MY FAVORITE FANTASY NOVELS
Here are what I believe to be the 100 best fantasy books ever written. But keep in mind you are getting nothing more than my opinion. For most of us, the Age of Wonder occurs when we are between 13 and 20 years old. The books we read then, being our first encounter with certain imaginative motifs, often leave the greatest impression, so it should come as no surprise that my list is filled with mostly (though not all) older books.
In the last few years, I've been pursuing the books mentioned in Cawthorne and Moorcock's Fantasy, the 100 Best Books. Some have been quite good, but many left me cold, and I can only attribute their inclusion in the volume as books seen through the dim haze of the authors' own younger days. Undoubtedly, you will have a similar opinion on some of the books in my list.
One thing I have noticed about Cawthorne and Moorcock's work is that it lists books I would not consider fantasy at all—if by definition we assume that a fantasy novel should contain events that could not happen in reality. For example, Zulieka Dobson lacks any significant fantasy element. Wuthering Heights has only the vaguest of ghost scenes at its beginning. In my own list, I think it could be debated whether the Gormenghast books and a few others are fantasy, though they have been considered as such for years. There is no magic in Gormenghast—every event that occurs could conceivably happen. Yet the books are so incredibly written that the world of the castle does seem fantastic.
One other thing that you should be aware of: because I grew up reading Ballantine Books Sign of the Unicorn fantasy series during my teenage years, my expectations are that a fantasy novel should be quite different from anything I have read before. That's hard to understand in these days where so many books follow similar premises. And it also explains why there may be a number of your favorites not listed. That, and the fact that I haven't read everything, of course.
The books listed below are those I think fantasy readers would enjoy, and ones that those wishing to be fantasy writers should definitely be familiar with. I list them in the order they came to mind, not in any ranking.
Any recent additions have been added to the top of the list:
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: An obvious choice, but not so much as it once was. In recent years, I have encountered younger readers who don't understand "the big deal about the Lord of the Rings." The problem with LOTR is that it was too successful, and the host of imitations caused many readers to read Tolkien's work only after being exposed to his plot ideas (and even his characters) in other books. To understand what Tolkien accomplished, you must realize that when many of us read his books for the first time, it was our first meeting with dragons, dwarves, and elves. The parents of my generation didn't read their children many fairy tales. My only memory of dwarves was a vague impression from Disney's Snow White. When I began reading The Hobbit, I was stepping into a totally unfamiliar world. I had no frame of reference about where Tolkien was getting his ideas. The effect was wonderful and devastating.
Though I have read some of the imitations, there is no better book of its kind, so much so that it is impossible for me to enjoy most of the imitators. I do not want elves and orcs and dragons; I want Tolkien's elves and orcs and dragons. He pulled together so many concepts: Norse Myth, English fairy tales, his linguistic background, to create a story that encompasses both high and low myth. To complete his story he gave his characters, who should by all rights be pre-Christian pagans, codes of honor based on knightly chivalry. That he created an entire genre of literature speaks of his originality.
The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien: A difficult read, but well worth the effort. There are some beautiful images hidden away in this pseudo-history.
Red Moon and Black Mountain and The Gray Mane of Morning by Joy Chant: These books can be read in any order—they are radically different from one another, though both are set in the same world. In my opinion, Red Moon is a fantasy masterpiece. It is also the closest anyone ever came to creating a Tolkienian fantasy without consciously imitating Tolkien. Gray Mane is equally good, but in an entirely different way, and the setting is tribal rather than medieval. It's a shame these books are so long out-of-print. Find them used, but by all means find them.
Phantastes by George MacDonald: MacDonald was a writer of gentle prose. The story is difficult to describe, save as a journey through a faerie dreamland. A beautiful book that I have read several times.
The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. Since I have spent considerable effort rewriting this novel into more modern prose, I'll only say that it is one of the most remarkable books in existence. For more information, go to Andy Robertson's website: http://www.thenightland.co.uk/nightmap.html
The Man Who was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a brilliant writer in both theology and fantasy. Thursday is the story of a man infiltrating a fantastic spy organization. Any more would spoil the plot. Along that line, if you happen to get your hands on the rare Ballantine edition edited by Lin Carter, Lin puts a spoiler in his introduction. I have often wondered how the book would have struck me the first time through if he hadn't.
Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peak: These books, though I have only read them twice, have had a tremendous influence on my work, in ways I can't even explain. Set in a ruined castle in a mysterious kingdom, it is the strange, macabre characters that make the story a fantasy. The villain is arguable the most well-drawn bad guy in all of literature. Be warned: this is a difficult read, and some of the sub-plots are less interesting, but it is worth the time spent on the books, one of those where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Curse of the Wise Woman by Lord Dunsany: Lord Dunsany was one of the great fantasy writers of the past century. Most people tend to list The King of Elfland's Daughter as his greatest novel. I disagree. Though it is certainly a good book, it isn't one of my favorites. Wise Woman, though short on the fantasy element, is a lovely book, that makes one understand and even empathize with the English love of wandering the fields hunting game, living the life Baron Dunsany was intimately familiar with.
Even though they aren't novels, I must also list Dunsany's compilations of short stories. Dunsany was amazingly strong in the short form. He is also one of the most incredibly stylistic writers—inimitably simple prose—no one writes like Dunsany. Most of these are available in various editions: Time and the Gods; Tales of Wonder; The Sword of Welleran and Other Tales of Enchantment; A Dreamer's Tales and Other Stories; Tales of Three Hemispheres; The Book of Wonder. Dip into Dunsany and you dip into the heart of fantasy.
The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison: This book begins with a quirk. Lessingham, looking up at the stars, finds himself transported to Mercury, where he witnesses the war between the kingdoms of Demonland and Witchland. The problem with the beginning is that Lessingham, the observer, plays no part at all after the introduction of the other characters around page 10. He is never mentioned again, though he does play a role in Eddison's other books. The second problem to be overcome is the names Eddison uses. Other than small horns on the tops of their heads, the people of Demonland are mortal men; the same is true for Witchland, Impland, etc. And the land of Mercury is filled with earthly animals and vegetation. For the reader, it is best to ignore the connotation of the names and plunge into one of the most heroic stories ever written. No deep psychology here. These are warriors fighting noble battles.
If you prefer to listen to this book on MP3, Jason Mills of England does a wonderful job reading the book. Worm is in the public domain, and the reading can be downloaded for free at www.librivox.org a terrific website manned by volunteer readers. Jason makes the prose sound even better than it is, and that's saying a lot.
A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay: This book is a mystery I never intend to solve--not in the detective sense, however. It is filled with allegory on the author's own peculiar religious beliefs, none of which I understand, but I find the story fascinating, as the hero, Maskull, is transported to a world surrounding the star, Arcturus. As he travels through the world, his sense organs keep changing, and each change causes a change in his character. Don't expect to understand the meaning of it all, but the ride is worth it.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: I probably needn't say much about this book—it's been enormously popular for years. Poignant is the best word for it, as is Beagle's A Fine and Private Place, in which a man dies to discover he is a ghost who cannot leave the cemetary grounds; it's a love story, with some great humor.
Dragons, Elves, and Heroes and Golden Cities, Far, edited by Lin Carter: Again, I'm stretching the term novel to include novel-length collections of short stories, but hey—it's my web site. I wouldn't even mention these books, since they're long out-of-print, but almost everything is available on the web, and these can be had for a reasonable price. Of these two books, the first is the better read, so try it before you order the other. These are anthologies of ancient works of fantasy—things like excerpts from The Volsunga Saga and The Grettir Saga (translations from the Norse); The Russian Kiev Cycle, and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. I realize most people won't want to read these books. I recently began searching out the complete volumes from which these excerpts were taken, and I have to admit I prefer this kind of thing in small doses, but if mythology and pre-1800 stories are your cup of tea, you should try them.
Beyond the Golden Stair by Hannes Bok: I have no explanation for this one. I've read this book at least three times and I always like it, even though it's pretty much a pulp-era story of three people who find themselves in another world. A much better book than Bok's other novel. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think.
