“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin
Deciding to start reading fantasy can seem pretty daunting, given the endless options of stories available. The genre itself is very broad, containing various subcategories including epic fantasy, high fantasy, low fantasy, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, and magical realism. In this weekly series, A Thousand Lives, I will provide short lists of fantasy recommendations based on genre subcategories, authors, and elements within fantasy stories themselves.
The first of these recommendation lists is a starting point for those who have either never read fantasy at all, or those who have read very little and want to read more. Each recommendation contains a brief summary of the plot and reasons why I recommend that particular work.
Don’t be put off by the fact that some of these suggestions are categorized as children’s literature because, after all, sometimes there’s nothing more a reader needs than to get lost in a story like they used to as a kid. What better story to lose yourself in than a fantasy one?
So, here are seven fantasy books or series that I think are great options for beginner fantasy readers.
1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Ok, you probably aren’t surprised that this series made the list. Since the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published in 1997, fans have been captivated by the magic of J.K. Rowling’s story, characters, and Wizarding World.
A quiet, skinny boy with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, Harry Potter lives an unhappy, boring life with his spiteful and abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin. But on his eleventh birthday, Harry is visited by a giant who tells him that he’s a wizard and has been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry’s life will never be the same. Over the next few years, Harry must face the forces who wish to destroy him. All sent by the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, who tried to kill Harry when he was a baby, but failed. Accompanied by his best friends, Ron and Hermione, as well as a company of other powerful wizards and witches, Harry must face the Dark Lord year after year not only to save himself, but protect everyone who refuses to join Voldemort’s side.
These stories are ones you’ll want to read over and over again. The Wizarding World is unlike anything else you’ll ever read. No matter where Harry goes, you’ll be right there beside him, learning magic at Hogwarts, playing Quidditch, fighting evil forces, and exploring this enchanted world. The magic in Harry Potter is fascinating and never-ending. Essentially any element of fantasy you can think of is found somewhere in these stories. There are various layers and underlying plots to the main premise of the story, which means you’ll never be bored while reading this series. All that being said, these books are very easy to read and follow. A blend of magical realism and fantasy fiction, the Harry Potter stories will leave you feeling spellbound and cause you to look for magic in your everyday life.
2. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
Narnia and the lands that surround it are full of magic. They are places where fauns, dwarves, centaurs, and talking animals live. No matter how long you spend in this world, no time passes back home in England. The plot of each book is different, though some of the main characters cross over from book to book. However, in every story you’ll follow the characters as they journey throughout Narnia and its neighboring countries. Children and magical beasts/creatures must embark on important journeys, not only to stop danger from befalling on those who roam the lands, but also so these characters can learn more about themselves along the way. Often under the guidance of the almighty lion Aslan, the characters learn what must be done to restore peace and order, and to prevent danger from plaguing all who live in Narnia, Archenland, Calormen, Telmar, and everywhere else.
These children’s classics are an ideal option for any beginning fantasy reader. The plots are easy to follow, the books are pretty short (a little over 200 pages each), and each book is fast-paced. The stories contain various fantasy elements including magic, fantastical creatures, talking animals, quests, and battles. Although the main human characters are children, they are very enjoyable to read about. Their humor and personalities are appealing to readers of all ages. Despite being written for children, Lewis’ books incorporate important themes such as bravery, justice, prejudice, making amends, friendship, and loyalty.
3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo Baggins is not at all pleased when a random group of dwarves show up at his front door and help themselves to his delicious wares. Suddenly, he’s part of a quest to retrieve treasure stolen from the dwarves by Smaug, a cunning and villainous dragon. Over the course of their journey through Middle Earth, Bilbo and his company encounter various creatures and find themselves traveling to places they never dreamed of going. Eventually, destiny leads Bilbo to the Misty Mountains where a mysterious, powerful ring lurks underneath the majestic land with a strange creature named Gollum.
This book is the perfect way to ease yourself in Tolkien’s beautiful and descriptive prose before undertaking The Lord of The Rings trilogy. The action begins in the first chapter and continues until the very end. You’ll easily find yourself immersed within the world of Middle Earth and become familiar with Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and all the rest who embark on this incredible journey. After reading The Hobbit, you’ll appreciate the genius that was Tolkien, and also realize why he’s considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) fantasy writer of the twentieth century.
