14 Must-Read Modern Fantasy Books
By: Author Will Heath
Posted on Last updated: 6th February 2023
The world of fantasy fiction has been turned on its head in recent years by authors who are pushing boundaries and blurring lines.
The distance between fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and fairy tales has been reduced, and it’s all for the better. Modern fantasy books are wholly unique and exciting stories for this reason.
Exciting Modern Fantasy Books
The books you’ll find here each do something unique that sets them apart from the tropes and traditions of fantasy fiction.
We are living through a bold new time in fantasy, and the authors of these modern fantasy books are leading the charge.
The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin
This staggering trilogy of modern fantasy books by American author N.K. Jemisin represents a turning point in fantasy fiction .
These novels, narratively and conceptually, are unlike anything that exists in the realms of fantasy and science fiction literature. Their breadth and scope is exceptional.
For proof of the impact these books had upon their release, every single book in the trilogy took home the Hugo Award for Best Novel in its respective year, making it the only trilogy to ever accomplish this.
The first novel in this trilogy of modern fantasy books, The Fifth Season , follows three separate protagonists, all living in slightly different times on a massive continent called the Stillness.
Essun is a middle-aged mother who sets out on a journey of revenge after she comes home to find that her husband has killed their son and taken their daughter away.
Essun herself is secretly able to manipulate the earth itself; this is a skill that a small percentage of people — known as orogenes — possess.
The second protagonist is Damaya, a young orogene whose parents have organised to be removed from their home and put into the hands of an organisation — known as the Fulcrum — that can train and weaponise her.
And the third protagonist, Syenite, is a member of the Fulcrum who has been sent out on a mission with the world’s most powerful orogene.
The worldbuilding and character writing of this phenomenal trilogy is what sets it so far apart from all other modern fantasy books.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, nothing else in the world of fantasy has managed to marry intimate character moulding with political and social allegories and ingenious worldbuilding quite like the Broken Earth trilogy.
Buy a copy of the Broken Earth series here!
Mordew by Alex Pheby
Mordew is one of the most raw, gnarly, and punk modern fantasy books you’ll ever read. This is a lovecraftian blend of cosmic horror and grimy political angst.
Set in the titular Mordew, a coastal city battered by the waves, this is a small world watched over by a man called the Master.
Our protagonist, Nathan, is a slum boy who trawls through the “living mud” looking for things to sell, all the while his father lies bedridden at home.
Meanwhile, the Master’s castle home sits atop the corpse of God itself, feeding off its body like a parasite.
The setting and concept of Mordew is bold and discomfiting, making the reader squirm with its rancid streets and corrupt, bloated characters.
But there are also mysteries to solve and secrets to uncover, and Nathan gradually builds a little party of friends, with whom he will find answers and grow to understand the world in which he lives.
Alex Pheby has built something larger than life here, with an understanding that “fantasy” means doing whatever your imagination allows, while still adhering to one’s own set of rules.
He is a writer of both scope and intimacy, and that is vital to the success of modern fantasy books. Mordew is truly unique.
Buy a copy of Mordew here!
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Aside from their publication date, how do we actually define what modern fantasy books are? The Priory of the Orange Tree is a great example to use here.
This is an epic fantasy novel; a sweeping saga that spans an entire world. It pays homage to the genre’s legacy, most obviously by putting the spotlight on dragons.
It has an in-built mythology around dragons; it makes them larger-than-life, and something to be feared.
But The Priory of the Orange Tree is also a fantasy novel written by a woman, with a focus on female and queer protagonists .
Historically, the fantasy genre has been dominated by straight, white men. This novel, along with the Broken Earth series, is part of a reclamation of fantasy.
Aside from all of this, it is also simply a perfectly-crafted, perfectly-paced fantasy epic.
This is a world of queens, of magic, of assassins and outcasts and mages and pirates and dragons. A world with details internal lore and mythology.
The world of this novel lives and breathes; it is entirely three-dimensional. Crafting like this is rarely pulled off on such a massive scale.
For this reason, Samantha Shannon really is one-of-a-kind amongst authors of modern fantasy books.
Buy a copy here!
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
American author Travis Baldree has worked for many years as a professional audiobook narrator. But while he often narrates epic fantasy novels, his own tastes align with more cosy, low-stakes literature.
This led Baldree to write his own debut fantasy novel: a low-stakes cosy novel set in a high fantasy world.
Our protagonist, Viv, is a retired barbarian mercenary who has decided to hang up her blood-soaked sword and open up a little coffee shop.
Reminiscent of some of the best isekai manga and anime, Legends & Lattes flips the tired script on what readers expect from a fantasy setting and story, swapping out brewing wars for brewing drinks.
Legends & Lattes is a heartwarming novel about found family. Viv enlists the help of a himbo builder, a charming succubus, and an adorable rattkin to build her perfect little world.
Leaning into fantasy tropes that will be familiar to anyone who has played DnD or Skyrim, Baldree has crafted a sweet and wholesome story set in a world of orcs and elves.
But it’s the aforementioned found family that really sells this novel as a glowing success amongst modern fantasy novels. You’ll laugh with them and cry for them all. And you’ll do anything to protect Thimble.
Buy a copy of Legends and Lattes here!
Gideon the Ninth by Tasyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth is another shining example of what sets modern fantasy books apart from their predecessors, but in a very different way.
This is a novel that masterfully mixes so many different genres.
We have a fantasy narrative within a gothic and horror-tinged science fiction world , and characters who talk and behave like YA protagonists.
And it all works! The fact that this absurd blend of genres, tropes, and themes is executed so flawlessly is miraculous. And the novel is a thrillride from beginning to end.
Set in a strange system of planets that are all a singular necromantic empire, we follow an edgy, angsty teenager who must play sword and protector to her planet’s princess, Harrowhark.
Nine planets, each with its own school of necromancy, and the nine heirs have been invited to the emperor’s planet to take part in a trial.
This trial will determine whether or not the heirs will rise to the role of lyctor (a necromantic saint blessed with immortality).
This is a world of death, of living skeletons, of catacombs and tombs. It’s bleak, but Muir’s dialogue is sharp and witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
The YA vibrancy of the characters mixes harshly with the bleak and morbid aesthetic of this world, and yet that clash is part of what makes the novel so unique.
That and the way in which, like Dune before it, Gideon the Ninth blends fantasy, science fiction, and horror aesthetics together.
We live in a time where the lines between genres have blurred, and as readers, we’re all the richer for it.
Modern fantasy books like Gideon the Ninth are an absolute wonder.
Buy a copy of Gideon the Ninth here!
Godkiller by Hannah Kaner
Inspired by the presence and power of gods in world mythologies , Hannah Kaner’s debut fantasy novel Godkiller takes a fresh approach to the epic fantasy genre of literature.
The prologue opens with a truly harrowing scene, as our protagonist Kissen and her family — descendents of a water god — are taken by a cult of zealots to be ritualistically sacrificed to a fire god.
From here we jump forward to an adult Kissen making a living out of assassinating gods for money, a job which this bitter woman finds great satisfaction in.
However, early in this fantasy book, Kissen meets out second and third protagonists: a young noble’s daughter and a tiny god which has bonded with her like a daemon from His Dark Materials.
The two beg Kissen for help, and she begrudgingly agrees to do so. From here, they set out on a journey across a land which we come to know and become fascinated by as the story goes on.
One refreshing aspect of Godkiller is its length; while this is the first in a new series, and it certainly fits the bill of “epic”, it is not an overly long and bloated fantasy novel.
This is a tightly-crafted, well-paced fantasy adventure for fans of the genre, and of mythology .
Buy a copy of Godkiller here!
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh is an American author known for writing unlikeable women protagonists, for being punk and harsh and uncaring with her narratives and characters.
This is what makes her such a treasured voice amongst modern authors, and what makes her My Year of Rest and Relaxation such a modern classic.
Lapvona is Moshfegh dipping her toes into the world of fantasy, historical fiction , and folklore all at once.
Set in a nondescript mediaeval world of natural disasters, serfs tilling the soil, and a spoiled master lording himself over the poor beneath him, Lapvona is raw and gnarly.
In this world we have hunger and death; we have a blind wise woman who has nursed every child in the village; and we have sharp political and economic allegories to dig into.
Marek, son of an abusive single father, has a uniquely close bond with the wise woman, but he also gets tied up with the governor’s son, and that tangle will unravel their community.
Lapvona is a novel about power, about suffering, about unfair social imbalances, and so much more. It is scathing and disgusting and exciting.
Another great example of genres being blended : this is somewhat historical, beautifully fantastical, and cleverly literary. There’s nothing quite like it.
Buy a copy of Lapvona here!
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
Here is an outlandish and absurd fantasy novel that some will love and others will hate.
To be completely frank, I loved some aspects of this novel while hating most others. But (and this is important), I loved to hate those parts. In that way, there was nothing I didn’t love.
Empire of the Vampire is an oversized pseudo-gothic vampire epic; an enormous horror fantasy novel; an absurd male power fantasy.
Everything about this novel is ridiculous, overblown, silly, campy, and cringe. And I personally loved it for all of those stupid reasons .
Set in a world in which people randomly sometimes say French words, we listen as a legendary vampire hunter sits in a tower and relays his life story to his captor.
Gabriel de Leon was a child when the sun failed to rise. Now, the vampires that had always hidden themselves away have risen up to build an empire and lay waste to human society.
Gabe, however, turns out to be a half-vampire, and is recruited into an order of half-vampire hunters, and we read on as he rises up to become a legend.
Gabe is crass and rude and edgy; an awkward and uncomfortable male power fantasy, but that’s what makes him so much fun to read.
You’ll laugh along at how “cool” Gabe is, while also genuinely enjoying the worldbuilding and pacing of this well-plotted, well-conceived vampire fantasy novel.
There is so much wrong with this book, but it has earned a place on this list for its boldness, its uniqueness, and for being a horror-tinged fantasy epic.
Amongst modern fantasy books, there is nothing quite like Empire of the Vampire , and that is both a good and a bad thing.
The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne
This is proper, hardcore epic fantasy; a viking-inspired modern fantasy novel that leans into all the tropes and trappings that fantasy fans know and love.
There is very little here that’s particularly fresh — The Shadow of the Gods isn’t reinventing the fantasy wheel. Instead, it is simply a honed and sharp piece of exciting fantasy fiction.
This fantasy novel is an expression of the author’s love for Scandinavian folklore, mythology, and landscapes. It feels like a Norse epic, though it is in fact entirely original.
For fans who have been raised by fantasy fiction, The Shadow of the Gods is nostalgic; it is comforting and understanding; it is childhood brought back to life .
As its title suggests, this novel begins three hundred years after a war was waged between the gods, and this war wiped them all out.
Now, their enormous animalistic corpses litter the landscape, and our human protagonists live amongst them, literally in the shadow of the gods.
In fact, one human city has been built into the skull of the father of all gods. This is truly epic scene-setting.
We have three protagonists, two of whom are women. One is a hunter who is teaching her son how to survive.
The second is a runaway slave who joins a mercenary group as he searches for a witch. The third is a member of a viking crew who are hunting down a wanted criminal.
If you love Norse mythology and cold viking worlds, you’re going to adore this.
Shadow of the Gods is one of the coolest (pardon the pun) modern fantasy books.
Buy a copy of The Shadow of the Gods here!
A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos
Translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle
Set on a floating island (arc) named Anima, A Winter’s Promise (the first in the Mirror Visitor series) is a French YA fantasy novel which follows the journey of a young woman named Ophelia.
Ophelia, like everyone on Anima, has a power related to objects in the world. Her power allows her to “read” the history of an object, and so she curates a museum owned by her grandfather.
However, Ophelia’s hand has been promised to Thorn, a superintendent and a bastard from another arc; Thorn and his Dragon clan have powers far more physical and dangerous than those of the people on Anima.
Thorn and Ophelia are bound by the want of a man who seeks to understand a powerful book, for which he requires Ophelia’s power.
Amongst modern French books , A Winter’s Promise stands out as an exciting work of YA fantasy fiction with wonderful world-building, clever politics and plotting, and deep lore.
The politics of Versailles meets Pride and Prejudice in an enemies-to-lovers tale. Layered storytelling and an aesthetic reminiscent of Studio Ghibli, A Winter’s Promise is a delicious French novel.
The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
Translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano
Inspired by the folklore of native Australia, Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi has carved out a vivid and engrossing world of beasts and magic .
The Beast Player is a 500 page YA fantasy epic from Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi.
It tells the story of Elin, a young girl who grew up in a village full of caretakers who train and look after a herd of dangerous beasts known as Toda.
Elin’s mother, originally from a distant and mysterious tribe, is sentenced to death after the most elite beasts in the village all suddenly die at once under her care.
After escaping the village, Elin is raised by a wandering beekeeper and subsequently grows into adulthood at a sanctuary for another kind of dangerous creature: Royal Beasts.
The book follows the fantasy tradition of dropping the reader into an impressively detailed world and having its history, geography, lore, politics, traditions, and culture all slowly unfold as the protagonist grows and travels.
Its sequel, The Beast Warrior , is set roughly ten years after The Beast Player ’s conclusion, with Elin now around thirty years old, married to a supporting character from the first book, and mother to an eight-year-old boy named Jesse.
Together, these are two of the most exciting YA fantasy books to come out of Japan, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Buy a copy of The Beast Player here!
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
American author V.E. Schwab has made a big name for herself as an author of urban fantasy and magical realism.
She expertly weaves tropes and concepts together; things like superpowers, folklore, and gothic themes. Her writing is evocative of the works of Neil Gaiman while also being wholly original.
And The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is perhaps her grandest novel .
Our protagonist, Addie, was born in a small rural village in 17th century France. In order to escape forced (or “expected”) matrimony, she seeks out an old pagan god to make a deal with.
The deal she makes is that she is now free and immortal, but she cannot be remembered. She cannot speak her name; she doesn’t show up in photographs.
When people meet her, they then immediately forget her when their back is turned. She is entirely alone and unshackled by anything at all.
However, now living in present-day New York City, Addie suddenly meets a man who manages a bookshop and, for some reason, he doesn’t forget her.
To say any more would be to spoil things, but The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a magical urban fantasy novel and one of the best modern fantasy books, hands down.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus is a very special debut novel, one that instantly shot its author into the stratosphere, writing her name in the stars alongside other urban fantasy greats.
This is a novel of magic in every sense of the world; a novel bursting at the seams with wonder, possibility, imagination, poetry, and beauty.
Gorgeously written, full of mystery and intrigue. This is a fantasy novel, a fairy tale, a piece of historical fiction. It does so much so well.
The titular Night Circus is a magical circus (Le Cirque des Rêves) that appears at dusk and disappears by dawn.
Its enigmatic owner, Prospero, has begun a game with his old friend and cohort, in which they must each raise an apprentice.
Eventually, the two will be pitted against one another in a magical duel. And it is these two apprentices, Celia and Marco, that we follow through the course of this novel.
The Victorian world, circus setting, and magical characters make this one of the most exciting and original modern fantasy books of all time.
Buy a copy of The Night Circus here!
