J. P. DeNeui
As I have already regaled the internet with the inestimable literary opinions of the esteemed reviewers of Amazon, it’s past time I shared my own conclusions on the best fantasy novels and series out there. I don’t claim to have read everything (only the best), so if I’ve overlooked your favorite fantasies, I apologize preemptively. Let me know!
I will again be doing my best in this list to not conflate Science Fiction with Fantasy however nany lazy publishers fail to do so. If the book has spaceships, warp it off of my list. If it has dragons, tell me more.
And so without further hemming and hawing, I present my six favorite works of fantasy from the incredible to the transcendent.
6. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
For all lovers of the fantastic, The Lord of the Rings is nothing short of required reading. Tolkien first invented languages and then crafted stories to fit them. Libraries have been written about his creations and enough ink spilled to drown Middle Earth. Still a definitive tale of good versus evil, I have one small bone to pick with its ending: I don’t understand why The Return of the King reaches its climax shortly after the midpoint. Falling action is one thing, falling novellas another.
What I did latch onto at once was The Hobbit. I’ve read this story multiple times and loved it more upon each rereading. An underappreciated rollicking good time, if you just want to cheer for hobbits and dwarves, curl up by a fire and pick this one up. By all means move onto the main event and delve into the lore of The Silmarillion if you’re truly feeling adventurous, but if you’re anything like childish me you’ll return to this one time and again when the One Ring tugs at your soul.
5. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Consisting of five giant books to date, the whole series deserves its place here. Song could rank even higher on my list were it not for the “conclusion” of the television adaptation Martin approved and even wrote scripts for. If the final books are ever released and they fall as flat as Season Eight, I’m booting this out of here and good riddance.
That being said…
This is a ranking of books and not TV shows and there are reasons these five are beloved. From the plotting to the characters to the gritty worldbuilding, A Song of Ice and Fire has it all, balancing medieval machinations with the glorious and ominous return of magic. The thrilling twists of fate and surprises are legion, and, though it may still be far off, a truly epic conclusion looms.
4. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (sans The Cursed Child)
The endlessly parodied cultural phenomenon is pretty darn well-written it turns out and very fun to read. I got into these books as they were being published and my interest grew with each new installment. As Voldemort came ever closer to returning, the series pulled off a masterful transition from relatively light-hearted young-adult fare to something wrenching and powerful and even fraught with pathos. When the final book in the series released, the entire mission team I was on that summer wished we could be reading it right then.
It feels almost blasphemous to rank this series above Tolkien, but, to be honest, I enjoyed it more. I loved potions classes and hating Snape and the ridiculousness of Quidditch and every-flavor beans. Most of all I loved rooting for Harry and Hermione (and sometimes even annoying Ron) to take down the Dark Lord and do it in style.
3. The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
A fantastical dystopia with a sense of humor, the central “hard magic” conceit of allomancy leads to spectacular, tactical action adventures that crop up at every turn. Sanderson’s fantasy world feels lived in, with a tragic past to boot: Here the prophesied Savior of humanity failed utterly to save humanity and for his failures ash rains from the sky.
I loved all of this trilogy and especially the ending. I’m aware there are other books in this series, but given they’re removed by generations from the first three, my focus is on Vin’s incredible rise up through the mists that are hers to own. To say much more would spoil too much.
2. Circe by Madeline Miller
I approached this book with some trepidation as it came too highly recommended. Every commercial critic seemed to like it and even Amazon reviewers could barely poke holes. Upon reading, to my not-insignificant astonishment, it turned out to deserve all the praise and then some.
Poor water nymph Circe of the mortal voice, least among the children of Helios, derided and abused at every turn, somehow ascends through iron will to stand against forces far larger than herself in a jaunt through Classical Greek Mythology that I am convinced is a work of genius. This was a book that refused to let go of me, plunging me fully into fleshed-out mythos. Everything felt earned and interconnected, and my only “critique” is that it had to end.
1. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
Oh, The Wheel of Time, The Wheel of Time. How does one even begin to summarize something so ambitious and epic? This is the fantasy series that outlived its author; so vast that when Robert Jordan left us and Brandon Sanderson, handpicked by his widow, wallowed in all the notes left behind, he realized the last book had to be three books or it could not be commercially bound.
There may be no endings and no beginnings to the turning of the Wheel of Time, but the beginning of the series for me started with a mention by a friend in highschool as something amazing I had to read. Years passed and the recommendation stuck and when at last I saw the cover of The Eye of the World, I picked it up from a bookstore and left the world behind.
Weeks passed. I finished the first book. Months passed. I finished all the released sequels. I was a disciple of Rand al’Thor, prophesied Dragon, hope of the world, as he dared to shatter the matriarchy and channeled the power of forbidden saidin. The Wheel turned and an ending neared and the inevitable return of the Dark One threatened to again erase an age. And Rand, though he had suffered so much, refused to buckle and stood for the Light beside Matt and Perrin and Moiraine and Nynaeve and Egwene and Elayne and…
And did I mention the cast of named characters could urbanize their own town?
The last book in the series I picked up from a bookstore I never went to before or since. I started reading as soon as I could – first at the bus stop, then on the way home. I had one day off and no other plans and I read without stopping and into the night. “The Last Battle” was fought and so many died. Work loomed, but it was not important, and the prospect of sleep cast out. I read until there were no more pages, until it was morning, until it was done.
When it finally ended, I wept.
The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.
I’m aware this is Sanderson’s magnum opus and every book I’ve read has been stunning, but the series still has a long way to go before innumerable plots are resolved. And as per the rules I just made up, he can’t hold two spots on my list. Not allowed.
A few years from now, that rule may break.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Kvothe tells his own story to a quizzical scribe in a darker take on the coming-of-age arc where Rothfuss takes Harry Potter and does it…better? Name is the first book in a proposed trilogy, succeeded by The Wise Man’s Fear. Elegantly written and ablaze with mythology, I hope if and when there is a third book it can end like it started. Your move, Patrick.
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik
Imagine the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. This fantastic alternate history never failed to leave me eager to soar from Europe to China to Australia as the threat of Napoleon loomed. Naomi takes seriously the military logistics needed to field hungry dragons in combat and never relies on magic as a crutch. A highly recommended read.