coming-of-age tale for the ages that reveals itself quickly and elegantly. Ged is a wizard you’re meant to relate to, instead of being awed by him. Arrogant and powerful, Ged is revealed layer by layer through the story of his hardscrabble youth and his reckless and dangerous rise to power.
Wintersong, by S. Jae-Jones
Wintersong blends a number of timeless fantasy influences into something entirely modern and absorbing. Infused in the narrative are Germanic traditions from the Brothers Grimm, parallels with the Greek myth of Persephone, and, well, a healthy dose of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. When her sister is taken by goblins, 19-year-old Liesl must journey to the realm of the Goblin King to get her back. Securing her return, however, comes with a price, and one that will bring her face to face with the tempestuous and intoxicating figure of her youthful imagination.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
In his Kingkiller Chronicle series, Rothfuss has managed to nail all the prototypical elements of high fantasy without ever succumbing to cliché or reduction. (The series is also Lin-Manuel Miranda-approved.) There is a unique intimacy in The Name of the Wind, because it’s narrated by its own hero, Kvothe, who relates to the listener and the reader the details of his daring and magic-infested life.
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
This darling novella proves a perfect companion piece for canonic fantasies like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. There are no solicitations, no visitors, and no quests at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Here, the children who tumble through portals to another world, whether they’re rabbit holes or enchanted wardrobes, wind up, once that world of wonder spits them back out. These children are refugees, with one foot still in the realm of fantasy and one foot in a “real” world that doesn’t understand them anymore. Eleanor West’s school helps these impossible children navigate their reality, until the school itself comes under attack.
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Anyone who’s ever stepped into a library understands the awe-inspiring power it wields. As a girl, Carolyn’s life was upended when her family and, in fact, her whole subdivision were killed, their deaths consumed by mystery and time. Since then, she has worked as a “Librarian,” along with 11 others, under the tutelage of their Father, an enigmatic god-like figure. This is, of course, until Father goes missing, and all manners of hell break loose. The Library at Mount Char is a little bit Gothic, a little bit contemporary fantasy, a little bit magical realism, and a whole lot of mesmerizing.
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay is an old hand at world-building, a central component to a fully realized fantasy, and the world of Tigana is another enchanting example that delights the senses and entices you to want more. What makes this novel, in particular, such a good pick for newbies to the genre is the universality of its themes. The province of Tigana is the lone holdout among its neighbors in standing against the conquering sorcerer Brandin. The resistance doesn’t last long, and part of Brandin’s conquest is to wipe Tigana from memory. Years later, we find a group of survivors fighting to unseat the despot and restore their homeland.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin is a darling of the Hugo and Nebula awards and for good reason. Her Inheritance Trilogy at once hews to standard fantasy features, while giving them new life. Yeine Darr has spent her youth as an outcast, the product of her parents’ forbidden love. But upon the mysterious death of her mother, Yeine becomes the heir to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—well, one of the heirs anyway. As she’s pulled into a power struggle with two of her cousins, she’s also drawn into the intriguing and tangled story of a group of overthrown and subjugated gods.
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
This inimitable classic is often categorized as children’s fiction, but it holds appeal for all ages. Howl’s Moving Castle is odd and moving and ultimately dazzling. Much misfortune has befallen Sophie, but none so much as when she gets on the bad side of the Witch of the Waste. A spell transforms Sophie into an old woman, and her only chance at undoing it lies in the ambulatory castle of Wizard Howl. If you’ve seen the Hayao Miyazaki adaptation, it’s time you read the source material.
Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente
Even more than other forms of fiction, fantasy is rooted in elements of folklore, and Valente’s retelling of the story of Koschei the Deathless, a menacing figure in Russian tradition, is a fine example of how timeless these narratives are. Primarily, the novel’s action is seen through the eyes of Marya Morevna, a child of the Communist revolution who unwittingly becomes Koschei’s bride. And, as is customary in Valente’s works, the story is intricate, involving, and otherworldly.
Paperback $12.68 | $16.00
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
There’s a subversive side to magic, all those schools full of future witches and wizards, always on the lookout for some mysterious, powerful foe. That’s where Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy comes in. Quentin Coldwater has never believed magic is real, until he passes the Brakebills entrance exam. The experience isn’t quite Hogwarts, and Quentin discovers magic alone might not be able to fill the emptiness inside of him.