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
While this epic fantasy novel is slightly older than the other modern fantasy books on this list, it is still a product of the 21st Century.
The Name of the Wind is also one of the most lauded and beloved fantasy novels of all time, so it’s pretty likely that most people reading this have read it, and its sequel.
That said, if it wasn’t featured here, some people would probably be annoyed, so here it is!
Upon its release, The Name of the Wind did a lot to buck the trends and claw out of the pit of tropes that the fantasy genre had fallen into.
We begin with a fantastic framing device (which Empire of the Vampire emulated in a far less successful way) and some truly evocative and poetic language to boot.
Our protagonist, Kvothe, has hidden himself away, living as an innkeeper on a quiet road. However, his identity is uncovered and a scribe has asked to pen Kvothe’s story.
And so we are thrown back to Kvothe’s childhood as a member of a travelling troupe of performers, before a tragedy turns him out onto the street.
Eventually, Kvothe enrols in a university in order to learn the magic system of this world, and this is where the majority of this novel is set (inspired by the author’s own lengthy time at university).
The Name of the Wind very much did its own thing, ignoring the rules of worldbuilding and narrative that had been established by repetition within the genre.
For this reason, it remains one of the greatest modern fantasy books of all time.
The 50 Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)
While fantastical stories have been around since before the written word, they’ve gone in and out of fashion throughout history. But the 21st century has been a particularly fruitful time of fantasy literature, with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series ushering in an era of both publishers willing to take a chance on new fantasy writers and readers opening themselves up to worlds of magic. Many readers have worked their way back from movies like the Lord of the Rings franchise or TV series like Game of Thrones to their fantasy novel origins, seeking out new authors after devouring J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin’s books.
If you’re looking for your new, favorite fantasy saga, we’ve got you covered. We’ve gathered Paste editors and writers to compile a list of our favorite books in the genre, ranging from high fantasy worlds with distinct systems of magic to simple fantastical fables to urban fantasies filled with characters ripped right out of own realities.
This list boasts everything from Young Adult novels brimming with magic and violence to high fantasy epics chronicling war and drama. We’ve limited our picks to two books per author, and these books include entries in multi-volume series, standalone novels and a collection of short stories. Nearly 150 titles received at least one vote, but we’ve narrowed it down 50 books we recommend without reservation.
Here are the 50 best fantasy books of the 21st Century:
50. storm front by jim butcher (2000), 49. princess academy by shannon hale (2005), 48. all the birds in the sky by charlie jane anders (2016), 47. daughter of smoke & bone by laini taylor (2011), 46. the abyss surrounds us by emily skrutskie (2016), 45. uprooted by naomi novik (2015), 44. thief of time by terry pratchett (2002), 43. the girl who circumnavigated fairyland in a ship of her own making by catherynne m. valente (2009), 42. the magician’s land by lev grossman (2014), 41. seraphina by rachel hartman (2012), 40. leviathan by scott westerfeld (2009), 39. egg & spoon by gregory maguire (2014), 38. crooked kingdom by leigh bardugo (2016), 37. grace of kings by ken liu, 36. the blade itself by joe abercrombie (2006), 35. the winner’s kiss by marie rutkoski (2016), 34. a dance with dragons by george r.r. martin (2011), 33. a torch against the night by sabaa tahir (2016), 32. the strange and beautiful sorrows of ava lavender by leslye walton (2014), 31. the obelisk gate by n.k. jemisin (2016), 30. lirael by garth nix (2015), 29. night watch by terry pratchett (2002), 28. tuesdays at the castle by jessica day george (2011), 27. jonathan strange & mr. norrell by susanna clarke (2004), 26. spindle’s end by robin mckinley (2000), 25. the king of attolia by megan whalen turner (2006), 24. perdido street station by china miéville (2000), 23. carry on by rainbow rowell (2015), 22. throne of the crescent moon by saladin ahmed (2012), 21. coraline by neil gaiman (2002), 20. the way of shadows by brent weeks (2008), 19. a corner of white by jaclyn moriarty (2013), 18. a memory of light by robert jordan and brandon sanderson (2013), 17. trickster’s queen by tamora pierce (2004), 16. who fears death by nnedi okorafor (2010), 15. six of crows by leigh bardugo (2015), 14. the wise man’s fear by patrick rothfuss (2011), 13. harry potter and the half-blood prince by j.k. rowling (2005), 12. a storm of swords by george r.r. martin (2000), 11. the night circus by erin morgenstern (2011), 10. the city of brass by s.a. chakraborty (2017), 9. cloud atlas by david mitchell (2004), 8. the fifth season by n.k. jemisin (2015), 7. mistborn: the final empire by brandon sanderson (2006), 6. the lies of lock lamora by scott lynch (2006), 5. an ember in the ashes by sabaa tahir (2015), 4. fragile things by neil gaiman (2006), 3. harry potter and the deathly hallows by j.k. rowling (2007), 2. the way of kings by brandon sanderson (2010), 1. the name of the wind by patrick rothfuss (2007), harry potter.
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36 of the best fantasy books everyone should read
Are you looking for your next fantasy must-read? From wizards and werewolves to weird happenings underground, we've pulled together some of the WIRED team's favourite fantasy series. Some are set in strange and fantastic worlds, while others start a little closer to home. And, if you'd like more reading ideas, try our guide to the best sci-fi books or our picks of the best books on Audible .
Cyber Monday has arrived and discounts on a wide range of tech and gadgetry are now live. The WIRED team has sought out the top true savings on quality products. Here’s the best Cyber Monday deals.
Piranesi is a wondrous, genre-defying book, but if it had to fit somewhere, 'fantasy' would be the label we'd give it. The less you know about Piranesi , the better, but as a taster, it follows the life of a man who lives within the spectacular, statue-filled halls of a vast, labyrinthine house. Waves roll into the halls, birds and sea creatures come and go, but he has no idea why he's there or how he got there. He's more concerned with writing journal entries and documenting things he encounters.
It's a twisting novel that's both beautiful and deeply unsettling. It's one you could read in a single sitting because the narrator seems so unnervingly naive, and the more you discover, the more you itch for what secrets are hiding beneath the surface. Released in 2021, Piranesi was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction and won a massive amount of critical acclaim for author Susanna Clarke. If her name rings a bell, it's because she's already well-known for her first novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell , which was published in 2004 and adapted into a TV series.
By Matt Reynolds
Price: £7.50 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible trial
Described as Game of Thrones meets Ocean’s Eleven , Six of Crows is set in the Grishaverse – like the award-winning Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is now a major Netflix show. In fact, the show might be called Shadow and Bone , but it draws from the cast of characters in Six of Crows , too. Six of Crows begins in Ketterdam, a raucous, busy hub of trade with an underbelly of crime. Kaz Brekker is a criminal mastermind who’s offered the chance to carry out a risky heist with a considerable reward. He handpicks a team to help, including a convict, excellent sharpshooter, and a spy – six outcasts in total, all trying to pull off the ultimate heist. Bardugo is brilliant at world-building, which is a treat if you’re entering the Grishaverse for the first time and a welcome return for anyone who’s read the Shadow and Bone trilogy or her latest duology set in the same universe, King of Scars . Yes, Six of Crows and the other Grishaverse books are technically YA, but don’t let that put you off.
If anyone deserves to be on this list twice, it’s Neil Gaiman. Stardust is a magical fantasy novel that’s a delight to read at any age. It’s about a young man called Tristran Thorn, who vows to find a star for the woman he loves after they see it fall from the night sky.
What follows is a fairy tale that weaves in stories, characters and settings that are already embedded in our cultural make-up, like pirates, spells, curses, witches, power struggles, falling stars, otherworldly beings and much more. Gaiman said: “I wanted to write a story that would feel, to the reader, like something he or she had always known” – and that’s the enduring appeal of Stardust. The book was adapted into a movie in 2007 with a star-studded cast, including Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Claire Danes. Once you’ve read the book, you should find it on your go-to streaming service, as it does Neil Gaiman’s original tale justice.
Price: £9 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible trial
Another award-winning entry, Jade City bagged The World Fantasy Award in 2018 and was shortlisted for many others, including the Nebula Awards and the Locus Awards. It’s an epic story that many have said is reminiscent of classic Hong Kong gangster movies. However, the twist here is that it’s set in Janloon, a fantastical metropolis that Lee describes incredibly vividly.
The central premise of Jade City is, as you might guess, all about Jade. This is a stone that’s the lifeblood of the city and has magical properties as it can enhance a person’s natural abilities. That’s why it’s so precious and controlled by two warring families. But when a new drug emerges that gives anyone the power to take advantage of the mystical energies of Jade, tension rises, and violence ensues. It’s stylish, full of beautiful, gritty descriptions and, despite being a fantasy book, touches on all kinds of relatable themes, like family honour and tradition.
Price: £8 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible trial
Considered one of the best fantasy books ever written, The Last Unicorn is a magical story about a unicorn living in a forest. One day, hunters arrive in the forest and believe it must contain a unicorn because of the magic protecting the creatures there. One of the hunters shouts a warning to the unicorn that she might be the last of her kind, which urges her to embark on a quest to find more unicorns – or learn what’s happened to them.
What comes next is full of sadness, adventure and wonder, with talking animals, witches, a harpy, spells, a magician, and much, much more. It’s another book that’s a trip back into the world of magic and fairy tales for adults, but a firm favourite for children of all ages, too. The Last Unicorn has since been adapted for the screen. In 1982, it was made into a movie featuring the voices of Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee.
Price: £16 | Amazon | Waterstones
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor (2018)
Written by award-winning science-fiction and fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death is set in Sudan in a far off, nuclear holocaust-ravaged future. There’s genocide and suffering between two warring tribes and, amidst this immense pain and violence, Onyesonwu is born – her name means “who fears death?” in an ancient language. Onyesonwu is special, displaying all manner of magical powers from an early age. This book is a mesmerising blend of magic, folk tradition, love and spirituality. But read it soon before it hits your TV screen if you’re a book-before-adaptation kind of person. Who Fears Death is being made into a TV series for HBO and George R. R. Martin is set to be an executive producer.
Price: £9 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible
A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas (2020)
Imagine Beauty and the Beast but ramp up the romance and fantasy even more, transform Beauty into a huntress and Beast into some kind of fantastical faerie lord and that’s A Court of Thorns and Roses . Sara J. Maas might have used the classic fairytale as a starting pont for this epic fantasical romance, but it’s a brilliant story in its own right. So much so that it’s the first in a best-selling series of the same name. A Court of Thorns and Roses begins with Feyre, a huntress who kills a wolf to feed her family. But this was no ordinary wolf. In fact, it wasn’t a wolf at all and Feyre has to face the consequences of her violent actions. This is, technically, a YA (young adult) novel, but don’t let that put you off, it has a huge adult fanbase.
Price: £7 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible
The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017)
The Power could also be classed as science-fiction, but we’re including it in our fantasy recommendations because what’s more fantastical than every woman in the land suddenly being able to electrocute men Palpatine-style with their fingertips? That’s the searingly smart and brilliantly-explored premise of The Power , which allows us to imagine what would happen if the present balance in the world – or, more rightly so, imbalance, – was reversed in favour of women. Would we be living in a calm utopia within a fortnight? Would we face the same problems we always have? Or would there be a whole host of new challenges to contend with?
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin (2016)
It doesn’t feel like there’s a right way to begin explaining the truly monumental premise and proportions of The Fifth Season , so let’s just dive in. This book takes place on a planet with one massive supercontinent called Stillness. Every few hundred years the ‘fifth season’ occurs – a period of catastrophic climate change. The world-building prowess of Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is epic, there are different ethnicities, species, areas and castes with all kinds of powers and conflicts, and plenty of other details that won’t make sense until you read the book – be prepared to be a little overwhelmed when you’re first introduced to this new universe. This award-winning tome is the first in the Broken Earth series, with later books also scooping up prestigious Hugo Awards in their own right.
Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi (2020)
Set in the near future, Riot Baby might be a story with fantastical elements weaved throughout it, but it explores very real, pertinent and important issues of race and bias algorithms. The riot baby in this book is Kev, a young Black man who’s in prison. His sister, Ella, has a number of special powers – like being able to see into the future. Riot Baby is novella length (perfect for anyone whose concentration span isn’t what it used to be) and written in a fast-paced style that makes us, as readers, feel as if we’re witnessing flashes of memories in a manner that’s wedded to some of the central themes of anger and injustice.
Price: £14 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible
Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler (2018)
Some might say Octavia E. Butler’s fantastic Kindred is a work of science-fiction or speculative fiction, but it’s in our list because Butler herself called it “a kind of grim fantasy”. This is a time travel narrative, but we’d bet it’s quite unlike any you’ve read before. Kindred follows the story of a woman called Dana who’s transported from 1976 Los Angeles to a Maryland plantation in 1815, where she’s assumed to be a slave. Like all good fantasy and science-fiction, the magical, surreal, time-travelling elements act as a way into a raw exploration of race, power and gender that’s as relevant and urgent now as it was when Butler first published it in 1979.
Price: £7.50 | Amazon | Waterstones | Audible
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch (2006)
Renaissance Venice meets fantasy meets the twists and turns of a well crafted crime novel. Scott Lynch builds a fascinating fantasy city with real detail and real grit. No shining heroes and wistful princesses here. Instead criminal gangs, corrupt officials and the high likelihood of being mugged in a back alley. There is almost a sense of Oceans 11 meets venetian masquerade, blink and you’ll miss the sleight of hand! Fantasy is almost an afterthought in this novel and it is really about the character building and storytelling. Sure there are shark matadors and alchemical alcoholic fruits, not to mention the mysterious Elderglass, but these are more a backdrop rather than plot driving and all combine to make, subtle and intriguing read. There are plenty of twists and turns as Locke navigates the underworld of Camorr, but it’s unlikely you’ll see all of them coming!? This is the first book of a trilogy and although it stands alone you’ll want to read the other two to see what happens next in Red Seas Under Red Skies and A Republic of Thieves .
Earthlings, by Sayaka Murata (2020)
Not one for the faint hearted, this dark fantasy comedy from the author of Convenience Store Woman is tricky to pin down into any one category and the final pages will probably leave you gobsmacked. Natsuki and Yuu are cousins who have long prepared to be abducted back to their home planet. So far, so childhood but then they grow up and the plan persists. In the meantime they have to try to function in regular society, securing partners and jobs and not drawing attention to themselves. No taboo is left unturned with Earthlings encouraging minor acts of rebellion from what 'society' tells us we have to do.
Price: £10.50 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
Circe, by Madeline Miller (2018)
Circe, daughter of Titan sun god Helios, finds herself overshadowed in the halls of the gods until she discovers her own, different power: witchcraft. Banished to a deserted island for abusing her magic, and repeatedly let down by the men she puts her trust in, Circe must forge her own path: as a goddess, a witch, and a woman. Miller’s novel offers a new perspective on tales of Greek myth, with Circe’s centuries-long story seeing her appear at the birth of the Minotaur, face off with goddess of war Athena, and host hero Odysseus on his long return from Troy. An accessible read with larger-than-life characters and an adventurous plot, Circe is mythology as you’ve never known it before.
