The 60 Best Fantasy Books of All Time
Blog – Posted on Saturday, May 30
Whether you’ve sat around waiting for your Hogwarts letter or looked for Narnia in the back of a closet, you’ve probably dreamt of stepping into your favorite fantasy books and leaving the real world behind. But the genre isn’t all witches, wardrobes, and whimsy! Beyond offering temporary escape from the pressures of daily life, the best fantasy books help us confront them.
Stories of the otherworldly allow readers to make sense of this world, refracting change, wickedness, and heartache through a magical lens so we can see them all more clearly — and face them head-on. A good fantasy book illuminates the mind with childlike wonder, but also lingers in our memories because of its connection to real life.
In other words, great fantasy books show us the world in another guise, yet each is also a universe unto itself. We hope you enjoy exploring them in this list of the best fantasy books of all time!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of amazing fantasy books on hand, you can also take our 1-minute quiz below to narrow it down quickly and get a personalized fantasy series recommendation
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
Even if you’re not a math geek, you’re probably familiar with the algebraist Charles Dodgson — you just know him his much more famous alter-ego, Lewis Carroll. Unlike Dodgson, Carroll wrote stories that defied logic, twisting it into dreamlike, fantastical shapes: a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a flamingo-filled croquet-ground, a perpetually tardy White Rabbit. The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has delighted adults and children alike since it was published over a century and a half ago — and today is recognized as a momentous early foray into the fantasy genre as a whole.
2. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924)
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a fairy tale with deep, dark roots — as well as a love story rendered with piercing emotional honesty. It’s also an unlikely immigration novel, about an elfin princess’s attempts to deal with her fractured sense of self as she adjusts to the homeland of her beloved human husband. Another remarkably early entry into the fantasy genre, this book prompted Arthur C. Clarke to name Dunsany as one of the greatest writers of his century, and World Fantasy Award winner Jane Yolen to call him “the great grandfather of us all.”
3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
It might be a childhood favorite, but The Hobbit gives adult fantasy readers one of the genre’s most relatable protagonists: a middle-aged homebody who just wants to chill. The iconic Bilbo Baggins speaks to all grownup introverts who like nothing more than a good meal and a cozy chair. But we all hope we’d find Bilbo-like reservoirs of heroism within us — yes, while a career as a Chosen One might be out of reach for us, we can all aspire to be Bilbo Baggins.
4. The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938)
We all know what happens after King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone; The Sword in the Stone takes a look at the before. Predictably, it’s much less glamorous. In this telling, the archetypical fantasy monarch was once just a boy called Wart — teased by his foster-brother Kay and subjected to a punishing round of lessons that would make any modern high-schooler wince in sympathy. Only Wart’s education doesn’t involve AP Calculus and JV Track… and his teacher, Merlyn, prefers to instruct by turning his students into animals instead of grilling them with the Socratic method.
5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
When the four Pevensie siblings leave bomb-ravaged London to wait out World War II in the countryside, they discover a portal to the magical land of Narnia behind a pile of fur coats. But their magical new vacation spot suffers from bad leadership: it’s governed by a witch whose only policy decisions are about ensuring eternal winter with no Christmas cheer. The Pevensies have to oust her — with the help of a talking lion! If you’re a fantasy buff, you’ll already know that the lion is a Christological stand-in, and that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a meditation on redemption, sacrifice, and faith. But you don’t need to worship anything to want to drop in on Narnia for an hour or two.
6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966)
Like the first five books on this list, The Master and Margarita is often considered one of the 20th century’s finest novels. Unlike them, it’s definitely not for kids. Written at the height of Stalinist repression, it braids together two narrative strands: one a psychologically subtle take on the death of Christ, the other a devilish satire on Soviet intellectual life. And where does the mysterious Muscovian author, known only as the Master, fall in all of this? In reality, fearful of political repression, Mikhail Bulgakov fed his first attempt at this story to the flames; fortunately for Russophiles and demonologists everywhere, he gave it another try.
7. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
With its shimmering, lilac-scented prose, The Last Unicorn treads the line between novel and poetry — reading with the ease of a bedtime story and the depth of an allegory. In this gossamer world, we meet an immortal Unicorn, who’s grieved to learn from a hunting party that she might be the last of her kind. Upon leaving her enchanted forest to investigate their claims, she finds that humans perceive her as an ordinary white horse. The Unicorn’s wanderings put her in the company of ringmasters and harpies, magicians and kings: some who want to harm her, and some who do their best to help.
8. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
On a dense cluster of islands, inhabited by dragons and raised out of the water by a god, master fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin spins out elegant, character-driven tales, enriched by her knowledge of world mythology. Her first installment in the Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is a bildungsroman of the old school, albeit enlivened with wizardry: a magical coming-of-age that treats hefty themes like death, the environment, and cosmic balance — all with Le Guin’s characteristically deft touch.
9. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1968)
The Lord of the Rings has made its mark on high fantasy’s DNA more than any other work — and this is the volume that started it off. Like The Hobbit, its prequel of sorts, The Fellowship of the Ring is a story that turns on ordinary acts of courage. Running as a counterpoint alongside the thundering motifs of kingly destiny and good-versus-evil, we see the innocent bravery of country gentlemen and the loyalty of gardeners. These, the book argues, are the real engines of historical change. And in today’s fantasy landscape overshadowed by the grimdark, returning to Tolkien’s brand of clear-eyed hope can be a real breath of fresh air.
10. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)
If you don’t think a rabbit warren could be reasonably described as epic fantasy, clearly you’ve never read Watership Down. This stirring adventure story has it all: warriors and visions, harrowing escapes and heartbreaking deaths — its stars just happen to be unusually soft of fur and long of ear. Indeed, when human encroachment on their environment threatens their way of life, the rabbits react the way any self-respecting group of noble warriors would: by going on a quest. Despite its adorable premise, Richard Adams’ novel draws on a rich wellspring of literary precedents, and reads like Beowulf by way of Beatrix Potter.
11. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
A perennial favorite of both elementary schoolers and their teachers, The Dark is Rising renders the cosmic conflict between Light and Dark in lively style, at a scale accessible to young readers. It centers on British schoolboy Will Stanton, who discovers, on his eleventh birthday, that he’s actually an immortal Light warrior known as an Old One — bound to play out an eternal struggle against the forces of the Dark. This story is perfectly contextualized by Susan Cooper’s vast mythological knowledge, drawing generously from the sea-scented myths of her native British Isles, especially the Arthurian legend.
12. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
Besides its iconic adaptation, Goldman’s novel is most famous for its delightfully complicated framework: the core story deals with a farm boy called Westley, a gentrywoman named Buttercup, and the many colorful — and hilarious — obstacles that impede their love. According to The Princess Bride‘s extensive (fictional) footnotes, this picaresque romance was drawn from Goldman’s favorite childhood tale, which his father had always read aloud. Years later, when he finally read it for himself, he found out that Goldman Sr. strayed pretty liberally from the text… but the heartwarming adventure story that resulted as all the better for it.
13. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip (1974)
With its elegant language and a thoughtfully rendered heroine, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has won the love of readers young and old (not to mention the 197 World Fantasy Award). The story centers on teenage orphan Sybel, whose only companions are the sentient, mythical creatures who share her mountain home — and with whom she cohabits happily. But one day, a stranger named Coren arrives, along with a newborn he claims to be the rightful heir to the kingdom of Eld. Together, the man and the baby conscript Sybel into single parenthood — and drag her quiet mountain refuge into a world of political turmoil.
14. A Midsummer Tempest by Poul Anderson (1974)
Poul Anderson is better known for his science fiction, but this slim, strange, and utterly engrossing book demonstrates his range as a storyteller. A Midsummer Tempest takes place in an alternate version of 17th century — one where everything Shakespeare wrote actually happened and fairies were very much real. Inventive as the premise sounds, this one’s really quite faithful as far as Shakespearean fanfic goes: all the noble characters speak in iambic pentameter, as if they were written by the Bard himself.
15. Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson (1977)
The first installment in the 10-book Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Lord Foul’s Bane starts off in a decidedly un-Tolkien-esque fashion: with a protagonist who’s American, a novelist, and newly recovered from leprosy, a disease to which he lost two fingers. And as far as his new neighbors are concerned, the titular Thomas, with his two missing fingers, is a dead ringer for their culture-hero, Berek Halfhand — a misunderstanding that kicks off this complicated and morally grey giant of the genre.
16. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (1977)
Terry Brooks’ 1977 fantasy takes place in a post-nuclear-holocaust Pacific Northwest, in which the surviving humans have diverged into five species: Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, and Elves. The plot centers on Shea Ohmsford, a half-elven boy destined to wield a legendary sword against a dreaded Warlock Lord. Thanks to this post-apocalyptic premise, The Sword of Shannara interweaves fantasy with science fiction; you might say it depicts fantasy as a result of science fiction, unimaginable violence producing a future that looks like an enchanted vision of the past.
17. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
Kindred has been described as a “neo-slave narrative using science fiction framework” — a designation that effectively encompasses the thematic complexity of the book. The author herself, however, called Kindred “a kind of grim fantasy.” Indeed, its time-traveling protagonist, a young black woman named Dana, finds herself flickering between 1976 Los Angeles and 1815 Maryland. In the antebellum South, she winds up in the company of her own ancestors — an enslaved woman named Alice and a slave-owner named Rufus. Butler’s spare prose and mastery of psychological detail render the human cost of slavery with devastating clarity.
18. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (1979)
Like fellow multimedia phenomenon The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story uses a framework narrative to reflect on the power of, well, stories. The title refers to a book within the book: an antique volume unearthed by a boy called Bastian, an outsider at odds with schoolyard bullies and a distant father. As he reads — with us peering over his shoulder — Bastian is literally pulled into the story of Fantastica, a magical realm ruled by an immortal Childlike Empress. But the empress is dying, and without her power, Fantastica and all its people will disappear. It’s up to reader-turned-protagonist Bastian to save her.
19. Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
Little, Big is the perfect fantasy novel for people who don’t like fantasy. It reads like a prestigious generational saga, the kind of thing you’d find in English dissertations and on Booker Prize shortlists — just with a few fairies thrown into the mix. No wonder literary critic Harold Bloom, notorious for thumbing his nose at the likes of Harry Potter, praised it as a “neglected masterpiece.” At its center is the Drinkwater family, whose architect patriarch built their sprawling family estate in the hazy borderlands between the Faerie world and New York — which invites a great deal of complexity into their lives.
20. The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)
Stephen King is best known for infiltrating our nightmares with stalkers and murderous clowns. But The Gunslinger proves he’s got a gift for fantasy too — just don’t expect it to be light and fluffy! This novel pulls from a broad palette of influences, from cowboy westerns to the poetry of Robert Browning. The hero, Roland of Gilead, wields his gun in pursuit of a shadowy Man in Black who’s as dangerous as he is mysterious, with the power to spawn demons and raise the dead. Luckily or not, Roland’s not alone in his pursuit; he finds a traveling companion in Jake Chambers, a schoolboy from our world.
21. The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
Beloved fantasy writer Terry Pratchett made his name on tales from Discworld: a flat, circular planet, carried on the backs of four elephants balanced on a turtle. The 41-book series is a world unto its own — and it all began with The Color of Magic. Pratchett conceived the book as an antidote to the dark lord-y, paint-by-numbers fantasy that saturated the market at the time. The result is playful-yet-thoughtful story about an incompetent wizard and a ignorant tourist, whose adventure reads like a hilarious, sparkling travelogue.
22. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1983)
The most influential reimagining of the Arthurian legend since The Sword and the Stone, this sharply observed novel turns a feminist gaze on age-old tales. The Mists of Avalon centers on Arthur’s sorcerous half-sister Morgaine — better known as Morgan le Fay. A pagan priestess of Avalon blessed with clairvoyance, she’s troubled by the encroachment of Christian missionaries into the land she loves. Her sister-in-law Gwenhwyfar, meanwhile, emerges as her opposite: a devout and increasingly fanatical Christian. The ideological clash between them represents a far greater conflict, which the book unflinchingly depicts with all the dark tragedy of the original legend.
