High fantasy: fantasy set in an alternative, fictionalized world
I haven’t stopped loving high fantasy as I’ve gotten older, even if I read it less than I used to. Reading a story that wakes up your imagination is at once comforting and thrilling- comforting because that’s a part of mind that I associate with being younger and the security of being little and taken care of. Thrilling because I can be transported to another world.
It’s this world building that’s always been my favorite thing about fantasy- the maps in the front pages of the book (that sometimes fold out!), exotic names for places and people, fabricated family trees, and the existence of a whole new sequence of history and code of rules waiting to be discovered.
I even dreamed of writing the next great fantasy novel (I can remember so many that I started and never got very far with- “Under the Eye of the Dragon” being a title that springs to mind 😛 ), but characteristically got bogged down in the planning of the details, which was honestly the most exciting part for me. Drawing maps of my own kingdoms, diagramming my own (very convoluted- I read too many books about Tudor England) ancestries, cataloguing the horses in my imaginary stable (with names, breeds, and ages, of course), drawing a floor plan of said imaginary stable on graph paper, and drawing up adoption booklets filled with fictional beasts (and then making my parents adopt them so I could send them postcards from the adoptees).
So I never got around to writing the next great fantasy novel. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading them and appreciating other people’s world-building, character choices, and well, patience, which was the thing that I really lacked.
(Guess what? I have it now and sometimes write short stories! But not so much for people to read, because I know I overuse adjectives and adverbs and comparisons. It’s very self-indulgent writing 😛 )
So if you feel like curling up with fantastical happenings, heroic adventures, and sometimes romance, here are some suggestions that i think do a good job of appealing to the child in all of us while still being well-written and innovative enough to not offend our adult sides.
Momo and The Neverending Story, both by Michael Ende
I need to credit my friend Hyun for recommending these to me (and in the case of Momo, for gifting me a copy of the book). You may know The Neverending Story from the film with embarrassing animatronics, in which a boy discovers he must be the hero of the book that he is reading, and must find a way to save Fantastica from the encroaching darkness. I read Momo afterward and loved it even more- and not only because this time the heroine is female. The themes of Momo- about living mindfully and kindly, and appreciating small moments- speak to me more.
The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
If you remember the embarrassing animatronics of The Neverending Story, then there’s a chance you remember the equally embarrassing animated version of this book (and when I say embarrassing I mean I still watch clips on my computer and have some of the music on my iPod). It helps that the book is a very faithful adaptation (except for a few very questionable forays… into trees with boobs, for instance). It’s about a unicorn who, discovering that she is the last of her kind, goes on a quest to determine what became of the others.
Tinder, Sally Gardner
If the previous books are fantasy suitable for any age, Tinder is fantasy most definitely written for an audience over the age of ten. It’s a bit dark, a bit disturbed and gothic. But I don’t understand why it’s not more widely known and widely read because it’s absolutely masterful and spellbinding. It starts as so: “Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking.” Our narrator Otto Hundebiss (I said I love fantasy names, yes?) defies death, falls in love, and narrowly escapes… well, a lot but possibly not everything.
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Okay, I know Coraline isn’t high fantasy but it’s going in here anyway. After the success of Tinder I decided I wanted to read a bit more fantasy. I settled on this because, even though I had tried it and dropped it once before, my lovely friend Gabriella (who is something of an expert in fantasy) recommended it to me. And because of Tinder, I was feeling more receptive. Coraline moves into a new house and discovers a little door that takes her to her “other home”, a seemingly identical house… and her “other mother”, also called The Beldam. To learn more about the inspiration for Coraline, I strongly recommend reading Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. When you start seeing the connections it’s absolutely fascinating.
Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
It almost feels as though i should be dividing this list into books that have “good” and “bad” film adaptations. And of course, Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle would be one of the good ones. At the same time, Ghibli adds his own interpretations (characteristically involving the horrors of war) and leaves out other things. these other things really do deepen the book, more than making up for the lack of the beautiful theme song. Or you could just play it on repeat in the background while you read.
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
It’s hard to know if The Mists of Avalon counts as high fantasy when it is based on the legends of King Arthur’s court. I’m going to say it’s another world, given the matter-of-fact treatment of fairies, Avalon, and magic. Given the presence of violence and sex (including incest), I might suggest that this isn’t for children (I read it when I was twelve). Particularly readable for adults because, apart from being written very well, it also tackles issues like the ‘villainization’ (yes, I did just make up that word) of strong women in history. (#FreeElizabethBathory)
Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Because obviously. And The Hobbit.