Top 41 Must-Read Fantasy Books

It's been a while since I posted a huge book lists. I try to contain all my book posting impulses over at these days, after all. (Which also has an RSS feed, for those of you following this blog and concerned about the silence). However, I took a dangerous step this year and became part of a Sci-Fi book club – a very ill-advised move, as we all fuel each other's addiction. Thankfully, my addiction was already well-fuelled, so it's not like the book club is doing anything but slightly accellerate my descent into madness. It's fine, it's fine!

Apart from the occasional nearly violent civil debate about the boundaries of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, we're a peaceful lot, I thought. That is, until one of us prompted the group to name our top three Sci-Fi books. Three!, dear reader, not three hundred, or at least thirty! And while grieviously wounded – and coping by posting increasingly long lists of Sci-Fi books, to reassure each other that, yes, we weren't about to run out of books, M. said:

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to craft a list of 41 Fantasy books, each of which must not only be essential reading but also be the soulmate of a Discworld novel (only one book per DW-novel - if we start accepting poligamy into our Fantasy reading list there’s no saying where we’ll end up). Go!

And here we are.

Not having read as much as I'd like, I was hardly qualify to write this list – but I can't very well not complete an assignment, so in order of Discworld publication order (caveats below):

  1. The Lord of the Rings (John R. R. Tolkien)     ═◯═    The Colour of Magic
    Where it all starts.¹
  2. Legend (David Gemmell)     ═✴️═    The Light Fantastic
    Fights against hopeless odds, definitely not extremely old Conan, the power of deep love².
  3. Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone)     ═ใ═    Equal Rites
    Demon dimensions, brutal schooling, rules lawyering.
  4. The Neverending Story (Michal Ende)     ═♘═    Mort
    Young man's gotta learn he's an idiot.
  5. The Steerswoman (Rosemary Kirstein)     ═⧍═    Sourcery
    Questing across the continent, lots of anti-wizard sentiment.
  6. The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison)     ═♔═    Wyrd Sisters
    A king dies, aristocrats suck, succession is tricky.
  7. Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb)     ═⍋═    Pyramids
    Assassin-in-training with royal origins grows into his responsibilities.
  8. Jhereg (Steven Brust)     ═🐉═    Guards, Guards!
    A seedy city with ineffectual guards and dragon(lords, look, I'm funny).
  9. The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)     ═🕮═    Eric
    Irreverent metatextual fun.
  10. The City of Dreaming Books (Walter Moers)     ═🎞═    Moving Pictures
    Making a business out of other people's dreams. The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is not strictly required reading for this one, but you really ought to, especially as its take on multi-sensory movies fits right in with Moving Pictures.
  11. The Hands of the Emperor (Victoria Goddard)     ═𐒇═    Reaper Man
    What happens when superhuman entities who keep the world running just … retire?
  12. The Blacktongue Thief (Christopher Buehlman)     ═ᗜ═    Witches Abroad
    Travelogue, big on banter, parts of the main cast are annoying and yet we love them.
  13. American Gods (Neil Gaiman)     ═ᕄ═    Small Gods
    … you'll work this one out without my help.
  14. The Game of Thrones (G.R.R. Martin)     ═⥑═    Lords and Ladies
    Blood-thirsty aristocracy ravage the land. Detailled look at the terrible nature of upper-class weddings³.
  15. The GonneGunslinger (Steven King)     ═ᓜ═    Men at Arms
    Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Green recruits turn into friends and save the day … but everything's still a mess, and they have to deal with werewolves and vampires.
  16. Senlin Ascends (Josiah Bancroft)     ═♯═    Soul Music
    A guy awkward enough to be an entire teenager rock band finds his people and what he's good at, and comes into his own.
  17. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Rob E. Howard)     ═ϯ═    Interesting Times
    Episodic stories of a certain barbarian and his Horde, among surprising amounts of politics and wit.
  18. The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Seth Dickinson)     ═ᨖ═    Maskerade
  19. The Emperor's Soul (Brandon Sanderson)     ═ʊ═    Feet of Clay
    If I *have* to include a Sanderson, it's this one (no matter how much Dalinar and Vimes line up). Forming clay to make a soul.
  20. The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula K. le Guin)     ═ᐂ═    Hogfather
    Tenar deserves a Susan book.
  21. Black Coast (Mike Brooks)     ═🏝═    Jingo
    War, and all those weird other people over the border, and might it be possible to live with them?
  22. Imajica (Clive Barker)     ═⎕═    The Last Continent
    Portals into the wild, wild unknown (or Australia), impersonators everywhere, trippy vibes.
  23. Dracula (Bram Stoker)     ═🩸═    Carpe Jugulum
  24. The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)     ═☾☽═    The Fifth Elefant
    Living with the results of old geological history, Factions, oppression, lots of people with a weird fixation on the moon.
  25. Vita Nostra (Marina and Sergey Dyachenko)     ═⍗═    The Truth
    The true nature of words.
  26. Good Omens (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett)     ═⏱═    Thief of Time
    The n Riders of the Apocalypse.
  27. The March North (Graydon Saunders)     ═⸸═    The Last Hero
    A very old dude who is supernaturally good with his sword gathers his troups to avert the end of the world. Gods, monsters, self-sacrifice, pivotal terrain.
  28. A Night in the Lonesome October (Roger Zelazny)     ═ന═    The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
    Animal-centric story of the mysterious ways of humans, the politics of other animals, and a fair share loyalty and friendship. And violence.
  29. City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett)     ═𝆱═    Night Watch
    Viva la revolution! Barricades and fights in the streets of an impossible city.
  30. High Wizardry (Diane Duane)     ═⌕═    The Wee Free Men
    Wonderful children learning magic, and being forces to be reckoned with. Stands in for the entire So You Want To Be A Wizard series.
  31. Tales of Nevèrÿon (Samuel R. Delany)     ═ⴱ═    Monstrous Regiment
    Deep thoughts about gender, sure, but also a hard look at cultural differences, money, war, and injustice. Stands in for the series.
  32. Door Into Fire (Diane Duane)     ═✭═    A Hat Full Of Sky
    Magic, love, and the lesson that good relationships with friends and allies trump either (but are never easy). Stands in for the series.
  33. The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)     ═✉═    Going Postal
    Con artist fun.
  34. Perdido Street Station (China Miéville)     ═ꕤ═    Thud!
    A city disturbed by murders, cross-species racial tensions, artists doing artist things, silicate life forms being subverted, and a final pursuit of justice.
  35. Krabat (Otfried Preußler)     ═🞶═    Wintersmith
    An old, old being has to grapple with love, and the fact he's hurting everybody around him. It takes a courageous young protagonist who rises above the toil and bleakness to counter the ancient magic.
  36. Orconomics (J. Zachary Pike)     ═💲═    Making Money

