Finding Our Way Into Fantasy Fiction

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a few other readers and writers about the books that had first brought us into the world of fantasy. Or, if we had ever stepped away from fantasy for whatever reason, the books that brought us back. Given that we all run in the same circles and a lot of us are of a similar age, it wasn’t a surprise to me that a lot of the titles we put forward were the same.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss.

If you’re familiar with the fantasy landscape of the past 15 or so years, then these are likely no surprise to you either. These are the books that are recommended everywhere. The books that are often face-out in the book shops. The books that everyone suggests to a prospective reader, and that fill the replies to any tweet, forum post, or Reddit thread.

And there’s a good reason for that. Kind of. These books have brought so many people into a genre that they’ve come to love. There’s a lot of love for them, and a lot of nostalgia behind them. People recommend them to you because, hell, those books brought them into the genre, so why shouldn’t they do the same for you?

I thought the same for the longest time. The amount of people I’ve told to read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch or The First Law by Joe Abercrombie is beyond counting. I loved those books, so I felt that others should love them too. A lot of them have. They’re great books.

And so when me and my friends started talking about the doors that brought us into fantasy, I started to form a hypothesis.

What if the reason that so many people were brought into (and brought back into) fantasy by, say, Mistborn, was that Mistborn was uncommonly suited to be a beginner’s fantasy book?

It made more sense to me the more I thought it through. Sanderson’s prose is very simple and accessible. Mistborn is very fast paced, communicates the idea of a cool, unique world very well, and has a certain un-put-downable quality that is ideal for someone who isn’t already a hardened reader.

Thinking I was on to something, I decided I needed a bigger sample size. I took to Twitter, asked for people to let me know what their intros into fantasy were, and waited for the same low-variety responses I had received before. I thought that when I got them, my point would be proved, and I could set to work at putting together a list of “ideal fantasy intro” books based on the qualities I had highlighted earlier.

And then the replies rolled in. Over 200 of them. And I realized what a colossal, self-obsessed, absolute fucking idiot I was being.

The variety in the responses was huge. Admittedly, you can probably guess at some of them: Harry Potter, Narnia, Earthsea, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dragonlance, Discworld. But there were so many more books that I’d never heard of. A lot of them older books in subgenres that I’d never read, and some of them more recent gems that I’d always meant to read, but had never quite got to.

It reminded me of Victoria Schwab’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, which she gave around this time last year in Oxford. During the lecture, Schwab spoke of the importance of “doors” into fantasy. How “required reading” is a dangerous term, and how fantasy fans can still be fantasy fans even if they haven’t read the books that you love. She spoke about how everybody deserves to find their own doorway, how everybody would be different, and how she would continue to write the books that she wanted to read, in the hopes of writing a door for somebody else.

When the replies to my tweet came in, I admit to thinking that some of them wouldn’t have gotten me into fantasy. The likes of Dragonlance, Pern, and Narnia had always seemed too dated to me. Some of the urban fantasy suggestions had a few too many vampires for my tastes. I was sure that to the people who replied, these books were excellent, but they weren’t for me.

And so, again, I realized how much of an idiot I was being.

If these books seemed dated to me, then might the books that I was recommending seem dated to somebody else?

I checked when Mistborn was published: 2006.

Kingkiller: 2007.

The Wheel of Time: 1990.

I thought of how much the fantasy landscape had changed in that time. The Harry Potter Movies. The Game of Thrones TV show. These HUGE doors that had brought so many people into fantasy, and with those people brought rapid change. I thought of the huge volume of fantastic fantasy books that have been released in recent years. N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy. The Divine Cities by Robert Jackson Bennett. Heartstrikers by Rachel Aaron. The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter. The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft. And so so so so many more.

There have been so many outrageously great books released in even just the past 5 years that it’s ridiculous. And here I was preparing myself to give the same recommendations I was giving 5 years ago. Recommending books that were 13 years old. 29 years old.

And that’s not to say that recommending these books is wrong. They’re great books, and will continue to be great books for the right person. But what if, all of those years ago, someone had handed me a copy of Dragonlance instead of Mistborn? Might be that I wouldn’t be here now. Might be that this website wouldn’t exist.

But that’s not the case, and all because I found my own door rather than being forced through someone else’s. And thanks to staggering number of wonderful books and authors that have come to light in recent years, there are more doors than ever. If things keep going the way they’re going, there’ll soon be even more.

And so there’s no excuse not to steer people towards the door most suited for them. No excuse not to shout about those great, underappreciated, and more recent books that need that little bit more attention to open their doors that bit wider. Because let’s face it, people have been shouting about J.R.R Tolkien and Robert Jordan long enough.

I realize now that the reason I was brought into fantasy wasn’t because the books I read were somehow ideally suited to being “intro” books. They were just ideally suited to being an intro for me. It was because they were what I, personally, was looking for at that time, and because other readers had helped open those doors wide enough that it was easy for me to find them.

But those doors are open now. They’re established. And there are other books out there that might be the perfect door for a whole bunch of new readers, but we’ll never know unless we let those readers know that these doors are there.

Perhaps this entire post is just to round off my own hat-trick of idiocy, and I’m saying nothing that isn’t already obvious to everyone that reads it. But I hope not. I know that too often, I’ve been recommending the same books by the same authors, and have been giving these recommendations wrapped in a bow of my own nostalgia. And I’ve seen plenty of others do the same. It’s time to change that. When you’re lazy with your recommendations, you run the risk of turning someone away from a world that they might find a home in.

It’s time to open all of the doors as wide as we can, and welcome everyone who steps through them.

8 comments

  1. This is a great post Hiu! I really liked the tie-in with V.E. Schwab’s lecture. I wonder too what kind of result you would get if you’d asked about our age, and age at which we got into fantasy. I’m curious what books fall within a certain time period and age range and what books may be universal (if at all). For me obviously the books that got you into fantasy didn’t exist yet when I started reading. I wonder too if the books that hooked you would have hooked me. I think I would have enjoyed them, but would I have gone all-in like I did with mine? That’s a good question. I also wonder how much the books that pulled us in shaped what we like or dislike about fantasy. I’ll admit for a long time my idea of fantasy was completely shaped by the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books. I read some other kinds of fantasy and other authors but I kept coming back to those. And then George R.R. Martin came along with A Game Of Thrones and forever rocked my fantasy world. Anyway, all that to say again great post, and I’m glad what you read eventually led you to the creation of this site. The Fantasy Inn is one of my fav blogs to follow and I love all the contributors the the site. Keep it up!

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  2. FANTASTIC post Hiu! I didn’t know about that Victoria Schwab lecture, filing that away to read/watch later this week! Fitting given that her A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC was a book that was key in getting me back into fantasy post-college.

    Finding that right book to rec to someone is something that seems so simple but can be just as simple to forget! But even within the SFF community we have our niches of likes and dislikes. I love space opera but balk at “hard” sci-fi. I adore Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, but would likely recommend FOUNDRYSIDE to some people instead because it’s (IMO) more accessible. There are SO MANY good books, it’s just a matter of finding the right one for every person!

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  3. Good post, Hiu. When asked, I try to give new recommendations every time, focusing on mostly new stuff I’ve read over the past couple of years. I’m not sure why, but it’s kind of the opposite mindset of leaning on “the classics.”

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