Get Genrefied: High Fantasy

For the month of March, Angela’s reader’s advisory challenge is focusing on high fantasy, which is without a doubt my most favorite genre (or sub-genre, to be completely accurate). As a kid, I loved the idea of losing myself in a completely different world, and as I grew into a teenager, that idea became even more appealing. High fantasy novels are some of the most imaginative you’ll find, since they don’t have to be bound by the rules found in our own world (though good ones will create their own set of internal rules and stick with them).

Enough of my love letter to high fantasy; let’s move on to definitions. In order to talk about how to advise high fantasy, it’s important to first understand how it differs from fantasy in general. I touched on it a bit in the previous paragraph, but the basic rule is that high fantasy stories take place in a world that is not our own. What this means is that most of the paranormal stories you’ll find filling the shelves, where vampires or werewolves or some other fantastical creatures roam the halls of this world’s high school, are not high fantasy. (They’re what is called low fantasy; still fantasy, but not of the kind we’re focusing on this month.)

This basic rule can take a few forms:

  • Someone from our own world is transported to another (classics such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).
  • Someone from our own world finds there is another, magical world that exists within our own (Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series would both fall here).
  • Our own world does not exist, only the fantasy world does (probably the most common, and includes stories like Lord of the Rings, Graceling, and Eragon). This is also arguably the “purest” form of high fantasy.

High fantasy is often (but not always) characterized by epic quests, wars between kingdoms, creatures like elves and wizards, and a fight between good and evil. Long series full of doorstoppers are common. World-building is incredibly important and can make or break a story.

Referring to Wikipedia sometimes makes me feel like a bad librarian, but its article on high fantasy really is a good starting point, particularly because it does a very good job of citing its sources. It also links to a variety of award-winners and booklists, some more current than others.

Graceling and George R. R. Martin seem to have given high fantasy a boost in recent years, so we’re seeing more and more of it published (seeing something marketed as a Martin read alike is pretty common). Speaking of Martin, I think there is a lot of crossover appeal between adult and YA high fantasy. Martin’s books are firmly adult titles, but many of his characters are in their teens or early twenties, and I read the first few as a teenager myself. This holds true for other adult fantasy authors too: the characters are frequently in their late teens or early twenties, with the associated life changes (first love, finding your place in the world) that this entails. My post on what I read in high school mentions a lot of adult fantasy authors I
read as a teen, many of who are still being read widely today.(Caveat: Adult books are adult books, so always be sure to know your audience before recommending one.)

Below are a list of recent (latest installment published within the last 1-3 years) young adult novels that all fall within the high fantasy genre. However, the older titles (including those I mentioned in my bullet points above) are still very popular, so it’s important to be aware of the genre’s longer history too. All descriptions come from Worldcat or Goodreads. If you think of more notable titles, please chime in with a comment!

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta (sequels: Froi of the Exiles, Quintana of Charyn): Now on the cusp of manhood, Finnikin, who was a child when the royal
family of Lumatere was brutally murdered and replaced by an imposter,
reluctantly joins forces with an enigmatic young novice and
fellow-exile, who claims that her dark dreams will lead them to a
surviving royal child and a way to regain the throne of Lumatere.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (sequels: The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings): Gen flaunts his ingenuity as a thief and relishes the adventure which
takes him to a remote temple of the gods where he will attempt to steal
a precious stone.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore (companion books: Fire, Bitterblue): In a world where some people are born with extreme and often-feared
skills called Graces, Katsa struggles for redemption from her own
horrifying Grace, the Grace of killing, and teams up with another young
fighter to save their land from a corrupt king.

Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst: When the goddess Bayla fails to take over Liyana’s body, Liyana’s people
abandon her in the desert to find a more worthy vessel, but she soon
meets Korbyn, who says the souls of seven deities have been stolen and
he needs Liyana’s help to find them. Kimberly’s review

Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (sequels: The Crown of Embers, The Bitter Kingdom): A fearful sixteen-year-old princess discovers her heroic destiny after
being married off to the king of a neighboring country in turmoil and
pursued by enemies seething with dark magic. Kimberly’s review

Seraphina by Rachael Hartman: In a world where dragons and humans coexist in an uneasy truce and
dragons can assume human form, Seraphina, whose mother died giving birth
to her, grapples with her own identity amid magical secrets and royal
scandals, while she struggles to accept and develop her extraordinary
musical talents.

