With Christmas already behind us and New Year’s Eve practically upon us, there’s not a lot standing between northerners and a long, cold winter. Here in Minnesota, things will be pretty dark and snowy for the next several months, and I’m starting to amass a big stack of books to get me through. Whether you’re looking ahead to a long winter or back to that bookstore gift card you got in your stocking, I wanted to share some of my favorite fantasy titles. I’ll recommend six books and/or series, two each for adults, teens, and children, along with their first sentences, reasons I love the books, and why I think you’d like them too.
Quick note: There are no affiliated links or pushes to buy anything. Your library has most of these titles. All I hope to get in return is a comment with some of your favorite titles for me to add to my winter reading list. Enjoy!
The Scavenger Trilogy by K. J. Parker
“He opened his eyes and looked down. He had no idea where he was.”
K. J. Parker’s dark yet humorous trilogy—Shadow, Pattern, and Memory—actually was a gift from Orson Scott Card after I met him at a writing class he taught. The books are about a man who wakes with no memory of his identity and may or may not be the god Poldarn, responsible for bringing about the end of the world. Whoever he is, tragedy seems to follow him wherever he goes—as do the people who know who he really is and want him dead.
If you like dark irony, detailed descriptions (e.g. of blacksmithing and fights), and a story where you and the character are both struggling to figure out what’s going on and whether it’s possible to change it, this is the series for you. It wasn’t my usual reading style, but it was the series for me when I was struggling to find something I felt like reading, and I do like to recommend it.
The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”
After college completely burned me out for reading or writing for a time, Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind was the first book that made me laugh, cry, and pick it up again. It’s the story of Kvothe: a young, infamous, precocious musician and student of magic who makes quite a name for himself in a world that has little mercy on him. The world building is in-depth and beautiful, the writing itself is rich, clever, and occasionally hilarious, and the characters are loveable, hateable, and so very complex.
Don’t let the size of the volumes stop you. Read these books, and if the writing style is for you, then read them again. Unlike some long series, there is no extra information here—it all adds to the story without being wordy or overwhelming. The third book in the trilogy isn’t out yet, but a lovely related novella called The Slow Regard of Silent Things is there to help tide you over.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
When a friend loaned me Uprooted a year or two ago, I read it all within the next day or two—it was that good. Novik’s story is of a young woman taken by the “Dragon,” a.k.a. the wizard who watches over her valley. I don’t want to spoil anything that happens next, but let’s just say that this book has all the elements of love, loss, magic, curses, and determination that a good fairy tale (and a good book!) needs.
I bought my own copy of this book soon after returning my friend’s. It reminded me of the fantasy books I used to love most in my teen years, but at the same time, it was a beautiful, satisfying story for me as an adult. It’s based on the Polish tales of Baba Yaga, and I loved that it had that fairy tale feeling yet reflected a fairy tale that I wasn’t familiar with yet. If you love fairy tales and haven’t read this yet, you should probably get on it.
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
“The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.)”
This has been one of my favorite books forever—I won it in a B&N summer reading program as a kid and read it four and a half times before my mom could pry it away from me to see what it was and if I ought to be reading it. It’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that takes the princess “Rosie” away from the typical setting of an idyllic forest life and instead dumps her into village life. That life is filled with growing up’s laughter and tears, and all the while, the pressure of a curse and secrets that Rosie doesn’t know hang over her head and those of the magic-practicing family she lives with.
Some people don’t like McKinley’s long, flowery sentences in this one, but it’s a huge part of what I enjoy about the book. It doesn’t feel like the version of Sleeping Beauty that many of us know from Disney—it’s a story of family, hope, and choices, and I recommend it for readers young and old.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.”
From the first time I picked up my mom’s old copy of The Book of Three, I was in love with Taran and his journey. The series follows an orphaned assistant pig keeper who wants to be a hero as he makes mistakes, learns life lessons, and ultimately helps save a world reminiscent of Middle Earth. Taran reminded me a lot of myself, and I loved the friends and acquaintances he gains along the way.
These books are good for young readers—I was young when I read them—but the lessons Taran learns about self-discipline and interacting with other people are relevant to all ages, and the storyline itself is gripping. Alexander is a great author to share with the whole family this winter!
Watership Down by Richard Adams
“The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots.”
Okay, so this might not technically be fantasy, but it’s an adventure novel populated with rabbits, so what else do I call it? Adam’s book enchanted me right way because of the tone that takes itself seriously despite the furry subject matter and the rich rabbit society complete with its own folk tales, heroes, and a Cassandra-like prophet that nobody listens to. Having known my sister’s indoor pet rabbit for years, I was impressed by how naturally the rabbits behaved, too.
Just like it’s iffy to call this fantasy, it’s iffy to call it a children’s book. I didn’t read this book as a child but as an adult. While the author wrote it for his young daughters originally, many modern children might have difficulty with the writing, so read it yourself before passing it along to younger readers. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did—I recommend it for anyone who loves rabbits, survival stories, journeys, and rich setting.
Any more recommendations?
I have far more fantasy books than these few on my shelves. My collection ranges from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings to The Princess Bride and The Night Circus. It was hard to pick just a few of my favorites to share here!
Do you have recommendations of other fantasy titles that can get book lovers through this long season? Leave a comment below so that other readers and I can compare notes and check out even more titles. Let’s stay cozy this winter with stories that will carry us all to other worlds.