Ah, fantasy, you tricky beast. When I started blogging, I was sure that fantasy, at least high fantasy, just wasn’t for me. Then the blogosphere wore me down, and I began to realize that I actually did like quite a bit of fantasy, yay!

But recently, I have been rethinking my stance yet again. In pretty much every fantasy review I write, I say “fantasy has been hit or miss with me lately”, which is… odd. I mean, obviously there are books of every genre that a reader will enjoy and not enjoy, but with fantasy, the divide seems wider than in any other group.

So it got me asking myself a few questions:

  1. Time out what if I actually don’t like fantasy and was right all along?
  2. Are there certain sub-genres that work better than others?
  3. Can I manage to pinpoint what I do like versus what I don’t?
  4. Is this high key the Hype Monster™’s fault? Gosh he’s an asshole.
  5. Am I just a hopeless mess of a person?

I mean, that last one is a given, yeah? But okay, since I do enjoy fantasies and probably don’t want to give them up altogether, I should probably look into option number three. Perhaps I can at least get better at predicting what I will have a higher likelihood of enjoying, hmm? So I took a bit of a stroll down Fantasy-Review-Lane to see what junk I liked in the books I rated highly, and what seemed to irk me in the ones I rated lower. I have decided to bless you with the results.

The Junk I Liked

  • Super high stakes. Look, I want to be unsure of everyone’s survival. And I want it to be more than just one person’s life on the line. I love books where you genuinely don’t know if the whole damn kingdom will make it out okay because I guess I am evil like that.
  • Unique premises and/or genre mixes. Books like Crier’s War and Romanov have really revitalized my interest in fantasy. The former is a fantasy/sci- fi mix, while the latter mixes history with fantasy. And I love that! So it seems when fantasy is shaken up a bit, I take a greater liking to it.
  • Awesome characters. I mean, I think this is universal, no? We need to be able to root for (or hate, depending) the character(s). But not just the main character! I want to care about their friends, their families, their enemies. Because without the supporting cast, the main characters’ stories mean precious little.
  • The darker the better. This probably says something disturbing about me, but if I am going to read fantasy, I generally like an awful shithole of a place. OR, even better, a place that at first seems nice but is actually a raging trash inferno.
  • Humor is key. I guess because I am such a fan of dark and deadly, we need some levity? Sure, let’s go with that.

The Junk that Irked Me:

  • Birds. This is a no-brainer, friends. Actually, I am going to take it a step further and extra-specify birdpeople because they are the worst. They don’t make sense. Do they have a beak? Do they lay eggs or carry their young internally? Look, biology doesn’t support this, and unlike mermaids, they’re not enchanting, they’re just silly and aerodynamically impossible.
  • Convoluted magic systems. These are actually impressive to me from a writing perspective. Like props to you, author, for this is incredibly creative! But my brain is simply not able to handle it, and sadly, I have given up.
  • Slow pacing. See, in most books, I am totally fine with slower paced and character driven. I have loved sci-fi books that meander for 800 pages through middle America, or contemporaries that give us a glimpse into the characters’ mundanities. But for whatever reason, I just can’t do it in a fantasy. The ones that have worked best for me feel like they’re moving at least somewhat quickly.
  • Lackluster world-building. This is hard to define. Basically, I wish to know all the things. So if the world is entirely separate from our own, you’re going to need to give me the backstory, though preferably not in an info-dump. But I can’t get on board with your war/uprising/whatever if there’s no context for it. Sorry, just can’t!

The funny part of all of this critique and introspection is that I almost never read synopses and probably won’t have any idea if the books contain any of this junk. Good luck, me, because I doubt I’ll ever change.

So friends, what say you? Are you picky about fantasy? And do you have any recommendations for me based on my absurd prerequisites?

Posted February 23, 2020 by Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight in Discussion, Discussion Challenge / 34 Comments

34 responses to “Reevaluating Fantasy

  1. I used to read more fantasy, and the biggest turnoff for me was the commitment. Are there any standalone fantasy books? I feel like they are always series. The most successful ones for me have been more fantasy-light, which is probably why I like paranormals more than high fantasy. Pacing is a big issue for me. If a book feels long, that’s a problem. A good book, for me, is one that I get lost in. If I am noticing how long it is taking to get through a book, I am definitely not lost. Humor and great characters are a much for me in every book, no matter the genre.