23. The Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (1984)
In an era when “fantasy” was synonymous with “fake medieval Europe,” The Bridge of Birds gave us something wonderfully original: a novel set — as its subtitle explains — in “an ancient China that never was.” We see this reimagining through the eyes of Number Ten Ox, a young man those village is ravaged by a mysterious plague that destroys silkworms and renders its children unconscious. He finds aid in Master Li Kao, a scholar with a drinking problem — and an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons. Together, Number Ten Ox and Master Li set off in search for a cure… only to be drawn into the heady world of imperial politics.
24. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984)
Celebrated for its dazzling prose, Mythago Wood is as densely enchanting as the English forest at its center: the ancient, otherworldly Ryhope Wood. Make your way between the old-growth trees and you’ll discover its inhabitants — myth-images, or mythagos, who have come out of ancestral memory and the story-seeped subconscious of the human mind. These might be monsters, centaurs, or several different versions of King Arthur. We explore Ryhope Wood with the Huxley brothers: World War II veteran Stephen regards the forest’s mysteries with measured skepticism, even as his brother Christian starts to lose himself within it.
25. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
Gorgeously brought to life by the Studio Ghibli anime of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle combines whimsy and poignancy in the tradition of the best children’s fiction — and doesn’t skimp on the allusions, moving breezily from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll. The story begins with 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who seems condemned to a lifetime of drudgery at the family hat shop. But when she’s aged several decades by a witch’s curse, a suddenly geriatric Sophie finds her way to a moving castle ruled by the eccentric wizard Howl, whose fire-demon servant holds the key to restoring her youth.
26. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (1990)
The end of the world has never been so funny. Equal parts biting and heartwarming, this charmingly English take on the Apocalypse combines the talents of golden-age Terry Pratchett and a young Neil Gaiman just discovering his novelistic voice. Take this dream team, add 50% more laughter than you think is possible, and you’ll have Good Omens. The book’s tween Anti-Christ, Adam, is refreshingly human and irresistibly likable. But its true stars are the fussy angel Aziraphale and sauntering demon Crowley, who steal the show with their unlikely bond — and their rogue efforts to put a pin in Armageddon.
27. The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)
Booker Prize winner The Famished Road makes an eloquent case for the place of magical creatures in the literary big leagues — and, in 1991, brought fantasy out of its traditional Anglo-American silo. Author Ben Okri moves fluidly between genres and influences: combining Yoruba oral traditions and Shakespearean allusions, mixing magical realism with Enlightenment philosophy. His very protagonist, Azaro, is a creature of the hybrid and the in-between: an abiku, or child spirit, he dwells between the realms of the living and the dead. But Okri manages to ground this unorthodox story with spare, elegant prose and devastating pathos.
28. Was by Geoff Ryman (1992)
This wildly inventive novel snagged a nomination for the World Fantasy Prize, but it’s about as far from sword and sorcery as you can get. A gritty remix of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Was uses L. Frank Baum’s sunny fable to examine the mundane tragedies of modern life, from child abuse to HIV. The main character of this tale is an orphan named Dorothy Gael, whose Uncle Henry abuses her with Aunty Em’s tacit consent. Her story runs alongside another one equally tragic — that of a gay actor weakened by AIDS. Close to dying, he rallies for a final pilgrimage to Kansas, drawn by memories of his childhood fascination with Oz.
29. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1994)
Haunting, sexy, and grim, Anne Rice’s gothic novel paved the way for Twilightmania — just don’t expect her vampires to sparkle. Interview with the Vampire centers on 200-year-old, world-weary Louis, who finds himself telling his life story to a cub reporter. As we listen in on their interview, we meet the colorful characters who shaped Louis’ long afterlife: his cruelly charismatic lover Lestat — the vampire who turned him — and their tragic “daughter” Claudia, whose eternally childish form can’t contain her sharp wit and grown-up rage.