The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson: Sword was Anderson first novel, published when he was still in college. It's a pretty amazing work just on that account. The pace is unrelenting in this story of two infants switched at birth, one raised in Elfland, the other as a mortal. Anderson was heavily influenced by the Norse sagas, and this has that feel. Not to be confused with at least one more recent book of the same title. Three Hearts is a less driven book, about a man who finds himself in a medieval world of fantasy. Poul Anderson was a gifted writer, who I had the pleasure of meeting before his passing.
Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith: Smith never wrote a novel, though he did start one, and these are short stories set in the northern country of Hyperborea. They have been available in various editions over the years—mine was the Ballantine Books edition. I'm not certain why these particular stories are the ones I like best—Smith wrote in a rich style and all his stories are good. A lot of people like the ones set in the dying continent of Zothique, but some of those are a bit gruesome for my taste. Hyperborea epitomizes his best work to me.
Double Phoenix by Edmund Cooper and Roger Lancelyn Green: These are two novelettes, put together in one edition and long out-of-print. The individual stories are: Coopers' Firebird and Green's From the World's End. The only thing the two have in common is that both utilize the phoenix motif. I like them both, though I prefer Green's little tale of a young couple trapped in a fantastic house. Hmm. This may have been a subconscious influence on my own work.
The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen: Although this appeared in the Ballantine series, it barely qualifies as a fantasy. Set in London, it's a series of short stories Machen wove into a novel, about two detectives in London following what seem to be a series of unrelated cases. If you like mysteries, you might like this.
The Sundering Flood and The House of the Wolfings by William Morris: Morris is considered to be the one who created the first invented fantasy landscape. The Well at the World's End is generally thought to be his best book, but I disagree. Well wanders about plot-wise, and despite the terrific idea of a quest to the well of peace at the end of the world, isn't as much fun as it sounds. Sundering, on the other hand uses the simple idea of two lovers separated by a river and their struggle to reach one another. Wolfings is the heroic story of a group of barbarians facing a Roman army, and is full of the kind of high adventure that inspired Tolkien.
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft: I am not as drawn to Lovecraft as a lot of fans. His efforts to promote terror through cold scientific description usually leaves me, well, cold. But during the early stages of his career, he was influenced by Lord Dunsany to the point of imitation. Kadath, and the short stories associated with that writing period, are quite different than his later work, though there is certainly a hint of gruesomeness in the novelette. Lovecraft's hero takes a journey through the Gates of Slumber into the land of dream, on a quest to the home of the gods. A story unique in literature.
A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula LeGuin. Most of you are probably familiar with LeGuin's work. She is an enormous talent. No surprise that I enjoy her fantasy and science fiction more than her literary work. (I'm using the term 'literary' in the technical sense, as a genre; everything she writes is literary in that it is polished and sophisticated.) Besides the Earthsea trilogy being a great story, following the exploits of a young wizard in training (Yes, LeGuin thought of that idea first), it is written in a deceptively simple style that I have spent more hours than I want to admit trying to imitate. She has, of course, continued the Earthsea saga in short stories and novels. All are worth reading, but the first three are my favorites.
Beyond Yonder by Anton Trombone: I hesitate to list this one, because it is extremely rare. My understanding is that less than thirty copies of the work exist, and that when they can be found, are ridiculously expensive. I had the opportunity to read it one weekend through coincidental circumstances. It is a fabulous work, the story of a man who sets off in a hot-air balloon and reaches a country quite unlike anything in literature. If you ever get the chance to read it, don't hesitate.
The Magicians Nephew, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, The Last Battle, The Great Divorce, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra by C. S. Lewis: As you can see, I am a huge fan of Lewis. His was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. I am still working on becoming as educated as he was when he was thirty.
I came to his Narnia books while home for a couple weeks from college. It was very cold outside and our house was heated by a floor furnace in the living room. Tucked away in my room, my face baked by an electric heater, the rest of me chilled, I read the Narnia books one right after the other. I emerged a week later remembering almost nothing I had read in the blur of immersing myself so totally. Strangely, it is one of my fondest memories. A few years ago, I went back and read the books, and was delighted by the level of sophistication. I don't seem to like any one of them better than the others; they're all as good as everyone says.
