Fantasy for readers who don’t read fantasy

From Book Riot: FANTASY BOOKS FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T LIKE FANTASY BOOKS

Okay, interesting. I know what I’d recommend, at least I know some things I’d recommend, so I’m curious about this post. Oh, look at this:

Fantasy has always intimidated me. New worlds. Complex societies. Classes of magic I don’t understand. Unfamiliar, extravagant names making up a cast of characters I can’t possibly keep track of.

So this post is written by someone who doesn’t like fantasy, not by someone trying to encourage other readers to try fantasy. That’s interesting. Also a little hard to imagine. I don’t remember ever feeling that way, and in fact I’m slightly puzzled by this feeling. Aren’t fairy tales a type of fantasy? I’d think children could segue from fairy tales to fantasy quite easily.

Granted, some fantasy is a lot less approachable than others. But right away, I’m thinking:

  1. Fantasy retellings of fairy tales
  2. Fantasy that is a fairy tale, but not a retelling
  3. Fantasy that is historical, with only a little magic
  4. Contemporary fantasy so you don’t have to fuss about names.

Personally, I’m delighted by extravagant names. But contemporary fantasy and a lot of historical fantasy completely step around unfamiliar names if that’s a problem.

Let’s see where the post goes:

But then I read a book last year that I later realized was classified as dark fantasy, and I sort of liked it. And another one that was apparently historical fantasy. Also fun. And some works of magical realism. I really liked those, too. Had I just been wrong about an entire genre for 42 years?

Well, yes. That happens when you think “Fantasy is set in a secondary world with a complex magic system laid out in detail and the huge cast of characters who all have weird names.” When you have that kind of restricted idea about a huge genre, naturally you’re mostly wrong. The same thing happens when you think “Romance is slight and silly, with extremely rich handsome guys falling in love with cute, quirky shopkeepers.” You’re noting one subgenre and just not noticing that your conception is the tiny tip of genre iceberg. In this case, the author of the post — as she notes herself — was intimidated by epic fantasy and didn’t notice that there was a lot of fantasy that isn’t in that subgenre. I’m moving past the conflation of epic fantasy and high fantasy without comment. We’ve done that before, several times. This time I’m more interested in seeing what subgenres this particular non-fantasy reader wound up liking. Ah, contemporary fantasy, which she is calling low fantasy, which again I will just move past.

Therefore, her suggestions are contemporary fantasy. I haven’t read them, except Like Water for Chocolate, which I didn’t like. And she’s got Nettle and Bone on her list, because she likes horror and therefore horror-adjacent contemporary fantasy, and yes, I’d certainly suggest T Kingfisher to anyone who likes horror. Especially Cozy Horror, and thanks to whoever suggested the term, because that’s very descriptive and useful.

Lots of other suggestions at the linked post. But here’s what I’d suggest, particularly if someone did not like horror:

A) Fairy tales — you can’t go wrong with Beauty by Robin McKinley.

I think the cover is wrong for the book. Fine for other retellings of Beauty and the Beast, but not great for this one. Anyway, while on the subject, I would then segue to Sunshine by McKinley.

What is with these covers? I would just like to register a protest here. Who’s the publisher? Open Road Media. Well, Open Road, kindly find some other cover artist with a better feel for McKinley’s stories. I’m scared to think what this cover artist might do with Chalice. I see it’s still a bright, sunny cover right now. Good job, Ace!

B) Fairy tales that aren’t retellings. I’d start with The Changeling Sea by McKillip

And then point them at anything else by McKillip … well, not anything, but lots and lots of things .. and also to The City in the Lake.

After that, if the person liked historicals, there’s so much there! But how about:

C) Historicals with almost no magic, such as Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

The whole trilogy is good, and there’s only one magical element in the whole thing, as far as I can remember. You could then shift to sometehing with a little more magic, but a very historical feel, such as something by Guy Gavriel Kay. Everyone’s got their favorite, but how about A Song for Arbonne.

There are really a whole lot and this isn’t my favorite, actually. I would probably pick Under Heaven. If someone liked tragedy (for some reason), then there are certainly good options there too.

Does the person think they hate epic fantasy? Because there’s another category of fantasy I hadn’t previously thought of, which could serve to lead a reader into epic fantasy if they thought they didn’t like epic fantasy:

D) Portal fantasy, such as the Fionavar trilogy.

Look, you have protagonists who are from a familiar society and have familiar names; you can travel with them into the epic fantasy and won’t that make the journey easier and more fun? I think it would. Okay, last category:

E) Contemporary fantasy. Again, there’s so much (so, so, so much), but let’s avoid vampires. How about Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen?

Such gentle, easy stories. Nice writing, a bit of romance, people getting their lives together, seriously, these are my go-to for magical realism, and no thanks to Like Water for Chocolate.

But there is SO MUCH contemporary fantasy that it’s hard not to suggest more than one. How about Bone Gap by Laura Ruby?

