Fantasy newbie wanting more pls!
February 16, 2012 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Looking for some recommendations for serious fantasy books, especially those inspired by fairy tales. A couple guidelines inside.

I just finished reading Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Lips Touch: Three Times by the very excellent Laini Taylor, and I would really like to read some more serious high fantasy with delectable writing. Both books are clearly inspired by fairy tales, of the sort where there are chimera and goblins, not Disney princesses. That is what I'm really asking for and hoping to find, but I am also open to other sorts of fantasy recommendations using these parameters:

* Not a lot of silliness. Think of Christopher Moore and then go with the opposite of that.
* Female main character preferred.
* Would like to stay away from wizards & dragons typical fantasy trope.
* Evocative writing, leaning more toward flowery than workmanlike.
* Can be adult, YA, or kids - I read it all.

If it helps, I have also read and enjoyed China Mieville's The City and the City, Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and of course, Game of Thrones. Thanks!
posted by houndsoflove to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 128 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Gaiman's Neverwhere. Also, M is for Magic, although that is short stories.

Mieville's Perdido Street Station is sensational. Lots of fairytale influence, and far more than The City and The City.

So is Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, and it has many good female characters. Short stories again. Fairy tale inspired, IMO, but mostly modern settings.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:30 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lyonesse by Jack Vance.
posted by SPrintF at 6:31 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany.
posted by SPrintF at 6:35 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not precisely fantasy, although the feeling is there: Gate of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh.
posted by SPrintF at 6:38 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Carey's Kushiel series. (They're sort of marketed as romance but a) they are really not and b) they are brilliant.)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:39 PM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

You probably would like Perdido Street Station as mentioned above. I hated it but it sounds exactly like what you are looking for (it was absolutely not what I was looking for).
posted by magnetsphere at 6:42 PM on February 16, 2012

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block
posted by corey flood at 6:43 PM on February 16, 2012

Put me down as a vote against the Kushiel series, unless you really enjoy reading cold embittered descriptions of what should be hot sex remembered by someone whose only remaining vantage point is Machiavellian politics.

I'd say generally Francesca Lia Block is closer to what you're looking for.
posted by alms at 6:47 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I haven't read much of the genre, unfortunately, but since you mentioned a female main character preference, I thought you might be interested in The Vaginal Fantasy Bookclub
posted by backwards guitar at 6:49 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: A YA book, but Beauty by Robin McKinley fits the bill (please ignore this edition's cheese-tastic cover). Also consider Gaiman's American Gods, which I think is his best work to date.
posted by smirkette at 6:53 PM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry, but I've been thinking: Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

And Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight.
posted by SPrintF at 6:56 PM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

And, well, you've seen Pan's Labyrinth, right?
posted by SPrintF at 6:58 PM on February 16, 2012

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner comes to mind. I haven't read this one myself, but her other novels are very definitely lush, delectable, and well-written.
posted by trunk muffins at 7:09 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I was dropping in to recommend Robin McKinley: specifically Deerskin and Spindle's End, since those are fairy-tale-based. (I haven't read Beauty or Rose Daughter, but those are, too.)

I found Deerskin horribly disturbing, but I assume that a reader of Martin can take a little disturbance.

Also, if you haven't read Angela Carter's fairy tale retellings, you should.

The comic book series Fables by Bill Willingham is also well worth a look. If you're into graphic novels, it's a very good series. There are a squazillion volumes out and it's still ongoing, so you won't run out of reading material any time soon.

posted by Pallas Athena at 7:10 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a little bit out of left field, I love A. S. Byatt. She's very interested in fairy stories, both incorporating them into her fiction (Angels & Insects and Possession, off the top of my head, but really all of her books in some form or another) and writing them as independent works "for adults," which is what I came here to recommend:

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye

The Little Black Book of Stories


You also might like Catherynne Valente, especially Deathless and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (free text and audio online--I think it's the whole book--though it's been published since).
posted by pullayup at 7:10 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Kelly Link also does this kind of thing well.
posted by pullayup at 7:11 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Little, Big by John Crowley is brilliantly dense and will very nicely fill your desire for evocative writing.
posted by caliban at 7:12 PM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Seconding Kelly Link. She's top notch.

Seconding Angela Carter as well.