The Great Divorce is my all-time favorite of his, the story of a group of people who board a bus from Hell to Heaven. When I first read this book in college, I found his characters too incredible--'real people don't act like that'-- having lived a bit longer I am boggled by his insight into the human heart. The part where he meets his mentor, George MacDonald, is terrific.
Although billed as science fiction, the use of the supernatural in Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel, Perelandra, puts these books firmly in the fantasy realm. Ransom's voyage to first Mars, where the animal-like inhabitants are completely lacking in evil, and then Venus, where the Adam and Eve of that planet are facing their first initial temptation by Lucifer, are fascinating. My only complaint is that Lewis was not a writer of beautiful prose, something that is called for in the descriptions of the planets. His was a plain, straight-forward style. But, the books are certainly worth reading.
The Boys Who Vanished by John F. Carson: I'm taking a chance on this one, because I haven't read it since high school. It's really science fiction rather than fantasy, but I'm including it in the hope of bringing it to someone's attention. Used copies sell for $90 and up, which is why I don't have one. To explain the plot, that can most easily be done by suggesting that whoever wrote the script for the movie, Honey, I Shrank the Kids, surely read this book, and consciously or unconsciously utilized it to the point that if John Carson has any heirs, they have plenty of cause for litigation. That movie is this book, except the book isn't done from a humorous angle.
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs: This is one of the most delightful books on the planet. Ostensibly written for children, it's more fun for adults. A story of two wizards, Prospero and Roger Bacon (and not the ones you're thinking of), and their quest to find the evil that is destroying the world. It's scary and funny, and I only wish Bellairs had written a couple more such books. The rest of his work, while ingenious, can't compare to this one.
Kavin's World and The Return of Kavin by David Mason: David Mason only wrote five novels before being killed in a boating accident. It's a shame, because I think he could have become a great writer. All his books are good, but these two are my favorites. At first glance, they appear to be typical sword and sorcery, but in some ways they remind me of Roger Zelazny's Amber series, in that, yes, we have the Heroic Swordsmen, and wizards, but Kavin battles a creature beyond time and space, in a land where many worlds and technologies meet. These deserve a wider audience.
Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon; Lord of Light; Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny: You'll notice that I list only the first four books in Zelazny's series. You may want to read them all, but I think these were the best. Amber is the true world from which all other realities spring. The farther one moves from Amber, the stranger the worlds become. Our hero, Corwin, is part of a royal family—the books are full of wars and world-walking, and rife with intrigue, and are a unique blend of mystery and fantasy.
Lord of Light is actually science fiction, but don't let that bother you; it feels like a fantasy. The original colonists of an alien world set themselves up as gods, limiting their progeny's technology, letting them dwell in poverty while they live immortal lives as manifestations of the Hindu pantheon. The hero of the story, one of their number, rebels against their tyranny, poses as the Buddah, and tries to change the world. This one is full of action and adventure.
In Jack of Shadows, immortality is once again a theme. The world has stopped spinning on its axis, leaving half in eternal sunlight and half in darkness. Science rules the day side, magic, the night side. Jack, a creature of the darkness, is one of those who, if he is killed, always makes his way back into the world. When his enemies slay him with the intention of insuring that he cannot return to life, he thwarts them and plans an intricate revenge. Revenge plots are difficult to carry, but this one works. A dark, but entertaining tale.
The King in Yellow and The Maker of Moons by Robert Chambers: Robert Chambers was an enormously popular writer in his day (1865—1933). The King in Yellow was one of his early works—a book of fantasy short stories connected by the theme of a fictitious drama that drives anyone who reads it insane. Just when you think you have an idea of the type of stories in the volume, Chambers throws a curve. Fantasy, horror, romance—this is a truly unique book. The Maker of Moons, while not quite as original, continues the style of writing found in King. I understand that there is a third volume of tales which I haven't read. Chambers might have made his mark as a master of fantasy fiction, but he began writing first romance, then historic novels, which apparently made him quite wealthy. But at least we have these two books.
