Hidden Gems Of Fantasy That You Should Be Reading

Recently I had a strange conversation with a gentleman on Twitter. We had posted an update about what our reviewers were reading, and one of the selections was The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This gentleman got upset that we were giving attention to such a well-known series. What this random person didn’t realize is that it’s important for people in our position to read the big popular series to make sure we have topical context when reviewing other things. However, while I was informing the rando politely that he should shove off, I found myself thinking, well why don’t we also put out a piece on series that should be getting more attention than they currently do? So, below is a list of fantasy series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big.  Links to our reviews are in the titles.

Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund Blood of an Exile is a book with powerful characters, a rich world, and a fairly inventive plot. While Blood of an Exile is also very much an action-packed adventure fantasy, it is primarily a story about amateur scientists desperately trying to keep humanity from destroying the Earth for fiscal gain – an angle I was not expecting and loved in equal parts. It’s an eco-fantasy exploring the effects of carelessly damaging parts of the natural world through a versatile cast of memorable individuals. It brilliantly combines exciting action, sympathetic characters, smart themes, and a deep world to create a coherent and unique story. It is always rare when you find a book that is both smart and fun at the same time, and Blood of an Exile has both in spades.

Soul of the World by David Mealing – They say when you write your first book you should start small, which is apparently a saying that Mealing completely ignored. Soul of the World is a huge epic fantasy and just the opening chapter of a complicated and interesting world. The book is set in a semi-alternate history American revolutionary war, except that the English and the French have switched places in the story. The book is initially very confusing with regards to what is going on, but it is still a blast to read as you try to get your feet on solid ground. Our plot follows three protagonists, each a paragon of one of the three magic systems and a window into three different factions in our story. On top of having just a ridiculous number of magic systems, our characters gain an absurd number of powers as the book progresses. In most fantasy novels I have read, you might have a protagonist find one or two new powers in a story and then spend the entire book contemplating how it changes their lives. I kept a counter next to me as I read Soul of the World, and by the halfway mark the protagonists had collectively gained over twenty new powers. It is a magical book, almost overflowing with originality.

Bookburners by Max Gladstone and Company Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self-contained story that plays out like a TV episode. The story follows a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half-hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. It’s written by a group of authors, and they did a great job unifying their voice. While I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end, it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Serials are a bit of a new thing on the reading scene, and this entry is a great place to start.

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher – Look, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line: “Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.” Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. The book is the story of how a woman who has no joy in life falls in love with a cursed eternal warrior bound to a sword, and it’s hilarious. I don’t know what more you can ask for.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – Alright, this one in particular really bothers me. Not only is Guy Gavriel Kay a popular and well-regarded author, but this particular book of his was also our #1 book of 2019 – yet it is criminally underread. Brightness is one of the best character stories I have ever read. It is my second favorite Kay novel, behind Sailing to Sarantium, and only by a little bit. It might be my favorite stand-alone story of all time, so go read it already. If you are curious about the plot you can find a write-up of the story here in my review. This one is certainly worth your time.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Each year, like clockwork, Bradley P. Beaulieu puts out an enormous, detailed, and dense epic fantasy about an original Arabian-inspired world. And each year, like clockwork, I tell people to go read it – but only a select few follow my advice. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out, with the sixth coming this year) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. There are not many authors who seem to love writing their series as much as Bradley P. Beaulieu does. His passion for his books bleeds through every single page, and I frankly don’t understand how he has the stamina to put out this many books so quickly. He has published one book per year(ish) and each one has absolutely no filler. These books are nothing but thousands of pages of plot and story; there is literally zero downtime. I don’t even know how he managed to track all of this when he was writing it. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – Chris Wooding is one of our favorite authors here at QTL for his popular Ketty Jay series. However, Wooding recently started a new series that has flown completely under the radar. The Ember Blade feels like an epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into while paying tribute to the series that started the genre, Lord of the Rings. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head. The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. There is a large set of characters, and it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them.

