Fantasy is the oldest genre of literature, pre-dating the invention of bound books by thousands of years thanks to mythology and folklore. Yet even now, readers and critics can’t always agree on what fantasy is and what it isn’t. For some, ancient poetry like Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh is fair game. For others, the modern genre for adults began with George MacDonald’s Phantastes in 1858, the story of a thirsty 21-year-old who wakes up in Fairy Land and falls in love with a marble statue sculpted by Pygmalion.
Origins aside, most scholars agree on a basic definition: fantasy is when something we consider supernatural occurs that can’t be explained by technology (as in science fiction) or the macabre (as in horror). Of course, there are no strict borders between these genres, and many books could be reasonably shelved under all three. But for this list, we concentrated on novels that are primarily fantasy, which is why you won’t see genre-straddlers like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.
To keep this lineup manageable, we only included books originally published as a bound book on paper—which ruled out classics like Journey to the West and One Thousand and One Nights—and ensured they were currently and easily available in print. We also limited the list to one book per author, to avoid crowding it with multiple titles in the same series.
While all lists are subjective, we emphasized books that brought something new and innovative to the genre—books that inspired other fantasy writers as well as readers. In ranked order, here are the best fantasy books of all time.
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The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty
The first novel in Chakraborty’s trilogy is set in 18th-century Cairo, where a thief-slash-exorcist named Nahri accidentally summons a djinn warrior. Together, they travel to the “city of brass,” a magical metropolis called Daevabad. Nahri’s story continues in two fast-paced sequels, The Kingdom of Copper and The Empire of Gold, while a spinoff story compilation, The River of Silver, is forthcoming this October.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
The only book on this list written during National Novel Writing Month, Morgenstern’s debut novel is an atmospheric fairy tale about Le Cirque des Rêves—a traveling magical circus that only appears at night in Victorian England. The nonlinear story is full of surprising secrets that keep coming until the very end.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The author of Never Let Me Go has only written one fantasy novel, but he knocked it out of the park. In the Dark Ages after the death of King Arthur, a mysterious “mist” prevents Britons from storing long-term memories. An elderly couple, convinced that a son they can barely remember is missing, journeys across the country to find him, where they stumble upon ogres, a dragon, and Sir Gawain.
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Carolyn and her eleven siblings live together in the house of their father, a seemingly immortal man whose library grants them special powers. To say anything else would spoil this riveting, one-of-a-kind novel full of surprises and paced like a thriller.
Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark
In Clark’s harrowing novella, white supremacists summon demonic entities when The Birth of a Nation premiers in 1915. Seven years later in Georgia, three battle-ready Black women armed with a sword, a rifle, and explosives come together at Stone Mountain to stop a demon-infested Ku Klux Klan from bringing about an apocalypse.
The Other City, by Michal Ajvaz
Translated into English in 2009, The Other City is a challenging but immensely rewarding novel set in Prague, where an unnamed narrator discovers a purple book written in an indecipherable language; he then realizes that there’s another, surreal version of the city existing in the same space as the familiar one. His midnight travels through this “other city” are rich with Borgesian and Dalíesque imagery, resulting in a reading experience you’ll never forget.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Another strange forest is at the center of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2015 novella about two men descended from dead gods. They lead an expedition through the Wildeeps, where multiple worlds overlap and magical creatures stalk their party. It’s a captivating world, expanded upon even further in 2016 by a followup novella, A Taste of Honey.
The Unfinished World, by Amber Sparks
Amber Sparks plays with form, genre, and archetypes in this nuanced collection of short stories. An assortment of knights, werewolves, astronauts, librarians, time-travelers, and dinosaurs haunt these pages, but never as tropes—despite their fantastical premises, each story is grounded in emotional realism.
Witchmark, by C.L. Polk
Winner of the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Witchmark is set in a secondary world similar to Edwardian England and ruled by noble families with magical powers. The setup is fantastic and the characters are nuanced, but the book really shines in the latter half, thanks to a series of revelations you’ll never see coming.
Tales of Falling and Flying, by Ben Loory
Ben Loory’s very short stories are almost a genre unto themselves, somewhere between fairy tales, fantasy vignettes, and absurdist sketches. They’ll make you think, wonder, and laugh out loud. None of these 40 stories ends like you expect it to—not even the one about the Dodo.
What Should Be Wild, by Julia Fine
Fine’s debut novel opens with one of the most stunning first lines of all time: “They grew me inside of my mother, which was unusual, because she was dead.” Born with the power to kill and revive living things with a single touch, 16-year-old Maisie Cothay embarks on an adventure through a mysterious forest to find her missing father.
