I was eleven years old when I read my first fantasy novel. It was The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, book one of the Prydain Chronicles. Though the subject matter was wholly unfamiliar to me I was quickly swept up in Alexander’s imaginary world, and I read voraciously until I had finished all five books. Then I read them again, and again. After that I started looking for more. Just like that I was hooked on the genre of fantasy, and to this day it remains my reading material of choice.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to read the works of scores of fantasy novelists. While the majority are cliched and obviously borrow from the work of others, every now and then I come across a fresh voice, a new perspective on the genre that immediately draws me into their make believe world, and takes me back to my childhood and that first Prydain book. All of these authors borrow from one another to one extent or another. It is the nature of fantasy literature. All of today’s fantasy writers are also prodigious fantasy readers, and it is only natural that the subject matter that inspired them to write would creep into their writing. Still, the best writers have found a way to take these common themes and make them their own, whether by the uniqueness of their magic system, the richness of their characters, or simply by their mind-blowing writing ability. Here are the top ten fantasy novels that have left the greatest impression on me. I will keep plot details vague in order to avoid spoiling anything for those who haven’t read them.
10 – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
Though Eddings work has clearly deteriorated since he first penned the Belgariad, and he has a nasty habit of repeating himself (he even uses that repetition as a plot device in the Mallorean, his followup series to the Belgariad), this first book by Eddings still resonates strongly with me. Pawn of Prophecy follows the most oft-used plot line in the fantasy genre: A farm boy, ignorant of the great powers he possesses, is whisked away by a powerful guide to save the world. Though Pawn of Prophecy is now seems filled with cliches you have to remember that is was written 26 years ago, so at the time it did contain some original elements that have since been reused by other authors. Despite the familiar subject matter, Eddings seems to hit all the right notes in this fantasy series, with well written dialogue between his characters and cheeky humor his strongest suits. This book drew me in and I read all five of the Belgariad novels in two days.
9 – Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
This was the first fantasy novel I read that involved a character from our “real” world being magically transported to a magical land. This particular plot has of course been used countless times in fantasy novels throughout the years, but I think anyone who has read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant will agree, the books’ main character is what made this series unique. Thomas Covenant, leper and arguably the world’s most bitter man, is cast in the role of protagonist in this book. Most other fantasy series would label this protagonist a hero, but Covenant’s selfishness, his refusal to accept the reality of the world he finds himself in, and his harsh words and even harsher actions make certain the title hero can never be applied to him. Donaldson has created a very real, complex character, an anti-hero that set the conventions of fantasy on its ear. The plot is engaging, and the other characters in the book and their relationship to Covenant are spot on, but it is Covenant himself that makes this novel worth reading. One of fantasy’s all time strongest characters.
8 – The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
For a long time this novel would have occupied the top spot on my list of top ten fantasy novels, but as the years passed and I discovered more and more great novels it slowly slipped. Still, it still carries strong memories for me, as it is one of the novels that really captured by imagination when I was first exploring the genre. Many who have read the series are probably surprised I chose the second book of the series, and not the Sword of Shannara, which is the opening book of the series and of course introduces the main characters. While I enjoyed all three novels of the original Shannara trilogy it is Elfstones that I found myself going back to read and read again and again. There are many factors that probably go into this, but I think the main one is the sense of peril that is so convincingly conveyed in this novel. Wil Ohmsford has a weapon of incredible power at his fingertips, but he cannot master the power he commands! His desperate frustration and fright are so convincingly conveyed I would find myself inside his head, empathizing with his plight. The book is thick with this white-knuckle tension, and the Reaper’s relentless pursuit of Wil had me fearing for his life. With strong characterization and epic battle scenes this book should have a place of honor in any self-respecting fantasy reader’s collection.
7 – The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
The release of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones turned the genre of fantasy on its ear, eschewing the usual battle of light versus dark in favor of a grim world filled with shades of grey. Many authors have since adopted a similar theme in their works, but arguably none have done it so well as Joe Abercrombie. The first novel of his First Law trilogy – The Blade Itself – was even darker and bloodier than Martin’s work. Yes, his themes are grim, and his characters are just a hair this side of evil sometimes, yet he still manages to inject plenty of humor in his work. If you are a fan of Martin and looking for another good author to read then definitely give Abercrombie a shot.
6 – Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
With Mistborn, has come up with a magic system that is so far removed from the standard conventions of the fantasy genre I was left scratching my head, wondering how on earth he managed to devise such a brilliant idea. Such is his creativity that Sanderson, upon the tragic death of Robert Jordan, was chosen to write the final novel in the massively epic Wheel of Time series. To be entrusted with such an incredible responsibility speaks volumes about the respect his peers have for this writer.
