Through the Looking Glass: Adult Fantasy Novels for Voracious ReadersMost of us are familiar with children’s fantasy classics, because for many they were part and parcel of our formative years. For me it was The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, and Tamora Pierce’s transformative The Song of the Lioness series.
The huge boom in YA novels has also given librarians and other book lovers a wealth of new work to recommend to teen readers, The Hunger Games, The Mazerunner, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Red Rising, and many more alongside classics like The Giver.
But the waters start to get a little muddy when it comes to adult fantasy. If you don’t read as much fantasy now as an adult and have folks coming to you for adult fantasy recommendations, it can be tempting to just recommend Game of Thrones and endless Sword of Shannara books. What to recommend when readers want something primarily featuring adult characters and – for lack of a better term – adult coming-of-age tales?
When I was growing up, there simply wasn’t a YA section at my local library. Sometime in my early teens I tentatively graduated from the “Kids” section of the library to the “adult” section, inching my way closer to the adult stacks and hoping nobody noticed. That meant I was reading Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series fairly early on, and I started Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series when I was fourteen or fifteen.
Now that I’m writing my own fantasy novels like The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant, I find myself steeped in new novels from my peers, more than I can ever get to. There’s funny fantasy and adult fairytales and fantasy that takes us to bold new worlds and dark, gritty, grim fantasy that makes us happy we don’t live there.
Here are just a few books I’ve enjoyed or been recommended, bucketed up into some categories that you can use to try and tease out precisely what type of fantasy a particular reader is looking for:
Modern Adult Fairytales
Fairytale retellings are the meaty marrow of fantasy, and these are a few that are all grown up.
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- Uprooted, Naomi Novik
Fun, Humorous Fantasy
Wry, clever, and never afraid to poke fun at themselves, these books take old fantasy tropes and turn them on their heads – with amusing results.
- The Paladin Caper, Patrick Weekes
- No Hero, Jonathan Wood
- Geekomancy, Mike Underwood
Most of us have heard of military science fiction? But military fantasy? Yes, it’s a thing!
- Control Point, Myke Cole
- American Craftsman, Tom Doyle
Silk Road Fantasy
Explore fantastic realms inspired by ancient Arabia, Persia, and Mongolia in these engaging fantasy tales.
- The Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
- The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones
- Range of Ghosts, Elizabeth Bear
- The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Secondary World Fantasy
Explore weird and exciting new realms with extraordinary humans… and the not-so-human.
- Updraft, Fran Wilde
- The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells
- Barsk, Lawrence M. Shoen
Huge stakes. Tricky politics. Government coups. Magic that will take your breath away. These ones have it all.
- Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan
- Cold Magic, Kate Elliott
- A Crown for Cold Silver, Alex Marshall
- The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
- City of Stairs, Robert J. Bennett
Dark Epic Fantasy
The world can be a dark place, and so can these novels. It’s the epic with all the blood, horror, and grit of real life.
- Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
- Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson
- Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie
- The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
- Empress, Karen Miller
For those who like a little horror infused with their fantasy.
- Miserere, Teresa Frohock
- Chapelwood, Cherie Priest
These books take us into the magical underbelly of our own world, a grown-up Narnia that isn’t all sleigh rides and Turkish delight.
- The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins,
- A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
What if the past really was a magical place? These novels ask what the world would be like at different points in history if magic was part of everyday life.
- Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho
- The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard
- Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis
About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.