Fantasy has evolved considerably since Tolkien, though it still relies heavily on many of the conventions Tolkien created (or borrowed from earlier authors). There are countless spinoffs of Tolkien, of greater and lesser degrees of success.
The books below are a mixture of different types of fantasy, from epic (or "High") fantasy to urban & dark fantasy. I love fantasy in all its many forms - especially when told from a fresh direction or with a different twist - so many of the examples below are not epic fantasy like Tolkien. A great book is a great book, whatever is classification.
As I’ve mentioned before, “So many books, so little time”.
Given that premise, I cannot possibly expect to read all of the excellent fantasy fiction available. That's where I'm counting on you. Do you know of a great fantasy book or series? Write a review and submit it to the website.
Or read other user-submitted suggested fantasy reading.
A Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin Ursula LeGuin is one of the finest living writers in any genre, and a perfect example (if one were needed) that great fantasy is neither imitative nor focused entirely on heroes far removed from our everyday experience.
LeGuin has written a number of great science fiction novels and many books of short stories, but I will focus on what I believe is her very best group of books - The Chronicles of Earthsea.
The first Earthsea book is A Wizard of Earthsea and follows what sounds to many readers as a very familiar track - young man in an isolated area of the land discovers he has latent powers and makes his way to the island of Roke, a school for Wizards.
Sure, I've heard this story before. But never the way that LeGuin tells it. And we've heard this story before (at least in part) because LeGuin's books were so influential that they became something of a blueprint for later writers to follow.
Unlike so many other fantasy writers, LeGuin focuses on the characters. They are real to us, and have very human concerns and ideas. Ged, the main character, is one of my very favorite characters in all of fantasy literature.
A Wizard of Earthsea deals with the young Ged searching for his identity and coming to terms with (metaphorically, at least) his darker yearnings.
LeGuin's Earthsea books only grow richer and better. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan is better than the first and introduces one of the great female characters in all of fantasy literature, Arha - "The Eaten One", chief priestess of the Tombs of Atuan.
I will not go on and recap all of these great novels. The Tombs of Atuan is followed by The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, and finally The Other Wind, the latter of which won the 2002 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
I find it difficult to overstate the utter beauty of these books. They are high art; fantasy grappling with ideas and human concerns like death, love, beauty, pain, gender, race, and what it means to be human.
A Song of Ice & Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin This is a series of (currently) four rather long volumes (it will eventually be six volumes) by one of fantasy’s best writers, George R.R. Martin.
The first book in the series is called A Game of Thrones and it is one of the grittiest, most realistic fantasy novels I have ever encountered.
Martin frustrates all expectations and conventions of the genre. Granted, he has dragons, and a medieval atmosphere complete with Coats of Arms, knights, armor, castles, and kings.
But there is no buffer in Martin’s world, no sanitizing layer of narrative between the events and the reader. It is medievally, unflinchingly brutal in it portrayal of violence and callousness.
Martin addresses, like Tolkien, the corrupting influences of power. Yet there is very little “black and white” in Martin’s world. Characters follow their own internal desires and rarely react “conventionally”. Characters you have intensely hated early in the story, you find yourself rooting for later on, and then just as often hating once again. This is the complex web of epic, medieval fantasy at its best. Major characters die, and new, lesser known characters step forward to take their place.
It is a very long narrative of interlaced story, given from the points-of-view of several major characters. There is a cast of literally thousands of characters, but it takes surprisingly little to keep the tale ordered in your mind.
This is a highly suggested series of novels, from one of the most talented writers in the fantasy genre (or any genre, for that matter).
Also highly recommended is Martin’s unrelated novel Fevre Dream an antebellum-era vampire novel of blood and steamboats set on the Mississippi River. One reviewer said it will “delight fans of both Stephen King and Mark Twain” and indeed it contains elements of both.
The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip Patricia McKillip has been one of the best (and most underrated) fantasy authors for many years. The Riddle-Master Trilogy of books were some of the first books she published, and they remain among the best "high" fantasy stories in the genre.
They tell the story of Morgon of Hed, who sets forth from his rural home to claim the young wife he won in a riddling contest. The stories are rife with themes from folklore and mythology, subjects that McKillip always works skillfully into her tales.
This is not to say that any of her later books lack the beauty & magic of the Riddle-Master books. They don't, and seeing Patricia McKillip's name on the cover all but guarantees a fabulous book. She is a phenomenal writer whose prose sparkles with all the enchantment and mystery of faerie. I don't know of another novelist in the fantasy genre that has McKillip's skill with evoking the "mood" of fantasy.
A must read.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad WilliamsTad Williams’ epic trilogy is one of the most in-depth and well-written epic fantasy stories since Tolkien.
Beginning with The Dragonbone Chair, Williams’ novels reflect Tolkien’s in many ways. His “Sithi” are a fair, immortal race no doubt modeled after the Elven race of Tolkien (though, to be fair, this idea is not entirely original to Tolkien either), and his influences (like Tolkien’s) are undoubtedly Northern (Norse & Anglo-Saxon) in origin.
That said, his characters are interesting, and he captures the heroic spirit of his created world extremely well.
Williams is perhaps one of the best writers out there at capturing the mystical beauty of a created world. His narrative succeeds on many levels, and is one of the few fantasy novels I suggest to everyone.
