Our pick of the best fantasy books, and why we love them.
We love a good fantasy book at The Book Club Review. For us, as for so many readers, fantasy books were a key part of our teenage transition from childhood reading into adult books.
We graduated from stories in which children tumble through wardrobes into magical worlds and rabbit holes lead to fantastical adventures, to novels where imaginary worlds remain but with characters whose adventures and trials have the gravity of adulthood, and safety and happy endings are no longer assured.
As adult readers, however, gradually it dawned on us that fantasy was pigeonholed as a genre that wasn’t to be taken seriously, as something that we should have ‘grown-out of’. We found we were embarrassed to be caught reading a book with a dragon on the cover.
And then Game of Thrones came along and suddenly it was cool to be reading a book with a dragon on the cover after all. Finally we could put away our kindles and hold our paperbacks high on the tube again.
We know fantasy isn’t for everyone, but readers, there are as many types of fantasy books as there are fish in the sea. Without a doubt, there is a fantasy novel out there that’s perfect for you. And lucky for you, we’re here to help you find it.
Finding the best fantasy book for you
It’s been an arduous task, but we’ve done it. We’ve pulled together our personal fantasy reading list of tried and tested books by authors we love.
Some of these fantasy books shaped us as readers and became a part of who we are. They ignited our passion for reading and continue to bring us joy.
Other books on the list are new discoveries – and exciting, welcome updates to a genre that can still seem like an Old (Nerdy) Boy’s Club.
But without fail, every fantasy book here is an amazing read. So, whether you just want to dip your toe in or are keen to discover the classics that make up the fantasy canon, read on – and get ready to find the best fantasy book for you.
The fantasy book to get you started
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
‘One of the few authors who I have read everything by,’ says Laura, ‘Hobb writes page-turners where everything moves slowly. Her strength is characters who change and evolve as they face adversity and challenges. And despite her simple, straightforward prose I am always hooked from the get-go.
Hobb’s world is convincing and logical, both in terms of its magic system and fantastical creatures, and its economy and trade. I’ve ripped through every series, but the Ships of Magic trilogy holds a special place in my heart for its strong female characters. Plus pirates! Serpents! And magic, of course!
The fantasy book for compulsive reading
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Fans of Schwab’s recent novel The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which is set in the real-world but has a supernatural element, may like to try this trilogy set firmly in the fantasy realm.
Kell is an Antari, a rare type of magician with the ability to travel between worlds. In Grey London, capital of an imagined version of eighteenth-century England, Kell meets Delilah Bard, a thief struggling to get by. An artefact she steals brings them into conflict and an adventure that leads them across worlds and continents as they discover their true selves and their feelings for one another. But will they be able to save Kell’s world in time? Kate writes, ‘One problem that can be an issue for me with fantasy is characters who speak in a way I don’t wholly believe in. What I love about Schwab is her genius for dialogue. These characters interact in a way that is so vivid and real you feel like you are there. I also loved her ability to keep up tension and suspense, but she’s also great on friendship and love.
These books move from action set piece to action set piece in a way that kept me turning the pages compulsively. I was sad when they ended as I didn’t want to leave that world – and so promptly read them all over again.’ A favourite recent read, this trilogy had to be on our best fantasy books list.
The best fantasy book for fantasy sceptics
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
This feels like a good entry point to Neil Gaiman – if you like it, you then have the pleasure of knowing there are many other Neil Gaiman books ahead of you.
This one tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Londoner with a career, a fiancée and his life seemingly set when one night he helps a woman, wounded and bleeding, who he finds on the street. Her name is Door, and his connection to her will lead him to a hidden underworld, London Below. Gaiman has a lot of fun with his hidden London fantasy, to the extent that once you’ve read it, you’ll look at the tube platform slightly differently. Mayhew struggles in a world in which he has no talent or skill, but ultimately it turns out he does have an important part to play. Kate says, ‘For a fantasy read this is relatively short but what I love that it still feels substantial, complete within itself – a rare thing in the fantasy book world, and a treasure not to be missed.’
‘I’ve read a few others of his since, and enjoyed them, but for my money Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book (for children, but equally enjoyable for adults) are the best.’
The best fantasy book for feminists
The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
No best fantasy books list would be complete without the work of Ursula Le Guin. Her Earthsea Quartet is a classic example of the fantasy novels that many readers discover in their early teens. Margaret Atwood called it one of the ‘wellsprings’ of fantasy literature. And yet Le Guin is a writer in a class all by herself.
