Fantasy is renowned for its series. Since Tolkien brought us the archetypical trilogy, we’ve become used to novels that span hundreds upon hundreds of pages, with volumes of text. While often painted as being filled with simple world-views and clear cut good and evil, really amazing fantasy goes beyond that. While still producing a noble degree of escapism, great fantasy can hold a mirror up to the actions and heart of humanity. Seldom restricted to just a single book, these multi-volume epics have millions of fans around the world. Here is a list of the finest the genre has to offer.
18. Belgariad by David Eddings
I’m slightly hesitant to call Eddings “best” at anything, but lets face it, he typifies the multi-volume fantasy genre. Great sweeping plots, evil gods, heroic farmboys. Many of us cut our teeth reading his cookie cutter epics, and we learned that you can skim read very fast, as he spends way too much time describing each castle. Sure, the plots of all his series are bordering on identical, and yes, they are worlds of moral absolutes, but there’s something to be said for Eddings’ dedication to the field. While not groundbreaking, his works are always enjoyable, and deserve a special place for the entertainment the offered countless 12 year olds.
17. Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind
I confess, I haven’t read all of the Sword of Truth novels. I put up with with Goodkind’s torture fetish, constant sexual violence, and weird misogyny for a few volumes, but I fell by the wayside with the blatant Ayn Randian insanity of Faith of the Fallen. That said, Goodkind deserves cred for his work on creating an immense world, filled with diverse and usually nefarious inhabitants. While I’m not a huge fan of his work, I know there are plenty there who swear by them, and can quote all the Wizard’s Rules, in order. I defer to you, diehard fans, for you claim this series is greatness.
16. Conan by Robert E. Howard
Barbarian lord of pulp novels, Howard’s long-lived and multimedia hero has etched a permanent place in the consciousness of readers everywhere. The hulking, dark-haired warrior king, who strode across steppe and desert, slaughtering his way through thousand of countless minions. Not limited to novels, Conan branched off into the awesome movies, the saturday morning cartoon, and some very good Marvel comics After Howard’s death a number of amazing authors wrote Conan stories, people like Robert Jordan and Harry Turtledove took their hand at the Cimmerian. A cultural milestone who influenced years of fantasy authors fo follow.
15. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Yeah, the last book was kinda crap, and yes, Rowling needed an editor with some stones to cut out big chunks of the final few. But lets not forget, there’s a reason why the Harry Potter books became so incredibly popular â€” they were actually really, really good. The first few were concise, intriguing, and offered glimpses into a world just next to our own. Rownling got a big head pretty soon, and started writing mammoth tomes that severely needed a red pen taken to them. They also encouraged a generation of new readers, who fell in love with the dense mythos of fantasy, and graduated on to other geekery. How’s this to make you feel old? The first book was published 13 years ago. That’s right, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is just about old enough to start high school.
14. Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Seminal figures in the world of fantasy, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser created a sort of bridge between the pulp action heroes like Conan, and the slightly more cerebral later entries into the field. Equal parts tragic and heroic, the pair buckled their swashes, and drank, wenched and fought their way across their cruel homeland. Their festering main haunt of Lankhmar became the basis of Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork, and the first story of the two won both a Hugo and a Nebula. The mammoth collection of novellas that make up the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser corpus are all infused with a dark humor that would make any Monty Python fan happy.
13. Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
While the Chronicles haven’t aged quite as well as we would like, they’re still seminal works of fiction. Children’s novels beloved by generations of readers, the Chronicles of Narnia don’t fare so well if read with a critical eye. You have to gloss over sexism, racism and some pretty dogmatic Christian messages to get to the story underneath. But, if you can manage to look past those, you’ll find the same stories you fell in love with as a child. The stories of talking animals, noble princes, and children from our world exalted in another. Borrowing from a dozen different mythologies and beliefs, the Chronicles now seem dated, but still retain a glimmer of their original magic.