    • That is such a good point! Like if you don’t want to sign up for eight 700-page books, you might as well not even bother! Too high fantasy doesn’t seem to work for me, either. I think it’s just too much for my brain to handle! And yeah, I cannot handle draggy and info-dumpy books AT. ALL.

  2. Fantasy is a constant struggle for me. I love it if it’s done correctly, but a lot of it is . . . meh. I tend to have issues with worlds not making sense. I always want to know how and why things are happening. I think I’m more forgiving with children’s books, though. Right now, I’m reading the Nevermoor series. I have a ton of “Why” questions, but the world is entertaining enough that I’m mostly okay with not knowing the world’s history.

    • Gosh YES exactly!! I too need to know ALL the things and get cranky when nothing makes sense. I haven’t really read much childrens fantasy, so I am not sure if I could forgive it easier. Mostly I just get salty and want the details! I rarely ever get them ?

  3. Beth W

    I think I might be in the same spot. Fantasy was my go-to genre for SOOOOO long (as a pre-teen and teen, since I hit that age before “YA” was a genre, high fantasy was my jam). Now I think I get bored easily if it feels like it’s been done before….which almost all high fantasy feels like, to me. Good world building and an ensemble cast are my happy places, but I’m pickier about what “ruins” a fantasy novel than I am about what makes one good.

    That said, have you read Susan Dennard’s The Witchlands series? It’s got everything you love and nothing you hate in that list, so I think you’d enjoy it. Plus, some political intrigue, some romance, some mystery, a lot of gorgeous cultures, etc. I think you might enjoy it.

    • YES that is it- I feel like I have already read the one about the princess/assassin/servant in the brutal kingdom hah. And I am not sure WHY I am so much harder on fantasy, but alas.

      Ohhh I have not read it, but now I will definitely have to! Thanks for the recommendation- I am especially intrigued by the whole gorgeous culture thing!

  4. I feel like I do this with every genre at some point lol

    I love and binge it – sometimes for years – and then I hate everything about it. Especially the repetition.

    I’ve always struggled with fantasy though. The lengthy descriptions of a blade of grass or the sky kill me & most of the YA’s have such a pat formula with a filler middle book that I don’t bother. Even though I always get intrigued because I love high stakes and moral ambiguity but it never pans out – or is not worth the slog through the other stuff.

    Karen @ For What It’s worth

    • See the funny thing is, I am NOT like this with any other genre! Like I am STILL on the dystopian bandwagon from 2010! And gosh yes I agree about the filler middle book and the overly hefty descriptions in fantasy. I have found that, for the most part, the fantasy I have really enjoyed the most has gone off-formula, at least in some respect.

  5. I’m laughing because all the things that you said were things that irked you are all things I agree with!
    I think I have a more difficult time with high fantasy. They kind of all seem the same to me after while.
    Maybe I’m also just reading too much fantasy!
    I think it’s tantamount to being in a book rut; sometimes you just have to move on to another genre for awhile to cleanse the palette. 😉

  6. It’s so funny! I had the opposite experience! I started off loving fantasy, and then the more I read, the less I began to like the genre. At this point I probably only pick up a handful of fantasies every year, and I’m super selective.

    I detest dark and gritty, which is 85% of fantasy books in my experience. I like unique plots since I’m not the biggest fan of the chosen one or a the princess reclaiming her birthright. And I absolutely ADORE slow paced, flowery writing with intricate settings. I find that magical realism works really well for me, so I’ve been reaching for that whenever I’m in the mood for something a bit more magical recently.

    But humor and characters? Those are always a win for me no matter the genre. I think Sorcery of Thorns did a fantastic job of winding together all the elements I love about fantasy (and lots that you mentioned you love too). Not too dark, lots of humor, great writing, super cool magical system (but not confusing). I know it doesn’t check all your boxes because our tastes are quite different, but this is one where our tastes overlap and so you might enjoy it!

    • Ohhh I definitely agree about The Chosen One trope. Like why is birthright such a big deal anyway!? Also we are opposites in that I love dark and gritty, and you enjoy magical realism which almost never works for me!