Price: £7 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams (1988 to 1993)
The three books in this trilogy, The Dragonbone Chair , Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower , are beautifully crafted fantasies that deftly interweave almost comically simple tropes with a rewarding complexity and depth. Game of Thrones fans will find much to enjoy – George R. R. Martin readily admits they were a big inspiration for him – as Williams takes a similarly methodical approach to creating the fictional continent Osten Ard and the races that inhabit it. His tales of the humble kitchen scullion who has great things ahead of him are full of joyful and sorrowful moments that will have you laughing and crying, making them a delightful diversion from life's ups and downs.
Price: £6 | Amazon | Abe Books | 30-day Audible trial
Malazan Book of the Fallen series, by Steven Erikson (1999 to 2011)
Spanning 10 books and over 9,000 pages of brutal, beautiful and complex fantasy writing, Steven Erikson's series delivers world building on a larger scale than Tolkien and Jordan put together. Erikson will have you laughing and crying as you follow the lives of disparate heroes and anti-heroes across a sweeping vista of worlds peopled by a unique set of races and animals. You will fall in love with his characters and you will hate them, either way you will want to know what happens next. Beginning with the Gardens of the Moon , Erikson’s ability to write epic convergence is unparalleled and will leave you unable to stand the tension leading up to the major events he depicts.
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie (2006 to 2008)
Joe Abercrombie writes brilliant characters. Be it the story of an ageing berserker, a crippled torturer or a pompous noble, his The First Law Trilogy immerses you in a bloody mire of violent, visceral and gritty adventures. You will see the glory of battle in all its bowel spilling ineptitude and hopelessness, but there is always someone to root for even if it is not the god blessed heroes and heroines you might usually expect. As an added bonus there are also three standalone books and a collection of short stories that revisit some of the First Law characters and world, something you will be eager to devour once you’ve read the first trilogy.
Price: £17 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker (2013)
Helene Wecker's debut novel is an eerie tale of two magical creatures set loose in 19th century New York. A golem – a mythical creature of Jewish lore – awakens during a sea voyage, and is taught to pass as human among the diverse groups of people living in the city. At the same time, a tinsmith in New York accidentally frees a genie from a flask after centuries of imprisonment, but he's trapped in human form seeking a way to return to his full power. The pair meet and become friends, and must team up to counter an evil sorcerer who wants to enslave them both.
Price: £10 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
Welcome to a desert planet where water is more precious than gold, everyone wears moisture-preserving jumpsuits and giant worm creatures can come out of the earth's floor that can kill you at any moment. This is Dune, a stark wasteland where warring houses scheme against each other in bloody battles that can alter the course of human history. Although it's science-fiction on the surface, Frank Herbert's epic tome features the fantasy tropes of betrayal, redemption and freedom in spades, and is rightly considered one of the most important of the genre. Herbert's masterpiece not only helped to inspire Star Wars – it still resonates today, tackling environmental concerns, the rise of superpowers and rebellion of people exploited on their own land.
The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King (1998)
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." This iconic line kicks off Stephen King's iconic The Dark Tower, which mashes together fantasy, westerns and elements of science fiction. The first of seven books follows gunslinger Roland as he pursues a mysterious, malevolent presence across a strange world that's linked to our own. From there, it sprawls into a rambling epic that highlight's King's imagination as well as his touch for horror.
Price: £9 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin (1996)
Fans of the television series have been distancing themselves from Game of Thrones in droves since that disastrous final season, but George R.R. Martin's books remain relatively untainted. A Game of Thrones , the first in the A Song of Ice and Fire Series, sets the tone – with violence and adult themes rarely seen in a lot of mainstream fantasy up to that point. Each chapter follows an individual character's point of view, and although the series does becomes slightly bogged down in later entries, it is gripping – and the ending is still to come.
Price: £8.50 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990)
Both Pratchett and Gaiman feature in their own right on this list and Good Omens , composed in part over answerphone messages three decades ago, delivers on the promise of a fantasy literature titan team up. It's the extremely silly story of an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, played with glee by Michael Sheen and David Tennant in this year's Amazon Prime Video series, trying to stop Armageddon. Most fantasy books ask for a serious commitment but Good Omens is a fully formed, read-in-an-afternoon treat.
Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011)
Set in a lovingly described version of present-day London, the Rivers of London series charts the adventures of Detective Constable Peter Grant, one of two wizards in the Metropolitan Police. It grounds its fantastical elements in the scientific method, and the mixture of flying spells and police jargon gives the ongoing series a unique and enjoyable tone. The first book, Rivers of London describes an encounter with a malevolent spirit that draws Grant into the capital's magical underworld.
Price: £8 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan (1990-2007)
An epic fourteen novel saga, (as well as a prequel novel and two companion books), the author James Oliver Rigney Jr. (pen name Robert Jordan), published the first entry in 1990 and was still writing on his death in 2007. Too vast to summarise, the fantasy world – actually a distant version of Earth – is epic and magical, with a gigantic cast of characters. The series has spawned a video game, a roleplaying game, a soundtrack album and a forthcoming TV series, and the books have sold more than 80 million copies, making it one of the bestselling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings .
Price: £20 | Amazon | Blackwells | 30-day Audible trial
The Gormenghast series, by Mervyn Peake (1946-56)
The first instalment of Mervyn Peake’s epic fantasy series, which features three books and a novella, was published in 1946. It follows the residents of Castle Gormenghast – a giant, gothic castle. In the first book, we meet title character Titus Groan, who stands to inherit the castle and its kingdom. Populated with a host of fantastical creatures, Gormenghast is like a Lord of the Rings that didn’t blow up. Unlike much of the fantasy genre gets high praise in literary circles too: Harold Bloom called the series best fantasy novels of the twentieth century.
Price: £20 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman (1995)
Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a children’s book with a depth and complexity that can satisfy adults. We follow Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon, her daemon – her inner self given animal form – as she investigates rumours of children being separated from their own spiritual companions. Over the three-book series, this transitions into a battle between humanity and heaven. It functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton's epic Paradise Lost . The second entry of a three-part sequel trilogy was published in late 2019.
The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman (2018)
Philip Pullman has returned with a follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy. The Book of Dust is a second trilogy set in the world of Lyra Belacqua and her inner self in animal form, Pantalaimon. At the point of writing two of the trilogy have been released: La Belle Sauvage (2018) and The Secret Commonwealth (2019). The first of these is set before the tumultuous events of His Dark Materials. But the second fast forwards to a decade after their conclusion. There's espionage, spies and frantic attempts to stop the world from vanishing into darkness.
Price: £7.50 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher (2000)
Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in a version of modern-day Chicago where fantastical creatures lurk just underneath the surface. He makes his living as a private detective, solving cases that bridge the worlds of the real and the uncanny. In Storm Front , the first book in long-running series The Dresden Files, he finds himself duelling with vampires, werewolves, and the mob.
Price: £40 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville (2000)
China Miéville's work falls more accurately under the banner of Weird Fiction, an amalgamation of fantasy and horror pioneered by HP Lovecraft. This work, one in a series of books set in the world of Bas-Lag, lies closer to the fantasy genre. As Mieville describes it "it's basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian-era technology. So rather than being a feudal world, it's an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind”.
Price: £11 | Amazon | Waterstones | 30-day Audible trial
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (2001)
The Amazon Prime series failed to spark, but Neil Gaiman's richly described novel is well worth a read. American Gods pits the abandoned folk deities of the old world against the modern idols we worship now. It follows Shadow Moon, a convict who finds out – days before his release – that his wife has died in a car accident, and falls into the surreal orbit of Mr Wednesday (Odin) and a looming showdown between the old gods and the new.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin (1968)
Ursula Le Guin is one of the titans of fantasy and sci-fi – her books explore political and feminist themes in fantastical settings. The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on an androgynous civilisation, and The Dispossessed is set in anarchist Utopia. The Earthsea series is more traditional but still brilliant – we follow Ged, a teenager at magic school, who causes a disaster dabbling in the dark arts. Readers have pointed to the similarities between Ged’s school and Hogwarts.
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobbs (1995-1997)
Robin Hobbs' epic fantasy series hero follows FitzChivalry Farseer, or Fitz for short, the bastard son of the crown prince. Raised in a stable and trained as an assassin, the story charts his adventures through the kingdom of The Six Duchies: magic, murder, and political intrigue abound, as well as a zombie curse. Sound familiar? Definitely a good choice for those suffering from Game of Thrones withdrawal symptoms.
Price: £9 | Amazon | Waterstones | start a 30-day Audible trial
The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon (1955-77)
A curveball: not fantasy (the books cover the French monarchy in the 14th century), but a book for fans of fantasy. Its author Maurice Druon is the hero of George RR Martin, who penned the series that became Game of Thrones . As Martin wrote in the Guardian: “ The Accursed Kings has it all: iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin and swords, the doom of a great dynasty and all of it (or most of it) straight from the pages of history."
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)
One of the more recent publications on this list, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The book’s premise is that magic has returned: two men, Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, wield it. Written in a comedy of manners, Jane Austen style, it took its author British writer Susanna Clarke (see Piranesi above) ten years to write and was widely acclaimed on its release in 2004.
Price: £11 | Amazon | Waterstones | start a 30-day Audible trial
Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987)
One of the best entries in Terry Pratchett’s inimitable Discworld series, Mort focuses on a teenager who is taken under the apprenticeship of Death. Appearing in nearly every one of the Discworld books, Pratchett’s Death is one of the author’s greatest creations, and the source of some of the series’ most famous quotes ("Don’t think of it as dying, just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”) It’s in Mort that Death grows into a sympathetic and likeable character, who loves cats and curry and is continuously baffled by the irrationally of humans.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019)
Marlon James, who won the Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings , is not traditionally a fantasy writer, but he dubbed his latest book the African Game of Thrones . (Although he later revealed the comparison was a joke). This book focuses on the political tensions between warring states, in a world populated by a host of magical creatures: cannibals, vampires, witches, ghosts and sorcerers.
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NPR Books Summer Poll 2021: A Decade Of Great Sci-Fi And Fantasy
We asked, you answered: your 50 favorite sci-fi and fantasy books of the past decade.
The question at the heart of science fiction and fantasy is "what if?" What if gods were real, but you could kill them ? What if humans finally made it out among the stars — only to discover we're the shabby newcomers in a grand galactic alliance ? What if an asteroid destroyed the East Coast in 1952 and jump-started the space race years early?
Summer Reader Poll 2021: Meet our expert judges
Summer Reader Poll 2018: Horror
Click if you dare: 100 favorite horror stories.
Summer Reader Poll 2019: Funny Books
We did it for the lols: 100 favorite funny books.
This year's summer reader poll was also shaped by a series of "what ifs" — most importantly, what if, instead of looking at the entire history of the field the way we did in our 2011 poll , we focused only on what has happened in the decade since? These past 10 years have brought seismic change to science fiction and fantasy (sometimes literally, in the case of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series), and we wanted to celebrate the world-shaking rush of new voices, new perspectives, new styles and new stories. And though we limited ourselves to 50 books this time around, the result is a list that's truly stellar — as poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi put it, "Alive."
As always, a pretty extensive decision-making process went into the list, involving our fabulous panel of expert judges — but we know you eager readers want to get right to the books. So if you're inclined, follow these links to find out how we built the list (and what, sadly, didn't make it this year ). Otherwise, scroll on for the list!
We've broken it up into categories to help you find the reading experience you're looking for, and you can click on these links to go directly to each category:
Worlds To Get Lost In · Words To Get Lost In · Will Take You On A Journey · Will Mess With Your Head · Will Mess With Your Heart · Will Make You Feel Good
Worlds To Get Lost In
Are you (like me) a world-building fanatic? These authors have built worlds so real you can almost smell them.
The Imperial Radch Trilogy
Breq is a human now — but once she was a starship. Once she was an AI with a vast and ancient metal body and troops of ancillaries, barely animate bodies that all carried her consciousness. Poll judge Ann Leckie has created a massive yet intricate interstellar empire where twisty galactic intrigues and multiple clashing cultures form a brilliant backdrop for the story of a starship learning to be a human being. Your humble editor got a copy of Ancillary Justice when it came out and promptly forced her entire family to read it.
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The Dead Djinn Universe (series)
What a wonderful world P. Djélì Clarke has created here — an Arab world never colonized, where magic-powered trams glide through a cosmopolitan Cairo and where djinns make mischief among humans. Clarke's novella Ring Shout also showed up on our semifinalists list, and it was hard to decide between them, but ultimately our judges felt the Dead Djinn Universe offered more to explore. But you should still read Ring Shout , a wild ride of a read where gun-toting demon-hunters go up against Ku Klux Klan members who are actual, pointy-headed white demons. Go on, go get a copy! We'll wait.
The Age of Madness Trilogy
One of my pet peeves with fantasy novels is they sometimes don't allow for the progression of time and technology — but in Joe Abercrombie's Age of Madness series, the follow-up to his debut First Law trilogy, industrialization has come to the world of The Union, and it's brought no good in its wake. More than that — machines may be rising, but magic will not give way, and all over the world, those at the bottom of the heap are beginning to get really, really angry. This series works as a standalone — but you should also read the excellent First Law series (even though it's old enough to fall outside the scope of this list).
The Green Bone Saga
This sprawling saga of family, honor, blood and magical jade will suck you in from the very first page. Poll judge Fonda Lee's story works on every conceivable level, from minute but meaningful character beats to solid, elegantly conveyed world-building to political intrigue to big, overarching themes of clan, loyalty and identity. Plus, wow, the jade-powered martial arts sequences are as fine as anything the Shaw Brothers ever put on screen. "Reviewing books is my actual job," says fellow judge Amal El-Mohtar, "but I still have to fight my husband for the advance copies of Fonda's books, and we're both THIS CLOSE to learning actual martial arts to assist us in our dueling for dibs."
The Expanse (series)
Yes, sure, you've seen the TV show (you HAVE, right? Right?) about the ragtag crew of spacers caught up in a three-way power struggle between Earth, Mars and the society that's developed on far-off asteroid belts. But there's much, much more to explore in the books — other planets, other characters, storylines and concepts that didn't make it to the screen. Often, when a book gets adapted for film or TV, there's a clear argument about which version is better. With The Expanse , we can confidently say you should watch and read. The only downside? Book- Avasarala doesn't show up until a few volumes in.
The Daevabad Trilogy
Nahri is a con woman (with a mysteriously real healing talent) scraping a living in the alleys of 18th century Cairo — until she accidentally summons some true magic and discovers her fate is bound to a legendary city named Daevabad, far from human civilization, home of djinns and bloody intrigues. Author S.A. Chakraborty converted to Islam as a teenager and after college began writing what she describes as "historical fanfiction" about medieval Islam; then characters appeared, inspired by people she met at her mosque. "A sly heroine capable of saving herself, a dashing hero who'd break for the noon prayer," she told an interviewer . "I wanted to write a story for us, about us, with the grandeur and magic of a summer blockbuster."
