Are you looking for the top 10 fantasy books?
With fantasy writers constantly cranking out candidates for the best fantasy novels in the current Golden Age, as readers we are stuck with a plethora of choices and not enough time to read them all.
To my mind, that leaves us with five options.
- Develop methods of time travel
- Develop pills to extend our lifespan
- Create a Clone Farm to harvest organs to extend our lifespan
- Ascend to Immortality
- Create a Top 10 Fantasy Books List
The first doesn’t really have anything to do with reading lots of science fiction or fantasy novels, I just wanted to mention time travel.
The second option won’t be completed in our life time, and even if it is, I’m not wealthy enough to have access to it. Same with option 3.
I’m still reading up on how exactly one might ascend to immortality, and have figured out that it most likely involves large amounts of ritualistic sacrifice and joining a suicide cult. So, color me hopeful.
Since I’m not quite intelligent enough to do the first, second, or third option, and since I’m not a Doctor Who character and haven’t been able to make the cut to join any suicide cults, I decided to create a top 10 fantasy books list.
Surely the Internet doesn’t have enough of these.
If you are traveling on the tube, have the day off from class, are stuck inside on a rainy day (these are my favorite), and you’ve only got enough time in your entire life to read 10 fantasy books, which should they be?
It is chilly enough for a log fire! I will write beside it today while sipping lemon and honey drinks. pic.twitter.com/D5kysxV3GW
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) September 13, 2014
That’s easy right? they have to be the top 10 fantasy books! But what are they?
The Very Selective & Highly Objective Process of Choosing Top Fantasy Novels
Many of these are the first books of a fantasy series, which I suppose is a sensible place to quickly discover top fantasy novels.
Looking back on the list, very few of them are the last books, where things are supposed to be wrapped up tight and should be packed full of revelations and denouement. That might be because having become so involved in these imaginary places, I never wanted to leave them (no matter how bleak), and so even if it is an amazing conclusion to a series, I’m left with the pain of leaving and not the excitement of discovery that accompanies first embarking on a new adventure through a wild new world.
One final note. Is it wise to compare fantasy novels from the 1980s to fantasy novels composed during 2000 and after? The standards that fantasy authors wrote under during one epoch will be completely different from the standards that contemporary fantasy authors currently compose their works under. The same also goes for the expectations of the reading audiences for each period of time.
For my own purposes, the critical factors for selecting these top 10 fantasy books are:
- Not the Lord of the Rings
- Not the Game of Thrones
- Not the Harry Potter books (admittedly, at least one should probably be on here)
- Use of Mage
- Not having annoying fantasy names
- Nostalgia that unfairly biases anything resembling sound judgment
Top 10 Fantasy Books You Should Be Reading
10 The Legend of Huma
A melancholy hero who makes the ultimate sacrifice is a book I cannot help but add into the top 10 fantasy books ever written. I think it should even be higher than the place I have currently assigned it, but that’s what you get for being benevolent: last place. Not first.
I remember reading this book when Robert Jordan wasn’t named Brandon Sanderson and was still writing the Wheel of Time, and I didn’t have amazon to ship me tons and tons of media in under 24 hours.
As a reader of Dragonlance novels you are introduced early to Huma, a legendary knight of Solamnia. But you never learn the full story of one of Krynn’s most significant heroes in any of the early Dragonlance Chronicles. There are enough allusions to make this knight alluring, and yet just enough story to keep him inscrutable.
Enter the Legend of Huma.
You will finish this book in the afternoon. You will feel good, and not jaded, which is good. The following morning you will be exploited by the cruel mechanics of capitalistic labor and you won’t feel at all, which is bad.
9 Dragons of Autumn Twilight
This is one of those novels where you are introduced to a new and vivid world as long as you haven’t read anything by J. R. R. Tolkein. While this type of fantasy perhaps became cliché, it is cliché to Fantasy the same way Shakespeare is cliché to Literature.
For me, this text was especially important since it was one of the first fantasy books I ever read (aside from the Redwall series) and was a radical change in scenery from field mice wielding swords and defending an Abbey to a band of companions reuniting and trying to save the world from a goddess of pure evil, Takhisis.
Most importantly, Dragons of Autumn Twilight introduces you a feeble, wry mage named Raistlin Majere, my favorite fantasy character of all time, and possibly the best mage ever written ever. Raistlin’s hourglass eyes reveal the inevitable decay of all things, which means he is responsible for discovering the philosophy of nihilism and bringing it to our world through the oracles Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
How popular is Raistlin Majere? Raistlin was the most popular choice for male children born from 1980 to 2014.
