Fantasy novel recommendations?
March 7, 2012 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I had an urge yesterday to read a fantasy novel (or sci-fi, sure) about a young, powerless, and reluctant hero(ine) being caught up in events larger than them and growing as a person. I went to the bookstore and didn't really find anything that seemed appropriate. Recommendations?

Don't less any of this stop you from mentioning whatever awesome novel you want to mention, but I'm not particularly excited about:

- steampunk
- vampires
- books where the hero(ine) starts out on page one as a sooper death ninja rakish Oceans 11 fantasy thief level 90 wizard assassin antihero, with a devil-may-care attitude masking deep emotional depths, you betcha

Extra points if you recommend something that hits some of these elements:

- could be described accurately as a bildungsroman
- has prose that is lyrical and/or witty and/or displays keen observation and/or insight into the human condition
- isn't too deep (I was/am in the mood for a distraction most of all—no Pynchon, please!)
- doesn't focus on the upper class (princes, kings, emperors, warlords, etc.)
- is NOT book 83 in an as-yet unfinished series
posted by jsturgill to Writing & Language (77 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
uhhh... hunger games?
posted by MangyCarface at 8:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

The Hunger Games seems like it would fit most of your requirements, though Katniss does have some skills to start with. But it isn't too deep, and the series is finished.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 8:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Vlad Taltos series by steven Brust is pretty good. The first book does start off with the main character having a good skill set, but wasn't born with it. The series isn't finished but each book does pretty good as being a stand alone and there isn't some huge unfinished arc-just a lot of backstory and character development. He has several other series in the same world that deal more with the ruling class-Vlad Taltoss is most definately not in the ruling class (although nominally part of the nobility).

It isn't really fantasy but the Flashman books by George Mcdonald Frasier are pretty good romps set in the Victorian English Empire.
posted by bartonlong at 9:01 AM on March 7, 2012

Hunger games, sure, but also "The Book of Lost Things" fits that perfectly and was actually a great book. Highly recommended.
posted by gwenlister at 9:01 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

This sounds like the whole Young Adult genre. Some personal recent favourite: The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge and Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. The Hunger Games is okay too.
posted by ninebelow at 9:02 AM on March 7, 2012

Actually, the Harry Potter series also matches that, as does the Lord of the Rings.
posted by gwenlister at 9:03 AM on March 7, 2012

An answer on this thread made me remember Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. Nominally "young adult," but so is The Hunger Games.
As a bonus, not only is the heroine reluctant, she's kind of a turd as the book begins - very much a bildungsroman.
posted by snoe at 9:03 AM on March 7, 2012

posted by mkultra at 9:03 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
posted by Sassyfras at 9:04 AM on March 7, 2012

Robert A. Heinlein. Try Citizen of the Galaxy, or Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Oldies but goodies.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:05 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed "Never Let Me Go." It was a quick read. It was horror only in the same way that Frankenstein is horror (deeply unsettling?). And it is a coming-of-age novel about three marginalized students in a dystopian world.
posted by jph at 9:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Rhapsody series sounds right up your alley.
posted by tryniti at 9:07 AM on March 7, 2012

Jo Walton's got a trilogy (The King's Piece, the King's Name, the Prize in the Game) that will probably fit your bill. The heroine certainly has some combat skills from page 1, but in the beginning she's a teenager shooting targets with her brother and by the end, she is pretty amazing and involved in some pretty high-level stuff. Involves monarchy as main characters, but it's a very... working class? monarchy. They've got dirt under their fingernails from getting stuff done. And it doesn't spend all its time in that world either.

Scott Westerfield's Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras series may also work for you. Shiny yet dystopian YA fun that starts with a naughty not-quite teenager and once again ends up with her having a huge amount of control over the outcome of her society.

(I would basically never have thought to put list these two series together but they both fit in well with what I think you're looking for.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2012

The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce.
posted by bmorrison at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2012

That's King's Peace, not Piece. Dammit.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2012

You might like The Name of the Wind.
posted by Strass at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2012

Also +1 Dune.