The Aztecs meet the Byzantines in outer space in this intricately imagined story of diplomatic intrigue and fashionable poetic forms. Mahit Dzmare is an ambassador from a small space station clinging desperately to its independence in the face of the massive Teixcalaanli empire . But when she arrives in its glittering capital, her predecessor's dead, and she soon discovers she's been sabotaged herself. Luckily, it turns out she's incredibly good at her job, even without her guiding neural implant. "I'm a sucker for elegant worldbuilding that portrays all the finer nuances of society and culture in addition to the grandness of empire and the complexity of politics," says judge Fonda Lee. "Arkady Martine delivers all that in droves."
The Thessaly Trilogy
Apollo, spurned by Daphne, is trying to understand free will and consent by living as a mortal. Athena is trying to create a utopia by plucking men and women from all across history and dropping them on an island to live according to Plato's Republic. Will it all go according to plan? Not likely. "Brilliant, compelling, and frankly unputdownable," wrote poll judge Amal El-Mohtar , "this will do what your Intro to Philosophy courses probably couldn't: make you want to read The Republic ."
Shades of Magic Trilogy
V.E. Schwab has created a world with four Londons lying atop one another : our own dull Grey, warm magic-suffused Red, tyrannical White, and dead, terrifying Black. Once, movement among them was easy, but now only a few have the ability — including our hero, Kell. So naturally, he's a smuggler, and the action kicks off when Grey London thief Lila steals a dangerous artifact from him, a stone that could upset the balance among the Londons. Rich world building, complex characters and really scary bad guys make Schwab's London a city — or cities — well worth spending time in.
The Divine Cities Trilogy
On the Continent, you must not, you cannot, talk about the gods — the gods are dead. Or are they? Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy builds a fully, gloriously realized world where gods are the source of power, miracles and oppression, and gods can also be killed. But what happens next, when the gods are gone and the work of running the world is left to regular human men and women? What happens in that unsettled moment when divinity gives way to technology? This series spans a long timeline; the heroes of the first volume are old by the end. "And as ancient powers clash among gleaming, modern skyscrapers, those who have survived from the first page to these last have a heaviness about them," writes reviewer Jason Sheehan , "a sense that they have seen remarkable things, done deeds both heroic and terrible, and that they can see a far and final horizon in the distance, quickly approaching."
The Wormwood Trilogy
Part of a recent wave of work celebrating and centering Nigerian culture, this trilogy is set in a future where a fungal alien invader has swallowed big global cities, America has shut itself away and gone dark, and a new city, Rosewater, has grown up around a mysterious alien dome in rural Nigeria. It's a wild mashup of alien invasion, cyberpunk, Afro-futurism and even a touch of zombie horror. "I started reading Rosewater on vacation and quickly set it down until I got home, because Tade Thompson's work is no light beach read," says judge Fonda Lee. "His writing demands your full attention — and amply rewards it."
Black Sun (series)
Author Rebecca Roanhorse was tired of reading epic fantasy with quasi-European settings, so she decided to write her own . The result is Black Sun , set in a world influenced by pre-Columbian mythology and rich with storms, intrigue, giant bugs, mysterious sea people, ritual, myth and some very scary crows. (They hold grudges, did you know?) This is only Book 1 of a forthcoming series, but we felt it was so strong it deserved to be here, no matter where Roanhorse goes next.
Words To Get Lost In
If you're one of those people who thought genre fiction writing was workmanlike and uninspiring, these books will change your mind.
Susanna Clarke at last returns to our shelves with this mind-bendingly glorious story — that's a bit hard to describe without spoiling. So we'll say it's about a mysterious man and the House that he dearly loves, a marvelous place full of changing light and surging tides, statues and corridors and crossings, birds and old bones and passing days and one persistent visitor who brings strangely familiar gifts. Clarke "limns a magic far more intrinsic than the kind commanded through spells," wrote reviewer Vikki Valentine , "a magic that is seemingly part of the fabric of the universe and as powerful as a cosmic engine — yet fragile nonetheless."
Imagine Circe, the fearsome witch of the Odyssey, as an awkward teenager, growing up lonely among scornful gods and falling for what we modern folks would call a f***boy, before coming into her own, using her exile on the island of Aiaia to hone her powers and build an independent life. Circe only shows up briefly in the Odyssey, but Madeline Miller gives her a lush, complex life in these pages. She has worked as a classics teacher, and as our reviewer Annalisa Quinn noted , Miller "extracts worlds of meaning from Homer's short phrases."
A sharp young socialite in 1950s Mexico City travels to a creepy rural mansion to check on her cousin, who has fallen ill after marrying into a mysterious family of English landowners. What could possibly go wrong? Silvia Moreno-Garcia "makes you uneasy about invisible things by writing around them," said reviewer Jessica P. Wick. "Even when you think you know what lurks, the power to unsettle isn't diminished." Not to be too spoilery — but after reading this stylishly chilling novel, you'll never look at mushrooms the same way again.
The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories
"I taught Liu's 'The Man Who Ended History' in a graduate seminar one semester," says judge Tochi Onyebuchi, "and one of the toughest tasks I've ever faced in adulthood was crafting a lesson plan that went beyond me just going 'wtf wtf wtf wtf wtf' for the whole two hours. Some story collections are like those albums where the artist or record label just threw a bunch of songs together and said 'here,' and some collections arrive as a complete, cohesive, emotionally catholic whole. The Paper Menagerie is that."
Judges had a hard time deciding between Spinning Silver and Uprooted , Novik's previous fairy tale retelling. Ultimately, we decided that this reclamation of "Rumpelstiltskin" has a chewier, more interesting project, with much to say about money, labor, debt and friendship, explored in unflinching yet tender ways. Judge Amal El-Mohtar reviewed Spinning Silver for NPR when it came out in 2018. "There are so many mathemagicians in this book, be they moneylenders turning silver into gold or knitters working to a pattern," she wrote at the time . "It's gold and silver all the way down."
"I often get the same feeling reading a Ted Chiang story as I did listening to a Prince song while he was still with us," says judge Tochi Onyebuchi. "What a glorious privilege it is that we get to share a universe with this genius!" This poll can be a discovery tool for editors and judges as much as audience, so hearing that, your humble editor went straight to the library and downloaded a copy of this collection.
In Olondria, you can smell the ocean wind coming off the page, soldiers ride birds, angels haunt humans, and written dreams are terribly dangerous. "Have you ever seen something so beautiful that you'd be content to just sit and watch the light around it change for a whole day because every passing moment reveals even more unbearable loveliness and transforms you in ways you can't articulate?" asks judge Amal El-Mohtar. "You will if you read these books."
Her Body And Other Parties: Stories
These eight stories dance across the borders of fairy tale, horror, erotica and urban legend, spinning the familiar, lived experiences of women into something rich and strange. As the title suggests, Machado focuses on the unruly female body and all of its pleasures and risks (there's one story that's just increasingly bizarre rewrites of Law & Order: SVU episodes). At one point, a character implies that kind of writing is "tiresome and regressive," too much about stereotypical crazy lesbians and madwomen in the attic. But as our critic Annalisa Quinn wrote , "Machado seems to answer: The world makes madwomen, and the least you can do is make sure the attic is your own."
The Buried Giant
Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple, living in a fictional Britain just after Arthur's time, where everyone suffers from what they call "mist," a kind of amnesia that hits long-term memories. They believe, they vaguely remember that they once had a son, so they set out to find him — encountering an elderly Sir Gawain along the way, and long-forgotten connections to Arthur's court and the dark deeds the mist is hiding. Poll judge Ann Leckie loves Arthurian legends. What she does not love are authors who don't do them justice — but with The Buried Giant , she says, Kazuo Ishiguro gets it solidly right.
Do you love space opera? Alternate history? Silent film? (OK, are you me?) Then you should pick up Catherynne M. Valente's Radiance , which mashes up all three in a gloriously surreal saga about spacefaring filmmakers in an alternate version of 1986, in which you might be able to go to Jupiter, but Thomas Edison's death grip on his patents means talkies are still a novelty. Yes, Space Opera did get more votes, but our judges genuinely felt that Radiance was the stronger book. Reviewing it in 2015, judge Amal El-Mohtar wrote , " Radiance is the sort of novel about which you have to speak for hours or hardly speak at all: either stop at 'it's magnificent' or roll on to talk about form, voice, ambition, originality, innovation for more thousands of words than are available to me here before even touching on the plot."
Will Take You On A Journey
Sure, all books are some kind of journey, but these reads really go the distance.
It's easy(ish) to summarize The Changeling : Rare book dealer Apollo Kagwa has a baby son with his wife, Emma, but she's been acting strange — and when she vanishes after doing something unspeakable, he sets out to find her. But his journey loops through a New York you've never seen before: mysterious islands and haunted forests, strange characters and shifting rhythms. The Changeling is a modern urban fairy tale with one toe over the line into horror, and wherever it goes, it will draw you along with it.
Becky Chambers writes aliens like no one else — in fact, humans are the backward newcomers in her generous, peaceful galactic vision. The Wayfarers books are only loosely linked: They all take place in the same universe, but apart from that you'll meet a new set of characters, a new culture and a new world (or an old world transformed). Cranky space pacifists, questing AIs, fugitives, gravediggers and fluffy, multi-limbed aliens who love pudding — the only flaw in this series is you'll wish you could spend more time with all of them.
Binti is the first of her people, the Himba, to be offered a place at the legendary Oomza University, finest institution of learning in the galaxy — and as if leaving Earth to live among the stars weren't enough, Binti finds herself caught between warring human and alien factions. Over and over again throughout these novellas, Binti makes peace, bridges cultures, brings home with her even as she leaves and returns, changed by her experiences. Our judges agreed that the first two Binti stories are the strongest — but even if the third stumbles, as judge and critic Amal El-Mohtar wrote, "Perhaps the point is just having a Black girl with tentacles for hair possessing the power and freedom to float among Saturn's rings."
Lady Astronaut (series)
What would America's space program have looked like if, say, a gigantic asteroid had wiped out the East Coast in 1952 — and started a countdown to destruction for the rest of the world? We'd have had to get into space much sooner. And all the female pilots who served in World War II and were unceremoniously dumped back at home might have had another chance to fly. Mary Robinette Kowal's Hugo Award-winning series plays that out with Elma York, a former WASP pilot and future Lady Astronaut whose skill and determination help all of humanity escape the bonds of Earth. Adds judge Amal El-Mohtar: "Audiobook readers are in for a special treat here in that Kowal narrates the books herself, and if you've never had the pleasure of attending one of her readings, you get to experience her wonderful performance with bonus production values. It's especially cool given that the seed for the series was an audio-first short story."
Children of Time (duology)
Far in the future, the dregs of humanity escape a ruined Earth and find what they think is a new hope deep in space — a planet that past spacefarers terraformed and left for them. But the evolutionary virus that was supposed to jump-start a cargo of monkeys, creating ready-made workers, instead latched on to ... something else, and in the intervening years, something terrible has arisen there. Poll judge Ann Leckie says she can't stand spiders (BIG SAME), but even so, she was adamant that the Children of Time books deserve their spot here.
Wayward Children (series)
Everyone loves a good portal fantasy. Who hasn't looked in the back of the closet hoping, faintly, to see snow and a street lamp? In the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire reminds us that portals go both ways: What happens to those children who get booted back through the door into the real world, starry-eyed and scarred? Well, a lot of them end up at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children. The prolific McGuire turned up on our semifinalists list A Lot. We had a hard time deciding between this and her killer stand-alone Middlegame , but the Wayward Children won the day with their shimmering mix of fairy tale, fantasy and emotional heft — not to mention body positivity and solid queer and trans representation. (As with a lot of the also-rans, though, you should really read Middlegame too.)
The Space Between Worlds
There are 382 parallel worlds in Micaiah Johnson's debut novel, and humanity can finally travel between them — but there's a deadly catch. You can visit only a world where the parallel version of you is already dead. And that makes Cara — whose marginal wastelands existence means only a few versions of her are left — valuable to the high and mighty of her own Earth. "They needed trash people," Cara says, to gather information from other worlds. But her existence, already precarious, is threatened when a powerful scientist figures out how to grab that information remotely. "At a time when I was really struggling with the cognitive demands of reading anything for work or pleasure, this book flooded me with oxygen and lit me on fire," says judge Amal El-Mohtar. "I can't say for certain that it enabled me to read again, but in its wake, I could."
Will Mess With Your Head
Do you love twisty tales, loopy logic, unsolved mysteries and cosmic weirdness? Scroll on!
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Poll judge Amal El-Mohtar once described Black Leopard, Red Wolf as " like being slowly eaten by a bear ." Fellow judge Tochi Onyebuchi chimes in: " Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a Slipknot album of a book. In all the best ways." Set in a dazzling, dangerous fantasy Africa, it is — at least on the surface — about a man named Tracker, in prison when we meet him and telling his life story to an inquisitor. Beyond that, it's fairly indescribable, full of roof-crawling demons, dust-cloud assassins, blood and (fair warning) sexual violence. A gnarly book, a difficult book, sometimes actively hostile to the reader — yet necessary, and stunning.
Southern Reach (series)
The Southern Reach books are, at least on the surface, a simple tale of a world gone wrong, of a mysterious "Area X" and the expeditions that have suffered and died trying to map it — and the strange government agency that keeps sending them in. But there's a lot seething under that surface: monsters, hauntings, a slowly building sense of wrong and terror that will twist your brain around sideways. "If the guys who wrote Lost had brought H.P. Lovecraft into the room as a script doctor in the first season," our critic Jason Sheehan wrote , "the Southern Reach trilogy is what they would've come up with."
The Echo Wife
Part sci-fi cautionary tale, part murder mystery, The Echo Wife is a twisty treat . At its center are a famed genetic researcher and her duplicitous husband, who uses her breakthrough technology to clone himself a sweeter, more compliant version of his wife before ending up dead. "As expertly constructed as a Patek Philippe watch," says poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi. "Seamlessly blends domestic thriller and science fiction," adds fellow judge Fonda Lee. "This book is going to haunt my thoughts for a long time."
The Locked Tomb (series)
This series is often described as "lesbian necromancers in space," but trust us, it's so much more than that. Wildly inventive, gruesome, emotional, twisty and funny as hell, the Locked Tomb books are like nothing you've ever read before. And we defy you to read them and not give serious consideration to corpse paint and mirror shades as a workable fashion statement. There are only two books out now, of a planned four-book series, but Gideon the Ninth alone is enough to earn Tamsyn Muir a place on this list: "Too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance," says critic Jason Sheehan. "It is altogether its own thing."
Remembrance of Earth's Past (series)
Liu Cixin became the first author from Asia to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel, for The Three-Body Problem , the first volume in this series about one of the oldest questions in science fiction: What will happen when we meet aliens? Liu is writing the hardest of hard sci-fi here, full of brain-twisting passages about quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence (if you didn't actually know what the three-body problem was, you will now), grafted onto the backbone of a high-stakes political thriller. Poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi says, "These books divided me by zero. And, yes, that is a compliment."
