Oct 9 2013 9:30am

Top 10 Fantasy Novels You Must Read: An Opinionated Opinion

The Hobbit by J.R.R. TolkienFor a while here at Heroes and Heartbreakers I was the romance virgin—someone who hadn't ever picked up a romance book, nor knew just how disturbing words like “quivering” or “throbbing" could be. But, I also wouldn't have been one of the few people in the theatre that knew exactly what Loki meant when he called Black Widow a “mewling quim,” in The Avengers, so you take the good with the bad.

If you are a site regular, you may or may not have picked up on the fact that I am a bit of a Fantasy Freak in my natural habitat. Odds are if a story has Magic, Elves, Orcs, or some sort of mischievous god, I'll read it.  I'd thought I'd share my passion with the wonderful readers at Heroes and Heartbreakers as they have shared theirs with me. So here are my ten absolute must-reads when it comes to Fantasy Literature.

1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Why? With a sentence scribbled onto the back of a student's test, which then became a story told to his children, Tolkien defined a genre. While lacking in romance, and stuffed to bursting with walking, the book is critical in establishing what modern fantasy is while also featuring a decidedly European/Non-American style of hero. The book is best experienced while read aloud, so you can do the voices just right, and preferably to a child or three.

2. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian

Why? Okay, it's less one giant novel and more a collection of short stories, but Howard gave fantasy the term Sword and Sorcery. He created the fantastic adventure story filled with rescued princess, evil wizards, and noble savages. Howard is critical to understanding the more American style of Fantasy along with really getting into what is best in life.

3. H.P. Lovecraft's The Cthulhu Mythos

Why?  Besides being the man solely responsible for keeping words like “Eldritch” and “Arcane” alive in modern language, Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos has a hand in almost any story involving “Old Gods” or know-it-all academics that get taken down more than one or two pegs.  If you read his short stories, you realize just how extensive the reach of Howard Phillip is. Not to mention that he did for Rhode Island what Stephen King does for Maine.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin4. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Why? There is a story about Le Guin. She was sitting watching or reading a Sci-Fi story, can't remember which, when her father asked her why there weren't any people of color in the stories she liked. She replied that there just weren't. He asked why, and the world was changed.  Not only does Le Guin introduce us to the now standard tropes of True Naming and Wizard's School, she gave us fantasy heroes who aren't white and showed us that sometimes the scariest villain is ourselves.

5. The Black Company by Glenn Cook

Why? Fantasy isn't always happy. Sometimes to really appreciate the real world you have to get your hands dirty. Very dirty.  Fantasy is no different, and no one does realistic, grim-dark fantasy quite as good as Glen Cooke, no not even George R.R. Martin. His Black Company is a company of mercenaries that have no problem with Rape or Murder as long as they get paid.  I tell people that it reads like Vietnam War fiction, but with more flying whales. Really not for the faint of heart. Just remember, soldiers live and wonder why.

6. Name of the Wind by Patrick Routhfuss

Why? When people talk writing, there are certain rules you have to meet to get published, especially when it comes to your first book. There are just certain targets you have to hit, things such as word count, tropes to avoid, don't tell your story in the past, etc. Patrick Routhfuss looked at these rules and said “No.” The result is a beautifully written, trope filled story of an orphan that is good at everything, and it is easily one of the best fantasy books I've read.

7. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Why? Fantasy isn't always Ren Fairs and Elves, Wizards and Orcs. No one shows us this better than Neil Gaiman. American Gods is one of the best Contemporary Fantasies of our time.  He takes the world's pantheon of gods and through it shows us a whole new depth of what America is. It is exactly what a good fantasy story should be, using the fantastic to open the reader's eyes wider to the real world.

8. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Why? Clarke introduces us to the tea-room fantasy and it is glorious. If Jane Austen wrote about a pair of wizards, this would be the result. Few people manage to seamlessly blend history and fantasy and make it as enjoyable.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan9. The Eye of The World by Robert Jordan

Why? This isn't THE beginning of fantasy, but it is A beginning. If Fellowship of the Ring was written in the early 90s instead of in the 50s, it would look a whole lot like The Eye of the World. Jordan looked at Tolkien's legacy and simply wanted more. What he came back with was a book series that kept me as invested in women's clothing and romantic relationships as I was the fate of the world.

10. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

Why? Besides the fact that everyone needs a great laugh now and then, Terry Pratchett is a master of allegory. Through Hogfather's protagonist, DEATH, we see someone desperately cling to what holidays should be, what fantasy means to humanity, and how sometimes all you need to beat back a monster (who certainly isn't a lame skeleton in a black robe) is a nice solid piece of iron. Odds are you will take equal turns laughing, crying, and thinking very deep, sobering thoughts about life.


