Every reader has a different style, a unique set of environmental circumstances that ushers them into a state of flow. Once there, the pages fly by and you can devour a book in mere hours. Personally, I enjoy a warm light, a comfy chair, my feet up, a feline friend nearby, and some lo-fi tunes lulling me into a reading-friendly state.
Instead of a review or a bookish list for this Christmas Eve post, I recruited fellow QTL writer Alex–you know him for his recent takes such as “I hate capitalism” and “Capitalism is bad”– to collaborate on a list of soundscapes that make for excellent reading background noise. If you’re like us, you need something smack-dab in the middle of the spectrum between “so silent it’s distracting” and “pandemonium.” Give a few of our recommendations a whirl next time you’re ready to knock out a few hundred pages.
The GameChops YouTube channel has an extensive array of lo-fi video game and TV show remixes. Many of the mixes are also available on Spotify, iTunes, and other services, too. My personal favorite reading soundtrack is a playlist that combines four albums from the GameChops library: Zelda & Chill, Zelda & Chill II, Chilltendo, and Poke & Chill. Video games call for epic musical moments, but GameChops makes those moments more listenable if you’re focusing on a book.
GameChops’ tunes are lowkey and well-produced, and they’ve served as a backdrop to many of my favorite reads this year, including Dune and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
Added bonus: if you’re a vinyl buff, you can get Zelda & Chill and Poke & Chill as records, too.
Critical Role’s YouTube channel is most famous for its incredible Dungeons and Dragons content. But one lesser known corner of the channel is the Mighty Vibes section. It features three curated mixes of relaxing, fantasy-inspired tunes. My recommendation? Make a playlist of all three and drop the needle.
I think Mighty Vibes fits best with sword and sorcery adventures, but your mileage may vary. Give the playlist a try during your next excursion to a fantasy world.
Naturally, Mighty Vibes will also slot neatly into the quieter moments of your next D&D session.
Ambient Worlds takes mega-franchise soundtracks and turns them into hours long soundscapes that’ll transport you straight to your favorite fantasy worlds. Reading Lord of the Rings with The Shire Ambience in the background just feels right. Give any of the mixes a try. They’ve got Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Warcraft, Disney, Narnia, Skyrim, Star Wars, and many more.
If you’re looking for original lo-fi that still captures the feelings of nostalgia while wrapping you in the warm blanket of good vibes, Homework Radio is for you. They aim to collaborate their content with the artists they feature while building some incredibly distinct playlists. My favorites are the Lo-fi for Ghosts (only) as they truly transport you to feeling like a child whose only toys are their books and their brain.
They have several curated playlists with great art that really captures the mood and puts your mind at ease so you can just fall into the book without letting the world outside your room invade your thoughts. I wish I could prompt you on what types of books they really push you to read, but honestly they’re better at creating a space for you to read, than amplify your story as is.
Alright, I’ll be honest, this one feels like cheating. If you’re a peruser of lo-fi music channels on YouTube or Bandcamp, you’ve most likely encountered City Girl. But honestly, I don’t think anyone captures the comfort of being alone and enjoying your favorite hobby quite like her. Each album manages to capture a very similar feeling while exploring different facets of it, giving you room to slip into the dream worlds of your favorite authors.
Considering her work is more dreamy, you’re more likely to want to read something relaxing while listening to her magic; I know it’s what I often do. But much like the previous channel, her music is really good background noise that doesn’t heighten the reality of the book. It gives off amazing cafe vibes that lets you sink into whatever piece of furniture supports your body while your mind goes gallivanting.
Plus, if you’re into directly supporting an artist, City Girl’s work is available on Bandcamp and I highly recommend you check her out.
I just wanted a scavenger hunt. I wanted another romp through Ernest Cline’s OASIS, made so popular by his mega-hit novel Ready Player One. I wanted a book that didn’t make me question what I ever saw in its predecessor. Instead, I got a disjointed series of lazy spectacles, paper-thin characters, a dangerous love letter to capitalism, and a series of one-off pop culture references.
In Ready Player Two, “protagonist” Wade Watts returns. Hot on the heels of his victory against IOI and the murderous “sixers,” he and his friends now own Gregarious Simulation Systems and the entire OASIS – a massive virtual world that humankind uses for near-apocalypse escapism. But James Halliday, late creator of the OASIS, left behind a bit of technology for Wade and his buddies to distribute or destroy at will: the OASIS Neural Interface. ONI, as it’s called in the novel, taps into a user’s brain and allows them to feel everything in the OASIS as if it were real. It’s a massive step in technology that Wade and his companions Aech and Shoto immediately vote to distribute to everyone in the world. Art3mis (Samantha, Wade’s girlfriend), is the only dissenting vote.
Yada, yada, yada, every person who accesses the OASIS can now experience the virtual simulation as if it is real. So instead of using his vast wealth and influence to help people with this technology, Wade becomes a self-righteous asshole, loses his girlfriend (also the only level-headed member of the crew), and plummets into a depressive spiral. Without truly stopping to think about their responsibilities, Wade and co simply hurl globules of fuel into the gaping maw of capitalism, strengthening their company’s crushing grip on humanity. Then, in a whiplash inducing attempt at a transition, an AI copy of James Halliday shows up and holds five hundred million people hostage. To free the hostages, Wade and his friends must solve another of Halliday’s scavenger hunts–you know, those hunts that take years to solve?–in 12 hours.