@bmorrison is Tamora Pierce still writing?
posted by Strass at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2012

The Poison Study trilogy by Maria V. Snyder.
posted by anderjen at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also love "Wise Child" by Monica Furlong. About a small orphaned girl who is taught "magic" by the wise woman who takes her in. I remember it being well-written, but the age level of the book indicates that it isn't heavy reading. It is set in the distant past on the British isles, and the "magic" in question is not particularly hokey.
posted by jph at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2012

It's an obscure juvenile novel, but how about The Princes of Earth by Michael Kurland
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2012

Have you read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman? If not, highly recommended for this!
posted by rosa at 9:13 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recently read the Codex Alera series and loved it. It's definitely got a reluctant hero that grows immensely over the course of the series. It's definitely fantasy as opposed to sci-fi.
posted by Zoyashka at 9:13 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley is a good read.
posted by dean_deen at 9:15 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Neverending Story or else Momo, both by Michael Ende. Momo is much more light-hearted and shorter, while Neverending Story is actually pretty sad although it has a happy ending and is easy to read.

Also Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie - that's a lighthearted and charming book.

Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass, Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass are longer and more substantial (also about ten MILLION times better than the movie).

If you're interested in books with a teenage protagonist, Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania and subsequent books are good and very, very weird.

And of course an oldie but a goodie - Tamora Pierce's Alanna books. How I loved those as a child! They were an absolute revelation in kind for me, I had no idea that a story could be so immediately gripping, so modern in feel, so feminist and feel very much about a regular young woman. I feel like her later books, though still enjoyable, are a bit repetitive.

Does anyone know any such fantasy/SF bildungsroman with young protagonists of color?

There's Brown Girl In The Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson, and I have a book on my to-read pile about a young girl in future Africa but the name of the book escapes me.
posted by Frowner at 9:17 AM on March 7, 2012

I greatly enjoyed listening to the audiobook versions of The Gates by John Connolly & its sequel, The Infernals, but I haven't "read" either.
posted by eunoia at 9:18 AM on March 7, 2012

Response by poster: Would love to see more novels directed towards adults. I'd go back in time and take out the "isn't too deep" part of the OP if I could.
posted by jsturgill at 9:20 AM on March 7, 2012

@jsturgill I really urge you to check out The Name of the Wind.
posted by Strass at 9:21 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just because they are marketed as "young adult" doesn't necessarily mean they are really simplistic. It usually just means there isn't excessive cursing or sex in them. So don't knock all the YA books before you try 'em.
posted by gwenlister at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Fly By Night and its sequel are great and are sort of fantasy without magic and not steampunk.
posted by The otter lady at 9:24 AM on March 7, 2012

Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang may have some of the elements you are looking for.

Even though you are not especially interested in steampunk, Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air offers a different (and weird) take on the genre, and definitely fits your criteria for a young, lower-class protagonist caught up in events larger than herself.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:24 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The last two of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, Matter and Surface Detail, both feature strong female protagonists that are exposed to worlds larger than their own. I'd highly recommend both of them.

Oh, and Hunger Games is fun, but you'll get through all three books in less than a week. They are free on Kindle Lending Library right now though, if you have access to that.
posted by Oktober at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2012

The Silence Leigh trilogy by Melissa Scott. It's not classic literature, but it's a fun scifi fantasy with a nontraditional female lead who goes from a Han Solo sort of personality to savior of Earth by the end (although they don't know Earth really exists when the story starts). It's also nontraditional in that warp speed is essentially achieved by crystals and psychic powers and magic, and electronic technology is looked down on, so there's a steampunky feel, or a more 1930s pulp style. Most of Melissa Scott's stuff sort of falls into the lines you define (Mighty Good Road, Dreamships), and there's usually a strong lesbian thread through most, if that floats your boat too.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh, also, if you'd be willing to explore Manga, Hayao Miyazaki's classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is excellent (even if the main character is from an aristocratic family).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2012

THE WHEEL OF TIME (start with book 1: The Eye of the World). great bildungsroman (possibly one of the best I have ever read), not the greatest use of language but oh well. still "unfinished" but is at book 12 out of 13 (last book coming out early next year!). describes a host of characters who are simple country folk living in a rural village. one day, two mysterious strangers come along and sweep them away on the adventure of their lifetimes/ get caught in this awesome sequence of events far larger than anything they could ever begin to conceive.

