Blog – Posted on Friday, Aug 02
Go on a Magical Adventure with the 60 Best Fantasy Books of All Time
Whether you’ve sat around waiting for your Hogwarts letter or felt your way through a coat closet for the gateway to Narnia, you’ve probably been transported by a good fantasy book. But the genre isn’t all witches, wardrobes, and whimsy. Beyond offering temporary escape from the pressures of daily life, fantasy can help us confront them.
Stories of the otherworldly aid readers in making sense of this world, refracting change, decay, and heartache through a magical lens so we can see them all the more clearly — and face them head-on. A good fantasy captures the imagination and illuminates the mind with childlike wonder. But it also makes us think, creating worlds that linger in our memories long after we turn the final page.
In other words, a good fantasy book shows us the world in another guise — while being a universe unto itself. Here are some unforgettable worlds for you to explore, in 60 of the best fantasy books of all time.
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
Even if you’re not a math geek, you’re probably familiar with the algebraist Charles Dodgson — you just know him as Lewis Carroll. Much of Dr. Dodgson’s mathematical work attempted to get at the precise nature of logic. But his zany alter-ego wrote stories that defied it, twisting it into dreamlike, fantastical shapes: a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a flamingo-filled croquet-ground, an anxiously thumping foot attached to a perpetually tardy White Rabbit. We encounter all these through the eyes of a little girl named Alice, who stumbles onto them at the other end of a rabbit hole. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland have delighted adults and children alike since they made their way into print over a century and a half ago.
2. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924)
Edward Plunkett, an Irish baron who used his noble title as a pen name, enjoys a reputation as the fantasy writer’s fantasy writer — all thanks to this strange, haunting book. Neil Gaiman, for instance, wrote the introduction to the 1999 edition. Arthur C. Clarke considered it proof that Dunsany was one of the greatest writers of his century, and World Fantasy Award winner Jane Yolen called him “the great grandfather of us all.” A classic of the genre, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a fairy tale with deep, dark roots — as well as a love story rendered with piercing emotional honesty. It’s also an unlikely immigration novel, about an elfin princess’s attempts to deal with her fractured sense of self as she adjusts to the homeland of her beloved human husband.
3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
It might be a childhood favorite, but The Hobbit gives adult fantasy readers one of the genre’s most relatable protagonists: a middle-aged homebody who just wants to chill. The iconic Bilbo Baggins speaks to all grownup introverts who like nothing more than a good meal and a cozy chair. But we all hope we’d find Bilbo-like reservoirs of heroism within us, like the ones he draws on to face goblins, Gollum, a smooth-talking dragon — and the difficulties of new friends in need of a home. A career as a Chosen One might be out of reach for us, but we can all aspire to be Bilbo Baggins.
4. The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938)
We all have a sense of what happens after King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone: it involves a Round Table, deeds of chivalry, and a glorious quest for the Holy Grail. The Sword in the Stone takes a look at the before. Predictably, it’s much less glamorous. In this telling, the archetypical fantasy monarch was once just a boy called Wart — teased by his foster-brother Kay and subjected to a punishing round of lessons that would make any modern high-schooler wince in sympathy. The major difference? Wart’s education doesn’t involve AP Calculus and JV Track — it’s about horsemanship and hunting. And his teacher, Merlyn, prefers to instruct by turning his students into animals instead of grilling them with the Socratic method.
5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
Before we all waited around our mailboxes for Hogwarts letters that never came, C.S. Lewis was planting fantastical hopes in young readers’ minds. What’s not to say you couldn’t find a kingdom of talking animals, right on the other side of your mother’s coats? When the four Pevensie siblings leave bomb-ravaged London to wait out World War II in the countryside, they discover a portal to the magical land of Narnia exactly this way. But their magical new vacation spot suffers from bad leadership: it’s governed by a witch whose only policy decisions are about ensuring eternal winter with no Christmas cheer. The Pevensies have to oust her — with the help of a talking lion. If you’re a fantasy buff, you’ll already know that the lion is a Christological stand-in, and that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a meditation on redemption, sacrifice, and faith. But you don’t need to worship anything to want to drop in on Narnia for a couple hundred pages.
6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966)
Like the previous five books, The Master and Margarita is often considered one of the 20th century’s finest novels. Unlike them, it’s definitely not for kids. Written at the height of Stalinist repression, it braids together two narrative strands: one a psychologically subtle take on the death of Christ, the other a devilish satire on Soviet intellectual life. In the one, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate confronts his own empathy for the condemned messiah. In the other, Satan descends on Communist Moscow with the literal entourage from Hell. And where does the mysterious Muscovian author, known only as the Master, fall in all of this? Fearful of political repression, Mikhail Bulgakov fed his first attempt at this behemoth story to the flames. Fortunately for all Russophiles and amateur demonologists, he gave it another try.
7. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
With its shimmering, lilac-scented prose, The Last Unicorn treads the line between novel and poetry — reading with the ease of a bedtime story and the depth of a sage’s allegory. Within the gossamer world of Peter Beagle’s language, we meet an immortal Unicorn, who’s grieved to learn from a hunting party that she might be the last of her kind. Her joy in her forest home now dimmed by loneliness and fear, she leaves to investigate the truth of these claims. But in the disenchanted lands beyond her forest, humans have lost the ability to see her for what she is: they instinctively perceive the Unicorn as an ordinary white horse. The Unicorn’s wanderings put her in the company of ringmasters and harpies, magicians and kings: some who want to harm her, and some who do their best to help.
8. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
A young boy goes to a school of magic, where he learns to harness the powers inside him — and fight shadowy creatures bent on destroying him. Based on this description of his character arc, you’ll recognize Ged as one of Harry Potter’s literary ancestors. But his homeland isn’t the United Kingdom — it’s the fictional archipelago of Earthsea. On this dense cluster of islands, inhabited by dragons and raised out of the water by a god, master fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin spins out elegant, character-driven tales, enriched by her knowledge of world mythology. A Wizard of Earthsea is a bildungsroman of the old school, albeit enlivened with wizardry: a magical coming-of-age that treats hefty themes like death, the environment, and cosmic balance — all with Le Guin’s characteristically deft touch.
9. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1968)
The literary ancestor of both Westeros and Dungeons and Dragons, The Lord of the Rings made its mark on high fantasy’s DNA more than any other work. A perennial favorite of middle schoolers and professional medievalists alike, the trilogy as a whole turns serves as a narratively enchanting vehicle for Tolkien’s vast erudition: his knowledge of history, philology, and myth shines through in every sentence. But ultimately it’s all about the story — and that begins in The Fellowship of the Ring. Like The Hobbit, its prequel of sorts, it’s a story that turns on ordinary acts of courage. Running as a counterpoint alongside the thundering leitmotifs of kingly destiny and good-versus-evil, we see the innocent bravery of country gentlemen and the loyalty of gardeners. These, the book argues, are the real engines of historical change. In a fantasy landscape shadowed by the grimdark, returning to Tolkien’s brand of somber, clear-eyed hope can be a real breath of fresh air.
10. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)
If you don’t think a rabbit warren could be reasonably described as “epic,” clearly you’ve never read Watership Down. This stirring adventure story has it all: warriors and visions, harrowing escapes and heartbreaking deaths. Its stars just happen to be unusually soft of fur and long of ear. This novel — which takes its name from its furry heroes’ habitat — reads like Beowulf by way of Beatrix Potter. Its rabbits, sustained by traditions of folklore and divination, live in a stratified, chivalric society that wouldn’t look too out of place in a Homeric epic (minus the cottontails, of course). When human encroachment on their environment threatens their way of life, the rabbits react the way any self-respecting group of noble warriors would — by going on a quest. Despite its adorable premise, Richard Adams’ novel draws on a rich wellspring of literary precedents, from the Aeneid to Shakespeare.
11. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
A perennial favorite of both elementary schoolers and their teachers, The Dark is Rising renders the cosmic conflict between Light and Dark in lively style, at a scale accessible to young readers. Its vehicle is British schoolboy Will Stanton, who discovers, on his eleventh birthday, that he’s actually an immortal Light warrior known as an Old One — bound to play out an eternal struggle against the forces of the Dark. The Oxford-educated Susan Cooper, who studied under the creators of both Narnia and Middle-earth, knows mythology as well as her two great teachers — though she wears her erudition considerably more lightly than Tolkien. Still, you can see the signs of her vast knowledge in The Dark is Rising, which draws generously from the sea-scented myths of her native British Isles, especially the Arthurian legend.
12. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
If Google’s any indication, this is one of those cases where the movie has slightly overshadowed the book. Run a search on “the princess bride,” and you won’t see anything about William Goldman’s fantasy romance until the second page. But the book that made Robin Wright a movie star deserves another look. Besides its iconic adaptation, Goldman’s novel is most famous for its delightfully complicated framework structure. The core story deals with a farm boy called Westley, a country gentrywoman named Buttercup, and the many colorful — and hilarious — obstacles that intervene when the two attempt to tie the knot. According to The Princess Bride's extensive (fictional) footnotes, this picaresque love story was drawn from Goldman’s favorite childhood tale, which his father had always read aloud. Years later, when he finally read it for himself, he found out that Goldman Sr. strayed pretty liberally from the text: that heartwarming adventure story he remembered was actually… loosely adapted from a cynical political farce.
13. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip (1974)
McKilip won the first-ever World Fantasy Award with this elevated fairy tale, which unspools with a lyrical grace uncommon in the realm of YA lit. With its elegant language and lovingly rendered heroine, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has won the love of readers young and old alike — it’s a book that feels richer with every rereading. The story centers on the teenage orphan Sybel, whose only companionship comes from the sentient, mythical creatures who share her mountain home. They communicate with her telepathically, and she’s happy in their company. But one day, a stranger named Coren arrives, together with a newborn he claims to be the rightful heir to the kingdom of Eld. Together, the man and the baby conscript Sybel into single parenthood — and drag her quiet mountain refuge into a world of political turmoil.
14. A Midsummer Tempest by Poul Anderson (1974)
Poul Anderson is better known for his science fiction, but this slim, strange, and utterly engrossing little book demonstrates his range as a storyteller. A Midsummer Tempest takes place in an alternate version of 17th century — one where everything Shakespeare wrote actually happened and fairies were very much real. As the title indicates, Anderson’s main sources were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest: the likes of Oberon, Titania, and Ariel flicker in and out of the narrative, against the backdrop of Civil War-era England. Inventive as the premise sounds, this one’s really quite faithful as far as Shakespeare fanfic goes: all the noble characters speak in iambic pentameter, as if they were written by the Bard himself.
15. Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson (1977)
Lord Foul’s Bane tends to be pitted against Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara: both came out in 1977, headlined epic fantasy series, and positioned their respective authors as the literary sons of Tolkien. We’ll dig into Brooks’ novel below, but Stephen R. Donaldson’s — arguably the less famous of the two — deserves some attention of its own. The first installment in the 10-book Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Lord Foul’s Bane starts off in a decidedly un-Tolkien-esque fashion: with a protagonist who’s American, a novelist, and newly recovered from leprosy, a disease to which he lost two fingers. And as far as his new neighbors are concerned, the titular Thomas, with his two missing fingers, is a dead ringer for their culture-hero, Berek Halfhand.
16. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (1997)
Instead of the Land, Terry Brooks’ contribution to 1997’s fantasy output takes place on the Four Lands, a far-future reshaping of the Pacific Northwest. Following a nuclear holocaust, the surviving humans diverged in five directions, self-consciously named after legendary races: Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, and Elves. The plot centers on Shea Ohmsford, a half-elven boy destined to wield a legendary sword against a dreaded Warlock Lord. Thanks to this post-apocalyptic premise, The Sword of Shannara interweaves fantasy with science fiction: you might say it depicts fantasy as a result of science fiction, unimaginable violence birthing a future that looks like an enchanted vision of the past.
17. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
The Wikipedia entry for this stunning, much-studied novel describes its genre as “neo-slave narrative using science fiction framework.” Though a bit of a mouthful, this description gets at the thematic complexity of Kindred, which takes inspiration from the autobiographies of enslaved African Americans and interweaves their literary legacy with a time travel conceit. The author herself, however, called Kindred “a kind of grim fantasy.” The time-traveler, a young black woman named Dana, finds herself flickering between 1976 Los Angeles and 1815 Maryland. In the antebellum South, she winds up in the company of her own ancestors, an enslaved woman named Alice and a slave-owner named Rufus. Butler’s spare prose and mastery of psychological detail render the human cost of slavery with devastating clarity.
18. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (1979)
A movie from 1984 called The NeverEnding Story surged back into the zeitgeist not long ago — all thanks to a shoutout from Stranger Things and a Millie Bobbie Brown-led dance challenge. But a true 80s kid never forgets, and plenty of older millennials are as into the Michael Ende novel as the blockbuster it spawned. Like fellow multimedia phenomenon The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story uses a framework narrative to reflect on the power of, well, stories. The title refers to a book within the book, an antique volume unearthed by a boy called Bastian, an outsider at odds with schoolyard bullies and a distant father. As he reads — with us peering over his shoulder — Bastian is literally pulled into the story of Fantastica, a realm of magic ruled by an immortal Childlike Empress. But the empress is dying, and without her power, Fantastica and all its people will disappear. It’s up to reader-turned-protagonist Bastian to save her.
19. Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
This is the perfect fantasy novel for people who don’t like fantasy. Little, Big centers on the porousness between the mundane world and the world of Faerie, in a way that feels like a meditation on genre. John Crowley's masterpiece reads like a prestigious generational saga, the kind of thing you’d find in English dissertations and on Booker Prize shortlists — just with a few fairies thrown into the mix. No wonder the literary critic Harold Bloom, notorious for thumbing his nose at the likes of Harry Potter, praised it as a “neglected masterpiece,” At its center is the Drinkwater family, whose architect patriarch built their sprawling family estate of Edgewood in the hazy borderlands between Faerie and New York state.
20. The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)
Stephen King is best known for infiltrating our nightmares with stalkers and murderous clowns. But The Gunslinger proves he’s got a gift for fantasy too — just don’t expect it to be light and fluffy. The first installment in his epic Dark Tower series, the novel pulls from a broad palette of influences, from cowboy westerns to the poetry of Robert Browning. The hero, Roland of Gilead, wields his gun in pursuit of a shadowy Man in Black across a lawless landscape that approximates a bleakly magical Wild West. Roland’s quarry is as dangerous as he is mysterious, with the power to spawn demons and raise the dead. Luckily or not, he’s not alone in his pursuit — he finds a traveling companion in Jake Chambers, a schoolboy from our world.
21. The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
Beloved fantasy writer Terry Pratchett made his name on tales from Discworld: a flat, circular planet, carried on the backs of four elephants balanced on a turtle. With 41 books in its canon, the series is a world unto its own — and it all began with The Color of Magic. Unlike many of his fantasist colleagues, Pratchett is never self-serious or grim: his every sentence sparkles with wit. He conceived of The Color of Magic as an antidote to the dark lord-y, paint-by-numbers fantasy that glutted the market at the time. The result is playful — but thoughtful — story about an incompetent wizard and a ignorant tourist. As the two trek across the fascinating breadth of Discworld, Pratchett’s narration unfolds like a hilarious travelogue.
22. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1983)
The most influential reimagining of the Arthurian legend since The Sword and the Stone, this sharply observed, yet touching, novel turns a feminist gaze on the old tales of kingship and knightly valor. But this isn’t T.H. White — this grown-up take on the legend doesn’t shy away from its dark and tragic heart, unflinchingly depicting adultery, incest, and the inexorable fading of magic from the world. The Mists of Avalon centers on Arthur’s sorcerous sister Morgaine — better known as Morgan le Fay. A pagan priestess of Avalon blessed with clairvoyance from the Goddess she serves, she’s troubled by the encroachment of Christian missionizing into the land she loves. Her sister-in-law Gwenhwyfar, meanwhile, emerges as her opposite number: a devout and increasingly fanatical Christian.
23. The Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (1984)
In an era when “fantasy” was synonymous with “fake medieval Europe,” The Bridge of Birds gave us something wonderfully original: a novel set — like its subtitle explains — in “an ancient China that never was,” An amateur Sinologist since his days in the US army, Hughart draws on Confucian philosophy, Ming-Qing fiction, and traditional folktales to flesh out a lively reimagining of imperial China suffused with humor. We see it through the eyes of Number Ten Ox, a young man sent to find help when his village is leveled by sickness, a mysterious plague that destroyed its silkworms and rendered its children unconscious. He finds aid in Master Li Kao, a scholar with a drinking problem — and an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons. It turns out, the so-called plague wasn’t a natural illness, but the result of venomous plotting by unscrupulous sericulturists. Together, Number Ten Ox and Master Li set off in search for a cure — only to be drawn into the heady world of imperial politics.
24. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984)
Celebrated for its dazzling prose, Mythago Wood is as dense and heady as the English forest at its center: the ancient, otherworldly Ryhope Wood. From the outside, it’s a tiny holdover from a time before civilization. But make your way between the old-growth trees, and the forest extends — until you reach its unfathomable, ice-age core. The wood’s inhabitants are just as uncanny as the wood itself. These myth-images, or mythagos, come out of ancestral memory and the story-seeped subconscious of the human mind — among the trees, you might find monsters, centaurs, or several different versions of King Arthur. We explore Ryhope Wood with the Huxley brothers, newly reunited in their family home, built at the edge of it. World War II veteran Stephen regards the forest’s mysteries with measured skepticism, even as his brother Christian starts to lose himself within it.
25. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
Gorgeously brought to life by Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-nominated anime, Howl’s Moving Castle combines whimsy and poignancy in the tradition of the best children’s fiction. Diana Wynn Jones studied English at Oxford, where both Tolkien and Lewis numbered among her lecturers. You can see the breadth of her learning — and her unwavering love of literature — in this book, which moves breezily between allusions, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll, from the metaphysical poets to The Wizard of Oz. The oldest of three sisters, 18-year-old Sophie Hatter chafes under the conventional wisdom that a sibling in her birth order will never find success — she seems condemned instead to a lifetime of drudgery at the family hat shop. But when she’s aged several decades by a witch’s curse, a suddenly geriatric Sophie finds her way to a moving castle ruled by the eccentric wizard Howl, whose fire-demon servant holds the key to restoring her youth.
26. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (1990)
The end of the world has never been so funny. Equal parts biting and heart-warming, this charmingly English take on the Apocalypse combines the talents of two master fantasists. Imagine the Book of Revelations, interpreted with the wit of a Terry Pratchett approaching the height of his powers and the imagination of a young Neil Gaiman just discovering his novelistic voice. Take that dream team, add 50% more laughter than you think is possible, and you’ll have something like Good Omens. The book’s tween Anti-Christ, Adam, is refreshingly human and irresistibly likable. But its true stars are the fussy angel Aziraphale and sauntering demon Crowley, who steal the show with their unlikely bond — and their picaresque effort to put a pin in Armageddon.
27. The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)
A Nigerian writer who works between the worlds of fiction and poetry, Ben Okri won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road. His third novel, it made an eloquent case for the place of magical creatures in the literary big leagues — and brought fantasy out of its traditional Anglo-American silo. Okri moves fluidly between genres and influences: enriching his writing with Yoruba oral tradition and Shakespearean allusions, mixing magical realism with Enlightenment philosophy. His protagonist Azaro, too, is a creature of the hybrid and the in-between. An abiku, or child spirit, he dwells between the realms of the living and the dead. Okri’s spare, elegant prose makes this devastating tale a thing of beauty.
28. Was by Geoff Ryman (1992)
This wildly inventive novel snagged a nomination for the World Fantasy Prize, but it’s about as far from sword and sorcery as you can get. A gritty, guerrilla remix of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Was uses L. Frank Baum’s sunny fable of witch-slaying farm girls and yellow brick roads to examine the mundane tragedies of modern life, from child abuse to HIV. Baum himself appears as a substitute teacher, who writes Oz into being as a gift of sorts for a suffering student: in this telling, his peppy, well-shod Dorothy Gale is based on a rage-filled orphan named Dorothy Gael. Unlike her namesake, this Dorothy has literally no place like home: her Uncle Henry abuses her with Aunty Em’s tacit consent. Dorothy’s story runs alongside another one equally tragic — that of a gay horror actor named Jonathan. Weakened by AIDS and close to dying, he rallies for a final pilgrimage to Kansas, drawn by memories of his childhood fascination with Oz.
29. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1994)
Haunting, sexy, and grim, Anne Rice’s gothic novel paved the way for Twilightmania — just don’t expect her vampires to sparkle. Remarkable for its ambitious scope and psychological complexity, Interview with the Vampire centers on the world-weary Louis. Two hundred years after his birth in a slaveholding Louisiana household, he finds himself telling his life story, loosely speaking, to a cub reporter. As we listen in on their interview, we meet the colorful dramatis personae who shaped Louis’ long afterlife: his cruelly charismatic lover Lestat — the vampire who turned him — and their tragic “daughter” Claudia, whose eternally childish form can’t contain her sharp wit and grown-up rage.
30. Towing Jehovah by James Morrow (1994)
This oddball religious satire takes every edgy teen’s favorite Nietzsche quote and spins it into a delightful story. God is dead, and now there’s another corpse in the Atlantic, looking for all the world like any old white guy — except two miles long. As a result, oil tanker captain Anthony Van Horne finds himself with an unexpected new gig, courtesy of the archangel Raphael. The heavenly hosts expect him to, well, tow Jehovah: transporting His corpse to the Arctic to be embalmed by its icy waters. Still reeling from an oil spill that happened on his watch, Captain Van Horne readies his ship for the voyage of a lifetime. Morrow’s effervescent cleverness has drawn endless comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut, but Towing Jehovah’s thoughtful theological snark evokes Good Omens, too.
31. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (1995)
A stunning example of high fantasy played straight, Assassin’s Apprentice introduces us to the bravest bastard this side of Jon Snow. The illegitimate son of a prince named Chivalry, the boy called Fitz grows up a loner. If he wants company, he prefers to draw on the Wit — his telepathic link to animals — instead of talking to another human being. But Fitz is forced to change his wild ways at the age of six, when his powerful relations finally summon him to court. Soon, Fitz begins training as an assassin and King’s Man, oath-bound to the new ruler, Shrewd. In an evocative bit of worldbuilding, all of Hobb’s royal characters bear the names of the qualities they’re meant to embody: besides Chivalry and Shrewd, we meet the likes of Verity, Regal, and Desire. In this virtuous company, Fitz’s name marks him as surely as Jon Snow’s.
32. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
This stunning YA fantasy opens the His Dark Materials trilogy, which can only be described as the anti-Narnia: a literary monument to secular humanism as powerful as Lewis’ paean to his Anglican faith. This first installment centers on Lyra Belacqua, a near-feral orphan raised by committee among the graybeards of Oxford. A masterful world-builder, Pullman crafts his setting with all the deft-fingered care of a Renaissance painter, laying on the details stroke by stroke. Tiny differences separate Lyra’s world from our own: amber is “electrum” while electric power is “anbaric,” and Texas remains as an independent Republic. But more crucially, there are the daemons: externalized souls that tail each person in animal form. Lyra’s daemon, called Pantalaimon, is one of the book’s most lovable characters. After reading The Golden Compass, you’ll definitely want your own.
33. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)
The furor behind the most controversial finale in TV history has finally begun to die down. But the books behind Game of Thrones are still in progress — we hope. While we wait for G.R.R. Martin to get a move on his long-running series’ sixth installment, it’s worth revisiting the book that made his name — and gave its name to the show that brought TV fantasy into the mainstream. If His Dark Materials is the anti-Narnia, then A Game of Thrones and its sequels are the anti-LOTR. In a sharp-toothed reaction to Tolkien’s idealism, Martin gives us a quasi-medieval setting as rich in magic as Middle-earth, though it runs on cynical realpolitik instead of quiet courage. In this grimdark world, winter is coming, debts must be paid, and noble characters can die ugly, senseless deaths.
34. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
If you need a summary of this book, you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades. Love them or hate them, the Harry Potter series has shaped millennials more than any other media phenomena, creating a generation of bookworms inclined to question authority. The Boy Who Lived is now approaching middle-age — canonically born in 1980, he turned 39 this past July. But as the book that kickstarted his literary career, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone remains as influential as ever, with Hogwarts houses being as legitimate a source of identity as zodiac signs.
35. The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (1997)
A Game of Thrones might be the more famous book today, but The Moon and the Sun narrowly beat it out to win the prestigious Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1998. The two novels have almost nothing in common — except undeniable quality and a focus on royal courts. An intricate historical romance made magical through the addition of mermaids and immortality quests, The Moon and the Sun takes place in the palace of the Sun King, who ruled over late 17th-century France. We encounter his dazzling world through the eyes of Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, a lady-in-waiting who is the only person at court willing to see Versailles’ new mermaid resident as a person instead of a monster.
36. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (2000)
China Miéville’s strange, cerebral fiction has made him the high priest of contemporary weird fantasy, which he defines as “a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction,” capacious with its worldbuilding and dark in its tone. His Nebula-nominated Perdido Street Station is certainly par for the course, with its heady mixture of Victorian tech, black magic, and organized crime. It takes place in the steampunk city of New Crobuzon, where humans rub shoulders with other intelligent creatures, including the bird-like garudas and insectoid khepris. But the peaceful coexistence between the species is jeopardized when an experiment unleashes the slakemoth, a mind-eating monster with a paralytic in its flapping wings. As they attempt to save the city from it, our human protagonist Isaac and his friends find themselves pulled into the seedy underbelly of New Crobuzon politics.
37. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
A decade after Good Omens, Neil Gaiman returns to the world of religion in a solo venture. The result is a denser, far more shadowy text than his collaboration with Pratchett — although the two were in constant communication during the writing of this novel, too. American Gods blends old legends with a modern noir sensibility — it’s peopled with deities and convicts, and the distinctions between them aren’t always clear. At its center is the improbably named Shadow Moon, a new widower who drifts into the employ of a con-man named Mr. Wednesday. They go on a good, old-fashioned American road-trip — but Shadow soon discovers that their cross-country trek isn’t all that it appears to be
38. Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai (2002)
Written by a Canadian literature professor, Salt Fish Girl is a hypnotically told feminist fable that tracks a single figure across several incarnations. We encounter her first as Nu Wa, a snake-like creator goddess from early Chinese myth. Reincarnated in late 19th century China, Nu Wa falls in love with the titular Salt Fish Girl, a factory worker who can’t understand the former goddess’s freewheeling ways — and whom she ends up betraying. She reemerges in 2044 as a girl called Miranda in the futuristic city of Serenity, a walled world of cybernetic workers and corporate governance. And as she falls in love with Evie, the two seem fated to play out the tragic relationship of Nu Wa and the Salt Fish Girl once again.
39. The Etched City by K.J. Bishop (2003)
We all know that fantasy is a genre of sprawling series — reading one to the end can take up several years’ worth of commutes. Harry Potter is pretty middle-of-the-road with its 7 installments; at the far end of the spectrum, the Discworld novels weigh in at 41 titles. So if you ever find yourself suffering from sequel fatigue, a stunning stand-alone fantasy like this one might be just what you need. The Etched City’s cloak-and-dagger plot stands out thanks to a richly realized setting — one that crosses the Wild West with the medieval Islamic world. Following a civil war where they were on the losing side, bounty hunter Gwynn and healer Raule are chased out of their homeland. As the two attempt to find their footing in this Etched City, the novel brings the human costs of exile and political turmoil to life. This is K.J. Bishops’ first and only work of book-length fiction, but it’ll make you look out eagerly for more.
40. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
Every once in a while, you encounter a voice of such talent and originality it stands out like horn-blast in the silence, a signal fire against the night. In the world of fantasy, Susannah Clarke is that voice. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was long in the making: Clarke chipped away at it during a 10-year stint as a cookbook editor, attending writing classes and publishing short stories when she could. An alternate history of England during the Napoleonic Wars, her magnum opus combines Gothic fiction with comedy of manners to interrogate romantic myths of the English past. More than a decade after she penned the first few pages, it catapulted straight from Bloomsbury’s press to The New York Times bestseller list. The rest is history — or, should we say, alternate history.
41. The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla (2004)
This Israeli author’s debut inverts a common apocalyptic formula: not the end of the world, but the world of the end. Its witty, science fantasy take on the afterlife has shades of The Good Place and, fittingly enough, reflects consistently on the notion of, well, endings. Protagonist Ben Mendelssohn ends his own life, 18 months after his beloved wife Marian’s death. And before his suicide, Ben was a professional ender: an epilogist who ghostwrote conclusions for authors unable to bring their own stories to a close. After the bullet finds its mark in his brain, Ben emerges in the Other World: a strangely sterile, Black Mirror-ish afterlife where the shades of the dead can customize their own microclimates. Unfortunately, there’s no Marian in sight. As you can see, The World of the End is an incredibly precocious — or maybe even prophetic — work, anticipating pop cultural themes a decade ahead of time.
42. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
The year it came out, Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel was already being lauded by the AV Club’s book reviewer as the “best fantasy novel of the last 10 years.” The Name of the Wind boasts a complicated framework narrative that turns the entire novel into a meditation on the importance of storytelling. It’s told as a fictive autobiography, set in a highly original fantasy conworld. Its subject — and narrator — is the legendary culture-hero Kvothe, who’s living incognito at the novel’s beginning as a humble innkeeper. But his cover’s blown following the appearance, in the flesh, of a demon long relegated to the realm of myths. Long story short — or maybe, long story long — Kvothe ends up recounting the submerged stories of his past, from his myriad heartbreaks to his magical education.
43. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)
Lev Grossman’s new adult phenom is an obvious high fantasy in the guise of New Yorker-friendly lit fic, widely hailed by readers who don't usually go in for tales of magic. But Grossman, who dropped out from a Yale PhD in comp lit, clearly mined both the fantasy canon and the regular canon when he crafted this literary tour de force. In The Magicians, a high-strung, high-achieving high school senior stumbles, en route to his Princeton interview, into a school for magic. But there are no sun-drenched Quidditch matches here: the curriculum turns on classical philology and the memorization of magical hand positions, the latter to be drilled relentlessly by the students like Harvard aspirants plying their pianos. With its frank treatment of sexuality and mental health, The Magicians has often been touted as a “Harry Potter for grownups.” If you’re more Ravenclaw than Gryffindor, you might find yourself daydreaming about Brakebills instead of Hogwarts — at least until Grossman deconstructs the trope of the magical boarding school with devastating acuity.
44. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)
Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay is a sorcerer in the realm of alternate history. His usual MO entails creating magic-drenched versions of ancient Constantinople or Renaissance Italy, with the keen eye of a historian and the pizazz of a screenwriter. In Under Heaven, he turns his talents to medieval China, tackling a fantasized version of the 8th-century An Lushan Rebellion, a political crisis that nearly toppled the Tang dynasty. Kay’s fictionalized China, called Kitai, has achieved a hard-fought peace — hostilities have finally ceased with the neighboring Taguran Empire and the semi-nomadic Bogu of the northwestern steppes. Shen Tai, the second son of a legendary general, takes advantage of the ceasefire to bury the long-abandoned dead: both his own Kitai countrymen and their Taguran enemies, whose ghosts still haunt the site of their fatal defeats. In response, the Taguran empress gifts him a herd of 250 prized horses — making him an immediate target in the next round of Kitai political intrigues.
45. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
If you get the chance, ask a roomful of readers in the know to name the most important fantasy author working today. Odds are, a bunch of them would say, N.K. Jemisin. A former counseling psychologist, she draws on her clinical background to fill fantastical universes with fascinating characters. These days, Jemisin is a bona fide thought leader who writes full-time — not long ago, she became the first African-American author to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel. But The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the spark that set her incandescent career aglow. It opens her Inheritance Trilogy, which takes place on a floating city called Sky. A biracial woman named Yeine Darr has been summoned there following her mother’s death, leading to the revelation that she’s descended from Sky’s ruling house. Yeine’s arrival pulls her into a succession struggle with two cousins she’s never met. But on her father’s side, she belongs to the Darre — a people considered barbarians by her mothers’ kin.
46. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
This searing novel isn’t an easy read. Nnedi Okorafor uses a speculative framework to illuminate the human costs of rape, ethnic cleansing, and female genital mutilation. Despite its bleak, far-future setting, Who Fears Death is rooted in real-life tragedy — it draws on a 2004 article by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, who often covers sexual violence for the Washington Post. Okorafor transposes Wax-Thibodeaux’s reportage on weaponized rape in the Darfur conflict to a post-apocalyptic version of Sudan. Following a nuclear holocaust, the light-skinned Nuru subject the dark-skinned Okeke to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Onyesonwu is the product of this genocide, born to an Okeke woman raped by the Nuru sorcerer responsible for the massacre of her village. Named for a question — “Who Fears Death?”— she develops magical gifts to rival her wicked father’s. After honing her abilities under the tutelage of a powerful shaman, Onyesonwu takes on a quest: to end the genocide of her mother’s people.
