Get PJ Media on your Apple

PJM Lifestyle

The 10 Best Fantasy Novels and Series of All Time

There's much more out there than Harry Potter and Game of Thrones!

by
Pierre Comtois

Bio

August 16, 2014 - 8:00 am
Page 1 of 10  Next ->   View as Single Page

With the few remaining store shelves groaning under the weight of fantasy series whose authors must crank them out with the regularity and efficiency of a printing press (and with the same lack of originality), not much room is left for preserving the classics of the genre. Over the last several decades, fantasy has gone from a niche market to mass acceptance, and with the success of such series as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, it’s also gone mainstream. Unfortunately, interest in those series hasn’t translated to interest in other fantasy worlds. Potter and Thrones have their fans but those fans seem to be parochial in their tastes, refusing to explore beyond the walls of Hogwarts or come out from behind the Iron Throne.

But fantasy is about more than dragons, swords, spells, and now sex. It’s also about the craft of writing and somehow capturing a sense of wonder and of faraway lands and climes that readers may not even be aware that they’re yearning to experience. It’s that deep, unsuspected tugging against the bonds of the here and now that the best works of fantasy create. And (dare I say it?) once upon a time writers did succeed in doing that when fantasy written for the older person (as opposed to children) was somewhat rare in a late nineteenth and early twentieth century era of limited media coverage and that frowned upon the man or woman who refused to let go of what were considered childish things.

However, those childish things began as somewhat serious tales told around Grecian campfires before they metamorphosed into mythology. But what is understood as modern fantasy, that is, fantastic stories meant for entertainment and that no one is expected to actually believe, began in the nineteenth century when authors such as William Morris and George MacDonald formalized the genre. It was they who took elements of myth and folklore and transformed them into extended-length novels that could be enjoyed by both children and adults. And through their skill with the written word they molded individual statements on the fantastic, creating worlds that spoke to the human heart in voices with which readers could identify.

In those worlds, combat and strife were often relegated to the background or were non-existent, and though there could be magic, it was limited. Most important to these authors was the human element, often expressed in the form of a quest which was actually a search for love, wisdom, or understanding — elements that will largely be the criteria upon which the following top 10 fantasy novels and series have been judged.

(Note: many of the books listed here have been reprinted as paperbacks in the late 1960s/early 1970s Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series and are still available at decent prices.)

Deryni_rising_firstDeryni_checkmate_firsthigh deryni

10. The Chronicles of the Deryni

The only “modern” fantasy on this list, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles antedates such newer fantasies as Game of Thrones with their palace intrigues and veiled diplomacies. Published in 1970, Deryni Rising was the first of a long series of books (usually written in threes) chronicling the history of the kingdom of Gwynedd, a medieval land roughly akin to Great Britain. There, two-faced diplomacy, palace intrigue, arranged marriages, warfare and the occasional regicide are further complicated by the existence of a race known as the Deryni. Possessed of various powers from mind reading to psychic healing, the Deryni were once powers in the land until the Church and its secular allies declared them tools of the devil. They are driven underground, and most of the series is about the Derynis’ struggle to survive and regain their legitimacy. It is told in a straightforward, extremely detailed, but engaging style. The Chronicles of the Deryni is likely the most fully realized, convincing fantasy world created in the modern era.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Mary Stewart's Arthurian legends (beginning with The Crystal Cave) certainly belong on this list. It is without doubt the best re-imagining of the Merlin/Arthur stories.

Cabell: EVERYTHING he did was fascinating. Jurgen's only claim to fame was having been "banned in Boston".

Lin Carter at Ballantine edited a series of fantasy stories; you could hardly go wrong to begin with his list.

And what about Michael Moorcock and the "Elric of Melnibone" stories? FAR better than the Gormenghast crap. (I've tried a dozen times to read the first Gormenghast story, and have never managed to get even a third of the way through. )
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
My first reaction too is "What no CS Lewis?"

There is just TONS of stuff out there. Zelazny's Amber series? Glen Cook's "Black Company", one of those twelve-book trilogies? OMG Piers Anthony, he of the 46-book trilogy? No Fritz Lieber? Fred Saberhagen's "Empire of the East"?

"Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones" are almost competent but complete pot-boilers of almost zero originality. Well, I suppose Dickens got that same kind of review.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not sure how The Chronicles of Narnia get left off any such list.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (76)
All Comments   (76)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
The Fantasy series I like best after The Lord of The Rings are Gene Wolfe's 'Solar Cycle' and Ursula LeGuin's 'Earthsea' books.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Love fantasy been reading since the early 70's. Lord of the Rings is my favorite though I love many other series. I agree with many commenters picks though one series I haven't seen mentioned was the Malazan series. Long, complicated as it was, it was a great read. Even his partners mythology was fun as is the prequel novels. Also the Eddings series, Belgariad and Elenium, though light reading, were fun. I have also read many fantasy series that were just tough to get through, and some that I just stopped all together, but I will usually give any author in this genre a try as you can never know when the next genius will appear.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not a big fan of fantasy, though I did enjoy The Hobbit and TLOTR; I also enjoyed the Gormenghast trilogy, and Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass.
Over 5+ decades of reading I've managed to find some fantasy I liked so I want to put a vote in for a few fantasy novels I've really enjoyed but which are not mentioned here:
Little Big by Crowley
Stardust and Neverwhere by Gaiman
The Charwoman's Shadow by Lord Dunsany. (I liked it better than The King of Elfland's Daughter)
Most of the Harry Dresden novels by Butcher, but mainly the first 6 of them
Most of the novels by Ray Bradbury but in particular Something Wicked This Way Comes
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Divine Comedy by Dante
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here's a short list of fantasy series that should be considered:
The Amber Chronicles" by Zelazny
FahFrd and the Grey Mouser, by Fritz Leiber
Thieves World by Robert Aspirin
Riverworld by Phillip Jose Farmer
The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
As I teenager I read the "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy (four books in paperback) by Tad Williams, and really enjoyed that. More than half a life ago, so who knows if it would appeal to adult readers.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I love these books. They are basically Lord of the Rings fan-fiction (Williams freely admits as much)...but still very engrossing.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I started Shadowmarch by Tad Williams yesterday. I hope it's the quality that I remember from "MS&T."
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't like it as much...it's very long and doesn't need to be, while MS&T is very long but doesn't feel so.

