Guest Post: An Introduction to Fantasy Novels

Another guest post this week, this time by my friend Word Nerd. She’s going to introduce us to science fiction and fantasy, genres I do read, but not as much as historical fiction. For my fellow historical fiction readers, this should help you dip into a new genre. Enjoy! Next week, my post on helping a fellow writer love writing itself, rather than the idea of being a Writer.

When Word Nerd was younger, there was really only one section of the library she frequented: Fantasy. And sci-fi as an after thought.

Then, with the coming of oodles of college reading, her interest in massive fantasy series started to wane some. It was too hard to remember all the rules of magic for every last world and the Elven dialects and gosh, weren’t mysteries fun to read too?

Since then, Word Nerd still likes to hit the fantasy section of libraries and bookstores, but she’s developed tough standards for what to pick up from those shelves. Here are some tested tips.

First, the conventions and the masters. No, not the conventions like Gencon where people dress up like wookies. The conventions of the genres.

The world of fantasy fiction is full of conventions. Take for example the following: Elves are not short, in fact they are tall and lithe and graceful; the use of apostrophes in names is considered acceptable; the book will likely contain a 1) map, 2) glossary and 3) cast of characters; the protagonist is often the recipient or subject of a prophecy, or an orphan, or a misplaced member of the royal family and if they are really lucky, all three.

The only way to really learn the conventions is to read the books and just begin to accept them. The way to learn the conventions is to start with the masters. Tolkien. Donaldson. McCaffery. Brooks. Weis and Hickman. Zelazny. Why these folks? Well, guys like Tolkien pioneered the genre, guys like Brooks borrowed from it, Donaldson gave it a new spin and McCaffery and Weis/Hickman made an empire of it. Also, many of these books have survived from the explosion of fantasy books in the 1970s and early 1980s (and earlier for some of them.) Many of these are the authors Word Nerd cut her bibliophile teeth on during her middle and high school years.

Second, find the books that break the conventions.

The “rules” get old. Every fantasy world does not need humans, elves, dwarves and dragons. Or glossaries.

Word Nerd hit this realization some time likely in college, getting fed up with how many fantasy books all seemed the same. After this, she became a much more selective reader. If a book starts with a character on a journey at the beginning, that’s a good caution sign. So is the glossary in the back, because it tends to mean that the world in the book/series is complicated and very different from earth as we know it.

Good fantasy is often like good, classic sci-fi. It doesn’t have to be a huge stretch to get from what we know of earth to get to the society in the fantasy world. Maybe it’s just a take on feudalism. Maybe it’s only a step further to believe that some people can telepathically communicate with animals; just look at the Dog Whisperer and go from there.

Third, be ready to commit for the long haul.

Much fantasy is written as a series. Rule of thumb, three to six books is an excellent number for a series. Some people (Steven Brust, Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett for example) can keep a series going longer than that. At some point, most long series suffer a severe drop in quality. Nevertheless, be ready for the long haul because the books are often 600+ pages for just one book in a series. With this commitment, Word Nerd has also developed a strategy of waiting until all books in a series have been released before starting to read it. This way, once invested in the world, she doesn’t have to wait for years before the next one comes out, forgetting in the mean time, all the set-up for that land.

Many fantasy books have good emotional pay-offs in the end, with just as much impact as any “literary” fiction novel.

Read any that are sure-fire winners? Want to know some worthwhile titles? Post a comment.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: An Introduction to Fantasy Novels

  1. George R. R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series is one of the best fantasy books out right now, notably because of its gritty, realistic, and low-magic setting. Barry Hughart’s ‘Bridge of Birds’ is a great unconventional tale, Neil Gaiman is a fun, twisted man who writes great fantasy, but doesn’t do series outside of his ‘Sandman’ graphic novels. Any one of those is well worth the time picking them up.


  2. I agree about Gaiman, I love the work he did with Stardust and Neverwhere. ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ sounds interesting, I’ll have to put it on the list to read!

    Have you ever read any Robin McKinley or Patricia McKillip? They seem to be more traditional fantasy, but how I love Deerskin and The Book of Atrix Wolfe.


  3. I’m going to disagree on “Song of Ice and Fire.” I’ve read them all, but I’m seriously worried that Martin is never going to finish the series. The first three are AMAZING, but the quality in four suffers to me and there’s still no date in sight for when he may release book 5.

    I’ve read one or two McKillip titles and enjoyed them. Robin McKinley is an author I haven’t checked out yet, but I have another friend pestering me about those books.


  4. Word Nerd, if you read Deerskin, be prepared for a very introspective fantasy that discusses a dark topic. But I thought it was beautifully handled.

    Now I really want to read Song of Ice and Fire. Why can’t there be more hours in the day (without any relational scaling of the workday, of course)?


  5. Well, I can say that you were very successful on your introduction to fantasy novels. I think I would be correct if I say that you have received lots of appreciation from this. Kudos!


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