I like good language as well as anyone else, but the story in the Wheel of Time is amazing.
posted by moiraine at 9:31 AM on March 7, 2012

re: The Wheel of Time: at least read the first couple of chapters to see whether it'll be your thing.
posted by moiraine at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2012

Response by poster: Gwenlister, I love certain YA books to death, actively read YA books, and don't judge the genre. It just feels like 2/3 of the responses are YA, and I really am looking for more narative and prose complexity than in 90% of even the best YA novels.

Strass, you're spot on, but I've already read the series. If book three were out, I would have bought it yesterday and been content.
posted by jsturgill at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2012

+2 Dune, +1 His Dark Materials (not sure about the personal growth). American Gods by Neil Gaiman might fit the bill. I've just started Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, but it might as well. Fingersmith and Dune have higher narrative and prose complexity, on preview.
posted by slidell at 9:36 AM on March 7, 2012

How about Mission Child by Maureen McHugh? Man, is that a depressing book, but it's really good. It's about a young person whose indigenous community is destroyed by soldiers and who flees to the city, luckily with a few advantages based on the morally ambiguous missionaries who had educated her.

Oh, and you should read the Three Californias trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson - young people but novels geared to adults.
posted by Frowner at 9:42 AM on March 7, 2012

I just stopped in to recommend Tolkien. If you've never read The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings Trilogy - you really need to. He hits most of your points very well.
posted by machinecraig at 10:02 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ready Player One! It technically isn't sci-fi/fantasy, possibly, since the fantastic parts take place in virtual reality, but I certainly class it in that category, since most of the action is in virtual reality, and the whole plot's set in the future.
posted by mlle valentine at 10:03 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's very old and classic, so you've probably read it, but what about Silverlock? Another oldie but goodie, Peter S. Beagle - The Folk of the Air. And this is a little off track, maybe, but for some reason I keep thinking it might work, Tim Powers' Fault Line series, most particularly Expiration Date. All three books stand alone well, although you should definitely read Earthquake Weather, when the characters all come together, last.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:03 AM on March 7, 2012

Terry Pratchett is your man, here.

"Guards, Guards!" - corrupt and incompetent night watchmen need to save the day from a city-destroying horror.

"The Color Of Magic - The Light Fantastic - Sourcery" - Rincewind is an adventuring wizard who deals with danger and responsibility by running away as fast as humanly possible.

"Going Postal" - Con-artist is blackmailed into civil service, and needs to take over a post office that hasn't delivered a letter in decades while a rival using a new, magic way of sending messages is getting popular and powerful.

"Small Gods" - A very simple, plain and somewhat slow-witted monk at the bottom of a megatitanic religious organization realizes he's the only one who still believes in his god - because his god talks to him in the form of a rather helpless tortoise.

All of these most unlikely of heroes grow immensely during their journey, while remaining true to themselves.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:13 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Uh. Harry Potter. Really, yes. Read them.
posted by Emms at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2012

"The Diamond Age, or, A Young Ladies' Illustrated Primer" by Neal Stephenson. Push through the cyberpunk opening, which is a parody/rejection of the genre.
posted by Benjy at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Well, to pull this up out of YA, The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Historical fiction set in a Japan of the early 1800s. I think it qualifies as having both male and female protagonists, both of them youngish, powerless, and caught up in events larger than themselves. The differences in both time and culture render parts of it fantasy-like. Exceedingly well written, with insights, but not demanding on the reader.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:25 AM on March 7, 2012

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb.

Technically it has royalty in it but the main character is a bastard and isn't treated like roylty except when he has to be. Definitely has those growth aspects you are looking for. Plus I just really like Robin Hobb's books. I'm re-reading this trilogy right now.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:33 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Watership Down would be my first suggestion -- great nature prose, an epic journey filled with unforgettable characters, and a classic bildungsroman.
posted by vorfeed at 10:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Never Let Me Go. The trick about why this is such a character-changing story is that there's a "spoiler" about what makes the 3 leads so different from everyone else. You can pick up this spoiler just by reading the back cover if you read between the lines, or you can guess it about 5 pages in. You'll certainly know it before it's officially revealed in the story.

