Fantasy Classics

I’ve been wanting to compile a list of some of the best books in the Fantasy Genre ever published. This is a curated list, meaning it’s what think are the best books in the genre, so this is in no way an authoritative list. That said, I’m going to do my best to create a comprehensive list which a serious Fantasy fan can refer back to if they want to explore the breadth and depth of the genre as a whole.

My list favors recently published books, because I only started reading books since the 1990s. If I’ve not read it, it’s not on here. As time goes on I’m going to fill out the earlier eras of the genre.

Pre-1800: Folklore, Myth and Religion

  • Sumerian
    • The Epic of Gilgamesh: Published ~5000 years ago, THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH is the first written work of fiction. Written by Sumerians, this story describes the events of the Biblical Flood but told from a Pagan perspective. You can argue that all books which reference the Biblical Flood are in fact making veiled mythological references to GILGAMESH. Subgenre: Mythology
  • Greek
    • The Iliad
    • The Odyssey
  • Norse
    • Beowulf: Published in 975
  • Indian
    • The Mahabahrata
    • The Ramayana
  • Abrahamic
    • The Old Testament
    • The New Testament
    • The Koran
  • Aztec
    • The Aztec Codices
  • English
    • Paradise Lost
    • The Faerie Queene
    • The Canterbury Tales: Published in 1390
    • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Published in 1390
    • Le Morte d’Arthur: Published in 1485
    • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Published in 1595
  • Spanish
    • Don Quixote

1800s: The Modern Age Begins

  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Published 1812
  • Frankenstein: Published in 1818
  • The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales: Published in 1835
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Published in 1869, this novel by Jules Verne
  • Alice in Wonderland: Published in 1865
  • The Princess and the Goblin: Published in 1872
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arther’s Court: Published in 1889
  • Dracula: Published in 1897

1900’s:

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz): Published in 1900
  • Peter Pan: Published in 1904
  • The Wind in the WillowsPublished in 1908, this story had a massive impact on future generations of British authors. A whimsical story of aristocratic rodents and badgers, this book fused the Edwardian sensibility with a silly children’s story in such a way as to teach children how to live.  Subgenre: Fairy Tale

1910’s:

  • Tarzan of the Apes (Tarzan): Published in 1912
  • The Lost World: Published in 1912
  • A Princess of Mars (Barsoom): Published in 1912

1920’s:

  • The King of Elfland’s DaughterPublished in 1924, this novel was one of the first true fantasy novels in the modern sense ever published. A story of magic and adventure, I’ve heard that this was an influence on Tolkein as he wrote Middle-Earth. Subgenre: Fairy Tale
  • The Worm Ouroboros: Published 1926
  • The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories: Published in 1926
  • Lud-in-the-Mist: Published in 1926

1930’s:

  • The Phoenix on the Sword (Conan): Published in 1932
  • Lost Horizon: Published in 1933
  • Marry Poppins (Marry Poppins): Published in 1934
  • The Hobbit: Published in 1937
  • The Sword in the Stone(The Once and Future King): Published in 1938

1940’s

  • The Screwtape Letters: Published in 1942
  • The Little Prince: Published in  1943
  • Stuart Little: Published in 1945
  • Titus Groan (Gormenghast): Published in 1946

1950’s: The Tolkien Nuclear Bomb

  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Narnia): Published in 1950
  • The Borrowers (The Borrowers): Published in 1952
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings): Published in 1954
  • Dandelion Wine: Published in 1957

1960’s: Modern YA Fantasy Is Born

  • Elric of Menibone: Published in 1960
  • James and the Giant Peach: Published in 1961
  • A Wrinkle in Time: Published in 1962
  • Where the Wild Things Are: Published in 1963
  • Witch World: Published in 1963
  • The Book of Three(Chronicles of Prydain): Published in 1964
  • Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising): Published in 1965
  • Dune(Dune Universe): Published in 1965, DUNE is a perennial SciFi favorite which has since been a massive influence on tons of following authors. This book’s frequent use of mind altering drugs made it popular at the time. Dune also trailblazed politics and conspiracy plotlines, an area which future generations such as ASOIAF and the Wheel of Time came to rely on.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea(Earthsea)Published in 1968, this is one of the first great Fantasy novels. Written before the Golden Age but after the Tolkien Nuclear Bomb, when the genre was still trying to figure out what it wanted to do with itself, this is a book about human power and human frailty. Subgenre: High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
  • Dragonflight(Dragonriders of Pern): Published in 1968
  • The Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn): Published in 1968

