Fantasy for Adults: Beyond the Bestsellers

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Fantasy for Adults: Beyond the Bestsellers

Fantasy is big in pop culture these days. Epic fantasy gets its due in books and TV shows such as Game of Thrones and the upcoming series based on Terry Brooks' bestselling Shannara series, while the werewolves, vampires, and mythic beings of urban fantasy are on display in GrimmTeen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries (which was also a book series first!). So, where to begin for the readers who want to go beyond the bestsellers and sink their teeth into this dynamic and imaginative genre? 

Here are a few recent titles, ranging from epic fantasy to urban fantasy (with side trips into alternate history and steampunk!) that both long-term genre readers and new fantasy explorers are likely to enjoy: 

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
Late one night, while staking out the scene of an inexplicable murder, new-to-the-force Constable Peter Grant sees a ghost--a ghost that is, in fact, an eyewitness to the murder. This discovery transports Peter from a rather ordinary police career into the Metropolitan London Police Department's version of The X-Files: a hidden program that fights crime among magic users and supernatural beings, a program with only one member, the enigmatic Inspector Thomas Nightingale. And now, Peter.

For genre fans, this is a pretty familiar start to an urban fantasy series. What makes Midnight Riot stand out is the way the city of London is (almost literally) a character in the novel--and not just historical London, or the London of tourists, but the vibrantly everyday, multicultural London that its residents know. Another great thing about it is the wry, humorous, first-person voice of Peter Grant--a biracial millennial rookie cop, just trying to get through the day in a world that's suddenly bigger and more mysterious than he ever imagined.  Midnight Riot is an intriguing opener for Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, still going strong with Broken Homes (book five) published this year.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
This epic fantasy has enough world-building and language geekery to make J.R.R. Tolkien proud, and, like George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) series, a focus on characters and political intrigue more than magic. However, inside this epic-ness is the intimate story of Maia, an abused, cast-off prince who is suddenly catapulted into the role of emperor by an airship crash that kills his father and older brothers. And although grim events happen, the focus of the novel couldn't be more different from the intense violence of Game of Thrones and other "grimdark" epic fantasy. 

Instead, the plot centers around Maia's struggle to uphold kindness and human decency, even when it subverts everyone's expectations of an emperor. And for those who are burned out on trilogies and longer series, The Goblin Emperor is complete in one volume.  Katherine Addison is the pseudonym of author Sarah Monette; her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, beginning with Melusine, is also well worth a read for epic fantasy fans. 

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
In the 19th century of an alternate universe, Isabella is a young woman with a most unladylike obsession: dragons. She wants nothing more than to spend her life studying them and has little interest in the conventional goal of making a good marriage. About to give up on her dreams, she meets a man who shares her fascination, and they form a relationship that is part romance, part scientific partnership. When they join a dragon-hunting expedition in a distant country, Isabella finds adventure, loss, political intrigue, and the discovery of a lifetime.

What makes this book so much fun is not just the story itself, but how it's told. The novel uses a format common in the real Victorian era: an aging explorer sitting down to "write my memoirs." Thus, the narrator is the elderly Isabella (now Lady Trent)--a sharp-witted, opinionated woman who fears no one--and her voice is a vividly memorable one.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I was initially wary of this book due to pre-publication hype (being optioned for film by Emma Watson will do that!), but when I picked it up I was thoroughly pleased by one of the most fun and engaging reading experiences I'd had in awhile. Like The Goblin Emperor, the plot of The Queen of the Tearling concerns a young, isolated ruler--Princess Kelsea Glynn, who has been hidden since birth for her own safety--learning to take charge of her kingdom, while she balances doing the right thing with survival.

In contrast to The Goblin Emperor's quieter pleasures, The Queen of the Tearling is also full of adventures and slam-bang action sequences. But the most compelling aspect of the story is the character of Kelsea: a fiercely intelligent young woman who also struggles with her temper, her body image, and her impulsivity at times. The Queen of the Tearling is the first of a planned trilogy; The Invasion of the Tearling, which came out earlier this summer, raises the stakes and complicates the Good vs. Evil binary of the first book. I can't wait to see where Johansen takes Kelsea's story in book three!

Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier
In Dreamer's Pool, Marillier takes her traditional Celtic fantasy milieu and drops into it some character types more often found in the pages of classic Westerns and mysteries--the ace crime-fighting team, the misanthropic but brilliant detective, the hero with a dark past who is torn between justice and sweet, sweet vengeance. However, Marillier's misanthropic detective and tortured hero is a woman--a magical healer named Blackthorn--and she meets the Watson to her Holmes, a scarred and silent fighter named Grim, in prison. 

When powerful forces offer Blackthorn a chance at escape--for a price--she and Grim become traveling companions out of circumstance and necessity, but they begin to form a true partnership when they must work together to help a young prince solve a high-stakes mystery. The mystery won't be hard to solve for readers who know their fairy tales, but part of the fun of this story is seeing the characters get there and watching their friendship--which, refreshingly, never turns romantic--grow along the way.