Anyway, this difference and the story that contains it speak to universal human truths like love (there's a love triangle) and destiny (can you really choose your future?) and identity and self-awareness (are you really who you think you are?). It's a dystopian fantasy story, but it never ever feels sci-fi because the focus is on the feelings of the people involved. And the world in it looks identical to the world we live in. There are no monsters or special powers or special quests or orcs or orbs or anything like that.

It was also beautifully adapted into a film.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2012

Ok, if you take the YA thing back I would highly recommend Gene Wolfe: Book of the New Sun
This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who--as revealed near the beginning--eventually becomes his land's sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it's a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. (Only well into book 2 do we realize what saved Severian's life in chapter 1.) For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling...
posted by ts;dr at 11:07 AM on March 7, 2012

Rite Of Passage by Alexis Panshin. Also at that site, a list of Bildungsroman Science Fiction.
posted by Rash at 11:36 AM on March 7, 2012

Alexis Alexei
posted by Rash at 11:38 AM on March 7, 2012

magnetsphere nails it! I should have remembered Robin Hobb. Along the same lines - another trilogy but like Farseer it's all done and available used all over the place - Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:42 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Anansi Boys?
Possibly something by Charles DeLint, but not the stuff originally published under another name.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 11:46 AM on March 7, 2012

Definitely would recommend A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. Quick read & seems to fit everything you're looking for.
posted by mark7570 at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dave Duncan's A Man of His Word series. Protagonist starts out young, penniless, prospectless, naive, ends up fewer of those things. Light, fairly witty, great world-building. Does have a princess, I'm afraid.
posted by gurple at 12:10 PM on March 7, 2012

I'm really surprised not to see Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It is just what you want IMO.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:14 PM on March 7, 2012

Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures also fit the bill. Light, clever, lots of character development, no princes. However, the quality started to taper and then plunged heartbreakingly after the first 8-9 books, so be prepared to stop when they start to suck.
posted by gurple at 12:15 PM on March 7, 2012

Emphyrio by Jack Vance.
posted by y2karl at 12:24 PM on March 7, 2012

Both the Maureen McHugh books fit the descriptions so far, particularly the focus on characters who are not upper class.

In a similar vein, R.A. MacAvoy has written two series that fit your requirements:

A Trio for Lute
, "Damiano is a renaissance witch (although a Christian - magic use is hereditary in his family, and he fears that he is automatically damned). He uses his powers to grant speech to his Dog Macchiato (Spot)and to call an angel, Raphael, who gives him music lessons on the lute. At least, that is how the story begins."

The Lens of the World books, (Lens of the World, Belly of the Wolf, and King of the Dead) are about a young orphan apprenticed to a very odd teacher in a setting that owes much to Renaissance Europe. Magic may or may not be involved.
posted by bonehead at 12:33 PM on March 7, 2012

No Zoe's Tale yet?
For shame, Ask.
posted by Kreiger at 12:38 PM on March 7, 2012

Just to chip in with Maia which is by Richard Adams, the man who brought you Watership Down. It's a bit more focused on the elite, but it starts off with the 'peasant' class.

Wonderful story telling, but parts of it are quite risque, which was quite surprising. But still, a great book.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:50 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something from Patricia McKillip? Riddlemaster trilogy comes to mind. Unfortunatley, most of her stuff fails the "no royalty" condition. For scifi I might say Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith.
posted by curious nu at 1:00 PM on March 7, 2012

Black Ships by Jo Graham is a retelling of the events Aenid from the perspective of a Trojan slave turned oracle. The heroine is rather reluctant about her role as oracle and the Aenid is pretty epic. I enjoyed it, at any rate.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:12 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is exactly what you had in mind, but I immediately thought of Octavia Butler, particularly Parable of the Sower
posted by abirdinthehand at 2:29 PM on March 7, 2012

While I wouldn't call it light or witty and the heroine isn't exactly reluctant, how about The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon?
posted by at 3:01 PM on March 7, 2012

Summerland by Michael Chabon.
I know nothing about baseball and don't care about sports and I was mourning the loss of this world when I finished the book.
posted by andreap at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2012

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.
posted by Bron at 4:26 PM on March 7, 2012

I am really shocked that no one has mentioned Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire (also known as Game of Thrones).


