Fantasy has transformed from a niche genre into a mainstream phenomenon in the past few decades, which is great news for those who loved it from the beginning. Whether you’re a fan of epic quests, swashbuckling adventures, or something weird and wonderful, you’ll find classic authors and intriguing newcomers in our list of the very best fantasy books ever written.
Our picks for the most magical sagas out there are below in chronological order. Let us know in the comments if we missed one of your favorite fantasies, and we'll be sure to add it to our to-be-read list!
The Once and Future King
Often overlooked by modern fantasy readers, The Once and Future King is a reimagining of the classic tale of King Arthur, with Lancelot portrayed as incredibly ugly and Merlin living his life backward in time.
Though the book is telling an ancient story, it diverges from the old version to deal with much more modern issues, such as fascism and the perils of ruling through power.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
Chances are you’re familiar with this book through cultural osmosis alone: four children in an old house end up in a wardrobe, which acts as a portal to the frozen land of Narnia, which is being held in the wintry grip of the White Witch.
Though the Chronicles of Narnia are known primarily as children’s books, the series’ adventure and imaginative elements are enough to win over adults, too.
The Fellowship of the Ring
Tolkien’s sprawling, elegiac epic of Middle-earth’s Third Age remains a cornerstone of the genre, not just because of the depth of its worldbuilding or the scale of its adventure, but because it managed to evoke feelings of melancholy and transcendental beauty in its prose, in its characters, and its story.
Everyone may know about Frodo, Sauron, Gandalf, and the Ring, but nothing’s the same as seeing the adventure begin in Fellowship. Modern fantasy began here, and some will argue that Tolkien still does it best.
Science-fantasy novel Dragonflight made Anne McCaffrey the first female author to win both a Hugo and Nebula Award, and has entranced fantasy readers for generations.
The story centers on Lessa, a young woman who telepathically bonds with a dragon named Ramoth and must serve as her world’s defender against the Thread, a kind of space-borne spore that rains down on Pern and threatens to eat all life.
Wizard of Earthsea
In one of the most acclaimed pieces of fantasy of all time, Wizard of Earthsea manages to tell a beautiful, complete fantasy epic in the space it takes some authors to get the farm boy main character out of their home village.
The book evokes the wonder and mysticism of old legends, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s stark prose reads more like poetry at some parts. The titular wizard is Ged, a young boy whose greed for knowledge and power ends up unleashing a shadow upon the world, and his quest to fix his grave mistake.
Swords and Deviltry
Fritz Leiber literally defined “sword and sorcery” as a genre, and the adventures of Fahrfd and the Gray Mouser are classic examples.
Leiber’s tales of swashbuckling escapades with Fahrfd the barbarian and Mouser the rogue remain some of the most beloved tales in fantasy, and Sword and Deviltry collects several short stories about their lives before teaming up, as well as the highly acclaimed “Ill-Met in Lankhmar,” which covers their first meeting and fateful decision to begin adventuring together.
Camber of Culdi
Camber of Culdi has everything you could want in a fantasy epic—a plot to overthrow a cruel king, a lost heir to the throne—but the book puts its own twist on familiar tropes with the Deryni, a race of humans that can call upon powerful ritual magic.
In addition, the setting is based directly on medieval Wales, and includes the presence of the Catholic Church, which plays a big role. Intrigue and schemes abound, setting the stage for Kurtz’s Chronicles of the Deryni series.
Pawn of Prophecy
Recommended to young adults and teenagers in particular, Pawn of Prophecy is the opening book of the Belgariad series. It follows Garion, a young farmboy who discovers that he may indeed by a ‘pawn of prophecy,’ chosen to help regain an incredibly powerful artifact before it’s used to bring ruin to the world.
He sets out with a party of companions, including the storyteller Mr. Wolf and the princely assassin Silk.
The Gunslinger is a weird book, often compared more to a dream than a coherent novel: a blend of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, it’s the prelude to the rest of the Dark Tower saga, which attempts the monumental task of tying together dozens of King’s books, ranging from It to The Stand.
On its face, however, the Gunslinger is relatively simple: a gunslinger named Roland is hunting down a mysterious figure, called “the man in black.”
The beginning of the Riftwar Saga, Magician is sometimes split into two separate books: Apprentice and Master.
