Perhaps second only to Rowling in terms of popularity, Diana Gabaldon’s wildly successful historical fantasy series Outlander has been fluttering hearts since the early 1990s. Now a popular TV series, Outlander tells the tale of English nurse Claire Randall who – along with some help from Druids and a set of magical standing stones – is torn from her 1940s life and husband and falls through time back to 1700s Scotland. Here, Claire embarks on a series of dangerous and exciting adventures – including a passionate and deeply sensual romantic relationship with the (surprisingly feminist for the 18thC) Jacobite Jamie Fraser. Claire’s ability to make potions using her twentieth century knowledge and interest in plants sees her find a place in this past era. Blending just the right mix of history, herbology, romance and fantasy, Outlander is an utterly indulgent and imaginative series full of swashbuckling adventure and mind-bending time travel. Claire and Jamie’s travels take them from the fields of Culloden to Paris, and as far as the American Revolution. A light, fast read with a lyrical and often humorous writing style, the Outlander books are a treat and a thrill.
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While there are obvious similarities between the Outlander series and Kindred by Octavia E. Butler – both books share some key themes: time travelling, attempts to change the past for the sake of the future – Kindred is not a romantic book. Butler uses the fantasy genre to stride much deeper, more seriously and painfully into the past. She asks questions and writes of a history that is explicitly the experience of black Americans under slavery. Butler also documents the embedded white supremacy in the United States and the unearned privilege of whiteness. In this novel, Dana – a black woman living in 1970s America - repeatedly travels through time to the pre-civil war era. She finds herself tasked with saving a white man, Rufus, at different junctures throughout his life. This interlinking of Rufus and Dana through time has ramifications for the future and Dana must battle and survive life in antebellum America as well as her life as a black woman living in the United States in the 1970s. Butler’s novel is wrenching at times, but is beautifully written and depicts the tenacity and strength of black womanhood. Kindred is a cornerstone text not only within the fantasy genre, but also within women’s writing in general. Because the work and words of black women are instrumental to literature and feminism, Butler’s novel and her depiction of the historical traumas and resilience of black people is an important and necessary read – especially in our current political era.
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The YA writer Malinda Lo has been pioneering diversity within the fantasy genre since the start of her writing career - her 2009 debut novel Ash illustrates the important work she has been doing to empower and amplify marginalised experiences in her fiction. In Ash, Lo transforms traditional fantasy tales by re-telling the classic story Cinderella as a lesbian love story. In the novel, Ash is orphaned and is left at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and step-sisters. She finds solace only in her dreams of fairies and a magical fairyland. This fairy land soon becomes a reality when Ash encounters the dark fairy Sidhean - who has a history with her deceased mother – but increasingly he begins to demand her mind, body and soul. When Ash meets the passionate and brave King’s huntress Kaisa, she must firstly decide where her feelings lie and then plan her defiant escape from Sidhean. Lo’s reimagining of Cinderella is a timely contribution to the fantasy genre and the love story between the two female characters is beautifully written. Full of mystery, magic, intrigue and romance, Ash is a traditional fantasy tale with a twist!
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Written in the same vein as Ash, the 2012 novel Thorn by Intisar Khanani re-tells the fairytale story of the ‘goose girl’. In this novel, Princess Alyrra is married off to a foreign Prince by her duplicitous and manipulative family. On the journey to her new kingdom, the Princess is the victim of a magic spell – her handmaiden employed fairies to switch their identities. So by the time they arrive at the palace of Prince Kestrin, Alyrra has been imprisoned in the body of the handmaiden and is tasked with the role of ‘goose girl’ – carrying out the various arduous chores of the castle. With the help of her talkative and friendly horse however, Prince Kestrin begins to wonder about the identity of the ‘goose girl’ - romance could be on the horizon for Alyrra, as well as the chance to reclaim not only her body but her new identity away from her family. Thorn is a sweet and romantic fantasy novel and has a wide fanbase that continues to grow in the years since Khanani originally self-published her book.
Howl's Moving Castle
This 1968 book has enjoyed a cult following but it was the 2005 film that placed Jones’ fantasy story firmly into the popular public consciousness. Largely set in the kingdom of Ingary, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie Hatter who – according to lore – as the oldest of three sisters, will never enjoy success or find happiness. Seemingly true to lore, Sophie is cursed and turned into an old crone. She then takes a job working for the Wizard Howl, in his castle. A magical tale of portals to alternate worlds, magic, witchcraft, romance and talking objects, Howl’s Moving Castle is a feast for the imagination. Jones writes creatively and vividly – as we join Sophie and the Wizard Howl on their courageous adventures the imageries and settings of the fantasy worlds come alive between the lines on the pages. This book is truly a fantasy-lovers dream.
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