Fantasy is a colossal genre that has had an enormous impact on the lives of its readers and fans. This is a fiercely beloved genre that goes far beyond literature.
For these reasons, selecting the best fantasy books of all time is a tall order, as is simply defining what fantasy actually is.
Originally inspired by the folk and fairy tales of Europe, as well as the gods and heroes of old religions, fantasy has since stepped into so many other realms.
As well as this, fantasy was once the domain of straight white men, but the landscape of the genre is so much more richly diverse than it once was.
The Best Fantasy Books of All Time
The classic fantasy books of the 20th century soon gave way to fantasy books by incredible Black authors, queer authors, and more; expanding the scope of this exciting genre.
And so, here are some of the best fantasy books ever written, from the legendary epics that started it all to the modern fantasy books that are pushing the genre in bold new directions.
Read More: The Best Sci-Fi Books Ever Written
The Best Classic Fantasy Books
We are here defining “classic” fantasy books as anything written in the 20th century.
These are the fantasy novels that have since become legend; the ones that have inspired countless readers and writers alike; the ones that have been adapted time and again.
Some of this you will have loved and read; others you may not have. All are incredible.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy of fantasy novels is the most important and influential work in the genre’s history, and it always will be.
With these books, Tolkien took what he began with The Hobbit and turned it into an entire world — a world with its own deep history, lore, and languages.
In fact, in many ways these books are a showcase in building an entire, fully realised fictional landscape. The scope of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is unmatched in fiction.
This is also the series that took aspects of European folklore and mythologies and turned them into staples of the genre.
Races like elves and dwarves; settings like mines and mountains; multiple language systems; wizards; royal lineages; a “chosen one” narrative; armies of light and darkness.
All of this began with Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings.
If you love what the fantasy genre has given you — if you love its themes and settings and tropes — you need to read the books that started it all.
The Lord of the Rings is the definition of true epic fantasy and worldbuilding, and for that reason they are some of the best fantasy books ever written.
The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
Often compared to The Lord of the Rings because they are both fantasy and were written at similar times, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is, in truth, an entirely different beast.
Peake himself was an interesting man, having been born in China, dying before his series could be finished, and being celebrated for his illustrations as well as his writing.
Gormenghast is a series beloved by many, including author Neil Gaiman, and it is a trilogy (originally intended as a single massive book) that blends the gothic and fantasy genres.
Surrealist and intensely gothic in its tone and setting, Gormenghast helped to pave the way for the grimdark subgenre of fantasy books.
While it lacks many of the staples of the genre that were mostly established by Tolkien, Peake’s contemporary, Gormenghast remains hugely unique and influential.
The titular Gormenghast is a remote castle ruled by the Groan family, who have called the castle home for as long as there has been history at all.
The series is set within the earldom of Gormenghast, and follows the life of the castle’s heir, Titus Groan.
Since the first book chronicles Titus’ birth, its main focus is on the castle’s other strange inhabitants and the political subterfuge they get up to.
The second book follows the teenage Titus as he fears his predetermined future and years for freedom, especially after learning about his feral foster sister, who lives out in the forest.
Gormenghast is a piece of intensely surrealist and gothic fantasy fiction. If you love your fantasy to feel claustrophobic and dripping with gothic atmosphere, this is a must-read.
As influential classics of the genre go, the Gormenghast trilogy represents some of the best fantasy books of all time.
Buy a copy of Gormenghast here!
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was a hero of the fantasy and sci-fi genres; an incredibly kind and powerful and inspirational woman.
While she is most celebrated for her genre-defining sci-fi novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, she also redefined the fantasy genre with her Earthsea quartet.
Beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, this is a series of fantasy books for readers of all ages, set in a world of vast oceans and no great continents.
As its name suggests, this is a place of islands and archipelagos of differing sizes. Our protagonist, Ged, is born on a humble island but with incredible innate magical gifts.
A Wizard of Earthsea is Ged’s coming-of-age story, as he grows from a simple boy to an arrogant youth, and eventually a wise and powerful wizard.
A Wizard of Earthsea established several important staples of the fantasy genre, most obvious of which are magic systems and a school for witches and wizards.
Centred around the concept of natural balance between all things, the magic of Earthsea has the power to work within, or to disrupt this delicate balance.
After using magic to save his island from raiders, Ged is taken on as a wizard’s apprentice, and later is sent to a magical school in order to mature his mind as well as his magic.
The world of fantasy was forever changed and made better by the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, one of the very best fantasy books of all time.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
This 1968 novel is a precious gem of the fantasy genre. Beloved by kids and adults alike, it has sold millions of copies, been republished again and again, and received an animated film adaptation starring Christopher Lee.