I should re-read that. It’s a great story, and not only that, it pulls us back full circle to fairy tales, because it’s a story that draws on the tale of Persephone.

Okay! What’s a book you might suggest to someone who thought they didn’t like fantasy, but really meant they didn’t like the thought of epic fantasy?

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5 thoughts on “Fantasy for readers who don’t read fantasy”

  1. My daughter is simply not a reader but she and her bf listen to audiobooks and he reads some fantasy so I made them listen to Tuyo and they loved it and are now past Nikoles and onto Tarashana. Recommending things for your daughter and the bf can be tricky bc obviously you don’t want anything too smutty. Tuyo was perfect. I’ve given Summers at Castle Auburn out as bat mitzvah gifts and the girls have gone right out and bought the rest of Sharon Shinn’s books after that. My good friend only reads creepy thrillers, books that make you cry, and smutty novels and I made her read Fourth Wing and she loved it __ bc what’s not to love in that book? For the husband of a friend who really only reads male oriented stuff I recommended Joel Shepherd’s Spiral Wars series which he loves but which I dropped out of the past few books- too much to follow. So for me recommendations depend on my audience.

  2. For people who like fairy tales but think they don’t like fantasy, I’d add Howl’s Moving Castle or East by Edith Pattou. For boys interested in sports, Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson, which is actually a retelling of Beowulf. For someone interested in Arthurian legends or comedy, I’d say Gerald Morris’ The Squire’s Tale, or I would suggest any of Stephen Lawhead’s historical fantasy, but especially his Arthurian cycle. The Queen’s Thief series is also a fun place to start for those who like historical stories.

  3. Interesting question. I think one of my recommendations would be Peter Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn” – because it’s both a quest fantasy and a SEND-UP of quest fantasy, and because it’s tonally light. It’s an easy and entertaining read.

    For people who like fairytales but not fantasy, I’d recommend K.M. Shea’s fairytale retellings. Particularly “Puss in Boots”, “Rumplestiltskin”, “Snow White”, and her “Snow Queen” trilogy. The only one I’d warn them *away* from is “Wild Swans”, because the central relationship is abusive and the book never actually realises this.

    If they were normally more of a Literary Fiction reader, I’d go for the collected short stories of one of Beagle’s *influencers* – “The Avram Davidson Treasury”. (Not all of them are fantasy, but many are – subtle stories, BEAUTIFULLY written but goodness you have to read with the aid of a dictionary sometimes, and I understood almost all of the *basic* plotlines at last reading but I’ve probably missed several things.) There’s only a few that are longer than five pages – basically because much longer than five pages and I completely lose the plotline; he’s not an EASY author! Also, I don’t think he wrote an Epic Fantasy in his life; his specialty seems to be the small bits that you glimpse only sidelong. My absolute favorite fantasy short story of his is “Or the Grasses Grow”. Although “And Don’t Forget The One Red Rose” sits very high as well – as does “My Boy Friend’s Name Is Jello” (took me two or three tries to get the fantasy in that one) – and I enjoyed “Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?” – and helplessly laughed my head off at “Help! I am Doctor Morris Goldpepper” – and “Or All the Seas with Oysters” would sit MASSIVELY high if it didn’t terrify me so much; it’s one of the most original concepts I’ve ever come across! (“Paperclips are the larvae, and coathangers the pupae, of bicycles…”). An absolutely perfect little gem of a non-fantasy short story in this collection is “Crazy Old Lady”.
    Oh, and incidentally… by some minor miracle if anybody here has *read* this book and happens to understand this particular story, would they mind explaining to me slowly and clearly what actually happens in his Doctor Esterhazy spin of Sleeping Beauty? I’ve read it several times and am still completely lost…
    Anyway. He is DEFINITELY a challenge, but if they like that sort of thing they might just go for it. I would, however, warn them NOT to read the introduction to each story. Some of the people who wrote them haven’t quite grasped the concept of Not Spoiling It.

  4. HeatherQ, are you perhaps mistaking the genre of “Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman”? It’s a weird tale, like a Twilight Zone episode. The uncanny mystery is a good bit of the point.

    Polly Charms was placed in a trance by a mesmerist who died before he could wake her up. Since then she’s been in a supernatural slumber, fitting with how mesmerism was perceived at the time. Her keeper Murgatroyd has some sort of villainy about him; while it goes beyond just exploiting her, I don’t think we’re supposed to know what it is.

    It seems likely that Murgatroyd set the fire that ends the tale: he’s scared to have attracted the attention of Eszterhazy and Lobats, presumably because his dark secret(s) may now come to light. I prefer to think that her inexplicable sleepwalking was her trying to save them both, but it’s plausible that she was actually ensuring that he didn’t escape.

  5. Oh, wow! Thanks so much, Craig! That… actually does make a whole lot more sense than my attempt at interpreting it.

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