The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley The Heart of Stone (tHoS) follows the story of Task, a war golem and the last of his kind. Task was built for a specific conflict roughly 400 years prior but has outlived the war, and even the people waging it. The last of the war golems, he has drifted from owner to owner and conflict to conflict until he has arrived at a new land embroiled in a civil war where our story begins. Task has a lot of personality, and frankly, I love him. He is ironically a very human character and it will not take long for you to grow attached to him. After seeing essentially centuries of war and subjugation, Task is understandably quite jaded when it comes to his opinion of people. His thoughts and commentary on human nature and reactions are excellent and bring a lot of thoughtful psychology to the story. Adding to this is Task’s supporting cast of characters that all bring just as much to the table. Whether it be a young girl who is surprisingly wise, a drunk knight whose actual fighting skill is never clear, an armchair general trying to prove his father wrong, or a spy who seems to be on no one’s side but her own – the cast brings a lot of life and excitement to the book. The combat is thrilling, the world is interesting, and The Heart of Stone is a great gem that deserves more appreciation.

The QTL Best And Worst Romances Of Fantasy

We are not a site that is well versed in the subgenre of romantic fantasy. I am absolutely positive that there are hundreds of fantastic fantasy romance stories that we have never heard of. And yet, in our time reviewing the larger fantasy landscape, we have come across a number of beautifully heartful, and catastrophically awful, romances. So, if you are looking for a list of the definitive best paranormal romance stories to check off your list, I would recommend you look elsewhere. But, if you like our content and are looking for a wonderful romance story, or a hilariously bad take on relationships for Valentine’s Day – we have you covered.

Quill To Live’s Top Five Fantasy Romances

5) The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay Lions is one of the top Quill to Live books as a whole, but it has a unique and wonderful take on romance. While there is no singular romance plot to elevate and speak about, the entire story and characters are all motivated by their love of their partners and family. It’s a story about the multifaceted power of love for both good and bad. The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just heart-achingly beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what are the many forms love can take?” and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in are often hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read. Just… don’t grab it first if you are only looking for positive vibes this Valentine’s Day.

4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Here comes The House In The Cerulean Sea again, making its way onto yet another Quill To Live list. It’s well-deserved, though, thanks to T.J. Klune’s positively charming romance between two of the book’s main characters. Cerulean follows Linus Baker, a corporate drone/caseworker at the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. When he’s sent on an oddball assignment, Linus arrives at the eponymous house and meets a ragtag bunch of misunderstood magical youth and their quirky caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. The romance and love that radiates throughout Cerulean isn’t found just in the central romance. It’s also found in the love that Linus develops for the children he’s sent to (presumably) care for. If you want a believable and heartwarming romance, Cerulean has you covered. If you want to explore love in many different ways beyond the cookie-cutter romance, Cerulean delivers that, too. 

3) The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster BujoldChalion is a slow burn that you won’t be able to finish in a day, but is very much worth your time and worthy of a top pick in the romance category. The book tells of an estranged nobleman returning home to the place of his youth and becoming a tutor for a cursed household. Fortunately, the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasant to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. Much of this revolves around a growing romance between two of the leads. I enjoy how there is no love at first sight and you get to see the characters slowly build the relationship brick by brick. The prose in this novel is also gorgeous, which always gets me in the romance mood. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound, wonderful, or sometimes hilarious like this one:

“Men write poems to the objects of our desire in order to lure them closer.” 
“How practical. In that case, you’d think men would write more poems to ladies’ private parts.” 
“The ladies would hit us. Lips are a safe compromise, being as it were a stand-in or stepping-stone to the greater mysteries.” 

2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – To me, The Night Circus is what I always wanted Romeo and Juliet to be. Romeo and Juliet is purported to be one of the best love stories of all time, but when you think about it, it’s actually about two horny teenagers who knew each other for three days and then killed themselves because of their horrific communication skills. The Night Circus, on the other hand, tells a good version of this epic romance. Two rival magicians from different schools battle it out over years in a traveling circus of wonders through an arcane contest and slowly fall in love. On top of the epic premise, the prose is downright gorgeous and the plot has enough twists and turns to tip the book towards a thriller without ever becoming a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s one of the most popular fantasies of the modern era for a very good reason, and if you haven’t read it you should.