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Christopher Morgan works for and You can find him on twitter as c_morgs65.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
Chris, Sahara on Twitter said she liked the list, but would add a Robin McKinley and a Scott Lynch title.
And Tracey mentioned Game of Thrones! Where is that, dude?
2. Mo
That's a great list, even if I have read almost none of them. I would have to seriously consider Stephen R. Donaldson and Patricia McKillip. Donaldson for a lot of the reasons you chose Gaiman but also because of how he uses fantasy as a vehicle to talk about the taboo. He can, of course, be very hard to take but if you can handle "The Black Company" then you can handle Donaldson.

McKillip for the lyricism of her writing style and because her Riddlemaster trilogy is still one of my gold standards in fantasy. It's an amazingly rich world and I see traces of her in later writers.
Lynne Connolly
3. Lynne Connolly
No The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Or is that more science fiction? It was the flying whales that reminded me!
Christopher Morgan
4. cmorgan
GoT is good, but I prefer Glenn Cook to George RR Martin if you had to decide between the two. Martin is pretty much just the war of the roses, The Black Company is essentially a very unique world. Not to mention that it gave me exactly what I said I always wanted from a fantasy series and it really taught me that you have to be careful what you wish for.

Donaldson is another one of my favorites, but he was beat out by the others. I've not read McKillip though, I'll have to look into it. The list is very male heavy so I could have benefited from a McKinley or a Bujold, but I went with my gut.

I was also opperating under the assumption that GoT is enough a part of Pop Culture that it doesn't need a mention from me.

@Lynn: Heh, flying wales. Yeah, Adams is a bit more SciFi, BUT if you like him you will LOVE Pratchett.
Myretta Robens
5. Myretta
I like the list. I have not read all but I've just put Name of the Wind in my library queue. I would add Good Omens (Pratchett and Gaiman) because it made me chuckle almost all the way through. Maybe I'd replace The Eye of theWorld with this.
Christopher Morgan
6. cmorgan
@Myretta, I struggled long and hard over Good Omens. I love everything about that book. But I felt that I already covered Gaiman and Pratchett, so I couldn't justify doing their combined work too.
7. scarlettleigh
Thanks Chris for the list. I rarely read science fiction just because the numbers book 1 ,2, 3, 4, - 10 are so intimidating. Will book 1 have a happy ending or a clift hanger that will make me read book 2? Will the couple in book one still be together in book 10? But a several on your list sound interesting, so I do plan to check them out
8. ChelseaMueller
Nice list, Chris. I'll admit I haven't read them all, but the reasons you cite Gaiman are the exact reasons I love his books so much. That and the beautiful prose. He can write plainly and still have it be incredibly eloquent.
Lynne Connolly
9. Lynne Connolly
Oh, I've read everything Pratchett ever wrote! That's the trouble, isn't it? Once you've read it you want something else!
Christopher Morgan
10. cmorgan
@Scarlett, with the exception of Name of the Wind, each of these books stand on their own. They are mostly part of a series, but can be read by themselves. I tried to stick to that more or less. Minus the short stories of course. Though I'll warn you about Pratchett, as Lynn points out he can be rather addicting.

@Chelsea, I remember when I was working with Tor books and I had to address a letter to Neil Gaiman, It took everything just to contain my inner fanboy from losing it over addressing a letter.
11. ChelseaMueller
@cmorgan - That makes complete sense to me. I would have had trouble containing the signature fangirl squee.

If I like the Gaiman books with Pratchett, will I like Pratchett's solo work? (Most of the H&Hers know my taste, so feel free to weigh in here.)
12. AMG
No Guy Gavriel Kay books? I would also include the Empire trilogy by Wurts & Feist. Both groups of books feature strong female characters, who make amazing choices/live full lives, but aren't necessarily 'kick-ass' swordswomen or warriors.

I suppose Kate Elliot's Jaran series is supposedly SF, but I always read it as fantasy.
Christopher Morgan
13. cmorgan
@Chelsea Pratchett can be funny, Discworld has a kind of linearity to it but each entry stands on it's own more or less. Also each character in the series is rather unique. I prefer the Moist Von Lipwick books (he's a conman that builds a fantasy equivilant to modern government), Night's Watch books (Fantasy riffs on the traditional procedural), and the Death books (existential philosophy) in that order. I don't care much for the Rincewind books (the world's most unlucky, and therefore lucky, Wizard drop-out) just because I never cared for Rincewind or the Witch books (mostly a lot of shakespeare and new age jokes).

If you like British comedy, and Douglas Adams, you'll probably enjoy at least one flavor of the Disc World.

@AMG I will confess to having never read Kay, I have two copies of TIGANA sitting on my shelf at home, I just haven't gotten around to them. Good to see them recommended here.
15. JoeV
I completely disagree with Robert Jordan -- his work is hackneyed and derivative. Thinly veiled theft with a filler of braid tugs, sniffs, shrugs and assorted other nervous tics and twitches.
Isabel Farhi
16. IzzyF
I agree about Kay! He's amazing, and in a different, more lyrical style than a lot of the books on here.

