Good morning, class. My name’s Nicholas Eames, but don’t call me Mr. Eames–that’s my father’s name!
Okay. Moving on. We’re all here for one reason: we love fantasy books, and it is absolutely imperative to us that others like them too. You might liken us to a horde of theocratic zombies who won’t rest until everyone we know is, as the saying goes, one of us.
Alas, convincing others that fantasy books are head and shoulders better than books from any other genre (excluding sci-fi, but we’ll get to that later) isn’t always easy. I mean, you’d think it would be obvious, right? Writing is, after all, an exercise in creativity, and fantasy books, by their very nature, are more creative than plain old fiction. Now don’t get me wrong–fiction is great, but except for a few notable exceptions (aka. Salman Rushdie’s magic realism) it remains limited in scope, comparatively.
I’ll direct your attention to the board behind me, where I’ve drawn up a few examples of ‘basic fiction’ plots vs ‘fantasy’ plots.
BASIC FICTION PLOT: The fabric of a family is tested when their estranged father comes back to town.
FANTASY PLOT: The fabric of a family is tested when their estranged father comes back to town. The father is a wizard.
See? Poor old ‘basic fiction’ didn’t stand a chance. I mean, seriously, there is literally NOTHING the first book can contain that the second one can’t, and LITERALLY ANYTHING can happen in the second book. Let’s look at another example.
BASIC FICTION PLOT: Blah blah fucking blah.
FANTASY PLOT: Blah blah fucking blah. Also, dragons.
Again, no contest. Honestly, I could do this all day, but you see where I’m going with this? Done poorly, sure, fantasy has the capacity to be a spectacular failure, because its parameters for failure are so much greater. But done right, fantasy quite simply begins where fiction ends.
Of course, simply bashing someone’s preferred reading material is a poor way of convincing them to embrace your own. That said, it can be effective. I worked at a bookstore for several years, and every single day I would prop a Guy Gavriel Kay book in front of my cash register with a placard beneath it that read: “Whatever you’re about to buy, this is better.” Needless to say, I sold a shit-ton of GGK books and I fully plan on using this fact to extort an expensive lunch from him someday.
To be clear: I’m paying for lunch, I just want him to show up.
(Seriously though, this book actually is better than almost every book out there)
Ultimately, though, the best way to turn someone onto fantasy is to let them discover its joys for him or herself. And the best way to do that is to recommend a book they’re likely to love.
The key takaway here is ‘a book that THEY are likely to love’.
There are plenty of monstrous, complex, intricately-woven fantasy tomes that cater to those who already love the genre, but if your friend has just finished Gone Girl and you toss them Lord of the Fucking Rings (note: not its real title) there’s a good chance their leap for the precipice of fantastical enlightenment will end with a sheer drop and a wet splat.
You’ve gotta ease them in. Lubricate their entry to make it as smooth as possible. If necessary, caress their…you know what? I’m gonna move on.
My point is, you’ve got to choose the right book for the job, or else you’ll put them off forever. Now, I’m not going to tell you what the wrong book is, but I’ve managed to turn quite a few friends to the dark s–er, into fantasy readers over the years, so I will tell you which books I found a reliable source of conversion.
Before I do, however, there is something you absolutely must do before your would-be Frodo begins their journey. You’ve got to tell them about the names.
“Huh?” you ask.
You heard me. Tell them about all the odd and alien names they are about to read–names like ‘Targaryen’ and ‘Rhovanion’ and ‘Golgotterath’–and offer them the most important piece of advice you can possibly give to someone about to read their first fantasy book:
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO REMEMBER THEM.”
“Huh?” you ask, again.
I cannot overstate the above point enough. How many times have you heard someone disenchanted with fantasy say something like, “I just found it so hard to remember all the names.” If you’re anything like me, the answer to that question is ‘sixteen billion’. So you’ve got to tell them first: don’t fucking bother.
If you need to remember the name of a person or a place, then the author will keep mentioning it over and over again to make sure you do. Otherwise, all those names you’re reading, whether they belong to a colourful character or a faraway land, are just there to make the world seem more real.
To put it in even simpler terms, if you’re reading a book that takes place in the United States and a character offhandedly mentions they need to go to LAX to pick up their friend Becky from Seattle, you don’t scramble for a pen and scrawl down ‘Who is LAX? Where is Becky? What is Seattle?’ You just keep reading the damn book! And yet so many fledgling fantasy readers run into a word like ‘Illawor’ and lose their fucking minds.