Machineries of Empire (series)
In the Hexarchate, numbers are power: This interstellar empire draws its strength from rigidly enforced adherence to the imperial calendar, a system of numbers that can alter reality. But now, a "calendrical rot" is eating away at that structure, and it's up to a mathematically talented young soldier — and the ghost of an infamous traitor — to try to repair the rot while a war blazes across the stars around them. " Ninefox Gambit is a book with math in its heart, but also one which understands that even numbers can lie," our critic Jason Sheehan wrote . "That it's what you see in the numbers that matters most."
Will Mess With Your Heart
Books that'll make you cry, make you think — and sometimes make you want to hide under the bed.
The Broken Earth (series)
In the world of the Stillness, geological convulsions cause upheavals that can last for centuries — and only the orogenes, despised yet essential to the status quo — can control them. N.K. Jemisin deservedly won three back-to-back Hugo awards for these books, which use magnificent world building and lapidary prose to smack you in the face about your own complicity in systems of oppression. "Jemisin is the first — and so far only — person ever to have won a Hugo Award for Best Novel for every single book in a series. These books upheaved the terrain of epic fantasy as surely and completely as Fifth Seasons transform the geography of the Stillness," says poll judge Amal El-Mohtar.
Author Emily St. John Mandel went on Twitter in 2020 and advised people not to read Station Eleven , not in the midst of the pandemic. But we beg to disagree. A story in which art (and particularly Shakespeare) helps humanity come back to itself after a pandemic wipes out the world as we know it might be just the thing we need. "Survival is insufficient," say Mandel's traveling players (a line she says she lifted from Star Trek ), and that's a solid motto any time.
This Is How You Lose the Time War
Enemies-to-lovers is a classic romance novel trope, and it's rarely been done with as much strange beauty as poll judge Amal El-Mohtar and co-author Max Gladstone pull off in this tale of Red and Blue, two agents on opposite sides of a war that's sprawled across time and space. "Most books I read are objects of study. And more often than not, I can figure out how the prose happened, how the character arcs are constructed, the story's architecture," says judge Tochi Onyebuchi. "But then along comes a thing so dazzling you can't help but stare at and ask 'how.' Amal and Max wrote a cheat code of a book. They unlocked all the power-ups, caught all the Chaos Emeralds, mastered all the jutsus, and honestly, I'd say it's downright unfair how much they flexed on us with Time War , except I'm so damn grateful they gave it to us in the first place." (As we noted above, having Time War on the list meant that Max Gladstone couldn't make a second appearance for his outstanding solo work with the Craft Sequence . But you should absolutely read those, too.)
The Poppy War Trilogy
What if Mao Zedong were a teenage girl? That's how author R.F. Kuang describes the central question in her Poppy War series . Fiery, ruthless war orphan Fang Runin grows up, attends an elite military academy, develops fire magic and wins a war — but finds herself becoming the kind of monster she once fought against. Kuang has turned her own rage and anger at historical atrocities into a gripping, award-winning story that will drag you along with it, all the way to the end. "If this were football, Kuang might be under investigation for PEDs," jokes judge Tochi Onyebuchi, referring to performance-enhancing drugs. "But, no, she's really just that good."
The Masquerade (series)
Baru Cormorant was born to a free-living, free-loving nation, but all that changed when the repressive Empire of Masks swept in, tearing apart her family, yet singling her out for advancement through its new school system. Baru decides the only way to free her people is to claw her way up the ranks of Empire — but she risks becoming the monster she's fighting against. "I've loved every volume of this more than the one before it, and the first one was devastatingly strong," says judge Amal El-Mohtar — who said of that first volume, "This book is a tar pit, and I mean that as a compliment."
An Unkindness of Ghosts
The Matilda is a generation ship, a vast repository of human life among the stars, cruelly organized like an antebellum plantation: Black and brown people on the lower decks, working under vicious overseers to provide the white upper-deck passengers with comfortable lives. Aster, an orphaned outsider, uses her late mother's medical knowledge to bring healing where she can and to solve the mystery of Matilda 's failing power source. Poll judge Amal El-Mohtar originally reviewed An Unkindness of Ghosts for us , writing "What Solomon achieves with this debut — the sharpness, the depth, the precision — puts me in mind of a syringe full of stars."
The Bird King
G. Willow Wilson's beautiful novel, set during the last days of Muslim Granada, follows a royal concubine who yearns for freedom and the queer mapmaker who's her best friend. "It is really devastating to a critic to find that the only truly accurate way of describing an author's prose is the word 'luminous,' but here we are," says judge Amal El-Mohtar. "This book is luminous. It is full of light, in searing mirror-flashes and warm candleflame flickers and dappled twists of heart-breaking insight into empire, war and religion."
This was judge Tochi Onyebuchi's personal pick — a devastating portrait of a post-climate-apocalypse, post-Second Civil War America that's chosen to use its most terrifying and oppressive policies against its own people. "It despairs me how careless we are with the word 'prescient' these days, but when I finished American War , I truly felt that I'd glimpsed our future," Onyebuchi says. "Charred and scarred and shot through with shards of hope."
Poll judge Tochi Onyebuchi centers this story on the kind of person who's more often a statistic, rarely a fully rounded character: Kevin, who's young, Black and in prison . Born amid the upheaval around the Rodney King verdict, Kevin is hemmed in by structural and individual racism at every turn; meanwhile, his sister Ella has developed mysterious, frightening powers — but she still can't do the one thing she truly wants to do, which is to rescue her brother. This slim novella packs a punch with all the weight of history behind it; fellow judge Amal El-Mohtar says, "I've said it in reviews and I'll say it again here: This book reads like hot diamonds, as searing as it is precise."
On Fragile Waves
Every year, we ask our judges to add some of their own favorites to the list, and this year, Amal El-Mohtar teared up talking about her passion for E. Lily Yu's haunted refugee story On Fragile Waves . "I need everyone to read this book," she says. "I wept throughout it and for a solid half-hour once I had finished it, and I know it's hard to recommend books that make you cry right now, but I have no chill about this one: It is so important, it is so beautiful, and I feel like maybe if everyone read it the world would be a slightly less terrible place."
Will Make You Feel Good
Maybe, after the year we've just had, you want to read a book where good things happen, eventually? We've got you.
The Goblin Emperor
In a far corner of an elven empire, young half-goblin Maia learns that a mysterious accident has left him heir to the throne. But he has been in exile almost all his life — how can he possibly negotiate the intricate treacheries of the imperial court? Fairly well, as it turns out. Maia is a wonderful character, hesitant and shy at first, but deeply good and surprisingly adept at the whole being-an-emperor thing. The only thing wrong with The Goblin Emperor was that it was, for a long time, a stand-alone. But now there's a sequel, The Witness for the Dead — so if you love the world Katherine Addison has created, you've got a way back to it. "I just love this book utterly," says judge Amal El-Mohtar. "So warm, so kind, so generous."
Oh Murderbot — we know you just want to be left alone to watch your shows, but we can't quit you. Martha Wells' series about a murderous security robot that's hacked its own governing module and become self-aware is expansive, action-packed, funny and deeply human . Also, your humble poll editor deeply wishes that someone would write a fic in which Murderbot meets Ancillary Justice 's Breq and they swap tips about how to be human over tea (which Murderbot can't really drink).
The Interdependency (series)
John Scalzi didn't mean to be quite so prescient when he started this trilogy about a galactic empire facing destruction as its interstellar routes collapse — a problem the empire knew about but ignored for all the same reasons we punt our problems today. "Some of that was completely unintentional," he told Scott Simon . "But some of it was. I live in the world." The Interdependency series is funny, heartfelt and ultimately hopeful, and packed with fantastic characters. To the reader who said they voted "because of Kiva Lagos," we say, us too.
You don't expect a hard sci-fi novel to start with the phrase "I'm pretty much f****d," but it definitely sets the tone for Andy Weir's massive hit. Astronaut Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars after an accident, is a profane and engaging narrator who'll let you know just how f****d he is and then just how he plans to science his way out of it. If you've only seen the movie, there's so much more to dig into in the book (including, well, that very first line).
Sorcerer to the Crown/The True Queen
A Regency romp with squabbling magicians, romance and intrigue, with women and people of color center stage? Yes, please! These two books form a wonderful balance. Sorcerer to the Crown is more whimsical and occasionally riotously funny despite its serious underlying themes. The True Queen builds out from there, looking at the characters and events of the first book with a different, more serious perspective. But both volumes are charming, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable.
How We Built This
Wow, you're some dedicated readers! Thanks for coming all the way down here to find out more. As I said above, we decided to limit ourselves to 50 books this year instead of our usual 100, which made winnowing down the list a particular challenge. As you may know, this poll isn't a straight-up popularity contest, though, if it were, the Broken Earth books would have crushed all comers — y'all have good taste! Instead, we take your votes (over 16,000 this year) and pare them down to about 250 semifinalists, and then during a truly epic conference call, our panel of expert judges goes through those titles, cuts some, adds some and hammers out a final curated list.
What Didn't Make It — And Why
As always, there were works readers loved and voted for that didn't make our final list of 50 — it's not a favorites list if you can't argue about it, right? Sometimes, we left things out because we felt like the authors were well known enough not to need our help (farewell, The Ocean at the End of the Lane , Neil Gaiman, we hope you'll forgive us!), but mostly it happened because the books either came out before our cutoff date or already appeared on the original 2011 list. (Sorry, Brandon Sanderson! The first Mistborn book was actually on this year's list, until I looked more closely and realized it was a repeat from 2011.)
Some books didn't make it this year because we're almost positive they'll come around next year — next year being the 10th anniversary of our original 2012 YA poll, when (spoiler alert!) we're planning a similar redo. So we say "not farewell, but fare forward, voyagers" to the likes of Raybearer , Children of Blood and Bone and the Grishaverse books; if they don't show up on next year's list I'll, I don't know, I'll eat my kefta .
And this year, because we had only 50 titles to play with, we did not apply the famous Nora Roberts rule, which allows particularly beloved and prolific authors onto the list twice. So as much as it pains me, there's only one Seanan McGuire entry here, and Max Gladstone appears alongside poll judge Amal El-Mohtar for This Is How You Lose the Time War but not on his own for the excellent Craft Sequence . Which — as we said above — you should ABSOLUTELY read.
One Final Note
Usually, readers will vote at least some works by members of our judging panel onto the list, and usually, we let the judges themselves decide whether or not to include them. But this year, I put my editorial foot down — all four judges made it to the semifinals, and had we not included them, the final product would have been the less for it. So you'll find all four on the list. And we hope you enjoy going through it as much as we enjoyed putting it together!
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These 25 Fantasy Books Will Transport Your Imagination to Other Worlds
We chose varied fantasy fiction, traveling from Tolkien’s Mordor to Nnedi Okorafor’s unnamed African country and imagined societies in between.
When you hear the word fantasy , you might think of magicians and talking animals, and dismiss the genre in favor of more “adult” literature. That would be a mistake. There is a broad, rich spectrum of books that find themselves in the fantasy category, from YA all the way to treasured literary classics, the unifying thread being that they bend reality in pleasing, terrifying, and enchanting ways.
There was a time, in recent memory, when fantasy fanatics hid their love for sword and sorcery from the world, when talk of wizards and warlocks was relegated to comic book conventions and groups of sweaty teens huddled around card tables in suburban basements. That time is past—we are in the Era of the Nerd, when Game of Thrones was the most popular TV show of all time, when Amazon began throwing tens of millions of dollars at fantasy IP, and Dungeons and Dragons is proudly played by celebrities like Joe Manganiello and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Fantasy might be the oldest literary genre, with a foundation in ancient tales like the Illiad and Beowulf . It often uses magical devices as a foil for the real world, speculating on how society would act and react if the rules of reality were different. Some stories establish elaborate universes and characters, spreading them over many volumes, so that fans will keep coming back for more. And others spawn generations of copycats and derivations, including numerous high-budget movies and TV shows, from Lord of the Rings to the Marvel Comic Universe.
Literature is both a way of escaping the real world and understanding it, being entertained while learning about the nature of the self and exploring the possibilities of human emotion and imagination. Fantasy is one of the purest and best examples of how books can accomplish that dual role of escapism and exploration. Thus, coming up with a list of the 25 best fantasy books of all time is no small task. In fact, it’s impossible, with such a diverse and wildly varying selection. Instead, let’s think of this as a gateway into this cosmically satisfying genre via some of the greatest fantasy writers who've reached for the stars in offering us these 25 out-of-this-world novels.
The Eye of the World , by Robert Jordan
The Dark One, an evil force imprisoned inside a weakening cell, threatens the world. The Dragon Reborn, a reincarnated savior with powerful magical abilities, is born to a dying warrior woman on the slopes of a snowy mountain. Accompanied by a band of village youths, he seeks to defeat the Dark One, in The Wheel of Time, the sprawling, 14-book series. The depth of world-building is incredible, the characters indelible, and it comes to satisfying conclusion.
A Game of Thrones , by George R.R. Martin
A civil war breaks out in the kingdom of Westeros, and House Stark finds itself embattled in a bitter conflict with the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, a displaced queen gathers an army to retake her former home while an evil force from the icy North threatens to wipe out humanity. A Song of Ice and Fire is a gritty, realistic fantasy series where magic and mythical species take a back seat to political machinations and impeccable character development.
The Way of Kings , by Brandon Sanderson
An assassin from a faraway land murders the Alethi King, Galivar. Five years later, Galivar’s brother, Dalinar, leads a war of attrition against the race of monstrous creatures known as the Parshendi who are blamed for the killing. Meanwhile, Kaladin, a disgraced former soldier turned slave, and Shallan, a noblewoman from a powerless family, seek to improve their fortunes in seemingly disconnected ways, while an ancient force of power intent on exterminating the world of men pulls the strings.
The Fellowship of the Ring , by J.R.R. Tolkien
The armies of Men, Elves, and Dwarves square off against Sauren, a god-like villain who leads a tide of Orcs and Trolls bent on consuming the world. Frodo Baggins and his loyal friend Sam embark on a quest to deliver a magical ring to the fires of Mordor, guided by the wizard Gandolf. The Lord of the Rings is required reading for fantasy fanatics, notable for its rich and detailed world, satisfying story of loyalty and courage, and fanciful characters.
Sourcery , by Terry Pratchett
A magical staff wielded by a powerful sorcerer leads a hostile takeover of Unseen University and subverts its wizardly faculty into a campaign of world domination. The cowardly Rincewind, a wizard incapable of performing magic, and Canina the Hairdresser (daughter of Conan the Barbarian) attempt to come to the rescue with mixed, zany results. Terry Pratchett’s hilarious, inventive, and rich Discworld novels are an interconnected series of 41 books that can pretty much be read in any order.
Dune , by Frank Herbert
On the unforgiving desert planet Arrakis, where water is more valuable than gold and giant worms eat mining rigs whole, House Atreides attempts to ally with the local Fremen people to battle their historical foe, House Harkonnen, for supremacy. Paul Atreides is the young heir to his house, prophesied to lead humankind to a better future. Combining political intrigue, environmentalism, and mysticism, Dune remains relevant to conversations about consumption and stewardship of our planet nearly 60 years after publication.
