Fantasy has more book series than any other genre. Science fiction is in second place with hundreds of series, but fantasy is at the top.
Unfortunately, this means that there are more fantasy series than one can read in a lifetime. Here are some of the best ones out there.
The Prince of Nothing‘s exceptional world-building comes with a bit of a price—the story’s complexity can make it hard to follow. You’ll be tempted to start taking notes to keep track of all the characters introduced in the prologue and first chapters.
Many centuries ago, the world was nearly destroyed by the dark wizards of the Consult, and the High King’s family was wiped out—or so it seemed. Then from the wild, uncharted north comes a mysterious philosopher-warrior, Anasurimbor Kellhus, a descendant of the ancient High Kings. But the return of the king’s bloodline is little cause for rejoicing, for Kellhus’s appearance may signal the overthrow of empires, the destruction of the sorcerous schools, the return of the Consult demons—and the end of the world.
“Bakker’s utterly foreign world, Eärwa, is as complex as that of Tolkien, to whom he is, arguably, a worthier successor than such established names as David Eddings and Stephen Donaldson… [The book’s] willingness to take chances and avoid the usual genre clichés should win many discriminating readers.”
There aren’t many book series popular with both fantasy enthusiasts and real-life soldiers, but the Black Company books count both groups as fans. The ten books in the series (not counting three sub-series and many short stories) follows a group of hired mercenaries making their way through a world of wizards and magic.
The Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, either stands between humankind and evil, or is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead.
If you’ve read any of Jack Vance’s books, say, The Dying Earth, you know about his wry perspective on humanity and unique writing style. Vance’s atypical take is also part of the Lyonesse books. However, their European medieval setting will feel familiar to most readers.
The action takes place in the mythical Elder Isles, west of France and southwest of Britain, a generation or two before the birth of King Arthur. Kings are at war, opposing magicians devise increasingly cunning stratagems, and princesses and changelings are neck-deep in political intrigue. The Holy Grail’s in there, too.
If you thought Downton Abbey needed to be much darker, funnier, medieval, and with Tolkien and Dickens influences, you should check out the Gormenghast novels.
A doomed lord, a scheming underling, an ancient royal family plagued by madness and intrigue—these are the denizens of ancient, sprawling, tumbledown Gormenghast Castle. Within its vast halls and serpentine corridors, the members of the Groan dynasty and their master Lord Sepulchrave grow increasingly out of touch with a changing world as they pass their days in unending devotion to meaningless rituals and arcane traditions.
Meanwhile, an ambitious kitchen boy named Steerpike rises by devious means to the post of Master of the Ritual, while he maneuvers to bring down the Groans.
The Mistborn umbrella encompasses two existing and two future series within a world called Scadrial. It has a unique magic system, non-stop action, and mediocre characterization.
For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.
“This mystico-metallurgical fantasy combines… coming-of-age-in-magic and its well-worn theme of revolt against oppression with copious mutilations, a large-scale cast of thieves, cutthroats, conniving nobles and exotic mutants. [T]he characters, though not profoundly drawn, have a raw stereotypic appeal.”
The Magicians is similar to the Harry Potter series, but with a lot more college-level angst and deeper struggles for meaning and purpose. Its well-rounded characters are a welcome departure from other fantasy fare populated with shallow stereotypes.
Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.
“The strength of the trilogy lies… in the characters, whose inner lives and frailties Grossman renders with care and empathy… Quentin[’s]… magical journey is deeply human.”
—The New Yorker
The Chronicles of Prydain is an entertaining introduction to the Hero’s Journey (ordinary guy turns out to be The Chosen One and must battle the Big Villain) in a Tolkein-inspired magical world. I read these as a kid, and haven’t stopped reading fantasy since.
However, if you’ve read a number of fantasy series, you might want to skip these except as presents to any kids on your list who haven’t hit Harry Potter yet. Then, when the kid loves them, sneak some time to read them on your own.
“The author… leavens with high good humor the high fantasy.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred Review) on The Book of Three
Since the day he was pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic.
No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining? He’s certainly going to try, and doesn’t care how many corpses he leaves in his wake.
“[A] morbidly gripping, gritty fantasy tale.”
If you haven’t discovered author Robin Hobb yet, get ready to binge-read. The Farseer Trilogy is one of five series in his Realm of the Elderlings universe.
(The others are The Tawny Man Trilogy, The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, The Liveship Traders Trilogy, and The Rain Wild Chronicles.)
