Fantasy for people who don't like Fantasy

I’ve never considered myself a fantasy fan, but I’d like to give the genre another chance, considering how much I enjoyed the Harry Potter books. I guess I’ve always associated fantasy with negative connotations in my mind – characters that are cardboard cutouts, emphasis on action over substance, and a general lack of psychological depth. I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.

Problem is, I’ve tried on several occasions to read Lord of the Rings – the quintessential fantasy series – and I’ve never been able to last longer than a few hundred pages. (I liked the Hobbit though). So I guess I’d prefer something a bit lighter than LotR-- something without all the dense, long-winded arcana I associate with Tolkien’s books.

Your recommendations would be appreciated.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station; compelling story in a deliciously steampunky setting, fascinating creatures and monsters, and insane fantasy concepts. Characters are wonderfully-developed, the language and style is impeccable and nuanced, and the socioeconomics and politics of this fantasy city are incorporated in an impressive manner.

You’ve told us what you don’t want, but it might help if you told us what you do like.

Look for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke. Very engaging read that, despite its length moves along rapidly. Great characters and situation.

There’s also American Gods and Anansi Boys by Neal Gaiman.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, perhaps? It’s like LotR in that magic is more of a subtle force. The characters are wonderful and not at all one-dimensional – just don’t get too attached to any of them.

Check out Robin Hobb’s set of three trilogies: [1] The Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest), [2] The Liveship Traders Trilogy (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny), and [3] The Tawny Man Trilogy (Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, Fool’s Fate). It’s really all one gigantic story, with fully fleshed out characters, intricate plotting that hangs together, and amazing originality. Well-written, too.

I would second Neil Gaiman. I’d also recommend Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book and To say nothing of the dog.

And my very favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. All of her books are different, but you might enjoy Hexwood and its little elements of satire on D&Desque fantasy, or Archer’s Goon. Or any of them–you could also try the Chrestomanci stories.

Well, if you liked Britain’s most popular fantasy novelist, you should check out it’s second most popular fantasy novelist, Terry Pratchett. Or, “the good one,” as I like to think of him. If I had to lay odds on wether Hogwarts or Discworld would be best remembered in five hundred years, my money’s on the giant turtle. Small Gods is my recommendation: it’s somewhere at the midpoint of the series, but it’s a stand alone novel, so you don’t have to have read any of the early books to follow the story. And, frankly, the first books in the series really weren’t all that good.

You should also try out Tim Powers. The Anubis Gates and Declare are my two favorites. The first is about time travel, werewolves, and Victorian London. The second is about WWII, spies, the Cold War, and an arms race to control a colony of djinn on Mount Ararat.

Steven Brust’s Jhereg series is a sort of mash-up between J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Marlowe. It follows the adventures of Vlad Taltos, a short-lived human living in elven society, trying to climb his way to the top of their criminal underworld. It’s kind of hard to figure out where to start with this series, though: they were written out of chronological order, so the first published book makes heavy reference to events you haven’t read about yet. It’s really cool how it all slots together as you progress through the series, though. I’d start with the eponymous Jhereg and go from there. He’s also got a related series in the same setting, but several hunderd years earlier, that’s a brilliant pastiche of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Lastly, Lois McMaster Bujold has written a string of simply wonderful fantasy novels. Unlike the preceding recommendations, there’s no “twist” to these books. They’re straight forward, medieval European flavored fantasy stories, with a strong emphasis on character, and few of the fantasy stereotypes like elves and magic swords. Check out The Curse of Chalion or The Sharing Knife: they’re each the start points for seperate series. The first is a series of stand alone novels in the same general setting, the other a more standard fantasy trilogy.

Nitpick: Doomsday Book is straight science fiction. But an excellent suggestion none the less.

Jonathon Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy. I think I’ve said this before, but if Bartimaeus were real, he’d be a Doper.

Given your description of what you have enjoyed, you might like some of David Eddings’ stuff. Perhaps “The Elenium”, which begins with the book “The Diamond Throne”.

Great literature, or even great fantasy, this ain’t. But this particular series of Eddings’ is one of my guilty pleasures.

Just be warned. Eddings has a few good stories. But he uses them over and over again.

Or you could go with Mercedes Lackey’s books about Valdemar (the books with the magical horsies and kitties who will be friends with and guardians to tragically alienated youths). Also lots of women with swords there too.