Both are packed with action and magic, and both tell the story of Pug, an orphaned boy who becomes a student of magic to the wizard Kolgan and goes on to play an instrumental role in an ongoing war between the residents of Midkemia and the otherworldly people who come pouring through a rift in space and time, called the Tsurani.
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Dragons of Autumn Twilight
Fans of Dungeons & Dragons know that Dragons of the Autumn Twilight was based on Hickman and Weiss’ own adventures in the D&D setting of Dragonlance (its plot is even based on some of game’s modules), but that’s not a point against it.
Dragons doesn’t claim to be anything other than what it is: old-school ‘80s sword-and-sorcery, with a band of heroes, an adventure to obtain a powerful staff, and evil, dragon-riding villains.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn
In Ladies, an evil wizard has taken over the country of Mandrigyn and captured or killed all of the able-bodied men, leaving the women to flee south…where they promptly kidnap a barbarian mercenary named Sunwolf and force him to teach them how to fight. It’s a dramatic departure from fantasy’s usual plotlines, and it brings excellent worldbuilding to the table in addition to memorable characters. The Ladies themselves are a diverse cast, and the female mercenary Starhawk in particular stands out.
Flight from Nevèrÿon
Flight is actually several works collected into one volume: “The Tale of Fog and Granite,” “The Mummer’s Tale,” and” The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals.” The collection explores themes like the unreliability of stories and perception, experiments with the genre of sword and sorcery, and discusses the AIDS crisis by paralleling stories from 1980s New York with a similar sexual plague in Neveryon. Overall, it’s a unique, intellectual take on fantasy.
Apart from being (arguably) the best place to start Pratchett’s convoluted and madcap Discworld series, Mort is one of the strongest and most beloved books in the saga. The book starts with Mort, a misfit boy who is taken on by Death as a new apprentice. Unfortunately, Mort doesn’t have the stomach to watch people die, and soon interferes with fate. As always, the character of Death is a joy to read, and his awkward attempts at teaching Mort (as well as enjoying his time off) are heartwarming and laugh-out-loud.
Sister Light, Sister Dark
Sister Light, Sister Dark tells the story of Jenna, a young orphan girl who’s brought into a society of women who worship the Great Alta, a mother goddess who grants them the ability to conjure dark versions of themselves using a ritual and a mirror. One of the unique aspects of the book is its mixing in of historical accounts, folktales, and even songs from several hundred years after the book, which mythologize its events.
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Though Salvatore has penned a number of swashbuckling fantasy stories since the original release of Homeland, the Dark Elf Drizz’t remains his most enduring and wildly popular character. Beginning in the dark, twisted subterranean city of Menzoberranzan, Homeland tracks the growth and training of Drizz’t Do’Urden, a swordsman who struggles to survive and keep his sense of morality intact as he plans to escape his corrupt society.
The Eye of the World
The beginning of one of the most popular modern fantasy series of all time, The Eye of the World sets the tone for what to expect in Jordan’s dozen-plus books: heaps of worldbuilding, stacks of adventure, and lots of exciting battles. The story focuses around Rand al’Thor, a country boy driven from his home with a small band of friends to follow Morraine, a female mage, who suspects Rand might fulfill a prophecy to defeat the Dark One, the avatar of evil.
Marked by beautiful prose and deft worldbuilding inspired by Renaissance Italy, Tigana tells the story of the rebels of the titular nation, whose name and history have been wiped from everyone’s memory but its former citizens. Seeking revenge against the sorcerer Brandin, who erased their homeland from the rest of the world, the story is an epic adventure, a tale of revenge, and a story of love.
At first glance, Boy’s Life seems like it’s on the wrong list—it’s about 11-year-old Cory Mackenson, a boy growing up in 1960s Alabama. The story begins with Cory and his dad watching a car plow into their town’s lake and trying to save the passenger, only to find that they’ve already been murdered. What follows is an expertly woven tapestry of childhood innocence, magic, mystery…and profound darkness. Aside from being a great piece of fantasy, it’s a great piece of literature, period.