So be sure and tell them: There will NOT be a test. Gloss over the name Maleagant the same way you would the name Steve. Just…keep…reading.
That said, if they’re still having issues remembering names then you might suggest putting down books forever and painting fruit-bowls in watercolour for what remains of their hapless lives.
Okay. So. Without further ado, here’s a few books that lend themselves to being enjoyed by a fantasy first-timer. I’m going to toss a few ‘sci-fi’ novels in here as well, because A) Us nerds are all in this together, and B) This whole exercise is about building trust; once you’ve got them eating out of your hand you can feed them whatever the hell you want. This list is, of course, a matter of my humble opinion.
Note #1: My opinion is not actually humble. If you disagree with me you’re very probably wrong.
Note #2: Just kidding. There are obvious gaping holes in my list–most notably the lack of female authors. The fault is mine, and is something I plan on remedying in the near future.
Note #3: the following books are in no particular order
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
We’ve all got that friend who finishes Harry Potter and wonders, “Where do I go from here?” The Magicians might be just the thing for them. Like a lot of books, it’s been labelled as ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups’. First of all, Harry Potter IS for grown-ups, but this is a logical next step, since it’s basically what would happen if Hogwarts was a college instead of a middle-school. An angst-ridden teenager from Brooklyn gets invited to a prestigious school for magicians. Hijinks ensue. Also, it’s a TV show, and that often helps the uninitiated decide a book is worth their time. Sad but true.
Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey
Another book that’s been adapted into a TV show (The Expanse–it’s good, fucking watch it). Although (obviously) science-fiction, this book and its sequels keep the settings familiar, the characters relatable, and the story moving at a furious pace. The author is actually two people, and one of them, Daniel Abraham, wrote a series called ‘The Long Price Quartet’ that is damn phenomenal. Not a starter fantasy, perhaps (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), but if you already love the genre and haven’t read it yet, do so. Those books are works of art.
Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell
This book has two things in particular that make it good for newcomers to the genre: a healthy dose of humour, and a compelling voice. While most books narrate their story to you, this book (the whole Greatcoat series, in fact) feels like you’re perched on the shoulder of its protagonist, Falcio. Right from the opening line–“Pretend, just for a moment, that you have attained your most deepseated desire.”–you are treated more like a confidant than a reader. This is especially true of the sword-fights. Sebastien is a swordsman himself, and the encounters he describes are detailed without being complicated, and often hilarious. If your audience wavers before reading it, calling it ‘a fantasy version of the three-muskateers’ might goad them over the edge.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
Speaking of books with stellar (cough*space pun*cough) opening lines, this book’s got one. How Old Man’s War isn’t a blockbuster movie at this very moment I have no idea. It’s about old people who get their consciousness transferred into youthful super-bodies and are shipped off to fight an intergalactic war. It’s terribly exciting, shockingly funny, and beautifully poignant. The writing, too, is phenomenally tight. Not a word wasted in this one.
Pretty Much Anything, by Neil Gaimon
When I got a book deal people made jokes like ‘Remember me when you’re famous!’ The thing is, though, authors don’t get famous. There are remarkably few exceptions to this: Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman among them. As stated above, anything by Gaiman will do, but Neverwhere and American Gods were my first two forays into his stuff, so I’d recommend those. A master of the craft, plain and simple.
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
Remember when I said writers don’t get famous? Well here’s what I mean: Joe Abercrombie is a goddamn superstar of fantasy–if not our Tom Cruise, then at least our Mark Ruffalo. Yet when my mom says, “One day when you’re famous…” I say “Do you know who Joe Abercrombie is?” and she says “Nope!” and I say “Well I’ll never be as famous as Joe Abercrombie, mom,” and then she puts a plate of cookies in front of me and I forget what happens next.
Cool story, eh? The point is, he’s huge for a reason: his books are great. And, for me, every book he writes is better than the last. Although there are plenty of other places one can jump in, The Blade Itself is where to start. In case the blood-splatter on the cover didn’t make it obvious, these books require the person reading them to be cool with violence. If they are, and they enjoy a dash of wit mixed in with their blood, you’ve just given them a gift that will keep on giving for volumes to come.