      Oh, I have heard great things about Sorcery of Thrones, I should give that one a try! Plus, the cover is super pretty so even if I don’t absolutely love it, pretty new bookshelf addition ?

  7. I’ve always called myself a die-hard fantasy lover but YES to this list and I do find myself also being so hard to please with fantasy?? It all feels really samey. I feel like if the characters are amazing, I won’t mind a cliche plot, but I’m getting tired of the same tropes. ? I feel like everything is a princess being forced to infiltrate a foreign country and seduce/murder/marry the prince. BUT ANYWAY. I really loved Romanov too!!

    • YES exactly, it is TOO similar sometimes! Which I guess maybe is every genre but this is the one that makes me the maddest for whatever reason? And like you, I am okay with a similar trope or a cliche here and there, but only if it’s done well. Like I have read a few books that were suuuuper tropey but I loved them anyway because they were still really readable, but then I have read some that I roll my eyes at and who actually knows what makes them different!? Not me, certainly ?

  8. I tend to say that I don’t really enjoy most fantasy, which is funny because I have a few series that I just love that are fantasy. But in general, most fantasy books just don’t appeal to me. I think sometimes they are too confusing, or too slow, or I just can’t connect to the characters. I like dark stories too though – so I’m with you there. And hey, throw in some snark or humor, and I’m game. 🙂


    • Yeah I think that the confusion really irritates me too. Like I shouldn’t have to work *that* hard to enjoy a book, right!? And then if I can’t connect to the characters, I tend to not care about ANY of the book, which probably leads to MORE confusion, ugh!

  9. This is such a thoughtful post, and I’ve recently been having the same discussion with myself over romance! But also … I vote we blame the Hype Monster. He *is* an asshole, and not the fun kind that you want around because they’re entertaining and lively.

    I love some amount of humor in my books, too! I’m gonna blame it on the dark subject matter needing a little levity to lighten it, too. It sounds good to me. It seems like you’ve sorted out a bit what you like and what you don’t like, and I wonder if that’ll help you choose books going forward?

    As for recommendations … gosh, that’s hard, because I love fantasy. I’d say Gideon the Ninth, because it’s dark with plenty of humor and things to love … but it’s also not very detailed in world-building and hazy on the magic. Maybe Black Leviathan? I just finished that recently, and the world-building was freaking FABULOUS. It wasn’t break-neck speed, and definitely slowed in some places, but it’s extremely high stakes, no one’s safe, and I just enjoyed it so much. It’s a Moby Dick retelling, but in a high fantasy world and with DRAGONS. :3

    • Gosh YES the Hype Monster is so RUDE. Like I feel like I *have* to read all 2328 Grisha books or Holly Black Fae, or whatever just because everyone else is and frankly, I’m tired!

      I think you’re right about the levity/darkness balance. I can’t do a book if it’s 100% dark and depressing, there has to be SOMETHING to break it up!

      I do want to try Gideon (again, blame the hype monster hah) but Black Leviathan sounds interesting, I’d not heard of it before, I will definitely check it out, thank you!!

  10. Fantasy is a really hard one for me. I have trouble suspending my disbelief for magic, so the story has to occur under special circumstances for me to be into it. Case in point, Harry Potter. We don’t find out about magic until he does. Or Brigid Kemerer’s newest series where the protagonist is brought from our world into a world with magic and she has to learn the ropes with us, the readers. I don’t know why only these types of stories really resonate with me, but that’s about it. Lol.

    • Oh my goodness YES YES you nailed it, it’s the suspension of disbelief for SURE. I think that’s why I am more drawn to sci-fi and dystopian, because it’s at least in part logic-driven. You can kind of get how even if it’s some alien species, it is plausible. Randomly blowing fire out of one’s fingers is just… not ?

  11. Okay, I read the beginning of this post and panicked a little because how can we be book twins if you don’t love fantasy?! Fantasy is my go-to genre. My comfort zone.

