What Makes a Good Fantasy Book, or what will get me to read it

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)?

15 Comments

    • kat

      I think I would enjoy it, too. I read the first book almost 20 years ago when someone lent it to me, but she didn’t lend me the next book and I had a hard time finding it in bookstores and libraries, so I never finished it. But now it’s possible to find just about anything, so I absolutely must finish these books. Thank you for reminding me of them!

  • bitsanddragons

    Did you read “The sword of Joram”? It’s from Weiss & Hickman (Dragonlance). Probably yes, but just in case. I read it loooong time ago and I was deeply in love with the end of the story. So in love that I built a world similar to the one of Joram… Unfortunately not available as ebook 😛

    • kat

      I haven’t! I did love Weiss and Hickman, though, but never came across this book. They are true masters of the craft, so I’ll be sure to pick it up. Thank you for the recommendation!

  • MS//Mommy

    I love your criteria for what makes a good fantasy novel!
    Have you read “Wayfarer Redemption” by Sara Douglass? It’s been years since I’ve read the trilogy and I’ve been meaning to reread them recently because I thought they were fun and enjoyable.

    • kat

      I haven’t! I remember seeing them, but never picked them up. I always meant to, though. And Hades’s Daughter has been on my list for much too long. I’ve heard her books are wonderful, so I can’t wait to read them. Thank you for the recommendation, and reminder!

  • jennifermzeiger

    This tickles my writerly brain. I love to hear what makes people dive into a book and stay there.

    Brandon Sanderson is good, as you said. The Mistborn Series takes a bit to get into. His Reckoners series is a bit faster paced and has good humor. His Alcatraz series is hilarious and unique.

    John Flanagan is one of my favorites (Ranger’s Apprentice Series) and is great for reading to kids too.

    If you like gritty, dark fantasy, Brent Weeks or Peter V. Brett are both good. Be warned, they deal with some very dark material.

    I’ve just gotten into some of Pratchett’s work and am thoroughly enjoying it. (Side note: Sanderson’s Alcatraz makes fun of a lot of the big names in the fantasy world, even himself. He has footnotes and I’m convinced it’s his way of having fun with Pratchett’s work.)

    Anyway, long comment done. =)

    • kat

      I have one of Sanderson’s books, but, for some reason, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll have to check out the Alcatraz books, though. I love a good laugh! There was one book I read with extensive, humorous footnotes and I loved it. Too bad I can’t remember it now, but I guess I’ll give him one more try. These all sound like great recommendations; thanks! I can’t wait to fill my Kindle with even more books, and it’s great that I can even share some with my son! Pratchett’s books are a lot of fun, aren’t they? I really need to get back to them.

  • FairytaleFeminista

    For me, the best fantasy books have three elements: a world I want to visit, characters that have agency, and magic.
    I loved what you said about world building because it’s so easy to create a lazy world. My favorite part of a fantasy book (which I know isn’t popular) is a really snappy prologue. I want a little history and a map to get me into the story.
    The characters I enjoy are ones that have a goal and work towards it. They don’t have to be fierce, but they should have a strong sense of self. I can’t deal with stories that have characters running from one disaster to another, like life is happening to them instead of being real participants.
    And magic is what makes fantasy worthwhile. Life with a little magic makes it fun.
    Try A Darker Shade of Magic!

    • kat

      This is a great list! I love a good prologue, too. They really do help set the tone and they’re short enough that readers don’t become too invested in characters that may never reappear. Character driven stories are so much more interesting and, you’re right, what’s life in a fantasy world without a little magic? Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll check it out!

  • Ajal

    Hi KAT
    I really like the idea how you described fantasy novel should be . Being a fantasy novel lover myself I wrote a book ” Terror of Darkness.”. However, I never got a review from anyone since I am not socially active I never found out the quality of my book. I would highly appreciate it if you could read just a few page of my book and give me an honest review . Thank you so much
    https://aboutajal.com/terror-of-darkness-sample

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