Eon by Alison Goodman (sequel: Eona):  Sixteen-year-old Eon hopes to become an apprentice to one of the twelve
energy dragons of good fortune and learn to be its main interpreter, but
to do so will require much, including keeping secret that she is a

Eragon by Christopher Paolini (sequels: Eldest, Brisingr, Inheritance): In Alagaesia, a fifteen-year-old boy of unknown lineage called Eragon
finds a mysterious stone that weaves his life into an intricate
tapestry of destiny, magic, and power, peopled with dragons, elves, and

Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott: Trained in the magical art of shadow-weaving, sixteen-year-old
Suzume, who is able to re-create herself in any form, is destined to use
her skills to steal the heart of a prince in a revenge pot. Kimberly’s review

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: After she has served a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier
for her crimes, Crown Prince Dorian offers eighteen-year-old assassin
Celaena Sardothien her freedom on the condition that she act as his
champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes: In a land where magic
has been forgotten but peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest
is simmering. Three kingdoms grapple for power—brutally transforming
their subjects’ lives in the process. Amidst betrayals, bargains, and
battles, four young people find their fates forever intertwined.

The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima (sequels: The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, The Crimson Crown): Relates the intertwining fates of former street gang leader Han Alister
and headstrong Princess Raisa, as Han takes possession of an amulet that
once belonged to an evil wizard and Raisa uncovers a conspiracy in the
Grey Wolf Court.

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier: Fifteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the
oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured, but
when she sets out for Shadowfell, a training ground for a rebel group,
she meets a mysterious soldier and the Good Folk, who tell her that she,
alone, can save Alban.

Prophecy by Ellen Oh: A demon slayer, the only female warrior in the King’s army, must battle
demon soldiers, an evil shaman, and the Demon Lord to find the lost ruby
of the Dragon King’s prophecy and save her kingdom. Kimberly’s review

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (sequel: The Runaway King): In the country of Carthya, a devious nobleman engages four orphans in a
brutal competition to be selected to impersonate the king’s long-missing
son in an effort to avoid a civil war. Kimberly’s review

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo: Orphaned by the Border Wars, Alina Starkov is taken from obscurity and
her only friend, Mal, to become the protegé of the mysterious Darkling,
who trains her to join the magical elite in the belief that she is the
Sun Summoner, who can destroy the monsters of the Fold.

Pegasus by Robin McKinley: Because of a thousand-year-old alliance between humans and pegasi,
Princess Sylvi is ceremonially bound to Ebon, her own pegasus, on her
twelfth birthday, but the closeness of their bond becomes a threat to
the status quo and possibly to the safety of their two nations.

Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce (sequel: Liar’s Moon): In a kingdom dominated by religious intolerance, sixteen-year-old
Digger, a street thief, has always avoided attention, but when she
learns that her friends are plotting against the throne she must decide
whether to join them or turn them in.

And here are a few 2013 releases to check out or put on your radar (in addition to many of the sequels mentioned above):

The Cadet of Tildor by Alex Lidell: At the Academy of Tildor, the training ground for elite soldiers, Cadet
Renee de Winter struggles to keep up with her male peers, but when her
mentor is kidnapped to fight in illegal gladiator games, Renee and best
friend Alec struggle to do what is right in a world of crime and
political intrigue. Author twitterview

Poison by Bridget Zinn: When sixteen-year-old Kyra, a potions master, tries to save her kingdom
by murdering the princess, who is also her best friend, the poisoned
dart misses its mark and Kyra becomes a fugitive, pursued by the King’s
army and her ex-boyfriend Hal. Giveaway

City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster: Nisha lives in the City of a Thousand Dolls, a remote estate where
orphan girls in the Empire become apprentices as musicians, healers, and
courtesans, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her
shadow. When girls begin to die, Nisha begins to uncover the secrets
that surround the deaths–jeopardizing not only her own future within
the City but her own life.

