You gotta start somewhere, right? That’s good advice overall, from blue collar jobs to online slots players, but it applies just as well to both readers and writers. It’s often disheartening learning about this fascinating new thing only to look into and see a mountain of stuff to get past just to be able to get to where everyone else already is.
Fantasy authors often have dozens of books to their name, sometimes with nearly a thousand pages per book, and thousands of screaming fans who absolutely will not shut up about them on every forum, social media page, and blog. What isn’t blogged is vlogged. However, as a wise man once asked me, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
You gotta start with book one, on page one- but which one? Let’s take a look at three popular fantasy novels and compare their debut releases!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
Ah, Harry Potter. This series was my childhood and remains one of my favorites to this day. That being said, I’ll try to put aside my nostalgia goggles and take a look at the first book objectively.
Harry Potter is an orphan, taken in by his abusive aunt and uncle, and forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs for the first eleven years of his life. A friendly giant named Hagrid turns up one day, tells Harry that he’s a Wizard, and whisks him away to a wonderful but hidden magical world full of danger and adventure. A world where Harry is famous, where the scar on his forehead is more than a relic of a car crash, and where Trolls, Goblins, and Unicorns are all real.
He goes to Hogwarts to learn how to use his magical powers and learns about the Dark Wizard Voldemort, who tried to murder Harry as a child and lost his powers. He learns about the Sorcerer’s stone, that can grant immortality, and how a certain Dark Wizard might use one to return once more…
What J. K. Rowling excels at is characterization. There is so much charm and life in this book. It oozes out the pages. The cast is distinct and iconic, and Rowling really captures the essence of going to a wizard school. Friendships, cliques, and magical hi-jinks, there are so many elements that play off each other excellently to keep the overall tone light and fun without taking away from the more serious aspects of the story.
The adults are competent and responsible (as much as adults working in a school next to a murder-forest can be), and you can easily imagine yourself being taught by these caricatures. It’s all so relatable and so escapist at the same time.
However, there are two significant flaws I can’t really look over. The first is Harry. While Harry’s characterization is excellent, how the plot treats Harry is something else entirely. Harry, in this first book, can almost be clarified as a Gary Stu.
If you don’t know, Gary Stu is the male equivalent of a Mary Stu; a character so perfect in every way, the plot bends to suit their awesomeness. If you’ve ever been online in the past couple of years, you’ve probably seen the term thrown around for characters like Rey from Star Wars.
Harry is not nearly so bad, but there are instances of the plot giving Harry wins that seem downright unfair by rules the book establishes. He gets onto the Gryffindor Quidditch team as a first-year because he’s so good at flying, despite that being explicitly against the rules. Then, at the end of the story, Dumbledore just gives Gryffindor the house cup because reasons, even though it should technically have been given to the Slytherins.
The other major flaw I have to point out is the plot itself. Harry Potter, especially this first one, is written for a younger audience, so I can forgive it, but I think it’s still worth pointing out.
Why was the Sorcerer’s Stone put inside a D&D game?
Why did it take an entire school year for the most powerful Dark Wizard ever to get through it when a couple of first years could manage it?
Why hasn’t the wizard economy collapsed because of their ridiculous currency system?
Why do students get in trouble for tardiness when the stairs decide to move on their own?
THESE ARE THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS I NEED ANSWERED IN MY Y.A. NOVELS!
ASOIAF: Game of Thrones
It’s grim. It’s gritty. It’s got boobs and violence. It’s everything Harry Potter is not. Where Harry Potter is whimsical and full of magic, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is brooding, serious, and depressing.
Game of Thrones follows the House of Starks, whom I shall refer to now on as House Good-Guys. When King Robert asks Ned Stark to become his right hand man, House Good-Guys travel south and find themselves wholly unprepared for the web of intrigue, subtlety, and political maneuvering that is the King’s court. When King Robert gets wounded and dies because of a hunting accident, everyone starts scrambling to fill the power vacuum while House Good-Guys desperately try to find out who’s really responsible for the King’s death.
Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, the last heir to a House that King Robert overthrew, is married to a savage and struggles to establish herself as a proper queen. Also, lots of horses, boobs, and dragons.
And meanwhile, far to the north, a terrible threat begins to stir.
So yeah. Game of Thrones. If you’ve grown up with Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, the tone difference will make you fall out of your seat. It’s got it all! Incest, rape, murder, betrayal, intrigue. Bigotry and prejudice. Can you stick to your morals when being a good guy puts you at such an incredible disadvantage? I mean, obviously not, since the book grimly kills off its main character. Uh, spoiler warning, I guess.
If you’re looking for mature fantasy, this is it. Despite the enormous cast of characters, George R. R. Martin manages to keep them all distinct from one another without falling back on clichés. You won’t find any Hero’s Journeys or Chosen Ones here. Game of Thrones manages to dark, miserable, and grounded in realism without ever tipping the line into Grimdark. As an opening to the rest of the series, this book does a fantastic job of setting up what comes next.
Eye of the World
Despite hearing praises of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for a long time, I haven’t actually read the series. I only recently picked up the first entry, Eye of the World, so unlike the other books in this comparison, I can actually come into this one pretty objective.
When farmboy Rand’s farm is attacked by monsters, he and his friends are forced to flee with the sorceress Moraine’s aid and her Warder, Lan, to survive and save the world. Most of the story follows Rand and company running for their lives to the city of Tar Valon while being hunted by Trollocs, Fades, and Darkfriends.
The fate of the world hangs in the balance and swirls around Rand, and the Pattern of Destiny starts pulling Rand towards an as yet unseen end. Meanwhile, the Dark One, a god-like being of evil, is almost free to cast the world in darkness…
So if I were ever to describe a definitive fantasy novel, it would be this book. We’ve got a double serving of “Chosen One” and “Hero’s Journey” archetypes for Rand, and even an implied “Secret Royalty” trope going on. Characters have a tendency to speak in infodumps, and on occasion, start throwing out Proper Nouns left and right as if they’re trying to meet a word count.
“Look at you,” One character says to another, “Once you wore the ring of Tamyrlin and sat in the High Seat. Once you summoned the nine rods of Dominion. Now look at you… you humbled me in the Hall of Servants. You defeated me at the Gates of Paaran Disen…”
And yet, despite that, I still really enjoyed it. It’s a bit slow-paced compared to more modern books, but the characters are colorful, and the depth of the world-building is possibly only beaten by the likes of Tolkien. Despite everything going for him, Rand is perhaps the least interesting character in the story.
Still, I found the book more… readable (?) than Lord of the Rings. Robert Jordan’s writing style really sells the classic fantasy without feeling archaic and hard to read like Lord of the Rings does on occasion. If you want that classic fantasy experience, Eye of the World is it.
All these books are well known for various reasons, and they absolutely deserve that recognition. Ironically, while Harry Potter is still my favorite of the three, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin beat it out on a purely technical level. Which one is your favorite?