The Fifth Season , by N.K. Jemisin
In a dark, brutal world where magic users are feared and hated, those lucky enough to avoid being lynched by ignorant townspeople are forced to live as slaves, part of the Fulcrum, an organization tasked with limiting the damage caused by the frequent tectonic shifts that wrack the land. Meanwhile, three women in disparate stages of life, all of whom possess the forbidden gift of Oregeny, embark on dangerous journeys. The Fifth Season is a tragic and beautiful post-apocalyptic yarn.
The Name of the Wind , by Patrick Rothfuss
A chronicler records the story of a washed-up hero turned innkeeper; an orphaned boy named Kvothe who comes from humble beginnings becomes a wizard university’s most talented pupil, attracting enemies with the speed of his rise. Obsessed with escaping poverty and discovering the mystery behind his parents’ murder, Kvothe pushes his luck and talent to the limit. Rothfuss constructs a compelling world with richly detailed economies, cultures, and history that is home to a thrilling story.
The Lies of Locke Lamora , by Scott Lynch
The island of Camorr is a city divided between powerful criminal gangs and a mercantile nobility. A sticky-fingered young orphan named Locke is raised by a con-man priest to lead a band of thieves, known as the Gentlemen Bastards, who pull off one elaborate scam after another, living above the law until a dark and violent competitor threatens everything Locke has gained. Lynch’s writing is fast-paced and witty, and readers will be drawn into the action from page one.
Assassin's Apprentice , by Robin Hobb
A young boy is born, the bastard son of a prince, growing up in the shadow of his legitimate family at the king’s court. Raised by the reticent keeper of hounds and mentored by an assassin, young Fitz learns he has a larger-than-expected role to play in the fate of the kingdom. The setting is engaging and vibrant, the characters jump off the page and pull the reader in, and the plot moves at breakneck speed.
The Blade Itself , by Joe Abercrombie
The Union is threatened by the incursions of the self-styled King of the North and the sadistic Emperor to the South. A barbarian with a violent past, an arrogant, spoiled nobleman, a twisted torture victim turned inquisitor par excellence, and a vengeful former slave find themselves in the thick of it, while an old, cantankerous wizard hides big plans for them all. The Blade Itself is dark and plain old hilarious at times, each POV dripping with personality.
The Once and Future King , by T.H. White
T.H. White’s fanciful retelling of the beloved Arthurian legend is full of humor and wit, following the life of England’s most famous knight, from his childhood adventures fighting alongside Robin “Wood” to being transmogrified into fish and fowl to his coming-of-age finding of Excalibur and ascension to Knight of the Round table and king of all the land. At times tragic, undoubtedly epic, and always funny, The Once and Future King belongs on any fantasy lover’s bookshelf.
Redwall , by Brian Jacques
A rat named Cluny and his army of vermin lay siege to the walls of Redwall Abbey, a peaceful monastery populated by talking mice. A young hero Mattheus fights to defend the abbey, befriending a warlike clan of sparrows and battling an evil serpent along the way. Each Redwall installment features a battle between benevolent woodland creatures fighting evil “vermin” in a formulaic yet comforting series that spans hundreds of years, jumping forward and backward through time.
Gardens of the Moon , by Steven Erikson
The Malazan Empire, a militaristic, expansionary society, is in the midst of a 100-year campaign to conquer the world. A company of soldiers fighting for the empire known as the Bridgeburners attempt to infiltrate the last remaining Free City and undermine it from within. However, as the Empress grows more and more tyrannical, the Bridgeburners are forced to reconsider their true loyalties. Gardens of the Moon is a complex and interesting novel packed with magic, gods, assassins, and war.
American Gods , by Neil Gaiman
The old gods are living beings who walk the Earth and draw power from those who worship them, increasingly finding themselves endangered as the world turns toward newer gods like Technology, Media, and Conspiracy Theories. Shadow gets out of jail early when his wife is killed in a car accident, setting off on a road trip with his mysterious new employer, Mr. Wednesday. American Gods is packed with Americana and fascinating tidbits of lore alongside ample humor and wit.
imusti Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell , by Susanna Clarke
In an alternative England during the early 19th century, true magic once existed but now belongs to scholars who cannot practice it. Two magicians reveal themselves and attempt to restore magic to its rightful place. The relationship between Jonathan Strange and his tutor, Mr. Norell, degrades as rivaling techniques to pursue a common goal drives a wedge between them. A dense yet playful take on the supernatural that channels authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen with expertise and flair.
Perdido Street Station , by China Miéville
New Crobuzon is a decrepit and sprawling city where races of humanoid creatures coexist uneasily together. When a human scientist named Isaac takes on the task of healing a bird-man’s wings, he accidentally unleashes a monster loose on the city. Meanwhile, his insectile girlfriend, Lin, entangles herself with a powerful mob boss who drags the couple into an underworld of crime and corruption. Perdido Street Station is a perversely unique Victorian steampunk blend of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone , by J.K. Rowling
A delightful world of wizards and witches exists just below the surface. Evil Lord Voldemort has returned to threaten all that is good. Harry Potter, a young orphan, abused by his adopted family, discovers that he has magical powers and embarks on a wonderful journey of self-discovery and adventure with his best friends Ron and Hermoine. The real magic of Rowling’s creation is the setting, a highly immersive, quirky, and inviting world that exists within our own.
Sorcerer to the Crown , by Zen Cho
In 18th-century England, magic is dwindling, and the government has no idea why. Former slave Zacharias Wythe controversially inherits the title of Sorcerer Royal when his adopted father mysteriously dies. A young female magician named Prunella Gentlemen becomes his trainee in a land where use of magic is forbidden to females. Zen Cho incorporates heavy doses of farce and wit into a story about outsiders struggling to survive in a place that hates them with a unique and magical twist.
A Wizard of Earthsea , by Ursula K. Le Guin
Earthsea is a vibrant island chain home to wizards and dragons. Ged, a young sorcerer with great potential, must conquer his own arrogance in order to become the man he is destined to be. Joining a wizarding school, Ged unleashes a shadow during a duel with a rival student and must stop it before it kills him. A satisfying and enchanting tale about a young person maturing and accepting who they are in a magical setting.
Sam McKenzie is a tech employee by day and fantasy author by night. He writes about fiction, technology, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @samckenz
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- Science Fiction & Fantasy
The 45 best fantasy books of all time
Check out our picks of the most exciting new fantasy novels of 2023, the best of 2022, as well as the top fantasy books of all time..
Fantasy books offer readers the perfect escape into another world. Here we share some of the top fantasy books to give you some inspiration for your literary bucket list. From Megan Giddings dystopian The Women Could Fly , to the magical multi-dimensional universe of Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library, and the dark academia world of The Atlas Six – if you’re a fantasy fiction fan we’ve got you covered.
The best new fantasy books of 2023
The thousand eyes, by a. k. larkwood.
The epic sequel to The Unspoken Name – could you sacrifice your dreams to escape a nightmare? Csorwe, Shuthmili and Tal survey abandoned Echentyr worlds to make a living. The empire’s ruins seem harmless but fascinating. Yet disaster strikes when they stumble upon ancient magic during a routine expedition. This revives a warrior who’d slept for an age, reigniting a conflict thousands of years old. And the soldier binds Csorwe to her cause. Shuthmili is desperate to protect the woman she loves. However, as events escalate, she’s torn. Can she help Csorwe by clinging to her own humanity or by embracing her eldritch powers?
One For My Enemy
By olivie blake.
In New York City, two rival witch families fight for the upper hand in Olivie Blake's new fantasy fiction. The Antonova sisters and their mother, Baba Yaga, are the elusive supplier of premium intoxicants while the Fedorov brothers and their crime boss father, Koschei the Deathless, dominate the shadows of magical Manhattan. For twelve years, the two families have been in stalemate, but that is about to change. While fate draws together a brother and sister from either side, the siblings still struggle for power, and internal conflicts could destroy each family from within.
Under the Whispering Door
By tj klune.
TJ Klune brings us a warm hug of a story about a man who spent his life at the office – and his afterlife building a home. When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own sparsely-attended funeral, Wallace is outraged. But he begins to suspect she’s right, and he is in fact dead. Then when Hugo, owner of a most peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace reluctantly accepts the truth. Under the Whispering Door is a witty, haunting and kind love story from TJ Klune – the master of queer fantasy.
The best fantasy books of 2022
Guns of the dawn, by adrian tchaikovsky.
For generations, peace reigned over Denland – until revolutionaries assassinated their king. Next, they clashed with Lascanne, their neighbour. Both countries are now locked in fierce war, pitching war machines against warlocks. Genteel Emily Marshwic has lost much to the war. Then the call for more soldiers comes for her. Alongside other conscripted women, she finds herself on the battlefield, braving the harsh reality of warfare. But she begins to doubt her country’s cause, and her choices could determine the fate of these two nations.
The Atlas Six
Dark-academia fantasy novel The Atlas Six was originally self-published by Olivie Blake, and was then snapped up for re-publication after it shot to fame on TikTok. The story follows six young magical practitioners as they compete to join the secretive Alexandrian Society, whose custodians guard lost knowledge from ancient civilizations. Yet each decade, only six practitioners are invited – to fill five places. Following recruitment by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they travel to the Society’s London headquarters. Here, each must study and innovate within esoteric subject areas. And if they can prove themselves, over the course of a year, they’ll survive. Most of them.
The Atlas Paradox
Six magicians were offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Five are now members of the Society. And two paths lie before them. In the second installment in the Atlas Six series, the secret society of Alexandrians is unmasked. Its newest recruits realize the institute is capable of raw, world-changing power. It’s also headed by a man with plans to change life as we know it – and these are already under way. But the cost of this knowledge is as high as the price of power, and each initiate must choose which faction to follow.
The Atlas Six books in order
Stone blind, by natalie haynes.
At last, Medusa's story is told. The sole mortal raised in a family of gods, Medusa lives with an urgency that her family will never know, and is alone in her ability to experience change and to be hurt. Then, when the sea god Poseidon commits an unforgivable act in the temple of Athene, the goddess takes her revenge where she can – and Medusa is changed forever. Writhing snakes replace her hair, and her gaze now turns any living creature to stone. Unable to control her new power, she is condemned to a life of shadows and darkness. Until Perseus embarks upon a quest . . .
This retelling of the famed myth of Medusa asks who the real monsters are, after all.
The Discord of Gods
By jenn lyons.
The unmissable conclusion to the epic A Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons, containing the final battle between gods, demons and dragons. As Kihrin seeks an eleventh-hour reprieve for the universe – with Relos Var and the demon Xaltorath continuing to wage war on each other – his body threatens to betray him. Reeling from the aftereffects of a corrupted ritual, one that twisted both him and the last dragons. Worse, he’s now bound to the avatar of a star, a form that’s becoming catastrophically unstable. All of which means he's running out of time. One curse. One man. One destiny.
By susan dennard.
Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling fantasy series continues – with the story of Iseult, the Threadwitch. The Witchlands have been on the brink of war, and in the fourth book in this epic fantasy series, it arrives. Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.
The Witchlands series books in order
By frances hardinge.
In a world where anyone can cast a life-destroying curse, only one person has the power to unravel them. Kellen does not fully understand his unique gift, but helps those who are cursed, like his friend Nettle who was trapped in the body of a bird for years. She is now Kellen's constant companion and his closest ally. But the Unraveller carries a curse himself and, unless he and Nettle can remove it, Kellen is a danger to everything – and everyone – around him . . .
Legends & Lattes
By travis baldree.
After decades of adventuring, Viv the orc barbarian is finally hanging up her sword for good to open the first coffee shop in the city of Thune. Even though no one there knows what coffee actually is . But old rivals and new stand in the way of success, and Thune’s shady underbelly could make it all too easy for Viv to take up the blade once more.
A Taste of Gold and Iron
By alexandra rowland.
Kadou, the modest prince of Arasht, has no plans to wrestle for imperial control with his sister, the queen. Yet he is in conflict with the father of queen's new child, who is a powerful ambassador at the court. Then a hunting expedition goes badly wrong, and Kadou finds himself accused of murder. This sensual tale of courtly intrigue, backstabbing politics and romance set against the backdrop of an Ottoman Empire-inspired world, is a must-read.
A Marvellous Light
By freya marske.
For fans of Bridgerton who'd like to welcome magic into their lives. Set in an alternative Edwardian England, this is a comedy of manners, manor houses, and hedge mazes: including a magic-infused murder mystery and a delightful queer romance. Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he's actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society, and he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his adversarial magical-society counterpart, as together they discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.
A Restless Truth
In the thrilling follow-up to A Marvellous Light, Maud Blyth longs for adventure and finds exactly that when she agrees to serve as an old lady's companion on an ocean liner, and on the very first day of the voyage, her companion is found dead. Then, she meets Violet, who is everything Maud has been trained to distrust, yet can’t help but desire: a magician, an actress and a magnet for scandal. Surrounded by open sea and a ship full of suspects, Maud and Violet must work together to locate a magical object worth killing for – and unmask a murderer. All without becoming dead in the water themselves.
When Ox Matheson was twelve his father taught him that he was worthless, destined to be misunderstood, and then he left him. Four years later, the energetic Bennett family moved in next door, harbouring a secret that would change his life forever: they are shapeshifters, and can transform into wolves at will. Drawn into an unimaginable new world, Ox found a friend in Joe, the youngest Bennett brother, but when the pack was pulled apart by tragedy and murder, Joe left town . But now, he has returned, and Ox can no longer ignore the song that howls between them.
The Women Could Fly
By megan giddings.
Part fantasy, part dystopia, The Women Could Fly is a powerful novel that speaks to our times. In a world where witches are real and unmarried women over the age of thirty must be monitored by the state, Josephine Thomas is twenty-eight, ambivalent about marriage and on the cusp of losing autonomy over her own life. It's been fourteen years since her mother's disappearance, and Jo has heard ever possible explanation from kidnapping to murder . . . to witchcraft; but all these years later, she feels she's never understood her mother more. So when she's offered an opportunity to honour one last request from her mother's will, she takes it . . .
Origins of The Wheel of Time
By michael livingston.
This companion to Robert Jordan's internationally bestselling series, The Wheel of Time, will delve into the creation of a masterpiece, drawing from interviews and an unprecedented examination of his unpublished notes. Michael Livingston tells the behind-the-scenes story of who Jordan was (including a chapter that is the very first published biography of the author), how he worked, and why he holds such an important place in modern literature.
She Who Became the Sun
By shelley parker-chan.
A Number One Sunday Times Bestseller, this absorbing historical fantasy novel from Shelley Parker-Chan reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule, and when a bandit raid wipes out her home and her brother perishes, Zhu resolves to overcome her destiny by taking her dead brother’s identity. Can Zhu escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments
By t. l. huchu.
Ropa Mayo finds herself embroiled in another magical crisis in T. L. Huchu's sequel to the much-loved The Library of the Dead . Ropa thought her life would change forever after she discovered an underground occult library, in modern-day Edinburgh. But she's still unsuccessfully chasing a prized magical job with the city's secret societies, until her friend Priya offers her a job at Our Lady of Mysterious Maladies – a very specialised hospital. Here, a dangerous new illness is resisting both magical and medical remedies. If Ropa can solve this case, she might stand a chance of impressing her mentor, Sir Callander.