He's got another sci-fi series called Otherland that I liked...again very long, but not annoyingly so...should probably be 3 books instead of 4. Williams likes tetralogies.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's interesting to take note of David Pringle's top 100 fantasy novels from 1946 to 1987. Enough time has passed for a fantasy novel from 1987 to be considered a classic if it ever will be. The interesting part is 28 of the 40 novels through to 1968 are recognizable as classics.

Only 10 out of 60 of the novels from 1969 to 1987 might be judged as such.

It's yet more evidence that this isn't just a case of get off of my lawn but that there has been a serious depletion of talent. Why that is is anyone's guess.

The same rings true for science fiction and in the same timeframe.

What happened? Postmodernism? Too much self-awareness? Creeping conformity? The entry of mainstream sensibilities? A victim of it's own popularity?

There is certainly a clear indicator of a break between the beginning and end of the '60s cultural revolution. Was something thrown out with the bathwater? What was it?

Or is the entire latter part just a misread by Pringle? Was he helped along by an already existing pre-1970 consensus as opposed to post-1970, when such a thing all but disappeared? Surely there are more than 10 classics 1970-87. How does Lyonesse by Jack Vance not make such a list? Why are there 40 novels from the first 24 years and 60 from the latter 18? Shouldn't it be the other way 'round?
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Pringle might be right about the fantasy list...if he were a decade or two older, I'd think the reason for the over-representation of earlier fantasy might be a case of “things were better before you kids screwed it up!” But he's not.

I don't know about a sci-fi list, though. There's a lot more of a nostalgia-quotient when looking at the history of sci-fi that makes it difficult to evaluate...there's a golden age that gets a lot of deserved attention...as well as over-attention (e.g., I think Asimov had great ideas, but limited prose...but that's a heresy).

I think there's pretty good (and consistently good) sci-fi produced throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I disagree. The single greatest difference between pre and post 1970 SF is the attentive hand of an editor. That coincides with the decline of magazine SF in terms of authors who came up that way. SF today is dismal. Not in terms of its ideas. People are coming up with pretty clever stuff. The problem lies in their ability to express those ideas in terms of artistry and authority and with a certain degree of conciseness. The upshot for me is boredom.

I mentioned elsewhere that Joe Abercrombie's heralded The Blade Itself uses 800 words at the beginning to let us know a guy has a painful limp and to have him negotiate part of a hallway and descend 16 stairs. That's about 800 words too many. That's not lush, expansive prose but dead weight.

If I'm correct, and post-1970 is worse because of less editorial direction with a simultaneous increased word count, that means self-published SF is going to be even worse - much worse. Surprise! It is.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd agree that firm editing has become too infrequent. There are far, far too many 800-1200 page epics out there that could stand to get figurative lap-bands. I'd also agree that the decline of SF mags is part of this...also, I don't know the numbers, but I feel that the short-story format has been lessened by this decline. There just seem to be fewer shorts these days. But I'd disagree that “SF today is dismal”...a far too-broad indictment.

The jury's still out on self-publishing...much dreck, but that could be signs of growing pains.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, it's dismal to me cuz I can't find anything between the hyper-artistic and stuff that sits on the surface like Honor Harrington.

Examples of an in between sweet spot might be The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glenn Cook, The War for Eternity and The Black Ship by Christopher Rowley, In Conquest Born by C.S. Friedman, Revelation Space and The Prefect by Alistair Reynolds, Fallen Dragon by Peter Hamilton, Palace and The Eyes of God by Katherine Kerr and Mark Kreighbaum (Kreighbaum alone on the sequel) and The Forbidden Borders trilogy by W. Michael Gear.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ooh!...good list! I've read some and agree...so I'll add the others that I haven't to my reading list.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
No one here mentions Dragonriders of Pern?

Slight offshoot, but I read many of the Saint Germain vamipre novels. May not fit the 'fantasy, but not sci-fi' genre, but hey, he's not a sparkly, angsty little twit, trying to out-gloom the phantom menace.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Anne Rice's vampire series is pretty good
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not quite series.
Robert E. Howard's Conan.
Karl Edward Wagner's Kane.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wagner's Kane is underrated. His novel with David Drake - Killer - is really fun. It's about a retired gladiator who tracks a deadly alien beast that somehow crashlanded around the time of ancient Rome.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's nice reading about a lot of old fantasies that, for the most part, I've never heard of. And I'm sure they all have their merits (Lord of the Rings is a classic, of course), but I have a hard time believing that there's only one post-60s fantasy series to stand with these old ones. My reading of the genre is hardly exhaustive, but I know there's great stuff out there. 2007's "Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, is a thing of beauty and my all-time favorite fantasy novel (I didn't like the sequel as much but hopefully he sticks it in the third and final book). Brandon Sanderson's work, while not as lyrical probably as any of these choices, is bursting with amazing action, ideas, and subversion of tropes. I never read American Gods by Neil Gaiman (due to the swearing), but his young adult fantasies (Coraline and The Graveyard Book) and stories are all haunting. And going back to the sixties, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is heartbreakingly beautiful and Ursula K. Leguin's A Wizard of Earthsea (which I just reread) is a story that gets into your bones.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
1 2 3 Next View All