Those who enjoy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn should also check out Williams’ other novels, Tailchaser’s Song and The War of the Flowers.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke This large fantistorical (I’m sure that’s a word) is the type of novel that Tolkien himself would have approved of.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in early 19th century England, during the Napoleonic wars, but Clarke has created an entirely new history for England…one that includes magic and intertwines the history of England with that of Faerie.
The book essentially introduces the two title characters - one a passionate eccentric, the other a dry scholarly stick of a man - that bring magic back to England after several centuries of decline.
And what magic it is! Clarke plays with the idea wonderfully. Cities and roads are rearranged; statues and stones come to life and tell all they've seen; the recently deceased are returned to life.
The prose is wonderfully anachronistic, and reads as much like Dickens or Austen as anything modern. One almost expects to stumble upon Smith of Wootton Major within the pages of this book. Beautifully evoked and written, this is one novel that no one should miss.
The Wheel of Time series by Robert JordanOkay, so this novel (or series of novels) is insanely long. It is currently twelve books (it will be finished with the fourteenth), and each volume reaches at least 700 pages. Overwhelming to the beginner, no doubt.
Add to this fact that the author, Robert Jordan, passed away in 2006 with the series still incomplete, and this sounds like something that I should be warning readers to stay away from. Quite to the contrary.
Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson was chosen by the Jordan estate to complete the series, and he has done an admirable job thus far in performing that task. The one completed novel by Sanderson stands comparison to the rest of the books very well and leaves little doubt in his abilities to complete the massive epic to everyone's satisfaction.
The Wheel of Time is one of the most engrossing, entertaining fantasy novels anywhere. Many reviewers (and fans) have said that Jordan has drug his feet and prolonged the narrative far longer than necessary. I would agree, in some respects, that Jordan could have tied this story up neatly in less than twelve books, and sometime he goes an entire 500-600 pages without making significant progress.
That said, these novels are so engaging, and their characters so much like old friends, that I have never wanted the story to end.
The ending of the novel seems almost like a secondary goal…while the reader falls headfirst into the world that Jordan has created.
I won’t argue with readers that complain of the author’s lingering pace, but I will argue for the merits of one of the most entertaining and absorbing pieces of fantasy available.
Beneath the surface, Jordan also portrays a fascinating study of the language of power, and the role body language plays in our perceptions. Communication takes place at the non-verbal level at least as often as on the verbal level.
A Song For Arbonne by Guy Gavriel KayA Song for Arbonne is my personal favorite of Kay's many wonderful books. It is set, like many of his novels, in a world very similar (and yet at times quite different) to medieval Europe.
This novel is set mostly in Arbonne, a country of troubadours and courtly love (based on Provencal, in modern-day southern France), a country where the goddess Rian is worshipped alongside the god Corannos and where women hold positions of power and influence.
But Arbonne is crumbling from within due to a twenty-year-old blood feud between its two greatest noblemen.
Into this world comes Blaise, a warrior from the patriarchal society of Gorhault, Arbonne's great foe to the north. Blaise has a shadowed past of his own that he is attempting to escape.
Meanwhile, to the north, in Gorhault, the stormclouds of war are gathering.
Kay's novels are always well-researched and full of fascinating characters, and A Song for Arbonne doesn't disappoint.
Also suggested by Kay - Tigana & The Last Light of the Sun
The Little Country by Charles De Lint This novel differs entirely from the previously listed fantasy novels in that it is not epic fantasy, nor does it take place in an alternate world.
The Little Country is primarily set in modern-day Cornwall, and concerns the drama brought about by the protagonists finding of a “magic” book.
De Lint is a masterful novelist who commonly writes “Urban Fantasy”, a genre that does not generally interest me. I enjoy the rural, primitive settings of conventional fantasy.
The Little Country has very little of this “urban” aspect, however, and portrays instead the magic of music and rural landscapes.
His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Pullman’s trilogy (beginning with The Golden Compass), is touted as children’s literature, though it offers varying levels of depth to mature readers.
This is a seriously deep and beautifully told story by an amazing storyteller. The story of Lyra moves between several different worlds, and encompasses a broad range of themes.
This is one of those rare stories that can offer enormous entertainment at face value while inviting the reader to explore further into the (rather controversial) ideas and values it represents. Highly recommended for all ages.
The Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling Okay, I’m sure these novels don’t need my recommendation for anyone to read them. It’s cliché, and yes, I too am entirely sick of mega-commercial “Potter-mania”.
However, there is a damn good reason why these books are so popular…they are immaculately plotted, fast-paced, easy to read, fascinating, and incredibly addicting.
I don’t think I need to say much more on them. Ignore the hype, but try them anyway.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman A fantasy novel set in modern day America, American Gods traces the fates of the surviving Gods brought across the sea by those who settled America.
This is another fascinating mix of mythology and fantasy that Tolkien may have enjoyed.
Gaiman is one of the best and most imaginative writers of fantasy fiction today, and American Gods is one of his very best novels.
Other highly recommended books by Neil Gaiman - Stardust and Neverwhere.
Do You Have A Great Fantasy Book (or Series) To Share?
The reviews above are only the tip of the iceberg in the fantasy genre, and represent only my thoughts and opinions.
Do you know of other great fantasy novels not listed on this page? Write your own reviews below and submit them to this website. I will publish the best reviews on the site (giving you full credit, of course).
What Other Visitors Have Said
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