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19 Best Literary Fantasy Books

 

Cover art for “Art For Movies – Episode 4 – Fantasy Landscapes” a tutorial by artist Jonathan Berube | ArtStation

Literary fantasy is simply fantasy that’s better-written, has more realistic characters, and is more ambitious in exploring deep ideas than other books. Instead of just wizards zapping each other with blue lightning and smart-mouthed goblins, literary fantasy can contain wrenching emotions that look at what it actually means to be human.

Its polar opposite would be something pulpy like Hunky Vampire Witch Lust Prom Night or Battle Vixens in Improbable Armor.

Fortunately, there’s room for many styles in fantasy.

 

19
The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern – 2011

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

“Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.”
—Associated Press

18
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders – 2017

Winner of the Man Booker Prize

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

“[P]art historical novel, part carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year.”
—Financial Times

17
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro – 2015

In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.

“Spectacular… The Buried Giant has the clear ring of legend, as graceful, original and humane as anything Ishiguro has written.”
—The Washington Post

16
Mrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls – 1982

It all starts with the radio. Dorothy’s husband, Fred, has left for work, and she is at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, listening to classical music. Suddenly, the music fades out and a soft, close, dreamy voice says, “Don’t worry, Dorothy.”

A couple weeks later, there is a special interruption in regular programming. The announcer warns all listeners of an escaped sea monster. Giant, spotted, and froglike, the beast—who was captured six months earlier by a team of scientists—is said to possess incredible strength and to be considered extremely dangerous.

That afternoon, the seven-foot-tall lizard man walks through Dorothy’s kitchen door. She is frightened at first, but there is something attractive about the monster. The two begin a tender, clandestine affair, and no one, not even Dorothy’s husband or her best friend, seems to notice.

“[An] ethereal, masterfully written book.”
—Entertainment Weekly

15
The Sky is Yours
by Chandler Klang Smith – 2018

In the burned-out, futuristic city of Empire Island, three young people navigate a crumbling metropolis constantly under threat from a pair of dragons that circle the skies. When violence strikes, reality star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, the spoiled scion of the metropolis’s last dynasty; Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, his tempestuous, death-obsessed betrothed; and Abby, a feral beauty he discovered tossed out with the trash, are forced to flee everything they’ve ever known. As they wander toward the scalded heart of the city, they face fire, conspiracy, mayhem, unholy drugs, dragon-worshippers, and the monsters lurking inside themselves.

“It’s a mesmeric world, comic in the way teenage voyages of self-discovery inevitably are, but with an undertone of menace, horror, even hints of allegory. Satire, too… Smith’s imagination is inexhaustible.”
—The Wall Street Journal

14
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
by Marlon James – 2019
Book 1 of 3 in The Dark Star Trilogy

Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.

As Tracker follows the boy’s scent—from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers—he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?

“Gripping, action-packed… The literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe.”
—The New York Times

13
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender – 2010

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

“Haunting… Bender’s prose delivers electric shocks… rendering the world in fresh, unexpected jolts. Moving, fanciful and gorgeously strange.”
—People Magazine

12
Spinning Silver
by Naomi Novik – 2018

Nebula and Hugo Award finalist

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.

“A perfect tale… A big and meaty novel, rich in both ideas and people, with the vastness of Tolkien and the empathy and joy in daily life of Le Guin.”
—The New York Times Book Review

11
A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin – 1968
Book 1 of 6 in the Earthsea Cycle

In this classic, Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

“The magic of Earthsea is primal; the lessons of Earthsea remain as potent, as wise, and as necessary as anyone could dream.”
—Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman

10
The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde – 1890

When it was published, The Picture of Dorian Gray offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding public morality.

Dorian Gray is the subject of a full-length portrait in oil by Basil Hallward, an artist impressed and infatuated by Dorian’s beauty. He believes that Dorian’s beauty is responsible for the new mood in his art as a painter. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, and he soon is enthralled by the aristocrat’s hedonistic worldview: that beauty and sensual fulfillment are the only things worth pursuing in life.

Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues a libertine life of varied amoral experiences while staying young and beautiful; all the while, his portrait ages and records every sin.

