In a world where our daily grind can feel so tiresome and the constant flood of news can feel grim, I can think of no book genre I, and all of us, need more than fantasy.
Fantasy provides us with an escape from our reality, transporting us into new worlds filled with magic, wonder, color, marvels, and adventure. And yet, I find it provides a fascinating way to examine “real-life” issues and problems, even offer solutions and provide hope.
In case you haven’t guessed it, I’m a die-hard fantasy reader. I have been ever since I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia sitting on my school bookshelf. I binged that series in three days and just kept devouring whatever I could get my hands on.
I fell so deeply in love with fantasy that I became a fantasy author myself. Now, with more than 40 novels under my belt, I continue to explore mystical and marvelous worlds every day.
As a long-time reader, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the “Best Fantasy Books of All Time” so you, too, can dive deep into my favorite genre and experience the wonder and adventure for yourself.
Read over my list of the 20 Best Fantasy Books of All Time and see if you can find a new read or an old, much-loved favorite!
I’ve also put together a list of the best fantasy book series of all time.
(Note: If you have suggestions about or thoughts on my list, feel free to contact me at my website. If I missed a book you think deserves to be ranked among “the best”, I want to hear about it!)
Any fantasy book list writer that doesn’t feature Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings series is either drunk, wrong, or both. Lord of the Rings wasn’t the first fantasy series ever, but it holds up as one of the greatest of all time.
Choosing a single book from the series to highlight as the “best” is pretty near impossible. The Two Towers has that spectacular Battle for Helm’s Deep, plus the destruction of Isengard and the end of Saruman’s power.
But I’m giving the (slight) edge to The Return of the King because it wraps up the series in truly epic style, bringing the Third Age to an end and giving us all those happy moments we know and love (the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen, the reunion between Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, the end of Sauron, and the salvation of the Shire).
Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives #1) introduced us to a spectacular new fantasy series, a world where “shards” bestow magical power (in the form of marvelous swords and suits of armor) and armies battle it out on The Shattered Plains.
Really, the first book has it all: amazing characters, a truly complex world, a well-crafted magical system, and a plot that promises to build to epic proportions over the 10 planned books.
Well, Words of Radiance did what the first book did, only better. With the world already built, it had more room to focus on the characters—Dalinar, Kaladin, Adolin and Renarin, Shallan, and others—and really let them develop and grow more complex than they already were.
Later books in the series have felt a bit more “dense” in terms of magic and world-building, but Words of Radiance gave us some epic fantasy moments that will never be forgotten.
People who read The Lies of Locke Lamora fall into two camps: those who agree with me that it’s one of the greatest fantasy books of all times, and those who are wrong (heh).
There is so much that makes it a truly special book: the clever-tongued titular character and his loyal best-bud, Jean Tannen; the grim and gritty yet somehow grand and epic world, the fantasy “heist” story unlike anything written before or since, and the neck-snapping plot twists and reveals.
There will be those who argue that books from either The First Law or Age of Madness series deserve the title of Abercrombie’s best, but I’ll stand by my declaration that The Heroes is his magnus opus.
What The Heroes does is exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from a book with this particular title: it shows that there are no heroes in war, that those considered “heroes” are either deluded or lying. Now that’s true grimdark!
Plus, The Heroes features a battle scene unlike anything ever featured before (but which he’s done in a few books since). Throughout the one enormous battle that takes place across a sprawling battleground, we get to see inside the heads of warriors and soldiers on both sides, right up until they die and we “hop” into the heads of whoever killed them.
It’s a masterful and unique means of telling a story from as many angles as possible to get a truly complete look at what battle is really like for those who fight it.
The entire Red Rising series is spectacular, with its fascinating world-building, its compelling characters (the protagonist Darrow of Lykos, chief among them), and its immense, universe-spanning struggle for political and cultural dominance.
Morning Star is the third book in the first Red Rising trilogy, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the most epic, gut-wrenching, and spellbinding conclusions of any fantasy trilogy to be written in the last decade.
On the heels of the jaw-dropping plot twist in Book 2 (Golden Son), it starts off with a bang and just keeps barreling forward at blinding speeds until you’re left breathless and absolutely astounded at the end.
Choosing just one David Gemmell book is nearly impossible. With so many stories of both the badass assassin Waylander and the mighty Druss, there are just too many good ones.
So, I suppose, I’ll have to settle for the story that started it all: Legend, the tale of the once-mighty Druss the Legend, now grown old but still summoning the courage to stand and fight against the hordes of the invading Drenai.