1) Swordheart by T Kingfisher I only actually read Swordheart last year, but as you can see it made a very powerful impact on me. This book simply makes me happy. It’s a low key realistic relationship, in the form of a magical sword dating a housemaid. These characters are just so warm and nice and relatable that it is so easy to insert yourself into one of their shoes. Plus, as an added bonus the book is laugh-out-loud funny from the first line. While some of the romances on this list are aspirational ballads of the greatest love stories of all time, this is the one that felt spiritually closest to the story of how my wife and I fell in love, and I could read it a hundred times and never get bored.

Quill To Live’s Worst Five Fantasy Romances

5) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – I greatly enjoy Senlin Ascends, but the set up for a portion of the story is “Senlin, a teacher who married his student, loses his wife in a crowd and spends multiple books looking and pining for her.” I always dislike the teacher and student couple trope; it always feels a bit predatory. Benching the wife, Marya, for a large portion of the story offscreen does not do a lot to make her a compelling motivation for Senlin’s journey. However, I will say that when we eventually do get to spend some time with Marya in the later books I dislike her, and the relationship, a lot less. But let’s be honest, we are all hoping Senlin ends up with Edith, the first mate of his skyship, at the end of the series.

4) Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff – Kristoff has always had some trouble with romance subplots, but his treatment of his protagonist, Mia, in book two of the Nevernight trilogy was a straight-up plot hole. I will avoid naming the other half of this relationship to keep you pure of spoilers, but essentially Mia falls in love with an antagonist of book one for no real perceivable reason other than plot convenience. The massive pile of bodies standing between these two people coming together only comes up a few times and then is swept under the rug. It feels like a badly done rewrite where Kristoff decided at the last minute to shake up the romantic landscape and just threw a freaking dart at a board when choosing the new pairing.

3) Night Angel by Brent Weeks – I feel like this one is pretty self-explanatory if you have read it. If you haven’t, don’t. We have now moved into the territory of romance crimes so grievous that they actually somewhat ruin the books. In this case, we have Gary Stu boy loves Mary Sue girl who is too pure for this cruel, cruel world. The story is about a boy who becomes the world’s greatest assassin to protect a childhood crush, and wants to murder half of the population of a continent because someone was once mean to her. There is also a much greater romance crime at the end of the series involving a metaphorical cursed BDSM sex collar, but I won’t go into much more detail in case you want to read this bad life choice. Week’s Lightbringer has slightly better romance subplots, in that they aren’t agonizing to read, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. 

2) Battle Ground by Jim ButcherBattle Ground was easily the worst book we read of 2020, and we will be coming out with a more in-depth review of its sins in the future. For now, let it be known that one of the reasons this book is so offensive is the treatment of a main female character/romance for plot convenience that has been built up over 15 books. She just yeets out a window in the most contrived possible way to the point where it absolutely murdered any forward momentum I had in the story. This is on top of the fact that Butcher’s treatment of women, both in romances and in general, has been highly questionable in multiple instances over the series’ many installments. The entire thing is starting to read like an incel’s badly directed erotic fantasy, and Battle Ground was miserable enough that I finally stepped off the Dresden train of misery. 

1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I don’t need to contextualize this one, I know you all have read this book, Denna and Kvothe absolutely suck. 99% of the problems in this story can be traced back to the fact that these two characters never have one functional conversation. It is a comedy of errors that isn’t even slightly funny. Neither of them are likable characters in the slightest when it comes to their treatment of the other. The Felurian scene in book two was like being violently punched in the face with poor writing choices while out for an otherwise enjoyable literary stroll. Neither Denna nor Kvothe has any qualities the other admires yet somehow they claim each is the ultimate catch. I enjoy the Kingkiller series, mostly for its undeniably beautiful prose, but each time I return to it, I need to shut off the parts of my mind that respond to romance and love so that it doesn’t murder the rest of my brain in an attempt to stop me from reading further.