I’ll give you zero guesses as to whether they succeed.
It pains me to drag a book across hot coals. I like to read, and I never pick up a book hoping to hate it. So believe me when I say I’m heartbroken at just how terribly Ready Player Two blunders. There’s *seriously* a moment where one character survives a plane crash by hiding under a ‘small stone footbridge.’ There’s also a moment where Nolan Sorrento, the previous book’s big bad evil guy, says “Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” This officially heralded the arrival of the first character I resonated with, an antagonist who is a) a lazy callback cast member from the first book and b) around for maybe four pages.
I gave Ready Player One a fine score on Goodreads, back in the days before I joined The Quill To Live. I enjoyed the fast-paced addiction-adventure scavenger hunt. I genuinely despise the recent spike in 80s nostalgia porn (yeah, lookin at you Stranger Things), but Ready Player One was fun mindless fodder that earned a pass if you didn’t dig too deep. Ready Player Two does not have that luxury.
The core plot of Ready Player Two is a discombobulated, jumbled wreck. The novel shoehorns pop culture references into its pages without ever presenting a unique idea of its own. Imagine pulling 1,000 individual pieces from 1,000 individual puzzles and combining them into some wonky abstraction. That’s what the story of Ready Player Two is. And, you know, I wouldn’t even be that upset about a bunch of useless pop culture nostalgia drops if the characters actually had to struggle at any point.
The lack of personal growth was Ready Player One’s biggest fault, and it rears its ugly head once again in this sequel. None of the challenges are challenging…at all. For any of the characters. All of the participants in the scavenger hunt have some godlike encyclopedic knowledge of everything Halliday and his co-founders ever loved. Cline tells an awful lot–avatar HP dropping to zero, a character struggling to remember some obscure trivia–but these moments pass by in short spurts of prose that do virtually nothing to capture the amazement of the OASIS. Ready Player Two’s scavenger hunt reads like Jackie Chan decided to showcase his karate skills against a class full of 5-year-olds at a strip mall dojo. At times it’s funny how ridiculously amazing Wade and his friends are at these things, but I’m laughing at them.
All of this is to say nothing of the ending, which is a weird, tonally mismatched sunshine and daisies moment that doesn’t jive with the rest of the book at all. I’ll spare you the spoilers in case you’re considering a dive into this cursed tome, but…hoo boy. I struggle to find a single element of the story that would appeal to anyone. This is a book that didn’t need to exist. Much like its heavy handed cheerleading for capitalism, the sole purpose of this novel is a payday for the author.
I’m racking my brain right now for any single reason someone should pick this book up, but I can’t find one. And no, I’m not going to do a game over joke because video games are better than this and they don’t deserve to be degraded in such a way. In a normal review, this is the juncture that calls for a quick “well, at least I had fun reading it” admission. But I can’t truthfully say that about Ready Player Two. This was one adventure that only made me happy because it ended. This sequel eschews everything that made the original great, then doubles down on lazy ideas that are done much better elsewhere in the sci-fi pantheon. I both can’t and won’t recommend Ready Player Two.
How does one review a book that everyone knows about already (oops)? The Shiningis so pervasive that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of it. Cultural osmosis makes that a near certainty. Tack on the fact that most readers have settled firmly on one side of the Stephen King fence. Love him or hate him, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and The Shining proves it. I picked it up, naturally, to review it here. But I also read it for my ongoing Page2Screen series with Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat–look out for our discussion of The Shining next week at KickSeat.com; the episode will cover both the film and book.
Mentioning the film verges on necessary in any review of The Shining, because so many people are familiar with “Heeeeeere’s JOHNNY” and the like. Stephen King’s original work is plenty present in Kubrick’s film, but as we readers know, books just hit different. This has perhaps never been more true than it is for The Shining, a hard-hitting crescendo of a book that bubbles and boils to an explosive climax. Whether or not you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film adaptation, The Shining is a fantastic read.
Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny head to Colorado’s Overlook Hotel for the winter. Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker at the Overlook, a job he receives from a friend after he gets fired from his teaching job for, y’know, pummeling a student he kicked off the debate team. Jack’s five year old son has a knack for knowing what people are thinking, where lost things can be found, and what will happen in the future. This power–the shining–is fueled by the Overlook, where sinister things dwell in the shadows. As the Colorado winter snows them in, the Overlook begins to take its toll on the family, and Jack begins to lose his grip on sobriety and sanity.
The Shining is brilliant. It’s a masterpiece of character and a striking psychological thriller. By isolating his three main characters in a creepy locale, King opens doors into gradually degrading psyches addled by the isolation and the terrors running rampant through the Overlook. There came a point in The Shining where I blurted out “Oh, Jack’s crazy” to myself. As I read, I wondered if Jack was crazy the whole time, then I wondered whether I was crazy for not seeing how crazy he was from the get-go. Each successive chapter in The Shining dives deeper into the darkest portions of a character’s mind. Jack, Danny, and Wendy all feel intensely real in a way I’ve rarely experienced through my years-long reading career.