1970’s: The Dawn of the Golden Age of Epic Fantasy

  • The Eye of Argon: Published in 1970, the origins of this piece of fiction are lost to the mists of time. This famous(notorious) short novel was either written by a cabal of authors trying to manufacture the worst novel ever, or maybe it was written by an earnest(if unskilled) fantasy fan who wanted to join the luminaries of Tolkien and LeGuin. Subgenre: ‘Oh Gods Why?’ Fantasy
  • Watership Down: Published in 1972
  • The Princess Bride: Published in 1973
  • The Forgotten Beasts of EldPublished in 1974, this is an important counterpoint to the usual-theme of the Golden Epic Age. Instead of starring a farmboy, orphan prince main character, this is about an icy young woman who is struggling with her humanity and her ability to love and hate. I think this is one of the first ‘feminist’ Fantasy novels. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • The Riddle-Master of Hed(Riddle Master Trilogy): Published in 1976, this is the first book in a little-known trilogy. This uses the gamut of standard Golden Age fantasy tropes: an orphan prince who is a farm boy who must go on a quest, the main characters must travel a long distance, and more. That said, it is unique for being a fairly bloodless story with little combat or violence. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • The Sword of Shannara (Shannara): Published in 1977, this was purposefully written by the author to re-capture the audience of the Lord of the Rings books. This is probably the first REALLY popular Golden Age series out there, making this Patient Zero of the Epic Fantasy Boom which follows. As mentioned, this really shows it’s roots in the LotRs books. Subgenres: Epic Fantasy
  • Lord Foul’s Bane (Thomas Covenant): Published in 1977
  • A Spell of Chameleon (Xanth): Published in 1977
  • The Stand: Published in 1978
  • The Neverending Story: Published in 1979

1980’s: The Genre Establishes Itself as Commercial Fiction

  • The Gunslinger(The Dark Tower): Published in 1982, the Dark Tower books are a massive influence on tons of authors who followed. It is a fusion of Dark Fantasy and the Western Genre, featuring disturbing magic and gunslinging. Subgenre: Western Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
  • Magician (Riftwar): Published in 1982
  • The Blue Sword (Damar): Published in 1982
  • Pawn of Prophesy (The Belgariad):Published in 1982, this was a very approachable example of Epic Fantasy a lot of readers (and future writers) came across and fell in love with. It plays the tropes of the Golden Age of Epic Fantasy quite straight across the board- and since this was such an influential series it might have been the trope-codifier for a lot of those tropes. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • The Mists of Avalon (Avalon): Published in 1982, this was a hugely influential novel in the Feminist subgenre of Fantasy. Staring Morgan La Fey and the female characters of the Arthur Mythos. This is a good, if not great book and certainly a Classic. However it has since fallen under a pall of shame because the author was a serial child abuser. I advocate that we condemn the artist and celebrate the art. Subgenre: Historical Fantasy, Literary Fantasy, Feminist Fantasy
  • Jhereg(Vlad Taltos): Published in 1983. This is a revenge-for-hire story, with a criminal syndicate hiring protagonist Vlad to get revenge against an unknown person who stole a lot of money from them. Despite it’s dark plot, it’s actually a light and fun story. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • The Color of Magic (Discworld): Published in 1983, Discworld became the largest contemporary series that I know of, containing 41 main novels and untold short stories and novelettes. Discworld is known worldwide for it’s riotous humor, biting commentary and humanist themes. This series sometimes parodies the various subgenres of Fantasy, so it shows it’s inspirations on it’s sleeve. (Note: The first few books aren’t as good as later ones. I suggest a new reader start with GUARDS! GUARDS! instead of book 1) Subgenre: Comedic Fantasy
  • Alanna: The First Adventure(Tortall): Published in 1983, the Tortall books are a group of multiple series staring female protagonists. It was a very influential pre-Harry Potter YA book, and still has a fanbase to this day. It is influenced by Arthurian tropes. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • Mythago Wood(Mythago Wood): Published in 1984, in MYTHAGO WOOD a WWII veteran goes missing in a haunted wood, so his brother must go in after him to save him. As he physically delves deeper into the wood, he starts to meet ancient English folkloreic figures like Boudicca and Merlin. Subgenre: Mythology, Suspense
  • The Black Company (The Black Company): Published in 1984. This is the first of the Dark Fantasy subgenre Novels I’m aware of.
  • Dragons of Autumn Twilight(Dragonlance): Published in 1984. This series is the novelization of the author’s DnD campaign. I’m including this for two reasons: a) a whole lot of authors cite this as an early influence on their writing and b) this shows how for a lot of people in the genre play role playing games, and are influenced by it to this day. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Bridge of Birds(The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox): Published in 1984, this comedic fantasy novel set in ancient China which never was, is a fun mystery story with magic and divine intervention. Subgenre: Mythology, High Fantasy
  • Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber): Published in 1986, the Amber series is a variation of the orphan prince must rediscover his heritage and reclaim his kingdom. And by variation I mean it’s really, really weird. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle): Published in 1986
  • War for the Oaks: Published in 1987, this is the first contemporary Urban Fantasy that I know of. Eddi is a singer in a band trying to make it on the rough streets of 1980’s Minneapolis. She’s recruited for a war by the faeries of the Seelie Courts against the Unseelie. It has it’s roots in ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • Arrows of the Queen (Valdemar): Published in 1987
  • The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn): Published in 1988