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
There are various entry paths to the glory of Pratchett’s Discworld series, depending on which set of sideways characters you most prefer. Small Gods is one of a few novels in the series that stands alone entirely, which makes it an excellent jumping-off point. The Discworld books skewer high fantasy tropes (while simultaneously building a complete fantasy world) and in this outing, Pratchett set his sights on religion. Much like everything in Discworld, religion is a business, and being a god requires being noticed. When you’re trapped in the form of a tortoise, this can be difficult.
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
The starter for Baker’s Arcadia Project series introduces an exciting urban fantasy and an important introspection on mental health. Millie lost her legs, as well as her budding filmmaking career, after a failed suicide attempt. Since then, she’s been at sea. Then the Arcadia Project finds her and initiates her into a secret police of sorts, whose jurisdiction is the line between our world and parallel reality, filled with creatures from myth, legend, and fairy tale.
Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone
The Craft Sequence consumes about a half-dozen science fiction and fantasy subgenres and spits them back out in a form totally new and exhilarating. Each of the novels can stand alone, but they also fit together to create a world entirely unlike any other. This is a world undone by the God Wars and rebuilt, this time comprised of a powerful network of human sorcerer-bureaucrats. Tara is a newbie at her international necromantic firm, and her first case is a doozy: her client is a recently deceased fire god whose power fuels a giant metropolis.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Fantasy has a rich tradition of rogues, thieves, and scoundrels. Locke Lamora is one such person. A wily orphan turned con artist extraordinaire, Locke leads a delightful and dastardly band, the Gentleman Bastards, in crimes and capers, leading to a certain level of infamy, as the “Thorn of Camorr.” But Locke’s own schemes may be a part of a game he knows little about, and that confrontation will change the trajectory of his merry band of “petty” thieves.
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar
At the heart of Samatar’s debut is the power of reading, and of stories. A merchant’s son, Jevick has long dreamed of Olondria, a distant, prosperous, and more literate land than his own Tea Islands. Upon the death of his father, Jevick is finally given the opportunity to travel to Olondria, only to run into misfortune once there. Haunted by the ghost of a young girl and ensnared in the political strife of Olondria, Jevick finds his fantasy home different from reality. His challenges, however, allow for an immersive and dazzling world-building experience for you.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness
Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy often earns comparisons to the prolific and voluminous Outlander novels. The parallels are obvious between two epics of time travel and romance, but for those just beginning to chart a course in fantasy, A Discovery of Witches provides a more bite-sized introduction, as it chronicles the accidental adventures of Diana Bishop, scholar and unwilling witch. Her discovery of an enchanted alchemical text in Oxford’s library sets off a supernatural storm of epic proportions and sparks a sweet and addicting star-crossed romance.
Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Cordova
It’s indisputable: YA fiction not only does fantasy well, but it also makes the genre accessible and endlessly engaging. More often than not, protagonists in fantasy novels search for magic, yearn for its power. Alex, on the other hand, would rather distance herself from hers. Alex is a bruja, the latest in a long familiar line, but for her, magic has brought only pain. When a spell goes awry, she must travel to Los Lagos, a dark, yet seductive, purgatory realm that mixes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Latinx myth and tradition.
Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older
A bold and vibrant read, Shadowshaper takes you to the far-off magical realm of Brooklyn. Sierra Santiago has been looking forward to a low-key summer, until a zombie party-crasher destroys those plans. In fact, things seem to be going haywire all over. Sierra’s an artist, and her murals have begun to warp, and weep, all on their own. Her grandfather regains lucidity long enough to tell her of her family’s sorcerous heritage, and of the impending danger for her and her kind. The murals aren’t the only art in this book; every page is a masterpiece.
A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
Sometimes the easiest way to suspend disbelief is to root the unfamiliar in ordinary and expected places. A Darker Shade of Magic uses London for this purpose, although it actually uses four Londons, in parallel realities but with divergent histories and cultures. Kell is one the last of a breed of magicians who can travel between these worlds. The ability does create some temptations, in which Kell indulges. When one of his smuggling exchanges goes wrong, he unleashes a potential cataclysm that could imperil all four worlds.
What book would you recommend to a new fantasy reader?