Clive Barker's frequently excellent non-horror work might appeal to you. I'm a huge fan of Weaveworld (occasionally gory), Sacrament (borders on magic realism), and The Thief of Always (young adult). My SO says that his Abarat books are very good, and I'm told that Imajica might be his best book of all, but I haven't read it yet.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Amazingly enough, I collect books based on fairy tales, so here's an extensive list, in no particular order.

Many of McKinley's books are based on fairy tales, so she's a good bet in general (though she's closer to the "warm and fuzzy" end of the spectrum. Except Deerskin...)
Jane Yolen's Briar Rose is Sleeping Beauty + The Holocaust (and a great read in general).
The Book of Lost Things is a nice dark take on a bunch of fairy tales.
Anything by Charles deLint (more folk tale than fairy tale, though.)
Mercedes Lackey has several series based on fairy tale tropes: The Elemental Masters books are set in a pseudo-1800s version of our world, while the 100 Kingdoms books are more standard fantasy (I'm not a huge fan of the latter compared to her other work). She also has the standalone Firebird, which is a better read, I think.
Graphic novels Fables are pretty great. Sandman also has some fairy-tale/folktale/myth-inspired chapters.
David Barthelme's Snow White
Tanith Lee's short story collection Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer
MacDonald, George. The Light Princess.
Tepper, Sherri S. Beauty
Lewis, C.S. Until We Have Faces.
Donna Jo Napoli's Bound. Based on Cinderella (the Chinese version.).
I'm not a huge Rushdie fan, but Haroun and the Sea of Stories is pretty good (a friend of mine wrote her master's thesis on the connection between that and fairy tales, so I'm a bit biased.)
Maybe Ella Enchanted. I liked it, but it might be sillier than you prefer.
Sharon Shinn's The Truthteller's Tale isn't based on a particular fairy tale, but it does feel pretty fairy-tale-ish.
Terry Pratchett has a few (The Witches subseries of the Discworld books)

If you liked China Mievelle, you might like Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books (I'd read Shriek first, even though it's book 2)

I'm sure I'll think of 20 more once I post.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 7:21 PM on February 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Juliet Marillier has Wildwood Dancing and Cybele's Secret, which are based on a mix of fairytale and myth. The former of the two is based on The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Her other works are also pretty fantastic but closer to the myth side of things - but they're mostly female protagonists and they're all reasonably serious, although there's a particular romance setup that she tends to repeat throughout her books.
posted by belissaith at 7:24 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Catherynne Valente, particularly if you like flowery writing (no, fuck that, only if you like flowery writing), and also recommending War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.
posted by dekathelon at 7:46 PM on February 16, 2012

Practical Magic
Illumination Night
Turtle Moon
Seventh Heaven
The Probable Future

All by Alice Hoffman, all featuring female protagonists, all set in a world that combines the mundane with the fairytale. She has written many other novels that also fit these parameters, but these are the only ones I've actually read. It's been a while, but I remember tearing through them one after another after discovering Practical Magic, which is probably still my favourite of hers.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:55 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A book that happens to be one of my favorites, Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, based on the Scottish faery ballad.

It's part of a series of novels by different authors based on fairy tales; the only other one I have read is Snow White and Rose Red and I didn't love it. Tam Lin just happened to hit all my sweet spots, and I hope it will hit yours.
posted by padraigin at 7:59 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's not epic fantasy, but the first thing that comes to my mind is Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow, which utilizes Russian magical folkloric tradition instead of the tropes we're more familiar with. I also liked her The Alchemy of Stone, which is less cultural and locale-specific, but nevertheless fresh.

John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos is a fantasy trilogy that is built upon some very different mythologies than is conventional fantasy.

Graham Joyce'a The Tooth Fairy is a bit closer to supernatural horror than fantasy, but is quite literally about the Tooth Fairy and is a coming-of-age story.

I know that I've read some more fantasy novels that are built around fairy tales and non-western mythologies and other fantastical ideas that are distinct from conventional fantasy, but for the moment I can't recall any more.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:16 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: I would recommend Tender Morsels. Inspired by snow-white rose-red, It's one of the best YA fantasies I've read in a long time.
posted by superior julie at 8:16 PM on February 16, 2012

also, Patricia McKillip is definitely flowery and evocative.
posted by superior julie at 8:22 PM on February 16, 2012

Sweetly and Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce and her others might be worth a look as well.
posted by soelo at 8:24 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Lots of good recommendations and many of my favorites have already been mentioned, like Catherynne Valente, Emma Bull, Tanith Lee, Charles deLint, Angela Carter, Robin McKinley, Pamela Dean, Lord Dunsany .... You would probably like Patricia McKillip, who often does fairy tale based fiction, and the YA books by Shannon Hale, The Goose Girl, and Book of a Thousand Days, are highly recommended.

