“I need the perfect book to get my girlfriend into fantasy. I guess she likes… romance?” For whatever reason, if you hang around certain fantasy spaces, this topic comes up a lot. It’s not always a girlfriend — it may be wife, sister, mom, niece, or female friend. But the requests themselves are usually worded pretty similarly, and similarly vaguely. The top answer is always the same too: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn.
For this guide let’s put aside alllllll the baggage hanging off of that request except for one. “The perfect intro book”. There is of course no one perfect intro book. For one, it’s highly dependent on where you enter from. (And also where you enter to: the definition of “fantasy” seems to be limited to something Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones-esque for many people.) Although they’re both women in my life, I’d naturally recommend something very different to my mom, who reads as much as me but mainly litfic and mysteries, and to my bestie, who doesn’t read much but has always adored all the crazy shounen anime like One Piece and Fullmetal Alchemist. Women: We’re Individuals Too.
Honestly, there’s only one thing the books for my mom and my bestie (and… me… as I’m also a woman in my life…) would have in common. Female Characters That Don’t Make You Stare At The Book In Disbelief, Flip To The Front, And Go, Aaah, A Male Author, That Explains A Lot. But the request also usually implies a desire for a female protagonist/major female characters, so let’s add that too.
Thus, focusing on these exceedingly vague criteria, here’s
Jenia’s Ultimate Guide For Getting Your Girlfriend/Wife/Sister/Mom/Niece/Female Friend Into Fantasy * **
* But it’s totally possible none will appeal because 1) we’re all individuals and you know her better than I do and 2) not everyone is into fantasy no matter what you try, e.g. my mom.
** Note that many of the books recommended will overlap “genres”, e.g. a romance fairytale book; I just stuck them wherever made most sense to me if I had to pick one.
1. She already likes fantasy.
Maybe she’s into other fantasy media like Dragon Age or Sailor Moon, she’s just never tried a fantasy book before. If she’s younger or would just prefer a light, straight-forward read about women becoming knights/doing awesome magic, there’s always the old-school queen of women-centric fantasy: Tamora Pierce. I’d start with her Protector of the Small quartet. For something more current, S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Alix E. Harrow’s upcoming The Ten Thousand Doors of January are modern takes on portal fantasies. (So like The Wizard of Oz but not kids books.) If she liked Sansa and all the politics in Game of Thrones, go for Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts; if she liked Arya and all the zombies in Game of Thrones, go for Garth Nix’s Sabriel. (…If she liked both, she should go for both.) For a less old-timey setting, try Rachel Aaron’s Nice Dragons Finish Last, set in a near-future Earth where magic has come rushing back. And yes, there’s always Mistborn.
2. She’s into romance.
“Romance fantasy” is its own subgenre, and there’s tons of things to recommend depending on what subgenre of romance she likes. Juliet Marillier is one of the big names in historical fantasy romance; Daughter of the Forest, based on a Celtic fairytale, is a good place to start. Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand combines a lovely arranged marriage romance arc with more traditional save-the-world epic fantasy. For something shorter and fluffier there’s Stephanie Burgis’ Snowspelled, about a winter party gone wrong. If she’s uninterested in het romance, she could try C.L. Polk’s Witchmark (m/m, about a doctor who must hide his magical powers to keep his liberty) or Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan (f/f, about a lonely woman in Florence discovering what she wants in life) instead.
3. She loves Jane Austen.
Depends on what she likes about Jane Austen! Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is about two magicians bringing back practical magic during the time of the Napoleonic Wars; it has an absolutely wonderful dry and witty narrator. Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer is a sweet epistolary novel in the vein of Heyer (with magic). As for books that add adventure to the etiquette, there’s Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (the “autobiography” of the first female dragon biologist in a Victorian-esque world) and Melissa McShane’s Burning Bright (young woman runs away from home to fight pirates with fire magic). In general, the subgenre “fantasy of manners” has you covered for magic + etiquette. If “she loves Jane Austen” actually means she wants something with steampunk vibes but explicitly anti-empire, she should try The Black God’s Drums or most anything else by P. Djélì Clark.
