Okay, so I went a little overboard in picking books for this genre, on top of receiving a couple of recommendations. And there are, like, five that I didn’t include but wanted to. In my defense, though, the genre is huge. There are eight options total, from which you may select up to three. I know that not everyone in the group is a big fantasy reader, so I tried to find somewhat lighter books. It’s a little hard to tell if something is such purely based on its summary, so… I may not have succeeded. Observing the voting pattern along with any feedback you can provide will help me decide in which direction the club wants future fantasy polls to go.
There are both young adult and adult titles here, and the wordcounts are pretty variable. I also have included a review for several of the books to help with clarifying or expanding upon the original synopsis. If this is helpful, let me know and I’ll continue doing it in future. I have also included the Goodreads ratings, which matter to some people and don’t for others. If this is something you’d rather not see (because I know it can influence some people’s choices), let me know that as well.
We are meeting this Saturday to discuss the Smoke and Mirrors short story collection. Since this discussion will span the entirety of the collection, our first meeting for our fantasy book will take place on May 22nd. Whether or not we will have a2nd (or… possibly third? Two of those books are pretty long!) meeting will be announced when all the votes are in.
This is a relatively experimental poll, so if you hate how I’ve done it, do say so.
Please note: All synopses are under level 3 headings, all reviews under level 4, and the polls are always under level 2. Hopefully this makes navigation easier.
Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar #1) by Mercedes Lackey
88,000 words and 4.09 stars with 38,589 ratings
Follows the adventures of Talia as she trains to become a Herald of Valdemar in the first book in the classic epic fantasy Arrows trilogy
Chosen by the Companion Rolan, a mystical horse-like being with powers beyond imagining, Talia, once a runaway, has now become a trainee Herald, destined to become one of the Queen’s own elite guard. For Talia has certain awakening talents of the mind that only a Companion like Rolan can truly sense.
But as Talia struggles to master her unique abilities, time is running out. For conspiracy is brewing in Valdemar, a deadly treason that could destroy Queen and kingdom. Opposed by unknown enemies capable of both diabolical magic and treacherous assassination, the Queen must turn to Talia and the Heralds for aid in protecting the realm and insuring the future of the Queen’s heir, a child already in danger of becoming bespelled by the Queen’s own foes.
Notable Review by Mark
This book took me by surprise. I picked it up because I wanted to discover more classic fantasy novels written by women. I didn’t really know anything about it other than that it was a coming-of-age tale… and it is, of course, but it’s much more than that. It’s a book about friendship, and found families; it’s about people helping each other out when times get tough, and accepting one another despite differences in age, gender, or sexual orientation.
It’s also what I might call a “small-scale epic fantasy,” although I understand that sounds like an oxymoron. What I mean is, it still feels epic in the sense of the world itself; there are mystical powers, and there is a sense of vast in-world history. There is weapons training, and there is nobility. There are magical animals and rumors of other strange creatures out there somewhere. But it’s small-scale in the sense that there is no world-shattering threat. There are no wars taking place, no monster attacks, and no Dark Lords bent on destruction. None of that – in fact, the bulk of this story takes place in a school (the Collegium) and goes through the daily trials and tribulations of Talia as she finds her place in this newfound situation. That’s not to say the story is bereft of conflict. There are conspiracies and betrayals, there are altercations with other students, and there is loss and heartbreak. I found this story to be rather emotional despite the relatively low key plot.
The characters are also memorable and mostly likeable. The interactions and the dialogues are written in a way that you feel like you’re really getting to know the people in the book. Talia has already earned her place as one of my favorite protagonists in the genre. And speaking of the characters, I found this book to be somewhat progressive for a novel published in 1987 – there are at least two LGBTQIA+ characters in the story (important ones, too), and another two referenced as historical figures. Granted, the representation isn’t quite the same as you might find in a book written in 2021, but nonetheless it is noteworthy and (in my opinion) handled well.
Then there are the Companions! These are horses who form a lifetime bond with their Heralds (kind of a magical civil servant who performs a variety of functions for the kingdom), and who actually choose who will become a Herald based on that person’s qualities. Fans of animal kinship, and especially horses, will enjoy this aspect of the book.
There are admittedly a few eyebrow-raising moments in the area of traditional gender roles (a trap that a lot of pseudo-Medieval fantasy falls into); but I will still say that the good FAR outweighs the bad, and I suspect it may have been written this way to show a before/after contrast. The world Talia is running away from, in which girls must get married at the age of 13 or basically become nuns… is very different from the world of the Heralds, in which women are commonly found in roles of power.
Recommended for fans of The Goblin Emperor for its focus on empathy and kind characters. Also recommended for fans of The Name of the Wind (specifically the University sections) for its Fantasy School drama and emotional moments.
The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) By Katherine Arden
97,000 words and 4.09 stars with 139,206 ratings ·
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
121,000 words and 4.03 stars with 739,163 ratings
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Notable review by Maggie Stiefvater
Five Things About THE NIGHT CIRCUS.