Black Water Sister
Broke, jobless and just graduated, Jessamyn is abandoning America to return ‘home’. But as she packs to return to Malaysia, a country she hasn't seen since she was a toddler, she starts to hear a bossy voice in her mind, which belongs to her late grandmother Ah Ma who in life, and apparently in death, worships a local deity, the Black Water Sister. When a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge, and she isn't afraid to blackmail her granddaughter into helping her to make mischief . . .
Fury of a Demon
By brian naslund.
The third and final instalment in Brian Naslund's Dragons of Terra trilogy has come to paperback this year. Osyrus Ward has subdued most of Terra, but to finish the job and annihilate the dragons he must add to his huge army of skyships and create a machine that possesses unheard-of power. Rebels Bershad and Ashlyn are doing every everything they can to prevent this, but they have been captured in Dainwood by Ward's mercenaries. Ashlyn employs her dark magic against the terrifying forces massing around them, and Bershad summons his history of victory in battle. But will their combined energies be enough to save the world?
The House of Always
The House of Always is the fourth book in Jenn Lyons’ epic fantasy series A Chorus of Dragons. As the novel opens, the Eight Immortals have catastrophically failed to stop Kihrin’s enemies, who are moving forward with their plans to free Vol Karoth, the King of Demons. Kihrin has his own ideas about how to fight back, but even if he’s willing to sacrifice everything for victory, the cost may prove too high for his allies. Now they face a choice: can they save the world while saving Kihrin too? Or will they be forced to watch as he becomes the very evil they had all sworn to destroy?
Jenn Lyons on world-building in her fantasy novels
The empire's ruin, by brian staveley.
In the first book in Brian Staveley's epic fantasy trilogy, Ashes of the Unhewn, the great Annurian Empire is on its last legs, and its elite soldiers – the Kettral – are dwindling. Kettral soldier Gwenna Sharpe is given a quest, in order to restore the hawk-riding battalion. She must travel beyond the known world, to the place where the mighty war hawks nest. She will face obstacles along the way, from poisoned land to a monk turned conman to sinister forces massing against the empire. Gwenna's quest to save it is fraught with danger, but full of potential for recovery and renewal.
by Lucy Holland
This folklore-inspired tale of betrayal, magic and murder is a 2022 must read. King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure. All three fear a life confined within the hold, protected from Saxon invaders. But when Myrdhin, meddler and magician, arrives, the siblings discover the power within themselves and the land.
Best fantasy books of all time
The brilliantly imagined coming-of-age fantasy series, Witchlands, continues with Bloodwitch . The Bloodwitch Aeduan and Iseult the Threadwitch race for safety, desperate to evade the Raider King. His attempts to subdue the Witchlands are gaining momentum, as his forces sow terror in the mountains, slaughtering innocents. Despite differing goals, Aeduan and Iseult have grown to trust one another in the fight to survive. Yet trust is a tenuous bond . . .
We Free the Stars
By hafsah faizal.
We Free the Stars is Hafsah Faizal's spellbinding conclusion to the Sands of Arawiya duology. The battle is over, but the war is just beginning. Low on resources and allies alike, Zafira and Nasir are determined to finish their mission; to restore magic to their kingdom. But time is running out and if order is to be restored, sacrifices will have to be made. Both hopeful and devastating, this is YA fantasy at it's best.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance
By tomi adeyemi.
In this thrilling sequel to Children of Blood and Bone , Zélie and Amari have finally succeeded in bringing magic back to the land of Orïsha. But the ritual was more powerful than they imagined, reigniting the powers of the maji and some nobles with magic ancestry. With civil war looming on the horizon, Zélie finds herself at a breaking point: she must find a way to bring the kingdom together or watch as Orïsha tears itself apart. Children of Virtue and Vengeance is the perfect read for young adult fantasy fanatics.
Empire in Black and Gold
This epic fantasy novel is the first book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s critically acclaimed fantasy series The Shadows of the Apt. The Lowlands have lived in peace and prosperity for decades, but now an ancient Empire is conquering city after city, and the Lowlands are next . . . Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, sees the threat, but can he convince his people of the danger that is coming?
Adrian Tchaikovsky's books in order
The star-touched queen, by roshani chokshi.
Maya's world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges her marriage for political advantage. She becomes the Queen of Akaran and the wife of Amar despite a horoscope that promised a marriage of death and destruction. As Akaran's queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar's wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire. But Akaran has its own secrets. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger, but who besides her husband can she trust? Steeped in Indian folklore and mythology The Star-Touched Queen is an enthralling fantasy read.
The Lost City
By amanda hocking.
The Lost City is the first book in Amanda Hocking's Omte Origins trilogy, an adventure set in her magical Trylle universe. When Ulla Tulin was abandoned as a baby, like many half-blood trolls she was raised by strangers who hid her away. But she never stopped wondering about her birth parents, and so when she hears about a project to help half-blood trolls she's determined to discover her true heritage. She enlists the help of the resourceful Pan and must contend with the mysterious Eliana. But as she and Pan fight to unravel the truth they realise that someone – or something – is determined to stop them . . .
The Fifth Season
By n. k. jemisin.
The Fifth Season is the first fantasy novel in N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. In a far-future Earth, a continent known as the Stillness is plagued by apocalyptic natural disasters known as Seasons, that can last for generations. Book one follows the story of Essun, a woman living an unremarkable life in a quiet town until three tragedies strike in one day. Her husband murders their beloved son in cold blood and kidnaps their daughter, a world-spanning empire falls, and a great rift has been torn into the Stillness throwing ash into the sky and blocking the sun's light for years to come. And so Essun's fight to save her daughters in this dying land, begins . . .
Blood of an Exile
In Brian Naslund's must-read debut fantasy novel we meet Bershad, an adventurer sentenced to kill dragons for a living after being caught trying to assassinate a fellow noble. When the king who sentenced Bershad offers him a way out of his forced occupation and exile, Bershad sees a way to earn redemption, but it won't be easy. Blood of an Exile , the first book in the Dragons of Terra series is packed with adventure and of course, lots of dragons.
Sorcerer to the Crown
Sorcerer to the Crown is the first book in Hugo Award-winning author Zen Cho’s fantasy series. In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England's first African Sorcerer Royal. He leads the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, whose duty it is to keep the levels of magic stable – but they're failing. The supply of magic is being disrupted by the Fairy Court, and war with France means the government wants to drain this scarce resource even further. When Zacharias meets ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman they find that her recent magical discovery might just change the nature of sorcery forever.
The Invisible Library
By genevieve cogman.
The Invisible Library is the astounding debut fantasy book by Genevieve Cogman, and the first novel in The Invisible Library series. Professional spy Irene works for the mysterious Library, along with her enigmatic assistant Kai. Their mission is to steal a dangerous book from an alternative London. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. And to make things more complicated, this alternative world is infested with chaos, full of supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic.
The Invisible Library books in order
By john gwynne.
Malice is the first book in John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen series , from bestselling author Conn Iggulden. Set in the Banished Lands where armies of men and giants clash in battle, Young Corban watches enviously as boys become warriors, learning the art of war. He yearns to wield his sword and spear to protect his king’s realm. But that day will come all too soon. Only when he loses those he loves will he learn the true price of courage.
The Ruin of Kings
The hugely anticipated debut by Jenn Lyons is the first fantasy book in the A Chorus of Dragons series. Brim-full of big ideas – body-swapping, prophecy, rich worldbuilding and grim commentaries on many aspects of empire – to name but a few, this is the tale of Kihrin, a young prince cursed with bad luck and worse prophecy. The Ruin of Kings is a fantastically complex and multi-layered fantasy book, and characters like Doc and Galen, alongside Kihrin's own well-balanced set of talents and flaws make this a promising new fantasy series.
The Tiger and the Wolf
The Tiger and the Wolf is the British Fantasy Award-winning novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky and the first book in his Echoes of the Fall fantasy fiction series. Maniye is an outcast, the daughter of the chieftain of the Wolf clan and the queen of the Tiger clan, clans which have been deadly enemies for generations. Hiding a deadly secret, the power to shapeshift into the form of both a wolf and a tiger, she escapes. But Maniye is crucial to her father’s plan to rule the north, and he is determined to get her back. As she flees, priests foresee danger and rumours of war spread . . .
by China Miéville
Blending eerie Pied Piper-influenced fairy tale with the ‘90s South London Drum and Bass scene, China Miéville’s debut is a thrilling urban fantasy novel. When Saul’s father is murdered, in a London where mysterious forces prepare for a showdown, Saul is left to pay for the crime. But help comes in the unlikely form of King Rat, who leads him to freedom where he confronts his inheritance at the gathering of the Junglist Massive.
Children of Blood and Bone
Tomi Adeyemi’s YA fantasy book is the first in her West African-inspired fantasy fiction series Legacy of Orisha. Zélie remembers when Orisha was full of magic. When different clans ruled with unique powers, including her Reaper mother who could summon forth souls. But everything changed when the ruthless king had anyone with powers killed. Now only a few people still have the power to use magic, and they must stay hidden. Zélie is one of those people, but now she has the chance to bring magic back to her people and strike against the monarchy . . . Tomi Adeyemi is the author of some on the best fantasy books for YA readers in recent years.
The Lord of the Rings
By j. r. r. tolkien.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy is a classic of fantasy fiction and is a must-read for all fantasy fans. The story of the hobbit Frodo and his epic quest to reach Mount Doom and defeat the Dark Lord, Sauron, by destroying the One Ring, Tolkien’s epic fantasy was adapted into three of the most popular films of the 2000s. One of the best fantasy books ever written.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
By marlon james.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first fantasy novel in Marlon James's Dark Star Trilogy. A New York Times bestseller, National Book Award finalist and Ray Bradbury Prize winner, it's no stranger to accolades. Set in an African-inspired fantasy world, the first book in the series follows Tracker, a mercenary with an extraordinary ability to follow scents, as he hunts down a missing boy. On his journey Tracker's crosses paths with strange companions, from shapeshifters to giants, who seek the same child and hide their own secrets . . .
A Game of Thrones
By george r.r. martin.
No list of the best fantasy fiction is complete without George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy fiction series, universally acknowledged to be some of the best fantasy books of all time. The first book in the series gave its name to the TV series that became one of the most talked-about in history. In a world where summers span decades and winter can last a lifetime, the battle for the Iron Throne has begun. The breakout success of A Game of Thrones means the series will feature on best fantasy books lists for years to come.
Books series to read if you love Game of Thrones
The colour of magic, by terry pratchett.
Terry Pratchett’s wonderfully inventive fantasy fiction series Discworld begins with The Colour of Magic . Set in a flat world resting on the back of four elephants who are balanced on the shell of a giant turtle, this is a parallel time and place full of magic. When the first-ever tourist arrives, their survival is charged to a comically inept wizard who must face robbers, mercenaries and Death himself. Terry Pratchett is the author of some of the most-loved fantasy books of all-time.
The Lie Tree
When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. As she is searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree. The tree only grows healthy and bears fruit if you whisper a lie to it. The fruit of the tree, when eaten, will deliver a hidden truth to the person who consumes it. The bigger the lie, the more people who believe it, the bigger the truth that is uncovered. Frances Hardinge's wonderfully evocative YA fantasy novel was the Costa Book of the Year 2015, and is one of the best fantasy books for younger readers.
by Neil Gaiman
In the tiny town of Wall, young Tristan Thorn is madly in love with the beautiful Victoria Forrester. When she agrees to marry him if he retrieves a fallen star he doesn’t hesitate. But to find the fallen star he’ll need to cross the ancient wall which the town is named for, into a world of magic and danger. This charming fairytale fantasy will delight fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver .
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Contemporary Fantasy Books That Are Must-Reads!
We’ve all imagined what it would be like to find out that magic exists for real. To be in on a wondrous secret that is beautiful, terrifying or, most likely, some combination of the two. Contemporary fantasy plays with this idea. Most of us need a little escapism, especially during quarantine, but some contemporary fantasy takes us even further than that. Adding magic doesn’t necessarily remove the problems of mundanity; it can twist them just enough to expose new ways of looking at the same issues.
If you’re looking for a fresh perspective, some good clean paranormal fun, or a combination of the two, contemporary fantasy has you covered.
1. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
When Bree enrolls in a new school, all she wants is a new start. She doesn’t expect to discover a secret society made up of descendants of King Arthur and his court, most of whom are white and wealthy. Although her own magic may have different roots, she is pulled into their club, torn between two dreamy guys (noble Nick and mysterious Selwyn), and forced to reckon with the notion of legacy in ways that her white peers never will be.
2. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
Alexis’s prom night hookup goes spectacularly, horrifically wrong. Thankfully, her coven is there to pick up the pieces. Or, in this case, the body parts. Alexis wrestles with the implications of magic powers that have brought her a tight-knit group of friends, but have also caused terrible harm to an innocent boy. Each witch’s power works a little bit differently, and it’s both a wondrous joy and a heavy responsibility that they carry with them. Pick this one up for the ride or die friendships and Alexis’s heart-meltingly tender crush on her best friend, Roya.
3. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
The fantasy elements here are less misty-eyed enchantment, more straight-up horror. Roma and Juliette belong to rival gangs in 1920s China. (Forgive me for playing fast and loose with the word “contemporary.”) But when people start dying seemingly by their own hands, Roma and Juliette suspect that there is something even more sinister at play. A beast walks the streets of Shanghai, and this may just be the common ground that bring the two of them back together, the way they used to be.
4. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
City of Bones launched the beloved world of the Shadowhunters, and we have never been the same. It all starts with Clary, a seemingly ordinary girl who barely escapes a demon attack with the help of a mysterious and handsome stranger. But it’s not all swoony monster hunters and newfound powers. The threat of demons is growing, and Clary’s mother is missing. She will have to join this secret cadre of supernatural warriors if she and the Shadowhunters are going to have a hope of setting things right. If you love this book as much as we do, great news! You have a whole new expansive world to explore.
5. Daughters of Jubilation by Kara Lee Corthron
Like all of her mothers before her, Evvie has magical abilities that her family calls jubilation. Jubing is one of the few protections that Black southerners have against the racism that pervades their lives under Jim Crow. (Again, this one isn’t strictly contemporary, but it’s sadly all too relevant today.) But her power starts to feel more like a curse when she’s lauded as a hero for narrowly avoiding a harm of her own making and starts seeing a vision of a tall man who threatens her, her family, and the lives they’ve made for themselves. Evvie’s voice is so distinctive that you will swear she’s your best friend and hope she pulls through okay…even when you can feel the dread building.
6. Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Ok so technically this falls more into the sci-fi category, but it’s so good you don’t want to miss it! Sia’s mom was deported, then went missing while making the trek back to the US to reunite with her family. Now, Sia lives with her dad, is getting close with a sweet guy at school, and is surviving. She drives out to the desert at night to mourn her mom, but what if there’s a chance her mom will find a way back to her after all? Short chapters, lyrical language, and a deft shift from straight contemporary into something otherworldly make this a standout that you won’t want to miss.
