If you’re a new—or old—fantasy reader, you might be wondering what the top fantasy books are. It’s a reasonable question. It makes sense to begin with what’s popular if you’re starting out in the genre. Or maybe you’re just curious to see how mainstream your preferences are.
But in trying to answer this question, you’ll immediately run into problems. How do we determine what makes a top fantasy book? Sales? Let’s be honest. Some bestselling books may not be that good. We can use ratings but as Rioter Tasha discovered when she looked at the highest rated books on Goodreads, reader-generated rankings and lists lead to other problems. The actual number of ratings might be too low. A book with more ratings may garner more lower ratings simply because of the increased reader pool. Many excellent series populate the fantasy genre, and the longer the series, the more readers the first book is likely to have. There’s also no denying that certain authors dominate the genre. And if those authors happen to be prolific, their books are going to be highly rated due to their exuberant fanbase.
How I Put Together a List of Top Fantasy Books
In putting together this list, I used Goodreads and looked at a variety of metrics. It’s not scientific. There’s no math involved. I considered the number of ratings, the spread of ratings, and the year of publication. Fantasy is such an established genre, and one of the most popular on Goodreads, so older books have a distinct advantage over newer books.
I focused on single books, not boxsets. I only included one book per series (usually the first book because I know my fantasy readers and I know how hard it is for us to read out of order), and I picked only one book per author.
Did I overlook some novels? Probably. You might think a specific title absolutely belongs on a list of top fantasy books. Or, remembering that I limited this list to only one book per author and only one book per series, you might think another selection from that author or series is a better choice. That’s okay. In the end, this list is just a starting point.
The Top Epic Fantasy Books
When we think of the fantasy genre, we usually think of epic fantasy. Important quests to save the world. Royal families fighting for control of the kingdom. Spectacular magic battles. The aesthetic established by J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, let’s just say.
Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
(4.45 avg rating; 2,000,614 ratings)
This novel launched the Song of Ice and Fire series and upended the established tropes of 1990s-era epic fantasy. Let’s not forget that shocking death at the end! I know it’s hard to believe now, but back then, that was something of a fantasy no-no.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
(4.53 avg rating; 720,012 ratings)
While good writing certainly permeates the fantasy genre, it’s not necessarily a requirement. Above all, we want a good story and as long as the prose is readable, that’s fine. Rothfuss’s debut novel showed us that an epic fantasy novel could feature not only good writing, it could showcase beautiful prose. But what’s most interesting about The Name of the Wind is its structure. We first meet Kvothe when he’s a broken man, after the battle has been fought. The mystery of how he got to that end point from his beginnings as an audacious prodigy is part of the series’s charm.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
(4.63 avg rating; 305,994 ratings)
Sanderson is arguably one of the most prolific fantasy writers working in the genre today. In a genre where readers are used to waiting years between series installments, that’s very refreshing. I can’t overstate this fact. It’s one of the reasons he’s gathered a very large, dedicated fanbase. If you’re not familiar with Sanderson’s work, he’s best known for his clearly delineated, almost scientifically laid out magic systems.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
(3.99 avg rating; 242,314 ratings)
Confession time: I first discovered LeGuin through her science fiction. I didn’t learn she’d also written fantasy until I was well into adulthood. Unfortunately, the Earthsea series is probably better known for the whitewashed adaptation that aired on the SyFy channel. A true tragedy because as anyone who’s read her books knows, LeGuin was a master of world-building and depicting culture.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
(4.15 avg rating; 236,411 ratings)
Royal bastards figure prominently in the fantasy genre. So do assassins. They’re usually two different people, though. The main character in the first book of Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, however, is both.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
(4.27 avg rating; 224,608 ratings)
In addition to royal bastards and assassins, thieves also run wild through the fantasy genre. Who’s surprised? There are a lot of important mystical artifacts to steal. And let’s face it, a fantasy setting is the perfect background for a heist caper.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
(4.01 avg rating; 72,095 ratings)
Courtesans are another staple of the epic fantasy genre. While they’re usually supporting characters—either in the form of allies or enemies—Carey’s debut novel introduces us to Phedre, a courtesan marked by a god to feel pleasure and pain as one. In other words, she’s a masochist. But alongside her courtesan-related talents, she’s also a spy. This unlikely combination in a protagonist explains why it’s one of the top fantasy books on Goodreads, even though it doesn’t necessarily resemble the traditional quest-style epic fantasy tome.
