Before I met my husband, my bias against the fantasy genre went so deep, I'd even turned up my nose at Harry Potter. At least in my case, an English degree served more to deepen my literary snobbery than to encourage my love of reading. I read literary fiction and classics, thank you, and expected those of lesser intellect to keep their wands and faeries to themselves.
Fortunately, my early twenties are long gone, along with them the certainty that I know everything. Now I know the joy to be found in stories set outside the normal realm of our existence.
If you're a fantasy noob and want to branch out, here are some of my suggestions for where to start. I call these books “gateway fantasy” because like a gateway drug, they are well-written and engaging enough to compel even the snootiest lit-fic reader to seek out harder stuff.
Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney
Mahoney's gorgeous writing is reason enough to snatch this one up. The prose is as lush and inviting as the setting he's created, sort of an alternate 18th-century village surrounded by woods and hills. Tom Orange is a tavern owner, a mostly taciturn man with a deep sense of justice. One day he sees a young woman stranded on a branch in the river, heading downstream toward the falls. Tom saves her life and brings her back to the village, being the good guy he is, but the mysterious newcomer brings danger tangled up with her long hair and wet skirts. I love when I come upon a novel that feels totally original, and Tom Orange's strange world was one I was happy to immerse myself in.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Uprooted is a perfect candidate for gateway fantasy because it reads more like a folk tale. Author and first-generation American Naomi Novik grew up on traditional Polish stories, and she twists them into vivid, fantastical life in this standalone novel. Agnieska’s village is watched over by a man they call the Dragon. As inexplicable payment for his protection, every ten years the Dragon selects one girl to come live with him in his tower. After ten years, the girls are free to go, but they never come back to the village for long. They’re changed. Clumsy, hapless Agnieska has always known the Dragon will choose her best friend Kasia because she is the kindest and most beautiful girl their age, but they're in for a major shock when at the choosing the Dragon points to Agnieska instead. And believe me, that earth-shattering moment is just the very beginning of this untamed, magical story. Novik portrays magic and sorcery in a way I’ve never seen before—it’s almost as if you can feel the power leaving your fingertips as you turn the pages.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
The Wrath and the Dawn definitely counts as gateway fantasy, because the magical elements don't even come into play until very late in the book. Also, it's crazemazingly good and everyone should read it! A riff on the familiar tale A Thousand and One Nights, Ahdieh's novel tells the story of Shahrzad, promised in marriage to a bloodthirsty king who marries a new bride every day, only to have her murdered as the next day dawns. Shahrzad's best friend was one of the king's victims, and Shahrzad has sworn to exact revenge on him. To stay her own execution, she tells the king stories that stretch from night to night, a plan that works perfectly—until Shahrzad realizes she's having a harder and harder time remembering that the man in front of her is someone she is supposed to hate. Is it possible Shahrzad is falling in love with a monster? I inhaled this book in a single day—it's sure to please even the staunchest genre skeptic. (Psst...there's a sequel coming out in 2016!)
Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
13th century Bohemia! How can you resist such a rarely-seen setting for a fantasy novel? In Bohemian Gospel, Mouse is an orphaned girl raised in a convent by nuns and priests. She has strange powers that she can’t always control, so many view her with suspicion, but she is a talented healer. One day, King Ottakar is grievously wounded, and Mouse surprises everyone by taking charge and healing him. In the years following that charged and fateful encounter, Mouse and Ottakar’s relationship burgeons and shifts like fog. They’re drawn to each other, but there are other forces that want to keep them apart. Romance, adventure, court intrigue, and more gore than you might be expecting based on that lovely cover (it turns out medical practices in the 13th century were pretty gruesome)—this book would be a perfect intro to the genre for a fantasy novice.