Fantasy, like a lot of other genres, has a lot of tropes, plot devices, and character archetypes that at times make it predictable. Even with new worlds, strange creatures, and magic systems we have yet to comprehend, the genre has its limitations. Therefore, I’m always on the hunt for something a little off the beaten path. If someone is pushing the fantasy boundaries, I’m there. So when I stumbled across some recently published reads that seemed to bend the standard fantasy preconceptions, I didn’t hesitate to place a hold and gobble them down.
The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera (2017)
Why It’s Off the Beaten Path: Female protagonists, queer main couple, set in pseudo-Asia, female person of color author
Told in a series of letters between two strong female warriors, The Tiger’s Daughter follows Shizuka and Shefali as they pursue their destinies and attempt to rid their kingdom of demons. From the steppes to imperial palaces and from lush gardens to wastelands, Rivera definitely has a way with words. She builds scenes so precisely that it was easy for me to slip into the world she created. Plus, can we also talk about this LESBIAN WARRIOR COUPLE?! HOORAY! There are several authors in the fantasy world who have included queer side characters, but to have the main protagonists be queer and in love is definitely a rare find.
There was a whole lot about this book that I enjoyed; I love any fantasy book that’s not set in a society dominated by Western norms, and did I mention it was told in a series of letters? I am a sucker for any story written in letter/text/email format. I will say that this particular usage of letters is sometimes confusing, because the letters are so long, and the grounding chapters are so short and far between that I found myself flipping back and forth to orient myself. But overall, I was a big, huge fan of this book. 10/10, would recommend (and write a long gushing paragraph about it on a library blog).
The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French (2018)
Why It’s Off the Beaten Path: Half-Orc protagonists, lots of swearing, tons of gore, raw & gritty, lots and lots of nudity
Fantasy novels, even though most are basically set in the middle ages + magic, still remain a high art-form. Most modern fantasy still more closely resembles the Wheel of Time series or Lord of the Rings (which are now almost 30 and over 80 years old, respectively). They don’t usually resemble HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones; they aren’t known to be a rip roaring good time. But if you happen to be a fan of cursing and fighting and getting it on, then The Grey Bastards is for you.
Set in a badlands between beautiful human-owned territories and the wastes held by the orcs, half-orcs patrol endlessly for the next orc incursion. Stronger than humans, yet outcasts from human society, the half-orcs not only hold the ever shifting middle ground, but they are the last defense against the ever looming presence of the relentless and bloodthirsty orc hordes. Seriously, this book was just fun. It definitely breaks the high fantasy mold, while still delivering on a lot of the same pay-offs: non-stop action, intrigue, magic, and interesting world building. But if you are trying to avoid gore, lots of scenes in brothels and tons of swearing, this book is probably not for you.
If you’re looking for anything that breaks the traditional molds, don’t be afraid to google it up. There are lists EVERYWHERE for fantasy books with queer characters, set in non-European settings, and so on and so on. Go forth and find the off-beat fantasy of your dreams!
-Lauren Taylor is a Youth Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.