The Black Company
On one end of the fantasy spectrum are tales of heroism, bravery, and sacrifice. On the other end is The Black Company, a story about a band of mercenaries who will stab, deceive, and betray anyone who threatens their survival. Told through the written journals of the Company’s physician, Croaker, the story begins with the company being recruited to work for the setting’s villain, The Lady. From there, a the bloody adventure begins…
The Iron Dragon's Daughter
Daughter is both a biting subversion of the fantasy genre and a nightmarish, highly original piece of fantasy in itself. It begins in a factory in the land of Faerie, where a girl named Jane assembles mechanical dragons for use as military weapons. Soon, Jane is driven to escape the factory with one of the dragons, setting in motion a chain of events that drive her and Melancthon, her new dragon, to dismantle reality itself.
Wizard's First Rule
An epic fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordan and David Eddings, Wizard’s First Rule is about Richard Cypher, a woodsman who discovers he is a legendary Seeker, a hero destined to guide the world through times of crisis. The plot revolves around Richard and his allies attempting to track down and obtain the Boxes of Orden, which are being sought by the despot Darken. Be advised: Goodkind isn’t afraid to throw adult situations into his fantasy, whether it’s violence or eroticism.
Assassin’s Apprentice starts with its young hero, Fitz, in a tough spot: as the bastard son of a Prince, he’s thrust into a world of court intrigue where his bloodline makes him a prime target for scheming nobles. However, his blood also grants him some boons, one of them being the Skill, which allows him to influence the minds of others, and the other the Wit, which allows him to speak with animals. Fitz becomes the apprentice to the King’s Assassin, but it’s only the beginning of his journey.
The Golden Compass
Though marketed toward young adults, The Golden Compass’ alternate-reality worldbuilding, plotting, and quality of writing are excellent by any standard. The main character, Lyra, is a young girl staying at Jordan College (based in pseudo-Oxford, England) when her uncle arrives to announce a strange discovery: a new particle in the Arctic that has the potential to create windows into alternate dimensions. Filled with genuine wonder, excellent characters, and thought-provoking ideas, The Golden Compass deserves its high praise.
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Gaiman’s legendary novel plumbs the depths of London’s nightmarish subterranean doppelganger, London Below, where rats and the homeless are transformed into the populace of a dark kingdom. After helping an injured young girl named Door, businessman Richard Mayhew finds himself invisible in our familiar, everyday London and is forced to seek out this London Below, where he helps Door track down the mysterious person who killed her family.
A Game of Thrones
A modern pillar of the genre, A Game of Thrones is a fun little jaunt into a magical world filled with elves and dwarves. Just kidding! It’s a subversive, dark take on the familiar tropes of epic fantasy, built on the promise that clever pragmatism will (almost) always trump dumb heroism. Beneath the intricate political intrigue, brutal murders, and shocking backstabs, the series’ cast of vividly drawn characters are what really drive readers’ love of these books, even 23 years after the first title was released.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The popularity of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard lies somewhere between Pokémon and Beatles-mania in terms of sheer pop culture impact. Though written for kids and young adults, one of the reasons the series retained its hold on a generation of readers is that the books mature with the readers, transitioning from boarding school mystery to more high-stakes fantasy adventures. Throughout it all, the series retains its tight plotting, well-drawn characters, and genuinely fantastical moments of magic, and it all starts here.
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Gardens of the Moon
Gardens of the Moon has one of the most immersive, and complex fantasy worlds in the genre, so much so that it can get a little overwhelming. It’s the kind of book that requires a few re-readings to fully appreciate, but once you’ve passed the threshold, you can appreciate the realism of the characters, the epic scale of the battles, and how Erikson strives to avoid painting either side as black or white, good or evil.
The Dresden Files remains one of the most popular urban fantasy series of all time, based mostly on its blend of detective noir and dark magic. Storm Front focuses on Harry Dresden, a smart-mouthed wizard and P.I., and his investigation into the disappearance of Victor Sells, as well as a series of murders that end up implicating Harry himself. Though often imitated, nothing matches the Dresden Files’ combination of humor, action, and mystery.
The central premise of American Gods is strong enough to hook just about anyone: what if gods rose and fell based on whether humans continue to believe in them? What would the pantheon of 21st century look like, and what would happen to the forgotten deities? The story’s protagonist is Shadow, a recently-released convict who falls into the orbit of Mr. Wednesday, a mysterious man that seems to be well-known among the underground world of minor gods, who now live as near-mortals in obscurity.
