1. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin).
This brilliant series starts with A Game of Thrones. What can I say about this series other than read it! It's well-regarded as the best fantasy series. Martin's books have been at the top of this list for years, and despite his delayed release of the 5th in the series (Dance for Dragons), his works still stand out as some of the best in the genre. You owe it to yourself to read this series. The good news is the Dance of Dragons is finally coming out. HBO is also producing a TV series starting with the first book, A Game of Thrones. Really, if you haven't read the series yet, DO SO.
Martin writes with flair, deftly weaving multiple storylines in a gritty, even brutal, world that consists entirely of gray characters instead of the classic black and white. It's a vast chess game spanning continents, and the pieces are lords, bastards, knights, wizards, ladies, and children. What really stands out in this series is Martin's penchant for axing the major characters. That's right. No character is safe from the author's noose. Despite the demise of major characters, the plot lines continue stronger than ever. Tired of protagonists walking through fire without a scratch, falling hundreds of feet without a bruise, and defeating superhuman creatures with the same amount of effort that one puts into scratching an arm? Then this series is your fix.
2. The Blade Itself (First Law, Joe Abercrombie)
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he's on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian - leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies. Nobleman, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, Captain Jezal dan Luthar has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules. Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it. Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he's about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glotka a whole lot more difficult.
Murderous conspiracies rise to the surface, old scores are ready to be settled, and the line between hero and villain is sharp enough to draw blood. Unpredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, The Blade Itself is noir fantasy with a real cutting edge.
3. Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson)
Since Tolkien, Fantasy has rarely been revolutionary, instead becoming more of an evolution and reinterpretation of Tolkien's original work. Well, I can honestly say Erickson's saga is revolutionary.
No Fantasy book series is more epic in scope than The Malazan Book of the Fallen. His saga combines both military and epic fantasy into a delightful mix. Brilliant prose, epic storylines, gritty realism, fascinating mix of gray characters, Erickson combines the best of George R. Martin with the epic scope of the Greek Classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. One word when reading it: epiphany. A refreshing change from the usual Robert Jordan-esque fantasy clones that pop up like weeds these days.
4. The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss)
Kvothe: Wizard, Villain, Warrior, Slave. Hero and villain of a thousand tales. But behind a legend, there is the simple story of a boy, a woman, and a world that will never be the same...
In one of the most remarkable fantasy debuts ever, Patrick Rothfuss joins the celebrated ranks of Martin, Erikson, and Tolkien as one of the master tale-spinners. The biography of the legend, The Name of the Wind delves deep into the inner workings of Kvothe, a boy who dares to challenge destiny. The Name of the Wind is Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel, but oh what a powerful debut it is! This is one tale you do not want to miss. I've read a lot of fantasy books in my time, but rarely have I relished a novel as much as I have this one.
5. Lord of the Rings (J.R.R Tolkien)
Do I even need to discuss it? The father of modern fantasy, the recreation of the English myth, an apex of English literature; Lord of the Rings is more than mere Fantasy, it is both myth and a fictional history so real, so enticing, that it can be read as "real". Peter Jackson's movies capture the imagination of the books with astounding clarity -- yet at the same time, the books deliver a different, yet equally satisfying experience. If we look at the sheer contribution these books have made to the genre, the series would rank #1. If you have not yet read this series, it's time to get it over with. And no, the movies are NOT the books.
6. The Black Company (Glen Cook)
Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead. Then comes the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more.
Before fantasy became gritty, there was gritty fantasy in the form of Glenn Cooks Black Company an influential work that can be felt in many "modern" fantasy books.
The Black Company could adequately be described as realistic fantasy, a term applied to Martins A Song of Ice and Fire and Ericksons Malazan series.
Fans of Malazan Book of the Fallen, particularly, may find themselves right at home with The Black Company, as both series follow companies of soldiers through battle quite closely. Both series feature epic battles with magic and mayhem thrown in aplenty. Both series have ambiguous characters who are neither black nor white. The Black Company is more tightly focused on a small band of characters than a huge cast, as in Malazan.
Whats particularly intriguing about The Black Company is that the characters are not afraid to make evil choices. Too many fantasy books these days have goody goody two-shoes characters who cant step on an ant for fear that its the wrong thing to do. Glen Cook throws all that out the window and creates a group of mercenaries who define their own moral codes rather than bow to our own.
7. Heroes Die (Acts of Caine, Matthew Woodring Stover)
A superstar on earth, Hari Michaelson is worshiped by billions. But in the world of Ankhana, Michaelson is feared by all. He is known only as Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle -- a relentless, unstoppable assassin who kills monarchs and commoners alike. Back home on earth, Michaelson's adventures in Ankhana command an audience of billions, but he is forced to ignore the fact that he is killing men for the entertainment of his own planet. Bound by the rigid caste society of his planet, forced to keep a growing rage in check, the boundaries between Hari Michaelson, the superstar, and Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle begin to slip. When his wife goes missing in Ankhana, Michaelson and Caine must become one to save his wife and survive the treacherous rulers of two worlds.
