The world of fantasy fiction has been turned on its head in recent years by authors who are pushing boundaries and blurring lines.
The distance between fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and fairy tales has been reduced, and it’s all for the better. Modern fantasy books are wholly unique and exciting stories for this reason.
Exciting Modern Fantasy Books
The books you’ll find here each do something unique that sets them apart from the tropes and traditions of fantasy fiction.
We are living through a bold new time in fantasy, and the authors of these modern fantasy books are leading the charge.
The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin
This staggering trilogy of modern fantasy books by American author N.K. Jemisin represents a turning point in fantasy fiction.
These 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 modern 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 modern fantasy books.
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.
Mordew by Alex Pheby
Mordew is one of the most raw, gnarly, and punk modern fantasy books you’ll ever read. This is a lovecraftian blend of cosmic horror and grimy political angst.
Set in the titular Mordew, a coastal city battered by the waves, this is a small world watched over by a man called the Master.
Our protagonist, Nathan, is a slum boy who trawls through the “living mud” looking for things to sell, all the while his father lies bedridden at home.
Meanwhile, the Master’s castle home sits atop the corpse of God itself, feeding off its body like a parasite.
The setting and concept of Mordew is bold and discomfiting, making the reader squirm with its rancid streets and corrupt, bloated characters.
But there are also mysteries to solve and secrets to uncover, and Nathan gradually builds a little party of friends, with whom he will find answers and grow to understand the world in which he lives.
Alex Pheby has built something larger than life here, with an understanding that “fantasy” means doing whatever your imagination allows, while still adhering to one’s own set of rules.
He is a writer of both scope and intimacy, and that is vital to the success of modern fantasy books. Mordew is truly unique.
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 modern fantasy books.
Legends & 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 DnD 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.
Gideon the Ninth by Tasyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth is another shining example of what sets modern fantasy books apart from their predecessors, but in a very different way.
This is a novel that masterfully mixes so many different genres.
And it all works! The fact that this absurd blend of genres, tropes, and themes is executed so flawlessly is miraculous. And the novel is a thrillride from beginning to end.
Set in a strange system of planets that are all a singular necromantic empire, we follow an edgy, angsty teenager who must play sword and protector to her planet’s princess, Harrowhark.
Nine planets, each with its own school of necromancy, and the nine heirs have been invited to the emperor’s planet to take part in a trial.
This trial will determine whether or not the heirs will rise to the role of lyctor (a necromantic saint blessed with immortality).
This is a world of death, of living skeletons, of catacombs and tombs. It’s bleak, but Muir’s dialogue is sharp and witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
The YA vibrancy of the characters mixes harshly with the bleak and morbid aesthetic of this world, and yet that clash is part of what makes the novel so unique.
That and the way in which, like Dune before it, Gideon the Ninth blends fantasy, science fiction, and horror aesthetics together.
We live in a time where the lines between genres have blurred, and as readers, we’re all the richer for it.
Modern fantasy books like Gideon the Ninth are an absolute wonder.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh is an American author known for writing unlikeable women protagonists, for being punk and harsh and uncaring with her narratives and characters.
This is what makes her such a treasured voice amongst modern authors, and what makes her My Year of Rest and Relaxation such a modern classic.
Lapvona is Moshfegh dipping her toes into the world of fantasy, historical fiction, and folklore all at once.
Set in a nondescript mediaeval world of natural disasters, serfs tilling the soil, and a spoiled master lording himself over the poor beneath him, Lapvona is raw and gnarly.
In this world we have hunger and death; we have a blind wise woman who has nursed every child in the village; and we have sharp political and economic allegories to dig into.
Marek, son of an abusive single father, has a uniquely close bond with the wise woman, but he also gets tied up with the governor’s son, and that tangle will unravel their community.
Lapvona is a novel about power, about suffering, about unfair social imbalances, and so much more. It is scathing and disgusting and exciting.
Another great example of genres being blended: this is somewhat historical, beautifully fantastical, and cleverly literary. There’s nothing quite like it.