Movie buffs may not be surprised by this at all. But the movie eschews the psychological-thriller aspects of The Shining in favor of horror. You could argue that’s better for the screen anyway, and that’s fair. The movie has its merits, but the impact of the characters in King’s original novel is far greater than it is in the film. I came to know so much about the characters, even as King threw them into a downward mental spiral.
The Shining also features an entirely unique character: The Overlook. The hotel is essentially a character itself, constantly changing the way the Torrances think and act. It has a dark presence that reverberates through every page. As I read, at times I could feel the Overlook’s influence lurking behind every word, nudging Jack, Wendy, and Danny to do its bidding. The Overlook is pure tension. Juicy, horrific tension. It’s the embodiment of every bad thought or impulse a human could dream up. It brings these concepts to life and terrorizes the characters within it. Danny is an excellent foil to The Overlook. The hotel wants Danny’s massive power for itself, but it’s that power that gives Danny the mental capacity to resist it (plus his ability to read minds and predict the future). Danny is hunted for his powers and also protected by them, so the hotel finds the path of least resitance to acquiring him. The Overlook feeds on the weaker mind of newly sober Jack Torrance and drives him into a murderous rage in its attempts to stop Danny’s resistance (read: kill him) and absorb his power. It woos Jack, convinces him he is the one it wants, then uses him as a means to an end. The narrative arc of the Shining’s characters is dark, demented, and beautiful. It’s as much a joy to read as it is positively terrifying.
I wish I had more to offer to the conversation surrounding The Shining. Instead, I feel trapped by my own mediocrity. I know this book is excellent, and I know the characters–Overlook included–are some of the best I’ve ever read. But I can’t pinpoint every little thing that made me feel this way about the novel. Rather than a sum of its parts, The Shining is one cohesive whole that tells an amazing story. I can’t give it much higher praise than that.
I can see the Onion headline now: “Surprise! Book Reviewer Enjoys Widely Respected Pillar Of Science Fiction Genre.” A picture of me accompanies the article. In it, I’m sitting in my reading room, holding a hefty copy of Dunealoft and smiling like a ding-dong who doesn’t know what he signed up for. The rest of the article is just the journalist laughing at the dude who thought Dune would be a fun, breezy read. In truth, Dune is a chonk boi of a book that’s certainly fun at times, but it’s definitely not breezy. It is, however, awesome, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word.
The politics, science, and survivalism of Frank Herbert’s tentpole sci-fi make it a dense read. My copy both looks like and reads like a brick, a thought I had countless times during my readthrough. But you can use bricks to build houses, and that’s a fitting metaphor for Dune. Finishing the ~800 page tome left me with a sense of accomplishment, as though I had constructed a house from scratch using only copies of Dune as bricks.
It’s not a new feeling for me. Finishing a book that’s considered a crucial thread in the fabric of the SFF genres often feels like overcoming a hurdle. I felt the same way with The Lord of the Rings. There’s a mystical quality to these pillars of the SFF world that draws me to them. A feeling that I need to read them to cement my position as a “true” reader of speculative fiction. I normally chide this gatekeeping attitude, but there’s always that part of me that breathes a sigh of relief when I’m able to say something like “Yeah, of course I’ve read Dune.”
By all counts, Dune is an outright excellent book. However, there’s a definite thickness to the plot that makes it more of a full-on trek than a short hike. I guess what I’m saying is you shouldn’t venture to Dune lightly. That’s especially good advice for the novel’s main characters, who find themselves smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot to control the book’s eponymous desert planet.
The Atreides family (who you may remember from our Thanksgiving post) is tasked to assume rule of the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune. The planet is barren and brutal, but it produces melange, a valuable (and addictive) spice that fetches a great price across the universe. Paul Atreides, son of the Duke tasked with ruling the planet, narrowly escapes with his life when the powerful Baron Harkonnen betrays the Atreides family. He journeys with his mother into the most desolate regions of Arrakis, where he begins to become part of the planet’s unique culture. As he makes this journey (which is both literal and spiritual, I might add), the Harkonnen family seeks to destroy all remnants of the Atreides family to tighten their own stranglehold on the spice-producing planet.
That short description, as you might imagine, is incredibly high level. Dune focuses on tiny moments in time. The small change in the way a suspected enemy says a word. The intricacies of conserving water on a planet evolved to be dry. There’s so much content in Dune, but it’s not all flashy action or huge setpieces (though both get their due). The best comparison I can make is to A Game of Thrones. Politics and intrigue reign supreme in Dune, making it an extremely involved and sometimes boring reading experience. Your willingness to trudge through the first 300 pages will likely determine your tolerance level for such politics. Once I surpassed a whole book’s worth of verbal sparring and made it to the back half of Dune, I couldn’t put it down. What starts as a slow foundational story turns into a riveting adventure. You just have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the effort.
I’ll assume you’re confident enough in your own abilities to make that decision for yourself and move onto an actual review of the book. Damn, it’s good. The characters are layered and fascinating. This is thanks in part to Frank Herbert’s amazing imagination. He has created an entire society replete with warriors, distinct planetary cultures, and a group of “witches” that can control people with just their words. Herbert slots his characters neatly into Dune’s various subcultures. The reader is privy to character complexities, which in turn are spurred by the cultural structures Herbert has built. Paul himself is a highlight, but so is his mother Jessica, the warrior-bard Gurney Halleck, and even Baron Harkonnen, the book’s primary antagonist. I soaked up each character’s flaws, strengths, and triumphs as if they were my own.