Terri Windling has edited various series that would be what you are looking for (I would also recommend her own book, The Wood Wife, which is not based on a specific fairy tale, but would work for you I think). See Fairy Tales for Adults for a list. There is also a good long list of recommended fairy tale fiction here.
posted by gudrun at 8:41 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Female protagonist, not fairy tale-based: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. EXCELLENT.

Male protags, but still excellent, are: The Witch's Boy, by Michael Gruber, and Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card. The former is based on a fairly well-known (in America) fairy tale, the latter on some Russian folk tales.

Ensemble cast (but great female protag), Celtic-fairy-tale-based (I think) are the Chronicles of Prydain by LLoyd Alexander (YA, but very readable as an adult, too).

I second Robin McKinley.
posted by Sal Monella at 8:54 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoyed Tad William's Otherland series, which has a sci-fi premise (virtual reality), but reads much more like fantasy to me, and has a female protagonist.

William's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a good classic fantasy series too.
posted by prex at 9:02 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: if you loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone (I did too!) definitely check out Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles (March 13th). they're companion books, with a third coming out next year; mostly marketed as YA, but definitely crossover. I've only read the first so far, & it has a male MC, but his opposite is one of my favorite-ever female characters.

Kristin Cashore's YA fantasies Graceling and Fire are also pretty great. A third, Bitterblue, will be out May 1st.
posted by changeling at 9:06 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Ooh ooh Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy!
posted by Specklet at 9:19 PM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I came here to say The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, but kittenmarlowe beat me to it. I might add Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and Salamander by Thomas Wharton. I will also chime in to recommend the graphic novel Fables.
posted by gemmy at 9:23 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest resembles this by itself, particularly in terms of flowery writing and the MiƩville book, and in the story, there's a reference to a goblins & chimera sort of fairy tale called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which Valente later wrote as well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:29 PM on February 16, 2012

Wow, these are some of the most consistently appropriate and good recommendations I've ever seen in a book askme!

Came in to add Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania series. Very nice writing and interesting take.

Also, if you like Fairy Tales and Diana Wynne Jones, you absolutely must read < ahref="">Fire and Hemlock
. Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin, all kinds of great stuff in there.

There's are just two, but sooooo many of the others mentioned above are right into what you want.
posted by smoke at 10:00 PM on February 16, 2012

Feist is your standard Fantasy & Dragon author, but he did one that was more like a homage to folk-faery tales.

Faerie Tale
posted by lundman at 10:17 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: Since you want the fairy tale thing and like China Mieville you should check out his first, Pied Piper of Hamelin inspired novel, "King Rat".
posted by bswinburn at 10:19 PM on February 16, 2012

posted by empath at 11:02 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card
posted by and for no one at 12:32 AM on February 17, 2012

I came in here to recommend Beauty and saw that someone else had recommended it already. When I looked into their recommendation I realized it wasn't the book I had read so I instead second kittenmarlowe's suggest of the book that I actually read Beauty.
posted by koolkat at 2:37 AM on February 17, 2012

Nthing McKinley. Also, Ash by Melinda Lo.
posted by paduasoy at 5:38 AM on February 17, 2012

Response by poster: This is excellent, MeFi. Many things I've heard of but forgotten about. I tried Kelly Link last year and sort of hated it a little (sorry!). But I did really enjoy The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, I do like Rushdie and Byatt, I've been curious about Robin McKinley, and of course I would LOVE to read more Mieville and am glad his other work fits with what I am looking for.

