There is nothing (NOTHING) like The Lord of the Rings. I am absolutely in no way implying that anything else on this list is going to have the depth of world building and language and culture development and beautiful writing and moving characters and complete and utter wonderment of Tolkien’s work. Just wanted to get that out of the way, so you would know that I am a quality person of sound mind. I am also in no way implying that I am an expert on the fantasy genre. I’m not (more on this later). I’m just passing on some things that make me happy. Things that you might want to enjoy and that you might want to expose your kids to along the way.
Just in case you were wondering what place this list has on a blog about storytelling for kids, I was seven (and my brother was nine) when my dad first started reading The Hobbit to us. I remember that we had this little storybook version of it, and we were talking about it when he asked us if we wanted to read the real thing. As soon as he finished that book, we jumped straight into The Lord of the Rings. Hours and hours of lying in his bed or on the floor next to it, listening and listening while he did all the voices and plowed through each and every one of those songs. (Yeah, my dad is awesome.) Those are some of my best memories.
As soon as I was old enough to tackle something that long, I reread the whole series on my own. I was probably 11 or 12. After that, I pretty much reread it every year until I went to college to study literature and had no time for reading. When my husband and I got married right out of college, I heard they were making LOTR movies, and I forced him to read all the books before the first movie came out. As I recall, I read some of it out loud to him as we drove across the country on our honeymoon. More great memories.
Somehow, bizarrely, in spite of my obvious love for Tolkien’s world, I never really delved into much other fantasy writing until about 10 years ago. I guess I didn’t run with the right crowds to be introduced to the good stuff. I’m doing my best to change that. For me. For my kids. And for you.
I’ve tried quite a few things along the way, and rejected many of them for various reasons. Some had terrible writing (Eragon, anyone?). Some got a bit too rapey, and I couldn’t dig it (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Some just didn’t let me in. (The legendary Earthsea series, by Ursula LeGuin, is one of those for me.) These five, though, are the ones I lost myself in (and that’s all I ever really wanted).
If You Liked The Lord of the Rings (because obviously you did)
- The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (First book is The Eye of the World) – This series is 14 books long, so you’ve been warned. Length does not daunt me, but I also didn’t know what I was getting into when I started. It’s a pretty basic premise: young men set out on a journey to save the world, realizing along the way that they have special powers. The basic premise barely matters, though, since it’s the wonderful characters and extensive interplay of cultures that I loved. This really requires a lengthy review. Let me just say that first book is great, which helps you buy in. It’s 14 books, so yeah, it wanders and drags along the way (and there is a lot of braid tugging and sniffing…just read it and you’ll see what I mean). The author actually died before finishing it, but he left extensive notes and Brandon Sanderson came on board to finish out the last few books. Those last ones are fantastic. I really, really liked the ending. And I was so invested in all the characters. Just really, really great.
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson – I started on his books after reading his work on WOT. There are many and all very original for the genre. Mistborn is by far my favorite. The whole world works and is enough different from anything else to be captivating. There are people with special powers, but they’re different from what you’ve seen before and follow very logical rules. There is an evil lord to overthrow, but even that isn’t what it seems. It has a female protagonist, which always works for me, but there isn’t a female sensibility to it, which also works nicely.
- The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier (First book is Daughter of the Forest) – This one is an Irish mythology creation, which drew me in right away but may not appeal to those looking for strictly new world building. More strong amazing female characters here but with equally strong male counterparts. Some harsh life reality but without dwelling on it in that voyeuristic way you sometimes find. There is a love story element to each book, but the main focus is home and family and protecting that. I look forward to my daughters reading these some day.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – An unfinished trilogy! I was completely swept up in the first two books and so disappointed that I would have to wait for more. There’s nothing terribly original in the world building here, but the writing is strong and the main character is completely compelling.
- The Belgariad by David Eddings (First book is Pawn of Prophecy) – A friend recently put me on to this one (Thanks, Mike!), though it’s been around forever, and I haven’t finished yet, so I can’t speak to the ending, but I am completely in. It also has a fairly tired premise (boy is special and doesn’t know, is taken on journey by powerful people to save world), but none of that matters while you are enjoying the warm and witty writing. More great characters (can you tell that depth of characterization is my favorite thing?), but really it’s the writing style that makes me want to just sink in and let the pages flip by.
One last thing about The Lord of the Rings. If for some reason you find yourself here and you haven’t read it, just walk away from this right now and go get started. I mean, really. Don’t even tell me you’ve seen the movies and haven’t read it. Don’t even tell me you’ve never read anything that long. Just do it. And for the record, I’m reading it to my kids (9,7,and 5) right now. It’s taking us a loooooong time and we’ve taken breaks along the way, but I’m doing my best to do all the voices and I’m steadfastly withholding the films until we get to the end. Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the moment they realized (SPOILER) that Gandalf was really alive. Let me just say, this is totally paying off in more really great memories.