The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy novels are about as good as the genre gets. They’re based on detailed historical research so, while the characters, nations, and religions of his novels are fictionalized, they’re often analogous to real-world historical periods and places—reading Kay is like reading a history book with the boring bits cut out. With few exceptions, his books are primarily standalone entries that you can dive into without worrying too much about what comes before or after, making them perfect for this list.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in a fantastical version of medieval Spain with surrogates for the Jews (the Kindath), Muslims (the Asharites), and Christians (the Jaddites) of that time. These fictional stand-ins aren’t 1:1 replicas of their real-world counterparts, but they’re basically representative of each’s place in history at that time.
The book follows three protagonists, a physician, a soldier, and a poet mercenary (one from each group) as they navigate the political and religious turmoil of Al-Rassan. It deals with politics, religion, loyalty, and bigotry while telling a grounded fantasy story that doesn’t rely on magic or dragons to draw you in—and we’re sure you’ll love it.
For fans of: Historical Fiction, Political Intrigue, Sweeping Epics
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Nail Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s now-classic spoof on the end of the world was turned into a pitch perfect miniseries last year, but even the best adaptation falls short of the source material in this case. Good Omens combines Gaiman’s storytelling sensibilities with Pratchett’s humor, telling the story of an angel and a demon who have come to enjoy living on Earth and try to avert the End Times by raising the Antichrist themselves so he can’t fulfill his destiny. It’s a sharp read, full of humor, that pokes fun at…basically everyone and everything. If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no time like the present.
For fans of: British Humo(u)r, Armageddon
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself is not only a gateway drug into the fantasy genre, but a gateway drug into The First Law series, a universe spanning a trilogy, three standalone novels, and a bevy of short stories. Abercrombie provides his audience with a trio of primary characters, each with enough backstory to fill a tome of his own. These three whorl and careen through Abercrombie’s richly created world as it teeters on the brink of war. Each character appeals to a different fantastic ideal and switches between them often, allowing the reader to immerse themselves into Logan Ninefingers’ coarse barbarism, Jezal dan Luthar’s high-class swashbuckling, and San dan Glokta’s tragic villainy.
In his writing, Abercrombie wields the fictions of international politics with the same dexterity as brutal combat. But the true strength of the novel, and its reason for inclusion here, is Abercrombie’s ability to disguise the mechanics of preternatural abilities (pronounced magic) as part of a full-bodied and satisfying worldbuilding experience.
For fans of: Action/Adventure, Medieval Settings
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (the first in his Founder’s Trilogy) is a heist novel set in the fictional city of Tevanne. In the novel, inanimate objects can be “scrived” with symbols to make them disobey the laws of physics (for instance, wheels can be scrived to think they’re always rolling downhill, even on a flat surface, basically turning carriages into cars). Tevanne is ruled by several merchant houses, basically operating as fiefdoms within the city, that are constantly jockeying for position with one another. The story, in absolute simplest terms, follows a young thief, Sancia, who is drawn into the merchant houses’ schemes and forced to take sides.
While this is a novel that runs on magic, the system in place is interesting and thoughtful, used to effectively heighten the suspense as Sancia’s story unfolds; it almost always feels tangible and consequential, rather than like a deus ex machina. The language used throughout is thoroughly contemporary—plenty of naughty words—and engaging; the characters all talk like people, not ancient texts. This is a fast, fun, romp through a wonderfully conceived fantasy world that examines capitalism, class, and technology—all increasingly relevant in the world we live in.
For fans of: Mission: Impossible & Ocean’s 11