Read The Earthsea Quartet as a child and the series is simply a marvellous tale of magic and adventure. Wizards govern the archipelago of Earthsea from a magical isle at its heart. When young goatherd named Ged is sent to train at the wizarding school there, he must come to terms with his own latent abilities and accept the consequences of his ambition. Read at this level it’s simply a hugely enjoyable coming-of-age story in a fantastical medieval world
Yet read the series again as an adult, and you’re drawn into an astute, nuanced portrait of power and corruption, misogyny and male privilege, violence and redemption.
One of the pleasures of fantasy is that books tend to come in multiples, usually because the characters on involved in an epic, chronological series of events. The Earthsea Quartet is different. Very different. Each book jumps forward in time, by decades in fact, and book two and four aren’t actually about Ged at all. He’s merely a bit player. Instead, Le Guin shifts focus to the perspective and experiences of Tenar, the young high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan in book two and someone altogether different by book four This shift in perspective forces an examination of the sexism and misogyny that underpins the wizardry world and its all-male practice. It also dwells on the everyday violence that threatens the lives and happiness of the powerless, men and women alike.
Not surprisingly, the books become progressively darker, but they are never without redemption and hope – even triumph. Also, if the above isn’t surprising enough for a series that began its life in the 1970s, then consider that – in an understated and unexamined way – none of the characters are white.
The best fantasy book for lovers of period drama
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Some readers may prefer their fantasy to be set in the world of the familiar, and for this, Kate suggests there is no finer read than Susanna Clarke’s long novel, a beautifully written homage to the world of Jane Austen tied with English folklore and the supernatural.
Set in a vividly evoked eighteenth-century England and written with a precision that will delight Austen fans (and also please Georgette Heyer aficionados), readers meet the society of English magicians, where we quickly learn that the study of magic, a purely theoretical discipline, is one of the great sciences. All the theoretical magicians are highly disconcerted, then, when a certain Mr Norrell, a practical magician, takes issue with their project and forbids them from the study of magic. After a convincing magical demonstration Norell then buys up all available copies of every book on magic in existence and forbids the theoretical magicians from further studying the subject.
Enter Jonathan Strange, a gentleman who has never thought of himself as in any way unusual, but who, when given a spell by a homeless man on the road discovers to his astonishment that he can make it work. The study of magic, then, becomes his new interest but the only person who can teach him is Mr Norrell – a man who is firmly of the opinion that there is room for only one magician in England, himself.
Everything about this book is charming, from the charismatic main characters to Clarke’s endless capacity for inventive details. Footnotes harbour explanations but more often read like mini-short-stories in themselves, and are almost as much a pleasure as the main narrative. For this reason make sure you get a printed copy of this book, so as not to miss out.
The best fantasy book for action
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
‘Who knew I’d like war fantasy?’ Laura writes, ‘but on a flight between LA and London, I was enthralled to the battle sequences in this original world from Sanderson. A charismatic outcast leads a band of slaves to a battle of honour where they are supposed to die, but don’t thanks to their leader’s intelligence, skill and leadership. It’s not all warfare. There is also intrigue and politics surrounding the lead female character as she learns her craft at an academic institution tucked into the mountains of an old city. There’s romantic tension too, which I must admit in no small part kept me hooked.’
The best fantasy book for fantasy lovers
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
‘Ah, the unfinished trilogy,’ Kate writes. ‘A familiar scenario to many a fantasy devotee. One of the pleasures and perils of the genre is that books tend to come in sequences. It makes perfect sense – once you’ve put all that effort and creative energy into coming up with a whole world, figuring out the people, the economy, the magic system, how they dress, what they eat, it’s logical that you’re then probably going to want to tell a long story. The danger is that for readers who come across a book and fall in love with the characters and story, the author may not have written the conclusion yet. An obvious example is George R. R. Martin, who has yet to conclude his Game of Thrones sequence, but at least he seems to be making progress on them.
One of the most divisive figures on the current fantasy scene is author Patrick Rothfuss, who is nothing if not a victim of his own success. The problem, you see, is that he wrote two books of such mesmerising brilliance, with readers who lived every page and who barely ate or slept until they had finished them, that there’s now understandable impatience for him to finish the trilogy. Fans have been waiting nearly ten years for the promised third book but unfortunately Rothfuss shows no signs of completing it (although in a recent video blog he made a good case for the fact that he is a slow writer and that for him, things are pretty much on schedule).’
The Name of the Wind tells the story of Kvothe (pronounced ‘quote’), a warrior-mage who is seemingly in hiding, living under an assumed name at a humble country inn he runs. Told in flashbacks, readers then learn his story. His parents died in a traumatic battle leaving him a lonely orphan with a talent for magic. Talking his way into a leading magic school he started to hone his abilities, despite the drawbacks of having to also somehow earn his living on the unwelcoming streets of the city. Gradually he developed his skills and made some good friends both in the real world and the world of faerie. What drives Kvothe, though, is his desire to understand the mysterious force that killed his parents, and which, he believes, may have dark implications for the wider world.