Thank you all so much!
posted by houndsoflove at 5:43 AM on February 17, 2012

Richard Morgan has written two fantasy novels (of a planned trilogy). I am not a fantasy fan and generally avoid the genre like the plague, but I absolutely love his fantasy novels, the two he has written so far are among my favorite books. They do have a strong female character (who is not the protagonist, but is a main character). They are anything but silly (very stark and gritty and NSFW in fact), and while there are dragons and sort-of-wizards, both are absolutely anything but what you see in the standard fantasy novel (both are absolutely terrifying and aren't magical). And the writing is truly spectacular and the story is genuinely exciting. I only read them at first because I love his science fiction so much, and I think they are among his best books, the protagonist is among my all-time favorite characters.
posted by biscotti at 6:20 AM on February 17, 2012

nthing everything by Robin McKinley, she is that amazing.

Additionally, though this has a male protagonist and is (sort of) a modern setting, War of the Flowers by Tad Williams is pretty fantastic and has creepy, ruthless faeries. His "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy is great too.
posted by ashirys at 6:59 AM on February 17, 2012

Best answer: From my girlfriend:

I see someone already recommended Palimpsest and The Girl Who Circumnavigated etc., but I would also recommend Catherynne Valente's Deathless and her two Orphan's Tales books and the two (of a planned trilogy) Prester John books that have been released so far. Really great; Deathless is directly based on Russian fairy tales ("Marya Morevna"/ "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" in particular).

Holly Black's Valiant is the best of its otherwise kind of middling series by far, and it stands up just fine on its own; it has that young-adult-novel-with-threatening-faeries-and-a-teen-girl-protagonist urban fantasy thing going on.

Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch and Francesca Lia Block's The Rose and the Beast are good, vividly written YA collections of short story fairy tale retellings.

Margo Lanagan has some good short stories that run that gamut from "based on a fairy tale" to more conventional secondary world fantasy to surreal horror. She's also written a novel called Tender Morsels that's based on the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red.

Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books are just super-weird, inventive, metafictional fantasy set in a vaguely nineteenth century-seeming city-state that's being slowly overrun by sinister fungi. There are elements of science fiction, horror, detective story, steampunk, apocalyptic survival story and...Borgesian mindgame, I guess. There are no dragons or wizards.

The Wood Wife, by Terri Windling, and Charles deLint's like nine zillion books and stories that are set in the fictional (but modern, supposedly existing somewhere in the northeastern U.S) city of Newford might be good bets.

And, of course, Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. The vampire romance for people who hate vampires and romance. : ) No, seriously, it's fantastic. There are a lot of funny bits because the first-person narrator is a funny woman, but it isn't a comedic story and when things get serious, they're taken seriously by the characters and have pretty un-humorous consequences. It was written long before Twilight, etc., so it's neither an attempt to jump on that bandwagon nor a deliberate answer/counter to the popularity of fluffy, paint-by-numbers vampire romances in the 2010's.
posted by jeudi at 7:05 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, yes, McKinley, McKinley! I have loved nearly everything she's put out. She is a wonderful writer.

Beauty, mentioned several times above, is a retelling of Beauty & the Beast--it's one of her earlier works and you can sort of tell, but it has all her trademarks in it. She's wonderful. I also LOVE Deerskin, which is based off of Perrault's story "Donkeyskin," although as others have mentioned, it's much darker ... but really follows the story, which is a true fairy tale in the way that they used to be: for adults.

(And I have to plug her Damar series--The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown are incredible--and Sunshine, although they are not strictly fairy-tale based.)

Someone upthread mentioned Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing and Cybele's Secret, which I enjoyed but found a little fluffy and young. I preferred her Sevenwaters trilogy (there are more, but I only read the original triology), which actually starts with Daughter of the Forest, which is based off of Grimm's Six Mute Swans fairy tale. It's beautifully written, although the romance is a pretty important feature (may or may not be what you prefer). The second two books in the triology get away from the traditional fairytale and more into, essentially, Celtic and Irish mythology, with a good dose of politics. All were well-written and enjoyable.

And lastly: Seconding Kristin Cashore. Graceling was a wonderful surprise.

(Thanks for starting this thread! I'm getting some great ideas for upcoming reads.)
posted by alleycat01 at 8:00 AM on February 17, 2012

Oo yes and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean! Seconded.
posted by alleycat01 at 8:12 AM on February 17, 2012

Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is full of gorgeous stories about magicians and fairies.
posted by snoogles at 9:55 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Castle Waiting series of graphic novels, written and illustrated by Linda Medley, meet several of the qualifications you mentioned. I think they are terrific!
posted by JDC8 at 10:44 AM on February 17, 2012

I'm back!

