Summertime just seems ripe for adventure, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s the memories of vacations past, where you were crammed into the family car to hit the open road, or maybe just the sense of possibility inherent in unscheduled time while you were free from school. When you didn’t have anything you HAD to accomplish, you could theoretically accomplish ANYTHING. And since summer is this temporary reprieve from school and therefore responsibilities, it seems like summer’s consequences should be temporary as well.
As a kid, I always felt like adventure was waiting just around the next corner. Maybe it was my steady diet of Narnia books (fantasy lands accessible through ordinary bedroom furniture? Yes, please!) or movies like The Goonies that made me believe that, yes, of course, regular kids could just stumble upon pirate ships in their neighborhood, and no, it did not matter that Oklahoma is a land-locked state. I’ve never quite given up that mindset, that the real world is just filler at the beginning of my story, and one day, the real adventure will begin.
I think this sense of possibility is what appeals to me so much about fantasy books. Within the pages of a book, anything is possible. The more fantastic, the better! Great world-building is one of my favorite things about fantasy as a genre. So journey with me, if you will, through some of the best and most magical lands in books.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
As a word nerd, I was obviously drawn to this book because of the title. This middle grade novel owes a lot to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz (classic fantasy land stories, obviously), but it’s also completely its own. September is spirited away from Omaha, Nebraska, on a boring day during World War II by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes, his steed; travels through the closet between worlds, which is full of junk like in your grandmother’s house; falls into the Perverse and Perilous Sea, which is purple, obviously; and climbs out onto a golden beach littered with treasure (maybe). And that’s just the first 25 pages. For kids who have devoured Narnia and want more, this series delivers magic and whimsy aplenty.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Many fantasy books fall into the trap of not really creating their own world, but just slapping new names and maybe some magic on a setting that is basically medieval Europe. While still mostly European, the setting of Six of Crows felt totally fresh to me. The story starts out in Ketterdam, a city based on post-Rennaisance Amsterdam, and then moves to the icy Fjerda, which is clearly Scandinavia. There are also characters from Ravka (Russia) and Novyi Zem (based on the American colonies and Australia), as well as Suli, who are described as a nomadic tribe, similar to the Romani, but they are more South Asian in appearance. The plot revolves around six outcasts who come together to attempt an impossible heist. Action packed and totally engrossing, this book hooked me from the first chapter.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
This series opener starts out in Prague, which isn’t technically a fantasy land, but sure feels like one to a girl born and bred in Oklahoma. Art student Karou seems pretty normal at first: she’s got quirky friends, a slimeball ex, and a sketchbook full of monsters. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, we quickly find out that those monsters are real, and they raised her from infancy. Karou leads a double life--following magical portals around the world, collecting teeth, of all things, for some vaguely magical purpose that her chimaera “father,” Brimstone, won’t explain to her. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it eventually takes Karou to a parallel world, Eretz, where she gets caught up in a centuries-long conflict between the Chimaera and the Seraphim.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
This first novel in the new Cinder Spires series is a steampunk/fantasy hybrid where people live in giant spires in the sky and travel by airship. An airship's crew become humanity's lone defenders when an ancient enemy reawakens and threatens the world with monstrous creatures and perpetual darkness. Fans of both epic fantasy and steampunk will find plenty to love here. If you liked the large cast of characters and shifting perspective of Game of Thrones, but would prefer more action and less raping, I’d definitely recommend this book.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
If you hadn’t been able to tell from the rest of this list, I love things that are a bit out of the ordinary. This coming of age tale about a girl who is sacrificed to a wizard and becomes his apprentice is based on Polish folklore, and it features an evil sentient forest. Yep, I said an Evil. Sentient. Forest. What else could you possibly ask for in a fantasy setting?
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
If you can’t decide whether you’re in the mood for a weird Western, urban fantasy, alternate universe, or high fantasy, definitely start the Dark Tower series, because it has a bit of everything. The Gunslinger, as the name would imply, is definitely the most Western-y. Gunslinger Roland Deschain fights otherworldly forces on his quest across a bleak and frightening landscape to find the Dark Tower, a legendary building fabled to be the nexus of all universes. If that’s not your bag, just hang on, because the next book will be completely different.
Thud! by Terry Pratchett
Okay, much like the Dark Tower series, Discworld is a bit of a “duh” choice when it comes to fantasy settings. But I couldn’t resist including it because Terry Pratchett’s writing is just so weird and funny. Discworld, balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on Great A-'Tuin, the giant space turtle, as it swims through space, takes its inspiration from classic works of fantasy, mythology, and folklore, using them to satire current political and cultural issues. Thud! isn't the first in the series, but it was the first one I read, and the one that got me hooked. I highly recommend it in audio, if you’re into that sort of thing.