1990’s: The Second and Third Bombs Go Off

  •  The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time)Published in 1990, this series  is famous and notorious for it’s length. As probably one of the largest Epic Fantasies in terms of both number of books and length of books, the Wheel of Time serves as the epitome of what the Golden Age represents: large stories with tons of characters and fairly internecine plots. The first book shows it’s LotRs heritage, but future books are more their own animals. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Good Omens: Published in 1990
  • Tigana: Published in 1990
  • Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth): Published in 1994, WIZARD’S FIRST RULE is an Epic Fantasy in the vein of SWORD OF SHANNARA or THE BELGARIAD. It is, in fact, the first Golden Age Epic that I ever read. Most critics agree that the first two or three books in the series are enjoyable Fantasy fare, while later in the series the author begins to inject his political views into the story wholesale. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Sabriel(Abhorsen): Published in 1995, Sabriel is a Epic Fantasy where the entire multi-book plot has been successfully compressed into a single novel. This is probably one of the best Fantasy books of all time, and the following books are nearly as good. Has it’s roots in Golden Age Epic Fantasy, blended with WWI and WWII era British Countryside. (Note: Listen to the audiobook) Subgenre: Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
  • Assassin’s Apprentice (Farseer): Published in 1995
  • The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials): Published in 1995
  • A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire): Published in 1996, this is the first of two more bombs which went off in the Fantasy Genre and changed it forever. Featuring excellent characters and a complete lack of plot-armor, this book revolutionized what authors realized what they could get away in the genre. After this became popular (in part thanks to the blockbuster TV show which began in 2011) the genre would never be the same again. This has it’s roots in the Golden Age’s Epic Fantasy heritage, but also used plot points from the English War of the Roses. This series showed the world that genre Fantasy fiction can have literary merit for adults. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
  • Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wicked Years): Published in 1995
  • Neverwhere (Neverwhere): Published in 1996
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter): Published in 1997, this is the other (and probably larger) bomb. Between this and ASOIAF, millions of new readers began to read Fantasy. Harry Potter in particular barnstormed the YA field, spawning an 9 movie series (with more on the way), billions of dollars in merchandising and untold numbers of social movements. It has it’s roots in traditional British stories, such as the whimsy of THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, as well as the Chosen One tropes of the Golden Age.  Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • Ella Enchanted (Ella Enchanted): Published in 1997
  • Gardens of the Moon (Malazan: Book of the Fallen): Published in 1999, this book offers a new take on the traditional Epic Fantasy Formula, featuring tons of characters and weird plots. This book takes the Quest Fantasy formula of the Golden Age to the extreme, inverting some aspects and playing others straight, but always going up to 11 on all of it. Subgenre: High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy

2000’s: Run for the Hills! The Urban Fantasy Flood is Upon Us!