Kate writes, ‘On a recent reread of these novels I fell in love with them all over again. Much as I would like to know how the story turns out it doesn’t actually matter to me that there’s no conclusion. I think we should just celebrate them and enjoy them for what they are, two utterly captivating and immersive reads from an incredibly talented writer. If you really need another fix there is the enjoyable novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things which takes up the tale of Kvothe’s friend Auri, and is complete in itself.’
The best fantasy book for a woke world
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
Another essential for any best fantasy books list. Three stories interweave on a continent riven by earthquakes and eruptions, held together only by individuals who can control seismic movements. Unusually, they are feared and killed when discovered, or sent into state slavery and trained to harness hold the continent together. But at what cost? Jemisin’s characters are flawed, even unlikeable at times. Dark and disturbing at times. Black-skinned, gender-fluid characters, Jemisin is a powerful new voice in contemporary fantasy writing.
The best fantasy book for an epic journey
The Gift by Alison Croggon
Fans of the epic journeys that dominate J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series will love Alison Croggon’s Pellinor sequence, which pays loving homage to such fantasy classics, but with a fresh and contemporary feminist edge.
Our heroine is Maerad. She’s a miserable slave in an isolated mountain community when she meets a bard named Cadvan, passing through for mysterious reasons of his own. Discovering she can perceive him through his magical disguise Cadvan realises she has bardic magical skills of her own and helps her to escape. It is the beginning of a new life for Maerad in which she uncovers her own heritage, trains to become a bard and wrestles with another more elemental force inside her, and a prophecy that has her at its heart.
Kate writes ‘I loved the world-building in these novels. Croggan’s writing appeals to the senses so that you feel what it’s like to camp out in the rain, or to savour a delicious meal with friends. The focus on Mearad and Cadvan is fairly intense, and I was glad in book three when two other characters come to the fore. There are also some fairly gruelling scenes of warfare that I found tough to read. Finishing the concluding book, however, made it all worthwhile and I sat back in breathless appreciation of this brilliant fantasy series.’
The best fantasy book for nostalgics
Dragon Wing, the Death Gate Cycle
A blast from the past, compiling our list of best fantasy books got us thinking about books we loved as teens. Many readers of a certain age will be familiar with the work of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, their Dragonlance series, based on traditional role-playing games shot onto the New York Times bestseller list during the 1980s and stayed there for some time. Game-developers turned prolific-writing-duo Weis and Hickman continued to write many other books in partnership, and some as individuals. But for Kate it was their Death Gate Cycle of seven novels where they really hit peak form.
Haplo, a member of a race of people called the Patryn, is able to travel between worlds. He is gathering intelligence on behalf of Lord Xar, the leader of his people, and directed by him to foment chaos. Encountering Alfred, a clumsy and awkward member of the Sartan, enemies of the Patryn, Haplo is first furious and then dismissive. What he doesn’t anticipate is that fate will keep throwing him and Alfred together, disrupting his Lord’s plans but ultimately his ancient enemy will be more important to him than he ever imagined.
‘What I love about these’, Kate writes, ‘is the journey the characters go on. No character in this sequence, whether major or minor, stays the same. Haplo must undergo the biggest transformation of them all and it is utterly convincing. Weis and Hickman consistently wrote strong female characters into their narratives, these books are no exception with the arrival of Marit, Haplo’s onetime lover, in the latter part of the story and a loveable dwarven heroine in book four.
Mostly it’s a dazzling showcase for the authors’ skill in worldbuilding as each world Haplo visits is radically different from the others. In addition there is the Labyrinth, the prison world Halpo has escaped from. And the large moral and spiritual questions the characters grapple with have resonance far outside the pages of these books. I love them, still, and have always been a bit mystified that they are not more widely celebrated.’
Fitting fantasy into your reading life
Feeling inspired? We hope so. Fantasy is a rich, exciting literary seam to mine. And once you’re hooked, you may find fantasy books soon take up an interesting space in your reading life.
For Laura, ‘Fantasy books are my comfort food. My escapism. My curl up under a blanket and escape to another world holiday. That’s one of the reasons I’m so faithful to the authors mentioned above – almost with exception, I have read every single fantasy book they’ve published. Because when I’m in the mood to be transported into a fantastical world I cannot waste my time with a dud.’
Lucky for us – and for you – the genre is flourishing, as more and more readers decide to give fantasy a go after being seduced by The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones adaptations. It turns out the appetite for heroic adventures in fantastical worlds never went away.
What are your favourite fantasy reads? Let us know below.