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Schwab’s Shades of Magic series begins with this blockbuster, where a few rare magicians have the power to travel between four versions of London—Red London, full of magic; Grey London, our own world in the Regency era; White London, a dying city; and Black London, destroyed by magic long ago. It’s as fascinating as it sounds.
The Vorrh, by Brian Catling
A dark, polarizing novel filled with passages of exquisite beauty and heartache. Shortly after World War I, an English soldier arrives in the African city of Essenwald—which was transported brick by brick from its original location in Germany—as a base camp for his journey across a vast unmapped forest, armed with a bow made from the bones and sinews of his dead wife. It gets even weirder from there.
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
In the 1970s, Guy Gavriel Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion after the passing of J.R.R. Tolkien. In the decades since, Kay has become one of the most prolific fantasy writers of his generation, often setting his novels in worlds that closely resemble historical places on Earth. His most impressive book, 1990’s Tigana, takes place on a planet with two moons, magic, and a culture inspired by medieval Italy’s warring provinces.
The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang
An epic novella in Yang’s Tensorate series, The Black Tides of Heaven was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards in 2018. The twin children of a brutal empress, Mokoya and Akeha grow up in a monastery where they develop magical powers. After declaring their chosen genders as youths, they fall into opposing sides in the war over their mother’s empire.
A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin
When the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was published in 1996, no one could have predicted that Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow would become household names two decades later, courtesy of HBO. While the two most recent volumes have lost some of the momentum Martin built in the first three, there’s no denying that the original A Game of Thrones is a landmark event for turning so many well-worn genre tropes upside down.
The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
It’s hard to pick the best book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass is a fascinating if somewhat arduous introduction to Lyra’s world, full of daemons and airships and armored polar bears, while The Amber Spyglass takes the biggest narrative risks (not all of which pay off). But The Subtle Knife is a fast-paced romp through the multiverse, unburdened by the setup and windup duties that sometimes weighed down the first and third books in the series.
Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender
A Black woman with the power to read minds, Sigourney Rose seeks revenge on the colonizers who killed her family in Callendar’s adult debut, set in an island world inspired by the Caribbean. It’s a remarkable story of royal intrigue, manipulation, and corrosive power that won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2020.
Kalpa Imperial, by Angélica Gorodischer
The late Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer deserves far more attention for this novel-in-stories, translated by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin in 2003. Every chapter in Kalpa Imperial is narrated by a different storyteller and describes the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of an unnamed empire. It’s a smart, whimsical take on the way power corrupts real and imaginary societies.
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Inspired by England’s pre-Tolkien fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, Gaiman’s 1999 novel Stardust feels like a timeless classic. A tale of faerie markets, witches, and feuding princes, it’s also a romance between a half-human, half-faerie young man and a fallen star in the shape of a young woman. Bright and breezy, it’s short enough to read in a single sitting.
The Blue Fox, by Sjón
At just 123 pages, The Blue Fox is Sjón’s shortest novel—and the best introduction to his surreal and haunting prose. It follows an Icelandic priest in 1883, who tracks a blue fox across a glacial landscape before descending into madness.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
Inspired by Chinese folklore and the winner of a 2010 Newbery Honor, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a beautiful fantasy adventure about a young girl named Minli. Born into poverty on the muddy banks of the Jade River, she embarks on a quest in the mountains to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask for his help feeding her family. Lin’s full-color illustrations really bring Minli’s world to life, and the story continues in two sequels, Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver.
Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link
Fairies, vampires, ghosts, superheroes, astronauts, and other imaginary beings populate these nine stories from Link’s brilliant 2015 collection, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Its opening story, “The Summer People,” is a perfect entry point to the fantasy genre for new readers.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord
Originally published in 2010, Karen Lord’s debut novel has since become a classic. Set in a fictional Caribbean village, it’s based on a Senegalese folk tale about a woman who leaves her terrible husband. But in Lord’s telling, the woman’s independent spirit brings her to the attention of immortal beings called the djombi, who grant her the ability to quite literally change the world—with a hidden cost.
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Robert Jackson Bennett’s previous series starter, 2014’s City of Stairs, could have easily made this list, but his fantasy heist novel Foundryside is even more compelling. It stars a thief named Sancia Grado in the city of Tevanne, where objects—and people!—can be programmed to perform miracles by inscribing them with magical symbols. Things get really interesting when Sancia uncovers clues to where the symbols came from, which leads into the next book in the series, Shorefall, and this summer’s forthcoming Locklands.