4. She’s into litfic.
Well, Madeline Miller’s Circe, duh. Thematically, it’s about Woman’s Lot; conceptually, it retells the story of Circe, the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. Keeping with the Ancient Greece theme, there’s The Just City by Jo Walton, which asks what would happen if Athena decided to construct Plato’s Republic. Litfic enough that my mom liked it! The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar may be a bit more difficult, but interesting. It’s basically a litfic take on a typical fantasy plot: there’s a civil war and ancient magic but the focus is on the personal. Magical realism like Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits could be a good start too.
5. She just likes… books… like, character-centric books. I don’t know, about people. Big Little Lies, she liked that.
For me this is the sister-in-law category and yes, I find it hard. It does overlap with litfic (I’d recommend Circe to my sister-in-law too), but is less “theme”-focused. The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker might be interesting; it’s about said golem and djinni navigating life and humanity in early 20th century New York. Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders is a typical sprawling family saga, detailing the ups and downs of a large merchant family, except with magic ships. On the soft sci-fi side, there’s The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (slice-of-life space travel) and Sourdough by Robin Sloan (young woman quits stressful job to become a baker… of a very special kind of bread). If she doesn’t get the “point” of any kind of fantastical elements, the lightest introduction to speculative fiction is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, about a group of travelling performers in post-apocalyptic USA.
6. She’s into mysteries.
Putting aside the earlier Harry Potter books… One possibility is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss: it’s a pastiche of Victorian era mystery and SFF fiction (features sweet, funny female friendships and also Sherlock Holmes). In Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers, the British Army uses mediums to ask killed soldiers to report enemy troop movements during WWI; however, there’s a spy in the ranks. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett could be good too. While there’s a murder mystery, the other case the detective wants to solve is what happened when the gods were killed a few centuries ago. Sam Hawke’s City of Lies also involves a murder mystery — who poisoned the chancellor? — in the middle of a larger crisis: the city is under siege.
7. She mainly reads YA.
A bit of an odd category: if she follows the YA community at all she probably already knows the popular fantasy YA books. Anyway, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (about a magic user in a land where magic users are hunted) is a good bet, as is Elizabeth Lim’s Spin the Dawn (Mulan-inspired x Project Runway-inspired) or Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince (about a girl who gets kidnapped to Fairyland and plots to get revenge). The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee is mostly historical (18th century) with very faint fantasy elements, so it might be the easiest shift.
8. She likes fairytales/mythology, I guess.
Interestingly, “she does like fairytales” occasionally comes up in the requests — maybe as the sole experience with fantasy? You can’t go wrong with Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (Rumpelstiltskin retelling) or Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale (atmospheric mix of Russian folklore). Also some great novellas out there, e.g. Alliette de Bodard’s Into the Vanisher’s Palace (Beauty and the Beast in a Vietnamese-inspired setting) or Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood (based on the Green Man myth).
9. She’s into thrillers/horror.
Another difficult one as plenty of horror features fantasy elements (cf. Stephen King’s Carrie). Can I recommend Josh Malerman’s Bird Box (set in a post-apocalypse world where humans must wear blindfolds because when they see something outside, they go mad) (better than the Netflix movie) or is that considered straight thriller/horror? Otherwise there’s Into the Deep by Mira Grant. It’s about an expedition to find mermaids. Man-eating killer mermaids.
10. Lol fuck your stereotypes, she likes action books.
Yes, okay, fine, Mistborn. But also Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which is about 1970s-ish magical kung fu gangsters. It is indeed as cool as it sounds. The easy sell for Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is, “It’s a Native American-inspired Mad Max: Fury Road.” If she’d be interested in flintlock fantasy (so like the Sharpe series/Master and Commander-level firearms but with magic), there’s a few great places to start. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn is about a country that runs out of male soldiers and starts conscripting women for the first time (admittedly, the first part of the book is more fantasy of manners). Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names goes the she-dresses-up-as-a-man-to-join-the-army route, while Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment offers a far more lighthearted take on the same trope.
Look, despite the title of this “guide”, of course I can’t offer a perfect book to get a girlfriend/wife/sister/mom/niece/female friend into fantasy. But with the exceedingly broad descriptions “she also likes this other genre” and “she’s a woman”, I can offer forty-odd chances. Tune in next time when one of the male members of the Inn does a guide for getting your boyfriend/husband/brother/dad/nephew/male friend into fantasy.
I’m just kidding, give him The Name of the Wind and call it a day.