As influential and iconic fantasy novels go, few reach the heights of The Last Unicorn. I personally have a charming relationship with this novel, having been shown the animated movie by my Books and Bao co-founder.
The film is stunning, and led me to pick up a comic book adaptation while browsing a bookshop several years ago, before finally reading the original fantasy novel shortly thereafter.
This is a fantasy novel that leans heavily on its fairy tale influences. Our protagonist, the titular last unicorn, believes herself to be the last of her kind.
To learn, definitively, if this is in fact true, she leaves her magical forest home and travels the land. Along the way, she learns that humans no longer recognise her as a unicorn.
She meets and befriends other creatures, is captured by a circus of humans, encounters bandits, and ventures towards a castle that may hold the answers she seeks.
The Last Unicorn is a classic of the genre; a beautiful piece of fairy tale-inspired fiction, and one of the best fantasy novels ever written.
Buy a copy of The Last Unicorn here!
Magician by Raymond E. Feist
Feist’s Magician represents a fascinating and important moment in the world of fantasy books, and fantasy fiction in general.
By the 1980s, the trends of fantasy established by Tolkien had been embedded within the genre: mediaeval castles, wizards, elves, dwarves, swords and sorcery.
These staples gave birth to such goliaths of fantasy like the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game.
Now, there are certain expectations for fantasy books and stories in order for them to be classified as fantasy, and Magician is the perfect example of those high fantasy concepts.
(“High fantasy” can be defined as fantasy that follows the themes and tropes put in place by Tolkien: a massive fictional world, a long tale of heroes journey to fight the darkness, and a mediaeval-inspired setting full of such things as wizards, knights, and dragons.)
Magician, Feist’s first published novel, is a perfect example of following those high fantasy traditions.
Inspired by fantasy role-playing games, Magician follows a young kitchen boy named Pugh who becomes a wizard’s apprentice.
As he studies magic, he rises up and becomes a squire after saving the princess from a mountain troll attack.
The stakes rise, the world expands, and Pug is sent out into it. Along the way, he fights with dark elves and befriends dwarves.
A true high fantasy epic for the ages; a huge book full of all the great tropes that fans of fantasy books have come to embrace and cherish.
Written at a moment where the fantasy genre really exploded, Magician is a key and influential work of the genre; one of the best fantasy books ever for this reason.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Thanks to the searing success of its HBO adaptation, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of epic fantasy novels is as much of a household name as The Lord of the Rings.
This is a bold statement, but no author in the epic fantasy genre has come as close to Tolkien in terms of scale, worldbuilding, and pop-culture influence.
And this is for one very good reason: A Game of Thrones is a masterpiece.
Despite being full of the staples of high fantasy: knights, dragons, big stone castles and keeps, seafaring ships, etc, this series is arguably more grounded than others.
This is because of Martin’s focus on politics. A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy series that is all about politics on both a micro and a macro scale.
The cogs of war turn, backs are repeatedly stabbed, prophecies are written and broken, twists come fast and often, and beloved protagonists are unceremoniously killed off.
The sheer scale of this series is unmatched, and Martin took huge influence from historical events like the War of the Roses to make Westeros’ politics feel real and its stakes feel high.
If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, you know that the series started, and remained, on a high note for years, until eventually trailing off and ending terribly.
Well, at the time of writing, the book series is not finished and currently stands at five enormous books.
The first three of which are masterpieces of the fantasy genre; the fourth and fifth, in this writer’s opinion, are weaker and a little too bloated.
That said, this series remains essential reading for fans, and is unquestionably a collection of some of the best fantasy books ever written.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
If you asked someone to name the three biggest names in the fantasy genre, the authors of the best fantasy books ever, you’d likely be hit with these three:
J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan.
Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series of epic fantasy novels, which began with The Eye of the World, is an enormous masterpiece of insane proportions.
While the first novel in the series, published in 1990, has been criticised for following the Lord of the Rings formula too closely, it remains one of the best fantasy books ever.
The Eye of the World begins in a rural village called Emond’s field, home to our protagonists, which is suddenly attacked by orc-like Trollocs, the footsoldiers of the books’ big bad.
This sets in motion an epic journey for our protagonist Rand and his friends. Early in the novel we are introduced to aspects of the world such as Aes Sedai.
Aes Sedai are women in touch with the magic of the world, who behave like seeresses or wise women.
We are also gradually introduced to the wider world of this series, its politics and magic systems, its big bad, and Rand’s quest.
The Eye of the World is an expansive adventure, an exciting journey across an enormous epic fantasy world. One of the most enjoyable and best fantasy books of the 20th century.
Buy a copy of The Eye of the World here!
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Stephen King is best known as the master of American horror, having penned some of the most famous horror novels of all time.