It’s a masterpiece of courage in the face of impossible odds, of heroism that knows no age, and proof that when good men stand up in the face of evil and injustice, they can change the world for the better.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a name most fantasy readers will agree deserves to be on this list, though which book of his is a subject of much debate.
I chose The Lions of al-Rassan because I love a good story about noble soldiers and mighty warriors.
In Lions, cavalry commander Rodrigo Belmonte (inspired by El Cid) and the warrior-poet-assassin-scholar Ammar ibn Khairan (inspired by Muhammad ibn Ammar) join together to fight their way through a Moorish Spain-inspired landscape.
These two men bring about great change in the kingdoms they encounter, and yet, at the core of the story is the respect and love that develops between them in their roles as commanders and mighty fighters.
The characters are wonderful to read, but often, I found myself stopping to pay particular attention to some beautifully poetic bit of prose for which Guy Gavriel Kay is so well known. Every sentence and paragraph is a work of art, and tells a story that will forever leave an imprint on your mind and heart.
The story of Paksenarrion, also called “The Sheepherder’s Daughter” is one of the first series to place a woman in the titular role of champion. Not just a clever musician or sorceress or any other role considered “traditional” for women in fantasy, but Paks dons the armor of a knight, takes up a sword, and rides off to battle.
She becomes a paladin, righteous warrior driven by a holy cause, and determined to place the rightful king of her realm on the throne.
Her story is truly marvelous and did a great deal to pave the way for strong female protagonists in modern fantasy. And I’m lucky enough that Baen released The Deed of Paksenarrion as an omnibus collection of her original trilogy so I don’t have to choose just one of her books to include on this list.
The Fires of Heaven is Robert Jordan at his finest. Before the “meandering” books in the middle of the series, this particular Wheel of Time book focuses on Rand’s battle to gain control of the Aiel warriors, the schism in the White Tower, Egwene’s harsh yet wonderfully entertaining studies under the Aiel Wise Ones, and Mat’s use of his newly acquired powers.
It’s one of the first times we get to see the magical “balefire” in use and learn of its consequences. The entire book leads to one of the most epic conclusions of the entire series, and a final plot twist that has game-changing consequences for the entire series.
Good Omens is a collaboration between two of the greatest modern storytellers, and the result is something truly unique and special.
While so many of the other books on my list are grand epics, Good Omens zooms in to tell a tale of just a few special people and the role they play in averting the Biblical end of the world.
Terry Pratchett’s signature off-beat humor is used to masterful effect throughout, and is accompanied by Neil Gaiman’s amazing, often esoteric creativity.
It’s a story that is never predictable, never boring, always hilarious, and both heartfelt and sincere. Truly one of the greatest standalone fantasy books ever written.
There are so many amazing stories of Conan the Barbarian that it’s impossible to pick just one (or even a few). But given that I have no choice, I’ve settled on the very first stories Robert E. Howard ever penned, all of which are collected in The Coming of Conan.
This short story collection features some of the finest Conan (and Kull) works ever written, including The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, The God in the Bowl, and The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.
Through all of the stories in this collection, we have a fascinating look at various eras and regions of the Hyborian world, and, of course, get to enjoy Conan kicking ass and being clever all along the way.
Picking a favorite Discworld book is like picking a favorite child: nearly impossible and frequently changes depending on my mood. But the more I think back to the time I spent reading Terry Pratchett’s books—from his Rincewind books to the Tiffany Aching series to his Moist von Lipwing romps to the City Guard adventures—the more I’m certain that THUD! is the best of the best.
THUD! does fantasy right: the colorful and hilarious City Guard, led by the redoubtable Commander Sam Vimes, has to investigate a murder (mystery!) that sparks a surprisingly complex exploration of racism, the importance of disparate cultures, and, in true Pratchett style, the unshakeable love of a father for his son.
The ending is absolutely gut-wrenching in all the right ways, and the book gives us some of the most amusing twists and turns of any Discworld book. And if you haven’t yet read Where is My Cow?, do yourself a favor and seek it out.
Orconomics earns its place on my list for doing something no other book has managed to do: make me laugh so hard I had to pull over on the side of the road until I recovered (audiobook, of course).
Orconomics is a modern take on the classic D&D party-style fantasy adventure. A team of misfits bands together to accomplish a mission that appears “ordinary” at first, but quickly spirals to something far more epic and improbable than any of them could predict.
It’s a truly comforting fantasy read with all the tropes you’d want in a novel of this sort, and yet it remains surprising and engaging on every single page.