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
Here is an outlandish and absurd fantasy novel that some will love and others will hate.
To be completely frank, I loved some aspects of this novel while hating most others. But (and this is important), I loved to hate those parts. In that way, there was nothing I didn’t love.
Empire of the Vampire is an oversized pseudo-gothic vampire epic; an enormous horror fantasy novel; an absurd male power fantasy.
Everything about this novel is ridiculous, overblown, silly, campy, and cringe. And I personally loved it for all of those stupid reasons.
Set in a world in which people randomly sometimes say French words, we listen as a legendary vampire hunter sits in a tower and relays his life story to his captor.
Gabriel de Leon was a child when the sun failed to rise. Now, the vampires that had always hidden themselves away have risen up to build an empire and lay waste to human society.
Gabe, however, turns out to be a half-vampire, and is recruited into an order of half-vampire hunters, and we read on as he rises up to become a legend.
Gabe is crass and rude and edgy; an awkward and uncomfortable male power fantasy, but that’s what makes him so much fun to read.
You’ll laugh along at how “cool” Gabe is, while also genuinely enjoying the worldbuilding and pacing of this well-plotted, well-conceived vampire fantasy novel.
There is so much wrong with this book, but it has earned a place on this list for its boldness, its uniqueness, and for being a horror-tinged fantasy epic.
Amongst modern fantasy books, there is nothing quite like Empire of the Vampire, and that is both a good and a bad thing.
The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne
This is proper, hardcore epic fantasy; a viking-inspired modern fantasy novel that leans into all the tropes and trappings that fantasy fans know and love.
There is very little here that’s particularly fresh — The Shadow of the Gods isn’t reinventing the fantasy wheel. Instead, it is simply a honed and sharp piece of exciting fantasy fiction.
This fantasy novel is an expression of the author’s love for Scandinavian folklore, mythology, and landscapes. It feels like a Norse epic, though it is in fact entirely original.
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, their enormous animalistic corpses litter the landscape, and our human protagonists live amongst them, 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.
We have three 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.
Shadow of the Gods is one of the coolest (pardon the pun) modern fantasy books.
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.
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 French novel.
The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
Translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano
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 Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
American author V.E. Schwab has made a big name for herself as an author of urban fantasy and magical realism.
She expertly weaves tropes and concepts together; things like superpowers, folklore, and gothic themes. Her writing is evocative of the works of Neil Gaiman while also being wholly original.
And The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is perhaps her grandest novel.
Our protagonist, Addie, was born in a small rural village in 17th century France. In order to escape forced (or “expected”) matrimony, she seeks out an old pagan god to make a deal with.
The deal she makes is that she is now free and immortal, but she cannot be remembered. She cannot speak her name; she doesn’t show up in photographs.
When people meet her, they then immediately forget her when their back is turned. She is entirely alone and unshackled by anything at all.
However, now living in present-day New York City, Addie suddenly meets a man who manages a bookshop and, for some reason, he doesn’t forget her.
To say any more would be to spoil things, but The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a magical urban fantasy novel and one of the best modern fantasy books, hands down.
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 modern fantasy books of all time.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
While this epic fantasy novel is slightly older than the other modern fantasy books on this list, it is still a product of the 21st Century.
The Name of the Wind is also one of the most lauded and beloved fantasy novels of all time, so it’s pretty likely that most people reading this have read it, and its sequel.
That said, if it wasn’t featured here, some people would probably be annoyed, so here it is!
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 fantastic framing device (which Empire of the Vampire emulated in a far less successful way) and some truly evocative and poetic language to boot.
Our protagonist, Kvothe, has hidden himself away, living as an innkeeper on a quiet road. 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 (inspired by the author’s own lengthy time at university).
The Name of the Wind very much did its own thing, ignoring the rules of worldbuilding and narrative that had been established by repetition within the genre.
For this reason, it remains one of the greatest modern fantasy books of all time.