12. The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
Another young adult entry on the list (don’t worry, only one more after this), Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness made major headway in breaking through the “boy’s only club” feel to much fantasy. Instead of the usual farmboy-orphan-thrust-into-greatness schtick that is found in so much of the genre, the Alanna books focused on the daughter of a minor noble, who pretends to be a boy in order to train to be a knight. No trick to her birth, and no wise old sage accompanying, she makes it through sheer grit and determination. The Lioness books provided a welcome break from the rather guy-filled novels that surrounded it, and brought a number of young ladies into the world of fantasy.
11. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen Donaldson
The Thomas Covenant novels (now into their third series) are some of the darkest, bleakest most depressing fantasy novels ever written. The main character is a leper, who at the beginning is convinced that he’s dreaming the unreal landscape that he’s been sucked into. Convinced that his actions will have no consequences, he proceeds to be the biggest bastard imaginable, including raping the first woman to help him, and those around him put up with it because they think he’s their saviour. And that’s the most upbeat of the books. In the second series, the whole world is sick and deadly, attempting to kill you at every turn. Thomas Covenant isn’t an anti-hero, he’s an a-hero, but somehow ends up doing the right thing. Almost. Dark, bitter, and bound to leave you depressed, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are densely layered with recurring themes of impotence, disbelief, and inevitability. Excellent novels, but long, twisted, and will leave you hating everyone.
10. Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Originally a trilogy, the tales of Earthsea now stretch over some six books. Not quite as dark in tone as the aforementioned Thomas Covenant novels, Earthsea isn’t exactly happiness and light either. Magic in the Earthsea novels is a part of life, but doesn’t really seem to make things much better. People still eke out an late bronze/early iron age existence, struggling to get by from day to day. The novels all felt somber in tone, with the adventure of the magician Ged being important and somber affairs. Interestingly, Le Guin intentionally created a world more ethnically diverse than your standard fantasy fare, with the main characters looking something like Native Americans. Unsurprisingly, just about every visual depiction of the characters has been whitewashed.
9. Elric by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s highly influential “Tales of the Eternal Champion” is best remembered for the Elric saga. The pail, wan prince of a dying race, Elric does the right thing in spite of the torturous people he comes from, and is often at odds with his people’s history. The character of a weak albino noble, sustained only by drugs and magic stands in stark contrast to the virile and ripped heroes of Conan’s ilk. Striving to maintain the universal balance between Chaos and Order, reincarnated into a thousand forms, Moorcock’s Elric came to define the fantasy anti-hero in the 60s. Such a prominent character that he’s become a frequent subject of satire and mockery, taken at the time of writing, the stories of Elric were gothic and genre defining.
8. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The self-described anti-Lewis, Pullman’s novels stand in stark contrast to the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of talking animals, and children who are given magical powers due to their birth , you have children who save the world through sheer grit and determination. Pullman’s work was heavily criticized for its Atheist leanings, which I never though a problem. Pullman made a story that was very anti-church, anti-authority and pro-intelligence. I don’t see any issues with that. Any book that encourages kids to work hard and think for themselves is worth it. It also has an ending far, far too sad for a young adult’s novel.
7. Discworld by Terry Pratchett
The only comedy series to make this list, Pratchett’s Discworld in an institution. Up to almost 40 novels, plus countless spinoff comics, tv shows, computer games and just about everything else, Discworld has an extremely dedicated fan base. While always funny, Pratchett also has a rather nasty habit of exposing real world issues in his novels, too. Sometimes more subtly than others â€” Thud! wasn’t exactly understated. Unfortunately, Discworld probably isn’t going to last much longer, as Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, and some readers have even been saying that his writing is already suffering from the disease. Regardless, Pratchett is a powerhouse, consistently pumping out works on a nearly annual basis, all of which are extremely popular.
6. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
The Farseer Trilogy, and to a lesser extent the other Realm of the Elderlings novels, are the extremely successful series of stories by Robin Hobb. Darker than much of the fantasy on this list, the trilogy is about a bastard â€” as in a child born out of wedlock â€” to royalty, raised in the castle to be an assassin for the king. Filled with dark intrigue, hatred, and more than a bit of violence, the Farseer Trilogy was described by Orson Scott Card as having “arguably set the standard for the modern serious fantasy novel.” While reading it, people are often astonished and the brutality of characters to one another, and FitzChivalry â€” the protagonist of the series â€” is beaten, tortured, taken over with magic, has ideas planted in his brain, and generally treated as the world’s whipping boy. Yet even as screwed up as the Hobb’s world is, there’s a streak of human decency that runs through most of the characters, that makes you believe that humanity maybe ain’t such a bunch of bastards after all.
