I believe that every person, to some extent, has a natural inclination towards fantasy that is inherent since they were children. But, like an unused muscle, our imaginations become inflexible from lack of exertion. I listen to the children I teach play sometimes, and I am always floored magical worlds they inhabit when allowed to let their imaginations furnish their play. Now don’t get me wrong, I love realistic writing. I need it, like everyone does. Yet, time and time again I come up against this adversion towards fantasy that I can’t make sense of. My only conclusion is that too often, the book market becomes saturated with fantasy stories that don’t do for us what the genre has the power to do, (by the way, that’s anything, anything at all, there are absolutely no limits) but rather, tend to regurgitate the same Dungeons and Dragons nonsense about sword wielding warriors, scantily clad damsels and some dark lord who wants to take over the world (It’s always about taking over the world isn’t it? I mean, why? They never actually say. It’s what dark lords do because they’re bad … and that’s it isn’t it? ZZZZzzzz.)
But there are lots and lots of fantasy stories that do SO MUCH MORE! They get down and gritty with the reader, asking tough questions, and making us feel for characters in tough situations. That’s because these worlds were built to be read as real worlds, inhabited by real people, with as many struggles and triumphs as we have. But because a good fantasy story is set in a made-up world, anyone can identify with the plight of the characters, or feel a sense of longing for the setting of the story. Just like a fairytale can evoke the first feelings of empathy in a toddler, so too can fantasy wake us up to the loves, fears, wonders and losses and everything else it means to be human, in a someone much older. Here are some of my favourite fantasy stories (in no particular order) that do just that.
1. Inkheart (Inkspell, Inkdeath) by Cornelia Funke
Guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. At the heart of these books is a story about the love of books. I always find that when I try to explain the plot of Inkheart, I sort of let the book down. Suffice to say that it’s like letting your brain slide down a helter-skelter of wonder and fear. Also, the sequels are best for children aged 11+ and adult readers who don’t mind children’s books with a dark side.
2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Like much of Neil Gaiman’s work, it’s kind of baffling to work out exactly what kind of readership it’s intended for, unless you’re me, in which case, I would say that it’s for everyone! Think of Kipling’s The Jungle Book – an orphaned boy raised by animals in the jungle, so logically, The Graveyard Book is about an orphaned boy raised by ghosts, vampires and werewolves in a graveyard. No prizes for guessing. This classic story of the journey from innocence to experience is poignant and funny at intervals and scary to boot all the way through.
3. The Tiffany Aching Books (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight) by Terry Pratchett
There are a lot of books out there about witches. The good ones are written by authors who know how to use witchcraft to make the story work. Pratchett, blows them all out of the water though, with this trilogy. Preteen Tiffany no sooner begins her training as a witch when she learns that there is a big difference between real witches and women who drape themselves in pentagram jewelry and gaze in crystal balls. Real witches are the backbone of a community, from delivering babies, to laying out the dead, and every task inbetween be it as unmagical as clipping an old person’s toenails. Tiffany’s story is that of a young girl learning about the things that really matter in life, about growing up to be a responsible adult. Did give the impression that these books are serious? Ooops! Well there’s also a band of smelly, violent, kilted blue Scottish pixies that both help and hinder her along the way.
4. The Poison Throne (The Crowded Shadows, The Rebel Prince) by Celine Kiernan
I hope the author doesn’t hate me for saying this, but these books are perfect for any reader who is thinking about tackling A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones for those of you who don’t read and haven’t left the house in three years), but isn’t quite ready for such a .. erm… mature series. Perfect for 11+, readers, the Moorehawke Trilogy is fiercely political and actually, just fiercely written in general. The female protagonist is wise, strong and generally KICK-ASS. The plot asks a lot of morally challenging questions of the reader and brings many of the characters to the point of breaking and beyond. Yet, they are lovable, hilarious, courageous and you want them all to survive and live happily ever after. Ahem… about that… no, nevermind.