Dune itself should be considered the star of the show here. I never thought Herbert could make a desert planet so vibrant and enticing. Through the eyes of Dune’s native Fremen, the planet is a thing of magnificent beauty. The flip side? It’s equally brutal. The sandworms that roam the lands can devour a chopper in a single swoop, and the slightest disturbance can betray a desert walker’s location to the beasts. These conditions give way to cultural practices that are flat-out fun to read about; Dune is a tapestry that constantly unveils new artistic wonders for readers who play close attention.
It’s these qualities that sparked two hours-long reading sessions to finish Dune. Once I surpassed the lagging intro, I sped through the book as though a sandworm was hot on my trail. Dune serves as a wonder of worldbuilding, a masterclass in character, and a storytelling accomplishment worthy of its many accolades. And on top of being a truly great book, Dune will make you feel like a tried-and-true sci-fi fan. What more could you want?
You may have noticed we didn’t include any novellas on our Best of 2020 list. As we combed through the year’s many magnificent reads, we struggled to balance the short, punchy narratives of 2020’s various novellas with the sweeping stories of the novels that made our top rankings. To give credit where it is so rightfully due, we opted for a different approach this year, one that gives us a “Best Novellas of 2020” list to complement our top novels list. Novellas tell intriguing and often very specific stories, and with such a treasure trove of short(ish) fiction out this year, we want to recognize some of the amazing stories that emerged. Here’s our list of 2020’s best novellas.
5) The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan – What’s really interesting about The Kraken’s Tooth, and The Seven Swords series as a whole, is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novella is unfinished, but it feels stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It’s like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a tried and true fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.
4) The Empress of Salt and Fortune/When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo – Nghi Vo has just killed it this year with two novellas about a wandering archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the plot. The two novellas have very different subjects, but are both fantastic. Empress tells the story of an outcast in a high court outwitting their rivals, while Tiger is a sorta rap off between two bards retelling the same story of a tiger falling in love with a human. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in no matter what story she’s telling. The two shorts are dripping with emotion that easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.
3) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – K.J. Parker’s exorcist main character is hated for who he is and reviled for the pain he causes people when he forcefully removes their demons. But he doesn’t care, and his open nonchalance about his less-than-stellar reception makes the nameless character intensely fun to read. When he discovers that one of the great artists and philosophers of his time is possessed by a demon who’s calculating the artist’s every move and inspiration, he has a bit of a dilemma on his hands. Exorcise the thing and risk losing one of the most cherished minds of the era, or let the demon do its dirty work, knowing it all serves some grander, more nefarious purpose? Prosper’s Demononly clocks in at 100 pages, but those pages pack a punch. This is a succinct and hard-hitting story that very much deserves the sequel Tor announced in mid-October.
2) The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky – This novella is the story of a woman investigating a missing person case, told entirely in the second person. This means we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet (the lead) – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing. The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.
1) Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby is an explosive novel that is fueled by Onyebuchi’s ability to target his reader’s emotions. Taking place over decades, the novella follows Kev and Ella, a brother and sister who happen to be black in America over decades of their lives. It’s a harrowing novel about the pain and anger that the African American community has suffered throughout its history on this continent, but more specifically about the nineties and onwards. Onyebuchi is careful not to alienate the reader though by weaving a moving story about a family wrestling with the weight of this history. It has a clever and impactful back and forth between siblings who rely on each other, yet still have an enormous amount of tension due to Ella’s gifts that Kev is worried she will never use to free him from prison. It’s dystopian, but Onyebuchi’s writing makes sure the reader never succumbs to despair. It’s perfect for this moment and the future.
It’s gift-giving and last-minute-shopping time. And if you’re looking to get something for the bookworm in your life, a perfunctory “Gifts for book lovers” Google search will undoubtedly feed you a deluge of bookish trinkets and products. But here’s the thing. The best gift for a bookworm isn’t some fancy bookmark or library scented candle. The best gift you can give to your SFF-obsessed friend is a hefty tome they can enjoy. And lucky for you, we’ve assembled a quick ‘n’ easy gift guide for your book-loving friends and relatives.
But first, here’s our Best of 2020 list. If you have a bookworm on your list, here’s a sampling of the latest and greatest in the SFF genres. If that doesn’t scratch the itch, just keep on reading for some “books-as-gifts” recommendations.
This is for the friend who needs a good ole fashioned space fight, with a dash of heroism and intrigue. It moves fast, and doesn’t let the reader breathe, so they’ll be glued to the page just like they’ve always wanted.
This one is for the folks who just love people, no matter who they are or how they live their life, they just love meeting people. Unfortunately, the people in this book don’t talk back and will most likely make them cry, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
What’s that, you have a friend who likes politics with their politics, and with a side of more politics with a dessert full of intrigue? Give them Too Like The Lightning. they probably won’t be quiet about it, but hey, it’s a good story about the evolving nature of political systems.
For murder mystery buffs: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
A mysterious death. Native American magic. Ghost dogs. Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe has it all.