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow by Amy McCulloch: Fifteen-year-old Raim
lives in a world where you tie a knot for every promise that you make.
Break that promise and you are scarred for life, and cast out into the
desert. Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long
as he can remember. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his
life to his best friend (and future king) Khareh, the string bursts into
flames and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.

Scent of Magic by Maria V. Snyder: Coming out of hiding to find her sister and repair their estrangement,
and to stop King Tohon from winning control of the Realms, Avry of
Kazan, the last Healer in the Fifteen Realms, must support Tohon’s
opponents by teaching them forest skills and destroying an army of the
walking dead.

Chantress by Amy Butler Greenfield: Fifteen-year-old Lucy discovers that she is a chantress who can perform
magic by singing, and the only one who can save England from the control
of the dangerous Lord Protector.

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas: Iolanthe Seabourne is
the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s being told.
The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her
duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the greatest mage tyrant
the world has ever known. A suicide task for anyone let alone a
sixteen-year-old girl with no training, facing a prophecy that foretells
a fiery clash to the death.

The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison: An ancient prophecy hints that the kingdoms of two princesses from rival
lands, one with magic and one without, will be united under one
rule–and one rule only. 

There are a number of resources you can turn to if you’re looking to enhance your knowledge about fantasy in general. Finding resources specific to high fantasy can be tougher, but the high fantasy books within the general fantasy resources are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for.

  • One of my favorite awards for speculative fiction is the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, which honors “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Past winners and finalists have included Patrick Ness (Knife of Never Letting Go), Nancy Farmer (Sea of Trolls), Alison Goodman (Eon and Eona), and Libba Bray (Beauty Queens). Not all of the titles are high fantasy, of course, but many are.
  • Because high fantasy and SF have so much crossover appeal and can have a lot in common, you’ll find that much of what we recommended in our SF genre guide fits here, too. This includes the recommendation to check out Locus Online and Strange Horizons. I have a particular fondness for Strange Horizons, which is entirely volunteer-run but pays the authors a professional rate for their work. The publishers/imprints we singled out there also publish a lot of fantasy: Tor, Strange Chemistry, and Pyr. Are there any other YA fantasy imprints that I should know about? Let me know in the comments!
  • and Suvudu, run by Tor and Random House respectively, both provide news, author interviews, reviews, and other information about fantasy fiction, plus some digital-born short stories and art. 
  • Fantastic Fiction is a terrific resource for information about fantasy series. It delves into much more than just fantasy, but it’s the best place I’ve found to get a quick list of series books in their proper order (so essential with fantasy!).
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  1. says

    Oh, I do love high fantasy as well! Girl of Fire and Thorns and Graceling are two of my favorites. Trying to get through Seraphina right now, but it hasn't really grabbed me yet… Thanks for all of the additional suggestions!

  2. says

    I also love high fantasy. What a wonderfully informative post. And you've listed some great ones–many of which I've read. Loved Finnikin of the Rock, Seraphina, Graceling, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Pegasus, The Thief, and some of the others. I'm reading City of a Thousand Dolls right now.

  3. says

    Thanks for the recommendations. I will give some of these a try, I am always looking for more good fantasy. I have a recommendation or two for you.

    -The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson
    -The King Killer chronicles by Patrick Rothfus

  4. says

    Thank you for you recommendations. Some of these look fantastic( see what I did there?). I will definitely give some of these a try. I have a few recommendations for you as well:

    -The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson.
    -The King Killer Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss.

    Both are extremely engaging and well written.

  5. says

    I cannot tell you how happy I am that you've included Meghan Whalen Turner's "The Thief" in this post! My adoration for that series has stayed with me even though I read it when I was a child. #YAFTW

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