The 22 Best Fantasy Books of All Time
Sometimes, you just need a big dose of escapism. Life and the real world can be a bit much, after all. Enter the fantasy genre. There are plenty of stories to tell in something approximating our own world, but a world quite unlike ours really heightens the escapism. Magic is real. Dragons darken the skies. Djinn and unicorns and centaurs and phoenixes and anything a writer can imagine are suddenly brought to life within those pages.
The best fantasy books of all time? It’s a tall order. Some are set in fictional medieval worlds full of swords, sorcery, and creatures of myth. Some are set in the far future, though still with swords and sorcery. Some pull from mythologies that have existed for centuries, bringing them to life with new vigor. Even some are set in worlds not terribly unlike our own, at least, not until the greater mysteries are revealed.
All of these books are original, well-written, and foundational to the fantasy genre and its many sub-genres. These books have inspired generations of readers and writers and will continue to do so for generations to come. From the old and highly-influential to the new and popular, here are the 22 best fantasy books of all time.
Best Fantasy Books of All Time for Young Readers
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Young adult and fantasy go so well together. Finding yourself in a world you barely understand is an easy allegory for the bildungsroman central to every YA story. Few do it as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata series, in which a young woman living in Nigeria discovers that she and her friends have magic, and there’s a whole underworld to navigate.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This book is a big, epic doorstop of a novel in the classic tradition of epic fantasies. Magic used to be everywhere until a terrible king killed every maji he could find. Now Zelie, who lost her mother during the purge, has a chance to bring magic back. The world is dangerous, though, almost as dangerous as the king.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Laia is a scholar, going about her life doing scholarly things. But when her brother is arrested for treason, she has to go undercover as a slave in hopes of freeing him. Elias is an unwilling soldier, though undoubtedly one of the best in the Martial Empire. When Elias and Laia meet up, they find their destinies are bound together, as well as the destiny of the Martial Empire.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which begins with this book, is an atheistic retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not only is it a compelling tale of Lyra’s adventures through her and parallel worlds, of gods and daemons, but it proves that YA fantasy can, in fact, be literary as well.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This classic of children’s fantasy has turned into an Academy Award–winning animated movie. Sophie has long been told that misfortune will befall her if she ever leaves her village. Through tragic accident, a witch transforms her into an old lady. Now, Sophie must leave and find the moving castle of the Wizard Howl.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
This novel and its sequels are a great example of one of YA fantasy’s best trope: teen who doesn’t realize that they’re magical. In this case, Percy is an Olympian. Or at least, the child of Olympians. And he’s not the only one. He’ll learn a great deal about himself and the magical world at a summer camp just for these special children.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’s classic of children’s fantasy is the ultimate in wish fulfillment. A group of bored children discover that through the back of a wardrobe in their home, there’s a portal to a magical world. Not only that, but these children are key to saving that world from a dark fate. This isn’t the only book from the Inklings that’s one of the best fantasy books of all time.
The Reader by Traci Chee
Sefia has been well trained as a survivalist. Her aunt Nin made sure of that after Sefia’s father was murdered. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia discovers that she needs more than these skills. She finds a strange object left behind by her father: a book. In an otherwise illiterate world, this object is a magic of its own, and might be the only way of saving her aunt and solving her father’s murder.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Here’s another classic, this one of the YA variety before YA was really a defined genre. Ged used to be the greatest sorcerer on Earth back when he was called Sparrowhawk. But he made mistakes back then. Big mistakes. Now he will have to do everything in his considerable power to undo those mistakes and bring balance back to the world.
The Best Fantasy Novels of All Time for Adults
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I don’t care if this book is more than 20 years old, I refuse to call it a classic. Now a hit series, this book imagines that the old gods of every pantheon like Norse, Egyptian, and Greek are real. Without followers, their powers are diminished. And there are new gods: shopping, Internet, and technology. A war is coming between the old and new gods, and a man named Shadow is right in the middle.