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
“A gleaming debut in the crowded field of epic fantasies and Arthurian romances.”
Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. Yet Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live.
When Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.
“Weeks manages to ring new tunes on… old bells, letting a deep background slowly reveal its secrets and presenting his characters in a realistically flawed and human way.”
— Publishers Weekly
If you like hard fantasy, put this series on your list. Elric is a sort of Superman for Goths and the brooding albino emperor of the dying nation of Melniboné. Thoughtful and cynical, he tries to rule wisely and keep his throne from his scheming, brutish cousin.
Author Moorcock is also known for his steampunk novels.
I love stories about master thieves, and The Gentleman Bastard Sequence delivers. There are currently three books, with four more planned.
An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.
“Remarkable . . . Scott Lynch’s first novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, exports the suspense and wit of a cleverly constructed crime caper into an exotic realm of fantasy, and the result is engagingly entertaining.”
—The Times (London)
The Name of the Wind is told as an autobiography by Kvothe, a secluded innkeeper who used to be the world’s most notorious magician.
Kvothe tells his regretful story, spinning tales about his childhood in a troupe of traveling players and then years as a near-feral orphan in a dangerous city before his brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic.
It may sound like Harry Potter because of the school of magic, but the series is a different, deeper beast.
“The originality of Rothfuss’s outstanding debut fantasy, the first of a trilogy, lies less in its unnamed imaginary world than in its precise execution… As absorbing on a second reading as it is on the first, this is the type of assured, rich first novel most writers can only dream of producing. The fantasy world has a new star.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Conan stories are not high literature, but not everything has to be. Author Robert E. Howard’s barbarian adventurer essentially invented the swords-and-sorcery genre, which remains wildly popular today.
“Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities… there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars… Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand… to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
“Howard’s writing seems so highly charged that it nearly gives off sparks.”
Good news: if you like the first book of this series, you have sixteen more novels to dive into.
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher’s forest sanctuary seeking help… and more. His world is shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.
Richard and Kahlan must challenge the forces ruling over their land or become the next victims. Yet Richard fears nothing so much as what secrets his sword might reveal about his own soul. And falling in love would destroy them—for reasons Richard can’t imagine and Kahlan dare not say.
In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword and invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed. or that their time has run out.
“Wonderfully creative, seamless, and stirring.”
Imagine the Napoleonic wars with intelligent dragons taking part in the battles. Now imagine a skilled writer creating a fantastic society of those dragons, making them as fully diverse and clever as humans. This eight-book series (originally planned as a trilogy) artfully blends military fantasy and alternate history.
“Though the dragons… are often more fully fleshed-out than the stereotypical human characters, the author’s palpable love for her subject and a story rich with international, interpersonal and internal struggles more than compensate.”
Though not as dense and thoughtful as his earlier work, Roger Zelanzy’s Amber books are big, fun fantasy stories.
Amber is the one real world, of which all others including our own Earth are but Shadows. Amber burns in Corwin’s blood. Exiled on Shadow Earth for centuries, the prince is about to return to Amber to make a mad and desperate rush upon the throne. From Arden to the Pattern deep in Castle Amber, which defines the very structure of Reality, Corwin must contend with the powers of his eight immortal brothers, all Princes of Amber. His savage path is blocked and guarded by eerie structures beyond imagining impossible realities forged by demonic assassins and staggering Forces that challenge the might of Corwin’s superhuman fury.
“[T]hese fantasy adventures… have earned [Roger Zelazny] a whole new audience by virtue of their elegance, humor, literacy, vivid action and lightly applied but complex background of tarot, alternate worlds, Olympian gods, and a magic so neat and clear that computers can learn it.”
The Dresden Files are good, pulpy fun. It’s a fantasy/noir series based in modern-day Chicago with a hard-boiled detective who happens to be a wizard.
For Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name…
“Butcher… spins an excellent noirish detective yarn in a well-crafted, supernaturally-charged setting. The supporting cast is again fantastic, and Harry’s wit continues to fly in the face of a peril-fraught plot.”
—Booklist (starred review)
When David Eddings started work on The Belgariad, he wanted to include more realism than most fantasy books bothered with. For example, he learned that he could walk about twenty miles in a single day, and forced his characters to a similar pace, which means when they go on big journeys, it actually takes a long time to get there. They argue about cooking (and other things they’d have to actually deal with) on the way there.
