“Best” is a hugely subjective term, and not to be trusted. So here, “Best” means, “a consensus based on dozens of other lists, infused with my own personal bias.”
The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. But the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.
One of the more recent books on this list, City of Stairs is written by a science fiction author who shows he has an impressive handle on fantasy as well.
“A memorably surreal urbanscape…readers seeking a truly refreshing fantasy milieu should travel to Bulikov, and welcome its conquest.”
— New York Times Book Review
I’m generally leery of light-vs-dark-for-control-of-the-world stories (I like my characters a little more nuanced), but this one’s fantastic.
They are the “Others,” an ancient race of supernatural beings—magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, and healers—who live among us. Human born, they must choose a side to swear allegiance to—the Dark or the Light—when they come of age.
For a millennium, these opponents have coexisted in an uneasy peace, enforced by defenders like the Night Watch, forces of the Light who guard against the Dark. But prophecy decrees that one supreme “Other” will arise to spark a cataclysmic war.
Anton Gorodetsky, an untested mid-level Light magician with the Night Watch, discovers a cursed young woman—an Other of tremendous potential unallied with either side—who can shift the balance of power. With the battle lines drawn between Light and Dark, the magician must move carefully, for one wrong step could mean the beginning of annihilation.
“Potent as a shot of vodka.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
It’s the Napoleonic Wars with a twist—everyone’s using dragons. Fortunately, the dragons can speak and reason, and are as fully-realized (if not more) than the human characters.
When the HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo (an unhatched dragon egg), fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature.
Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he faces a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.
“[D]elightful… Novik seamlessly blends fantasy into the history of the Napoleonic wars… [A] story rich with international, interpersonal and internal struggles.”
— Publishers Weekly
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
“A gleaming debut in the crowded field of epic fantasies and Arthurian romances.”
— Publishers Weekly
Some people can’t put this book down due to the action, gritty characters, and dark humor. Others find the torture and pain a little too much. If you like your fantasy on the grim side, definitely check out The Blade Itself.
A famous barbarian, a foppish swordsman, a hateful torturer, and an angry wizard reluctantly work together while pursuing their own agendas.
“New, fresh, and exciting.”
― The Independent (UK)
Kvothe, the hero and villain of a thousand tales, disappears for years and is presumed dead. Then he is tracked down by a biographer who discovers he’s living under an assumed name while running an inn. The biographer gets Kvothe’s story, which focuses around two imperatives—his desire to learn the higher magic of naming and his need to discover as much as possible about the Chandrian, the demons of legend who murdered his family.
“The originality of Rothfuss’s outstanding debut fantasy, the first of a trilogy, lies less in its unnamed imaginary world than in its precise execution.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Tigana is the tale of a people so cursed by the black sorcery of a cruel, despotic king that even the name of their once-beautiful homeland cannot be spoken or remembered. In this land bowed under the weight of its sorcerer-conquerors, a wandering musician and his small band of compatriots attempt to restore freedom to a battered world.
“Kay’s brilliant and complex portrayal of good and evil, high and low, will draw readers to this consuming epic.”
— Publishers Weekly
During a business visit to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, a young English solicitor finds himself at the center of a series of horrifying incidents. Jonathan Harker is attacked by three phantom women, observes the Count’s transformation from human to bat form, and discovers puncture wounds on his own neck that seem to have been made by teeth. Harker returns home upon his escape from Dracula’s grim fortress, but a friend’s strange malady—involving sleepwalking, inexplicable blood loss, and mysterious throat wounds—initiates a frantic vampire hunt.
Anyone who lived through the 1980s may find it impossible—inconceivable, even—to equate The Princess Bride with anything other than the sweet movie romance of Westley and Buttercup, but the film is only a fraction of the ingenious storytelling you’ll find in the actual novel.
Even if you’ve seen the movie multiple times (I hope you have), the book is still hilarious.
“One of the funniest, most original, and deeply moving novels I have read in a long time.”
— Los Angeles Times
Continuously in print for over 150 years, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas is one the best-known stories in the English-speaking world.
