As someone who loves reading fantasy, I must admit I haven’t read much of it lately. Why? Have I been reading the genre so much over the past 15 years that I am finally tired of it? I hope not.
Well, I’ve given it some thought and realized there are a few things I look for in the fantasy books I pick up, which I have a harder time finding these days.
1. A unique story or interesting premise. I started reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series when I was 14. At that age, I thought it was massive and epic and incredibly well thought out, and would maybe last more than a week (yup, went through an average of one book every week throughout high school). My first dark fantasy was Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels trilogy. It was unique with an interesting and different magic system. I love the humor in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. My favorite fantasy book from the last 5 years is Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber, where the story hounded the protagonist who wanted to be anything but. I had high hopes for Becca C. Smith’s Atlas. P.F. White’s Alison’s Adventures in the Multiverse is no longer available, but, while not perfect, sure was unique! I ended up hating Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series halfway through, but at least it had an interesting story. So what do I look for? Maybe something with a unique twist on the same old. Or something entirely new. Something that hasn’t been seen on the shelves for years.
2. Worldbuilding. This is so fundamental to fantasy that it disappoints me when I find the world lacking or the worldbuilding glossed over with almost no history or background. Everyone speaks English and dresses like it’s medieval England. Robert Jordan crafted entire countries. Anne Bishop dared to go to hell. Discworld is on the back of a turtle, and it makes sense. Jason D. Morrow’s Marenon was unique with its second chance at life and richly imagined with creatures I never want to meet. The Watershed trilogy is a bit dated but I still appreciate the three unique realms that were each thoughtfully crafted. A world that comes alive is all I’m really asking for.
3. Magic system. Not that magic is necessary in every fantasy story, but it does turn up quite frequently. Magic needs rules and restrictions to make it and its users interesting. It may also need someone who can turn it on its head. But it needs to make sense. It needs to be useful and have a real place in the story, not be thrown in for the sake of having magic. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson has a truly unique world and magic system, but I find him tedious to read. Anne Bishop has an amazing magic system tied to jewels. I’m kind of jealous I didn’t think of it first.
4. Good writing. Is this too much to ask for? Without good writing, I can’t find the story to be compelling. It may be a unique premise or approach with fascinating characters and a great world, but if the writing doesn’t match the material I’m going to get annoyed really fast. I may come off as a bit of a snob, but I can only wade through poor grammar, wrong word choices, missing words, wrong punctuation, endless repetition (doesn’t anyone use a thesaurus anymore?), etc. for so long.
5. Characterization. Good characters are complex, unique, memorable, and feel like real people. I like character-driven stories. I like flawed protagonists and antagonists. I can live with the know-it-all. The unsuspecting hero, the damsel-in-distress, the wise old wizard…I can deal with the staples. I also love the unique. I love that in Scriber the weathered warrior was female, and a princess. Growing up I loved Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books because she was a lady knight who married a former thief. And Terry Pratchett, of course, turned everything on its head. But what I really love are characters that feel real, like they could be the person living three doors down. They’re flawed, maybe talented, have fears and dreams, but, most of all, are interesting to read and get to know.
What do you look for in a good fantasy book? What makes you want to pick it up? And anyone have any good recommendations for me (I really prefer self-published Kindle books at the moment)?