Dubbed the “Nigerian Harry Potter,” Okorafor’s YA crossover novel of a Nigerian-American girl with albino skin and a deep well of magical talent is an absolutely stunning read, a gem in an overcrowded subgenre.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has inspired countless adaptations, retellings, and nods from subtle to overt, in the years since it was first published in 1865. This whimsical tale is fantastic to read as a child, with its ridiculous situations and nonsensical words, and loads of fun to come back to as an adult, as one of the first portal fantasies in literature.
Robin Hobb’s coming of age tale follows Fitz, the illegitimate child of a would-be king, from his beginnings living in a filthy stable to his adult life as a respected and feared assassin. An unlikely kind of hero, Fitz’s tale is sure to amuse readers grown tired of traditional fantasy protagonists.
This Russian-inspired fantasy from Katherine Arden is bound to become a new classic. The tale follows a young girl with the ability to see the folkloric creatures in and around her village, much to the horror of her stepmother and the local Christian priest. Tensions rise as the priest tries to convince the villagers to turn away from their pagan ways, but these fairytale creatures may be all that’s keeping them safe.
Another story that sprang from the success of Lord of the Rings, Eddings brought his own flare for fun characters thrown into the darkest of moments. Garion is an orphan being raised by his aunt and crazy grandfather. But he is part of a prophecy that spans centuries and soon he is pulled into a quest to destroy the evil Torak and restore goodness to the land. An important book in the history of the genre.
Winner of numerous awards and accolades, McKinley’s classic tale of a woman finding herself in a foreign culture has captivated readers for decades. Harry is a orphan girl who finds herself appointed the King’s rider, possessor of the Blue Sword, which no woman has wielded for centuries. A fantastic read for the young and adult alike.
Michelle Sagara West’s body of work deserves to be so much more well-known than it is, and the Sun Sword saga alone is enough to rival A Song of Ice and Fire or Wheel of Time. The Broken Crown is the first book in the series, tracking the struggle between the Dominion and the Empire.
The Changeling is a cautionary fairy tale for the internet age. Apollo’s wife has been acting strangely ever since their baby was born – but is it post-partum depression, or something more? Apollo’s quest to find her and his child is a modern odyssey, and not to be missed.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a criminally underrated author, and nowhere is that more evident than in his Divine Cities trilogy. The first novel follows Shara, a diplomat and spy tracking a murderer in the former superpower of Bulikov when she stumbles on something much more sinister.
Countess Meliara and her brother Bran swear to their father to protect their land from the king, but when he dies, that promise morphs into a war that they are unprepared to fight. The war is just the beginning, however; when Mel is summoned to court, she must learn a whole new set of combat rules. This is another technically-YA book, but it can be enjoyed at any stage of life.
This is the queer anti-colonialist own-voices shifter fantasy novel you didn’t know you needed. Das’s writing is sublime, beautifully counterbalancing the darkness and violence of the narrative, where werewolves stalk the Indian subcontinent.
The first book in an epic fantasy trilogy that both George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss have called quintessential to their own success. Simon is a kitchen boy but when ancient evil stirs, he is pulled into a war as unlike any his world has seen, leaving the only home he has ever known to battle creatures once thought lost to the past. Williams is a wordsmith unlike any other.
Dragons have long been a part of the fantasy genre and are therefore a difficult trope to reimagine. McCaffrey did just that though with Dragonflight, a science fiction novel with fantasy elements set on the world of Pern. When the Thread returns to wreak havoc upon her world, Lessa’s telepathic bond with a dragon may be the one thing that can save her people and set right the ills of her past.
Cherryh’s Arafel saga, the first two volumes of which are collected here, is a masterwork of Celtic-inspired fantasy. The Dreaming Tree presents a gorgeous, tragic view of the Faery realm and the relationships between men, elves, and the Sidhe.
Tolkien is commonly credited with the birth of modern fantasy literature, but he never would have gotten there without Lord Dunsany. It’s no secret that Tolkien loved Dunsany’s work, and housed his books in his personal library. The Elf King’s Daughter, a tale of troubled romance between a human king and an elven princess is a foundational work of the genre that every fantasy fan should read.
Sure, The Fellowship of the Ring is a no-brainer, but it’s on everyone’s list of top fantasy novels, but it’s there for good reason. Tolkien’s trilogy is a masterwork of world-building: a perfect synthesis of European myth and personal vision that grows more layered with every book. Despite the intricacy of Tolkien’s world, The Fellowship of the Ring and its sequels are approachable, page-turning reads.
A Game of Thrones is the novel that brought fantasy to the bookshelves — and television screens — of an audience that may have never considered themselves fans of the genre. An ambitious and bloody tale that combines the scheming and fighting of the War of the Roses with supernatural elements like dragons, zombies, and witches, A Game of Thrones and its sequels will undoubtedly stand as one of history’s great fantasy novels.
