All fantasy authors have to start somewhere. The best debut fantasy books ever written are a testament to what that starting line can look like. In fantasy, the delicate dance between worldbuilding, character, and craft is always difficult. Somehow, these authors got it just right with the first books they had published.
Pulling together a “best ever” list for fantasy is always going to be a difficult task. Fantasy is a large genre with a legacy that stretches back to early myths, legends, and stories in every part of the world. Nevertheless, I will continue to try to encapsulate the best things that have ever been done in the expansive fantasy genre via lists with the hope of tracking a small piece of the proverbial pie.
I am certainly going to miss excellent debut novels due to space, time, and quite frankly, the extant copies of early fantasy books. Today, these are the authors who challenge what we expect from fantasy books with their debut novels. Whether they changed everyone else around them or simply offered quiet examples of what fantasy books could be, the best debut fantasy books ever written are impressive. For the purposes of this post, I’ve listed the best debut fantasy books from oldest to newest to establish a timeline for the genre.
The Best Debut Fantasy Books
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
A single children’s book about a Hobbit on a dangerous journey across Middle-earth developed into a series of books that continue to define Western medieval-inspired high fantasy worlds today. Token’s work as a medieval scholar and fantasy writer works hand in hand with a debut novel that still inspires stories and criticism alike. When discussing the best debut fantasy books, this could not be left off the list.
Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin (1966)
Ursula K. Le Guin’s debut novel began the now legendary science fantasy Hainish Cycle. The scientist Gaverel Rocannon’s life changes forever when galactic rebels destroy his spaceship and the cultural exploration team he came to the planet with. Now stuck, he must travel to the rebel base in order to send a warning to his home planet. The longer he stays, the more he learns about the world around him and the fantastical people that call it home.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (2001)
This debut fantasy novel redefined how character development could explore worldbuilding and socio-cultural differences in genre fiction. A scarlet mote in Phèdre nó Delaunay’s left eye changed the course of her indentured servitude. As a child, a nobleman recognized her mark gave her the ability to experience pain and pleasure simultaneously, and trained her as a valued courtesan and spy. Following her development into adulthood, the first book in Phèdre’s Trilogy follows Phèdre through her successes and losses within and without a troubled court.
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (2005)
A decade ago, magic left the god-touched people of Elantris, leaving the immortal beings hungry and full of pain in Sanderson’s epic fantasy debut. Now, a cursed prince, an inquisitive princess, and a dogmatic high priest are all working to build the city in their own image. The first book set in the Cosmere establishes some of the quintessential worldbuilding and character elements readers have come to expect from Sanderson’s writing, including complex fantasy religious-political structures, downtrodden heroes, and clever characters who use wit to reshape the world around them.
Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (2009)
October “Toby” Day thought she had already fought for her happily ever after. Growing up from a fae half-breed street kid into a local Duke’s knight errant with a loving family of her own was supposed to be it. But, when Toby tracks down a fae for her duke, she gets turned into a fish for 14 years instead, changing her life forever. McGuire’s debut is a classic example of urban fantasy using a monster-of-the-week structure to challenge a hardened supernatural PI in the still-ongoing The October Daye series.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
Jemisin debuted with a frankly impressive high fantasy book. Yeine Darr is named heir to the throne in the floating city of Sky while mourning her mother’s murder. However, her quick rise in the succession lands her in an ongoing political conflict that she must learn how to maneuver if she wants to survive long enough to uncover who killed her mother. Detangling the motivations of her family, her society, and the gods will test Yeine’s impressive ability to achieve her goals.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
This NaNoWriMo-conceived fantasy debut introduced readers to the forbidden love between two competitors of a magical competition set at the fantastical Le Cirque des Rêves. Although the magicians, Celia and Marco, trained their entire lives, they are unprepared for the dark realities at the center of the illusory circus. Ultimately, the circus itself becomes the main character in a story that explores the way a place can shape the lives of the people it touches.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, Zacharias Wythe, is a formerly enslaved magician journeying to the border of Fairyland to investigate the recent decline in English magic. In a world where women are barred from practicing magic, he is surprised to find the answers to some of his problems lie with Prunella Gentlewoman and her impressive talents at a girl’s school of all places. A Regency London-set historical fantasy debut like Cho’s made a mark in the fantasy of manners world by successfully balancing the magical, the political, and the personal.
Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
Lee’s debut is correctly billed as an Asia-inspired urban fantasy version of The Godfather. In the island nation of Kekon, rare magical jade gives warriors with the right heritage access to their supernatural abilities. Past warriors protected the island from outside threats, but after the war, the two crime syndicates in the capital started to engage in deadly fights for control. The members of the Kaul crime family will have to decide how they want to handle the fight coming their way if they want to continue their inherited legacy.