Moon Witch, Spider King
The second book in Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy isn’t a traditional sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf. It begins 177 years earlier before catching up to the same events—this time narrated by the witch Sogolon, one of Tracker’s antagonists in the first book. The result is one of the most immersive and imaginative origin stories in the history of the genre.
(Read an interview with James here at Esquire, and check out his five fantasy recommendations.)
The Drowned Life, by Jeffrey Ford
A case could be made for nearly all of Ford’s books, but his 2008 short story collection The Drowned Life might be his finest work to date. These dark and dreamlike stories fold back on themselves in surprising and satisfying ways, particularly “Under the Bottom of the Lake,” “The Manticore Spell,” and “In the House of Four Seasons.”
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Best known for her Temeraire series, Novik’s standalone novel Uprooted is based on Polish mythology. Every ten years, a wizard descends from his tower and takes a teenage girl from a nearby village to become his assistant, but when he chooses the clumsy Agnieszka, things will never be the same.
The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson
Best known as the comics writer who relaunched Ms. Marvel as Kamala Khan, Wilson is also an exceptional novelist, as evidenced by this richly imagined tale of platonic love between a concubine and a mapmaker in the 15th-century Emirate of Granada. With the help of her best friend Hassan’s magical maps, Fatima escapes the sultan’s palace and seeks safe haven on a mythological island.
The Changeling, by Victor LaValle
Perhaps more than any other book on this list, The Changeling straddles the line between fantasy and horror. It’s about a rare book dealer named Apollo Kagwa, whose wife does something unthinkable before disappearing, leading Apollo on a journey through a fantastical, alternate New York that co-exists with our own.
The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson rose to prominence by writing the final three books in The Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death in 2007. During the same period of time, Sanderson launched his own 10-volume fantasy epic, The Stormlight Archive, beginning with The Way of Kings. It’s an utterly fascinating and rewarding 1,000-page novel that’s destined for a prestige screen adaptation.
The Shadow Rising, by Robert Jordan
The first book in the 14-volume Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, suffers from glacial pacing as Robert Jordan struggles to distinguish his universe from Tolkien’s. But the fourth and longest book, 1992’s The Shadow Rising, is also the most exciting and innovative, as Jordan ties up some loose ends from the first third of the overall story (he also introduces the Aiel culture and their all-female Maidens of the Spear). Check out our guide to the Wheel of Time series here.
Ozma of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Between 1900 and 1920, L. Frank Baum wrote 13 sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But the third book in the series, Ozma of Oz (1907), is the best and the most inventive. In Dorothy’s first journey beyond the borders of Oz, she encounters the earliest humanoid robot in fiction, Tik-Tok, as well as the vain Princess Langwidere, one of the most terrifying villains in the history of fantasy, who can take off her head and replace it with one of 30 alternates locked away in her castle full of mirrors.
Once and Forever, by Kenji Miyazawa, translated by John Bester
Kenji Miyazawa wasn’t well known in Japan until after his death, when his novel Night on the Galactic Railroad was published in 1934. It has since become a classic, but Miyazawa’s earlier short stories are even more enchanting. The talking animals and fairy-tale forests of Once and Forever reward multiple readings thanks to Miyazawa’s poetic prose, subversive twists, and unforgettable imagery, set in rural spaces where the natural world encounters the first signs of modern industry.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the most beloved title in The Chronicles of Narnia, but like L. Frank Baum before him, C.S. Lewis really hit his stride in the third book of the series. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) is the most adventurous chapter in the story of the Pevensie children, as they join King Caspian on a quest across the Eastern Ocean to explore new lands, where they meet mermaids, dragons, and sentient fallen stars.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola
A wealthy Nigerian man travels to the city of the dead in Amos Tutuola’s 1952 magnum opus, one of the first African novels translated into English. When his personal palm-wine supplier dies, the unnamed man goes on a quest to bring him back to the land of the living, encountering ghosts, gods, and other supernatural beings from Yoruba folklore along the way. It’s inventive and surreal, with a cocksure, silver-tongued narrator reminiscent of Tracker from Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is best known for The Book of the New Sun, an intricate four-volume series considered a science fiction masterwork. But a much lesser-known work from earlier in his career—Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), now collected as Latro in the Mist—is just as ingenious and compelling. It’s narrated by a mercenary in Ancient Greece, whose head injury prevents him from making new memories or remembering old ones, yet allows him to perceive mythological entities and deities invisible to most humans. Think Christopher Nolan’s Memento meets The Odyssey.