However, he also wrote an incredible, surreal, and flat-out strange (but very ambitious) series of seven fantasy novels known as The Dark Tower.
While there are some real ups and downs within the series as a whole, the first novel, The Gunslinger, is an absolute knockout.
Set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world with a distinctly American Western setting, The Gunslinger follows a protagonist named Roland who is on the hunt.
Roland has been chasing the enigmatic “man in black” for a long time, and we jump right into the story as the chase is underway.
The world that Roland is in parallels our own, and as the story goes on the lines between our Earth and his blur and overlap, with characters shifting between the two.
The Dark Tower series is incredibly surreal, with wildly strange things coming along often with little-to-no explanation, and the chaos of it is half the fun.
This is King showing the world how fantasy, surrealism, and even the Wild West can go hand in hand. A daring novel amongst the best fantasy novels ever.
Buy a copy of The Gunslinger here!
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
It’s hard not to unbottle my own excitement here — Robin Hobb, alongside Joe Abercrombie (below), is my favourite fantasy author.
The beauty of Hobb’s writing comes in its simplicity. Her world’s are deceptively easy to understand and therefore fall easily into.
There is nothing overwhelming about her worldbuilding, her language and characters; no arbitrary use of fantasy tropes.
But her characterisation, the politics and relationships and plots that she writes, are all so strong and captivating and savvy. Her books are intensely addictive and moreish.
And this all began with The Farseer Trilogy, which itself began with Assassin’s Apprentice, a refreshingly short — and therefore perfectly paced — epic fantasy novel.
This trilogy is set in the world of the Six Duchies, as are her next two trilogies The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles.
However, it’s this first series’ protagonist that remains her most popular and beloved protagonist, as Hobb has written two more epic trilogies centred around him and his life.
That protagonist is Fitz, a royal bastard who, in this first novel, trains as a royal assassin while being raised by the kindly stablemaster Burrich.
Fitz possesses an ancient magic known as the Wit, which allows him to communicate with animals.
The magic of this world is subtle, discreetly woven into the language of the world.
Fitz is a flawed but lovable protagonist, and we watch him grow throughout the course of this trilogy; through his eyes, we see political subterfuge and drama unfold.
Engrossing and captivating, The Farseer trilogy represents some of the best fantasy books ever written.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Of course, at least one Discworld novel had to be mentioned. And, honestly, this list could easily double in size by listing off all the amazing works of the late, great Terry Pratchett.
Pratchett’s Discworld is a fantasy world that was thoroughly explored and expanded across forty one novels (more than the number of plays that Shakespeare wrote).
Some of my personal favourites include Mort, Small Gods, Wyrd Sisters, and Hogfather, but I’ve selected Guards! Guards! for this list because of its simplicity and purity.
Guards! Guards! was the first book to star the city watch as its protagonists, turning the watch’s captain Sam Vimes into a fan-favourite character.
This classic Discworld novel centres around a mysterious brotherhood who are using forbidden magic to summon a dragon.
As the dragon repeatedly appears to ravage the city of Ankh-Morpork, captain Sam Vimes is forced to actually take action and do something about it.
He is aided by watchmen Colon and Nobbs, as well as a fresh recruit: Carrot, a huge human raised underground by dwarves.
Guards! Guards! is a great introduction to the Discworld novels because it perfectly showcases the city of Ankh-Morpork, and it’s a simple novel with simple stakes.
Pratchett penned many of the best fantasy books of all time, and Guards! Guards! is undoubtedly one of them.
Buy a copy of Guards! Guards! here!
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Most of what we’ve discussed here has been high fantasy, targeted at mature readers, but His Dark Materials represents a shift from that formula into something else entirely.
Targeted at a younger audience, and set in an alternate, fantastical version of our world (at least, to begin with), His Dark Materials is a truly magical fantasy trilogy.
(On a personal note, this is the series that got me into reading and turned me into the voracious bookworm that I am today.)
The trilogy’s first novel, Northern Lights, opens in an alternative version of the author’s beloved Oxford, in a world where every human has an animal companion.
The companions, known as daemons, are in fact aspects of our own souls and personalities, expressed in a separate corporeal form.
Apparently, Pullman came up with the concept of daemons to avoid his protagonist always thinking or talking to herself, and instead having a companion to always discuss things with.
That protagonist is Lyra, a young girl who lives at Jordan College. The novel begins with her spying on her globetrotting uncle as he gives a secret presentation to the college’s masters.
Via this presentation, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle known as Dust, something that sits between the realms of magic and science.
When Lyra’s best friend is kidnapped, she is taken in my a fancy but enigmatic socialite and sets off on an adventure of airships, witches, and talking bears that wear armour.
His Dark Materials is a whimsical adventure series with high stakes and intense religious allegories.