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (2017)
A man changes his plan to injure himself early in a war as a way of dodging a life-long military career when those close to him are murdered. Although Tau doesn’t have the power of supernatural strength that 1% of men are gifted, he is determined to train and become the best swordsman of his generation to exact his revenge. The epic Zulu-inspired fantasy debut from Winters expertly offered readers a warring world full of dragons they could sink their teeth into.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (2018)
R.F. Kuang’s debut interrogates the effects of being funneled into an imperial system that doesn’t account for the weakest and poorest members of society. Drawing inspiration from twentieth-century China, in the first book of The Poppy War trilogy, Rin uses her spare time to study for a test that can free her from an arranged marriage. Excelling and getting into the top Academy is just the start of her problems, though, as her shamanic aptitude marks her as a valuable resource for an oncoming war.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
Gifted monster hunters like Maggie Hoskie are a valuable resource in a post-apocalyptic American landscape now filled with gods, heroes, and monsters from Navajo legend. What starts as a relatively simple rescue mission retrieving a missing girl from a monster develops into a deep conspiracy even Maggie has trouble dismantling. She will have to rely on the community around her if she wants to save everyone, even as her instincts pull her toward a solitary life. This dangerously compelling debut seamlessly builds on urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic fantasy, and Navajo legend.
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (2018)
In a queernorm, magic-filled version of Edwardian England, Miles Singer works as a hospital psychiatrist despite his noble upbringing. Born with the ability to fuel his sister’s magical gift, Miles left home to retain autonomy over his magic. When a dying patient orders him to uncover his murder, Miles is set on an investigation that will upturn his understanding of magic and the government. Polk’s debut continues to dazzle readers looking for their particular blend of powerfully constructed character arcs and larger socio-political systems that are made all the more compelling with magic.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (2020)
When a young royal leaves her home in the north after the death of her brothers, the defeat of her army, and the fall of her war mammoths, she becomes a southern empress with few friends. Along the way, she meets a loyal handmaiden sold to the palace who becomes tied to her rule. Vo’s debut Chinese-inspired high fantasy novella gave readers a queer, feminist takedown of a monarchy in a small but powerful package.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark (2021)
Clark’s high fantasy debut brings the cohort of lesbians-with-swords books to a new level. Princess Luca is ready to usurp her inept uncle and assume the throne, but to do so, she needs the help of a soldier ready to rebel. The empire stole Touraine as a child and trained her to be the soldier she is today, but when she is sent back to her homeland to kill for the empire, she questions where her loyalties lie. When the two meet, they negotiate a partnership that could change their empire forever.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021)
Any queer historical fantasy debut that takes on themes of identity and empire with such excellence deserves praise. Parker-Chan came into the fantasy world with a book set in an alternate version of 1345 China under Mongol rule. When Zhu’s brother, prophesied to do great things, dies after a bandit attack orphans them, she takes on his identity. Now Zhu has the chance to claim a new future as a monk poised to become the unlikeliest of heroes.
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske (2021)
Marske’s debut is deliciously queer, terribly romantic, and wonderfully magical. In an alternate version of Edwardian England, noble magicians govern the secrets of magical society. When baronet Robin Blyth accidentally gets appointed to a magical liaison position, he is thrown in the middle of a dangerous power struggle with the surly magician Edwin Courcy. The two will have to work together if they want to uncover the threats against them and the magic society at large, and they might just fall for each other in the process.
The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi (2022)
Sylah lived her life knowing one day she would overthrow the ruling class and avenge her family’s murder. Anoor may be the child of the empire’s ruler, but until she meets Sylah, she never thought she could enact change. Hassa keeps some of the most dangerous secrets in the empire, so when she meets Sylah and Anoor, she knows they can change the established power. Ultimately, the Ghanaian and Arabian-inspired sapphic high fantasy debut is revolutionary both in content and theme.
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel (2022)
In her historical fantasy debut, Patel expertly reimagines Valmiki’s Ramayana for readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the epic poem. Princess Kaikeyi may have grown up on great tales of gods changing people’s fate, but when her father banishes her mother and her hand in marriage is given up so easily, Kaikeyi begins to feel hemmed in by her lack of choices. Instead of giving up entirely, she turns to the stories that raised her and discovers magic that gives her a path to becoming an impressive queen.
The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem (2023)
This Egyptian-inspired high fantasy debut balances impressive magic systems, intricate world-building, and fully realized characters. When the kingdom of Jasad fell, the surviving people and their magic became an unwanted reminder for the kingdoms that remained. No one would expect the orphaned apothecary’s assistant, Sylvia, to be the magical Jasad heir in hiding. Being pulled out of hiding by the heir of another kingdom and into a deadly competition that could give her true freedom gives Sylvia a chance to confront everything she’s been hiding from the world and herself.
What are the Best Debut Fantasy Books to Come?
Every day, a fantasy author works on a debut novel that might just go down in history as one of the best debut fantasy books ever written. Truly, the 20 books here are a small fraction of everything out there, but they certainly deserve their praise. If you are looking for other fantasy books to read, try the 22 best fantasy books of all time, 9 of the best recent epic fantasy series, and the 20 most influential fantasy books of the last 10 years.