?As nerds, we have an obligation to pass on our sacred nerd knowledge to the next generation. Not only is it a good way to to keep the nerd ranks swelled, and not only is it a great feeling to help young nerdlings discover their own interests, but getting small children to enjoy your favorite books, movies and series is like having all the power of a drug dealer, but with none of police scrutiny. To continue the metaphor, books will always be nerdery’s heroin, because books are inherently more special to us than movies and cartoons and the like. More nerdy, too.
While every adult nerd knows to give youngsters books like The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, there are plenty of other great books out there that don’t get the same kind of massive film-adaptation attention. Here are 14 fantasy novels, in no particular order, you might not already know but are definitely worth finding for the nerdlings in your life. Now, we’re not going to pretend that all 14 books will be totally unknown to every reader — surely everyone reading TR has enjoyed one or more books on the list — so don’t get too hung up on that. And before you start complaining about books we missed, please remember we’re trying to promote lesser-known books. Basically, if a book has had a movie or cartoon based on it, it’s not on here. And last but certainly not least, while they may have been written for a younger audience, if some of you older, more seasoned nerds want to give them a read, they certainly won’t do you any harm. In fact, feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments — we’ll get a TR reading list going!
14) The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
?If you have a soft spot for characters with a flexible interpretation of the rules of property ownership, you’ll definitely be interested in Gen’s story. Gen is a self-described master thief, who at the beginning of the book is cooling his heels in prison for bragging about an impressive theft in the wrong company. His services are enlisted by the king’s magus to assist him in acquiring a very powerful magical artifact, but there’s more than one person involved with this quest that has a secret agenda, and plans for the artifact once they find it. Their journey is interspersed with stories about the origin of the artifact and the god of thieves, and makes for nice short read. To keep up with Gen and his illustrious career, read the two sequels: The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia.
13) Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
?If you think you recognize the name Suzanne Collins, you probably do. Her recent and most popular books are The Hunger Games trilogy. Before she started writing about state-sponsored gladiatorial death matches between teenagers, though, she created a vast world that exists right under our feet. Gregor lives with his mother, grandmother, and sisters in their old New York City apartment building, working hard to help make ends meet since his father disappeared. While doing laundry in the basement, Gregor and his youngest sister fall through a hole in the floor, into an underground world populated by giant cockroaches, spiders, bats, rats and many other kinds of creatures you’d never want to meet in pitch dark even if they were normal-sized. There, the two of them encounter a race of humans who have lived beneath the earth’s surface for hundreds of years. As Gregor tries desperately to get himself and his baby sister home, he’s drawn into underground conflicts that he struggles to understand, and a quest that might cost him his life. This book is the first installment of the five-part Underland Chronicles – you won’t be able to stop after you start.
12) Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
?Whatever your opinion of David Eddings’ work (I know both fans and haters), you can’t deny that he’s one of the big names in modern fantasy, and his books rightly take up a lot of space on library and bookstore shelves. If you’re in the mood for a great “young character with an important destiny long foretold” story, look no further. Garion was raised in humble circumstances, on a farm in the peaceful kingdom of Sendaria. When his story begins, all that he knew about the world outside his comfortable farming existence came from the stories he heard from the old traveling storyteller that stopped by the farm every year. Garion’s life changes overnight, however, when he and his Aunt Pol suddenly have to leave the only home he’s ever known, and he is thrust into the company of some strange new people and discovers the true identities of people that he’s known all his life. In the course of his journey, which crosses the boundaries of countries and continents, he begins to learn the truth about his own past, and the future that awaits him. After finishing this book and the other four books of The Belgariad series, be sure to enjoy it again in the form of The Mallorean!
11) The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
?Set in Africa almost two hundred years in the future, Tendai and his younger siblings, Rita and Kuda have spent almost their entire lives in a secure compound commanded by their father, a general. Growing tired of being constantly supervised by their father’s staff, they sneak outside the safety of the walls and are immediately kidnapped and put to work in the local slums. When their parents find out that their children are missing, they enlist the help of a special (aka, “mutant”) private detective agency, made up of the Ear, whose mutation enables his extremely sensitive ears to hear the slightest sound, the Eye, who (you guessed it) can see things that are invisible to most people, and the Arm, whose overgrown limbs and psychic ability to see into people’s souls make him a valuable member of the team. The book addresses many interesting issues, like class and privilege, and old world traditions versus new world civilization.