Find even more of our epic fantasy recommendations here.
Contemporary Fantasy Books
While the fantasy genre often conjures images of dragons and wizards, fantasy need not take place in alternate worlds. They can take place in our world.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
(4.11 avg rating; 761,532 ratings)
While Gaiman’s short stories are my personal favorites of his writings, most fiction readers meet him through his novels. American Gods reimagines myths and gods in the modern age, mashes them up with Americana, and takes you on a road trip. I can see why this is one of his most famous works.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
(4.03 avg rating; 688,655 ratings)
A standalone novel in the fantasy genre is a rare feat, but The Night Circus succeeds—much to the dismay of its fans who wish it had a sequel or two. Revolving around a competition between two magicians who fall in love, the lush prose has won the heart of many readers across the world. It’s collected over half a million ratings on Goodreads! That is a big accomplishment for an author who didn’t publish her follow-up, The Starless Sea, until eight years later.
Find more contemporary (or low) fantasy novels here.
Urban Fantasy Books
The sister sub-genre to contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy experienced a boom in the 2000s and early 2010s. It’s since contracted and stabilized—although I’d argue we’re seeing a revival featuring more diverse casts and authors—but here are a couple stand-out top fantasy books from that prior era.
Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
(4.15 avg rating; 176,892 ratings)
In a sub-genre populated by investigators and mercenaries, coyote shifter Mercy Thompson stands out because she’s a mechanic. How refreshing. The staples of the genre—gremlins, werewolves, vampires, and more—can be found in Mercy’s world and her relationships with them are what often get her into trouble.
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
(4.12 avg rating; 511,242 ratings)
As someone who read a lot of vampire novels, both adult and YA, in the late 2000s, I admit I’m a little surprised to see how many ratings this book had on Goodreads. And I was a big fan of this series! I don’t know how I missed its popularity. About a dhampir who’s dedicated her life to protecting her best friend, a vampire princess, what I appreciated most about these books was the female friendship that ran throughout. Over a decade later, I still love seeing that fierce dedication between girls—especially in YA.
Find more of our urban fantasy recommendations here.
Top Fantasy Books for Young Readers
The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
(4.33 avg rating; 628,065 ratings)
One of the most beloved middle grade authors out there, picking one Riordan book to recommend is impossible. Thankfully, I had my previously mentioned restrictions to make things easier. Set in the world of the Percy Jackson books, The Lost Hero once again features Riordan’s take on Greek mythology but with a whole new cast of characters.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
(4.27 avg rating; 37,280 ratings)
Given the nature of Goodreads, it can be difficult to find the highly rated fantasy books for younger readers. It seems like there’s a gap between middle grade novels and picture books. I’m sure they exist, but they’re not easiest to find. Based on Chinese mythology, Lin’s book pulls together the pieces of many different stories and weaves them into something new. Featuring a determined heroine who never gives up, this story about her quest to improve her family’s fortune delights children and parents alike.
Do your children love fantasy? We got 50 of our top fantasy books for kids here.