Ordinarily when I do my recommendations, I do a “five reasons to read _____,” but I think opinions will be so divided on THE NIGHT CIRCUS that I think “things about” will be more useful.
1. This novel is not what it says it is. Well, back page copy is always a weird thing anyway, as it’s not written by the author. And a weirder thing because it is essentially a glamour shot of the novel. It is not a lie. But it isn’t really what the novel looks like when it’s wandering around in its bathrobe getting coffee and trying to figure out if that smell is coming from the kitchen sink disposal or under the table. The resemblance is always a bit sketchy. THE NIGHT CIRCUS’ resemblance to its cover copy is sketchier than most.
2. This novel is about a thing. It has people in it, too, but it is mostly about a thing, the eponymous circus. It’s told in third person omniscient, which means it sounds like God is narrating the thing, if God decided he really loved black and white tents and fancy umbrellas. The voice that narrates this book is interested in humans, too, but mostly about how humans make the circus and the circus’ magic interesting.
3. This is not a romance. There is a love story in it, which is good, because love makes the world go round, but it is not a romance. If you go in imagining to be swept off your feet from page one, you can keep on imagining. The novel starts before our lovebirds have hit puberty, so you’re going to have to imagine for quite awhile.
4. The circus is not really a circus. This is fine by me, because I actually don’t care for circuses. They smell, the animals always have that look of dubious maltreatment, no, I don’t want to win a prize by shooting that thing off that other thing over there, and also, clowns look a little grubby to me. No, the Night Circus is a circus in the respect that there are tents, and there are performers, and some of them are acrobats. Mostly it is a place where pretty, pretty magic is passed off as illusion so that us muggles won’t be scared by it. I’d go to that circus.
5. This is not a thriller. This is a not an action-packed adventure. It’s not even a simmering revenge or bubbling rivalry novel. It is a novel about a thing, with love in it, and it spans over a decade. If you have a problem with that idea, it’s best you walk away now. But if you like Ann Patchett or Audrey Niffeneggar novels, or if you really thought JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL was the bee’s knees, well. WELL. You have just found your next read. Enjoy. I did.
A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1) by Ursula K. Le Guin
70,000 words and 3.99 stars with 258,117 ratings.
Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.
Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
Notable Review by Nataliya
“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”
This seemingly simple statement actually says a lot about the human nature – just as all the Ursula Le Guin’s books that I’ve read so far seem to do.
A Wizard of Earthsea is a simple but beautiful and magical coming-of-age story of a young wizard Ged, who starts out as a brash and cocky boy who in his arrogance unwittingly releases a terrible Shadow upon the world, but who eventually grows up and succeeds in embracing the darker part of himself. A word of caution if you are expecting a traditional fantasy adventure – it is, more than anything, an introspective book, so be warned.
“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.
A 1968 book with a non-white hero! LOVE.
There are the traditional coming-of-age fantasy elements – wizarding school, true friend, bitter rival, fighting a dragon, finding love. But there is something that sets this story apart from the newer variations on the similar theme, featuring Kvothe and Harry Potter and the like. Part of it, of course, is the narration. The story is told in the fairy tale tradition, with that particular strangely fascinating, lyrical and melodic fairy tale rhythm. But mostly is because instead of focusing on what is on the surface – the learning and the adventures – A Wizard of Earthsea goes straight for the deeper meaning, for what lies beneath the surface.
“You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.
In her amazing brilliance, Ursula Le Guin takes what could have been a straightforward tale of the fight of good versus evil, and turns it into something more – a lesson in self-discovery and acceptance of the darkness that lives inside all human beings. This is a story about the fascination with knowledge and the temptation of power and dangers of presuming too much and upsetting the natural balance. It is a story about getting to know your own self, including the darkest corners of your soul. And the resulting epic battle of good versus evil… well, let me tell you that the resolution was brilliant and poetic, and I did not see it coming AT ALL.
“He knew now, and the knowledge was hard, that his task had never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun.”
Ursula Le Guin takes the elements that would be a dangerous set-up for fail in the hands of most other writers and somehow unexpectedly turns them into the strengths of this book. Take the characters – except for Ged, they exist only as sketches to support the ideas in this story; it’s not supposed to ever work but it does. She brushes over the years of Ged’s life and training in just a few words, not detailing the tedium as many writers are prone to doing. Her worldbuilding is not very detailed, but manages to capture the essence of this world in a few brush pen typewriter strokes. We know Ged is in no danger as from the beginning the book refers to his subsequent adventures as a great mage, but this seeming lack of danger for the protagonist does not diminish neither the suspense nor the enjoyment of the story.
My one criticism goes to the some symbolism overkill (I passionately hated all the high-school teachers’ neverending discussions about symbolism – yawn!), but hey – even Le Guin can’t be always perfect.
Blood Song (Raven’s Shadow #1) by Anthony Ryan
221,000 words and 4.38 stars with 78,125 ratings
The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”
Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.
Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.
