Perhaps the first misconception I encountered about the fantasy genre in general is that if you like one series you’re bound to like another. For example, I recall as a teenager getting recommendations for Joe Abercrombie, Naomi Novik, Sharon Shinn, and China Meiville all in conjunction with one another.
None of these authors share much territory as fantasy writers.
Taste is taste, so there’s no reader-proof way to map out who will like what. However, I’ve been searching a long time for means and methods to truly know if a certain series or even just a lone book is the right fit for me before I dive in to try reading it. I always have an overly long list of books to read. Too often, however, the books on that list don’t match what I thought I was told to expect, and I end up spending my time and energy elsewhere.
In this article, I’ll share a few resources and ideas on refining book recommendations and navigating the densely-populated landscape of high fantasy worth reading.
My Usual Methods for Growing My To-Read List
I typically seek out books I’ve already heard of.
I’ve almost never read a book without having it recommended, reading a review, hearing someone rave on a podcast, or knowing something about the author first. I do know people who will purchase–and read–just based on the cover art or the blurb, but I tend to want a lot of background information before ever considering a book. I don’t feel as if I have time to do otherwise.
The problem is, I then spend so much time reading about books that little is left for the books themselves.
Maybe I’m just tired of the indiscriminate comparisons to Game of Thrones–and not just because I’d rather have books compared to A Song of Ice and Fire anyway. But I’m convinced there must be more effective ways for readers in high fantasy, epic fantasy, or any genre at all to find the sorts of books they truly want to read without all the guessing and wondering and trial and error.
Existing Resources to Find Your Next High Fantasy Read
Many smart creators have grappled with this subject before me, so there are valuable resources out there to help readers find the right thing to read next. Here are a few.
Charts, Quizzes and Lists
- NPR surveyed over 60,000 fantasy and science fiction readers to find their favorite books, and SF Signal took that list and turned it into a truly epic flow chart. This was back in 2011, however, so many amazing SFF works we have now just weren’t around yet. The list (and flow-chart) also lack lots of detail on sub-genre, length, and other factors readers often care a lot about. Last but not least, it’s a little overwhelming and difficult to navigate as one large, spread-out image.
- There are simpler charts, like The Azrian Portal’s 2019 fantasy flow chart, but smaller charts like this necessarily leave a lot of great works off the radar.
- Some people take a more interactive approach, like Playbuzz’s quiz to identify your next perfect fantasy read. I have yet to find any quiz, however, that really offers more than 20 different end options for the genres I want to read. Result: Far too basic to be helpful for serious readers. More than being an actual solution, I consider quizzes like this to be mere evidence of how hard it can be to determine what to read next.
- Because story length is such a point of interest for fantasy readers, length-only comparisons can be helpful too. Here’s one from Thoughts on Fantasy, looking at lengths of individual books in epic / high fantasy, paranormal / urban, and YA / MG. This chart on the fantasy subreddit details series length–not just book length–so it gives another type of counterpoint. Bookwraiths took a list approach to show 30 of the longest series in fantasy, which is also helpful.
- Money Inc took a different approach with this 2019 list of the 20 best-selling fantasy series. It might not help you choose what to read, but it does show some social proof for what other people cared enough to buy.
Readers Also Like…
- I remember being incredibly excited when Goodreads appeared on the scene. I thought all my book-recommendation woes would be over. Unfortunately, Goodreads hasn’t really evolved since its launch. There are some useful lists there, though.
- I have found moderate value using Amazon’s “explore similar books” and “products related to this item” lists. The big problem is that buying a book is such a commitment (especially in genres with long works, like high fantasy), that plenty of people buy the book and never read it. This means that who bought what isn’t nearly enough data to tell you who liked what and why.
- The fantasy subreddit mentioned above is a solid place for actual book recommendations and conversations. It’s fairly well-moderated and quite an active community. It has also grown steadily for years. In the end, however, even a community as large as this one has some odd slants and biases, so I typically hear about the same 30 or so authors again and again there.
- Last but not least, Literature Map is an excellent resource to get a high-level picture of which authors readers tend to see as being similar. For instance, in the example below you can see that J. V. Jones (an epic fantasy author I admire a lot) is often compared closely to some of the military and grimdark crowd (Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Anthony Ryan) while being more distantly related to authors like Tad Williams and Robin Hobb. I agree with this mapping. The issue is that Literature Map only shows a decontextualized view of the author and not of any individual works. This might work well for authors who write within a narrow range, but for writers like Daniel Abraham, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, or dozens of others, there’s just too much missing information. Also, many authors don’t appear at all, which continues to limit the tool.
The best way to find out if you’ll like a book is still, typically, to read reviews. Lots of them.
Buying books is not like buying other media. The commitment of your funds is almost never proportional to the commitment in time to listen to or read the story. For instance, you can buy an album (yes, some people still do that) for $9.99 and listen to it in an hour, or buy a movie (people do that too) and watch it in a few hours–consuming the content in one sitting.
Books are almost never like that, and the time commitment is bigger for high and epic fantasy than for just about any other genre. Even if you pay only $30 or $40 to get an entire series, you might be looking at 60 – 200 hours of reading to go from start to finish.
Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I want a little more confidence that I’ll treasure that journey before I set out.
Next month’s post will dig deeper on this same topic with my own new look at just how this might be done.
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