5. Dark Tower by Stephen King
Of all the series’ on this list, Dark Tower is probably the furthest removed from traditional European, middle ages fare. The Dark Tower novels are also quite distant from King’s better known horror work. Set in a sort of wild west, feudal, magical world, the series is about a lone gunslinger hunting the Man in Black. King has described the seven volume series as his Magnum Opus, and it sits at a thematic crossroads with his other writing, referencing and interplaying with novels from his entire literary corpus. Dark Tower draws heavily from other major fantasy series, and references pop culture frequently throughout. A critical darling and fan favorite, the Dark Tower is the first of the top five.
4. Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
Jordan’s Wheel of Time series perhaps best illustrates the tendency of fantasy series to go on too long. Originally planned as a trilogy, Jordan had reached 11 books in the series before his unexpected death. Using his notes, Brandon Sanderson is pegged to finish the series, bringing it up to 14 volumes, and more than 10,000 pages in length. The slimmest novel in the main series still clocks in at over 700 pages, and if you put them all in a sack, you could bludgeon someone to death â€” assuming you could lift it over your head. As bloated as the series is, its also become a fantasy touchstone, representing some of the best and worst the genre has to offer. Yes, it’s overly wordy and drawn out, but it also features some of the best world building in modern fantasy, and a cast of characters unmatched in number in breadth. Thousands upon thousands of fans snatch every new book that comes out, and when the final volume finally lands, you can be sure that it will be a major event.
3. Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Another slightly non-traditional series, Zelazny’s Amber books state that there are only two true realities: Amber and the Courts of Chaos, and that all other worlds, including our own, are shadows and iterations of that. The first (and generally considered better) cycle of the novels deals almost exclusively with Amber, and the machinations of its ruling family. A dysfunctional group, they each have the ability to walk through the various shadow world, merely by choosing which detail of that reality they will keep, and which will be discarded. For such a high concept, almost the entire series is devoted to family intrigue, and battles for the crown â€” which makes sense when you realize that the crown controls all possible realities. Zelazny’s series has become one of the pillars of modern fantasy. It’s also the setting for my favorite ever Roguelike â€” Zangband.
2. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The one, the original, the great grandpappy of modern fantasy. We all have a lot to thank Tolkien for. If it wasn’t for his writing, elves would be little fairy things that fixed shoes, D&D wouldn’t exist, and fantasy tales as we know would never have arisen. Without Tolkien, you have no party of different peoples, combining forces against an evil god, fighting insurmountable odds. You have no elvin archers, dwarven miners, orc or goblins. A gifted academic, Tolkien took elements of mythologies from around Europe â€” Norse, German, British, French, as well as his own Catholic worldview â€” and from them crafted the most resonant story of the 20th century. Every piece of modern fantasy owes their origins to Tolkien. Of course, we can also blame him for spending pages at a time describing the scenery in order to bad out a novel’s length.
1. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Could there be any doubt? More than seven million novels sold, four times on the New York Times bestseller list, and possibly the most well regarded fantasy novels on the planet. Martin made a far more realistic take on the traditional high fantasy story, with a strong historical bent, and a course attitude towards sex and violence. Planned to be some seven novels long, four have been released, and the gaps between each grow ever longer. Martin refuses to be rushed, and I think everyone just hopes the novels will be finished in their lifetime. The series has been picked up by HBO, with each season pegged to cover a single novel â€” and if anyone can do dark sex and violence in a fantastical world, it’s HBO. The novels have won Locus, Nebula and Hugo awards galore. You know what? Just go and read the first one. It’s not nearly as long as some of the other books on the list, and it’s old enough that you can pick it up for pennies from a used book store. Have a read, and see why this is the greatest fantasy series ever.