Swordheart – Pointedly Funny and Heartwarming

51c12tgr73lLook, just read this book. You are going to like it. Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), is an impossible book to dislike. It’s a fantasy romantic comedy that positively radiates humor, joy, and character. It is currently published by Argyll Productions, a small targeted publisher, so Swordheart is relatively unknown – which is a crime. I found my copy of Swordheart at my public library. There was only a single copy in circulation, I had to wait for ages for it to come off hold, and when I finally got it it was one of the most beat up and well-loved copies of a book I have ever seen. Upon finishing the book I closed the back cover, pulled out my laptop, and ordered Swordheart and the three other currently existing books in the same universe in hardback. I know this is a world and author I am going to enjoy.

Putting aside the hyperbolic love for a second, the plot of Swordheart is rather simple from the outside. The plot, and the voice, of the book is best summarized by its first line:

“Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.”

Now you can’t tell me that line hasn’t piqued your curiosity. Swordheart is the story of two characters. Our first is Halla, a housekeeper (of sorts) to a wealthy and difficult man who dies and leaves his entire inheritance to her because she was the only person he actually liked. This is a problem for his multiple surviving family members who decide that the best way to get Halla to give up the money is to annoy and badger her to death and collect it from her corpse. When contemplating suicide because she would rather be dead than deal with any more aggressively annoying family members (relatable, and I know my family reads the site but I stand by what I said) she unsheaths a magical sword with a warrior named Sarkis trapped inside. Sarkis, our second protagonist, is an immortal battle-spirit trapped inside a weapon that is forced to serve the will of its wielder. Upon Halla summoning him, he hilariously convinces her not to kill herself and they team up to figure out how to secure Halla’s inheritance. Thus begins an extremely unlikely, and extremely funny, romantic story that kept me enrapt from line one.

Swordheart’s three key strengths are its unbelievably funny humor, its extremely believable world, and its lovable characters – all of which are intertwined. Kingfisher is one of the funniest authors I have ever read, and I was laughing so hard I was tearing up every few pages. A lot of the humor revolves around both the characters’ personality/chemistry, but an equal part of it has to do with funny observational humor about Kingfisher’s world. This has the added benefit of naturally fleshing out the worldbuilding in a fun and enjoyable way, while also distracting you from the fact that she is just dumping cool lore into your brain in large sections. But the world isn’t just funny. There various cultures, sects, magic, and cities you learn about in Swordheart had me engrossed in this book and clamoring to get my hands on the other ones set in the world. It’s a shame that the book is only around 400 pages long because I would have read a thousand pages of this story. The book is a stand-alone, but Kingfisher mentioned that she hopefully will be writing two more that follow similar characters in a loose trilogy.

The third star of the show is the characters. Halla and Sarkis both have tons of depth and go beyond your very run of the mill protagonists. Halla is a very kind, but very suppressed woman who is clever, but didn’t really have the imagination or ambition to conceive of a present or future where she was happy – just one where she got by and did what needed to be done. Sarkis is an energetic, impatient, protective, and outlandish brute who has a complicated sense of honor. Their chemistry has enough fire to burn down a small village, and they are only the first two characters. There is also an entire supporting cast of antagonists and friends that all feel fully realized and enhance this epic quest of traveling to a records office and filing a case against some annoying people.

I read Swordheart last year (in 2020) and it was one of the few bright warm moments of that entire hellscape of a trip around the sun. This book brought me happiness and joy in a time where I really needed it and was so fun that I immediately purchased another copy for myself to enjoy over and over again for years to come. As a reviewer it is always a rare and wonderful joy when you discover a relatively unknown book (and author) who blows you away with their quality work and you get to go out into the world and shout their praises. This is one of those occasions, and I implore you to find a copy of Swordheart as soon as you can.

Rating: Swordheart – 10/10
-Andrew