Notable Review by Mark Lawrence
I won’t lie, some small but undeniable part of me came to this book hoping to find fault. It would take a better man than me to watch Anthony Ryan’s barnstorming success without a twinge of envy.
Sadly I have to report that this is a very good book and deserves the five stars I’ve given it.
Ryan writes well, he brings his world and characters to life with good description. It’s as a story-teller he shines though, and a good story is always the keystone of a bestseller.
Schools in fantasy books are like crack cocaine to readers. The Wizard of Earthsea, Magician, Harry Potter, The Magicians, Name of the Wind (I think), it goes on, and if not a school per se then an extended training period apprenticed to some master (The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Way of Shadows etc). Blood Song has a battle school as its central focus and we watch our protagonist progress from small boy to large young man through arduous training and a series of very dangerous tests, acquiring a group of firm friends with various talents as he goes.
This is all set in a skillfully executed flashback which our protagonist narrates to a historian on his way to a duel. The tale he tells moves past the school to national and then international conspiracy, politicking, and war. Finally it brings us full circle to the historian and the duel.
It’s all good stuff. Don’t come looking for great literature or deep themes, do come looking for a great story and a good time.
I don’t want to damn the book with faint praise – it deserves 5* and (& this is very high praise from me) it has heart, reminding me in many ways of David Gemmell’s work.
The story is very morish, I read this rather fat book in just a couple of weeks, which for me is incredibly fast. Let Vaelin’s tale sink its teeth into you and you’ll be cheering his victories, growling at his set-backs, and having all the feels in between in appropriate measure.
I begrudgingly affirm that Ryan deserves his success and commend Blood Song to your attention.
EDIT – we have the second book! My wife stole it and says it’s as good as the first.
The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R.F. Kuang
160,000 words and 4.04 stars with 69,174 ratings
A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1) by Sarah J. Maas
241,000 words and 4.48 stars with 133,572 ratings ·
Bryce Quinlan had the perfect life—working hard all day and partying all night—until a demon murdered her closest friends, leaving her bereft, wounded, and alone. When the accused is behind bars but the crimes start up again, Bryce finds herself at the heart of the investigation. She’ll do whatever it takes to avenge their deaths.
Hunt Athalar is a notorious Fallen angel, now enslaved to the Archangels he once attempted to overthrow. His brutal skills and incredible strength have been set to one purpose—to assassinate his boss’s enemies, no questions asked. But with a demon wreaking havoc in the city, he’s offered an irresistible deal: help Bryce find the murderer, and his freedom will be within reach.
As Bryce and Hunt dig deep into Crescent City’s underbelly, they discover a dark power that threatens everything and everyone they hold dear, and they find, in each other, a blazing passion—one that could set them both free, if they’d only let it.
With unforgettable characters, sizzling romance, and page-turning suspense, this richly inventive new fantasy series by #1 New York Times bestselling author Sarah J. Maas delves into the heartache of loss, the price of freedom—and the power of love.
Notable Review Excerpt by Mary S. R.
Allow me to introduce you to Sarah’s best writing wrapped up in one book.
I could tell you about the devouring, addictive atmosphere building that captures the urban fantasy mashed up with high fantasy and noir world brilliantly, making use of modernised naming, casual expression-and-slang-filled conversations, deftly written descriptions of drug-addled minds, and generally diving into real and gritty notes on the world—from flashing banners to the inane TV shows.
Or, I could tell you about her no-nonsense storytelling that as usual doesn’t shy away from any part of life—be it a female’s cramps or sex or annoying behaviours in the bedroom or depression or cursing (which you’ll never hear me complaining about) and how considerate she is of everything including qualifications of medical experimentations.
I could even tell you about her easy way with words that paints images straightforward while bursting with the occasional apt turn of phrase, staying more mature than her previous works without any overly poetic and dramatic passages constantly popping up yet still expertly trapping yours and the characters’ emotions to do with them as she wishes.
But I won’t.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
91,000 words and 3.64 stars with 12,339 ratings
Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magical. She is perfectly happy with her life. She has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.
But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach. (
Notable Review Excerpt by Elle (ellexamines)
Magic for Liars follows private investigator Ivy Gamble as she investigates a death in the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, the workplace of her sister and a location she has envied for years. While she’s living a life she thinks of as simple, her sister is a famous and talented teacher. It is a murder mystery wrapped up in an interesting commentary on chosen one tropes and sibling rivalry, and it had me engrossed from start to finish.
The thing I find the most entertaining about this book, in a nutshell, is how it plays with established fantasy tropes. Ivy is a Petunia-Dursley type character, in that she is the sister to a girl with magic, who was the favorite of the family. I really enjoyed how that dynamic was explored and tackled, especially as it is mirrored by others. The sibling dynamic, actually, is a huge focus of this book. The relationship between her and Tabitha reaches a level of complexity I was not expecting. There is a chosen one, too, and his sister, whose relationship with him is a neat parallel to our two sisters. As the book progresses, Ivy has to ask herself: is her sister’s world really quite as blissful as she thinks?