I Sing the Body Electric by Ray Bradbury: Many of you, having read Fahrenheit 451, may have dismissed Bradbury as nothing more than a writer you had to read in school. Or perhaps, like me, you were fascinated by his short stories in your teenage years, and have long-since relegated them to that time when every idea was new and fascinating. Bradbury was an early idol of mine, so much so that I was scarcely able to attempt short stories, lest they fall short of the Master. Still, I thought my days of reading him were over—his newer work generally doesn't appeal to me. So when I listened to Body Electric on audio from the public library, I was truly amazed at his literary quality. Every good thing ever said about Ray Bradbury is true—he is a writer with a unique voice. Dandelion Wine, which I am not including here because it really isn't a fantasy, should have won the Pulitzer prize. It probably wasn't considered when it came out, because science fiction writers weren't considered 'real' writers back in that day. Fortunately, the committee recently awarded Bradbury a long-deserved special Pulitzer. Though I list Body Electric, any of Bradbury's early short stories are recommended.
The History of our World Beyond the Wave by R. E. Klein: I'm a sucker for stories such as A Voyage to Arcturus or Phantastes, where a character travels through a world of wonder. In this case, the earth has been inundated by water, and our hero is trying to survive. It's a unique book. You will never look at yellow Volkswagen in the same way.
Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt: Merritt was a newspaper editor, who wrote 15 novels in his lifetime. Although they tend to be lumped together as part of the "Lost Race" stories popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard, Merritt had a lot of variety in his writing. The fantasy most often mentioned by fans is The Ship of Ishtar, but I was rather disappointed in that one. There is something in the feel of this one, of a group who discovers a lost country, and of a hero struggling with two identities, that makes this a memorable book.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly: So you think you know Frankenstein? Filled with childhood memories of a black and white idiot with a bolt through his head. (Would that work?) I avoided this book for years. Probably because I couldn't find anything else to listen to, I checked out the audio one day from the local library and discovered a masterpiece. The writing is exquisite; the story is unexpectedly different. Shelly's viewpoint is marvelous. That Hollywood took a book of this caliber and turned it into chowder is reprehensible. Read a couple chapters and see if I'm right.
Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright: A truly original work. I have to admit that I haven't read the other two books in the series, which form one continuous story, but they are definitely on my reading list. A group of teenagers, having grown up in an oppressive orphanage/school, begin to suspect that they have unknown powers, repressed by their caretakers. The characterization is terrific; the plot is original. John Wright may well be one of our best up-and-coming SF writers.
Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright: Few writers spend their entire lives writing a work with no intention of having it published. Islandia was Wright's hobby; his daughter submitted it for publication after his death. Set in modern times, the country of Islandia is an isolationist country, and the story tells of the travels of an American ambassador there. This book has to be read in the spirit in which it was written, as if one were a sojourned, quietly taking in the land. There is certainly a plot, and you will care about the characters, but this isn't an action-packed tour de force. Come be a tourist in Islandia, and enjoy the stroll.
The Traveler in Black by John Brunner: John Brunner was an excellent science fiction writer. Here he turns to fantasy, where the Traveler in Black must journey through a chaotic universe, restoring order to it. These are short stories collected in novel form
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams: Charles Williams, one of the Inklings surrounding C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, wrote half a dozen novels revolving around the supernatural aspects of Christianity. His books tend to be obscure at times—something in his phrasing isn't occasionally clear. This is his best novel. Archetypes begin appearing on earth, creatures beyond anything with which mortals can cope.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: This is a prime example of what I mean by fantasies which are unique works. Ms. Clarke has created a world very much her own, in this story of two magicians attempting to bring magic back to England. It took her years to write this. I understand why. Most excellent.
Fantastic Traveler by Maude Meagher: Published in 1931, this book is an overlooked gem. Rumor has it that it was originally supposed to be reprinted as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, but the series closed before that could happen. The story is a simple one: as David grows up, he dwells more and more in a world of fantasy. Will he escape it and learn to live in the real world? A good question for more than one reader.
The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: You may think this is a children's book. It isn't. In fact, I'm not certain a child would either understand or enjoy it. A copy was given to me by a friend during a particularly difficult stretch in my life. It is poignant and stirring. I doubt any writer has ever read it without wishing to write something as good. To illustrate its effect, I need only say that hidden on the underside of the wedding rings of my wife and I are etched the words: "What is Essential is Invisible."