While the story itself does not contain abundant magical elements, this epic poem, translated from Old English, has served as an inspiration for many fantasy stories and writers, including Tolkien. The heroic Beowulf (the main character in the poem) saves the Danes from the terrible monster Grendel. The beast had been causing havoc and destruction towards the Danish King Hrothgar and his hall, Heorot. After killing Grendel, Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother who sought to avenge her son’s death. Beowulf then returns to his homeland and is crowned king. Fifty years later, Beowulf once again must battle a vicious beast: a formidable dragon who becomes infuriated after realizing some treasure was stolen from his lair.
As mentioned, Beowulf does not contain a plethora of fantasy elements. However, reading the poem feels as if you are reading familiar fantasy stories. The three beasts Beowulf must defeat are also very alike to the evil creatures featured in popular fantasy lore. After finishing Beowulf, readers who move on to other fantasy stories will see the similarities to this poem and more modern series. Without Beowulf, the fantasy genre as we know it today may have looked entirely different.
5. The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This classic is one of the many retellings of the King Arthur stories. Young Wart (who will later be crowned King Arthur) is tutored by Merlyn, a magician. Key characters from the Arthurian legend are prominent in this work, including Sir Lancelot, Sir Ector, Guenever, Mordred, and Morgause (Morgan le Fay). The heroic Knights of the Round Table undertake numerous quests. Camelot becomes the most famous kingdom in all the land. However, deceit and danger await Arthur and the others. The forbidden love between Lancelot and Queen Guenever, Morgause’s wickedness, and Mordred’s hatred all hint to the fall of Arthur, as king and man.
Many noble quests and unforeseen adventures await the reader who wishes to pick up this timeless work. White manages to combine excitement and laugh-out-loud humor with tragedy and sorrow. You’ll feel waves of emotions as you read your way through this story. The writing style is easy to read and understand. The iconic characters of King Arthur lore are both familiar and refreshing all at once. After completing this work, you’ll likely be inclined to pick up another of the many Arthurian retellings.
6. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Linus Baker is a Case Worker for the Department in Change of Magical Youth, ensuring that children in various orphanages are well cared for. To his surprise, Linus is instructed to visit the Marsyas Island Orphanage where six peculiar, magical children live. Children who aren’t exactly human, and aren’t exactly harmless. Linus must carefully weigh his options on how to handle this case, without bringing destruction and peril to the world. The longer Linus stays at this orphanage, the more secrets he learns and the closer he grows to Arthur Parnassus, the orphans’ caretaker. Does Linus keep the secrets he learns? Does he risk endangering humankind? Or does he break apart this odd family and ruin their home?
This magical realism novel is a story of love and family. The magic within it differs from the other fantasy stories on the list, thus offering readers who don’t care for the typical fantasy tales (with high-stakes battles, dangerous beasts, chivalrous knights, or grandiose worlds) a chance to enjoy an engaging novel with fantastical elements sprinkled within. The more secrets that arise, the more you’ll be unable to put this modern fantasy story down.
7. The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski
Geralt of Rivia actually appeared within the pages of books before he appeared in the popular video games and hit Netflix. Geralt is a Witcher, someone charged with the responsibility of killing the malicious, magical monsters that roam the Continent. His abilities are made possible by intense training and a strange elixir. While his duty sounds simple enough in principal, Geralt knows that not everything is as clear as it seems. The lines between good and evil, fairness and falsehood are often blurry and misleading.
Filled with exotic creatures, dynamic characters, and countless adventures, Sapkowski’s best-selling fantasy series is often considered a must-read for any fantasy fan. Translated from Polish to English, these books are easy to read, unique, and driving. These eight books are made more engaging by Geralt’s encounters with complex characters like Yennefer, Dandelion, and Ciri. The first two works (The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny) are collections of short stories that help introduce readers to the characters and setting. When you read The Witcher books, you really will feel transported to an entirely new world.
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SOME SYNOPSES WERE WRITTEN BASED ON THE ONES PROVIDED FROM COPIES OF THE BOOKS THEMSELVES