And females too.
So if you haven’t met a fair maiden named Raistlin, you are either living in the middle of nowhere, or Raistlin is plotting to kill you.
One more thing to consider. Ever wonder why so many people like to tan their skin to a golden bronze color? It’s because Raistlin had golden skin. See? Most popular mage ever. Do you see girls growing really long white beards? Nope. Do you see girls tanning? Yes, yes you do.
This book is not where you are introduced to one of the other most famous fixtures of the Dragonlance series, Lord Soth. If you want to meet him, you will need to read the series through to Dragons of Spring Dawning.
Lastly, I never knew this, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, this book contains allusions to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. More importantly it also has gully dwarves:
“They are generally stupid and often hold menial jobs. The highest an average gully dwarf can count is 2, though some have become smart enough to count to 3. They are smaller than normal dwarves. They have no land of their own and live in ruined cities, sewers, and dirty parts of cities.”
Charles Dickens could have really used some gully dwarves in his books; they would have been actually interesting to read.
8 Lord of Chaos, Wheel of Time
This is from a text close to the middle of a series, but since there is enough spoiler information online, you could fill in the blanks up to this point. By this book I had really come to love Rand al’Thor, but had started to look forward to chapters that focused more on Matrim Cauthon.
As Rand starts balefiring people in the face things begin to get a little more exciting. Additionally, he starts FINALLY going after the Red Aes Sedai, because they put him in a box and torture him. (Surprisingly, Robert Jorden didn’t write an entire book about Rand being trapped in a box.) And by going after I mean “stilling” them, cutting them off from casting magic forever.
Mat is my most favorite fantasy character aside from Raistlin, and I guess he is really just Raistlin in warrior form. I really wish there had been an entire series of books dedicated to him, and could have probably finished this series just reading pasted together cutouts of the sections featuring him. As described by the Wheel of Time wiki:
“He is arrogant and confident in his own abilities, revels in the disobeying of authority, and has an intense curiosity about how things work.”
How can you not like a character like that?
7 Elric of Melnibone
Elric is a sickly, pensive albino elf, dependent on drugs to stay alive, and the 428th ruler of a fading kingdom, Melnibone. He is basically like the Mayor of Toronto with a giant black sword that talks and enjoys devouring the souls of the living.
He is also the first anti-hero that I can recall appearing in fantasy literature, which is why this text is so important. Add in Michael Moorcock’s lyricism and you have more than enough reasons to not only hail this as a dignified entry into our top 10 fantasy books, but also actually go read it.
6 The Black Company
This is the first book in a series of gritty dark fantasy novels that if you read when you were 15 you were either going straight into the Marines or straight to jail. I’ve actually only recently gotten through the book, which has enough unsettling moments to make you question whether or not you should really continue reading something like this.
Narrated by the medic “Croaker” it chronicles the adventures of a band of mercenaries, you guessed it, the Black Company, who after kind of helping to suppress a riot and fighting a wereleopard in a really sweaty city, become employed by the mysterious Soulcatcher who dresses all in black and speaks in a thousand different voices and may or may not be the White Lady.
“War is a cruel business prosecuted by cruel men,” Croaker tells us, and while “the gods know the Black Company are no cherubim,” they have limits. Whether or not the Black Company has limits is up for debate, but Glen Cook’s writing certainly observes its limits, and wisely.
There is plenty of combat and murder throughout the book but it is not filled with elaborate, belabored descriptions of combat and murder. So, we get statements like “Wounded men make noises you swear could not come from a human throat,” in place of highly descriptive bloodshed.
The taut, minimalist writing style fits perfectly with the subject matter and the barren world this band of sell-swords and wizards-for-hire inhabit and speeds you away from fight scenes to the philosophy, which is what really hits the hardest in this book.
The Black Company is stuffed with more wry, pessimistic observations on life than most corpses are stuffed with creeping, crawling carrion. I suppose, however, that is due to the fact that there is not really much to any human anymore anyways.
Too harsh? Maybe Croaker’s got it right:
“When I reflect on my companions’ inner natures I usually wish I controlled one small talent. I wish I could look inside them and unmask the darks and brights that move them. Then I take a quick look into the jungle of my own soul and thank heaven that I cannot. Any man who barely sustains an armistice with himself has no business poking around in an alien soul.”