47. Among Others by Jo Walton (2011)
This brilliant oddball of a book does several things all at once. First, it’s an award-winning fantasy novel, snagging a full slate of big-ticket SFF prizes — Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy — for its inventive portrayal of 15-year-old Morwenna Phelps, who lost both her twin and the full use of her legs thanks to a magical accident. It’s also a coming-of-age story, refracted through the lens of fandom in a charmingly meta fashion: Mori makes sense of her own life by devouring science fiction and fantasy. Finally, it’s a fictional diary: we see everything through Mori’s journal entries, where she vents about math classes, bra shopping, and first love along with the difficulties of spell-casting. If you’re into quirky, genre-bending works, you’ll find Mori a charming and relatable guide to the world of Among Others, a place at once totally strange and achingly familiar.
48. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
Debut novelist Erin Morgenstern had the career trajectory every starry-eyed would-be author dreams of. The Night Circus began as a stab at NaNoWriMo, but it’s long since transcended its origins as a 30-day novel-writing blitz: it spent 7 weeks as a New York Times bestseller, and a two-part film deal is already in the works. This romantic, quasi-Victorian confection of a fantasy takes place, predictably enough, at a circus that’s only open at night. This mysterious carnival has been prepared as the dazzling battleground for a duel between two magicians. Celia and Marco have prepped for their preordained confrontation since they were kids: both were raised, in fact, as puppets in the rivalry between their two powerful mentors, the most recent in a long line of apprentices brought up as dueling pawns. But instead of giving their all to the coming battle, Celia and Marco have done something unforgivable — they’ve fallen in love.
49. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (2012)
Only a year after she finished the trilogy that launched her incandescent career, N.K. Jemisin published a second series, showing off more of the intricate worldbuilding and psychological complexity that set her work apart. The Killing Moon opens her Dreamblood duology, an inventive high fantasy that eschews a cliché faux-medieval European in favor of a magic-drenched, Egypt-like city-state called Gujaareh. At the center of the story stands a temple to the goddess of dreams, whose priests, called Gatherers, euthanize the dying — and assassinate the corrupt. But that isn’t their chief duty: they’re called Gathers because they, well, gather dreams, the engine that powers their curative magic. Thanks to their labors, Gujaareh seems at peace, slumbering under the goddess’s healing hand. But soon innocents start dying, murdered in her name. Has corruption reached the heart of the temple itself?
50. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)
Helene Wecker’s debut novel pairs two magical creatures in a wildly imaginative historical fantasy. They are, of course, the titular golem and jinni: one from Jewish mythology, the other from Arabic folklore. The former, Chava, was brought to life by a wicked kabbalist to serve as a mail-order bride. The latter, Ahmad, lived for centuries inside a copper flask, only to end up as an apprentice tinsmith when he was freed. After a chance encounter in the Lower East Side of the 19th century, where both wind up, Chava and Ahmad become friends — swapping stories on their struggles to pass as human. The Golem and the Jinni draws the reader in with a touching portrait of friendship while weaving in tantalizing threads of history and myth.
51. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
This gorgeous debut novel turns fantasy into poetry, telling a story of hauntings both literal and figurative, in sentences that lilt off the page like a song. You can see the evidence of Sofia Samatar’s poetic training in her prose, but the world she sketches out is just as compelling. The son of a pepper merchant, Jevick of Tyom finds himself in unwanted company — he’s tailed by the ghost of an illiterate little girl. This wasn’t what he expected when he came to Olondria, a favorite setting of his father’s stories — it’s supposed to be a land of books, a paradisiacal library country, not a haunting ground. When he seeks help from Olondrian exorcist-priests, Jevick quickly finds himself enmeshed in a power struggle that he never anticipated. A Stranger in Olondria writes out the power of narrative in a way that’s human and moving, with just the right amount of meta.
52. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)
This massive, 609-page saga shines with both literary pedigree and imaginative worldbuilding: The Bone Clocks was one of the few books to come up for both the Man Booker Prize and the World Fantasy Award, making it a dual darling of literary and speculative fiction. Its evocative title hints at the darkly magical world we find inside: “bone clocks” are what the book’s immortals call the rest of us, ordinary humans whose failing bodies tick out the passage of time through their slow decay. We encounter two groups of immortals through a bone clock named Holly Sykes. But mortal as she is, Holly isn’t an ordinary young woman: her psychic abilities make her a lightning rod for supernatural phenomena — and the eventual focal point for the war between the ever-reincarnating Horologists and the dangerous, deathless Anchorites.
53. My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014)
Veteran fantasist Jo Walton shows off her unpretentious erudition and sophisticated style in this elegant alternate history. Refreshingly, in a genre that often foregrounds the very young — piling on shelves upon shelves of novels concerning prepubescent Chosen Ones — My Real Children turns its attention to the very old. At nearly 90 years old, Patricia lives in a nursing home, where she’s visited by two sets of grown children. In addition to two families, Patricia has two names and two sets of mutually exclusive memories, each of which has produced, impossibly, real children of flesh and blood. As Trish, she acquired a husband, a political career, and four kids — and memories of Kennedy’s assassination by bombing in 1963. As Pat, however, she had a lesbian partner, a writing career, and three kids — and equally vivid memories of a living Kennedy’s decision, in 1964, not to run for reelection. Pat, Trish, or whoever she is, wanders the crossroads of two timelines.
54. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro penned this elegiac, post-Arthurian fantasy over the course of a difficult decade, once tearing it apart and reworking it from the beginning at the urging of his wife. The result was well worth the wait: The Guardian’s glowing review hailed it as “Game of Thrones with a conscience.” Like My Real Children, The Buried Giant considers the entanglement of old age, memory, and national history in a setting infused with the otherworld. At its center are an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, Briton villagers living in a world where King Arthur has died, leaving behind a seemingly durable peace between Britons and Saxons. But everyone in Axl and Beatrice’s village continues to suffer: not from armed conflict, but from the mist, an amnesia that seems to have eaten away all their memories of a son they’re certain they’ve lost.
55. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
The Broken Earth trilogy, which begins with The Fifth Season, stands out as generational talent N.K. Jemisin's most fully realized work so far. In this deeply thoughtful and compulsively readable science fantasy, she combines her trademark psychological complexity with an ultra-immersive world and a magic system of startling originality. The trilogy’s setting is a Pangaea-like supercontinent called the Stillness — a deeply ironic name, since the land is ravaged periodically by earthquakes one upon the other, in a titular Fifth Season that sees the earth go mad. Thanks to the looming fear of seismic catastrophe, the Stillness is a dangerous place for orogenes— people with the often ungovernable ability to control earthquakes, and to channel heat and cold between living bodies and the ground. Called “roggas” and savaged by mobs because of their dangerous powers, orogenes rarely make it to adulthood. But those who survive — generally by hiding their abilities — are herded towards a training facility called the Fulcrum, where they suffer oppressions of their own.
56. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)
Before the publication of his debut novel, Ken Liu had already written computer code, legal briefs, and short stories — not to mention his renderings of acclaimed science fiction from the Chinese. The first installment in a planned trilogy, The Grace of Kings is entertaining as well as learned: a sprawling fantasy of political rebellion anchored to a compelling cast and a richly detailed universe. It’s already become a foundational work of the sensibility Liu terms “silkpunk”: an East Asian-inflected spin on steampunk that trades in gears and goggles for bamboo and paper — while preserving the parent genre’s gleeful fascination with the beauty of engineering. The Grace of Kings uses this silkpunk framework to rewrite some of the most exciting and moving stories from a canonical Han-dynasty text. The result is a page-turner even for bookworms who don’t have knowledge of Chinese history — and full of delightful easter eggs to those who do.
57. A Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
In A Sorcerer to the Crown, debut novelist Zen Cho serves up historical fantasy with humor and heart. Set in a magical version of Regency England, it reads like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by way of Good Omens — equal parts white-gloved gentility and side-splitting wit. But the story also tackles race with a deft touch. Unlike either Clarke’s take on Napoleonic sorcery or Gaiman and Pratchett’s romp through Armageddon, A Sorcerer to the Crown stars characters of color, who have to deal with constant microaggressions while trying to figure out why all the magic in England seems to be going kaput. New Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe is of black African descent — meaning he never expected his latest promotion. Prunella Gentleman, meanwhile, absconds from an extraordinarily useless school for the magical daughters of high society, where her biracial heritage meant she never quite fit in. Together, they have to prevent an all-out war between powerful magical factions — all while dealing with the constant indignities of a prejudiced society.
58. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
All the Birds in the Sky is a love story for nerds. Sparks fly between the compelling leads — and between the two genres they stand in for, woven together by Charlie Jane Anders into a single, delightful narrative thread. Patricia Delfine, a witch, is fantasy. Her childhood friend Laurence Armstead, a gadgeteer, is science fiction. After banding together against junior high bullies who target both for their unabashed weirdness, the two lose touch: Patricia runs from witchcraft accusations to wind up in a school of magic, while Laurence is shipped off to military school to shape up among other ill-behaved teenage Muggles. Luckily, they reunite as adults — just in time to tap into their combined magical and scientific skills to stop the Unraveling of the universe.
59. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (2017)
S.A. Chakraborty calls her stunning debut novel “historical fan fiction.” A dazzling fantasy set in the 18th-century Egypt, The City of Brass unfolds a tale of magical adventure and political intrigue around a core of Islamic mythology: winged angels, smoke-born djinn, and all. But its heroine is a skeptic — initially, at least. A talented swindler with an instinct for medicine, Nahri tricks Ottoman nobles into filling her purse by claiming magical powers she doesn’t actually have. But one day, she fakes an exorcism only to find herself face-to-face with a very real djinn. This unexpected new acquaintance, named Dara, spirits her away to the enchanted, brass-walled city of Daevabad via magic carpet. Here she finds out the truth about her own heritage — the key to her talent for the healing arts.
60. Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
A double black belt in karate and kung fu, Fonda Lee drew on the wuxia movies of her youth to create the Jade City, capital of the Hong Kong-like setting of her remarkable “gangster fantasy.” Combining the epic sweep of high fantasy with the street-level machinations that flavor gangster flicks, Jade City reads like Game of Thrones meets The Godfather, with a modern, pan-Asian aesthetic all its own. In its vividly drawn magical underworld, organized crime centers around jade — not the lucent green jewel we know, but a mineral that grants superpowers to those who wield it, provided they have the right training and genes. After a cataclysmic, World War I-like international conflict, the One Mountain Society that protected the island of Kekon has shattered into rival crime families. As they fight over the future of the jade trade, Lee brings their battles to life in stunning fight sequences undergirded by rich worldbuilding.