How can I possibly pick the greatest and best high fantasy books of all time? First, I need to define high fantasy, of course. Also called epic fantasy, high fantasy is set in a “second world.” A second world is a world that is not our own and doesn’t obey the same rules. That’s the definition, but it only begins to explain high fantasy.
High fantasy also includes a lot of tropes and hallmarks. Big books are pretty common. Swords and shields, kings and empresses, magical creatures, and magic-wielding humans are all commonplace. Tropes like the chosen one happen A LOT. Good versus Evil (capital G and capital E) is a frequent theme. If the book feels like a magical tromp through medieval times, it’s probably high fantasy.
Not all of the books on this list have those themes and tropes, though. Modern high fantasy has shaken up the genre nicely, too. Protagonists aren’t just white dudes from little villages. Settings don’t always feel like magical pastiches of medieval Europe in these newer books. There’s always a place for the classics of high fantasy, but it’s nice to see newer authors changing things up.
So here they are, the 25 best high fantasy books.
The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang
Proving that not all high fantasy needs nearly 1,000 pages to tell a great story, Neon Yang’s The Tensorate Series is comprised of four beautiful novellas. Twin children of the Protector begin as inseparable as you can imagine, but as their magical gifts develop, the political machinations of the Protectorate pull them apart. Can they find a way back to each other?
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
This first book in Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy is a brutal, dark fantasy. It shifts perspectives through a troupe of fascinating and often terrible characters. A noble officer, a terrifying inquisitor, a wounded barbarian, and an enigmatic wizard make up part of the fascinating tapestry as this fantasy plays out.
Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi
Zélie Adebola is an Orisha, a wizard, in a world that doesn’t want them. When the king ordered Orisha purged, Zélie lost her mother and everything that she knew. Now, as her powers are emerging, she’s on a crusade against the regime that destroyed her life and to free everyone in the process.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
In 18th-century Cairo, Nahri has always relied on her skills, never believing in magic. When she accidentally awakens a centuries-old djinn warrior, everything changes. She’s swept along in an adventure to a mythical city ruled with an iron fist. And the last djinn anyone there wants to see is the one accompanying Nahri.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
I had to include the brilliant start to Terry Pratchett’s hilarious Discworld series. A world shaped like a disc floating through space on the back of a giant turtle. A hapless wizard named Rincewind. A chest with legs and a mind of its own. Brilliant satire meets absolute silliness meets high fantasy in this great book.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Why yes, high fantasy books can also include elements of science fiction. Why not? In a distant world, Lessa is an outcast with nothing left. Her parents were murdered, and everything looks bleak until she discovers a telepathic bond with a dragon. She’s a dragonrider and might be the key to stopping an ancient evil.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Laia is enslaved to the empire. Elias is a soldier serving that same empire. When Laia’s brother is arrested, Laia turns spy for the resistance, putting her in the path of Elias. Despite his rank, he feels the tyranny of the empire as much as Laia, and they both want to bring the Emperor to his knees.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Despite my dislike of The Wheel of Time series, I have to acknowledge the profound effect it has had on high fantasy books that have come in its wake. A handful of young people from the Two Rivers village have their world turned upside down in an attack, and now they’re on the run. One of them might be The Dragon Reborn, the hero foretold, if they can survive.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin did what no one has ever done with her Broken Earth Trilogy, winning the Hugo award for best novel for all three books in the series. The world has broken before, and it’s about to break again. Essun is an orogene, someone drawing magical power from the Earth. The orogenes are enslaved and hated for their power. When her husband discovers that their son is one, he murders the boy and flees with their daughter. Now Essun is on his trail as the world crumbles.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
Not all high fantasy books are from the West. Fullmetal Alchemist spent nearly a decade in publication to huge success. Edward and Alphonse are brothers and alchemists. When they try to resurrect their mother, the alchemy backfires, destroying Alphonse. Edward sacrifices his own arm to bring back Alphonse, albeit bonded to a suit of armor. They still want to bring their mother back, even as the world hunts them.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Spawning the massively successful and controversial HBO series of the same name, this is the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which still remains unfinished. Nevertheless, this first book that sets up the massive conflict between warring houses in Westeros is definitely one of the best high fantasy books out there.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Basically creating the silkpunk subgenre, this book is high-flying and surprising. Kuni is a bandit. Mata is the son of a deposed duke. Together, they become best friends and help overthrow a wicked emperor. Afterward, they wind up leading opposing factions pushing different agendas for how the world should be.
Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi
One more amazing manga for the high fantasy list. It’s also a cross-world fantasy (first and second worlds collide). Kagome is leading a normal high school life until she’s suddenly pulled into the ancient past. Now, allied with the half-demon Inuyasha, she’s fighting demons and trying to find her way home.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Here’s an absolute classic of the high fantasy genre and one that children have been reading for a very long time. We all wished we could find a portal to a magical land when we were young. The four Pevenie children discover just that. The world beyond isn’t as innocent as one would hope, though.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien didn’t invent the fantasy genre, but he did set the stage for what we tend to think of when it comes to high fantasy. Following up on The Hobbit, this book has it all. Elves, dwarfs, epic battles, ancient evils, wizards, and Hobbits. It’s a pillar of high fantasy.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This book begins The Kingkiller Chronicle, often heralded as one of the best high fantasy series ever. It’s the story of Kvothe, an antihero if ever there was one. He’s a legend in his own time, but the path he took to get there is littered with bodies, regrets, and sorrow.
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
Here’s one that’s been overlooked for too long. Morgon is king of Hed. He won that crown by solving a riddle, one of many that vanished wizards from the world. Now, an ancient evil is threatening the land, so Morgon has to flee, seeking the High One in hopes of vanquishing the evil. Full of mysteries and intrigue, don’t sleep on this book.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
A personal favorite and classic of the fantasy genre, this book tells the story of Severian, a member of the torturer’s guild until he commits their worst crime: mercy. Now, still armed with his executioner’s sword, he wanders the land, plying his trade. But soon, he finds himself caught up in a war and the political machinations of the greater world.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Here’s another under-the-radar book that needs to be on your TBR. Demane and the Captain are descendants of gods, demigods in their own right, even if mortals don’t understand that. Despite their formidable powers, they’re struggling to keep their caravan brothers alive in the face of a necromantic horror rolling across the land.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
This is a high fantasy pushing the boundaries of the genre since it takes place in England, but a very different England than we know. Magic is drying up, and Zacharias is trying to find out why. He’s the Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, and he’ll have to venture far and wide if there’s any hope of saving magic.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
When a book wins the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Crawford awards, you know it’s one of the best high fantasy books. Jevick is about to embark on an annual trip to Olondria, a land rich with books that he’s always wanted to visit. When the ghost of an illiterate young girl starts to haunt him, he becomes desperate, seeking the help of Olondrian priests. Suddenly, he’s in the middle of a great clash for control of the entire empire.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
A war is brewing. The powerful Khalif rules with an iron fist. The enigmatic master thief known as Falcon Prince is rising up against Khalif. When supernatural murders start happening across the city, the growing rebellion is pushed to the limits of its patience, threatening everything.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson might be THE name most associated with high fantasy today. He’s written many great series, and The Stormlight Archive is often considered his best. It starts with this book, which sets up the multifaceted conflict of warring nations and houses, magical arms and armor, and a mysterious book called The Way of Kings.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Post-apocalyptic high fantasy? Yep. In this case, the apocalypse changes Africa into a very different one from what we know. Onye is a child of rape, marking her as different, as outcast. But she soon realizes that she has powers. Magic. This magic is trying to kill her, but it could also make her the savior that her people don’t deserve.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Before Ged became the most powerful sorcerer in Earthsea, he was known as Sparrowhawk. He hungered for power so much that he was reckless. Dangerous, even. This is the story of how he grew into the formidable and respectable Ged and the mistakes he made along the way.
Is that enough high fantasy for you? You can also check out our primer on different subgenres of fantasy, as well as a great list of recent high fantasy series. What is your favorite high fantasy series?