Most fantasy worlds are simply medieval lands with wizards, witches, and a smattering of humanoid races. Fortunately, sometimes an author goes in a completely different direction and creates an entirely new and original world.
The Books of the Raksura was nominated for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Series.
In the first book of the series, The Cloud Roads, and various sequels and spin-offs, there are almost no humans. All the major characters are Raksura, shape-shifting creatures whose default form resembles a bipedal winged dragon. The world itself has large land masses hanging in the air, leviathans swimming slowly back and forth across the sea while poeple build towns on their backs, and cities built into giant trees.
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is—a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself—and his newfound kin.
“Wells… merrily ignores genre conventions as she spins an exciting adventure around an alien hero who anyone can identify with.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
When I was younger, almost nothing was as exciting as learning that a new Xanth book had come out. Originally intended to be a trilogy, there are currently 42 Xanth books, and author Anthony appears to have no intention of stopping.
In a world seemingly powered by puns as much as magic, Xanth strongly resembles the state of Florida, even having similar geographical features like Lake Ogre-Chobee and Kiss-Mee River. The Florida Keys also exist, though they are, in Xanth, actual keys. The moon is close enough that flying creatures may land there; the back side of the moon is sweet and honeyish, while the visible side has turned sour and become curdled cheese, due to observing what has happened on Earth and Xanth.
Xanth was the enchanted land where magic ruled—where every citizen had a special spell only they could cast. It was a land of centaurs and dragons and basilisks.
For Bink of North Village, however, Xanth was no fairy tale. He alone had no magic. And unless he got some—and got some fast!—he would be exiled. But the Good Magician Humfrey was convinced that Bink did indeed have magic. In fact, both Beauregard the genie and the magic wall chart insisted that Bink had magic. Magic as powerful as any possessed by the King or by Good Magician Humfrey—or even by the Evil Magician Trent.
Be that as it may, no one could fathom the nature of Bink’s very special magic. Bink was in despair. This was even worse than having no magic at all… and he would still be exiled!
Prydain is a tween version of Middle Earth, drawing heavily on Welsh mythology, and I’ve still got all five books on my shelf. There are witches and wizards, dark lords, and magical creatures. The Chronricles of Prydain are good gateway stories into heavier and slower-moving fantasy books like The Hobbit.
Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper is forced on a quest and is joined by an arguing cast of characters that includes Eilonwy, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued princess; Fflewddur Fflam, the hyperbole-prone bard; the ever-faithful not-quite-human Gurgi; and the curmudgeonly Doli―all of whom have become involved in an epic struggle between good and evil that shapes the fate of the land of Prydain.
“The author draws his figures with… touches of irritability, doltishness and contrariness that leavens with high good humor the high fantasy.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, because he dared not believe in this strange alternate world on which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land’s greatest hero—Berek Halfhand—armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of the Despiser, Lord Foul. Except that Covenant had no idea how to use that power…
“Covenant is [Stephen R.] Donaldson’s genius!”
—The Village Voice
The Bone Universe is one of the more inventive worlds I’ve ever come across. Cities are built inside and on huge, slowly growing towers of bone that rise above the clouds. People travel from tower to tower on rickety bridges or glide in homemade hang gliders. Descending below the clouds to the ground below is a good way to get killed.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams and throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.
“Extraordinary worldbuilding and cascading levels of intrigue make Wilde’s debut fantasy novel soar.”
Author China Miéville creates fantastic worlds, but many of his books suffer from underdeveloped characters.
Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to no one—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.
Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda’s request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.
While Isaac’s experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly-colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon—and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes.
“[A]n audaciously imagined milieu: a city with the dimensions of a world, home to a polyglot civilization of wildly varied species and overlapping and interpenetrating cultures.”
The Belgariad is the name of the five-book series, not the actual land itself, which is never named. There are two continents in this world, the main, unnamed one, and Mallorea to the east. The five-book sequel to the Belgariad takes place in Mallorea.
The land is home to various kinds of humans, most following a certain god, and these gods, who have very distinct personalities, let their followers know in no uncertain terms when they have been pleased and when they are angry.