For your “I want to read the book first” friend: Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s a flagship sci-fi novel, but the movie is delayed to 2021. Perfect time for your cinema-buff friend to catch up on Frank Herbert’s masterpiece.
You don’t often hear this series mentioned next to Game of Thrones, Kingkiller Chronicle, Gentleman Bastards, and the like…but you should. Bradley P. Beaulieu crafts a sweeping adventure that any epic fantasy fiend will devour.
For people looking to explore a magical school other than Hogwarts: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Don’t beat a dead horse. Revive it and make it ten times cooler than it was before. Enter Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. Oh, you thought the well of magic school content had been tapped dry? Think again.
For someone who wants to feel all the feels: The Divine Citiesseries by Robert Jackson Bennett
These books will make you laugh, cry, gasp, sigh, and everything in between. Simply put, some of the best fantasy we’ve ever read. Also, there’s Sigrud. You’ll thank us later. We linked the first book, City of Stairs, but don’t sleep on City of Bladesor City of Miracles. They’re all amazing.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen is a beefy, 10-book epic fantasy of gargantuan proportions. And the series ended, as in the author finished it, in 2011. Be careful who you buy it for, though, Malazan is one of the biggest pillars of fantasy you can find. It’s an undertaking, and your friend may need this primer.
For someone who loves superheroes: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
They might not like you for giving them a book that makes them unironically like the supervillain and want to see them win, but they’ll at least love the book.
For someone who loves fairytales: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
The world’s sexiest man uhhhhh Henry Cavill uhhhhh Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, fights monsters and explores twisted versions of popular fairy tales in this collection of stories from Andrzej Sapkowski.
For someone who wants to go on an adventure: Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell
If your friend’s idea of a good time is getting involved in a fight they have no particular right to be in, that allows them to piss off people in power for the heck of it, and having an absolute blast doing it, this is the book for them.
So you are sitting at home, reading a great fantasy book, and you think to yourself, “man, I wish I could pull every friend, family member, and random child on the street into this amazing hobby… but what are the best books to get someone into the genre?” Look no further random person I am asking extremely specific rhetorical questions to. Below is a list – well, actually three lists – that provide perfect material for converting almost any kind of person (or at least three kinds) into a fantasy reader. This method has a 100% success rate with the three people I tried it on, so have absolutely no doubt it will always work for you. No need to thank me, your enormous donations to the site via using our Bookshop page to purchase books is thanks enough – and it helps support authors and bookstores!
But actually, the following lists are all great examples of extremely accessible books for different ages, life stages, and mentalities. Hopefully, someone will find these helpful in bringing people they care about into the loving and wonderful fantasy family. Books with hyperlinks in their titles lead to their reviews!
Books to Get Teens and Young Adults Into Fantasy at an Early Age (Or BtGTaYAIFaaEA for short): If you want to give someone the lifelong gift of fantasy books, the best way to do that is get to them at a young age when their mind is malleable. Below are a number of books that are good for all ages, but are particularly good at capturing a spark of passion in younger readers. These books are easy to read and digest, showcase some of the best classic ideas in the fantasy genre, and are just fun and imaginative – perfect to show new readers some of the best of what the genre has to offer.
Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
Mistbornhas an easy-to-grasp but incredibly layered story, a defined roster of magic and monsters, and fantastic character development. The Mistborn trilogy serves as an excellent fantasy starting point because it’s a taste of what top-notch storytelling and a melting pot of captivating ideas can do. New fantasy readers will likely find Mistborn a great gateway to the genre because it mixes all of these elements with relatable themes and simple, elegant prose. If you’re looking for your first fantasy book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Brandon Sanderson.
Added bonus–here’s our chat about Mistborn, in which a first-time Sanderson reader takes the plunge.
Spellslingerhas a relatable protagonist, a fun companion animal, witty dialogue, ambiance and style based on card sharks, and a wild west setting. The main character is a perfect self-insert for newer readers and the supporting cast is filled with teachers and mentors that teen (and older) readers tend to love. It’s got a plot with tons of twists that are hard to see coming, but the themes are very accessible and easy to digest without being hamfisted. This six-book series by Sebastian de Castell is an amazing entry point for anyone.
The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, is one of the cornerstones of classic fantasy and practically defined the chosen one trope in modern fantasy. Reading it gives you an enormous appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the story is beloved by thousands of fantasy fans for good reason. But, what makes it great for newer readers is its huge page count and epic storyline. Many newer readers prefer to stick to a single series or story as they get their baring in a genre and The Wheel of Time with its fourteen books has content to spare. In addition, its genuinely epic scope and story will be mindblowing to readers who want their books to be bigger and grander.
Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton
Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a solid entry point for fantasy initiates thanks to its incredible world and relatable characters. It has a sweeping narrative that highlights how fun (and dangerous) a journey into the unknown can be. Plus, protagonist Amani’s self-discovery arc carries with it a lot of power, the type literary fiction readers might be used to. But the primary reason I recommend this to fantasy newcomers is the exquisite melding of different genre elements. There’s sharpshooting, djinni, and a desert world all packaged in a story of self-realization and immense growth.
Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway opens the Wayward Childrenseries. The saga tells stories of children who have returned from magical, fantastical, and brutal worlds and must cope with coming back to our reality. New fantasy initiates will enjoy McGuires deft handling of heavy themes mixed with the whimsical worlds the titular children visit. Wayward Children as a whole skews toward an older demographic (swearing, thematic elements), resting on the thin line between teen and adult fantasy. Every Heart A Doorway fuses our world with infinite fantasy locales, giving you a deep-dive into the possibilities of the genre. It’s an excellent starting point for newcomers with its short page-length and hard-hitting explorations of the real-world impact of portals to strange lands.
Books to Help Readers Transition From YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy: One of the most powerful moments of my reading experience was when I picked up my first true adult fantasy book. It was The Black Company, which I have spoken a ton about already, and it showed me that fantasy could be so much more than mindless escapism. This book opened the door to heavier concepts, tons of new ideas, and a whole ocean of content that helped me grow and evolve as a person in my early 20s. If you, or someone you know, are looking to move from Harry Potter to something with a little more depth – these are the books for you.
Hey look, it’s the series I just mentioned in the introduction. I have a lot of things to say about The Black Company, by Glen Cook, much of which you can find here in one of our most popular posts. But, if I had to boil it all down to a single line it’s this: while much of fantasy helps you flee the troubles of reality via escapism – The Black Company instead uses escapism to force you to look closely at the horrors of reality, namely war. This series is a window into what it was like to be a part of a war and it is haunting. It is a powerful piece that will place you in the shoes of a number of people very different to yourself and help you understand what they went through. For me, reading TBC was an inspirational moment that taught me the power of empathy and stories and how fantasy can help us better understand our fellow man and the real world.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
According to posters in my elementary school library, reading is FUNdamental. And no book is as fun or fundamentally funny as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. First, just say that title out loud. Fun, right? You’re gonna feel that way on every single page of Scott Lynch’s humorous fantastical heist. The prose is poetic and breezy. The jokes are constant. The plot resembles an M.C. Escher painting in the best possible way. The setting (essentially fantasy Venice) is breathtaking. And the characters are the chef’s kiss of it all. I’ve never had more fun reading a book than I did with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a daring novel that showcases just how entertaining fantasy can be, but its large size and layered plot do a lot to ease new readers into bigger novels.
Have your cake and eat it too. The Waking Fire is one third kick ass protagonists from different walks of life, one third giant dangerous dragons, and one third about how capitalism is a nightmare. This book is the shore between a sea of fun and a hard rocky beach of poignant criticisms of how our world works. One of the best parts about The Waking Fire is that you get out what you put in. If you just want a fun adventure story about people finding lost treasure – it can do that. If you want to explore heavy themes about how our reliance on substances that are destroying the Earth will eventually kill us all – it can do that as well. It’s the pitch hitter of transition adult fantasy.
The Deep – Rivers Solomon
The Deep, by its nature as a novella, is short, sweet and packed to brim with personality and world. Rivers Solomon does a lot of work in this book, introducing you to a world so vastly different than our own, but born of our crimes. Solomon fully immerses the reader in something special, positing a world built by the descendants of women thrown overboard in the slave trade. There is pain, and empathy abound in the story, but glimmers of hope sparkle like impossible rays of light on the dark ocean floor.
Books to Convince Serious Readers of Other Genres to Give Fantasy a Chance: The fantasy genre is the king of escapism, but it has so much more to offer. Unfortunately, in my years on this planet, I have run into any number of people who dismiss fantasy as elves, magic, and fluffy light adventures. Often the best way to convince people to give fantasy a chance is to ease them in with books that are closer to fiction with fantasy undertones. The following is a list of great bridge books to get people to slide into the fantasy genre sideways.
“There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an absolute powerhouse of a book. With absolutely outstanding prose, it sits somewhere between fantasy, historical fiction, and traditional fiction. It’s the story of small people in a big world trying to accomplish great things and find meaning in their lives. It is a hauntingly beautiful story about the human condition, and if you hand it to someone and they come back and say “sorry, I am just not into fantasy” I refuse to believe they even tried to read it. This book can make even the most stonehearted unbeliever cry.
If there is one thing that serious adults understand it is the soulless crushing weight of a job sucking the joy out of life – so why not explore a slightly more fun fantasy version with corporate necromancy! Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, is a book that serves up adult workplace escapism. It is a part of a series of stories about a modern world much like our own where magic and gods run rampant. It combines the troubles of your current life with an undercurrent of magic and provides a welcome relief in the form of incredible stories of triumph in a world much like our own. It’s also one of the weirder and more unique fantasy reads I regularly recommend and it does a great job showcasing how authors are constantly stretching the boundaries of what the fantasy genre is. I originally came across Three Parts Dead in a book club and every single person loved it – and I am sure you and the readers you give it to will as well.
I almost feel like I shouldn’t have to qualify this one due to its popularity, but here I go. It’s a love story between two dueling stage magicians who are using actual magic to one up each other as they try to win a competition for their lives. You have to have a cold, dead, unfeeling heart to not like this one. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a monument to the aesthetic power of incredible prose, fulfilling and relatable characters, and wonderful stories. The magic is quiet, subtle, and easy to ignore if the person reading isn’t into spells and magic system. But, the book also is a love letter to the mystery and beauty that magic can birth, making it a great salesman for the genre as a whole.