Thief of Time
Thief of Time is a story about metaphysical bureaucrats, time-bending monks, a schoolteacher whose grandfather is Death, and a milkman who’s more than he seems. At the center of it all is a cross-dimensional clock built by a half mad-artificer, which threatens to stop time forever. Despite Pratchett’s relentlessly witty mode of storytelling, Thief of Time is more thrilling, wondrous, and poignant than most of his contemporaries—not to mention thought-provoking.
Eragon became one of the most striking young adult phenomena in the genre’s history based on its relatively quick pacing and solid (if familiar) plot, but the real magic was watching its protagonist Eragon raise and tame Saphira, an even-tempered dragon who quickly becomes his most trusted friend. Filled with plenty of battles, magic, and adventure, it’s an excellent introduction to the genre for younger readers.
On its face, it seems like just another Vampire Story™: girl gets kidnapped by vampires, meets a nice one, they build a relationship together. Sunshine is not that kind of story. It’s a dazzling, well-handled subversion of everything urban fantasy (with vampires™) does, with tremendously subtle worldbuilding and magic to boot. Vampires are strange, uncanny things, not heartthrobs with pointed teeth, and the relationship between the protagonist Rae and her newfound friend Constantine is remarkably complex.
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The Salt Roads
Among the books on this list, The Salt Roads may be the most unique. It follows the African deity Lasiren, who watches over (and guides) the lives of three different black women across three different centuries, helping each of them achieve their own kind of freedom. It’s a mix of historical fiction and magical realism that explores black heritage and struggles, and it’s been lauded as a landmark piece of literature.
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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is, in a word, “unhurried.” It takes its time to build up its characters, the atmosphere of Regency-era England, the flavor of London society, and the chain of events that bring together its titular characters, a pair of very different magicians whose use of magic is as different as their temperaments. The story, in short, details Strange and Norrell’s exploits as they attempt to turn the tide in the Napoleonic Wars and revive magic in England.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
Lies tells the tale of the Gentlemen Bastards, a highly educated group of thieves and confidence men that ply their trade (“steal” is too vulgar to describe their work) on the rich of Camorra, the fantasy equivalent of Venice. Filled to the brim with clever deceptions, schemes within schemes, and double-crosses, the book is a virtuoso performance of clever plotting, humor, and old-school drama. It’s a book with heart, and its cast of characters is the strongest part.
The Blade Itself
The Blade Itself is, in three words, dark, gritty, and brutal. It’s grimdark fantasy at its most condensed and unapologetic, and Abercrombie is among the best at writing it. The book is split between three different protagonists: Glokta, a disgraced torturer for the Union; an ailing empire, Logen Ninfingers; a barbarian who’s been kicked out of his homeland in the frozen North; and Jezal, a spoiled nobleman wrapped up in his own selfish, high-class world.
The Name of the Wind
In a welcome turning of the tables, Name of the Wind is about a globetrotting adventurer, mage, and kingmaker who’s decided to settle down as a no-name tavern-keeper. The whole book consists of Kvothe, the protagonist, recounting his adventures and meteoric rise from orphan child to a student at one of the most prestigious magical universities in the land. Name of the Wind’s excellent prose, strong voice, and well-drawn protagonist have made it one of the most popular books in the genre.
The Warded Man
The Warded Man is set in a world living in fear of the corelings, demons who rise from the world’s core to hunt down humans every night. Humanity’s only defense is wards, magical runes that can hold back the corelings, but one man, named Arlen, decides it’s time to go on the offensive. His story intertwines with those of Leesha, a healer, and Rojer, a boy raised as a musician whose fiddle music can tame the corelings.
You could say The Magicians is the anti-fantasy fantasy book. Quentin, a young man with a childhood love of fairy tales and stories of magic, ends up becoming a student at a real-life school of magic and even finds that the magical land of Fillory from his childhood is real. However, Quentin discovers that no matter how far into the worlds of magic he travels, he can’t escape his problems.
The Way of Kings
Way of Kings became a New York Times bestseller almost on Day One, partly on the promise of a sprawling, epic fantasy series that wasn’t about a group of teenagers saving the world. Instead, the story juggles the POVs of a scholar learning magic, a slave sent to kill a king, the brother of the murdered king, and a man forced to fight for the nobility he hates. Woven throughout is Sanderson’s inventive worldbuilding and magic, all of which ties together very neatly.