  • Storm Front: Published in 2000, the Harry Dresden series is considered to be one of the best ongoing Urban Fantasy series out there. Later books in the series show it’s heritage from WAR FOR THE OAKS on their sleeves, for they contain Seelie and Unseelie Courts. (Note: it’s commonly believed that the first two books in the series are not as good as later books. If you choose to read this series, perhaps start with book three or push through to book three). Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • Curse of Chalion(World of the Five Gods)Published in 2000, THE CURSE OF CHALION is one of the late, great members of the Golden Age. Combines Arthurian tropes with political intrigue echoing ASOIAF. This book has a slight Feminist bent because it features several important female characters, so this book is in contrast with the Golden Age of the 1970’s-1990’s books which usually featured very few women. The next book in the series, PALADIN OF SOULS, is also widely regarded as being very good. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • Kushiel’s Dart(Kushiel’s Legacy): Published in 2001, this novel combines traditional Arthurian tropes with political intrigue echoing ASOIAF. It turns ‘Chosen Maiden is Pure’ tropes on their head, by starring a sexual courtesan. This book is written both in counterpoint and to complement the Golden Age of the 1970’s-1990’s. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • American Gods: Published in 2001
  • Eragon (Inheritance Cycle): Published in 2002, this is the first highly popular self-published book that I know of. It got so popular that it was picked up for publication by a major house, and also turned into a movie. Famous for being written by a 15 year old. Considering that it was written by a teen, it’s actually pretty good (this is not a backhanded complement). Inspired by Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Subgenre: High Fantasy,
  • SunshinePublished in 2003, this Vampire Urban Fantasy novel was on the bleeding edge of the tsunami tidal wave of Urban Fantasy novels which drowned the publishing industry in the early ’00s. This one is notable for playing with tropes from both the Paranormal Romance subgenre and the non-romance focused Urban Fantasy subgenre. Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Published in 2004, this bit of Napoleonic Fantasy became an instant classic from the moment it was published. Written in a style similar to those published during the Napoleonic era. Subgenre: Alternative History
  • The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson): Published in 2005, this YA series introduced a new generation to the Greek Myths of yore. I’ve never read it myself so I can’t comment much, but I can say that it spawned a multi-movie series so it was a very influential series. Subgenre: Mythology, YA, Urban Fantasy
  • Twilight(Twilight): Published in 2005. Twilight hit the genre (and society at large) like a thunderbolt which polarized everyone into camps of loving or hating it. It also supercharged the Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance genre and caused a million lookalike books to be published. Like Harry Potter before it, it brought a ton of people into the genre and caused them to read more genre books. So while I haven’t read it myself, I am thankful that it exists because a rising tide lifts all boats. Subgenre: Paranormal Romance
  • Furies of Calderon(Codex Alera): Published in 2005, this is descended from the Epics produced in the Golden Age. Written on a dare by the author, who was challenged to write a book which combined the Lost Roman Legion and Pokemon. The Roman and Pokemon flavor sets this apart from a ton of the pseudo-Medieval European Epics out there. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • The Blade Itself (The First Law): Published in 2006
  • His Majesty’s Dragon(Temeraire): Published in 2006, this is the most successful Flintlock Fantasy book ever written. This takes Napoleonic Era literary tropes and adds dragons. Subgenres: Flintlocke Fantasy
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora(Gentleman Bastard): Published in 2006 to general acclaim, LLL is a straight up Crime Fantasy. Featuring witty prose and fun characters, this is a dark book which shines bright, with roots equally in the movie ‘The Godfather’ and Harry Potter. Subgenre: Crime Fantasy
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire(Mistborn): Published in 2006, this book features a detailed and ‘rational’ magic system. Mistborn is probably the Patient Zero of the modern trope of magic systems which have been systematized. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Crime Fantasy
  • The Name of the Wind(Kingkiller Chronicles): Published in 2007, this novel combines a frame story with an untrustworthy narrator. It turns ‘Chosen One’ tropes on their head, meaning this book is written in counterpoint to the Post-Tolkien High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy Golden Age of the 1970’s-1990’s. It became so popular that a lot of people outside the genre have read it. Subgenre: High Fantasy
  • The Hunger Games(Hunger Games): Published in 2008, this book is Patient Zero for the YA Dystopia Genre boom which dominated the publishing industry for several years. While it’s a SciFi book, I choose to include it in this list because SciFi and Fantasy are two highly integrated genres. Subgenre: Dystopia
  • The Warded Man(Demon Cycle): Published in 2008

