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!

Introducing Jessica: a SFF Cohort

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to be joining Karena as we tackle the Hodderscape 2020 SFF reading challenge! Karena and I bonded over our shared love of all things SFF (but specifically The Night Circus) and have spent a huge chunk of our friendship shouting at each other about books.

About me: I’m a lesbian children’s librarian with an affinity for magic in my books and whiskey in my coffee. I live with a chaos demon (read: tabby cat) who I named after a character in The Night Circus. I have a half dozen literary tattoos. When I’m not reading, I’m….well, I’m usually reading, but I’m also a runner and enjoy cooking and knitting.

My SFF origin story: You know, I can’t really remember a time before I loved SFF. My mom handed me The Hobbit when I was 8, and it was love from then on out. I went to school with Harry Potter and dreamed about doorways in closets to icy wonderlands and read too much Stephen King at much too young an age and played Zelda games on my GameBoy Color until my eyes went buggy.
Then I grew up. I grew up, and someone at some point told me that fantasy wasn’t “cool” anymore. So I dutifully read my classics and whatever was assigned to me in school and I got degrees in English and Comparative Literature and only read Very Serious stuff for years. (There were a lot of cishet white dudes during that period of my life.)
When I quit my PhD program, I wanted to learn how to really love books again. I went back for the classics that I loved as a kid – Lord of the Rings and Stephen King and the like, and then I started exploring the SFF section of bookstores more. An incredible thing had happened during the time that I was away – SFF woke up. Suddenly, there were more women on the shelves! And more than cishet white dudes saving the world between the pages! And there was so much queerness! The worlds in these books were bigger and more beautiful and more interesting than anything I had been asked to read in college. I found underground libraries and magical circuses and spaceships full of found family. I traveled between Londons and lived through the fifth season and caught a sexually transmitted city. I started reading high fantasy and science fiction and middle grade fantasy and urban fantasy and magical realism and…you get the idea. I fell back in love with reading. Now, you can find me at school with Mia Corvere and Ivy Gamble and dreaming about doorways to worlds of salt and ink and reading too much Catherynne Valente.

The Quick Sheet:
My wheelhouse: Queer ladies doing awesome things with magic or in spaceships or both.
Authors on my autobuy list: Catherynne Valente. Seanan McGuire. Erin Morgenstern. NK Jemisin. VE Schwab. Sarah Gailey. (Okay, my wallet just started screaming in protest, so I’m stopping there.)
What’s on my TBR: Right now? Godsgrave, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been so invested in a series that I had to grab the sequel immediately. Blue is the Warmest Color and We Set the Dark on Fire for my Coven Challenge. A reread of Drive Here and Devastate Me. A Mirror Empire because I’ve seen it pop up a bunch recently. And A Memory Called Empire for this challenge!
Which books on the Challenge I’m looking forward to reading: All of them? No, but seriously. If I have to choose, The City We Became and Docile have been on my list for a long time, and I know those two will inspire a special amount of screaming with Karena.
What do I do when I’m not reading: Training for my next race (currently the Brooklyn 2020 half marathon). Still playing Zelda games (just now on my Switch) until my eyes go buggy.