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So, you want to read fantasy.
You couldn’t have picked a better genre to explore. The biggest strength of the fantasy genre is its creativity — it requires its authors to imagine entirely fabricated worlds, species, magic systems, and more. Here we offer a list that includes classic high fantasy pieces, the most beloved young adult (YA) fantasy picks, and a selection of fantasy subgenres. This list is meant to reflect both iconic fantasy titles and newer novels that epitomize fantasy’s subgenres. We hope that it offers a comprehensive introduction to the genre and is a testament to its great flexibility, diversity, and ingenuity.
When one thinks of high fantasy, these titles come to mind. Hailing from the shelves of classic authors, these beloved stories are the backbone of fantasy literature. Some staples of the genre include complex worldbuilding in a secondary fantasy world, elaborate magic systems and cultures, a large cast of characters, and novels of considerable length that tell an epic saga. If you’re looking for a classic story that anyone from the most die-hard fantasy buff to beginner fantasy readers can appreciate, pick up these books!
“The Fellowship of the Ring” by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien is, without a doubt, the father of high fantasy as we know it today.
The first installment of his “The Lord of the Rings” series, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” is one of the best-selling novels of all time, with over 150 million copies sold. Tolkien’s magical world, Middle-Earth, epitomizes high fantasy’s focus on creating entirely fictionalized, or “secondary,” worlds. His work also represents fantasy authors’ tendency to build upon older magical traditions, like Old English literature and Germanic myth. One cannot speak about fantasy today without recognizing Tolkien’s immense impact on the genre and the inspiration that he provided for almost all of the authors on this list.
“The Eye of the World” by Robert Jordan
Robert Jordan is another one of the fantasy greats who defined the genre with his epic series, “The Wheel of Time.” Beginning with “The Eye of the World,” this iconic fantasy series sprawls across 14 novels, telling an epic that spans millennia. The narrative follows several protagonists who set off on a journey with a magical sorceress after their village is attacked, set against a grand historical backdrop and fascinating magic system. Jordan’s influences include Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and ideas of cyclical time, duality, and balance from Asian philosophy. Jordan tragically passed away before completing the series, so the final books were written, based on his extensive notes, by Brandon Sanderson. The series’ length can be daunting, but nonetheless, “The Wheel of Time” is an excellent introduction to get a sense of the classic fantasy genre.
“The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson’s novels are remarkable for their grandiose worldbuilding and complex magic systems balanced with character-driven storylines. Most of his books are set in the Cosmere, an overarching universe spanning different historical eras. While some may argue that “Mistborn” is a better introduction to Sanderson’s multi-layered universe, “The Way of Kings” offers a comprehensive look at the possibilities of high fantasy. Sometimes dense, sometimes impossible to put down, “The Way of Kings” is representative of modern high fantasy, which prioritizes imaginative elements and long page counts.
“A Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin
“A Song of Ice and Fire,” and its first installment “A Game of Thrones,” by George R. R. Martin is a larger-than-life epic fantasy series. Popularized by the legendary HBO adaptation and featuring a cast of characters so large that the books have multiple appendices, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is an expansive saga that follows the struggle for power across the continent of Westeros. War and political intrigue take center stage, but magic lurks as otherworldly forces from the North threaten to throw Westeros into an everlasting winter. Despite its fantastical elements, the series captures a realistic sense of medieval times and human nature. Readers be warned that Martin’s epic series has grown to incredible complexity — so much so that the author has not yet concluded the saga despite its 27-year run. However, “A Game of Thrones” is an excellent introduction for those seeking their first foray into adult fantasy.
Young adult fantasy, or YA fantasy, is how many diehard fantasy fans were introduced to the wider genre. YA incorporates the same imaginative energy of high fantasy but is designed for younger readers, often features more youthful protagonists, and is typically less explicit. While marketed toward teenagers, YA fantasy can, and should, be enjoyed by readers of any age.
“Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas
To understand the blueprint of YA fantasy, one must always start with Maas. Thanks to BookTok, Sarah J. Maas is now a household name due to her popular romantic fantasy series “A Court of Thorns and Roses.” But Maas’s true masterpiece is her debut novel, “Throne of Glass,” and its ensuing seven-part series. “Throne of Glass” is set in a fictionalized world that includes humans, Fae, and mythical beasts. The first installation follows Celaena, an assassin asked to turn her bloody talents toward the protection of her land’s king. While adhering to the world-building traditions of most high fantasy novels, Maas’s snappy writing style and penchant for romance keep her series engaging for first-time fantasy readers.
“Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo
“Six of Crows” is an utter gem among the many YA fantasy titles that line shelves today. Set amid the Amsterdam-inspired mercantile island of Ketterdam, the “Six of Crows” duology follows a band of ragtag miscreants who are challenged to pull off a heist that could rock nations — and rake in a fat sum of money. Equal parts fantasy and thriller, “Six of Crows” is a compelling tale with morally gray characters who each have their own ambiguous motivations and backstories. Bardugo’s writing balances tight humor, immersive worldbuilding, memorable characters, and emotional buildup and payoff. “Six of Crows” has spawned a thriving fandom and even a Netflix show, “Shadow and Bone.”