T.J. Klune’s The House In The Cerulean Seais one of the best books of 2020. Klune’s charming story features Linus Baker, a by-the-books case worker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. He gets sent on a unique assignment to a house where some extraordinary children are under the care of a mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’ learns a lot about himself even as he investigates the conditions at Parnassus’ unconventional homestead. Cerulean Sea is heartwarming, charming, and a fantastic fit for readers who haven’t taken the fantasy plunge. There’s a reason we gave it a perfect 10. Cerulean Sea has a bevy of literary fiction elements blended nicely with a healthy dose of the whimsical. I’ve shared this book even with vehement lit-fic purists, and each one loved it.
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best known novel The Shadow of the Wind is, in a word, magical. It follows Daniel, a young man who discovers a book by an elusive author named Julian Carax, and makes it his goal to find his other works, and if he’s lucky, Carax himself. It’s honestly hard to describe what makes this book great without sitting you down in a big mansion library with the fire as the only light and reading it to you. Though it’s translated from Spanish, it reads like a painting. There are so many moments that still run chills up my spine. If you’re worried about it being about a kid on the verge of adulthood, don’t. Zafón perfectly bridges the gap between the world weary reality of being an adult with the magical discovery of being a child, igniting a joy I rarely feel when reading such stories. It’s not all lighthearted as the story takes place in post Civil War Spain, and as more of Carax’s life is revealed, the relationship between sadness, trauma and art is explored and Zafon has no easy answers. Ultimately, Shadow of the Wind is about rediscovering the magic of childhood and the ways in which growing up can hamper the creative soul within everyone.
Tommy Siegel’s I Hope This Helps: Comics And Cures For 21st Century Panic springs right off the what-is-2020 press, and it couldn’t be more timely. To most, Siegel’s name will be justifiably unfamiliar. But both his comics and his music have impressive followings. Siegel is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for theatrical pop-rock band Jukebox The Ghost, a band I personally love but won’t talk about anymore here beyond telling you to give them a listen. On a separate note, if I had a nickel for every time I reviewed a graphic novel or comic by a popular musician, I my total would now sit at $0.15 (here’s the first, here’s the second). During long road trips in the band’s tour van, Siegel reignited his love for cartooning. He garnered a hefty following after striking up a “500 cartoons in 500 days” project, and much of his playful cartoonery made its way into I Hope This Helps, his debut book.
The brunt of Siegel’s inaugural collection focuses on millennial life and the subtitular “21st century panic” that has indelibly weaved its way into our collective psyche. The result is a collection of comics and short written segments that feels undeniably “2020” in a way few things can. In fact, the final pages of the book acknowledge the march 2020 onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with a hesitantly hopeful message. The preceding chapters feature written portions in which Siegel rightfully laments the terrifying encroachment of social media into our lives. He does this as he (again rightfully) emphasizes its role in creating an audience for his work. These prose segments serve as a nice framework for the cartoons that comprise the majority of I Hope This Helps, though they’re easily skippable if you’re just here for a laugh.
And laugh you will. Or at least I hope you will. I certainly did. I Hope This Helps is, as you’ve likely intuited, neither a fantasy nor a sci-fi book. But it feels like escapism nonetheless. A mysterious quality for a book that viciously highlights societal problems like the electoral college, social media addiction, and the fearful juxtaposition of smartphone utility and command over our attention spans. It’s as if Siegel understands that non-escapism can itself be an escape. Holding a mirror up to the worst parts of ourselves can strike up a fit of chuckles and, in some convoluted way, make us forget those are our problems, our struggles. It’s a fun take on laughter-as-medicine that feels as true to our time as anything else I’ve read or consumed this year.
All that said, the comics about social-media-induced anxiety and excessive phone usage reach a point of diminishing returns. Siegel excels as a cartoonist when he gleefully skewers the needle-point specific aspects of millennial culture. A naked man with a Pringles-mascot head escapes a Pringles can. A dissection of Kombucha playfully tells us there’s “A live mushroom in every bottle.” A caped bloodsucker slogs away in a cubicle underneath a caption that says “Vampire Weekday.” These punchlines, which cast aside the social media and smartphone angle, sparked fits of genuine out-loud laughter as I flipped through them. And I mean laughs, not that exhale through the nose pseudo-laugh we all do when we experience something funny without anyone around. This isn’t to say that the commentaries on the collective millennial obsession with social media aren’t funny or worthwhile. It’s just that the wacky left-field jokes hit me harder.
After weeks of election-following, pandemic worrying, and The Social Dilemma-watching, Siegel’s cartoons felt like a two-hour detox. This book won’t solve all your problems, but it will shine a bright light on the frivolous torments of 21st century culture. I Hope This Helps is a welcome reprieve from the terrifying normal and a deep dive into the wacky and zany brain of an intensely relatable (and immensely talented) musician and cartoonist.
I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odysseyfinally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odysseyseries, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others.
Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure.
Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence.
I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity.
Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story.
To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.
Flameo, hotman, and welcome to the Fire Nation! F.C. Yee and Avatar co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino’s The Shadow of Kyoshi brings us to a pre-war Fire Nation riddled with political intrigue as the collaborators conclude the Kyoshi duology, which began with The Rise of Kyoshilast year. This sequel continues the story of Rise while expanding on the Avatar lore and deep-diving into Kyoshi’s growth as the Avatar.