Patricia C. Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red. Based on the story of the same name, not the more common Snow White. She also has the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though they're on the sillier end.
Mercedes Lackey (again), The Black Swan
Kij Johnson has a pretty wonderful series based on Japanese folk tales. Start with Fudoki.
Holly Black's Tithe.
Dennis L. McKiernan's Once Upon a Winter's Night
Vivian Vande Velde has a whole bunch of them, though maybe on the sillier side
Barry Hughart 's Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was
C. J. Cherryh, Rusalka

Not based on particular fairy tales, but still fairy-tale-ish:
Cecilia Dart Thornton's The Ill-Made Mute
Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle
John Gardner's Grendel (based on Beowulf)

Have you read the sequels to Howl's Moving Castle? They're not quite as good as the original but still pretty great. Castle in the Air and the more recent House of Many Doors.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2012

Oh, and since everyone is recommending Tad Williams: I prefer Tailchaser's Song to all of his other stuff. Though that's a male protagonist. And also a cat.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 1:09 PM on February 17, 2012

These books aren't inspired by fairy tales, but the main character is the sort that you could see fairy tales being inspired by him, if that makes sense: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, both by Patrick Rothfuss. The books are beautifully written, delightfully long (yet I still wanted more!) and lean toward the verbose/flowery side.

The premise is, essentially, an extraordinarily interesting person who has had a lot of amazing adventures telling his life story to a chronicler. They're so, so, good. There's a third book slated to come out next year sometime I think, and I can't wait. They're on my new "recommend to everyone" list because I enjoyed them so much.

The world has some fantasy elements (magic (which they call "sympathy"), larger-than-life creatures, the fey) but they're not overdone - nothing hokey. Highly recommended.
posted by meggan at 4:47 PM on February 17, 2012

Response by poster: meggan, The Name of the Wind is definitely on my to-read list. Everyone I know who has read it has gushed about it.
posted by houndsoflove at 8:07 PM on February 17, 2012

I like Enchantment by Orson Scott Card. Based on the eastern European fairy tales with Baba Yaga and the great bear.
posted by CathyG at 8:30 PM on February 17, 2012

I just went to a book signing by Marissa Meyer, author of 'Cinder'. It's a futuristic sci-fi Cinderella tale that has good writing, a strong female lead, and the fairytale basis. I thought it was a great read.
posted by ailurophile at 9:40 PM on February 17, 2012

I love the Richard Morgan books, but I'm not sure they fit what you're looking for-they sure ain't flowery. I also love Martin, and they are a bit more like his stuff. And I'm apparently alone in my "meh" reaction to Rothkuss.

I think Guy Gavriel Kay is wonderful, and Tigana fits in the classic fantasy but wonderfully written niche you're looking for. Nth McKinley, of course.
posted by purenitrous at 3:53 PM on February 18, 2012

Authors to try who meet your criteria:
Guy Gavriel Kay
Megan Whalen Turner
Shannon Hale
posted by lirael2008 at 6:36 PM on February 18, 2012

"The Iron Dragon's Daughter" by Michael Swanwick

Very China Mieville, very dark themes.
Y'know how fairies swap human babies for fairies?
The main character is a girl who is the human changeling in a post-industrial revolution Fairie. Kind of steampunk-ish, and it starts off with her growing up in basically a sweatshop.

It is not at all pretty butterfly fairies, we're talking the difference between say, the vampires in Twilight and Nosferatu.
It helps if you've read something like Brian Froud's 'Fairies' first, just so you've got some context for the mythology being used, ie that a Jenny Greenteeth drowns people in water, a redcap dies if the blood on it's cap from the creatures it has murdered dries out, that every 7 years fairies must pay a 'teind' or tithe of sacrifices to hell, and that they preferably use humans for this payment. Of course, if you haven't, you kind of figure this stuff out eventually via context, which is disturbing in it's own way, but the depth of the setting and mythology is just fascinating.
So yeah, it might be a bit of a hunt to find it, but from what you've written about what you are looking for, this could be bang on.
posted by Elysum at 2:15 PM on March 19, 2012

Oh, and you know that one of the stories from "Lips Touch: Three Times", looks to be inspired by the poem, 'The Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti, right? Just checking!
(Read it aloud if you can...)
posted by Elysum at 2:24 PM on March 19, 2012

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