There is nothing quite like being transported to a completely new world, of following the turbulent life of a plucky young protagonist who defeats fantastical evil against all odds and grows into their own. Answer this: in the current popularity of realistic fiction, where is everyone's favorite hero?
As a fan of fantasy, from cheesy epics to the YA magical realism, recommending books to less enthusiastic friends can often serve as a challenge. Who would choose a 600-page hero's journey to a realistic tale of teenage love and loss, of modern action and mystery, of steamy romantic escapism? Well, me, for starters. But I know there are more of you out there searching for a way to trap fantasy skeptics into our circle, as well as new readers who are looking for an easy, accessible in to the world of the fantasy novel. It can be intimidating, to be sure; many vintage fantasy books feature laughable cover art, and vague plot descriptions. How do you separate the ridiculous from the worthy? You hunt that plucky young protagonist down, and realize he has taken a new form.
The fantasy novel has adapted to the growing market for relatable characters, and it just takes some light digging to find him.
I present to you, a list of relatable, accessible fantasy. Nothing too heavy, nothing too intimidating. Let this list serve as your first lesson about what fantasy can be, and experience how each book leads you into a new world:
THE INTRO: Ordinary Magic by Caitlin Rubino-Bradway
Ordinary Magic is a perfect introduction to fantasy. A light-hearted middle grade novel that borrows much from the magic of Harry Potter's world, this novel follows a young girl whose life changes when she finds out she is a non-magical person in a world run by magic. Outcast and shunned by society, she is sent to live at a school with fellow Ords -- non-magical people -- and navigates new obstacles she'd never imagined. I recommend this book for younger readers who think fantasy isn't for them, young readers who liked Harry Potter and are looking for something similar to enjoy, or adult readers who appreciate a good middle grade novel. This novel is not quite magical realism, but lies somewhere along that boundary.
A few grade levels up from the first book on the list, The Paper Magician caters to a very specific audience with the potential to appeal to a much wider group. Ever watched the film Spirited Away? Kiki's Delivery Service? Studio Ghibli fans will believe this book was written with them in mind. Set in a steampunk Victorian society, this story defies the logic of its genre. Both a relatable (and strong female!) narrator pairs with an almost perfect representation of The Hero's Journey, mixed with magic, origami, and some crazy action. The world never knew it needed paper magicians, trained to use folded paper to enact their spells. Ceony Twill is an immediately loveable character, who learns the reasons for her unwanted gift and makes the best of a bad situation in order to save a friend's life. Are you listening, Miyazaki? You really need to come out of retirement for this one!
CLASSIC CHEESE: Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce
If you haven't read Birth of the Firebringer, what were you doing during your childhood? Here's where the list really deviates into something a little more traditional than magical realism and relatable protagonists: unicorns. Everyone in this book is a unicorn, a horse, or some other kind of creature created from the insanely gifted mind of its author. This novel was first published in 1985, and it is still rated at almost five stars. That's crazy. Korr, the son of the unicorn prince, is destined to live an incredible life and lead his people from darkness and danger. He's annoying, he's angsty, he's pretty much your typical unicorn teenager, but he has something more to offer. I picked up this book as a joke because of its hilarious cover, not realizing this was a story about unicorns; really, it's often easy to forget that these characters aren't human. About sixty pages in, though, I was addicted. You will be, too, and the cheesy aspect of this book makes it easy to recommend to friends, who will be both curious and extremely confused.
This fantasy list would be no fantasy list without some dragons. Seraphina, another novel with a good mix of non-human protagonists, is the perfect modern dragon novel for fantasy newcomers. With yet another strong female protagonist on the list, Rachel Hartman turns the typical dragon into a cold, intellectual creature co-existing (somewhat) peacefully in society with humans; until, one day, that situation isn't quite so peaceful. Seraphina is an angsty, impulsive protagonist forced to hide her nature as half-human half-dragon, and struggles to find more of her own kind while saving the land from war and impending doom. Part fantasy, part sci-fi, part romance, part YA angst, this novel appeals to more than just the typical teen reader and is a lively, controversial discussion topic for a book club.
I'll admit, this book almost didn't make the list. A friend advocated tirelessly for this book, and while it's a whopping 662 pages, I eventually gave in. It was so worth the two days I spent hiding indoors to finish this book. This book earned it spot on my list with an addictive plot and some kickass demon hunting action, as well as a mysterious protagonist who isn't quite trustworthy but is just intriguing enough to keep following. It's a slow start, but the book really picks up before the halfway mark, and fully redeems itself by the last page. I was told this would be the next Harry Potter, and I think that title was completely wrong; this book can stand on its own feet without sharing any of HP's fame. The plot is really just too complicated to describe here without spoilers, but trust me on this one. Pick this book up.
**Honorable mention fantasy and realistic fantasy novels include the old favorite Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, the book-turned-movie Eragon by Christopher Paolini, the new twist on an old story The Child Thief by Brom, the dreamy YA Tithe by Holly Black, and the magnificent Stardust by Neil Gaiman, among others. It's so hard to choose.