30. Towing Jehovah by James Morrow (1994)
This oddball religious satire spins the famous Nietzsche quote into a fantastic story: God is dead, and now there’s another corpse in the Atlantic, looking like any old white guy — except two miles long. As a result, oil tanker captain Anthony Van Horne finds himself with an unexpected new gig, courtesy of the archangel Raphael. The heavenly hosts expect him to, well, tow Jehovah: transport His corpse to the Arctic to be embalmed by its icy waters. Morrow’s effervescent cleverness has drawn endless comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut, but Towing Jehovah’s theological snark evokes Good Omens, too.
31. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (1995)
A stunning example of high, epic fantasy played straight, Assassin’s Apprentice introduces us to the bravest bastard this side of Jon Snow. The illegitimate son of a prince named Chivalry, the boy called Fitz grows up a loner. If he wants company, he prefers to draw on the Wit — his telepathic link to animals — instead of talking to another human. But when his powerful relations finally summon him to court, Fitz is forced to change his wild ways — and soon begins training as an assassin and kingsman to the new ruler, Shrewd (another symbolic name).
32. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
This stunning YA fantasy opens the His Dark Materials trilogy, which can only be described as the anti-Narnia: a literary monument to secular humanism. This first installment centers on Lyra Belacqua, an orphan raised by a committee of graybeards at Oxford. Her fantastical world is crafted by Pullman with all the deft-fingered care of a Renaissance painter, laying on the details stroke by stroke. Perhaps most excitingly, here there be daemons: externalized souls that tail each person in animal form. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, is one of the book’s most lovable (and important) characters — and after reading The Golden Compass, you’ll definitely want your own.
33. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)
While we wait for G.R.R. Martin to finish up his long-running series’ sixth installment, it’s worth revisiting the book that made his name — and gave its name to the show that brought TV fantasy into the mainstream. If His Dark Materials is the anti-Narnia, then A Game of Thrones and its sequels are the anti-LOTR. In a sharp-toothed reaction to Tolkien’s idealism, Martin gives us a quasi-medieval setting as rich in magic as Middle-earth, though it runs on cynical realpolitik instead of quiet courage. In this grimdark world, winter is coming, debts must be paid, and noble characters can die ugly, senseless deaths at any time.
34. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
If you need a summary of this book, you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades. Love them or hate them, the Harry Potter series has shaped millennials more than any other media phenomena, creating a generation of bookworms inclined to question authority. The Boy Who Lived is now approaching middle-age — canonically born in 1980, he’s just about 40 now. But as the book that kickstarted his literary career, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains as influential as ever, with Hogwarts houses being as legitimate a source of identity as zodiac signs.
35. The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (1997)
A Game of Thrones might be the more famous book today, but The Moon and the Sun narrowly beat it out to win the prestigious Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1998! An intricate historical romance made magical through the addition of mermaids and immortality quests, The Moon and the Sun takes place in the palace of the Sun King, who ruled over late 17th-century France. We encounter his dazzling world through the eyes of Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, a lady-in-waiting who is the only person at court able to see Versailles’ new mermaid resident as a person instead of a monster (with delicious shades of The Shape of Water).
36. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (2000)
China Miéville has defined his own work as “a breathless and genre-slippery macabre fiction” — and with its heady mixture of Victorian tech, black magic, and organized crime, this book is par for the course. Perdido Street Station takes place in the steampunk city of New Crobuzon, where humans rub shoulders with other strange and intelligent species. But this peaceful coexistence is jeopardized when a hallucinogenic experiment unleashes the slakemoth: a mind-eating monster with paralytic in its wings. As they attempt to save the city, protagonist Isaac and his friends soon find themselves pulled into the seedy underbelly of New Crobuzon politics, discovering more than they ever wanted to know about their bizarre home.
37. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
A decade after Good Omens, Neil Gaiman returned to the world of religious fantasy with this magnificent solo venture. American Gods blends old legends with a modern noir sensibility — it’s peopled with deities and convicts, and the distinctions between them aren’t always clear. At its center is the improbably named Shadow Moon, a new widower who drifts into the employ of a con-man named Mr. Wednesday. They go on a good, old-fashioned American road-trip — but Shadow soon discovers that their cross-country trek isn’t all that it appears to be
38. The Etched City by K.J. Bishop (2003)
The Etched City’s cloak-and-dagger plot stands out thanks to a richly drawn setting — one that crosses the Wild West with the medieval Islamic world. Following a civil war where their side lost, bounty hunter Gwynn and healer Raule are chased out of their homeland. As the pair attempt to find their footing in this Etched City, they experience the very human costs of exile and political turmoil. This is K.J. Bishops’ first and only work of book-length fiction, but it’ll make you look out eagerly for more.
39. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
Every once in a while, you encounter a voice of such talent and originality it stands out like a signal fire against the night. In the world of fantasy, Susannah Clarke is that voice. Her magnum opus, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, is an alternate history of England during the Napoleonic Wars, combining Gothic fiction with comedy of manners to interrogate romantic myths of the English past. After a full decade in the making, it catapulted straight from Bloomsbury’s press to The New York Times bestseller list. The rest is history — or, should we say, alternate history.
40. The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla (2004)
This witty, sci-fi/fantasy take on the afterlife has shades of both The Good Place and Black Mirror — and fittingly enough, reflects consistently on the notion of endings. Before his suicide, protagonist Ben Mendelssohn was a professional ender: a ghostwriter for authors unable to finish their own stories. And after putting a bullet in his own head, Ben emerges in the Other World: a strangely sterile afterlife where the shades of the dead can customize their own microclimates. Clearly, The World of the End was an incredibly precocious — maybe even prophetic — work, anticipating pop cultural themes a decade ahead of time.
41. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
The Name of the Wind boasts another complicated framework narrative that, in this case, turns the entire work into a meditation on the importance of storytelling. It’s told as a fictional autobiography whose subject — and narrator — is the legendary culture-hero Kvothe, living incognito at the novel’s beginning as a humble innkeeper. But his cover’s blown following the appearance, in the flesh, of a demon long relegated to the realm of myths. Long story short — or if you read the whole thing, long story long — Kvothe ends up recounting the submerged stories of his past, from his magical education to his myriad heartbreaks.
42. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)
This high fantasy novel (in the guise of New Yorker-friendly lit fic) follows a high school senior named Quentin, who finds his way into magic college en route to his Princeton interview. But there are no sun-drenched Quidditch matches at Brakebills: instead, the curriculum turns on classical philology and the memorization of magical hand positions. Indeed, between this and its frank treatment of sexuality and mental health, The Magicians has often been touted as a “Harry Potter for grownups.” And if you’re more Ravenclaw than Gryffindor, you might find yourself daydreaming about Brakebills instead of Hogwarts — at least until Grossman deconstructs the trope of the magical boarding school with devastating acuity.
43. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)
Guy Gavriel Kay is a sorcerer in the realm of alternate history — his usual M.O. entails magic-drenched versions of ancient Constantinople or Renaissance Italy. In Under Heaven, Kay turns his talents to medieval China, with a version of the country called Kitai having recently achieved a hard-fought peace. Shen Tai, the second son of a legendary general, takes advantage of the ceasefire to bury the long-abandoned dead: both his own Kitai countrymen and their Taguran enemies, whose ghosts still haunt the site of their fatal defeats. In response, the Taguran empress gifts him a herd of 250 prized horses — making him an immediate target in the next round of Kitai political intrigues.
44. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
These days, N.K. Jemisin is a bona fide thought leader who writes full-time, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the match that sparked her incandescent career. It opens as such: following her mother’s death, a biracial woman named Yeine Darr is summoned to the floating city of Sky and told she’s descended from Sky’s ruling house. But on her father’s side, she belongs to the Darre — a people considered barbarians by her mother’s kin. This revelation pulls her into a struggle of succession and identity, all of which Yeine must navigate as she tries to solve her mother’s mysterious murder.
45. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
This searing novel is rooted in the real-life tragedy of weaponized rape in the Darfur conflict, which Okorafor read about just as she was beginning work on it. The narrator of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is the product of similar racial violence; she’s born to an Okeke woman, raped by the light-skinned Nuru sorcerer responsible for the massacre of her village. Named for a question — “Who Fears Death?”— she develops magical gifts to rival her wicked father’s. And after honing her abilities under the tutelage of a powerful shaman, Onyesonwu takes on a quest: to end the genocide of her mother’s people forever.