I read this series in junior high and quickly devoured everything Eddings wrote. However, it’s pretty formulaic: an unsuspecting kid is the Chosen One and along with his Varied Helpers, must travel across the Unfamiliar World to retrieve the Magical Thing from the Bad Guy.
Fortunately, the interaction among the characters is what made these stories engrossing for me. There were all different and interesting and gave each other entertaining grief through all the books. Reading these books felt like taking a road trip with your best friends.
“Fabulous… Eddings has a marvelous storyteller style… exceedingly well portrayed and complex people. . . . More! More! More!”
The first Shannara book (The Sword of Shannara) is a complete and total rip-off of Lord of the Rings. Don’t bother with it.
Brooks has written twenty-three bestsellers and does not seem interested in stopping.
Narnia is another world I remember fondly from childhood. I read all seven books multiple times, but even as a kid, I found the Christian allegory too heavy-handed. It’s ironic that C. S. Lewis had abandoned religion in his teens, but was brought back to the fold by his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who went on to dislike the Narnia books, partly because they were too Christian.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an uncontested classic, and one of the most famous books of the 20th century. It’s an expected read for anyone with even a passing interested in fantasy.
The world in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever will be familiar to Tolkien fans: a powerful ring, staff-toting wizards, and a big nasty villain. It’s a rich world, set in stark contrast to the self-loathing, leprous bastard in the middle of it all: Thomas Covenant, who refuses to believe that all this magical stuff is real (which, honestly, is a pretty reasonable reaction).
Wracked by well-earned guilt, Covenant schleps through the amazing Land, and you hope he defeats the evil Lord Bane not because he’s such a hero, but because he just happens to be fighting for the good guys.
It’s an interesting take on a well-travelled road, and worth diving into.
Technically, this 23-book series is science fiction—it takes place in the far future on a distant planet. Practically, though, it’s pure fantasy: dragons bond telepathically with riders, and the two are bonded for life.
To the nobles who live in Ruatha Hold, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.
When she meets a queen dragon, the bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world.
Dragonflight won the Nebula for best novella, making Anne McCaffrey the first woman to do so.
“Read Dragonflight and you’re confronted with McCaffrey the storyteller in her prime, staking a claim for being one of the influential fantasy and SF novelists of her generation—and doing it, remarkably, in the same novel”
There’s a fair chance you know as much (or more) about the Harry Potter universe as I do. It’s great stuff.
At one point, J. K. Rowling was a billionaire. Then she did something crazy—she donated millions to charity. No longer a billionaire, she must now slog through her sad life as a mere well-loved multi-millionaire who’s created a delightful universe. This blog extends its condolences to J.K. Rowling during this difficult time.
I own every Discworld book, and they take up large amounts of several shelves. Most of them have well-worn spines, and there are no other books I re-read as an adult. When I can’t get to sleep at 2am and my head is ringing like a bell from the worries of the world, reading a Discworld book is the perfect way to recognize the madness of the world while having a good laugh at it.
The Discworld books take place on a flat, circular world that rests of the backs of four immense elephants who themselves ride the shell of a titanic sea turtle as it cruises through space.
The many stories of Discworld are often parodies of fantasy tropes combined with biting social satire. Cowardly wizards, incompetent policemen, clueless gods, and a menagerie of magical creatures all bump elbows as they make their way through life and try to earn a buck.
The writing style is clear and distinct, but you can feel bits of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and even Chaucer. Despite the incessant bad behavior of nearly everyone in all the books, author Pratchett conveys, if not forgiveness, then at least an understanding that even the best of us carry deep flaws and life leaves its mark on us all.
The first two books are a little uneven. I recommend starting with the third book, Equal Rites. Reading them in order is mildly recommended, but not necessary.
When J. K. Rowling was only three years old, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a A Wizard of Earthsea about a young mage who goes from humble beginnings to a school of magic, needing to bring balance to the world of magic.
This may sound similar to Harry Potter, but the two book series inhabit very different worlds, and if you read one right after the other, you’d sense little overlap.
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.”
What would modern fantasy look like without The Lord of the Rings? Elves, wizards, magical lands, and the nature of fantasy quests would all probably be shallower. There has never been a more fully-imagined fictional land than Middle Earth, and Tolkien’s writings are enough to count as one of the better mythologies in human history.
(I skip the songs when I read them, though.)
Yes, I’m listing His Dark Materials ahead of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien may be more influential, but Pullman’s worlds feel just as large, and honestly, they’re better-written.
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal, including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? Lyra is savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want.
But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other…
“As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension.”