“The Chronicles of Narnia” by C. S. Lewis
One cannot think of children’s fantasy without mentioning “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Charming and wildly imaginative, this series explores the fantastical land of Narnia where magic, mythical creatures, and talking animals abound through the eyes of children who stumble upon the world. Many may have heard of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the first to be published in this classic series from English children’s literature. The story features four children exploring Narnia and defeating the evil White Witch with the aid of the talking lion Aslan. However, other books in the series such as “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” should not be overlooked. The novels are also rife with Christian religious allegory and references to folklore, literature, and myths, making it a compelling read for children and adults alike.
“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir
“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir is an action-packed page-turner that follows a girl named Laia who becomes a spy and becomes entangled with Elias, a soldier who is beginning to doubt the empire’s rule. The story is set in a complex world based on the Roman Empire and features multifaceted characters, a satisfying slow-burn romance, and memorable antagonists. The magic system is also unique, taking inspiration from Muslim mythology and folktales from South Asia and the Middle East. Tahir was motivated to write the novel after covering news stories for “The Washington Post” around India and Pakistan about women fighting against military regimes. “An Ember in the Ashes” series is an excellent read that tackles deeper themes of imperialism and persecution balanced with fantastical elements and a beautiful romance.
“Eragon” by Christopher Paolini
Readers who want Tolkien-esque high fantasy at a more accessible level will find their perfect middle ground with “Eragon,” the first novel in “The Inheritance Cycle” by Christopher Paolini. Written when Paolini was only fifteen years old, “Eragon” tells the story of a boy who discovers a dragon egg and goes on an adventure to become a Dragon Rider and defeat an evil king. “Eragon” features an alternate continent with magical creatures, intricate histories and complex magic systems, and loveable characters who evolve as the story progresses.
Fantasy is, of course, a wide-ranging genre with multiple facets. Here, we have collected a few novels that we believe represent some of the most notable subgenres of fantasy, including contemporary, epic, dark, and science fantasy. These pieces represent the flexibility of the genre and its ability to transport readers to a variety of incredible worlds with completely different tones.
Contemporary Fantasy: “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman started his career in the realm of comics, but after publishing a number of novels, he has become a popular name in fantasy as well. “American Gods” is Gaiman’s magnum opus, delving into the mystical side of Americana. It introduces readers to contemporary fantasy, which combines magic with the real-life setting of Earth. “American Gods” has many realistic crime-drama aspects while still balancing its core mythical elements. Other Gaiman fantasy titles of interest may include “Good Omens” (a comic fantasy co-written with Terry Prachett) or “The Graveyard Book” (a children’s fantasy).
Epic Fantasy: “The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon
High and epic fantasy are terms often used interchangeably, since they almost always tend to overlap. Technically, high fantasy refers to works set in a world completely separate from Earth (with magic almost always involved), while epic fantasy refers to works with grand characters, narratives, or themes. “The Priory of the Orange Tree,” released by Samantha Shannon in 2019, is both a high and epic fantasy, but represents the epic genre due to its political intrigue, complex narrative, and focus on high-ranking figures. The book also represents the growth of inclusion in fantasy, with a strong emphasis on diverse characters and sapphic relationships. Its length of over 8oo pages is not for the faint of heart, but it will prepare readers to tackle fantasy epics of any length.
Dark Fantasy: “Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff
Horror and violence can appear in almost any fantasy book, but the dark fantasy subgenre is defined by its relation to these themes. “Nevernight” is an exceptional introduction to the subgenre with its grim but fascinating worldbuilding and morally gray heroine. The trilogy follows Mia, a young girl who can control shadows, as she works to avenge her father’s death. With more blood than a Stephen King novel, “Nevernight” is still sure to inspire wonder in its readers.
Science Fantasy: “Fledgling” by Octavia Butler
It may seem strange to combine fantasy with the technologically-driven science fiction genre. Yet the science fantasy subgenre produces some of the most imaginative work in the fantasy genre by combining the speculative aspects of science fiction with the mystical parts of fantasy. “Fledgling” dives into a reality in which vampires occupy our world, tracking the story of a young vampire who has lost her memory and must reevaluate the ethics of vampirism. Combining the supernatural with technology, “Fledgling” demonstrates how science fiction and fantasy can play to each other’s strengths.
Genre-Defying Fantasy: “This is How You Lose the Time War” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Out of all the books on this list, “This is How You Lose the Time War” is certainly the least conventional. Set in a world ruled by time travel, the novella follows two agents, Red and Blue, as they weave the strands of time in an attempt to make their futures — a mechanical technoscape or an environmental utopia, respectively — a reality. This book is a short read, yet every page is packed with lyricism and punch, written as a series of meaningful vignettes. A genre-defying story that straddles science fiction, fantasy, and sapphic romance, the fantastical elements of this story shine through its large and imaginative scope despite the book’s short length. It also reflects fantasy’s growing intersectionality as writers innovate in the modern age.
We hope that these picks will give you a window into the wonderful world of fantasy. To quote George R. R. Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives.” In fantasy, this sentiment is especially true. The fantasy genre gives readers a rich and imaginative opportunity to be transported into another world. While fantasy can be a genre for escapism, these stories often resonate deeply with readers through their allusions to history and reflections on the human experience. Whether you want to get a sense for the genre or are a seasoned fantasy reader looking for something new, we hope this list will serve as a comprehensive overview of the fantasy genre.
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