5. The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long
One of my favourite sub-genres of fantasy are books that draw inspiration from fairytales. Actually, I should say that my favourite books are the ones that do it well, because some are appallingly contrived. While many authors have weakened their plot by doing this, Treachery of Beautiful Things is a great example of a book that draws strength from folk and fairy tales, and creates an atmospheric world just seething with magic, where modern day characters meet the enticing but dangerous beings of the faerie realm. Here we see a female protagonist who is both feisty and vulnerable. In the midst of so much one-sided feistiness on the part of recent heroines, Jenny is really a refreshing character. I hope there is a sequel!
6. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There) by Catherynne Valente
Alice in Wonderland meets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I can’t even begin to describe the richness of the writing that you will find in these books. I find myself not remembering lines so much as actually remembering the actually images they evoked in my minds eye while I read the book, as well as the smells, sounds and emotions. They’re also funny, witty and totally unexpected. They are set in a fairyland where anything (but not everything) goes and the heroine is entirely lovable.
7. Magus of Stonewylde (Moondance at Stonewylde, Solstice at Stonewylde, Shadows at Stonwylde, Shaman of Stonewylde) by Kit Berry
Okay, okay, so it’s not strictly fantasy… but I had to mention them here. I’ll mention them anywhere if given half a chance! These books spanned a year’s readership that left me in emotional turmoil and suspense that I hadn’t experienced since Harry Potter. I became so attached to this characters to the point where I felt almost haunted by them. Stonewylde could be classed as magical realism. I personally don’t recommend it for anyone under the age of fourteen, because the plot gets pretty sinister and the morality of the characters is very grey because they live in a community which has been cut of from the outside world since pre-Christian times. I love the books all the more, however, because of their often challenging dilemmas.
8. The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea
I had to, I just HAD to! I wrote my M.A. thesis about this book. It’s an absolute jewel, based on Irish mythology but with a contemporary setting,and a nice little subversive hint that perhaps we don’t give our pagan roots as much attention as we should. Admittedly, the plot is long and rambling, with so many twists it’s hard not to turn the book inside out while reading it, but it’s so so beautiful and funny and filled with wonder. I still quote lines from it. The author’s use of language is nothing short of acrobatic. I dare anyone to reach the end whilst remaining both straight-faced and dry eyed.
9. Magyk – Septimus Heap book 1 (Flyte, Physik, Queste, Syren, Darke, Fyre) by Angie Sage
J.K. Rowling meets Trudi Canavan and Raymond Feist. Definitely for children though. I love the characters, and the gothic feel of the story. More on this when I finish this satisfyingly long and bulky series.
10. Sabriel (Lirael, Abhorsen) by Garth Nix
YOU HAVE NOT LIVED, until you’ve met the sarcastic cat who’s actually a – oh wait, no spoilers, I forgot. Sabriel is an eighteen-year-old girl who can summon and dismiss the dead with a brace of bells? Nix’s concept of magic is so original, almost scientific, but not at all heavy-handed or tedious to read. I love Sabriel as a heroine, because she is so dead -pan and independent, but not at all given to the stereotypically feisty female lead characters we all seem to be favouring these days
11. Tithe (Ironside, Valiant) by Holly Black
A twisty, tricksy tale about fairies, changelings and all things that go bump in the night. The sweetly seductive style is one I recommend for teens and upwards only.
12. Thirteen Treasures (Thirteen Curses, Thirteen Secrets) by Michelle Harrison
Another series about fairies, this time suitable for younger readers (9+) and yet, still very creepy and twisted. This one is worth reading for the seamless working of fairy lore and plot alone, if not for the entertainment supplied the the fairies themselves, who make people’s lives absolutely miserable.
13. Wolf Brother (Spirit Walker, Soul Eater, Outcast, Oath Breaker, Ghost Hunter)
Loosely based on a kind of early North American, Canadian, or perhaps prehistoric human existence, this series follows the adventures of an orphaned boy and his wolf cub companion with whom he shares a deep bond. In this harsh world they face demons, spirits and supernatural powers, all against the backdrop of a richly imagined and well researched world. Prepare yourself for scary and sad bits.