The trilogy has come under fire for decades as a work that is critical of organised religion (specifically Christianity), and it presents that criticism through savvy allegories.
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok
The Witcher, a series and world created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, has, in recent years, become almost as much of a household name as Game of Thrones, thanks to its successful video game and Netflix adaptations.
This is a gritty series of fantasy books inspired by Eastern European folklore and mythology. Interestingly, the book which most readers begin with is a short story collection, published before the series’ full-length novels.
This book, The Last Wish, is comprised of seven short stories, the first of which is titled The Witcher. As the beginnings of epic fantasy series’ go, a short story collection is a unique one.
That said, it certainly has the benefit of both placing the reader into the world slowly, through bite-sized, digestible chunks, and of giving us a variety of different places and perspectives to explore from the outset.
The Witcher as a franchise has never done things simply, though, with the first two games in its video game series having cult followings, and the third game blowing up into the mainstream.
Famously, actor Henry Cavill was such a dedicated fan of the books and games that he near enough begged the studio to cast him as the protagonist once the Netflix series was revealed.
The very first story in this collection, the first glimpse we get of protagonist Geralt, is a short and action-filled tale of monsters, curses, loss, and violence.
Buy a copy of The Last Wish here!
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
While it may not be the very best fantasy novel of all time, Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is perhaps tied with The Name of the Wind (below) for having one of the coolest titles in the fantasy genre.
In true high fantasy fashion, this is only the first novel in a series of epic fantasy novels called Malazan Book of the Fallen.
These novels, similar to those of Raymond E. Feist (above), are known for the ways in which they lean on, and expand on, the tropes of high fantasy, perhaps most notably with their magic systems.
Given both Feist and Erikson’s shared love for tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, this should be no surprise. In fact, Gardens of the Moon was initially conceptualised as a TTRPG.
The Malazan Empire, which has existed for a century, is attempting to expand across the continent, waging war against any cities that stand in their way.
With the emperor assassinated and the empress now maintaining control with the help of the assassins, internal politics play as much of a role in this novel as external warfare does.
This is a novel of grey areas, reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire. Rather than an ultimate evil and a chosen one, this is a story of people being good, bad, and everything in-between.
Buy a copy of Gardens of the Moon here!
Essential Modern Fantasy Books
Here is where diversity really comes into play!
The 21st century has seen a massive shift in the fantasy genre, as the best fantasy books are now written by a much more diverse range of writers.
This means that modern fantasy books take greater inspiration from world cultures and mythology, from indigenous Australia to Japan to Central Africa.
These authors are writing some of the best fantasy books, not only of the modern day, but of all time!
Read More: Essential Modern Fantasy Novels
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is one of the most lauded and, frankly, best fantasy novels of all time.
Upon its release, The Name of the Wind did a lot to buck the trends and claw out of the pit of tropes that the fantasy genre had fallen into.
We begin with a clever framing device, written with delightfully flamboyant, poetic, and evocative language.
Our protagonist, Kvothe, has hidden himself away, living as an innkeeper known as Kote.. However, his identity is uncovered and a scribe has asked to pen Kvothe’s story.
And so we are thrown back to Kvothe’s childhood as a member of a travelling troupe of performers, before a tragedy turns him out onto the street.
Eventually, Kvothe enrols in a university in order to learn the magic system of this world, and this is where the majority of this novel is set.
The Name of the Wind very much did its own beast, ignoring the rules of worldbuilding and narrative that had been established by repetition within the high fantasy genre.
For this reason, and for its sheer incredible ambition, it remains one of the very best fantasy books of all time.
Buy a copy of The Name of the Wind here!
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
A wildly exciting fantasy novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora did something very different within the genre.
This is a book about thieves, about the criminal underworld of a fantastical city.
Our protagonist, the titular Locke Lamora, grows up as a member of the Gentlemen Bastards, and now acts as their leader.
This is a gang of thieves and criminals who avoid punishment by the law, but the real antagonist of this fantasy novel is an enigmatic and powerful figure who is steadily taking over the criminal world in the city of Camorr.
Brilliantly written and constructed, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a love letter to urban living, romanticising the anti-heroes that thrive in the shadows.
We know next-to-nothing about our protagonist when the novel begins, but over time we learn about him, his band of eccentric thieves, and his larger-than-life nemesis.
The Lies of Locke Lamora shows readers what a blend of lively and imaginative character-writing and worldbuilding can look like in an epic fantasy setting.
Far more intimate and small-scale than most “chosen one saves the world” scenarios, this novel stands out for that reason as one of the best fantasy novels of our time.
The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan
Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy is comprised of The Magicians’ Guild, The Novice, and The High Lord. This is a perfect fantasy series for readers who really enjoy intricate and unique magic systems in their fantasy books.