10) The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
?This story begins with an uneasy partnership between a young apprentice magician, Nathaniel, and a djinni named Bartimaeus. A smart, talented and ambitious kid, Nathaniel is impatient to escape the custody and influence of his old master and start flexing his magical muscles. Unfortunately, a confrontation with an adult magician at a professional gathering leads to Nathaniel’s public humiliation. In order to get his revenge, he throws himself into his studies in order to learn more advanced spells. A magician’s power depends on his ability to summon and control magical beings – beings like Bartimaeus. Nathaniel orders the djinni to steal a powerful amulet from the magician who had so cruelly humiliated him, but being thousands of years old, Bartimaeus isn’t interested in following the orders of a kid, and has a few tricks up his sleeve. Soon they both find that they must work together to survive the dangerous situations in which they find themselves. The adventures of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel continue with The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate.
9) Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques
?Author of the well-known Redwall series, Brian Jacques also wrote an origin story for the legendary Flying Dutchman, the ship cursed to sail the seas for all time. Jacques didn’t focus strictly on the ship, but rather on a young stowaway called Neb. He’s forced to work for the ship’s cook, but finally finds a friend when they make port in Denmark, a dog he calls Den. The two of them are caught up in the manic voyage of the Dutchman’s captain, who wishes to pass Cape Horn. After three unsuccessful attempts, the captain curses God. An angel pops down from Heaven and curses him right back, forcing him and his crew to stay eternally at sea. The angel spares Neb and Den from this fate, however, and “blesses” them with everlasting life and a duty to provide help to whoever might need it. This entertaining story is well worth diving into, either by long-time Redwall fans or those who haven’t read any of Jacques’ books.
8) The Wish List by Eoin Colfer
?Wait! Come back! Don’t skip this entry just because you’ve got hard feelings about Colfer taking on the ill-advised continuation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series. Put it out of your mind, take a deep breath, and try to accept the possibility that good things have come from this author – most notably his Artemis Fowl series, but The Wish List is an interesting tale about a troubled girl named Meg who is killed in the act of committing a crime. The good and bad deeds she performed in life come up exactly equal, and she is given the chance to earn a place in Heaven by helping an old man finish the items on his “wish list”, which is full of missed opportunities and regrets that he hopes to correct. In her attempt to tip the balance of her life toward the good side, Meg rubs elbows with a few inhabitants of both Heaven and Hell. The result makes for a great story of sacrifice and redemption.
7) The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
?Written by the same author that gave us the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (if you saw The Lightning Thief, please just pretend you didn’t), this book expands on the idea of ancient mythos adapting to changing times, this time focusing on Egyptian mythology. This book explores the dynamics of a fractured, interracial family in the context of a larger family plot – because the Egyptian gods are a large, divine family as well. One of the things that makes Rick Riordan’s mythological adaptations so appealing is that he doesn’t shy away from the complications of the myths – families are messy. Carter and Sadie Kane are two estranged siblings who are thrown together again after watching their father vanish in the middle of summoning a mysterious firey being. In their journey to find him, they learn about their family’s connection with the House of Life, an ancient Egyptian order of magicians. With assistance from a cat named Muffin, a basketball-playing baboon, and an albino crocodile, brother and sister work together to thwart the rise of an all-powerful god.
6) Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
?This book is perfect for anyone who’s ever wished they could speak to animals. In the kingdom of Tortall, there are many people who have the magical Gift. Daine, a young girl with a tragic past, has something different, unique and very powerful. This gives her the ability to communicate with all kinds of animals, and helps her get a job as an assistant horse handler for Tortall’s special cavalry division. Her powers have a dark side, though, one that she tries to hide from the new friends she’s made. Featuring some appearances from a few characters in Tamora Pierce’s first series, The Lioness Quartet, it’s perfectly acceptable to start reading about Daine and her adventures first. Be sure to continue on through the rest of the Tortall series, though, because each one is better than the last.