  37. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)     ═ﺹ═    Unseen Academicals
    Very Bri'ish, full of people who say "jolly good" unironically. Wizards having to get on with society and each other, both of which seems impossible.
  38. Momo (Michael Ende)     ═⥰═    I Shall Wear Midnight
    Setting the world to rights, with some really good messaging about what "to rights" might be, and why it needs setting to.
  39. The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins)     ═ᴕ═    Snuff
    Surprisingly brutal, a very nonstandard perspective on fatherhood.
  40. The Iron Council (China Miéville)     ═▤═    Raising Steam
    Choo choo. (The Scar is a bit better as a book, but they are part of the same trilogy, and this one was too good of a match to pass up.)
  41. Tehanu (Ursula K. le Guin)     ═══    The Shepherd's Crown

So, the caveats:

  • I tried to keep to Fantasy, without leaning too much into YA, Science Fantasy, or Urban Fantasy (which I think I managed to leave off entirely). I was very tempted to declare a bunch of traditionally Sci-Fi books as Fantasy and see the world burn in the discussion.
  • If you're asking "Why not ̲̲̲‗‗‗‗‗‗‗", then the answer is probably "Because I haven't read it"
    • … but it might not be, so please yell at me regardless.
  • I know I have explained nearly nothing, so if anything tickles your interest (be it an actual book or just a needlessly obscure comment), please ask!
  • However, I will defend every book on this list, and gladly, because …
  • … this list, as opposed to a certain other list [book club internal snark removed], is selected purely on hedonistic enjoyment. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title, it's way more "my favourite Fantasy books" than "Must Reads" (because I don't know enough Fantasy to judge, and don't believe in Must Reads anyway).