Beyond that, you’ve got a luscious world full of complex and satisfying characters with excellent personal and interpersonal arcs to enjoy, and so much of this takes place in an engaging magical school.
Across the Black Magician Trilogy, Canavan explores themes of classism, prejudice, and the abuse of power, showing how, at the turn of the century, fantasy started becoming more aggressively allegorical of real social issues.
This trilogy of fantasy books follows the journey of a young woman named Sonea, who lives in the city of Imardin, which is ruled over by the Magicians’ Guild.
The guild is composed of powerful magicians who use their abilities to maintain order in the city.
Sonea, a girl from the city slums, discovers her own magical abilities after accidentally accessing them in a moment of desperation; defending herself from a group of magicians.
This magical behaviour puts her in danger, as unauthorised use of magic is punishable by death in the city of Imardin.
Thus, Sonea is forced to go on the run while the Magicians’ Guild hunts her down in order to bring her under their control, and teach her how to properly harness and weild her own magical abilities.
As the series progresses, Sonea becomes a student at the guild and starts to uncover secrets about the order and its leaders.
She also becomes embroiled in a power struggle between the guild and the rogue magicians who seek to overthrow their rule.
This is a wonderfully engaging and expansive trilogy of fantasy books from one of the most celebrated and beloved authors of the genre.
Buy the Black Magician Trilogy here!
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The fantasy genre has its roots in European mythology and folklore, inspired by the gods and heroes of Greek, Norse, and British mythology.
With what many would call his magnum opus, Neil Gaiman blended the very things that inspired fantasy with a strange urban fantasy setting within our own world.
American Gods answers the question: when Europeans stole the land of the Americas and brought some of their gods with them, what happened to the gods that were left behind?
This is the story of a war brewing between the old gods of Norse, Greek, and African mythologies, and the new gods worshipped in our modern lives.
But, in true American fashion, this is also a road trip; a bastardisation of the “epic quest” that is such a staple of the fantasy genre.
Smartly blending the fantasy genre’s tropes with those of the great American novel, and drawing from the mythologies that he so dearly loves, Gaiman has created something very special and wholly unique with American Gods.
There is nothing else quite like this, and it remains one of Gaiman’s finest works. One of the most spellbinding and best fantasy books of the 21st century.
Buy a copy of American Gods here!
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Blending fantasy and historical fiction, Susanna Clarke’s epic debut is an absolute masterpiece.
It’s not often that a novel of this size and scale can justify its length, by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell absolutely does. This is epic in all the best ways.
Set in an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, this novel follows two magicians: the titular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
The novel begins with Mr Norrell resurrecting the concept and execution of magic, as it has something that was long since forgotten and reduced instead to the study of magical texts.
As he gains fame, Norrell moves to London, where his relationship to magical people and places strengthens. And, eventually, he crosses paths with Jonathan Strange.
This novel is an enormous epic that spans many years and places, overlapping with the Napoleonic Wars and injecting them with an exciting dose of magic.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the Hugo Award, this is one of the best fantasy novels ever written.
(Side note: I have the happiest memory of reading this over the course of a summer’s week while working in Tokyo. Bliss.)
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Final Empire is the first novel of Brandon Sanderson’s ever-expanding Mistborn series of epic fantasy novels. What began as a trilogy has since evolved into a series that spans multiple eras.
And it all began with The Final Empire, a fantasy novel set in an oppressive and dictatorial society shrouded in mist and ash.
The titular Final Empire is a world ruled over by the immortal Lord Ruler, considered by his subjects to be a living god.
In this world is a subservient underclass of slaves known as skaa. Lording over them are the lords and nobles, many of whom have access to a magic known as Allomancy.
Allomancy is the Mistborn’s magic system; it involves ingesting and burning certain metals which provide individuals with skills similar to those of the Force-wielding Jedi in Star Wars.
At first, we are introduced to Kelsier, a rare skaa with Allomantic abilities who once escaped a prison known as the Pits of Hathsin, though not without losing his wife and gaining many visible scars in the process.
Kelsier has a plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and is building a rebellion to do so. Joining that rebellion is Vin, a young skaa girl from the slums who also has access to Allomancy.
In fact, both Kelsier and Vin are the rarest kind of Allomancy users: the Mistborn, from which the series gets its name.
Similar to the works of Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series succeeds on its world-building and execution, all of which is simple on its surface but with deep political undercurrents.
Mixing themes of oppression and rebellion with dynamic character drama and satisfying growth arcs, The Final Empire is an engaging fantasy epic that moves at a satisfying click.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the most celebrated authors of the fantasy genre, and given the strength of the Mistborn series’ first novel, it’s easy to see why.