Rather than leave us with a grimace and stifling dry-heaves, the book encourages us as readers to thrust our noses further into the corpus where we are rewarded with other, realist philosophemes:
“We abjure labels. We fight for money and an indefinable pride. The politics, the ethics, the moralities, are irrelevant.”
Final note: Always be blaring AC/DC when reading this book. It makes it much easier to comprehend. Probably some early Metallica too.
5 The Way of Shadows
When we start talking about the top 5 of the top 10 fantasy books the standard gets a lot higher.
And by a lot higher I mean so high only men in black hooded cloaks have the ability to climb this high. Incidentally, why do stealthy assassins always get caught in the photo on a book cover? You’d think they would be a little more…furtive.
The Way of Shadows is the first book of the Night Angel series.
Brent Weeks introduces us to a street rat, Azoth, who after a very difficult time on the mean streets of Cenaria becomes the student of a fearsome assassin, and adopts the name Kylar Stern. There are some disconcerting scenes and sentiments early in this book, but that goes with modern fantasy literature and modern life which on a “good” day is far more terrifying than any book. Modern life, it should be noted, might just be the worst thing that has happened to anyone yet, and if Kylar Stern can figure out how to kill it (and Brent Weeks can figure out how to narrate it), that will be the best fantasy book ever.
While there is a character named “Momma K” which almost disqualified this book, there is also an elite assassin named Durzo Blint, which has got to be one of the better fantasy names I have ever come across.
Durzo Blint isn’t the type of person you would want to meet alone in a back alley, but he is definitely the type of person you would want your worst enemy to meet alone in a back alley.
Why is Durzo Blint capable of horrific murders (he tells Azoth early on that he’s “done worse than kill children”)? Because Brent Weeks keeps calling him a “Wetboy.”
Weeks also invented a name for the instrument of retribution, the “Night Angel,” but still decided to call his magnificent and gifted assassins “Wetboys,” which sounds less like a dealer of death and more like someone who wets the bed in his 30s.
If you ever needed a way to become furious on command, just start constantly calling yourself “wetboy” and you will probably be able to kill entire armies.
But not Raistlin.
4 The Magicians
This is the first book in a 3 part series that actually finishes up with the third installment. For that reason alone I probably should have placed it in the top 3 books. The second, The Magician King, was equally intriguing and its end opened to a frightening and exciting vista. This, in turn, has given me such great hopes for the final book, The Magician’s Land, that I will never read it.
Lev Grossman has done something that is stylistically important in this work.
While the reviewers like to celebrate the text’s putative subversion of ossified fantasy tropes (though, if you are a pernicious post-structuralist like “I” “am,” you know that you are always already operating within tropes) the real magic of The Magicians is its earnest irony and eager post-modern blending of pop culture and literature.
Set in the magic school of Brakebills, this book is great on characterization. Brakebills has an incredible crest for a magical college: a golden bee and a golden key on a black background dotted with tiny silver stars.
The Magicians has also coined one of my most favorite recent words, “The Neitherlands.” Grossman describes it in a post adumbrating the allusions in The Magicians as follows:
“The bunnies call this place the Neitherlands—because it’s neither here nor there.” The Neitherlands is, or are, in part an allusion to the Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew. (It’s another allusion to an allusion: Lewis was referencing William Morris’s novel The Wood Beyond the World.) At one point Quentin spots a sapling poking up through the paving stones of the Neitherlands; I like to think that the Wood will one day grow up there in that same spot. Or maybe whoever built the Neitherlands paved over it.
Speaking of words, if you are preparing for the GRE verbal section, I highly recommend this book in place of doing practice tests.
We’ve made it to the top 3.
You’ve endured a lot of nonsense and unqualified opinions by this point, and the entries that follow are only going to get less and less justifiable.
This is sacred ground. These books are of such import to the fantasy genre that they should perhaps only be discussed in hushed tones of reverence near smoking tripods and candle light. Or at least at your next Dungeons & Dragons game.
I considered adding the Worm Ouroboros or a book from Belgariad, like Pawn of Prophecy to the top 10 fantasy books here. Why? Well, any book from The Belgariad for its influence (particularly for inspiring Abercrombie’s Lucifer-like rebellion) and the Worm Ouroboros for its literary merits and ancient Greek philosophic disposition.