No list would be compete with His Dark Materials, one of the finest young adult fantasies perfect for adults. Lyra lives in Oxford with her daemon familiar friend Pan. But when her friend Roger is stolen away, she must confront the evils of those in power while growing up in a world tied to multiple dimensions. A magical story for everyone.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is better known for her horrifying psychological short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but her 1915 novel Herland shouldn’t be missed. Three male sociologist stumble upon a utopian hidden society composed entirely of women, and what they find there changes their perception of femininity and gender constructs forever.
The Hobbit. The Shire. The Wizard. The Ring. The Dragon. And Gollum. While Lord of the Rings is one of the most important books of the fantasy genre, it all began with The Hobbit, a book that proved to children that magic really does exist and sometimes the most unassuming of characters can carry it in their pocket. This enchanting tale will continue enchanting for centuries to come.
Robert E. Howard created many heroes — Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull the Atlantean — but none are more famous than Conan the barbarian. Howard wrote many short stories featuring this wandering warrior, but only one novel: The Hour of the Dragon. This tale finds Conan, now middle-aged and the king of a great empire, threatened with a conspiracy to depose him — one that involves an ancient demonic presence.
The grande dame of vampire fiction. Anne Rice has been inventing and reinventing vampires for decades now, but Interview With the Vampire remains unparalleled in its imagination, its danger, and its thrills.
Vlad Taltos isn’t really anyone’s idea of a hero. He’s an assassin, witch, and crime lord with a venomous miniature dragon as a pet. You can’t blame him for being a little rough around the edges: It’s hard to get by as a human in a world dominated by statuesque elf-like beings who wield powerful magic and consider Taltos’ type little better than animals. If you like mafia stories, and love good guys who are more than a little bad, then Jhereg belongs on your shelf.
This time-traveling journey by speculative fiction master Octavia Butler should be on every American reader’s shelves. It follows a young black woman who is transported from 1970s California to 19th century Maryland in order to save the life of a white slaveowner’s son, and while it’s a speculative title, its raw portrayal of the lives of American slaves is rooted in a realism that will keep readers thinking about the book long after reaching the last page.
Patrick Rothfuss says it best, “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again.” It is a magical read, a fairy tale and yet not, one filled with the precision of a master storytelling at the height of his craft. Beagle has written a classic, perfect for all ages.
This was, hands down, my favorite novel of 2015. Hawkins’ writing and worldbuilding are remarkably assured, especially considering this is his debut novel. The story tracks Carolyn, once human, now a student of the being known as Father, who oversees the library of creation. When Father disappears, his students turn on each other, and the consequences are earth-shaking.
Widely considered as one of the finest fantasies alongside The Name of the Wind and A Game of Thrones, Lynch has created one of the most complex characters in Locke Lamora. It is more than that, though. The author uses poetic language and has created a brilliantly-wrought world beside Locke. A must read.
A foundational book in epic fantasy but one also featuring one of the first great anti-heroes. Thomas Covenant is a divorced leper living a life of seclusion. “Don’t touch me” is his rule. But when he is pulled into the Land as the reincarnation of its savior, he must decide what is real and what is not as he goes up against the evil Lord Foul.
Raymond E. Feist’s Magician: Apprentice introduced readers to Midkemia: a fully realized fantasy setting inspired by the author’s own Dungeon & Dragons campaign. This tale of a lowly orphan with a great magical destiny is as classic a fantasy tale as it gets, and is the gateway to a sprawling universe of Midkemia novels.
Imagine if Harry Potter and his fellow students were college-aged city kids who partied hard in between their lessons in thaumaturgy. Now forget that, because it doesn’t really do justice to the originality of Grossman’s tale of magic, parallel dimensions, and the troubles of young adulthood. If you think you know the story, then prepare to be surprised.
Magic’s Pawn is one of Mercedes Lackey’s first books, and a great way to break into her richly imagined Valdemar universe. The story follows a young man whose desires don’t conform to the expectations of his family — especially because his magic is one of the rarest in the land, and rather than become a warrior, he wishes to be a Bard instead. But with power like his, his path is destined to be perilous no matter which one he chooses.
The Arthur legend has always been fertile ground for modern day storytellers but Bradley managed to write arguably the most important chapter in its two thousand years–the tale told through the eyes of the powerful women behind the throne. It is a remarkable achievement, a necessary read like Dune or The Lord of the Rings.
Okay, this is a children’s book – but it’s a classic. When young Elmer hears the tale of a baby dragon imprisoned on a faraway island, he undertakes a journey to free the dragon, and encounters incredible sights and creatures along the way. The book is unsurpassably charming, and the illustrations iconic.
While the story itself has all of the cliches and tropes that make up high fantasy, Rothfuss has managed to write an engaging tale with beautiful prose and musical words. Orphaned when his parents are killed by the Chandrian, Kvothe tells the tale of his rise from the streets of Tarbean to the University and beyond as he hunts for the ways of revenge. One of the most important books of the last quarter century.
