I'm a big fan of the fantasy genre and have been reading it most of my life. So, of course when it comes to our booklist this year, I'm very happy about the Fantasy titles included, and delighted to talk about them. But before I do, I wanted to talk about the nature of the fantasy genre itself.
The best fantasies are real.
I know that sounds all wrong, but it's the truth. The best fantasies reach right into you, make you believe in that world and characters. In the midst of impossibility, readers are suddenly back dealing with very real issues. Friendship, courage, determination, fear of failure, not fitting in, finding your own purpose in life, making hard choices, winning love and acceptance and risking rejection. The best fantasy works let readers explore these issues in themselves as they journey with the characters. These are things they will take into their own lives. Kids already know there are dragons in the world (in our world those dragons are bit less concrete: war, poverty, bullies, etc) what they need to be told is how to slay them — and be given the confidence that they can do so. The journey and struggle might not be easy, it might even mean a lot of hardship and sacrifice, but most fantasy will bear out the message that they can face their problems and succeed, despite how dark it looks at the outset.
Now... I'm a huge fantasy fan. I'm also a huge fantasy critic. I have no patience for bad fantasy (and there's a lot of it). If a writer thinks they can throw in some dragons, a wizard or two and slap a castle on the cover and get by me, they're sorely mistaken. If a book can't pull me in and make me care about the world and characters within the first ten pages it's usually not worth going further. I'm really tough on fantasy, mostly because I know how good it can really be. Fantasy, unlike realistic fiction, faces a rather distinct challenge. In realistic fiction, there is a general consensus what reality is and what it looks like. You know what the rules are. But in fantasy, all that is up in the air — and a good fantasy writer knows how to engage in solid worldbuilding to create a world and a set of rules without falling into the overused clichés, creatures and settings. The best fantasy stories are original and creative with their world building, and if they use clichéd subjects at all, they know how to give them a fresh spin . . . or turn them on their heads. The best fantasy stories feel "real" while the reader is immersed in them. And that altered reality is where they can don the armor of the hero, or heroine and maybe help to save the world. That alone is a powerful message — and an important one.
So... onto the books themselves.
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Michael Healy — I trust you all know your fairy tale stories. They are some of the first doses of fantasy any of us are fed. There are fairly few people who don't know of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and certainly we all know that these famous ladies of lore were rescued by Prince Charming. But wait, let's take these famous stories and try them from another angle. What if Cinderella just wants to go adventuring, Rapunzel is completely self sufficient, Sleeping Beauty is a bitch, and Snow White just needs some quiet time to herself? Well, it sure as heck means trouble for four Prince Charmings! There's Liam, the golden boy who suddenly isn't so popular anymore, and Frederick who is afraid of everything — though he's very charming! Then we have Duncan who is weird — incredibly lucky, but weird, and Ivan, a brawny hero with a short temper and a lot to prove. These four princes find themselves thrown together in an effort to save their kingdoms (and possibly set a few stories to rights). This story is tremendous fun and pokes fun at many fairy tale cliches. But it's also a great story of friendship, and how it's possible to overcome weaknesses and work with your strengths to achieve results.
In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz — we've more than one book that references fairy tales this year. But this book doesn't so much twist the storylines as harken back to the darker, bloodier and nastier types of stories first laid down by the brothers Grimm. Jack and Jill and a talking frog have their work cut out for them on their quest. Jack and Jill's world has the rules of the old fairy tales, and our hero and heroine will have to discover the power within themselves to thwart the evil magic and find a suitably "happy" ending. If you love fairy tales that haven't been "disneyfied" this should fit the bill!
Sometimes though, the tales drawn upon to create our fantasy may not be the ones we know. Grace Lin's Starry River of the Sky weaves Chinese myth and legend into this story of the village of Clear Sky, where the moon has gone missing. At it's heart, this is the tale of a young boy who has run away from home, but the many of the characters he encounters are more than they seem, making the story at once familiar and utterly magical.
So far we've talked about fantasy in terms of traditional tales and fairy tales. But my favorite sort of fantasy stories are those that recognize the overused cliches of the genre, and profoundly turn those cliches on their head. The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farey is probably my favorite fantasy read this year — and for good reason. We all know about stories of prophecy. Stories with chosen ones, noble heroes saving the world. Even non-fantasy readers are likely to have encountered these cliches of the genre. Every year, the town of Vengekeep brings forth a new tapestry — a tapestry that was made long ago by women who "saw" into the future and could predict what would happen in that year. Before now, those special tapestries have helped the townsfolk by warning them of trouble, but this year? This year's a real doozy. Fires, lava men, monsters... and the only people able to save them? The Grimjinx family. The members of the Grimjinx clan aren't surprised by the predictions, after all this family of con artists arranged to swap out this year's tapestry with one of their own design. What does surprise them is when the made up prophecies start to come true... and these ne'er do wells are the only ones that can save Vengekeep! With their cunning hubris come to bite them in the collective bottom, it's up to Jaxter to figure a way out of this pickle. This a great story, with plenty of excellent world building, and a fresh and delightfully irreverent take on fantasy tropes.
Now I'd say the hardest type of fantasy to write is one that attempts to adopt the world building and characters of an earlier work. Capturing not only the landscape, but the tone and style of a well-known story and applying it to a new tale is difficult to do in such a way that it honors the old without repeating it. I'm happy to say that Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly succeeds magnificently at this task. The author takes us back to the world of the Wind and the Willows for a new story with beloved characters and landscapes. Her deft hand invites both tried and true fans and brand new readers to encounter and enjoy this anthropomorphic fantasy adventure.
Sometimes fantasies take place in our world, or at least in a version of our world that's recognizable. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz is an atmospheric thriller set in Victorian London and full of intriguing characters and dark mysteries. An evil and manipulative puppet master with dark designs, a witch with a curse that's killing her, a poor little rich girl who vanishes in the night, and two talented orphans straining for independence are all bound up in this dark fantasy that will keep you turning pages to find out just what happens next. Adding a touch of magic, or a spark of the fantastic to a historical or contemporary setting can entice readers into exploring times and places that they wouldn't otherwise have thought to discover.
I think perhaps the biggest error non-fantasy readers make is assuming that a fantasy must contain magic. That's not exactly true. While many stories do feature magic in some form or another, it is possible to write a fantasy with no magic at all. Thus my last book to discuss, The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielson. This book is what might be termed political fantasy. Though I do think that tends to do it the disservice of not imparting all the action and adventure in the story. Our story opens with the thief, Sage being chased by an angry butcher with a cleaver. He manages to avoid the butcher's wrath, but soon finds himself roped into a very strange, and very dangerous contest. He and three other boys must train and practice to impersonate the long lost prince of the kingdom. Out of the four, one will be chosen to become the false prince, and to convince the court of their authenticity. Winning means a life playing a dangerous game with people all too ready to betray. Losing... means losing everything. Without a drop of magic, the author weaves an astonishly breathless story of intrigue and betrayal that will leave the audience wanting more.
I want to finish by saying that these are just a few of the great fantasy books published this year — there are lots more out there I didn't get to touch on, but will be just as exciting for the right readers. I hope you'll take some time to consider fantasy in the future if you haven't before, and that you'll be ready with a book in hand for the next fantasy fan that crosses your path with a need for something new to read.