One of the notable steampunk entries on this list, Leviathan explores an alternate history version of World War I fought by the German Clankers, who assemble giant, walking war machines, and the British Darwinists, who create menageries of bio-engineered warbeasts. In the middle of the ongoing war, two unlikely protagonists meet: the Austrian exile Aleksander, son of Archduke Ferdinand, and Deryn, a commoner girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the war effort.
Within the grand fantasy tradition of a small band of misfits overthrowing an evil empire, Mistborn brings two major things to the table: a protagonist who rides the line between ‘hero of the common people’ and ‘ruthless murderer’, and allomancy, a strikingly creative magic system that involves consuming metals to gain powers like telekinesis or enhanced strength. The ingenious ways Sanderson uses his magic is one the book’s highlights, as is the relationship between the protagonists, Kelsier and Vin.
The Night Circus
The Night Circus, as the title suggests, deals with a mysterious and magical circus that only opens from sunset to sunrise. The book revels in its imaginative, lusciously depicted Circus of Dreams, which features surreal, beautiful, dream-like acts and performances by performers who are at once otherworldly and unmistakably human. The plot revolves around an ongoing duel between two of the Circus’ leaders, who use the young protagonists, Celia and Marco, as pawns in a decades-long game.
The Killing Moon
The Killing Moon takes place in the city of Gujaareh, where the dreams of sleeping residents are harvested by Gatherers, who serve the dream-goddess. However, these secretive mages also serve as executioners, and a series of murders by an unknown Gatherer threaten to plunge the city into chaos. Bursting with beautiful prose and intricate worldbuilding, the Gujaareh and its complex politics and citizens seem to live and breathe on the page.
Throne of the Crescent Moon
A refreshing change of pace from European-inspired fantasy settings, Throne takes place in a distinctly Middle-Eastern-flavored world—one that’s intricately and carefully crafted as anything on this list. The story follows the aging Adoulla Makhslood, a hunter of magical, zombie-like creatures called ghuls, and his band of companions, including a dervish fighter and a shape-shifting tribeswoman, as they hunt down the sorcerer behind a spate of ghul attacks in the city of Dhamsawaat and beyond.
Promise of Blood
Set amidst the fantasy equivalent of the French Revolution in a world where magic exists alongside flintlock firearms, Promise of Blood is packed to the gills with politics, military tactics, and worldbuilding. The book begins with a daring coup by Field Marshal Tamas, who controls a group of magicians called Powder Mages. The coup ends in the execution of the king and his aristocrats, but sparks a war with neighboring nations, not to mention uprising and shadowy plots at home…
The Goblin Emperor
By now, fantasy readers are as familiar with ruthless court intrigue as they are with evil kings. The Goblin Emperor turns all of that on its head with Maia, a half-goblin, half-elf who unexpectedly finds himself ruling a kingdom of Elves. Maia is compassionate, genuine, and terribly good-hearted, and watching him navigate the stormy waters of power, conspiracies, and favors within his court is both wonderful and heartbreaking—despite all his power, what Maia desires most is friendship.
The Changeling tells the story of Apollo Kagwa, a used bookseller living with his wife and newborn baby in New York. What starts as a well-written narrative about domestic life and parenting in the modern age transforms into a fairy tale nightmare, complete with witches, trolls, and more horrifying things, all revolving around Apollo’s search for his wife after she commits an unspeakable crime. Along the way, Apollo discovers that like fables, life can be much darker and more complicated than it appears.
Uprooted is unique among acclaimed fantasy titles in a couple ways: it’s a standalone story, it’s well-paced, and it doesn’t just put its own twist on familiar fairytale tropes—it demonstrates why they were so captivating to begin with. The story kicks off with the young female protagonist, Agnieszka, learning magic under the tutelage of a wizard called the Dragon, and their fight against the Wood, a malicious magical forest that kidnaps humans.
The City of Brass
The protagonist of the book is Nahri, a fortune-teller and conwoman who inadvertently summons a djinn named Dara and soon finds herself carried to the titular city of the djinn. Nahri discovers that she herself is half-djinn, and so begins a web of plots and intrigue.
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