On the back of its tight world-building, political themes, and enticing magic system, The Final Empire remains one of the best fantasy novels of this century so far.
Buy a copy of The Final Empire here!
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
Easily one of the most underrated fantasy series’ of all time is Chris Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay, which began with the steampunk fantasy novel Retribution Falls.
Set in a grim but lively world of airships and sky pirates, our protagonists are a hodgepodge group of freelancers who take on work that lies outside the law.
They operate out of their airship, the Ketty Jay, and are led by their captain, Frey.
Reminiscent of Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, Retribution Falls is a rip-roaring adventure series that blends steampunk aesthetics with Wild West character and plot archetypes.
Frey is one of the most endearing protagonists you’ll ever find in fantasy, a Han Solo-esque renegade anti-hero with a heart of gold.
This is a series very close to my heart that I recommend to any and all fans of good world-building, found family dynamics, and ensemble stories with a focus on crime.
A real hidden gem of the genre, the whole series represents some of the very best fantasy books of all time. Don’t miss out.
Buy a copy of Retribution Falls here!
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
As previously mentioned, Joe Abercrombie — alongside Robin Hobb — is a personal favourite. King of the grimdark fantasy subgenre, the man is incredible.
While he has written many excellent fantasy novels, it all began with The Blade Itself, a gritty and bleak story set in an equally gritty and bleak world.
The book that began The First Law series (which is comprised of a trilogy, three standalone books, and a short story collection) is a giant of the grimdark fantasy genre.
Our first protagonist is the mighty warrior Logen Ninefingers (whom I imagine to look like Guts from the dark fantasy manga Berserk).
While journeying, Logen meets Bayaz, a magus on a mission. Then there’s Sand dan Glokta, a bitter and broken inquisitor with sadistic sensibilities.
The world of The Blade Itself is delightfully harsh and blood-soaked, making for a truly metal novel and one of the best fantasy novels of the past few years.
Buy a copy of The Blade Itself here!
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus is a very special debut novel, one that instantly shot its author into the stratosphere, writing her name in the stars alongside other urban fantasy greats.
This is a novel of magic in every sense of the world; a novel bursting at the seams with wonder, possibility, imagination, poetry, and beauty.
Gorgeously written, full of mystery and intrigue. This is a fantasy novel, a fairy tale, a piece of historical fiction. It does so much so well.
The titular Night Circus is a magical circus (Le Cirque des Rêves) that appears at dusk and disappears by dawn.
Its enigmatic owner, Prospero, has begun a game with his old friend and cohort, in which they must each raise an apprentice.
Eventually, the two will be pitted against one another in a magical duel. And it is these two apprentices, Celia and Marco, that we follow through the course of this novel.
The Victorian world, circus setting, and magical characters make this one of the most exciting and original, and therefore best fantasy books of all time.
Buy a copy of The Night Circus here!
A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos
Translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle
Set on a floating island (arc) named Anima, A Winter’s Promise (the first in the Mirror Visitor series) is a French YA fantasy novel which follows the journey of a young woman named Ophelia.
Ophelia, like everyone on Anima, has a power related to objects in the world. Her power allows her to “read” the history of an object, and so she curates a museum owned by her grandfather.
However, Ophelia’s hand has been promised to Thorn, a superintendent and a bastard from another arc; Thorn and his Dragon clan have powers far more physical and dangerous than those of the people on Anima.
Thorn and Ophelia are bound by the want of a man who seeks to understand a powerful book, for which he requires Ophelia’s power.
Amongst the best fantasy books, A Winter’s Promise stands out as an exciting work of YA fantasy fiction with wonderful world-building, clever politics and plotting, and deep lore.
The politics of Versailles meets Pride and Prejudice in an enemies-to-lovers tale. Layered storytelling and an aesthetic reminiscent of Studio Ghibli, A Winter’s Promise is a delicious epic fantasy novel.
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Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Similar to Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora (both above), this is a fantasy novel (first in a duology) that focuses on a lovable band of criminals in a fantasy setting.
Set in the same world as Bardugo’s first YA fantasy trilogy, Shadow and Bone — known as the Grishaverse — this is a standalone novel that stands above the others.
Our protagonists are a team of criminals known as The Dregs, who set out to pull off a deadly heist.
Six Of Crows has been described many times as “Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy world”, which is a comparison that will entice some and turn others away, but it’s fairly accurate either way.
The leader of The Dregs is the lovable but curmudgeonly Kaz Brekker, a man who walks with a cane.
This is an important detail because disabled fans of the books have shown Bardugo (who herself sometimes requires a cane) huge gratitude for disability representation in her books.
Six of Crows is a breath of fresh air in the YA fantasy genre, standing high above so many others, making it one of the best fantasy books of recent years.