Please yell at me with corrections, questions, your own takes, or, if you're not stupid enough to write interested in writing an entire list like this, just with your favourite Fantasy books.

Appendix A: Authors who didn't make the cut

Because of plentiful feedback and questions, here is a list of authors that I considered and then didn't include, sometimes even with good reason!

  • The Black Company by Glen Cook. Beautiful book, but I've only read the first part of the series, so I can't judge it yet. Also Saunders does a very similar thing and I like him better.
  • The Last Unicorn or Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle. Just never quite warmed up to him. Objectively beautiful writing, sure.
  • More books by Walter Moers: Tempting, because I love all his earlier books. But lately he's been a giant diappointment, so pointing at one of them (and sneaking a second one into the explanation) has got to be enough.
  • Joe Abercrombie is so beloved that I read The Blade Itself twice to make sure I didn't like it.
  • Charles Stross was so good for me back then, but the books are very much a product of their time, and I haven't kept up with his later stuff.
  • Lukyanenko's Night Watch because fuck that guy.
  • Patrick Rothfus for being so popular, but I'm just not a fan.
  • Megan Whalen Turner for The Thief, but I only read the first three books (and hoping to finish the series this year or next), so I just don't know yet
  • John M. Ford for the sheer cleverness that is The Dragon Waiting
  • Authors who I wanted to include more: Walter Moers, Neil Gaiman, Roger Zelazny, Graydon Saunders, …
  • Fun authors, but not enough of an impact on my brain, in no particular order: Brent Weeks, Mark Lawrence, T. Kingfisher, Joel Rosenberg, Naomi Novik, Randall Garrett, Jim Butcher (for Codex Alera, not for the dudebroing), Seanan McGuire
  • Authors where I liked or loved the first book, but then the series dropped off sharply: Ed McDonald, Anthony Ryan, Lynn Flewelling, Peter V. Brett
  • So much YA and children's books; pretty sure I could fill another entire list just with that.

Appendix B: Changes

My first version, not published here on this blog, included Captain Bluebear as a separate entry, and also a book by Ralf Isau. They were dropped/consolidated in favour of A Night in the Lonesome October and Krabat.

If I'm going to make further changes, the most likely candidates on the chopping block are, in order:

  1. Senlin Ascends (a bit on the tedious side)
  2. Orconomics (it's much better than it sounds at first, but it just doesn't measure up to Pratchett, possibly because it actually, admirably, tries to)
  3. The Library at Mount Char (never entirely got the hype – I did enjoy it, sure, but not to the extent that other people enjoyed it, I think)
  4. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (took me two tries to get through it, and I'm still not sure if I admire it or not)
  5. The Goblin Emperor (too much overlap with Hands of the Emperor)
  6. The Blacktongue Thief (which is really really fun and good, but maybe not deep enough)
  7. The City of Stairs


¹ I am well aware Fantasy doesn't start with Tolkien, yesyes. Was tempted to put Lud-in-the-Mist in there, as a flex, but it's not LotR.

² Luggage and Rincewind and Twoflower, of course.

³ I know, that's in Winds of Winter, let me have this.

These are very readable books, honest. Forget the covers and what pop cultural osmosis, such as Interesting Times tells you about them.

Possibly also the title.

More Pratchett per Pratchett.

I'm actually sorry for this one, and compelled to warn anybody interested off. Saunders belongs on any Fantasy list of mine, but he's not an easy read. Or, I'm told, a fun one for most people. If you're interested, his other big, big Fantasy book, The Human Dress, is also very good and probably more (well, slightly more) palatable, despite the name.

I've been trying to leave out my childhood favourites (except for the ones that make it on their own merit). But some of them just shaped my brain as a kid, and it was this or Ronia the Robber's Daughter, which really is a children's book, so here we are.