While the story is your basic Quest For The Magic Thingy By The Chosen One, the world feels more completely imagined and realistic than many fantasy worlds. The cast of wildly different characters made these books my favorite series for years when I discovered them.
Long ago, so the Storyteller claimed, the evil god Torak sought dominion and drove men and gods to war. But Belgrath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe. That was only a story, and Garion did not believe in magic dooms, even though the man without a shadow had haunted him for years. Brought up on a quiet farm by his Aunt Pol, how could he know that the Apostate planned to wake dread Torak, or that he would be led on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger by those he loved.
On a beautiful world called Pern, an ancient way of life is about to come under attack from a myth that is all too real. Lessa is an outcast survivor—her parents murdered, her birthright stolen. She is a strong young woman who has never stopped dreaming of revenge. But when an ancient threat to Pern reemerges, Lessa will rise, upon the back of a great dragon with whom she shares a telepathic bond more intimate than any human connection. Together, dragon and rider will fly… and Pern will be changed forever.
Neverland is an imaginary, faraway island populated by mermaids, fairies, pirates, the Lost Boys, and, of course, Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. In author Barrie’s first play, the land was called “the Never Never Land,” but when he wrote the novelization, he changed it to simply “Neverland.”
Barrie explained that the Neverlands are found in the minds of children, and that although each is “always more or less an island,” and they have a family resemblance, they are not the same from one child to the next. For example, John Darling’s had “a lagoon with flamingos flying over it,” while his little brother Michael’s had “a flamingo with lagoons flying over it.”
“Peter Pan” was originally published in 1911 by J. M. Barrie with the title, “Peter and Wendy.” If you’ve only seen the movie adaptations, you owe it to yourself to read the original at least once.
This is a collection of short Pooh stories.
Bone is the only graphic novel in this list, but it’s one of the best graphic novels in existence, perfectly combining well-developed characters, humor, and adventure. Three cartoony Bone characters find themselves in the Valley, a Lord of the Rings-ish land populated by humans, talking animals, large murderous rat creatures, dragons, racing cows, and so on. But beneath the Valley’s beauty lies a hidden, dark danger.
After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins—Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone—are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. Eventually, the cousins are reunited at a farmstead run by tough Gran’ma Ben and her spirited granddaughter, Thorn. But little do the Bones know, there are dark forces conspiring against them and their adventures are only just beginning!
“I love BONE! BONE is great!”
—Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Futurama, and Disenchantment
Westeros and Essos are the continents in the wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire books, the basis for the Game of Thrones series on HBO. These books are known for their strong characters, ruthless palace intrigue, well-imagined world full of original dangers, and overall brutality where characters regularly drop like flies. In the north of Westeros, a giant ice wall runs the width of the continent, keeping out the murderous Others.
Winter is coming. Such is the stern motto of House Stark, the northernmost of the fiefdoms that owe allegiance to King Robert Baratheon in far-off King’s Landing. There, Eddard Stark of Winterfell rules in Robert’s name. There his family dwells in peace and comfort: his proud wife, Catelyn; his sons Robb, Brandon, and Rickon; his daughters Sansa and Arya; and his bastard son, Jon Snow. Far to the north, behind the towering Wall, lie savage Wildings and worse—unnatural things relegated to myth during the centuries-long summer, but proving all too real and all too deadly in the turning of the season.
Yet a more immediate threat lurks to the south, where Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, has died under mysterious circumstances. Now Robert is riding north to Winterfell, bringing his queen, the lovely but cold Cersei, his son, the cruel, vainglorious Prince Joffrey, and the queen’s brothers Jaime and Tyrion of the powerful and wealthy House Lannister—the first a swordsman without equal, the second a dwarf whose stunted stature belies a brilliant mind. All are heading for Winterfell and a fateful encounter that will change the course of kingdoms.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Prince Viserys, heir of the fallen House Targaryen, which once ruled all of Westeros, schemes to reclaim the throne with an army of barbarian Dothraki—whose loyalty he will purchase in the only coin left to him: his beautiful yet innocent sister, Daenerys.