Buy a copy of Six of Crows here!
The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin
This staggering trilogy of epic fantasy books by American author N.K. Jemisin represents a vital and necessary turning point in fantasy fiction.
These fantasy novels, narratively and conceptually, are unlike anything that exists in the realms of fantasy and science fiction literature. Their breadth and scope is exceptional.
For proof of the impact these books had upon their release, every single book in the trilogy took home the Hugo Award for Best Novel in its respective year, making it the only trilogy to ever accomplish this.
The first novel in this trilogy of best fantasy books, The Fifth Season, follows three separate protagonists, all living in slightly different times on a massive continent called the Stillness.
Essun is a middle-aged mother who sets out on a journey of revenge after she comes home to find that her husband has killed their son and taken their daughter away.
Essun herself is secretly able to manipulate the earth itself; this is a skill that a small percentage of people — known as orogenes — possess.
The second protagonist is Damaya, a young orogene whose parents have organised to be removed from their home and put into the hands of an organisation — known as the Fulcrum — that can train and weaponise her.
And the third protagonist, Syenite, is a member of the Fulcrum who has been sent out on a mission with the world’s most powerful orogene.
The worldbuilding and character writing of this phenomenal trilogy is what sets it so far apart from all other fantasy books, making them some of the best fantasy books ever written.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, nothing else in the world of fantasy has managed to marry intimate character moulding with political and social allegories and ingenious worldbuilding quite like the Broken Earth trilogy.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
The fantasy genre has always been heavily inspired by European mythologies, with mediaeval Europe being used as the genre’s go-to setting aesthetic.
But as the genre has diversified, and writers from different cultural backgrounds have come in to liven things up and rework how fantasy operates, some much-needed colour and variety has been injected.
Many of those colours have come from award-winning Jamaican author Marlon James, who brought us a series of fantasy books inspired by African, rather than European, mythology and history.
This is a story of two warring states, separated into the northern and southern kingdoms, and follows a man with an incredible nose, appropriately named Tracker.
Told to us non-chronologically through Tracker’s experiences, the novel builds its world gradually for us to follow, understand, and get comfortably lost in.
Importantly, Tracker is gay, and queer themes abound in this novel. James paints an accurate picture of the vibrancy and variety of pre-Christianity Africa.
The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
Translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano
Inspired by the folklore of native Australia, Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi has carved out a vivid and engrossing world of beasts and magic.
The Beast Player is a 500 page YA fantasy epic from Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi.
It tells the story of Elin, a young girl who grew up in a village full of caretakers who train and look after a herd of dangerous beasts known as Toda.
Elin’s mother, originally from a distant and mysterious tribe, is sentenced to death after the most elite beasts in the village all suddenly die at once under her care.
After escaping the village, Elin is raised by a wandering beekeeper and subsequently grows into adulthood at a sanctuary for another kind of dangerous creature: Royal Beasts.
The book follows the fantasy tradition of dropping the reader into an impressively detailed world and having its history, geography, lore, politics, traditions, and culture all slowly unfold as the protagonist grows and travels.
Its sequel, The Beast Warrior, is set roughly ten years after The Beast Player’s conclusion, with Elin now around thirty years old, married to a supporting character from the first book, and mother to an eight-year-old boy named Jesse.
Together, these are two of the most exciting YA fantasy books to come out of Japan, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Aside from their publication date, how do we actually define what modern fantasy books are? The Priory of the Orange Tree is a great example to use here.
This is an epic fantasy novel; a sweeping saga that spans an entire world. It pays homage to the genre’s legacy, most obviously by putting the spotlight on dragons.
It has an in-built mythology around dragons; it makes them larger-than-life, and something to be feared.
But The Priory of the Orange Tree is also a fantasy novel written by a woman, with a focus on female and queer protagonists.
Historically, the fantasy genre has been dominated by straight, white men. This novel, along with the Broken Earth series, is part of a reclamation of fantasy.
Aside from all of this, it is also simply a perfectly-crafted, perfectly-paced fantasy epic.
This is a world of queens, of magic, of assassins and outcasts and mages and pirates and dragons. A world with details internal lore and mythology.
The world of this novel lives and breathes; it is entirely three-dimensional. Crafting like this is rarely pulled off on such a massive scale.
For this reason, Samantha Shannon really is one-of-a-kind amongst authors of epic fantasy books.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Faustian deals with the devil have been done a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but here, beloved author of creative urban fantasy fiction V.E. Schwab has managed to breathe new life into that tired concept.
The titular Addie LaRue was born in rural France, and was expected to marry a local boy and live a local life. However, after learning about ancient and forbidden pagan gods, she attempts to make a deal with one.