Young Adult Fantasy Books
You knew it was coming. Young adult books are booming, and the fantasy genre makes up a huge chunk. More to the point, it has an enormous presence on Goodreads. But given those things, I can see why a primer of the top fantasy books for this age category might be necessary.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
(4.20 avg rating; 601,767 ratings)
If you’re a regular voter in the annual Goodreads book awards, you’ll recognize Maas’s name. She and her novels are a mainstay in the competition. This is the debut novel, about an assassin, that started it all.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
(4.04 avg rating; 569,501 ratings)
If you ever wondered what X-Men would look like in a fantasy setting, this book might provide an answer for you. In a world where people with silver blood have superpowers and people with red blood are the people they subjugate, a girl with red blood discovers she has special abilities of her own.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
(4.07 avg rating; 386,770 ratings)
Published in 2008, Graceling was one of the earliest fantasy novels in the current young adult renaissance. Set in a world where people known as Gracelings are born with an extreme skill, Kaisa has the ability to kill. Unfortunately, the nature of her gift traps her into serving as her uncle’s enforcer. By the way, her uncle is the king, and not the most benevolent one.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
(4.43 avg rating; 320,906 ratings)
Bardugo’s Grishaverse books have inspired a huge legion of fans since Shadow and Bone was first published in 2012. A quick glance at bookstagram will show you just how much these books are beloved by the reading community. Six of Crows introduces us to a crew of thieves out to pull off an impossible heist. If you’re a fan of The Lies of Locke Lamora, this is the book for you. Even if you think you don’t like young adult novels, I still think you should give this one a try, and given the number of Goodreads ratings, so do a lot of other people.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
(4.01 avg rating; 301,954 ratings)
If I had to describe this book, I’d say it was about angels and demons, and that answer is both accurate and inaccurate. If you’ve never read a Laini Taylor novel, be prepared for fascinating characters, unique settings, and creepy imagery that catch you off-guard because they always come when you least expect!
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
(4.12 avg rating; 220,434 ratings)
Holly Black has established herself as the Queen of Faerie Novels. The Cruel Prince takes us back to the world first featured in her debut novel, Tithe, and introduces us to Jude, a mortal heroine whose rage and determination cuts through a courtly politics and a quest to find a place she can call home.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
(4.27 avg rating; 183,882 ratings)
Inspired by ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes explores oppression and tyranny via the story of Laia, who hopes to save her brother by spying on the Empire for the rebellion. This mission leads her to Elias, who is set to become the best soldier the Empire has ever seen.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
(4.11 avg rating; 154,906 ratings)
Originally published in 2018, Adeyemi’s debut has shot up through the Goodreads rankings at an astonishing pace. It almost reached 50,000 ratings in its first year alone, which is no small feat for a new author. No doubt, the book’s fast pace and action-filled adventure contributed to its popularity. Interested in reading more novels like Children of Blood and Bone? Find even more African-inspired fantasy novels here.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
(4.11 avg rating; 114,603 ratings)
Of all the potential retellings out there, I never expected to see a YA retelling of 1001 Nights. It’s not a strict retelling, so if you’re a fan of the nested story within a story structure, this is not the book for you. But if you want to see a different take on the original, Ahdieh’s debut might be worth checking out.
Find even more YA fantasy picks here!
I must make a confession. I have a weakness for fantasy takes on the end of the world. A lot of apocalyptic stories approach the concept from a science fiction angle or even a horror one. Fantasy ones are a rarer but always worth looking at. Find 20 more recommendations in this subgenre here.
Angelfall by Susan Ee
(4.13 avg rating; 165,949 ratings)
Originally a self-published title, I remember when this book made a huge splash. An apocalypse caused by angels! Given the nature of the Bible, perhaps this shouldn’t have been so astonishing. While the portrayal of mental illness isn’t what I consider to be the best (at all), the protagonist’s quest to save her younger sister—which leads her to joining forces with the enemy—is a gripping one.
The Award-Winning Top Fantasy Novel
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
(4.28 avg; 150,656 ratings)
The Fifth Season may not have the most ratings on Goodreads, but the trilogy it begins (The Broken Earth trilogy) has made history. Each of the three books has won the Hugo, making Jemisin the first author to win the award in consecutive years. If that doesn’t mark a top fantasy novel, I don’t know what does.
To find even more fantasy recommendations (we’ve got loooots), check out our sci-fi and fantasy podcast, SFF Yeah or subscribe to Swords & Spaceships, our email newsletter about all things in the world of science fiction and fantasy.