3 The Darkness That Comes Before
Then I performed some intellectual alchemy and combined the two to present you with R. Scott Bakker’s first tome from his Prince of Nothing series, The Darkness that Comes Before. You will immediately love R. Scott Bakker because he says things like this:
Radical: To be so far ahead as to sound behind in your reading.
— R. Scott Bakker (@TheDevilsChirp) December 28, 2013
Written with a rich lyrical texture and set amidst a vast and deep world, The Darkness that Comes Before introduces you to a dark land that has experienced an apocalypse two thousand years ago, and is primed for another. Bakker has been accused of being ambitious (and the of Tolkien grade world building clearly confirms this), thoughtful, and a good writer, which when added together is more than enough to be exiled from the Academe.
I have just remembered I wasn’t going to pick any books with ridiculous naming conventions, and this text is packed with absurd fantasy names for its lands and characters. I have also just remembered that it is about time I started breaking a few more rules.
I’m leaving this entry because I couldn’t decide between it and another for the next entry into the top 10 fantasy books.
Irony – As close to closure as the educated ever get.
— R. Scott Bakker (@TheDevilsChirp) September 3, 2014
3 The Lies of Locke Lamora (Seriously the 3rd Choice, Maybe)
Ostensibly about a “new kind of thief” the Lies of Locke Lamora is about the best profession in the world, and the only job that bestows a person with any sort of dignity these days: being a clever liar.
Chains, his mentor, describes the future for his pupil: “‘[S]omeday you’re going to dine with barons and counts and dukes. You’re going to dine with merchants and admirals and generals and ladies of every sort! And when you do…’ Chains put two fingers under Locke’s chin and tilted the boys head up so they were eye-to-eye. ‘When you do, those poor idiots won’t have any idea that they’re really dining with a thief.’”
This book is so great because you are running with the city’s underworld, with Locke Lamora and his gang pulling off heist after heist, cussing and drinking all the while. It’s all fun and games until someone drowns someone else in horse piss.
The scenery is redolent of Renaissance Italy (specifically Venice), but with tiger sharks. Much to the disappointment of many readers, there were no sharknadoes, though the author has certainly left room for them to appear in subsequent works.
The novel thrums with a surfeit of bon mots and Shakespearean wit, earning it a high spot amongst the top 10 fantasy books. As if that wasn’t enough, Lynch also has one of my favorite names for a gang of bandits, “The Gentlemen Bastards,” which I think is what they used to call aspiring novelists.
2 The Blade Itself
I’m listing this, but it could be supplanted either by the Magician’s Land or Abercrombie’s other book, Best Served Cold (which I haven’t read yet). It is, to its credit, recommended by Scott Lynch, author of the prestigious third spot (maybe) amongst the top 10 fantasy books.
This book is fast, witty, and ironic. The world is bleak and painted in more than 50 shades of grey, but mostly grey and very grey.
And some red, for all the blood.
I think my favorite aspect about this book was the type of characters that filled its pages: a barbarian that can talk to spirits, a selfish military officer who can’t win a sword fight and yet day-dreams of being a fencing champion, and an erstwhile dashing cavalry officer turned crippled torturer, San dan Glokta.
Glokta is one of the best characters created in recent memory. Shrewd, manipulative, merciless, he’s the person missing from your next children’s birthday party.
1 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Neil Gaiman has said that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.”
This is exactly the sentence I had typed out when composing this comment, and when I discovered some famous fantasy author had also written it, I decided to quote him instead. If you only have the time to read one fantasy book in your entire life, this is the one I would recommend.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is about two magicians and a very practical magic that is nonetheless highly enchanting to read about. It is also about a world that was once very magical whose magic has faded.
This text contains 185 footnotes and books within books (all of which I want to read) with titles like “The Anatomy of a Minotaur,” “The Black Letters,” and “How to Putte Questiones to the Dark and Understand its Answeres.”
You will find many reviewers of books who say that style gets in the way of plot. Some people actually said this of this book. These people are idiots. It’s time to make some tea and read this enjoyably gnomic tome.
What Would You Read?
I’ve nearly worn through the leather on my elbow patches thinking so longingly and enduringly about these top 10 fantasy books.
What makes a great fantasy read for you? What, to your mind, makes it worthy enough to occupy the top, must read category that you would sit down and take the time to read it in our already overly busy lives?