46. Among Others by Jo Walton (2011)
This inventive, award-winning book portrays the coming-of-age of Morwenna Phelps, a teenager who recently lost both her twin and the use of her legs thanks to a magical accident. Her story is refracted in a charmingly meta fashion, and has a comforting familiarity of form, as we see everything through Mori’s journal entries — where she vents about math classes, bra shopping, and first love along with the difficulties of spell-casting. If you’re into quirky, genre-bending works, you’ll definitely find Mori a charming and relatable guide to the world of Among Others, a place at once totally strange and achingly familiar.
47. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
The Night Circus began as a stab at NaNoWriMo, but its success has long since transcended its origins. This romantic, quasi-Victorian confection of a fantasy takes place, predictably enough, at a circus that’s only open at night. The mysterious carnival has been prepared as the dazzling battleground for a duel between two magicians, Celia and Marco — both raised as puppets in the rivalry between their two powerful mentors. But instead of giving their all to the coming battle, Celia and Marco have done something unforgivable: they’ve fallen in love, and now must find a way to fulfill their contracts without killing each other.
48. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)
This wildly imaginative historical fantasy involves an unexpected pair of magical creatures — the titular golem and jinni, from Jewish and Arabic mythology respectively. The former, Chava, was brought to life by a wicked kabbalist to serve as a mail-order bride; the latter, Ahmad, lived for centuries inside a copper flask, only to end up as a tinsmith once freed. After a chance encounter in the 19th century, Chava and Ahmad become friends — swapping stories on their struggles to pass as human. The Golem and the Jinni draws the reader in with a touching portrait of friendship while weaving in tantalizing threads of history and myth.
49. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
This gorgeous debut novel turns fantasy into poetry, telling a story of hauntings both literal and figurative. It tracks the son of a pepper merchant, Jevick of Tyom, who finds himself in unwanted company — he’s tailed by the ghost of an illiterate little girl. And when he seeks help from a group of exorcist-priests, Jevick quickly finds himself enmeshed in a power struggle that he never anticipated. A Stranger in Olondria writes out the power of narrative in a way that’s human and moving, with just the right amount of meta.
50. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)
The Bone Clocks shines with both literary pedigree and imaginative worldbuilding, up for both the Man Booker Prize and the World Fantasy Award in 2015. Its title hints at the darkly magical world we find inside — “bone clocks” are what immortals call the rest of us, ordinary humans whose bodies tick out the passage of time through their slow decay. We soon encounter two groups of immortals through a bone clock named Holly Sykes. But mortal as she is, Holly isn’t an ordinary young woman. Her psychic abilities make her a lightning rod for unusual phenomena — and the eventual focal point for an epic supernatural war.
51. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro penned this elegiac, post-Arthurian fantasy over the course of a difficult decade. The result was well worth the wait: The Guardian’s glowing review hailed it as “Game of Thrones with a conscience.” The Buried Giantconsiders the entanglement of old age, memory, and national history in a setting infused with the otherworld. At its center are an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, Briton villagers living in a world where King Arthur has died, leaving behind a seemingly durable peace. But everyone in Axl and Beatrice’s village continues to suffer: not from armed conflict, but from the mist, an amnesia that seems to have eaten away all their memories of a son they’re certain they’ve lost.
52. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
The Fifth Seasonis perhaps N.K. Jemisin’s most fully realized work, combining her trademark psychological complexity with an ultra-immersive world and a magic system of startling originality. It’s set in a Pangaea-like supercontinent called the Stillness — an ironic name, since the land is ravaged periodically by earthquakes. Because of this, the Stillness is a dangerous place for orogenes, who have the ability to control earthquakes and channel temperature. Called “roggas” and savaged by mobs because of their dangerous powers, orogenes rarely make it to adulthood. But those who survive — generally by hiding their abilities — are herded towards a training facility called the Fulcrum, where they suffer oppressions of their own.
53. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)
The first installment in a planned trilogy, The Grace of Kings is entertaining as well as erudite. It’s already become a foundational work of the sensibility Liu terms “silkpunk”: an East Asian-inflected spin on steampunk that trades in gears and goggles for bamboo and paper. The Grace of Kings uses this silkpunk framework to rewrite some of the most exciting stories from a canonical Han-dynasty text. The result is a page-turner even for bookworms who don’t have knowledge of Chinese history — and full of delightful easter eggs for those who do.