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Sarah J. Maas has taken the book world by storm with this series that starts right here in this magical, romantic retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Faeries, enemies-to-lovers, and all sorts of other great fantasy staples populate this series. And there are much larger threats than close-minded villagers.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
On Pern, life has been good and peaceful for a long time. An ancient and terrible myth is about to rear its head, though, threatening to destroy and ruin everything. Lessa is an outcast, robbed of her birthright and her parents. As this huge threat rises, so does Lessa. Her deep telepathic bond with a dragon makes her a dragonrider, and maybe they can stop the rising evil.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Yes, I’m not a fan of the Wheel of Time series, as I’ve said before. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the huge influence that Robert Jordan’s seminal series has had on the fantasy genre. The darkness was long ago sealed away, but it’s threatening to emerge again. Now, only the Dragon Reborn can stop this evil, whoever that is. Maybe it’s one of the young people from Two Rivers.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This novel is absolutely incredible and starts a trilogy in which every book won the Hugo Award for best novel. In this world, magic users are enslaved and controlled. They’re feared for their ability to break the world, but needed for those same skills. A murdered son and stolen daughter will send one such woman on a quest of revenge and love, and lead to much bigger things.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Do I really need to give a setup for this novel and the series that follows? The HBO series of the same name is one of biggest cultural phenomenons ever. Even the recent follow-up, House of the Dragon, is huge. This fantasy novel of political machinations, huge battles, dragons, and white walkers is vast and intricate. It also seems like every modern fantasy writer is trying to replicate Martin’s magic.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Ken Liu coined the term “silkpunk” to describe this very series. Kuni and Mata seem thoroughly incompatible. Kuni is a smooth bandit. Mata is the adamant son of a deposed duke. When a rebellion begins against the emperor, though, they find kinship in one another as the battles start. In the aftermath of the rebellion, they rise up to lead opposing factions vying for power, and have to redefine their volatile relationship.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Great writing, a cool Asian metropolitan setting, and a unique blend of magic and kung-fu make this one of the best fantasy books of all time. On the island of Kekon, jade is everything. It is not only the island’s most valuable resource, but a select few have the magical power to wield it. After a terrible war, the market for jade is worse than ever. When a new drug emerges that allows anyone to wield jade, what was once a cold war turns hot and violent.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
While this book isn’t the first fantasy book or even Tolkien’s first, it defined the modern fantasy genre. An epic quest in a medieval setting, grand magic, ancient lore, and overwhelming villains populate this lush world. One little Hobbit has the one item sought by great evil, and only he and his fellowship can save the world. Classic.
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson is synonymous with modern fantasy. While this wasn’t his first book, it’s the one that put him on the map and defined his approach to fantasy writing. For 1000 years, the world has been under the tyrannical rule of the Lord Ruler, the Skaa enslaved under the regime. Now, a half-Skaa orphan has discovered he has the powers of the Mistborn. He’s gathering a following, a talented group of allomancers to his side, all in the hopes of overthrowing the Lord Ruler.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola
Here’s a classic of the fantasy genre that far too few people have heard of. Part autobiographical and heavily based in Yoruba folklore, it tells the tale of an alcoholic man searching for his dead palm-wine tapster. Wildly imaginative and deftly crude, it’s a classic and was the first novel that Tutuola had translated into English.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
This series is one of the best for blending classic tropes of epic historical military fantasy with racism, misogyny, and chosen-one problems. Rin is a poor, dark-skinned girl. There’s no expectation of her. But then she aces the Keju, the test for youth in the empire, which means she’s going to the most elite military school in the Empire. But once there, her gender, skin color, and poverty make her a target. The incredible power emerging in her, however, are about to more than balance those scales.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
This one is a personal favorite of mine, a book that starts a strange blend of fantasy and science fiction in a post-apocalyptic world. Severian is an apprentice in the torturer’s guild. But one day he commits the greatest crime in his guild: showing mercy. Banished with a deadly and specific set of skills, Severian wanders the countryside. He soon finding himself embroiled into the political machinations of the land and finds that war is as good a place as any to ply his trade.
Only 22 books, but they’re the best fantasy books of all time. Need more? How about the most influential fantasy, the top fantasy books on Goodreads, or a focus on the best fantasy books of the last decade?