I’ll agree with Thudlow, what exactly did you like in the Harry Potter series? There are many different kinds of fantasy and ways of telling a story (no, I’m not trying to be facetious).

-A young, mistreated hero discovering (s)he is really more?
-The magic? The magical world? The secret world?
-The mystery, puzzle-like aspect that each book had?
-Narrator treating the reader like an adult (maybe you’ve only encountered fantasy novels intended for children?) ?
-Good triumphing over evil (maybe :wink: )?
-Weird little elves with big moon-eyes that do whatever you want?

Alternatively, you said you don’t like the action-y stuff; Would you care to try novels that include:
-Philosophical discussions? (eg. Sword of Truth)
-Science fiction along with fantasy? (eg. Apprentice Adept)
-Humorous fantasy (eg. Diskworld)
-Personified rodents? (Redwall)
Meanwhile, I’ll second the Robin Hobb books (not only are they good, but they have many of these aspects in common with the Harry Potter series)!

I second the recs for A Song of Ice and Fire and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. You might also want to check out Guy Gavriel Kay and (since it sounds like you’re fine with kids’ books), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Westmark books.

Neal Barrett, Jr. is a very interesting fellow who’s been writing top-notch science fiction and fantasy for over thirty years. My favorites among his novels are The Prophecy Machine and The Treachery of Kings. These are comedies of a sort, set in a bizarre alternate reality vaguely reminiscent of Victorian England. But while the setting seems superficially quaint and ‘cute’, the underlying story is deeply cynical and dark. A very unique pair of books, one which I’ve never really seen anything remotely similar to.

I enjoyed all of those things, but the puzzle/mystery angle is probably what made me a fan. Plus I liked the fact that the main characters were drawn with enough depth for me to relate to them and care about their well-being. I enjoy some books with one-dimensional characters as long as the plot is good enough to compensate, but for the most part I like to feel as if I’m reading about real people.

wow you guys a waaay too serious!

I am a hard core “hard” science fiction" fan… but I simply love:

Disc world (Terry Pratchett)
Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Glaxay trilogy in five parts

Both series are full of humour, insight and actively make fun of the so called “Fantasy” style…

check them out


If you like kids with magic, there’s Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. Power in wizardry is inverse to age,so the younger kids are strongest of all. And the fight they Lone Power, the literal creator of death and entropy. Very powerful stuff, on a literally cosmic level.

I like the Garret novels by Glen Cook; a private eye in a world filled with magic and fantasy creatures.

If you can find them, the Lord Darcy books by Randall Garrett. They are set in a world where the laws of magic are known and used like we use technology, but their technology is still at the horse and buggy level. The main character, Lord Darcy, is basically Sherlock Holmes, with a “Watson” who’s a forensic sorcerer.

I’ll second this. I’m about seventy pages int The Scar right now; A sort of nautical version of PSS. Mieville is an incredibly talented writer, as a pure literary stylist he is leagues ahead of Rowling or Tolkein. He throws off ideas in a page that other writers would base whole novels on.

Also, check out Mieville’s forerunners: M John Harrison and Mervyn Peake.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is on the border of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s brilliant but very obscure, as you see things through the eyes of a somewhat untrustworthy storyteller.

Tim Powers tells exciting ripping yarns.

Greg Bear is mostly an SF writer, but wrote a fantasy duology, Songs of Earth and Power.

All of the above are pretty dense and rich, which on re-reading your OP is I guess something you’re not looking for. But I’ve already written this post, so I’m posting it anyway.

If you like your stories fast moving and your prose lean and mean, try Roger Zelazny – everything except the stuff written with others, or written after his death. The Amber series, beginning with Nine Princes in Amber, are a particular favorite of mine.

Also, Declare, although a favorite of mine, is about the densest, most slow-moving book Tim Powers has written. Try “On Stranger Tides” – it’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” for grown-ups. “Anubis Gates” is great, too.

Some other possibilities:

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard or The Drawing of the Dark
James Branch Cabell: Jurgen
Jack Vance: Tales of the Dying Earth (look for the Fantasy Masterworks edition)
James P. Blaylock: The Paper Grail
Thorne Smith: Topper
L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt: The Complete Enchanter stories
Fritz Leiber: The Swords stories (start with Swords and Deviltry)
Keith Laumer: The Time Bender