For a crazy immersive escape, there's no better world to turn to than that of high fantasy. Popularized by works like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the sub-genre features several defining characteristics that set it apart from low fantasy (although, keep in mind that these "rules" are pretty flexible). Most commonly, a high fantasy novel takes place in a completely original universe—one that makes sense within its own context, but operates by its own laws. The central character lives within this universe, usually beginning in a place of disadvantage before taking up a good vs. evil quest that turns them into a revered hero or heroine. Along the way, they might also get a little help from a talented mentor, use some magic, and encounter a variety of fantastical creatures.
The following high fantasy books hit some, or all, of these marks. From a saga about a mute's journey across a land of wights and faeries to a series revolving around a young assassin with magical powers, they tell stories so epic—set in worlds so painstakingly developed—that you'll almost forget they're fictional.
The Bitterbynde Trilogy
Often hailed as Australia's answer to The Lord of the Rings, The Bitterbynde Trilogy follows the epic adventures of Imrhien—a reviled and physically scarred mute—as she travels across a world full of dangerous creatures, formidable warriors, and even more formidable villains. Her story begins in The Ill-Made Mute: Confined to a tower and with no memory of her past (or even that she’s a woman), she longs to explore Erith, cure her facial deformities, and find her true purpose in life. She gets her first taste of freedom after boldly stealing onto a flying Windship, which leads her to encounters with evil wights, a magical healer, friendship, and even romance. Imrhien returns in The Lady of Sorrows and The Battle of Everynight—this time with different names, a scar-free face and a returning memory, an enigmatic lover, and a desire to unlock the only remaining gate into the faerie realm.
The Legends of Camber of Culdi Trilogy
The Holy Church, monarchy, and feudal government of Katherine Kurtz’s Gwynedd may be modeled after historical Great Britain—but her universe has rules all its own. Normal humans and members of the magical Deryni race live side by side, though their strained relationship frequently incites major religious and political conflicts. One of the most famous Deryni of all is Camber MacRorie, whose bravery in the face of tyrannical rulers and Deryni-haters earns him as many admirers as it does foes. From usurping evil kings in Camber of Culdi to guarding the throne in Saint Camber and protecting Gwynedd itself in Camber of the Heretic, Kurtz’s hero is one every high fantasy reader ought to get to know.
Hrolf Kraki's Saga
In this British Fantasy Award winner, Poul Anderson reimagines the legend of a Viking king, drawing from Norse lore to create a biographical fantasy tale. Born into a royal family with a tumultuous history, Hrolf Kraki was a mighty ruler and fighter who earned the respect of his subjects. But while he was unbeatable on the battlefield, this ruthless warrior would one day meet an enemy he couldn't defeat: his own obsession with his father's murder. Anderson writes from the perspective of a female storyteller in a royal court, describing the events before Hrolf's birth, his rise to power, his fall from grace—and all the magic, monsters, and witches in between.
Witch World: High Hallack Cycle
Witch World is over four decades in the making and features a revolutionary blend of sci-fi, sword and sorcery, and high fantasy. The series is made up of three major “cycles”—including High Hallack, which refers to one of the six countries in Norton's parallel universe. Divided into Dales and bordered by the desolate land of the Waste, High Hallack is a place of heroes and heroines, magical artifacts, strange creatures, and animal companions. This particular collection contains five of the cycle’s 11 novels— following royal heirs, highborn ladies, determined lovers, and more as they fight evil throughout the land.
Robin Hobb’s fantasy universe features a two-part magic system—the Wit, a telepathic bond between humans and animals; and the Skill, which gives its wielders the ability to share their knowledge and strengths. FitzChivalry, the abandoned bastard of a prince and the hero of the Farseer Trilogy, eventually masters both. As a little boy, he forges a strong relationship a dog named Nosy—his only friend, save for the gruff stableman who’s charged with his upbringing. And as a servant to his royal grandfather, King Shrewd, he comes to better understand the ways of the Skill. But Fitz is also fluent in the art of murder, having secretly trained under a notorious assassin at Buckkeep Castle. While these gifts help him during his dangerous missions on Shrewd’s behalf, they also earn him many enemies—including his power-hungry Uncle Regal.
Related: 29 Must-Read Fantasy Book Series
The Name of the Wind
Kvothe has many names—Kingkiller, the Bloodless, the Arcane—but right now, he’s keeping a low profile as an innkeeper. After saving the Chronicler, a traveling scribe besieged by creepy creatures, he's inspired to call upon his memories and tell his story over the course of three days. Just one-third of Kvothe’s tale—the timeframe of The Name of the Wind—is enough to fill a lifetime: The son of actor parents, he led a happy childhood full of performing and training under their friend, a magic-wielding scholar. Tragedy left Kvothe without his mother and father, forcing him to fend for himself in the dog-eat-dog world of the slums. But despite years of hardship, he eventually got the opportunity to study at the University, where his summoning of the wind—considered a demonic power—paved the way for the events he describes in the next two novels.
The Eye of the World
As the series title “The Wheel of Time” implies, history always repeats itself in Robert Jordan’s high fantasy world. The crux of his series is a rivalry between the Dark One and the Dragon—a rare male magic-wielder who is continually reborn—that, as a result of time’s cyclical nature, occurs again and again. When The Eye of the World opens, a consequence borne from one of their battles can still be felt: Only women can practice the powers of the Aes Sedai, leaving any male practitioners at the mercy of violent persecutors...
When Trollocs attack the village of Emond’s Field, friends Rand, Mat, and Perrin must accept the fact that the stories of the Dark One may be true after all. The subsequent arrival of a woman of the Aes Sedai, and the protector to whom she’s magically bonded, further opens their eyes to their true destinies. So begins an adventure that continues in 13 other very long novels—so you'll have at least a year's worth of reading material.
The Way of Kings
Wracked by near-constant storms, the landscape, wildlife, and human inhabitants of Roshar lead sheltered lives to survive such harsh conditions. But this hostile world also comes with an extraordinary history of mystery and magic: The orders of the Knights Radiant vanished long ago—though their performance-enhancing weapons still remain. While people like Kaladin battle for ownership of such weapons in countless wars, some chase after other phenomena connected to the Knights Radiant. When Brightlord Dalinar Kholin develops an obsession with one of their ancient texts, he experiences worrisome visions of the past. And then there's Shallan, a scheming young woman studying under Dalinar's niece, whose research also points her towards the secrets of the legendary military organization. Their narratives, plus several others, come together to form the first high fantasy tale in Sanderson's wildly popular series, The Stormlight Archive.
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