2010’s: Diversity’s Ascent and the Rise of Postmodernism

  • The Way of Kings(Stormlight Archive): Published in 2010, THE WAY OF KINGS is a loveletter from it’s author to the books of the Golden Age of Epic Fantasy. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • The Black Prism (Lightbringer): Published in 2010
  • Prince of Throns: Published in 2011
  • Alif the UnseenPublished in 2012, ALIF THE UNSEEN is a straight up commentary on modern-day life. Set during the Arab Spring when Arab nations were rebelling against dictators, this is the story of an Arab nation rebelling, but with the help of some djinni. ALIF was written by a Muslim, and thus typifies the relatively new tendency in the publishing industry to focus on publishing books written by traditionally underserved minorities. Subgenre: Urban Fantasy:
  • Three Parts Dead(The Craft Sequence): Published in 2012, this is a fusion of Steampunk, Law, Urban and High Fantasy. The main character is a lawyer-necromancer and it’s her job to resurrect dead gods- where gods are a metaphor for massive multinational businesses which have gone bankrupt. Written in the aftermath of the fiscal crash of 2008, the author wanted to capture the terror of Wall Street as the markets crashed. Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • Range of Ghosts(The Eternal Sky): Published in 2012, this is a Mongolian Epic Fantasy. Temur is the orphan grandson of the Great Khan, and must go on a quest to reclaim his kingdom from usurpers. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Blood Song (Raven’s Shadow): Published in 2012
  • Promise of Blood (Powder Mage): Published in 2013
  • The Crown Tower(Riyria): Published 2013, this is the second self-published novel to make this list. Prior to about 2010 self-publishing was not viewed as a reputable way to get your books out there (with Eragon being the exception). Today self-pubbing is practically mandatory aspect of every professional author’s playbook if they want to make money full time.  Eventually the Riyria books were picked up by a mainstream publisher.
  • Senlin Ascends(Tower of Babel): SENLIN ASCENDS is another broadly successful self-pubbed Fantasy, but became more popular due to word of mouth several years after it’s initial release. Just goes to show that there are self-published gems out there. Subgenre: Low Fantasy
  • City of Stairs(The Divine Cities)Published in 2014, THE CITY OF STAIRS is a murder mystery set in a fantasy city. The tropes used in this book are something of a repudiation of the good-vs-evil tropes used all over the place in the Golden Age, as all the characters are various shades of gray. Subgenre: Thriller Fantasy
  • Annihilation(Southern Reach)Published in 2014. An alien ecosystem has colonized Earth, and it’s up the the protagonist known only as ‘The Biologist’ to figure out what is going on. This is an eco-punk novel, a genre which is defined by tales of ecology and Earth. Subgenres: Horror, SciFi, Ecopunk.
  • The Goblin Emperor (Goblin Emperor): Published in 2014
  • Uprooted: Published in 2015
  • The Library at Mount CharPublished in 2015, this book is the winner of the ‘WTF did I just read?!’ award. This is pretty much the pinnacle of the Post-Modernist Fantasy trend of dubiously heroic heroes and weird plotlines, THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR is a fantastic. Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant(The Masquerade)Published  2015, this is a story of economic imperialism, eugenics, cultural hegemony and homosexuality. This is a dark and screwed up book which takes itself very seriously, so I can’t say that this is a ‘fun’ book. Read this for what it is, an ‘issues’ book. Subgenre: Dark Fantasy
  • Red Sister(Book of the Ancestor) Published in 2017, this is a story told in a non-linear style about battle-nuns trying to prevent the end of the world in an ice-age. This book features a ‘Hogwarts’ like setting and a brutal style similar to ASOIAF, making it a descendant of the seeds spread by Harry Potter and GAME OF THRONES. Subgenre: Epic Fantasy
  • Amberlough(The Amberlough Dossier)Published in 2017, this is a No-Magic fantasy book. There’s no sorcery, dragons, or even vampires. Instead the author takes the genre in a daring new direction: straight up Thriller/Spy Drama. Subgenre: Thriller, Urban Fantasy
  • Jade City(The Green Bone Saga)Published in 2017, this is a story of magical, kung-fu fighting street gangs. It’s basically wuxia film(think ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) meets ‘the Godfather,’ set in a 1970’s-ish vaguely Asian island nation. Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
  • CircePublished in 2018, this novel is the highly personal story of the Greek nymph Circe as she struggles to come to terms with her place in the world- not quite a god, and not quite a mortal. This book has it’s roots in ancient mythology, as well as unconventional protagonists such as those in THE MISTS OF AVALON. Subgenre: Alternative History