I’ve always loved to read fantasy. There’s just something about visiting an entirely new world that appeals to me – it’s like getting to travel without ever leaving home. There’s something very comforting about fiction, and fantasy in particular, that teaches you valuable (and sometimes obvious) life lessons in the context of situations you may never get to experience in your own life. As a child, escaping into my books was the way I learned about myself and the world around me – it’s how I realized that I wasn’t alone – even when I was mad at my parents, or my friends, or myself. I wasn’t the first person to experience heartbreak or betrayal or sadness. I wasn’t the only person to ever make a bad decision or have to apologize and pay up for one. It taught me that good intentions sometimes go awry. And most of all it taught me that there is always hope, no matter the circumstance.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved writing fantasy – because I want to inspire others the way fantasy novels often inspire me.
That’s all speculation, but at any rate, I want to share a list of the top 5 fantasy (particularly in the “YA” (Young Adult) family) books anyone interested in getting into the genre should read (aka, ten books everyone should read). Obviously, these are based on my own observations and experience, but I think it’s a darn good place to start. And I should warn you, they’re not in order because they’re all equally important.
1. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This book will change your life. Bordering on sci-fi and speculative fiction, this novel about a futuristic brazil had me on the edge of my seat. It’s the kind of book bursting with prose that could rival good poetry any day, and the plot never wavers on its road. The characters are real and painfully genuine at times, and it’s impossible not to empathize with them, particularly with the narrator, June, who paints a vital picture of a country on the verge of change, and the prince, doomed to die, who started it all. Full to the brim with culture, conflict, and a world you’ll never forget The Summer Prince was so good I re-read it twice before I moved on to something new.
2. The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce
No such list would be complete without The Song of the Lioness
quartet (I couldn’t pick just one). Alanna is the heroine that every girl should idolize – she’s strong and independent, she’s vulnerable and stubborn to a fault, and she’s perfectly relatable. Especially if you have a young family member who likes to read (or whom you would like to introduce to reading) – Alanna is a great character to get her hooked with. In a genre and a world full of heroes, sometimes what we really need is a kick-butt heroine. And Tamora Pierce
is a master craftswoman – her world of Tortall is rich and multifaceted, and there isn’t a single piece of the kingdom you can’t envision in your mind. Her descriptions are full without being wordy, and she’ll sweep you in with fast-paced believable dialogue before you even know what’s hit you. The premise is a simple one: Alanna wants to become a knight, but the kingdom’s never had a female knight, so she switches places with her twin brother Thom and goes to train as a page. The following four books detail her grand adventures, and tell a tale of social change that would raise a hurrah in any heart.
3. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater
This is another great one to start with because it’s grounded in some true historical events, the Palio Races in Italy (or at least it’s very similar to them). The fantasy is based in some reality, which makes it a great segway into the genre in my opinion. Plus, Maggie Steifvater has a real sense of person – her characters are always on point, and I dare you not to root for Sean and Puck. This is another example of a fantasy novel that isn’t rooted in a love triangle (cough cough… Twilight) and actually has some dramatic tension that pulls through ’til the end. Every November the scorpio races takes over the village – Sean Kendrick is the reigning Champion, and this time he has everything to gain from winning again. But Puck Connolly finds herself thrust, unprepared, into the races, and she has everything to lose. This life or death race promises to change everything for them both, but the only question that remains is, who will win and who will die trying? The Scorpio Races blends two narratives together into one seamless story you’re sure to be engrossed in until the last sentence. This is one you won’t be able to put down.
4. Fire by Kristin Cashore
The bestselling sequel to Cashore’s novel, Graceling, Fire can and does stand on it’s own. This is perhaps one of the most captivating fantasy novels I’ve read in years. The world is rife with war, nobility, and a healthy dose of romance, but the action is fast and the tension unwavering. Fire is the protagonist, a human “monster” who is irresistible to everyone – she spends her life trying to be anything but her father, a true monster in the literal sense, but no one can look at her without lust, fear, or disgust. She’s stayed hidden from the majority of the world for years, until now, when her ability to control the minds of those around her might just play a pivotal role in the war threatening her kingdom. With a cast of extremely captivating characters and the backdrop of a detailed and beautiful world Fire is an unforgettable read. Even if you haven’t read Graceling first, you’ll certainly be aching to by the time you put Fire down.
5. The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
Despite the debacle of a movie-version that her novel, City of Bones, recently underwent Cassandra Clare is an extremely talented writer. And while I love her Mortal Instruments series, I have to give credit to The Infernal Devices for being more original, less angsty, and wholly nail-biting through and through. Focusing on a girl, Tessa Gray, with no idea who she really is or what she can do, the story follows her race to know herself before she can be used against all the people she loves. The stakes are high, there’s a love triangle that actually works out in a believable way, and there’s a real edge of sadness and loss to them that resonates with readers. It’s not one of those “everything is just rainbows and puppies” kind of YA series, and it stands out from the crowd for that. An army of automatons is threatening nineteenth century london and, more importantly, the entire hidden world of Downworlders (faeries, vampires, werewolves, etc.) and Shadowhunters (the descendants of angels who keep humankind safe from demons and their ilk), and only Tessa can stop them, but with the automatons maker always one step ahead this series will frustrate the hell out of you before it gives you satisfaction. Trust me, it’s worth every nail-biting page-turn. Clare will not leave you disappointed. If you want a trilogy that delivers pick this one up, and be glad you’re reading them after they’re all out on shelves because some of us had to suffer long months with cliffhangers.
Now, some of you are probably wondering why I left out the greats like Tolkien or George RR Martin, both of whom have written favorites of mine. But I wanted to keep this list brief and readable, and I wanted to focus specifically on the YA genre, as I feel like it gets a lot of bad rap from literary-minded individuals for being “low-brow” and a “fake” genre. YA literature can and should be read and enjoyed by any age old enough to comprehend it. There are genuine gems out there that you’re missing if you limit yourself to any one type of book, and these are a great place to start if you’re looking to explore the YA fantasy world. But be warned – once you’ve dipped your toe in you might just end up fully submerged in the pool before you know it.