“A Best Book of 1996: Martin makes a triumphant return to high fantasy… [with] superbly developed characters, accomplished prose, and sheer bloodymindedness.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
It’s unlikely I have to describe Hogwarts to you, the hidden school of magic from the insanely popular Harry Potter series. If you are somehow not familiar with Hogwarts, please start reading the book below. Now.
Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry’s eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“Readers are in for a delightful romp with this award-winning debut from a British author who dances in the footsteps of P.L. Travers and Roald Dahl.”
Wonderland is a land powered by absolute nonsense and puns, and populated by whimsical creatures and foodstuffs that change one’s size dramatically. It’s a child’s dream gone completely off the rails. When so much literature tries hard to be taken seriously, it’s nice to immerse yourself in something that does the opposite.
In 1862, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy Oxford mathematician with a stammer, created a story about a little girl tumbling down a rabbit hole. Thus began the immortal adventures of Alice, perhaps the most popular heroine in English literature.
Countless scholars have tried to define the charm of the Alice books—with those wonderfully eccentric characters the Queen of Hearts, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter et al.—by proclaiming that they really comprise a satire on language, a political allegory, a parody of Victorian children’s literature, even a reflection of contemporary ecclesiastical history.
Perhaps, as Dodgson might have said, Alice is no more than a dream, a fairy tale about the trials and tribulations of growing up—or down, or all turned round—as seen through the expert eyes of a child.
Narnia, along with Oz and Middle Earth, is one of the best-known fantasy worlds in English literature. However, it is not as completely imagined as those lands, lacking a developed backstory and hosting only a single landmass and a single sea, though an edge of the world and underworld are hinted at.
Four adventurous siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie—step through a wardrobe door and into Narnia, a land frozen in eternal winter and enslaved by the power of the White Witch. But when almost all hope is lost, the return of the Great Lion, Aslan, signals a great change… and a great sacrifice.
From a modern perspective, some of the Narnia books are heavy-handed Christian allegories, and later books venture into racist and sexist territory.
Created by Ursula K. Le Guin, a grand master of both science fiction and fantasy, the world of Earthsea is one of sea and islands: a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean. Earthsea contains no large continents, and its largest island, Havnor, is about the size of Great Britain. Magic is a central part of life in most of Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargish lands, where it is banned. There are weather workers on ships, fixers who repair boats and buildings, entertainers, and court sorcerers. Magic is an inborn talent, which can be developed with training. The most gifted are sent to the school on Roke, where, if their skill and their discipline prove sufficient, they can become staff-carrying wizards.
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.”
This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s so wildly imaginative that its simple description of impossible cities and their denizens are more original and thought-provoking than many whole fantasy series.
The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Marco Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, narrated by Polo.
Oh, you know the story.
Discworld is a flat, round world (hence the name) where the oceans slowly cascade off the edge of the world. The world itself is perched on the back of four giant elephants, who themselves stand on the back of the Great A’tuin, a massive sea turtle churning its way through space. The various continents and lands of Discworld are generally satirical version of real places, but there is no map of Discworld. Author Pratchett said:
“You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs. ”
I’m a huge Discworld fan, and have all 40+ books in this series.
A dying wizard tries to pass his staff on to the eighth son of an eighth son. When it is revealed that the son is actually is a girl named Esk, the news of the female wizard sends the citizens of Discworld into a tail-spin.
“Persistently amusing, good-hearted and shrewd.”
—The Sunday Times
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the most extensively imagined fantasy world created by humans. Some come close, including worlds created by scores of people, including Dungeons & Dragons and the Star Wars worlds. But neither of those reach the depth and sense of true mythology that Tolkien created. His tales of elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits, and humans has strongly influenced hundreds of fantasy writers.
(Technically, Tolkien’s world is Arda, which covers the entire planet, not just the continent of Middle Earth. However, his most famous stories take place in Middle Earth.)
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely traveling any farther than his pantry or cellar. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an adventure. They have launched a plot to raid the treasure hoard guarded by Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon. Bilbo reluctantly joins their quest, unaware that on his journey to the Lonely Mountain he will encounter both a magic ring and a frightening creature known as Gollum.
“The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib ‘originality.'”
—C. S. Lewis, writing for The Times