Shadow places Kyoshi in a precarious position. Kyoshi bursts onto the first pages with true earthbending flair as she raids the headquarters of a Ba Sing Se gang that’s been terrorizing locals. Kyoshi grapples with the trying political responsibilities thrust upon her as the Avatar while she recklessly charges into small criminal cells to disband them. Of course, every time she takes one down, another pops up. Her travels take her to the Fire Nation, where she’s reunited with her partner Rangi. As Kyoshi struggles to learn the elaborate customs of the Fire Nation capital, a strange threat from the Spirit World emerges and threatens to dismantle the delicate political tapestry of the country. Kyoshi must face the threat as she works to connect with the spirits of her past lives. If she doesn’t stop the Spirit World threat, the world could devolve into chaos and destruction.
There are a lot of great elements in Shadow, butKyoshi’s spiritual struggle is a real treat. Kyoshi’s spiritual journey is also intriguing and relatable. It’s reminiscent of Korra’s spiritual arc. Kyoshi is a proficient and strong bender, but she comes up against a wall when she tries to communicate with past Avatars. Her relationship with Kuruk, her immediate predecessor, represents this roadblock. Kyoshi’s perception of Kuruk is less-than-favorable, and this struggle often feels self-inflicted. Her negative opinion of him stands like a rock clogging the flow of his past-Avatar wisdom. Spiritual growth is a cornerstone of any Avatar’s narrative, and Kyoshi’s challenges mirror her attempts to resolve political quarrels. She can tip the scales to either side in the Fire Nation’s conflict, but she has to be decisive and, perhaps more importantly, ready to take action that will ultimately mean the demise of one of the parties involved.
Throughout the book, Kyoshi’s position as the Avatar is cemented, but the world is still coming to terms with how she’ll handle the title. It doesn’t help that she seems unable to grasp what, exactly, an Avatar must do to keep the peace in both the physical and spirit worlds. One of the biggest appeals to the story, just like the prequel, is that Shadow drops plenty of lore bombs and extends the world of Avatar. It’s one of the areas where these prequel books really succeed and flourish, and it’s bound to please fans of the series. However, for me, I need more than some lore snippets to really immerse myself in a story, and this installment fell short of the mark for a few key reasons.
The spiritual facet of Kyoshi’s story is by far my favorite part of Shadow, but it’s surrounded by a story that I frankly found hard to care about. The brunt of the story drops Kyoshi in the Fire Nation, where one clan vies for dominance over the Firelord. The Firelord’s illegitimate brother leads the would-be-usurpers, and Kyoshi exacerbates the already-tense situation by greeting the brother improperly at a reception celebrating her arrival. That’s a catalyst for various screw-ups to come, and the story unfolds on that web of political intrigue. The problem is that the web feels half-done. It’s as if whatever cosmic spider the universe hired to create the web showed up late and made a halfhearted attempt at creating it to meet his deadline. The result is a superficial game of political checkers when Avatar has previously shown that it’s capable of three-dimensional chess.
The worldbuilding has the same problem. I’ve come to expect vibrant, diverse cultures from the Avatar world, and Shadow zooms so far in on the Fire Nation that it’s hard to reconcile the story with the larger machinations at work. In all likelihood, this is a personal quibble. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sharply focused story in a well-established world. But, come on, it’s Avatar. I want a massive story with high stakes. This personal story, though serviceable, just isn’t that.
The flipside of that argument is that we get hitherto unforeseen insight into the Fire Nation. Avatar gave us a glimpse of the propaganda-ridden country. Shadow gives us a compelling look at the pre-war Fire Nation and its intricate workings. Fire Nation folk value honor and integrity. Of course, when two clans define those words differently, problems arise. Kyoshi is the pebble that locks the well-oiled Fire Nation gears and sends the whole nation into disarray. And the spirit world threat (the identity of which will be familiar to readers of the first novel) exacerbates the unrest.
To put it simply, I can’t decide where I stand on the focus of the story. I enjoyed holding a magnifying glass up to the Fire Nation, but I simultaneously longed for a world-spanning narrative that felt more true to Avatar. The characters of Shadow are well-formed and multi-dimensional, a step up from my primary issue with Rise. Kyoshi in particular is a fantastically multi-layered Avatar. Her partner Rangi and her mother Hei Ran get well-deserved spotlight moments, too. The supporting cast, particularly those who are new to the series, pale in comparison, but that felt right. The Fire Nation cast exists for a purpose, and their characters reflect that purpose.
Though I’m generally on the fence about Shadow’s components, there’s one piece I just flat-out didn’t like. The novel’s ending is rushed and features reveals that I felt were unearned. The villain, who is “meh” throughout, poses a threat, sure, but that arc fizzles. I didn’t ever buy into the motivations there, and the final encounter did little to sway me.
All of this leads me to believe that The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi are best consumed as two halves of the same whole. I read them over a year apart, and I know there are parts of Shadow that 2019 Cole, fresh off of Rise, would have loved. For that reason, I am happy to recommend Shadow to Avatar fans. It may not be the Avatar world’s crowning achievement, but it’s still a fun story. Plus, Kyoshi is a straight-up badass.