    Except then I read your criteria and I realized that I think we’re still okay. I think you enjoy the really dark fantasy a little more than I do. But long fantasies with convoluted magic systems and/or slow storytelling generally don’t thrill me either. (Though there have been a couple of exceptions to that.) And I’ve realized that lately I’m listening to more and more of my fantasy because the stories are losing me when I read. (I’ve told you before that I have a way higher tolerance for slower moving stories when I listen for some reason.) So, I guess maybe *whispers* I’m getting tired of some fantasy lately too. But I’ll never admit it in anything louder than a whisper. 🙂

    • Bwhahah well, I am glad that you’re still enjoying it! And I am too, to an extent? Like I read two fantasies last month. One I loved, one I hated. So. Go figure! And now looking back, January was the exact same! So I am really hit or miss at this point! I wonder if listening would help at all, or if it would just confuse me more. Because I am kiiiind of crap at listening in general ?

  12. I love fantasy with all my heart. Dark fantasies are just so amazing – have you already read The Bone Houses? Sometimes I feel I read too much fantasy and should give an opportunity to other genres. =P

    However, fantasy novels that have a very complex magic system are a huge “no” for me. I get lost in these systems – sometimes I wonder if it is because English isn’t my first language and I’m missing something. I like my magic systems simple and well-explained. Also, generally, I can’t stand slow pacing fantasy books. Just let the journey and the drama begin – this does not necessarily mean that I want action scenes in every single chapter (it seems some people think fast pacing means danger at every corner) and drama every single chapter. That will probably just annoy me.

    Something that also makes me dislike fantasy book is when the author adds every single fantasy trope to the story. I remember reading one book that was a mix of Harry Potter, Narnia Chronicles & The Lord of the Rings.

  13. I love fantasy. I especially love great world-building, so lackluster world-building is another a no for me. I also agree that great fantasy has high stakes, awesome characters, and a unique premise or genre mix (I LOVE a good blend of urban fantasy and mystery). I love fantasy that goes dark and then gives us hope.

    Have you read Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper Trilogy? Or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files? (I’ve only read the first chapter of the latter, but it looks like it has great humor. Plus, it blends genres.)

  14. I’m kind of with you. I love fantastical worlds, but some fantasy is so.. tedious. I love great characters, yes on high stakes. But no, don’t walk forever and ever and ever. Hate that. I guess that’s why I like the urban fantasy genre because there’s usually lots going on, interesting characters, and they don’t spend forever defining weird words.

  15. This is a great post, Shannon! I’ve been reevaluating my relationships with fantasy too ever since I’ve been disappointed with a lot of 2019 releases. Just like you, I find that I hate it if the book is meandering too much; whether because it has a convoluted magical system or world building. And I also prefer to read fantasy with high stakes, action-driven plot, and well-developed characters! 😀

    I realized that it’s just probably the 2019 releases that disappoint me for some reason, as I realized that I like pre-2019 and 2020 releases pretty fine tbh 😀

  16. Fantasy books have ended up being very hit or miss for me too! Sometimes I love them but then sometimes I could not care less. My biggest hitch would be slow moving. I hate slow moving fantasy. And while I love a good complex magic system and thick world building, I also don’t want to read dry world building like it is a textbook. I like unique premises and characters too. I feel like it is just always going to be a hit or miss genre for me.

  17. I’m getting really picky about fantasy! I always say that High Fantasy is my favorite genre, but honestly, I seem to enjoy books from the genre less because I’m so darn picky about them. It’s so hard to find interesting and unique ones anymore because they’re all starting to be a bit generic. I like about the same things as you do – I love dark fantasy, but I also need humor, and I looove when stakes are high! Bonus points if there’s actual sacrifice, I’m one of the masochistic weirdos that actually enjoys when characters die. I love authors who won’t pull punches or spare their characters! Side note: If you haven’t read any Jay Kristoff, he’s amazing at that as well as writing dark worlds and adding humor 😉

  18. I definitely think fantasy’s one of those genres where finding out what subgenres you like is so helpful, because it’s such a HUGE genre. Fantasy’s my favourite genre, but that’s probably not what I would have said a few years ago – I really had to rediscover my love for it! I watched a lot of fantasy films when I was younger (Labyrinth; The Princess Bride; The Neverending Story etc.) so I often look for books that will leave me with the same warm, nostalgic feeling those films give me, like The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I do think it’s a lot easier to find what you don’t like than pinpoint what you do like, though – there’s always the possibility that a book will pleasantly surprise us!

    You might like the Book of the Ancestor trilogy by Mark Lawrence? The audiobooks, narrated by Helen Duff, are brilliant!

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