5) Being of Two Minds by Pamela F. Service
?What does the teenage prince of Thulgaria have in common with an average American teenage girl? They’ve both been afflicted with fainting spells for their entire lives. And though their respective parents have tried all kinds of medical specialists, the fainting episodes remain unexplained and uncontrollable. But Rudolf and Connie don’t want to be cured, because what their parents and doctors don’t know is that the two of them share a psychic connection when they’re unconscious. When Connie faints, her mind acts as a sort of passenger to Rudolf’s, they share experiences together, and vice versa. Neither of them wants to lose such a friendship, and when Thulgarian politics threaten Rudolf’s life, Connie knows that she’s the only one who can help him. This book is a short and fun read but it’s out of print, so if you happen to see it in a used bookstore, I suggest you snag it while you can.
4) The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
?You might know Diana Wynne Jones as the author of Howl’s Moving Castle, which was adapted for Hayao Myazaki’s animated film. She’s got a lot more to offer – The Dark Lord of Derkholm takes place in a magical world that has been appropriated by an off-worlder called Mr. Chesney, who uses it to run a yearly formulaic fantasty-tour service for other people from his world. Mr. Chesney requires the magical inhabitants of this world to fulfill the archetypal fantasy roles that he has laid out for them. This year, the part of the Dark Lord has been assigned to the easygoing wizard Derk, who enlists the help of his multi-species family to play the part to the best of their abilities. This wonderfully entertaining book takes a long, knowing glance at high fantasy and gently tweaks its nose, turning certain conventions of the genre on its head and standing firmly on its own. If you finish this book and want more, then be sure to get your hands on its sequel, Year of the Griffin. Consider going the distance and reading her Chrestomanci books as well.
3) The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
?Even though she was born a princess, Aerin couldn’t feel any more alone in her own kingdom. She looks different from the rest of her people, and she doesn’t have the same kind of magical gift that many of the other members of the royal family inherit. Rumors abound that her mother was unfaithful, and that she isn’t even really of royal blood. Despite all of this, Aerin is determined to go her own way, reading a history of the kingdom and the dragons that periodically drop in for some firey village-ravaging. After working for years to prepare, Aerin decides that she’s going to go slay a dragon – by herself. Too bad she doesn’t know that taking on this fearsome creature is really only the start of her adventures. Once you finish this, you’ll want to move on to The Blue Sword, where you find out just how awesome Aerin really is.
2) The Book of Night with Moon by Diane Duane
?Have you ever wondered what cats get up to when their owners leave for work? I’ll bet you never considered that they were actively maintaining the fabric of time and space. But in this book, that’s exactly what housecat Rhiow and her fellow feline team members do every day. As wizards, their job is to maintain the inter-dimensional portals of New York City, which are located in – where else? Grand Central Station. Everything seems to happen at once – from the addition of a new team member to one of the main worldgates malfunctioning, and Rhiow and her team discover that an ancient evil is stirring in the depths of the network. The price for putting it down again is higher than any of them ever imagined. It’s written by the same author that brought you So You Want To Be A Wizard and is set in the same world.
1) The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
?You’ve heard the fairy tale of the piper who lured a plague of rats from a small town? That’s a pretty sound business model – the piper provides a service, and the townspeople pay up. It takes a smooth-talking feline named Maurice to see the advantage of providing the plague of rats as well. This story takes place in a small town called Bath on the Discworld. Maurice, the young piper, and the gang of rats they travel with decide to pull one last job before breaking up the band and going their separate ways. What they find in Bath is nothing like they’ve ever encountered before, and requires the strange partnership to stay together long enough to survive it. Amazing Maurice exemplifies the best of what Terry Pratchett serves up in his wonderful characterization, dialogue, and believable conclusions. The greatest thing about all of Pratchett’s books is that he always has something important to say through the development of the stories. If you get your nerdlings to read this, hopefully they’ll make their way through the rest of Pratchett’s awesome works.