Getting into Genre: The Fantasy Edition

The number of times that we’ve heard, “Oh, I like everything but [insert genre here]” is astounding. Almost everyone has preconceived notions about what they like and what they don’t like. It’s fine – not every genre is for every reader! That said, a lot of times people make broad generalizations about genre and then assume that they won’t like anything in it. In “Getting into Genre,” we’re taking a genre that’s intimidating and breaking it down for you. We talk about what makes the genre great, what you can (and can’t!) expect from the genre, and then recommend 3-5 books for a newcomer. This month, we take on fantasy.

Jess’s Picks
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
2. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
4. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
5. Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

So basically, I think that most people who “don’t read fantasy” are people who actually love fantasy! Almost everyone will admit that they have read or watched Harry Potter, and most (American, anyway) kids are fed a diet of fantasy – Disney movies, portal fantasies like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Golden Compass.
My list leans heavily on nostalgia – fairy tales with Uprooted, portal fantasies with Ten Thousand Doors of January, and schools of magic with Magic for Liars.
Then, I chose The Night Circus because it is a perfect book, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because I think Jemisin is the best writer in SFF right now, and she needed to be on the list.

Karena’s Picks
1. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
4. An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
5. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

As a former bookseller, I had to think of the fact that there are a lot of forms of fantasy. So how could I, in five books, tackle that? So starting with A Darker Shade of Magic, I went to the adventure lover. Besides adventure, it has magic, a a lady thief and a bi-eyed boy with an ever-changing coat. What’s not to love. As for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it’s an epic fantasy with immersive yet accessible world building. The Night Circus I feel is for the literary fiction fans. It’s magic and romance, but has that lit angle to it (and like Jess said, it’s a perfect book). An Unkindness of Magicians is just plain fun to read and Sorcerer to the Crown is for the historical fans.

What follows is the conversation we had about our picks, fantasy in general, and why we put some stuff in the SFF vs. general fiction sections in the stores where we worked. (This conversation has been edited for clarity and formatting.)

Jess: okay, so what were you generally thinking when you made your list?

Karena: a) how easy is it to jump into the worldbuilding. b) what kind of fantasy is this? also…no dudes. because I’m petty

Jess: yes! no dudes is always a good rule

Karena: I was looking at novellas as well but wasn’t sure which would be a good jump off for a fantasy reader. Like I’ve heard good thinks about JY Neon Yang’s work but i haven’t read it yet

Jess: novellas are so hard! I think they’re really difficult to pull off well

Karena: Passing Strange might be a good one because it has a lot of literary appeal imo but I liked others instead. Like The Night Circus does that as well.

Jess: oooo Passing Strange is a good one! I loved that book. queer ladies in an alternate history magic world? yes. please. but I think that’s more my wheelhouse than a good jumping off point for a newbie. The Night Circus definitely appeals to a more literary audience

Karena: my old bookstore had The Night Circus in the fiction section for years until i fought for it to go in SFF

Jess: ooo interesting. I actually fought to put The Night Circus in the fiction section!

Karena: I fought because all too often SFF is only this really cheesy genre and I wanted to show SFF could be literary

Jess: that makes total sense to me. when I started at my store, the SFF section was tinyyyy and kind of hidden away (I was a huge factor in expanding and moving it!) but no one browsed it back then, and I didn’t want The Night Circus to get lost. also it was an early experiment in this for me – I wanted to trick people who “only liked literary fiction” into picking it up

Karena: It’s a fine line right? like not wanting it to get lost, but also if you keep it sff, then it shows SFF is selling and then they let you buy more. I’ve done both, swapped things to fiction and swapped stuff out of fiction for the same reasons

Jess: so on to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. why did you pick that one, of all her work?

Karena: I’m so thrilled we both picked the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. that was my first Jemisin when i read the omnibus and it was amazing. I think The Fifth Season is too dense for a new person. I used to actually rec it first but in retrospect I think The Hundred Thousand is more accessible. And the Dreamblood isn’t bad either but I LOVED The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Jess: yes! same The Fifth Season is too much of a mindfuck for a newbie. also – I have this theory that you shouldn’t start with an author’s best work, you’ll just be disappointed by everything after

Karena: very true!