Do yourself a favor and read an unabridged copy. Mostly likely, you’ve only been exposed to shortened versions.
In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it. Personally, I would do the opposite.
The Stand is one of my favorite Stephen King books (right up there with ‘Salems’ Lot). King deliberately create a Lord of the Rings-type fantasy epic, only with an American setting. The newer printings have an extra 400(!) pages that were cut from the original manuscript. And they’re pretty good pages, too—they improve the novel instead of making it a slog.
When a man escapes from a biological testing facility, he sets in motion a deadly domino effect, spreading a mutated strain of the flu that will wipe out 99 percent of humanity within a few weeks. The survivors who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge—Mother Abigail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence.
The beginning of the book seems rooted in science fiction, but the fantasy aspects of the story soon become much more important.
For Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name…
“Butcher…spins an excellent noirish detective yarn in a well-crafted, supernaturally-charged setting. The supporting cast is again fantastic, and Harry’s wit continues to fly in the face of a peril-fraught plot.”
— Booklist (starred review)
My wife and I are both big readers, but there are few books that we both enjoy. The Night Circus is one of them.
It’s also a polarizing book. Some people absolutely cannot stand it.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.
“Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.”
— Associated Press
I realize Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is far more popular than The BFG, but while I love the former, I think The BFG is actually the better book.
The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, or any of the other giants—rather than the BFG—she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that the giants are flush-bunking off to England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!
“Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake are uncanny in their understanding of what children like to read and see.”
— The New York Times Book Review
Author Goodkind has the kind of experience most authors would sell their souls for:
“I wanted to be represented by the best agent in the country and I wrote him a letter. He asked to see the book and he liked it. He showed it to a number of publishers. Three of them had an auction. Ten weeks after I’d written ‘The End’ it sold for a record price ($275,000).”
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher’s forest sanctuary seeking help… and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.
In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword—to invoke within himself something nobler. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed … or that their time has run out.
“The richly detailed world and complex characters will appeal to mature fantasy aficionados.”
— Library Journal
I consider His Dark Materials to be the best fantasy series in existence. And this is from a guy who owns multiple copies of The Silmarillion.
In a world where all humans have their own animal familiar, Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule, where the Gobblers take the children they steal—including her friend Roger, and where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Lyra is a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want. But can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors?
“Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension.”
— Publishers Weekly
Even as a child, I found the Christian allegory in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be heavy-handed and distracting from the story. Despite that, it’s still a famous and fun read.
Fun fact: C. S. Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien hated this book.
One of the best things a book can do is make me laugh out loud, and The Amulet of Samarkand succeeded multiple times.
Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice, taking his first lessons in the arts of magic. But when a devious hot-shot wizard named Simon Lovelace ruthlessly humiliates Nathaniel in front of his elders, Nathaniel decides to kick up his education a few notches and show Lovelace who’s boss. With revenge on his mind, he summons the powerful djinni, Bartimaeus. But summoning Bartimaeus and controlling him are two different things entirely, and when Nathaniel sends the djinni out to steal Lovelace’s greatest treasure, the Amulet of Samarkand, he finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, and rebellion.
“One of the liveliest and most inventive fantasies of recent years.”
Retellings of the Arthurian legend tend to bore me, but The Once and Future King is a fun and thought-provoking read with some tongue-in-cheek commentary on modern life.
The title comes from the inscription that, according to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, was written upon King Arthur’s tomb: Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus – “Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be.”
The volume published as The Once and Future King is actually four works separately composed over about 20 years: the Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.
“The Once and Future King is full of insights, scenes, and flourishes that are really quite astonishing.”
— The Guardian
The first book in the 5-volume Belgariad is Pawn of Prophecy. It’s pretty short and it’s the first fantasy book I read that actually dealt with some realistic questions, like how long it’d actually take to walk across a magical land (about twenty miles/day).
The Belgariad is a somewhat formulaic Quest for the Magical Thingie, but the interactions between the disparate characters is so entertaining that it never bothered me. I liked that they had to both battle monsters and argue about whose turn it was to do the cooking.