She’s told never to make a deal after sunset, but after fleeing and feeling nothing but desperation, she summons a demon to make her deal with.
That deal leads her to live an immortal and invisible life. Addie LaRue is cursed to walk the Earth and never be remembered; she travels far and wide but nobody ever remembers her name or her face.
Half of this fantastic fantasy novel is set during Addie’s early years, as she travels through France. The other half is set in modern-day New York City, where she meets someone who, for some reason, doesn’t forget her.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a beautiful and shining example of how the subgenre of urban fantasy has developed over the years, especially within the 21st Century.
Reminiscent of the works of Neil Gaiman, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is V.E. Schwab’s magnum opus, and one of the best fantasy books of recent years.
Buy a copy of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue here!
The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne
John Gwynne made a name for himself with the runaway fantasy hit Malice — as well as the follow-ups in his The Faithful and the Fallen trilogy: Valor and Ruin.
But his craft was perfected with The Shadow of the Gods, first in The Bloodsworn Saga, a piece of enormous epic fantasy that serves as a dedication to the world of Norse mythology.
The Shaodw of the Gods is set in a heavily a viking-inspired world, and it unapologetically leans into all the tropes and trappings that fans of gritty epic fantasy novels know and love.
The Shadow of the Gods admittedly isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to the best fantasy books. Instead, it hones and sharpens the themes and tropes of the genre like a deadly blade.
This epic and frost-covered fantasy novel is an expression of the author’s love for Scandinavian folklore, mythology, and landscapes. It feels like a Norse epic, despite being set in a wholly original fantasy landscape.
For fans who have been raised by fantasy fiction, The Shadow of the Gods is nostalgic; it is comforting and understanding; it is childhood brought back to life.
As its title suggests, this novel begins three hundred years after a war was waged between the gods, and this war wiped them all out.
Now, the staggeringly huge animalistic remains of these gods litter the landscape, and our human protagonists live amongst them, quite literally in the shadow of the gods.
In fact, one human city has been built into the skull of the father of all gods. This is truly epic scene-setting. Gwynne is having fun with his world, and that pays off. We get to have fun right alongside him as a result.
The novel follows three main protagonists, two of whom are women. One is a hunter who is teaching her son how to survive.
The second is a runaway slave who joins a mercenary group as he searches for a witch. The third is a member of a viking crew who are hunting down a wanted criminal.
If you love Norse mythology and cold viking worlds, you’re going to adore this. The Shadow of the Gods is epic fantasy done perfectly; one of the best fantasy books of recent years.
Buy a copy of The Shadow of the Gods here!
Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree
American author Travis Baldree has worked for many years as a professional audiobook narrator.
But while he often narrates epic fantasy novels, his own tastes align with more cosy, low-stakes literature.
This led Baldree to write his own debut fantasy novel: a low-stakes cosy novel set in a high fantasy world.
Our protagonist, Viv, is a retired barbarian mercenary who has decided to hang up her blood-soaked sword and open up a little coffee shop.
Reminiscent of some of the best isekai manga and anime, Legends & Lattes flips the tired script on what readers expect from a fantasy setting and story, swapping out brewing wars for brewing drinks.
Legends & Lattes is a heartwarming novel about found family. Viv enlists the help of a himbo builder, a charming succubus, and an adorable rattkin to build her perfect little world.
Leaning into fantasy tropes that will be familiar to anyone who has played D&D or Skyrim, Baldree has crafted a sweet and wholesome story set in a world of orcs and elves.
But it’s the aforementioned found family that really sells this novel as a glowing success amongst modern fantasy novels.
You’ll laugh with them and cry for them all. And you’ll do anything to protect Thimble.
Buy a copy of Legends & Lattes here!
Godkiller by Hannah Kaner
Inspired by the presence and power of gods in world mythologies, Hannah Kaner’s debut fantasy novel Godkiller takes a fresh approach to the epic fantasy genre of literature.
The prologue opens with a truly harrowing scene, as our protagonist Kissen and her family — descendents of a water god — are taken by a cult of zealots to be ritualistically sacrificed to a fire god.
From here we jump forward to an adult Kissen making a living out of assassinating gods for money, a job which this bitter woman finds great satisfaction in.
However, early in this fantasy book, Kissen meets out second and third protagonists: a young noble’s daughter and a tiny god which has bonded with her like a daemon from His Dark Materials (above).
The two beg Kissen for help, and she begrudgingly agrees to do so. From here, they set out on a journey across a land which we come to know and become fascinated by as the story goes on.
One refreshing aspect of Godkiller is its length; while this is the first in a new series, and it certainly fits the bill of “epic”, it is not an overly long and bloated fantasy novel.
This is a tightly-crafted, well-paced fantasy adventure for fans of the genre, and of mythology.