Also, I'd propose Jim Butcher. The Dresden files were urban fantasy before the hype.
Christopher Morgan
17. cmorgan
@Jennygadget, Yes, it is. Sadly, up until very recently those are the two most apt ways to describe the majority of the Genre's authors.

@Joe, Those are some pretty strong words, I'll give you that Jordan can be a bit derivitive, but then what story isn't. However, wouldn't call it "thinly veiled theft" unless you apply that to almost every post LoTR Epic that has been written.
Christopher Morgan
18. cmorgan
@Izzy I would add Butcher in a heart beat, however I tried to avoid Urban Fantasy all together for this list. Felt it was a little too different in terms of rules for the genre. It was also hard for me to pick one Dresden book that stood out. For me the strength of Dresden is in the series, not a standalone.
19. pamelia
I tend to gravitate more towards female-authored fantasy than male-authored with the exception of Tolkien, Jim Butcher and GRRM, so I would include Catherynne Valente "The Orphans Tales" and Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Dart" in my list. I would also add "Good Omens" and take out "American Gods" which I DNF'd at 80% in and never cared that I didn't finish it (it felt like a completely intellectual exercise devoid of characters or human consequence to me.) I remember loving "The Black Company" when I read it years ago and might revisit it. I also adored "Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell" and "The Hobbit" (although I think "The Lord of the Rings" is superior).
Can't get on the Robert Jordan bandwagon -- I'm afraid every time I read samples of his writing I feel like I'm reading some kind of parody (like Scalzi's "Shadow War of the Night Dragon") -- Sorry!
Christopher Morgan
20. cmorgan
@Pamelia, I thought about Kushiel's Dart, but I figured the H&H Audience might be more aware of her, so I avoided it. Like I said prior, I thought long and hard about Good Omens, but in the end I do like having each of their individual work. LoTR is certainly the more popular, I'm a Hobbit man myself.

I also understand the criticism for Jordan, he's not for everyone, but do feel that everyone should at least try Eye of the World.
Lege Artis
21. LegeArtis
Oh, Name of the Wind, American Gods, Hobbit, Le Guin, Lovecraft, The Chronicles of the Black Company, Jonathan Strange......

Mine would be only slightly different with G.R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen...
Christopher Morgan
22. cmorgan
@LegeArtis, If this list could be longer, you better believe that Erikson and Martin would have made it.
Mary Lynne Nielsen
23. emmel
Of course, there's the whole cadre of authors who are considered to cross over between fantasy and romance. Several have been mentioned already, like McKillip (a goddess) and McKinley (whose Beauty should be required middle-school reading, IMHO). Add to that Catherine Asaro (and she does sf too), anything by Sharon Shinn, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ilona Andrews, etc. And then there's the whole Dragonriders series by McCaffrey.

Gaiman's Stardust has romance, whimsy, and wistfulness all in one. And Christopher, you really should read Kay, particularly the Fionavar Tapestry series. And Judith Tarr's Hound and the Falcon series.

I grew up reading fantasy, but The Tombs of Atuan spoke to me more than Wizard of Earthsea. The fantasy/romance blend began early! :-)
24. Lynnd
You definitely must read GG Kay. Tigana, The Lions of Al Rassan and Fionavar Tapestry are my favourites, but his other books are all excellent.

i would also add Michelle West (who also wries as Michelle Sagara), Connie Willis and Kage Baker to the list.
25. Wendell
I agree with the picks that I've read and intend to read the others. Since everyone loves to plug their favourites, I'd suggest the Darwath trilogy by Barbara Hambly. It is a "portal" fantasy and has a Gandalf-type main character, but the series is a very good read with an interesting world and a nice twist in its tale.
26. Holly Chaffee
Not a huge fantasy fan but just read a new book by an author named Jillian Jonsson. The book is "Fire to fire" and its very good.
27. Chance B
No mentions of Tad Williams? He can be difficult to get started on but once you invest in his work, it's amazing. I also agree with other posters that GRRM would make my top ten, maybe in the bottom five and the Malazan series by Erikson would be in my top three.
30. Robert Szeles
It was Fritz Leiber who termed the coin "sword and sorcery," not Robert E. Howard. And you left off Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Series, which is probably the greatest collection of sword and sorcery tales ever written. You also left off Jack Vance's, The Dying Earth. Rather unforgivable.
31. Watson
I may be dating myself here but Edgar Rice Burroughs was a great story teller and I'm amazed that I've seen no mention of his John Carter series. He was describing autopilot and GPS type systems (on Mars mind you) before the Wright brothers were born!
32. David Wright
This is a very good list here. I have read quite a few of those and really enjoyed most of them. For me, the absolute must read this year would be Circle of Reign from Jacob Cooper.
I highly recommend taking a moment to check out some reviews on amazon.
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