She's not the only main character, and she does come from a noble family (as do most of the main characters, so that might be an issue), but, without wanting to spoil too much, let's just say that the privileges of her noble status don't last long. She finds herself thrust into a world where she is completely powerless and in danger, and basically has to survive by hook or by crook. She is a bit of a natural ninja, but she also loses sometimes, and the author does a good job of showing what these hardships do to her and also showing how out of her element she is.
posted by lunasol at 4:54 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tanith Lee's Red Unicorn is YA, but sounds like that IIRC (it's been over a decade...). The protagonist puts aside her hurt feelings and romantic desires and shows an inner strength, but in private, in a controlled way (she lies in bed every morning for x amount of minutes letting herself dwell), she feels her emotions fully.
posted by ifjuly at 7:24 PM on March 7, 2012

What aboute Dorothy Dunnett? Historical Europe, the House of Niccoló series is great fun for grownups.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:47 PM on March 7, 2012

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.
posted by EarnestSchemingway at 9:39 PM on March 7, 2012

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin might fit the bill.
posted by ninebelow at 3:21 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Farseer Trilogy, even though it's pretty much all about royalty - the main character is the bastard son of a prince, and ends up being raised in the palace. I'm not sure I can think of a book where someone starts out quite as clueless as Fitz, though. Of course, Fitz never really ends up not clueless in some ways, but he grows a lot over the course of the trilogy. If you don't like books where the protagonist is an idiot at times and reaps the consequences of it many times over, don't pick these up.

@bmorrison is Tamora Pierce still writing?
Tamora Pierce is still writing, or was last fall, anyway. That's when the last book of the Beka Cooper series came out. Speaking of which, I think that might be an excellent option for the OP too, since it feels much less YA than her other novels. Beka is also about as dirt common as it gets, though there is some mention of princes and stuff. Hands down my favorite Tamora Pierce series.

Name of the Wind + Wise Man's Fear would fit your criteria too, but I'm not sure I can recommend them right now just because you seem to want finished works, and there's really no telling when the last book in the trilogy will come out. If you don't mind waiting on the third book, though, these hit pretty much all of your "bonus points" criteria except the last. Actually, I'm not sure about the bildungsroman part either, but based on a quick glance at wikipedia, I think the term fits.
posted by ashirys at 8:04 AM on March 8, 2012

John Varley's Thunder and Lightning series of books is good for this, although it's more "happy-go-lucky middle-class teenagers go on an adventure and get way more than they bargained for, yet persevere and grow from the experience" and is heavily sci-fi. I would say read the Heinlein suggestions mentioned earlier, and if you liked those this series should fit the bill. The book titles are: Red Thunder, Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder.
posted by pianoblack at 9:38 AM on March 8, 2012

Well this is terribly late, but last week after I'd read and answered your question, I stumbled across Kristen Britain's Green Rider series and they are. . . everything you're looking for. Except that they may not be finished. I just found that website myself and I'm really hoping Blackveil is the last book, because I'm on First Rider's Call and was thinking there was only one book to go. Argh. However! The whole series is about a young, common born, extremely reluctant heroine drawn into a life she didn't choose. They aren't the best written books in the universe, but they're not terrible either and they're classic high fantasy.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:19 PM on March 15, 2012

I'm late to the party, but I think Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter (and its sequel Dreamquake) fit your premise very well. It's about two young female cousins whose parents are dreamhunters; they can enter a pocket of unreality, retrieve pre-constructed dreams, and perform them for sleeping audiences. The girls have come of age and are tested to see if they can do it too, and the book explores the concept of dreamhunting and all the power & intrigue surrounding it through their eyes. It's an interesting premise and the prose is lovely.
posted by brookedel at 1:27 PM on April 2, 2012

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