Fantasy for People Who Don’t Like Elves and Wizards

I consider this post to be a companion piece to my 2020 Reading Challenge blog “Read a Fantasy, Myth or Fairytale.” Not every genre is for every reader, but most genres offer a greater variety than many people realize. Fantasy can often seem inaccessible -- and I write this as a fan. This can be due to its reputation for long books, filled with world-building and unconventional names in fictional languages. But not all fantasy novels are dense, quasi-medieval European epics. I have compiled all the titles from this post, along with a few others, in this list.

Hugo Award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, “The City We Became,” is a highly anticipated fantasy story set in contemporary New York City. A culturally diverse group of five New Yorkers, one from each of the five boroughs, must defend the city in this thought-provoking and incisive novel that addresses both gentrification and the idea of the multiverse.

Sometimes, I just get sick of the standard Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs fantasy setting and want to read a something set in a different world that breaks that mold. Fonda Lee’s “Jade City” and its sequel “Jade War” are thick, but fast-paced and action-packed novels of rival families, magic, betrayal, deception and beautifully-written fight scenes. The main difference between these and more conventional fantasy is that the setting is an approximation of a modern eastern Asian city, and reads like a version of a Hong Kong hard-boiled crime movie.

The City & the City” by China Miéville is a detective noir murder mystery set in two fictional cities that exist in the same space, with shadowy forces enforcing the divide. Gritty and intricately plotted like many great mysteries, Miéville uses a supernatural conceit to amp up the isolation and paranoia.

A lot of fantasy does not take place in another world, but instead places a fantasy setting within our existing world. One of the best known is Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” an intricately plotted account of an ex-con meeting the abandoned gods of the many cultures that have settled in America. It’s a clever and interesting way to look at the way we spend our time and how time changes cultures.

If you prefer graphic novels, Alan Moore drew on his own religious practice to incorporate the occult elements of his award-winning Promethea series. It tells the story of an ordinary college student in a future New York who comes to embody an ancient warrior spirit. Lavishly illustrated by J.H. Williams III, this thought-provoking and visually appealing series can show not only what non-traditional fantasy can be, but also non-traditional comics.

Fantasy shows off the imaginations of some of the most creative authors of all time. The genre can have its conventions and clichés, but it also is full of possibilities and unique ideas. Even if it is not a genre you usually read, consider giving some of these titles a look.