54. A Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
In A Sorcerer to the Crown, debut novelist Zen Cho serves up historical fantasy with humor and heart. Set in a magical version of Regency England, it’s equal parts white-gloved gentility and side-splitting wit. But the story also tackles race with a deft touch: Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of black African descent, and Prunella Gentleman is a biracial, magical finishing school drop-out. Together, they have to prevent an all-out war between powerful magical factions — all while dealing with the constant indignities of prejudice.
55. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
All the Birds in the Sky is a love story for nerds. Sparks fly between the compelling leads — and between the two speculative genres they represent. Patricia Delfine, a witch, is fantasy. Her childhood friend Laurence Armstead, a gadgeteer, is science fiction. But after banding together against junior high bullies, the two lose touch: Patricia runs from witchcraft accusations to wind up in a school of magic, while Laurence is shipped off to military school to shape up among other ill-behaved teenage Muggles. Luckily, they reunite as adults — just in time to tap into their combined skills to stop the Unraveling of the universe.
56. Scythe by Neal Shusterman (2016)
In the world of Neal Shusterman’s Scythe, hyper-advanced technology has eliminated death by natural causes, rendering humans biologically immortal. But this seemingly utopian premise turns dystopian with the reality that overpopulation is still a problem — and to cull it, a select group of citizens must act as “Scythes” to determine who will live and die. This is the role taken on by our teenage protagonists, Citra and Rowan, who grapple with intense issues of mortality and morality as they train to be Scythes — growing more suspicious all the while of inner-circle corruption that threatens to derail their society.
57. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (2017)
A dazzling fantasy set in the 18th-century Egypt, The City of Brass wraps a tale of magical adventure around a core of Islamic mythology. But its heroine is a skeptic — at first. A talented swindler with an instinct for healing, Nahri tricks Ottoman nobles into filling her purse by claiming magical powers she doesn’t actually have. Then one day, she fakes an exorcism… only to find herself face-to-face with a very real djinn. This unexpected new acquaintance, named Dara, spirits her away to the enchanted, brass-walled city of Daevabad. Here Nahri finds out the truth about her own heritage — the key to her talent for the healing arts.
58. Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
Jade City reads like Game of Thrones meets The Godfather, with a modern, pan-Asian aesthetic all its own. In its vividly drawn magical underworld, organized crime centers around jade — not the green jewel we know, but a mineral that grants superpowers to those who wield it, provided they have the right training and genes. After a cataclysmic conflict, the One Mountain Society that protected the island of Kekon has shattered into rival crime families. As they fight over the future of the jade trade, their battles spring to life in stunning fight sequences undergirded by Lee’s martial arts knowledge and rich worldbuilding.
59. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019)
For anyone ever intrigued by the hush-hush and vaguely felonious undercurrents of Ivy League secret societies, Ninth House is the novel to sate your imagination. It kicks off with 20-year-old Alex Stern, ghost-seer and sole survivor of a brutal homicide, receiving a full-ride scholarship to Yale — under the condition that she use her spiritually perceptive powers to monitor the university’s eight Houses of the Vale. As part of the titular ninth house, Lethe, Alex must work to uncover the magical abuses of these occult organizations — but what she can’t know is how dark things will get, and how deeply she’s enmeshed in them already.
60. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson (2019)
Finally we’ve arrived at Starsight, the most recent undertaking by fantasy phenom Brandon Sanderson. In this outer-space spectacular, Sanderson seamlessly picks up the narrative thread of Spensa Nightshade — a passionate, psychically gifted young pilot who’s become a key weapon in the human war against the alien Krell. Here, Spensa embarks on a dangerous undercover mission to steal a Krell hyperdrive, but what will happen when her true identity is revealed? (Our only advisory before diving headfirst into Starsight is to read the previous installment, Skyward, first — especially if you have an Ender’s Game-shaped hole in your life.)
The 60 Best Fantasy Books of All Time
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