9
The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin – 2015
Book 1 of 3 in the Broken Earth series

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

“Intricate and extraordinary.”
―The New York Times

8
Beloved
by Toni Morrison – 1987

There are two books whose first lines I immediately memorized and have never forgotten. The first is from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The other opening line is from Beloved: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

“A masterwork… Wonderful… I can’t imagine American literature without it.”
—Los Angeles Times

7
Magic for Beginners
by Kelly Link – 2005

This collection of short stories is a dreamlike dispatch that reconstructs modern life through an intoxicating prism, conjuring up unforgettable worlds with humor and humanity. These stories are at once ingenious and deeply moving.

“A sorceress to be reckoned with.”
—The New York Times Book Review

6
One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez – 1967

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. Rich and brilliant, it is a chronicle of life, death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the beautiful, ridiculous, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.

Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility, the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth—these universal themes dominate the novel.

5
Night Watch
by Terry Pratchett – 2002
Book 29 of 41 in the Discworld series

Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors, but not many of his books are often called literary. Night Watch, as funny as it is, is perhaps the most literary of all his Discworld novels.

One moment Sir Sam Vimes is in his old-patrolman form, chasing a sweet-talking psychopath across the rooftops of Ankh-Morpork. The next, he’s lying naked in the street, having been sent back thirty years, courtesy of a group of time-manipulating monks who won’t leave well-enough alone.

This Discworld is a dark place that Vimes remembers all too well—three decades before his title, fortune, beloved wife, and child on the way. Worse still, the murderer he’s pursuing has been transported back with him. And on top of that, it’s the eve of a fabled street rebellion that killed a few good (and not so good) men. Sam Vimes knows his duty, and by changing history he might just save some worthwhile necks—though it could cost him his own personal future. Plus there’s a chance to steer a novice watchman straight and teach him a valuable thing or three about policing—an impressionable young copper named Sam Vimes.

“Pratchett’s storytelling [is] a clever blend of Monty Pythonesque humor and Big Questions about morality and the workings of the universe.”
—Publishers Weekly

4
The Once and Future King
by T. H. White – 1958

Once upon a time, a young boy called “Wart” was tutored by a magician named Merlyn in preparation for a future he couldn’t possibly imagine. A future in which he would ally himself with the greatest knights, love a legendary queen, and unite a country dedicated to chivalrous values. A future that would see him crowned and known for all time as Arthur, King of the Britons.

During Arthur’s reign, the kingdom of Camelot was founded to cast enlightenment on the Dark Ages, while the knights of the Round Table embarked on many a noble quest. But Merlyn foresaw the treachery that awaited his liege: the forbidden love between Queen Guenever and Lancelot, the wicked plots of Arthur’s half-sister Morgause and the hatred she fostered in Mordred that would bring an end to the king’s dreams for Britain—and to the king himself.

“[T. H. White] is so good at hurt and shame—how did he also manage to be so funny? I have laughed at his great Arthurian novel and cried over it and loved it all my life.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

3
The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien – 1954

Of course.

2
Watership Down
by Richard Adams – 1972

Richard Adams’s Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Set in the Hampshire Downs in Southern England, an idyllic rural landscape, this tale follows a band of rabbits in flight from the incursion of man and the destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they travel forth from their native Sandleford warren through harrowing trials to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

I’ve always loved this book, and especially liked the depth of the rabbit’s mythology and language.

“A marvelous story of rebellion, exile, and survival.”
—Sunday Telegraph

1
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell
by Susanna Clarke – 2004

In the year 1806, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, most people believe magic to have long since disappeared from England, until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers and becomes a celebrity overnight. Another practicing magician emerges: the young and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s pupil and the two join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic and soon he risks sacrificing not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything else he holds dear.

“Immense, intelligent, inventive… Clarke is a restrained and witty writer with an arch and eminently readable style.”
―Entertainment Weekly

3 replies on “19 Best Literary Fantasy Books”

You evidently have not read John M. Ford’s masterpiece The Dragon Waiting, or you would surely have included it in this list.

I’ll also second the recommendation for Guy Gavriel Kay. Perhaps Tigana.

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