5 – Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Though he is now a household name among fantasy fans when this first time novelist release Name of the Wind he immediately served notice he would be a force to reckoned with in the world of epic fantasy. For the first time since my teens I read a book, finished the last page, and immediately flipped to the front and started reading again. Yes, it is that good. While the themes presented in this book aren’t necessarily unique to the genre, his characterization is so strong that you find yourself living the book through the main character’s eyes. This is a rare gift for an author, and even more impressive considering it is his first work. The book is written in the first person perspective, allowing us access into the deepest thoughts of Qvothe, the protagonist of the series. Still, the author manages to deftly keep much about Qvothe and his motivations secret from the reader, a difficult juggling act for a story told in the first person. Book two – The Wise Man’s Fear – wasn’t quite up to the standard of the first novel, but it was still better than 99% of the other fantasy novels out there, and that tells you just how good that debut novel was.
4 – Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
If Patrick Rothfuss had an inspiration for his character Qvothe, then surely it was Fitzchivalry Farseer, protagonist of Robin Hobb’s Assassin series. Fitz is, far and away, the most realistically drawn character in the genre of fantasy. Again, like Qvothe, his story is told in the first person perspective, and we are taken on an agonizing journey through Fitz’s childhood as he struggles to come to terms with the cards life has dealt him. Despite the limitations of writing a book in the first person, Hobb does a masterful job of fleshing out the characters that Fitz interacts with, managing to convey the subtle nuances of their personalities in a few well-crafted sentences. Hobb, though clearly a character writer, has done a wonderful job of creating both an engaging plot and a realistic and richly detailed setting. So complex and detailed is the world she has created that it has become the setting for other novels that do not revolve around Fitz and his adventures. Robin Hobb’s books should be required reading for those who wish to learn how to craft a fantasy novel.
3 – Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Eye of the World is fantasy at its story-telling best. With broad strokes Jordan has managed to create a world and a history as detailed in the mind’s eye as Tolkien did with his painstakingly crafted Middle Earth. Before he got bogged down with too many characters and convoluted plot lines later in the series, Jordan’s early books were a near perfect balance of characterization, plot and setting that made for an incredibly entertaining read. Eye of the World was the best of those early books before the series began to unravel in book five. It is truly a shame that Robert Jordan died before he could complete this work that defined his life.
2 – Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Fantasy purists must be shaking their heads in disgust right now. This is Tolkien, the grand master of the genre, and his masterpiece is relegated to number two on some schmuck’s top ten fantasy novel list? If you are one of these purists and have chosen to stop reading at this point I completely understand. As a pioneer and the inspiration for every other writer on this list, Tolkien commands the respect of everyone in the literary world. It can be argued that his ground-breaking novel (broken up into three for publishing reasons) literally created the genre of epic fantasy. Still, while I must give him his due for the mind-bending scope and originality of his work, like all pioneers he was doomed to see others come along and build and yes, improve upon his work. In Tolkien’s tale of the battle for middle earth he has created a world so rich and complex it rivals our own. Unfortunately, that incredible attention to detail he employed in his world building has had a negative impact on other aspects of the book. Tolkien’s book, in many sections, reads more like a history than a novel. At times he completely abandons both his plot and his characters as he writes page after descriptive page of his beloved middle earth. As a result the entertainment value of the novel suffers. Obviously one must give him his due when it comes to single-handedly establishing the genre we all enjoy so much, but unfortunately the book that defined his writing career can be a chore to read in some parts.
1 – A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
The other R.R. in this list has managed to accomplish what the great Tolkien could not. He has taken a fantasy novel, made it read like a history, and still maintain a breathless sense of action and entertainment throughout the book. With A Game of Thrones Martin has established himself as a true heavyweight in the world of epic fantasy. Each of his large cast of characters is rich and believable. Much like Thomas Covenant in Donaldson’s books, Martin’s characters buck the trend of most fantasy novels, where the heroes and the villains are drawn in black in white. Martin’s characters are instead painted in varying shades of grey, each with their own agenda. This rare characterization technique makes the books more gritty and real, and there is no clear definition of who you should be cheering for as you proceed through the books. When it comes to the ability to craft believable dialogue and action sequences, Martin is peerless in the genre. Battle scenes take you right into the heart of the action, and I found myself completely absorbed, oblivious to the world around me. A Game of Thrones is the best fantasy novel I have ever read, period. The other books in the series are great as well, and each could have made this top ten list, but for the sake of variety I decided to just include the first and best of the novels. It’s not just a television show, folks.