For an immersive escape, there's no better place to turn than the world 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 and 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 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.
When it comes to creating richly-realized, immersive fantasy worlds, Garth Nix is in a tier all his own. The Way of Kings author Brandon Sanderson even dubbed Nix "one of the best worldbuilders in fantasy.” Nix is perhaps best known for his award-winning Old Kingdom Chronicles, a dark young adult fantasy set in an alternate historical England called Ancelstierre. And now, Nix lends his creative vision to an adult standalone fantasy, Angel Mage, which features a brand-new world of celestial beings and manipulated mortals.
Over one century ago, Liliath—an angel magic practitioner—took shelter in Saint Marguerite’s sarcophagus to survive the Ash Blood plague and violent Fall of Ystara. Now reawakened after one hundred years, Liliath is hungry to be reunited with her long-lost lover, the archangel Palleniel. But the world has changed during her slumber, and Liliath finds angel magic is more taboo than ever. Moved by her own desires, she uses her powers to coerce four young humans—a healer, a treasure-seeker, a fortune-teller, and a scholar—into being pawns in her secret game.
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. Imrhien 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.
When 15-year-old Eragon discovers what appears to be a shining blue stone, he is shocked to discover that it is really a dragon egg. His humble life as a farmer's adopted son is flipped upside down when the egg hatches and the dragon inside bonds with him, making him the first new Dragon Rider in many years.
This makes Eragon the target of the evil King Galbatorix, who wants to either recruit Eragon or kill him before he can become a threat. In his quest to find safety and, in time, challenge Galbatorix, Eragon explores the vast world of Alagaësia, learns to control his burgeoning powers, and becomes a hero.
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 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 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.
Gardens of the Moon
Malazan Book of the Fallen is a fantasy lover's kind of series. Rich with world-building and compelling characters, the intricate nature of Steven Erikson's storytelling is apparent from the earliest pages of Gardens of the Moon. Twisting from one point of view to the next, Book 1 centers around Genabackis—an alliance of free cities that work against the overreach of the Malazan Empire. From Commander Dujek to the shapeshifting Anomander Rake, the cold-blooded killer called Sorry, and the mage Tattersail, Gardens of the Moon has no shortage of powers and personalities.
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 with 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.
The Way of Shadows
If you liked The Assassin's Apprentice, then the Night Angel Trilogy ought to be right up your alley. Durzo Blint is the city's most feared assassin. His new apprentice, a young boy called Kylar Stern, thought that his past as a guild rat, growing up in the slums, taught him what he needed to know about survival. But this new world of shadows presents more dangers than he could have imagined, and Kylar must learn to navigate the dangerous politics and strange magics of assassins.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Le Guin’s award-winning The Earthsea Cycle has been incredibly influential on modern fantasy fiction. Comprised of six books and several short stories, the cycle explores the world of Earthsea, an archipelagic realm within a mysterious ocean. Magic is an important and accepted way of life for almost all of the islands within Earthsea. Those who are born with particularly strong innate magical powers are sent to train on the island of Roke, where the most successful among them will eventually become wizards. The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, follows young Ged as he leaves his home island of Gont to train on Roke.
Throughout, Le Guin uses the Earthsea magic system as a way to explore humanity’s relationship with forces that are outside of our control, such as nature and mortality. Her worldbuiling was also noteworthy for its inclusivity; although adaptations of Earthsea have whitewashed its characters, Le Guin intentionally wrote that many of the series' characters, including Ged, have brown skin.
A Man of His Word
This high fantasy series from Dave Duncan is a mix of action, adventure, magic, and romance. Consisting of four spellbinding novels, the series follows Inos and Rap, two childhood friends who fall for each other as they mature. Despite the inseparable bond these two share, Inos is a princess whose life is already planned out for her by members of the royal family. Meanwhile Rap, a simple stable boy, is left yearning for Inos and awaiting the day she casts everything aside to be with him. But when Inos is abducted through a magic casement, she ends up in the strange land of Zark, while Rap is stuck in Faerie searching for a way to save her. Inos, however, isn’t your stereotypical damsel in distress. Rather than wait for Rap to rescue her, she tries to utilize the magic she knows as a means of freeing herself, and reclaiming her kingdom and rightful place on the throne.
This first novel in Jo Clayton’s Duel of Sorcery trilogy is truly high fantasy at its finest. The novel centers around Serroi, a green-skinned “misborn” who was treated as an outcast in her own world. Despite her small-frame, Serroi is brought up to become a meie warrior, a cold, calculating, and fearless soldier who will protect her realm. Although Serroi exhibits incredible talent in fighting, she finds herself constantly plagued by dark memories surrounding the wizards of Nor who specialize in evil magic. Early on in the novel, Serroi has an encounter with one of these foes who forces her to abandon her shieldmate Tayan. As she’s fleeing the fight, Serroi experiences a vision that shows her the birth of a terrifying force that threatens her world. The monster plans on plaguing Serroi’s land during the night of the Moongather, an evening where demons roam free and unleash whatever chaos they can. Being the only person who knows of this prophecy, it’s up to Serroi to figure out a way to stop this creature before it can destroy everything and everyone she knows.
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.
A Court of Thorns and Roses
If you’re looking for a high fantasy series that’s full of adventure, settings you’ll long to step into, and romance, then you might become obsessed with Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses.
The first book in the series, also titled A Court of Thorns and Roses, introduces Feyre, a 19-year-old mortal forced to hunt in the woods to feed her sister and father. When Feyre accidentally kills a male faerie while hunting, she's taken across the wall and imprisoned in the faerie realm of Prythian. A loose adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, A Court of Thorns and Roses follows Feyre as she learns that Tamlin, the bestial faerie High Lord holding her captive, is more complex than he first seemed.
Although the first book in the series is addictive, the world only becomes more rich in its subsequent novels, as Feyre subverts reader’s expectations for her and the relationship between faeries and mortals grows more complex. Currently, there are three books in the series and one novella with more on the way.
This dystopian, high-fantasy hybrid novel follows Eva, a girl who carries on her twin brother’s legacy after he falls to his death. In life, Eamon trained to become a Testor, a warrior who searches for powerful magical relics in the frozen, post-apocalyptic world outside of the kingdom of Aerie. When Eva—a maiden destined for embroidery classes and marriage—steps in to take over his position, she undergoes rigorous training that pushes her body to its absolute limits. Eva succeeds in becoming a Testor, and is immediately sent off into the icy Boundary Lands in search of relics. When she is out in the wilderness, Eva puts her training to the test, but its not without a few setbacks. Despite a handful of obstacles in her path, Eva overcomes the trials and discovers a powerful relic that will affect the future of Aerie, and the rest of the world.
A Game of Thrones
It's hardly an under-the-radar series, but no list of high fantasy would be complete without George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. From unlikely heroes to world-threatening forces like The Others, detailed histories and fictional lands, A Song of Ice and Fire has everything you look for in high fantasy.
This post is sponsored by HarperCollins Publishers. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the sci-fi stories you love.