Jess: I have a friend who read American Gods first of Gaiman’s work, and now she’s hated everything she’s tried. whereas I started with Neverwhere, so the bar was much lower

Karena: oooh. yeah no. I almost picked Neverwhere. but then decided A Darker Shade of Magic took care of the London fantasy. and The Unkindess of Magicians did more of a modern fantasy

Jess: yeah, two London fantasies would be a lot

Karena: And lila bard is the best

Jess: I was going to choose A Darker Shade of Magic, but then went with Ten Thousand Doors instead. so why Unkindness over Roses and Rot? did you like that one better?

Karena: I fucking love both those books so it was hard. again, Roses and Rot feels more literary and I already had The Night Circus for that. Unkindness feels like a good fluff fantasy. Like you should still take it seriously but it’s fun. Roses and Rot is a bit on the dark side for a newbie imo

Jess: oh that’s interesting! I don’t remember it as being particularly dark. I read it a long time ago

Karena: I think the backstory with the sisters and the mother? but i also read it a long time ago. that’s just the impression it left on me

Jess: I’ll agree with you though that Unkindess is a lot of fun. and so feminist, it’s great.

have you read Vengeful?

Karena: yup. of course i have.

Jess: good, just making sure! those two go hand in hand for me, because they’re all about women’s anger being AWESOME

Karena: oh yeah i can so see that. I loved the illusions and whatnot too in Unkindness

Jess: yes! you know I love a good magician story

Karena: YEESSS. same

Jess: so I’m mostly on board with your list, but I do have to know – why Sorcerer to the Crown? I have to admit, I was left less than impressed by it

Karena: I liked it and was also trying to add a bit of diversity to my list. although The True Queen might be a stronger choice out of Cho’s books

Jess: that’s fair. I wasn’t super happy with all of the cishet white ladies that were on mine originally. that’s why I swapped to the Gailey, too (editor’s note: Gailey is non-binary and identifies as queer.) 

Jess: so one more question – if you had to choose ONE book from your list – someone comes in and says “hey I want to be converted to a fantasy lover, I will buy whatever you put in my hands” – which one are you giving them?

Karena: Oh wow. hmmm. A Darker Shade of Magic. I don’t really have a good reason tho. Like The Night Circus is a perfect book, but there’s something about ADSoM. it’s magic and it’s adventure and Lila Bard and a boy with bi colored eyes and a magic coat

Jess: that’s hard to argue with

Karena: I have that effect on people

Jess: I mean, I’m going with The Night Circus as my answer, but I’ll accept your logic

Karena: lol. we both win

So that’s where we left the conversation! What do you think of our picks? What would you recommend to a fantasy newbie? Are you new to the genre and inspired to pick up a book? Let us know in the comments!

SFF Shenanigans: Docile

Every month Jess and Karena will discuss the book they chose for the Hodderscape SFF Challenge. This month is Docile by K.M. Sparza. Yes, if you’ve been paying attention it was supposed to be Creatures of Want and Ruin, but we got an opportunity to read Docile early so we grabbed it. We’re still going to read it, so keep watching this space. Also this is going to be VERY spoilery. Since this is coming out the month before the book, be warned!

Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

Docile is the sexy, startling, near-future, science-fiction debut from Hugo and Nebula finalist K.M. Szpara.

There is no consent under capitalism.

Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, a challenging tour de force that at turns seduces and startles. 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

What did you like best about this book?


Karena: Sparza pointed out, maybe a bit more explicitly than we’re used to, the hellscape that is in store for us if we continue down the path of capitalism as we know it. The writing is raw and Sparza doesn’t hold back. There are only a couple books that have left me gasping for air reading them, this is one and Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is the other. It’s almost like a car crash in the sense it’s so painful, but you can’t look away. I have issues with things in the story, but at the same time there was no way for me to stop reading it. Sparza lays it all out for you and it’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable. The first sex scene between Elisha and Alex is complex. Is it titillating? Is it problematic? I think the answer to both is yes and it’s hard to reconcile that in your own mind.

Jess: I think you’ve put it really well there. My favorite thing about the book was definitely how uncomfortable it made me. Sparza did an amazing job of making me walk that line between being really uncomfortable about what’s happening and really wanting to know what happens next.

What did you like least about this book?

