Plenty of fans are attracted to fantasy by books like Eragon and Harry Potter, and as magical as those stories are, the genre has always been much broader (and deeper) than sword-wielding farm boys and boy wizards. This list is a collection of outstanding fantasy books for adults, including some of the most acclaimed and well-known titles, as well as hidden gems and forgotten classics. If you're searching for a fantasy aimed at older readers, these engrossing fantasies have all the magic of books like Harry Potter, while also exploring themes which likely resonate more with adults than with young fantasy fans.
Lying somewhere between The Mist and Finnegan’s Wake, Delany’s Dhalgren is a surreal, enigmatic, and ultimately fascinating read for anyone looking for a book that tests the boundaries of fiction. The book is primarily set in the Midwestern city of Bellona, where bizarre and unexplained phenomena reign. The city is isolated from the rest of the world by unknown forces, and can be entered only by a single bridge. The newest resident is the book’s protagonist, an amnesiac called “the kid,” who crosses paths with the strange lives of Bellona’s citizens and discovers a text that seems eerily similar to the one we’re reading…
Silver Birch, Blood Moon
Featuring heavyweights like Neil Gaiman and Patricia McKillip (and sporting a World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology), Silver Birch, Blood Moon refashions classic fairy-tales for an adult audience. This means reimagining Thumbelina as a subtle horror story, or making the Beast of Beauty and the Beast into a Voudon snake-priest. Other stories, like Pat York’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, give otherwise simple tales an unexpected sense of depth and heartache. The great strength of the anthology is the sheer variety and imagination on display—tales can be skin-crawlingly creepy, laugh-out-loud funny, or surprisingly thoughtful. It’s a truly grown-up world of fairy-tales, and one of our favorite fantasy books for adults.
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Bride of the Rat God
Right off the bat, the premise of Bride is an eye-catching one: a Chinese film star in 1920s Hollywood is being stalked by an old-world Chinese demon … and she may be to blame for it. Hambly expertly teases out the personalities and inner lives of the book’s heroines, Christine (the aforementioned film star) and her sister-in-law Norah, the latter of whom manages to steal the show with her deft characterization. For anyone obsessed with the glamour and nostalgia of the silent film era, Bride is a sumptuous dive back into that world, but with a supernatural twist.
Two of the words most often used to describe Deerskin are “haunting” and “dark.” The story centers on Lissla Lissar, the daughter of a king who suddenly loses his queen. Driven made with grief, the king becomes obsessed with his daughter, who has grown to look exactly like the wife he lost. In one of the darkest chapters of the book, Lissla is raped by her father and runs away, accompanied only by her loyal dog, Ash. Though it retains some of the fairy-tale trappings of the original story by Charles Perrault, Deerskin plunges head-first into themes of trauma and recovery, and ultimately provides a message of hope.
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The Poppy War
The Poppy War takes Chinese history as its bedrock and builds an immersive fantasy world from those foundation stones, echoing everything from the Imperial exam to the Massacre of Nanjing. Kuang’s heroine Rin is a peasant from the country who manages to be inducted into her country’s elite academy, where she discovers that she can harness the power of shamanic magic. As Rin comes into her power, however, she is faced with a choice: keep her destructive potential in check, or unleash it against her country’s bitter enemies. Unlike many fantasy authors, Kuang doesn’t shy away from the atrocities and horrors of war—instead, The Poppy War gazes directly into the abyss.
Featuring two of the heavyweights of fantasy and nominated for a World Fantasy Award, Good Omens is packed with the wit, irreverence, and idiosyncrasies that made both of its authors famous. The book follows Aziraphale and Crowley, an angel and demon who are sent to enact the end of the world by manipulating the young Antichrist. There’s also the young Antichrist himself, who (due to a mix-up at birth) has been misplaced and is growing up quite normally in lower England. As the prophesied end of the world grinds ever closer, Crowley and Aziraphale must scramble to prevent it—partly because neither of them can bear to live in a world without human comforts.
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Years before the musical dominated Broadway, there was simply Wicked, a radical reimagining of the world of Oz in which the “Wicked Witch of the West” (renamed Elphaba) is recast as a fiercely idealistic revolutionary soured by the cruelty of Oz and its despotic tyrant, the Wizard himself. The story follows Elphaba all the way from childhood to her death at the hands of Dorothy, including her long-time friendship with the woman who would become Glinda. Along the way, Maguire transforms the child-friendly tale of Oz into a true fantasy book for adults, one where science, magic, and religion are at war and talking animals are the subject of a new civil rights movement. The result is heady, immersive, and tragic.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
Lies mixes the delicious intrigue and intricate planning of a grand heist story with the swashbuckling rakishness of Renaissance Venice to tell the tale of Locke, an orphan-turned-thief, and his adoptive band of thieves, the Gentleman Bastards. Immersive worldbuilding and witty (but foul-mouthed) dialogue are found in spades here, but Lies’ outstanding reputation is really due to its colorful cast of characters, whose relationships form the emotional core of the story. As it unfolds, Lies reveals itself as a surprisingly poignant, even gut-wrenching tale that stands as a masterpiece of fantasy storytelling.
A Game of Thrones
Twenty years after its release, A Game of Thrones remains one of the best fantasy books for adults, due in part to its sprawling cast of compelling characters and its complex web of schemes. However, the secret to its continued success is arguably the fact that it doesn’t play by the staid rules of epic fantasy. Set primarily within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the grand arc of the narrative follows the struggle between Great Houses for control of the Iron Throne. The final product is a sprawling tapestry woven together from cunning plots, twisted desires, and poignant family sagas, all of which depict (as George R.R. Martin calls it) “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Ever since N.K. Jemisin burst onto the scene, her fantasy novels have been met with an avalanche of praise and awards, starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. This novel starts with Yeine Darr, a warrior-woman and leader of her people, being called to the floating city of Sky, where the ruling Arameri family keeps a small pantheon of gods enslaved to ensure their control over the kingdoms below. Yeine discovers that she’s been named one of the heirs to the throne of Sky, but her only hope to claim it may lie in making dangerous deals with the city’s captive gods.
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