“Fabulous… Eddings has a marvelous storyteller style… exceedingly well portrayed and complex people.”
— Anne McCaffrey
This comic blew my brain apart when I first came across them. It was big, wild, crazy, and more thoughtful than most comics out there. Also, it cast Death as a goth chick, which worked surprisingly well. The first story is a little uneven, but keep with it.
The Sandman is the universally lauded masterwork following Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming—a vast hallucinatory landscape housing all the dreams of any and everyone who’s ever existed. Regardless of cultures or historical eras, all dreamers visit Morpheus’ realm—be they gods, demons, muses, mythical creatures, or simply humans who teach Morpheus some surprising lessons.
Upon his escape from an embarrassing captivity at the hands of a mere mortal, Morpheus finds himself at a crossroads, forced to deal with the enormous changes within both himself and his realm. His journey to find his place in a world that’s drastically changed takes him through mythical worlds to retrieve his old heirlooms, the back roads of America for a twisted reunion, and even Hell itself—to receive the dubious honor of picking the next Devil. But he’ll learn his greatest lessons at the hands of his own family, the Endless, who—like him—are walking embodiments of the most influential aspects of existence.
“The greatest epic in the history of comic books.”
— The Los Angeles Times Magazine
This is my favorite of the excellent Harry Potter books, mostly because of the character of Sirius Black and the chilling Dementors.
For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort.
Now Black has escaped, and the clues as to where he might be headed all point to Harry Potter and Hogwarts.
Harry Potter isn’t safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England until the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
“The chock-full, old-fashioned narrative (supplemented with deft footnotes to fill in the ignorant reader on incidents in magical history) may seem a bit stiff and mannered at first, but immersion in the mesmerizing story reveals its intimacy, humor and insight, and will enchant readers of fantasy and literary fiction alike.”
— Publishers Weekly
For a book that’s superficially The Lord of the Rings with rabbits (including a bunny-specific language and mythology), Watership Down is surprising deep and human. You’ll find yourself surprised how much you care about a bunch of fuzzballs.
Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage, and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.
“Quite marvelous…A powerful new vision of the great chain of being.”
— The New York Times Book Review
Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth, he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. A Wizard of Earthsea is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
“The magic of Earthsea is primal; the lessons of Earthsea remain as potent, as wise, and as necessary as anyone could dream.”
— Neil Gaiman
I’m a huge Terry Pratchett and Discworld fan, and this book is one of the best in terms of clever plot, fascinating characters, interesting use of magic, and Pratchett’s clear-eyed but sympathetic take on human nature. It’s also hilarious.
Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those who don’t understand italics) has appeared in Discworld’s greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, it soon manages to get itself crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all…). How did it get there? How is the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night involved? Can the Ankh-Morpork City Watch restore order to the city—and return the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork to power?
“This is one of Pratchett’s best books. Hilarious and highly recommended.”
— The Times
This wildly popular novel became even more popular after being adapted for television (and the adaption kept all of the sex and gore). It’s brutal, fascinating, and shot through with a realism hard to find in most fantasy books.
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.
“[T]he book stands out from similar work by Eddings, Brooks and others by virtue of its superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloody-mindedness.”
— Publishers Weekly
In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo—Mongol emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo entertains his host with stories of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. As Marco Polo unspools his tales, the emperor detects these fantastic places are more than they appear.
“Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.”
— Gore Vidal, The New York Review of Books
After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publisher asked for a sequel. So at the age of 45, Tolkien began writing, and worked on The Lord of the Rings for twelve years, which wasn’t fully published until six years later. He didn’t see the entire book published until he was 63 years old.
Initial reviews were mixed. It was called “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and “destined to outlast our time,” while others criticized the lack of psychological depth and considered the story “anemic, and lacking in fibre.”
It has, of course, become the most influential fantasy book in history. There is an oft-repeated (but not substantiated) claim that one-tenth of all paperbacks sold can trace their ancestry to J.R.R. Tolkien. True or not, fantasy readers have read so many Tolkien clones that the statement certainly seems believable.