Karena: Honestly, this is a hard question when we’re talking about Docile. It’s about people selling themselves into indentured servitude and drugging themselves to oblivion to remove their consciousness from the horrors that are committed upon their bodies. And then you have Elisha who knows EXACTLY what’s happening to him because he refuses the drug. I have a hard time with the relationship between Alex and Elisha at the end. I don’t want them to be together. I don’t see how they can be together. Couple’s therapy is so in their future.

Jess: I agree. This isn’t a book where “like” and “dislike” are really useful terms for me. It’s more that the entire book made me uncomfortable, but in a way that was mostly useful/productive. If I think about “dislike” as another way to say “made me uncomfortable in an unproductive way,” then I’m with you on the relationship between Alex and Elisha at the end. Can people have relationships with someone who was abusive in the past? Maybe? I don’t have an answer for that. Can Alex and Elisha have a healthy relationship in the future? Sparza hasn’t convinced me that they can.

What other books did this remind you of?

Karena: I don’t think there is another book like this.

Jess: I recently saw it compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and that’s a comparison I can’t stop thinking about. It’s definitely different (I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Handmaid centers women and Docile makes the deliberate choice to center men, even though we know there are female-identified Dociles), but I don’t think that comp came out of nowhere. They’re asking similar questions, I think. While Handmaid is asking what happens if religious fundamentalism/the patriarchy are pushed to their logical extremes, I think this asks similar questions about capitalism. It’s a recognizable kind of horror.

Karena: You’re right. I did see the Handmaid comp. It might have even been by the publisher themselves. I had forgotten. I totally agree with you now that I remember that.

Which characters in the book did you like best? What characters did you like the least?

Karena: This is a very complex question to answer. Liking or disliking is complicated. Do we like Dutch after we find out he was a double agent, even though the things he did undercover to Elisha were completely heinous? Is Alex actually redeemable? Elisha’s best friend Abby is pretty good. Elisha breaks my heart throughout the book. Mariah is obviously the fucking worst.

Jess: I agree with you on this point. I think that with the exception maybe of Mariah and the Third, very few characters were morally 100% right or wrong, which makes the question of likability a lot harder for me. The character I liked the least was probably Elisha’s dad – I thought he was unnecessarily hard on Elisha in a way that didn’t really garner any sympathy from me.

How well do you think the author built the world in the book?

Karena: Sparza terrifyingly created a complete world. With the current political environment we find ourselves in, I can absolutely see how this could be a reality.

Jess: Worldbuilding is such a delicate question in these kinds of dystopic books. It’s a very different kind of worldbuilding than high fantasy or space opera or something that requires you to establish an entirely different world in terms of the “map.” I don’t know which kind is easier to pull off well. In any case, I do think Sparza established the way that this world functions fairly seamlessly. Sometimes it can be clunky when you’re dealing with “our world, but different,” but he wove all of that into the story in a way that felt really natural to me.

What did you think of the ending? Was it satisfying? Did it make sense?

Jess: Okay, so honestly, this is where the book kind of fell apart for me. I thought the first 3/4s were strong and I was so here for it. But the last quarter felt rushed. Here’s the thing – either Elisha’s conditioning happened too quickly to begin with or his deconditioning happened too quickly. It just seemed unbelievable for him to go from completely Docile in mindset to understanding what happened to him the way that he did.
I also hated the drug that they developed to undo the effects of Dociline. The book’s message from that point forward was really unclear to me. I thought it was an evasion of the discussion about how you would actually undo this kind of horribly abusive capitalist nightmare once the system is in place. Instead of having to confront it, all of a sudden there was a drug that could undo the effects and give people their lives back. Are we supposed to believe that the system is going to continue, but at least it won’t ruin people forever? Does the existence of an antidote really make the existence of Dociline okay? It’s the “solution” that Atwood (if we’re going with that comparison) never even tried to offer us, and I think Handmaid was a stronger book for it. I would have been more satisfied without any “answers,” especially ones that I felt were sloppily deployed.
Overall, I was frustrated with the ending. I think it needed at least one more strong editorial pass. Even if the book had been longer (50 pages of content, if they were useful, could have helped a lot for me), I needed more to be satisfied with it.

Karena: Jess summed it up so perfectly that I’m gonna let that be the end. I couldn’t possibly say it any better than that.

We’re learning that maybe we shouldn’t announce our next book because we swapped the last two selections. (Jess: Yeah, we’re fickle that way. No one should be surprised.) But at time of posting we’re gonna try Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer again. We’re #JKShenanigansSFF