7. Slayer by Kiersten White
Calling all Buffy fans! If you’ve ever wondered who the Slayer is today, you have to meet Nina. Nina grew up at the Watcher’s Academy, which trains teens to be future guides for Slayers. Her mom is a member of the Watcher’s Council, but Nina has always been more of a healer than a fighter. So she’s totally shocked when she becomes not only the Chosen One, but she’s destined to be the last Slayer ever. Sharp-eyed fans of the original series will spot cameos from a few old favorites, but the new characters will win your heart just the same.
8. The Past and Other Things that Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson
When Dino’s friend July dies, he expects that he will never get the closure he needed. But don’t worry Dino—you’re in a contemporary fantasy book! July comes back as a zombie-esque walking corpse, and Dino is there to help her figure out how to move on—and get a second chance at the closure they know they both need. It’s body horror and a moving meditation on friendships that change over time. What more could you ask for?
9. The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell
Esta travels back in time to 1902 New York to save magic before it dies out completely. In modern day, she’s a skilled thief with the ability to manipulate time, so she’s the only one for the job. With secret societies, old-timey gangs of New York, and the sinister Order on her trail, Esta has her work cut out for her. Luckily, she meets a sweet cinnamon roll of a boy named Harte who just might steal her heart, and they banter their way through a slow burn that will steal yours. The author calls it “magical Newsies without the singing,” and that’s honestly all she had to say.
10. Tithe by Holly Black
The great Holly Black’s debut novel Tithe set the standard for morally gray yet terribly romantic fae/human love stories. Kaye has always been able to see faeries—but nobody believes her. One day, while wandering in the woods, she comes across a beautiful fae prince who has been shot with an arrow. She saves his life, but with Holly Black’s wicked, tricksy fairies, she’s not going to get a happy ending that easily. Kaye’s choice will have dire consequences as she becomes an unwilling pawn in an ancient and vicious power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms.
11. The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Every year in a small seaside town, three girls become possessed by three spirits, sisters long since dead, and they drown boys in the harbor until the season is over. Penny has learned to accept this, but her attachment to the new boy, Bo, makes this year more complicated. Sure enough, it isn’t long before a boy is found dead in the water. Penny is desperate to figure out which girls are possessed before they hurt Bo. Eerie, atmospheric, and romantic, this book will haunt you long after you turn the final page.
12. The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World by Amy Reed
Billy and Lydia are two loners in a small rural town. When they meet by chance, highly unusual phenomena start happening around them. An impossible tornado. An all-consuming fog. A war between dragons and unicorns come to life out of a popular book series. Their friendship seems to be changing the very structure of reality. Given Lydia’s dad’s distance and Billy’s grandma’s abuse, maybe that’s a good thing. The bleakness of their real lives contrasts with the whimsy of the fabulism that just might save them both.
13. Vampires, Hearts, & Other Dead Things by Margie Fuston
Victoria and her dad have shared a love of the undead since the first vampire revealed his existence on live TV. Public fear soon drove the vampires back into hiding, yet Victoria and her father still dream about finding a vampire together. But when her dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Instead, Victoria vows to find a vampire herself—so that she can become one and then save her father.
Looking for more? Check out these YA fantasy novels you don’t want to miss!
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25 Of The Top Fantasy Books On Goodreads
If you’re a new—or old—fantasy reader, you might be wondering what the top fantasy books are. It’s a reasonable question. It makes sense to begin with what’s popular if you’re starting out in the genre. Or maybe you’re just curious to see how mainstream your preferences are.
But in trying to answer this question, you’ll immediately run into problems. How do we determine what makes a top fantasy book? Sales? Let’s be honest. Some bestselling books may not be that good. We can use ratings but as Rioter Tasha discovered when she looked at the highest rated books on Goodreads , reader-generated rankings and lists lead to other problems. The actual number of ratings might be too low. A book with more ratings may garner more lower ratings simply because of the increased reader pool. Many excellent series populate the fantasy genre , and the longer the series, the more readers the first book is likely to have. There’s also no denying that certain authors dominate the genre. And if those authors happen to be prolific, their books are going to be highly rated due to their exuberant fanbase.
How I Put Together a List of Top Fantasy Books
In putting together this list, I used Goodreads and looked at a variety of metrics. It’s not scientific. There’s no math involved. I considered the number of ratings, the spread of ratings, and the year of publication. Fantasy is such an established genre, and one of the most popular on Goodreads, so older books have a distinct advantage over newer books.
I focused on single books, not boxsets. I only included one book per series (usually the first book because I know my fantasy readers and I know how hard it is for us to read out of order), and I picked only one book per author.
Did I overlook some novels? Probably. You might think a specific title absolutely belongs on a list of top fantasy books. Or, remembering that I limited this list to only one book per author and only one book per series, you might think another selection from that author or series is a better choice. That’s okay. In the end, this list is just a starting point.
The Top Epic Fantasy Books
When we think of the fantasy genre, we usually think of epic fantasy. Important quests to save the world. Royal families fighting for control of the kingdom. Spectacular magic battles. The aesthetic established by J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings , let’s just say.
Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
(4.45 avg rating; 2,000,614 ratings)
This novel launched the Song of Ice and Fire series and upended the established tropes of 1990s-era epic fantasy. Let’s not forget that shocking death at the end! I know it’s hard to believe now, but back then, that was something of a fantasy no-no.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
(4.53 avg rating; 720,012 ratings)
While good writing certainly permeates the fantasy genre, it’s not necessarily a requirement. Above all, we want a good story and as long as the prose is readable, that’s fine. Rothfuss’s debut novel showed us that an epic fantasy novel could feature not only good writing, it could showcase beautiful prose. But what’s most interesting about The Name of the Wind is its structure. We first meet Kvothe when he’s a broken man, after the battle has been fought. The mystery of how he got to that end point from his beginnings as an audacious prodigy is part of the series’s charm.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
(4.63 avg rating; 305,994 ratings)
Sanderson is arguably one of the most prolific fantasy writers working in the genre today. In a genre where readers are used to waiting years between series installments, that’s very refreshing. I can’t overstate this fact. It’s one of the reasons he’s gathered a very large, dedicated fanbase. If you’re not familiar with Sanderson’s work, he’s best known for his clearly delineated, almost scientifically laid out magic systems.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
(3.99 avg rating; 242,314 ratings)
Confession time: I first discovered LeGuin through her science fiction. I didn’t learn she’d also written fantasy until I was well into adulthood. Unfortunately, the Earthsea series is probably better known for the whitewashed adaptation that aired on the SyFy channel. A true tragedy because as anyone who’s read her books knows, LeGuin was a master of world-building and depicting culture.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
(4.15 avg rating; 236,411 ratings)
Royal bastards figure prominently in the fantasy genre. So do assassins. They’re usually two different people, though. The main character in the first book of Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, however, is both.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
(4.27 avg rating; 224,608 ratings)
In addition to royal bastards and assassins, thieves also run wild through the fantasy genre. Who’s surprised? There are a lot of important mystical artifacts to steal. And let’s face it, a fantasy setting is the perfect background for a heist caper.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
(4.01 avg rating; 72,095 ratings)
Courtesans are another staple of the epic fantasy genre. While they’re usually supporting characters—either in the form of allies or enemies—Carey’s debut novel introduces us to Phedre, a courtesan marked by a god to feel pleasure and pain as one. In other words, she’s a masochist. But alongside her courtesan-related talents, she’s also a spy. This unlikely combination in a protagonist explains why it’s one of the top fantasy books on Goodreads, even though it doesn’t necessarily resemble the traditional quest-style epic fantasy tome.
Find even more of our epic fantasy recommendations here.
Contemporary Fantasy Books
While the fantasy genre often conjures images of dragons and wizards, fantasy need not take place in alternate worlds. They can take place in our world.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
(4.11 avg rating; 761,532 ratings)
While Gaiman’s short stories are my personal favorites of his writings, most fiction readers meet him through his novels. American Gods reimagines myths and gods in the modern age, mashes them up with Americana, and takes you on a road trip. I can see why this is one of his most famous works.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
(4.03 avg rating; 688,655 ratings)
A standalone novel in the fantasy genre is a rare feat, but The Night Circus succeeds—much to the dismay of its fans who wish it had a sequel or two. Revolving around a competition between two magicians who fall in love, the lush prose has won the heart of many readers across the world. It’s collected over half a million ratings on Goodreads! That is a big accomplishment for an author who didn’t publish her follow-up, The Starless Sea , until eight years later.
Find more contemporary (or low) fantasy novels here.
Urban Fantasy Books
The sister sub-genre to contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy experienced a boom in the 2000s and early 2010s. It’s since contracted and stabilized—although I’d argue we’re seeing a revival featuring more diverse casts and authors—but here are a couple stand-out top fantasy books from that prior era.
Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
(4.15 avg rating; 176,892 ratings)
In a sub-genre populated by investigators and mercenaries, coyote shifter Mercy Thompson stands out because she’s a mechanic. How refreshing. The staples of the genre—gremlins, werewolves, vampires, and more—can be found in Mercy’s world and her relationships with them are what often get her into trouble.
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
(4.12 avg rating; 511,242 ratings)
As someone who read a lot of vampire novels, both adult and YA, in the late 2000s, I admit I’m a little surprised to see how many ratings this book had on Goodreads. And I was a big fan of this series! I don’t know how I missed its popularity. About a dhampir who’s dedicated her life to protecting her best friend, a vampire princess, what I appreciated most about these books was the female friendship that ran throughout. Over a decade later, I still love seeing that fierce dedication between girls—especially in YA.
Find more of our urban fantasy recommendations here .
Top Fantasy Books for Young Readers
The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
(4.33 avg rating; 628,065 ratings)
One of the most beloved middle grade authors out there, picking one Riordan book to recommend is impossible. Thankfully, I had my previously mentioned restrictions to make things easier. Set in the world of the Percy Jackson books, The Lost Hero once again features Riordan’s take on Greek mythology but with a whole new cast of characters.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
(4.27 avg rating; 37,280 ratings)
Given the nature of Goodreads, it can be difficult to find the highly rated fantasy books for younger readers. It seems like there’s a gap between middle grade novels and picture books. I’m sure they exist, but they’re not easiest to find. Based on Chinese mythology, Lin’s book pulls together the pieces of many different stories and weaves them into something new. Featuring a determined heroine who never gives up, this story about her quest to improve her family’s fortune delights children and parents alike.
Do your children love fantasy? We got 50 of our top fantasy books for kids here.
Young Adult Fantasy Books
You knew it was coming. Young adult books are booming, and the fantasy genre makes up a huge chunk. More to the point, it has an enormous presence on Goodreads. But given those things, I can see why a primer of the top fantasy books for this age category might be necessary.
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
(4.32 avg rating; 670,055 ratings)
The first book in the prequel trilogy to the hugely popular The Mortal Instruments series, Clockwork Angel takes place in Victorian London. It delivers everything Clare’s fans want and expect from her books.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
(4.20 avg rating; 601,767 ratings)
If you’re a regular voter in the annual Goodreads book awards, you’ll recognize Maas’s name. She and her novels are a mainstay in the competition. This is the debut novel, about an assassin, that started it all.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
(4.04 avg rating; 569,501 ratings)
If you ever wondered what X-Men would look like in a fantasy setting, this book might provide an answer for you. In a world where people with silver blood have superpowers and people with red blood are the people they subjugate, a girl with red blood discovers she has special abilities of her own.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
(4.07 avg rating; 386,770 ratings)
Published in 2008, Graceling was one of the earliest fantasy novels in the current young adult renaissance. Set in a world where people known as Gracelings are born with an extreme skill, Kaisa has the ability to kill. Unfortunately, the nature of her gift traps her into serving as her uncle’s enforcer. By the way, her uncle is the king, and not the most benevolent one.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
(4.43 avg rating; 320,906 ratings)
Bardugo’s Grishaverse books have inspired a huge legion of fans since Shadow and Bone was first published in 2012. A quick glance at bookstagram will show you just how much these books are beloved by the reading community. Six of Crows introduces us to a crew of thieves out to pull off an impossible heist. If you’re a fan of The Lies of Locke Lamora , this is the book for you. Even if you think you don’t like young adult novels, I still think you should give this one a try, and given the number of Goodreads ratings, so do a lot of other people.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
(4.01 avg rating; 301,954 ratings)
If I had to describe this book, I’d say it was about angels and demons, and that answer is both accurate and inaccurate. If you’ve never read a Laini Taylor novel, be prepared for fascinating characters, unique settings, and creepy imagery that catch you off-guard because they always come when you least expect!
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
(4.12 avg rating; 220,434 ratings)
Holly Black has established herself as the Queen of Faerie Novels. The Cruel Prince takes us back to the world first featured in her debut novel, Tithe , and introduces us to Jude, a mortal heroine whose rage and determination cuts through a courtly politics and a quest to find a place she can call home.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
(4.27 avg rating; 183,882 ratings)
Inspired by ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes explores oppression and tyranny via the story of Laia, who hopes to save her brother by spying on the Empire for the rebellion. This mission leads her to Elias, who is set to become the best soldier the Empire has ever seen.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
(4.11 avg rating; 154,906 ratings)
Originally published in 2018, Adeyemi’s debut has shot up through the Goodreads rankings at an astonishing pace. It almost reached 50,000 ratings in its first year alone, which is no small feat for a new author. No doubt, the book’s fast pace and action-filled adventure contributed to its popularity. Interested in reading more novels like Children of Blood and Bone ? Find even more African-inspired fantasy novels here .
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
(4.11 avg rating; 114,603 ratings)
Of all the potential retellings out there, I never expected to see a YA retelling of 1001 Nights . It’s not a strict retelling, so if you’re a fan of the nested story within a story structure, this is not the book for you. But if you want to see a different take on the original, Ahdieh’s debut might be worth checking out.
Find even more YA fantasy picks here !
I must make a confession. I have a weakness for fantasy takes on the end of the world. A lot of apocalyptic stories approach the concept from a science fiction angle or even a horror one. Fantasy ones are a rarer but always worth looking at. Find 20 more recommendations in this subgenre here .
Angelfall by Susan Ee
(4.13 avg rating; 165,949 ratings)
Originally a self-published title, I remember when this book made a huge splash. An apocalypse caused by angels! Given the nature of the Bible, perhaps this shouldn’t have been so astonishing. While the portrayal of mental illness isn’t what I consider to be the best (at all), the protagonist’s quest to save her younger sister—which leads her to joining forces with the enemy—is a gripping one.
The Award-Winning Top Fantasy Novel
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
(4.28 avg; 150,656 ratings)
The Fifth Season may not have the most ratings on Goodreads, but the trilogy it begins (The Broken Earth trilogy) has made history. Each of the three books has won the Hugo, making Jemisin the first author to win the award in consecutive years. If that doesn’t mark a top fantasy novel, I don’t know what does.
To find even more fantasy recommendations (we’ve got loooots), check out our sci-fi and fantasy podcast, SFF Yeah or subscribe to Swords & Spaceships , our email newsletter about all things in the world of science fiction and fantasy.
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