Note #2: I know I said these were in no particular order, but the final three books are all but guaranteed to be loved by anyone with the capacity to grasp the written word. So here they are: the big three.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
There are currently a few souls left on earth who haven’t heard of this book. Well, not for long. It’s Steven Spielberg’s next movie. Yeah, I know. He’s had a few misfires of late, but he’s about to have a real big blockbuster on his hands. This book is crammed from the front cover to the back with everything that is good about the world.
Does it help if the person reading it lived through the 80’s? Sure. Does it help if they’ve played a video game and/or dungeons and dragons once or twice. Yeah. Are either of these things necessary to enjoy this book? Hell no! Ready Player One is a masterpiece of pacing–it’s the only book (aside from anything by Guy Gavriel Kay and the next book on this list) that I would deem ‘utterly unputdownable’.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
This is, without question, the book I recommend to people the most. It bears mentioning that Scott Lynch is not my favourite author (although he’s close) and this is not my favourite book (although it’s really, really damn close). Yet as evidence of how much I adore this novel, I use a page of it (all my copies seem to be falling apart) as my bookmark in every book I read, ever.
Although technically the first in a series, one needn’t read the rest if they don’t want to (a selling point for non-fantasy readers). The book has a definitive ending, and boy does it end with a bang. The story of a con-man (and his companions) in what might be called a fantasy version of Venice, The Lies of Locke Lamora is face-paced, funny, and has a number of twists and turn-of-events that are both hilarious and horrifying. I’ve given this book to people who haven’t bothered to read a fictional book since high-school and heard them rave about it like lunatics a few days later.
Fair warning: If you give this book to someone you are responsible for making sure they eat/drink/occasionally void their bowels over the following days, because they will have better things to do–things like only reading this book and doing nothing else.
Also, its protagonist is named for a Final Fantasy character–ONE MILLION POINTS TO GRYFFINDOR!!!
The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
It was once said that the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings books and those who are going to read them. Alas, I’ve come to terms with the fact that some fuckwits out there aren’t going to read The Lord of The Rings, and yeah–it sucks to be them, because I can’t even imagine living and dying on the sphere of planet Earth without having taken that particular journey. But thankfully, EVERYONE will read The Name of the Wind.
Hell, I think most people already have. In case you find someone who hasn’t, this book is the very definition of a ‘Sure Thing’. It comes with but one caveat: the first few chapters aren’t gonna blow you away. Wait, okay, the first few pages are (wherein Rothfuss literally invents the term cut-flower and then blows your fucking mind with it ), but after that the story (told in 3rd person at this point) is basically setting itself up.
And then it switches to 1st person.
And then the feels begin.
And then you’ve read a thousand pages and think where has this book been all my life?
Like few novels I have ever known, The Name of the Wind has the capacity to become someone’s ‘favourite book of all time’ while they’re still only half-way through. If I was pressed to describe this book (and, by extension, its author) in a single word, that word would be ‘genuine’. Alas, it is too simple a term, and too incredible a book, to be summarized succinctly, but if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean. And so, too, will any person lucky enough to pick this one up for the first time.
There are hundreds and hundreds of beautifully quotable lines in this book, but the following is among my favourites.
“Go out in the early days of winter, after the first cold snap of the season. Find a pool of water with a sheet of ice across the top, still fresh and new and clear as glass. Near the shore the ice will hold you. Slide out farther. Farther. Eventually you’ll find the place where the surface just barely bears your weight. There you will feel what I felt. The ice splinters under your feet. Look down and you can see the white cracks darting through the ice like mad, elaborate spiderwebs. It is perfectly silent, but you can feel the sudden sharp vibrations through the bottoms of your feet.
That is what happened when Denna smiled at me.”
So ends my list. It is by no means comprehensive. It fails to mention favourites like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Martian, anything by Guy Gavriel Kay or N.K. Jemisin, and the entire catalogue of Terry Pratchett books, all of which could easily ensnare the unsuspecting reader.
But if you’re looking for that perfect book for someone you wish shared your fervent love of fantasy and/or science fiction, then the above titles are worth a shot. They are, if you’ll permit my re-use of the zombie analogy, the highly-infective virus that will turn the unenlightened masses into one of us.
Thanks for reading,