8. The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson)
Fantasy has a new face with this novel. This is a hugely epic series thats casting an eye on the Malazan throne for epicness. With an opening 1000+ page novel in a purported 10 book series, The Stormlight Archive is about as epic as they come. Not only epic, but also good. This is one of the best fantasy books of 2010, hands down.
The Way of Kings does everything right as an epic fantasy. Theres a world-ending plot in the backdrop, a cast of interesting characters that are starkly realized, a unique magic system, different races with a lot of tension between them, huge and epic battles, and some of the best action in the fantasy genre.
9. Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb)
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father's gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz's blood runs the magic Skill--and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
Hobb is one of the best characterization writers in the Fantasy genre. Her characters are vividly real, leaping out of the pages into our minds as living characters. She has no qualms about allowing her protagonist to suffer. If her protagonist falls into a pit, no Dues Ex Machina breaks the fall -- the protagonist will break both legs -- and likely both arms too. Her Farseer books are full of fantastic characters and an interesting, mysterious world to explore. Toss in a gripping plot, and these books make for some fantastic reads.
10. A Shadow in Summer (The Long Price Quartet, Daniel Abraham)
Sometimes you need a break from the regular fantasy. Sometimes you might want to lose yourself in a rich fantasy tapestry
Abraham builds an impressively realized world in this series with unique characters and a truly imaginative setting. This is not your standard fantasy fare those looking for The Wheel of Time Part 2, look elsewhere.
Seedy docksides come to life, impressive noble houses sparkle and glitter with wealth and raggedy beggars roam the streets begging for coin. This is a world thats alive folks, a world that beckons. And its a world that you want to lose yourself in utterly.
11. Lies of Locke Lamora (The Gentlemen Bastards, Scott Lynch)
Lies of Locke Lamora is a grand adventure following the exploits of master thief and fraud, Locke Lamora. Leader of the Gentleman Bandits, Locke's flamboyantly carefree life of grand larceny comes to a crashing halt when someone who covets his talents forces Lamora to put his life on the line to protect all he holds dear...
A web of schemes and frauds weave the pattern that makes up the Lies of Locke Lamora. Scott Lynch establishes himself as a fearless storyteller, thrusting his characters into a world doused with intricate historical and cultural information. The writing is witty, the plot twisted, and the characters real. One of the most refreshing (and unique) novels to arrive on the fantasy scene, Lies of Locke Lamora is an entertaining read that delivers on every promise it makes. Those fantasy fans riding the new wave of fantasy, pioneered by George R. Martin, China Mieville, Steven Erikson, and Scott Bakker will be delighted with Scott's effort.
12. Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake)
A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of the Gormenghast novels which, along with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, reign as one of the undisputed fantasy classics of all time. At the center of it all is the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus Groan, who stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way.
First, this isnt fantasy that you are used to. This is not Robert Jordan. This is not George R.R. Martin. This is not Steven Erikson. But this novel deserves -- no, needs -- to be read. Its bizarre, haunting, joyless, Gothic in the extreme and oh-so-rich in character and detail. The sheer sustained and imaginative power of this novel, the incredible attention to detail, and the stifling rigidity of the castle and cast of characters supersede pretty much every other work in the English language. Peake has been compared to Tolkien and even Charles Dickens Gormenghast is literature in the purest sense, but its also another side of the fantasy coin and deserves to be on the list as both one of the great works of the English language, and a dizzyingly bizarre novel that refuses to be defined by any one genre.
13. The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan)
The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow...
I can truthfully say that Jordan is the King of Fantasy, if not in complexity, then in page count. This monstrously big series spans over 13 massive books (each at least 700 pages). Including "A Wheel of Time" on this list invariably riles certain people and it's probably, for some, the most controversial addition to this list. Why? The past several years a new type of fantasy has come to the fore of the genre: gone are the hopefully optimistic village boys wielding magic swords on a quest to defeat the impossible; in their place, a gritty fantasy has arisen; a stark genre where the very conventions of what it means to be a hero are challenged: worlds are made of gray not black and white; heroes may be both villain and savior; love is powerful, but ultimately ephemeral; heroes die and villains live. It's complex stuff that is often genre blending.
14. Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Mark Lawrence)
A different sort of fantasy, but one thats extremely refreshing, disturbing, and entertaining one of the best fantasy reads of 2011. This one is full to the brim with gritty, amoral, cynical dark humor.
Now I havent been this impressed with a fantasy novel since Abercrombie. Theres a strong influence from A Game of Thrones and if youve ever read KJ Parkers The Engineer trilogy, youll see what I mean.
