7 excellent Escapist Adventure Fantasy Books

Illustration from The Three Musketeers by Maurice Leloir (D. Appleton & Company, 1911)

It’s never a bad time for adventure fantasy, but I would argue that now is the best time for adventure fantasy.

Here are some of my favorites, hand-picked for escapism, intrigue, high density of sword fights and sheer enjoyment. Ideal if you have a campfire next door. (I guess I’m not the only one with a persistent daydream of sitting in a giant armchair in front of a crackling fireplace?)

The Winnowing Flame Trilogy by Jen Williams

I read this trilogy – starting with The ninth rain– back to back, start to finish, something I do not think I have done with a series for years. These books are just terribly funny. They best reminded me to curl up at the school library and discover the great fantasy standards for the first time. They have everything I loved as a teenager – mythical beasts, heroic last stands, unfathomable enemies – with a fresh modern twist and a pervasive sense of humor. But most importantly, they have sad vampire elves. “Get this – they were immortal – but then their wooden god was killed – so they had to drink human blood to survive !!!” me, to all my friends, the last two months. If that does not convince you, I do not know what to tell you. [Editor’s Note: these books are currently only available in the UK from Headline Books.]

The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee

Partly family saga, partly crime drama, partly martial arts epic, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga is one of my absolute favorite fantasy series of the last few years. The world structure is intricate but never overwhelming, and Lee deals subtly with themes rarely seen in fantasy: globalization, diaspora cultures, the transformation of a traditional lifestyle. If that sounds like something heavy, do not be fooled: the primary joy of this series is (1) nail-biting duels, (2) the vast array of horrible things that can happen to Kaul siblings, (3) the fantasy of running around in the city and explore your territory through the smoked glass windows of a beautiful car. Jade heritage, the last book in the trilogy, will be published next year, and I can not wait.

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer

Something between a novel and a collection of short stories, Kalpa Imperial explores the history of a large imagined empire through a series of loosely connected vignettes. The stories are – in turn, and sometimes at once – funny, brutal, cynical, optimistic, bizarre and lovely. You get the feeling of exploring a huge half-forgotten ruin. One to read and reread.

The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

“But this is a literary-historical work of fiction,” I hear you cry. I mean, yes, but it also has murders in a remote monastery in the snow, a haunted non-Euclidean library, and a piece in which the adorable unhappy narrator describes a sumptuous altarpiece in three or four pages. Speaking of the narrator, Adso of Melk is the cutest and most useless monk ever, though I suppose it’s not his fault that he spends all his time with the monk Sherlock Holmes. Good things. If you want to learn a lot about fourteenth-century heresy, you can keep Wikipedia open in a tab, but it’s certainly not mandatory.

The minions from Zenda by KJ Charles

The legendary Victorian pulp The prisoner from Zenda is an account of a British traveler who must pretend to be the king of Ruritania in order to thwart a miserable plot. The minions from Zenda recreates the story from the perspective of the villains – always one of my favorite conceits. The winning salty Jasper Detchard’s bid on the evil plane includes intrigue within intrigue, kidnapping, extortion, murder and his insecure romance with the brave Rupert von Hentzau. Pure pleasure.

Dungeon Meshi by Ryoko Kui (aka “Delicious in Dungeon”)

This manga starts with a good premise for jokes. What if an adventure party had to resort to cooking and eating the monsters in the dungeon they explore? Cue lots of scenes where they have to figure out how to cook mandrake, octopus, etc. It very quickly becomes a lovely exploration of amazing biology (did you know that living armor is a mollusk?) That does not shy away from the creeping horror scenarios implications. The art is absolutely amazing, the characters are perfectly endearing, and the world structure is complex, whimsical and surprising. Health warning: you may end up starving for things not found in nature.

The three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

There’s a possibly apocryphal story that Dumas reread on his deathbed The three Musketeers to see if it was still good. It was and still is. Although technically not a fantasy work, I have included it here because it is one of the finest fairy tale novels ever. It has sword fights, espionage, significant jewelry, wonderful meandering villains and all sorts of hijinks. If you’ve been put off by one of the (many) flawed film adaptations, try the book – it’s funnier, livelier, smarter and more charming than any of its imitators.

Originally released in May 2020

AK LARKWOOD studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge, and now lives in Oxford with his wife and a cat. The unspoken name is her debut novel.

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