(Note: Honorable mention goes to Book 2 in the series, Son of a Liche for some VERY clever writing.)
I’m going to “cheat” a little again and choose this omnibus rather than trying to pick a single Icewind Dale novel. Because in truth, every novel of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden has something unique and marvelous to offer.
What I loved about the three books included in this collection is that it explores Drizzt’s birth and upbringing in the Underdark, among the cruel dark elves of Menzoberranzan. It does a masterful job of painting this race with a truly villainous brush, then showing the small things that led our titular hero to follow the path of light and goodness.
Between the epic fight scenes with drow warriors as skilled and cunning as he is, the fascinating look into drow culture and religions, the horrifying monsters, and his final emergence into the World Above, it’s some of the best writing of all the Forgotten Realms books.
Almost all the Vlad Taltos novels by Steven Brust are amazing, but none of them can quite hold a candle to Jhereg. For it’s in the pages of Jhereg that we learn how the mobster-assassin Vlad comes to be in possession of his familiar and closest friend, the (dragon-like) jhereg Loiosh.
The rest of Vlad’s series lean heavily on the relationship between the two, so Jhereg’s exploration of how their partnership and friendship are formed is a crucial foundation that makes the rest of the series just that much better.
Paladin of Souls steers clear of the “young hero finding their destiny” trope, and instead follows a middle-aged woman (retired and mad queen Ista) who sets off to explore the world she once ruled.
No servants, no power, no wealth, no prospects for her future, just a woman alone and a desire to experience something new and great.
The story is much smaller in scale than The Curse of Chalion (the author’s other seminal work), but it still ends up becoming a truly marvelous epic that dives into theology, religion, and belief.
Stephen King’s foray into fantasy produced a truly unforgettable (and often mind-bending) series.
The Gunslinger is the book that welcomed us into his world, which blends a Western flair with both fantasy and a post-apocalyptic science fiction bent.
No one who’s read Roland Deschain’s tale will argue that he is not one of the most fascinating fantasy characters of all time.
What began as a series of short novels (and still sometimes reads as such) is a truly amazing introduction to the world of the Dark Tower and Roland’s hunt for “the man in black”.
I fell in love with the Greatcoats series: an almost magical mix of swashbuckling daring-do, courage in the face of impossible odds, mystical “saints” that come to life just to kill you, and an endless pursuit of justice in a world where “might is right” is the rule of the day.
Every one of the books is truly amazing, but I’ve got a special place in my dark, twisted heart for the dark, twisted book that is Tyrant’s Throne.
Falcio, Brasti, and Kest have faced every enemy conceivable, yet somehow there is a new threat so impossible to defeat that even they will be pushed to their limits—and beyond.
The climax of the book—and the series—is spectacularly epic, and the ending is heartwarming and utterly satisfying while still maintaining the “dark” tone of the other books.
If you’ve read this book, you know exactly which plot twist caught me entirely by surprise and had me disbelieving right up until the last page.
Kings of the Wyld took everything that we loved around rock bands and monster-hunting, and fused them together in truly spectacular fashion. The world of The Band is rife with creatures of all shapes and sizes, and equally diverse are the bands of mercenaries who hunt them down.
Bloody Rose took everything that made Kings of the Wyld special and turned it up a notch.
Where the first book focused on aging and retired mercenaries, Bloody Rose followed the next generation, dealing with the sorts of trauma so common among younger adults.
Though it does re-tread some familiar ground from the first book, it quickly establishes itself as something different and special. Ultimately, it delivers a far more emotionally satisfying arc than Kings of the Wyld while still being a great deal of fun along the way.
I debated long and hard as to which Malazan book to include. Deadhouse Gates has the gut-wrenching “Chain of Dogs” (if you know, you know). Memories of Ice has some huge Bridgeburners moments. Really, every book in the series is spectacular.
But I chose The Crippled God, the tenth and final book in the series, because it delivered one of the most astounding and surprising plot revelations I’ve encountered in any work of fiction. It’s also a beautifully epic climax to the sprawling journey that all the characters have gone on, and wraps up the series in breathtaking style.
Earthsea is one of the best-loved fantasy series of all times, and of all its books, I loved The Tombs of Atuan the most. It’s beautifully easy to read, and the characters (Tenar and Ged) are just so much fun to follow along on their journey together.
It’s amazing to see Tenar fight against everything she’s taught, and though I’m not the biggest fan of “coming-of-age stories”, this one is absolutely done right.
At its core, it’s a story of one young woman’s struggle to find her place in society—or, better said, to carve out a new place that she deserves.
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