Lawrence had managed to do well what few authors ever do: create a compelling anti-hero arguably one of the most complex and interesting in the whole fantasy genre. Make no bones about it: the protagonist is one vicious bastard, but the genius of Lawrence is that you still kind of like him, despite the fact that hes, well, a pretty vile human being as a whole.
15. Black Sun Rising (Cold Fire Trilogy, C.S. Friedman)
The Coldfire trilogy tells a story of discovery and battle against evil on a planet where a force of nature exists that is capable of reshaping the world in response to psychic stimulus. This terrifying force, much like magic, has the power to prey upon the human mind, drawing forth a person's worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life. This is the story of two men: one, a warrior priest ready to sacrifice anything and everything for the cause of humanity's progress; the other, a sorcerer who has survived for countless centuries by a total submission to evil. They are absolute enemies who must unite to conquer an evil greater than anything their world has ever known.
This is epic fantasy with a different face. Think a mix of epic fantasy, Gothic, horror, and mystery. I like to call it dark fantasy. Dark fantasy does NOT follow the standard (arguably tired) fantasy conventions of 'protagonist saves the world gets the princess/hero always wins'. The main characters may die, the hero may die, evil may, in fact, win. The hero may do questionable things to gain victory. It's fantasy that's morally ambiguous.
16. The Troupe (Robert Jackson Bennett)
A compelling work thats so good I had to list it here. The Troupe is a perfect blend of horror, fantasy, science fiction and romance. It touches on so many genres its hard to pin down just exactly what this book really is.
The story starts off simple: young George Carole has a penetrating desire to find his father that hes never known, a man who he believes is the leader of the Silenus Troupe, a troupe of vaudevillian travellers. To uncover the mystery of the man he suspects may or may not be his father, George joins the merry band of travellers and finds out theres something more to the Troupe and Silenus than initially meets the eye.
Once you get into the novel, you start to realize its not about what you first thought it was. Then you start finding out just whats really going on. Theres a couple of different things going on in this novel a couple of layers if you will. First theres the classic tale of a boy looking for his father and his own identity. And beyond the magical mystery adventure tale, theres also a grand mythic theme too to the whole, with the Troupe being a symbol for the dying magic that was once but is now no more, and the search for the mystery behind the Troupe a strong metaphor for seeking something larger than life that weve once had but now lost. Theres some deep stuff going on here and if you read between the lines, youll find plenty of themes bubbling from beneath the surface waiting for you to explore them.
17. Engineer Trilogy (K.J. Parker)
Tired of sword-and-sorcery epics and dark lords and farmboy heroes? If you are becoming jaded to all that stock formulaic epic fantasy out there, then this one will shock you out of your lethargy. These are very different sorts of books. Rather than a flat out epic save the king and the world story, these are more character-driven novels with a compelling world thats intricately built up with some refreshing twists.
First off, this is low fantasy there are no magic spells, pointy-haired elves, or anything like that. Just a feudal world with some machinery. What there is, however, is a deep story that intelligent and philosophically-minded readers will enjoy. Theres also a really compelling story that will keep the pages flying as well.
Parkers world-building is top notch and the world created is something youve never seen before. She creates a society here where engineers are more highly regarded than anyone else the sort of social elite. It may not make a lot of sense at first, but once you start to get into the workings of the story, it makes perfect sense. This is really the "thinking man's fantasy" and those who appreciate intelligent fantasy that's more about character and plot than action fast pacing, you'll find this series the perfect feast to sink your teeth into.
18. The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing, R. Scott Bakker)
In a world saturated by religious fanaticism, Maithanet, enigmatic spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples, declares a Holy War against the infidels. Ikurei Conphas, military genius and nephew to the Nansur Emperor, embarks on a war to conquer the known world in the name of his emperor...and himself. Drusas Achamian, spy and sorcerer of the mysterious northern sorceries, tormented by visions of the great apocalypse, seeks the promised one, the savior of mankind. Anasurimbor Kellhus, heir to the shattered northern kingdom, whose ruins now lay hidden in the deepest north, a place now desolate, home to only the No-Men. Gifted with extraordinary martial skills of hand and foot, and steering souls through the subtleties of word and expression, he slowly binds all - man and woman, emperor and slave - to his own mysterious ends. But the fate of men--even great men--may be cast into ruin. For in the deep north, the hand of the forgotten No-God stirs once more, and his servants tread the lands of men...
Those looking for more of the "boy becomes wizard and defeats dark lord" books that litter the bargain bins of any bookstore, look elsewhere; The Darkness That Comes Before (and the two sequels) is fantasy for grownups. Gritty and cerebral to its core, The Darkness That Comes before is a new type of fantasy -- a philosophical meandering about existentialism. Oh, and it has enough action and bloodletting that even Rambo fans would appreciate.
19. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
What would happen if you locked Tolkien, Dickens, and Jane Austen in a room? Why, Susanna Clarke's masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell of course! Like the Victorian era the book is situated in, the story ambles along at a sedate pace. But what starts out as a jolly stroll down Oxford Street transforms into the darkly disturbing descent into the madness of two magicians.
Fabulously written, dark, fully of mystery and wonder, Susanna Clark's masterpiece deserves to be read by every fantasy fan. A complete reimagining of English history, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the story of two English magicians in a world where magic exists only in the annals of English history. It starts slow, but keep reading--the tale soon envelopes you. This a different sort of read than the Robert Jordan type of fantasy, but it's a refreshing addition to the fantasy genre. You can't always eat the same meal every day right? Why not try something different? If you are in for something new that's very tasty, give Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a shot.
20. Lord Foul's Bane (Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson)
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself. Yet he was tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero....
Stephen R. Donaldson changed the face of fantasy in 1977 with the publishing of Lord Foul's Bane (book one in The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant). It took the world by storm. Hailed as a masterpiece of fantasy literature, TC went on to sell over 6 million copies. And for good reason. Donaldson's magnum opus is regarded as one the most emotionally compelling fantasy works ever created. Covenant is through and through an antihero. From anti-hero to hero, from tragedy to victory, this is one man's quest to save The Land from Evil and in the process, find his own redemption. If you love fantasy, READ THESE BOOKS. Donaldson is one of the best characterization writers ever. Donaldson is not afraid to explore the darker side of humanity, however. If you're looking for a saccharine fairy tale that brings a feel-good smile to the table, look elsewhere. If you want a riveting, darkly realistic tale about a flawed man's quest for redemption, you won't do better than Thomas Covenant.
21. American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
Released shortly after his wife's death, Shadow finds himself adrift without ties. Things change when Wednesday, trickster and wise man who just may or may not be a god, convinces Shadow to be his driver and errand boy. They journey from place to place, across the rural landscapes of America, rounding up Egyptian deities, Norse gods, and a host of other entities in preparation for what will be the Last Battle -- a battle between the old gods who have found themselves in America over the past 10,000 years and the new gods of the digital age. Shadow finds himself drawn into a world where myth and legend coexist with today's realities.
American Gods is triumph of storytelling and a real look into the underlying, hidden assumptions of what it means to be American. A scary, somewhat strange hallucinogenic road trip, American Gods is quest to find the American identity. During the novel Gaiman captures the quintessential American truth: every person in America has roots from somewhere else.
22. The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathan Stroud)
In a genre thats collapsing under the weight of cloned Tolkien worlds, hackneyed plots, and stick-thin characters, its hard to find something new and interesting. That is until you read Jonathan Strouds Bartimaeus, a clever and superbly witty take on the young adult fantasy genre.
While the books are geared towards Young Adults, dont be fooled by this label the book will appeal every bit as much to adults as it does to kids.
23. The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams)
Memory, Sorrow, Thorn is William's answer to Lord of the Rings. But his answer in not a clone, but a challenge. Get ready to explore a vivid world and journey to the far yonder. William's characterization is top notch; you follow the journey of young Simon from boy to man, from kitchen scullion to hero. The plot is thick and often crawls at a snail's pace, but the series is an undisguised jewel. A must for any fantasy aficionado! There is a reason why after so many years, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn remain near the top of many fantasy lovers' list. Read it to find out why!
24. Daughter of the Empire (Empire Trilogy, Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts)
This is a fantastic series with a cast of compelling and interesting characters. Recommended if you like fantasy with intricate politics. The setting is quite interesting a sort of honor-bound feudal society thats a fantasy version of Japan set on another world with exotic races and creatures. Its a complete standalone set in the wider Riftwar Saga universe.
Some of the standard fantasy conventions such as Magic, Action, and World-Ending events are not part of this story; its more about one womans struggle to manipulate her way into power against all odds, navigating through the various pitfalls and traps set before her by her enemies and maybe at the same time, find love. If you want the epic fantasy tale set in the Midkemia world, along the lines of Jordans WOT, then youll have to read Feists Magican.
25. The Dresden Files (The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher)
The Dresden Files are Jim's first published series, telling the story of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Chicago's first (and only) Wizard P.I.
Harry Dresden, a Sherlock with kick-ass attitude and wizard powers. This is some damn addictive detective fantasy. The series contains everything a fantasy book lover could want: magic, action, mystery, adventure, love, and sorrow. It also gets pretty damn dark by the later part of the series. Get ready to meet vampires, werewolves, wizards, fairies, and angles. Dresden is what Anita Blake should be.
I'm not usually a reader of urban fantasy, but Butcher has converted me with this stunning series.
with your friends!