A mysterious circus serves as the backdrop of a years-long duel between two magicians, who have always known they must compete against one another, despite not knowing their competitor or the reason behind the competition. The characters and plot are splendidly drawn, but it’s the circus itself that will draw you into this mesmerizing tale.
Tales From the Flat Earth, arguably Tanith Lee’s most popular series, is based loosely on the Thousand and One Nights – this world of demons, gods, and mortals is a treasure to read, even forty years later.
Who doesn’t love a good King Arthur story? The classic tale by T.H. White is a staple for any fantasy buff, following the journey of a young boy named Wart as he grows from Merlin’s pupil to Arthur, King of the Britons.
The book that began the TV series phenomonon. Complex characters. Great storytelling. And all set amidst historical backgrounds that the reader becomes swept away within. Claire Randall is a former British combat nurse who finds herself pulled into a past that threatens her life even as it threatens the love in her heart. An amazing story of time travel and romance.
Catherynne Valente’s prose is a consistent marvel, and her books are endlessly original. Palimpsest is a novel of linked stories of characters from different walks of life who’ve all found a way to the titular city, a magical place only accessible after a night of passion with someone who’s already been there – it’s a sexually transmitted city. If that doesn’t catch your interest, I don’t know what will.
A book that, when published, showed the world how weird and beautiful fantasy can be. Filled with marvelously different characters and rife with scientific splendor, the magic that Mieville writes with is unparalleled in the genre. Isaac has spent a lifetime at research in New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. An amazing tale for those who love the written word.
The fantasy genre is constantly evolving. Prince of Thorns is a part of that evolution, one of the most important grimdark pieces to the overall puzzle. Jorg is a young prince who has lost everything and is on a quest for revenge, no matter what it takes and the lives he must kill to gain his goal. Gruesome, dark, and bloody, take a quest with the Road Brothers.
What happens when a man tells a story to blind children at their school? He paints with words, words that would ultimately become Redwall, a wonderful first novel that would become a bestselling series. Jacques tells the story of the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey, who must defend themselves against Cluny the Scourge and his battle-seasoned army of rats. If only they had the sword of Martin the Warrior, they might have a chance…
Technically a set of three books contained in one volume, Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master is well worth the journey. In a world where wizards have vanished, leaving behind their knowledge in the form of riddles, a young prince travels through this strange land in search of his destiny.
Rosemary and Rue tracks the origins of urban fantasy legend October Daye, a half-human half-Fae woman drawn back into the immortal world by a horrendous murder. McGuire is a prolific author, so if you love Toby Daye, you’ve got dozens more novels to pick up next.
One of the first an best examples of modern urban fantasy. Nest Freemark is an Illinois teenager with a secret–she can do magic. But when a broken Knight of the Word comes to find her, she will learn that the past and her family’s secrets can be as deadly as the demon that hunts her. A masterpiece of dark contemporary fantasy.
Set in a Regency-era alternate Britain, the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers has fallen into disrepute as the country’s store of magic has been drying up. The new “unsuitable” head of the organization is determined to find out why, and the solution may be quite drastic. If you’re looking for Pride & Prejudice meets fantasy, this is the tale for you.
In the scope of the fantasy genre, urban fantasy has become a heavyweight in readership. Butcher’s Dresden Files is a large reason for that. The long-running story of Harry Dresden begins with a grisly double-murder in Chicago, one that thrusts Harry into the darkest depths of magic, fairies, and Courts. Readers love Harry and the numerous characters and creatures he comes into contact with–and it only gets better with each published novel!
Swordspoint has been called a cult classic by many, and there’s a reason for that. Political ambitions, swashbuckling battles, and amorous affairs infuse this novel with a sense of thrilling urgency and just pure fun. If you’re familiar with Serial Box’s Tremontaine, it’s set in the same world as Swordspoint, and is just as deliciously written.
Ahmed’s novel is an own-voices epic fantasy magnum opus strongly rooted in Arab folklore. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul hunter on the verge of retirement who’s drawn back into the fray by two young fighters and a planned coup. Don’t miss these compelling characters and luscious world-building.
When it comes to masterpiece stand alone fantasy novels, look no further than Tigana. Kay is adept here at storytelling, magic, politics, and the complex and amazing characters that infuse epic stories. It is widely considered to be his best novel–although I think several of his other novels rank up there as well. Tigana will enchant you as it has others for two decades.
Juliet Marillier’s luscious fantasy novels are not to be missed. While you could start with her acclaimed Sevenwaters Trilogy (book one is Daughter of the Forest), a better place to begin is her enchanting standalone novel Wildwood Dancing. The story is loosely based on the fairy tale “The 12 Dancing Princesses,” and takes place in the woods of Transylvania, following young Jena and her sisters as they grapple with magic, love, and dark motivations.