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
These ten stories from the English writer Angela Carter were first collected in 1979, and have since become a foundational text for feminist fantasy. Each story revisits a popular fairy tale—Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast—and both examines and subverts the way women are treated. Dozens of influential writers, like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman, have cited this collection as a major inspiration.
Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
Most of Octavia E. Butler’s books and stories were firmly in the genre of science fiction, but she herself classified Kindred as a “grim fantasy.” A standalone novel published in 1979, it’s about a 20th-century Black woman in California who travels back in time to a slaveholding plantation in Maryland before the Civil War, where she meets her own ancestors. Like most of Butler’s work, it’s brutal, beautiful, and brilliant.
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
Few young adult fantasy novels have been as instantly successful as Adeyemi’s 2018 debut. Set in the fictional realm of Orïsha and inspired by pre-colonial Nigeria, Children of Blood and Bone is an action-packed epic about colorism, classism, and sexism in a society where magic has been suppressed by a ruthless monarch.
Myst: The Book of Atrus, by Rand Miller, Robyn Miller and David Wingrove
Published in 1995, this novel was meant to flesh out the backstory for the video game Myst and its sequel Riven. But on its own merits, Myst: The Book of Atrus is one of the most under-appreciated books in the genre—a wildly inventive and awe-inspiring work of fantasy on par with Tolkien, Le Guin, and Jemisin. It’s about a boy raised by his grandmother in the shadow of an extinct volcano in the desert, until his father returns from the ruins of a lost civilization hidden deep beneath the surface of Earth. In that civilization, writers had the power to create “linking books” that allowed people to travel between worlds.
Circe, by Madeline Miller
You might remember Circe as the sorceress who transforms Odysseus’ soldiers into pigs in Homer’s The Odyssey. But in Madeline Miller’s thrilling retelling, Circe is the hero of her own story, a mother who relies on her intelligence and magic to protect her son from gods, monsters, and men.
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar
Sofia Samatar does things with language that no other writer can do. Her 2013 novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is a sumptuously written coming-of-age story full of unexpected twists, set in a fantastical empire inspired by Turkey, Alexandria, and South Sudan. A companion novel, The Winged Histories, followed in 2016.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Clarke’s 2004 tome is an absolute masterpiece. Set in an alternate version of 19th-century England where magic is real, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is moody, Gothic, and incredibly funny. The only downside? It doesn’t have any sequels. But Clarke’s latest novel, Piranesi, could have easily made this list, too.
A Hero Born, by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood
A Hero Born is the first volume of Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, an epic wuxia fantasy set during the real-life Jin–Song Wars of the 13th century. Originally serialized by a Hong Kong newspaper in the late 1950s, it has since become a cultural phenomenon on the scale of The Lord of the Rings in China. In this volume, Guo Jing is born and raised on the steppes of Mongolia after his father is murdered, and learns kung fu as an apprentice of Genghis Khan.
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
George R. R. Martin is co-producing HBO’s take on Nnedi Okorafor’s stunning 2010 fantasy adventure, Who Fears Death, set in a post-apocalyptic version of Sudan. The title isn’t a mantra—it’s the translated name of Okorafor’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, whose powerful magic puts her on a collision course with her father, a sorcerer who wants her dead.
The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
Complex, ambitious, and drop-dead gorgeous, the first book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series is an intricately plotted fantasy epic. Former enemies become allies to overturn an ancient empire, rendered in beautiful prose that showcases Liu’s “silkpunk” style—East Asian-inspired cultures alongside fantastical technology like airships and battle kites.
A Wizard Of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic 1968 novel is barely 200 pages long, but still manages to introduce a captivating world that spawned five sequels, nine short stories, multiple awards, and two disappointing screen adaptations. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young wizard named Ged, who accidentally unleashes a nightmarish shadow creature while trying to impress a girl. Relatable!
The Fellowship Of The Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy needs no introduction, and remains the best of Tolkien’s work because it features the most memorable settings and character moments. From the cities of Rivendell, Moria, and Lothlorien to the introductions of Tom Bombadil, Elrond, and Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) is a paradigm-shifting achievement that inspired thousands of fantasy novels published after it.
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is the most lauded fantasy series of its generation, including a record-breaking three Hugo Awards for Best Novel three years in a row. The first book, 2015’s The Fifth Season, is a genuine masterclass in worldbuilding, atmosphere, and plotting. Across 500 pages, Jemisin’s imagination pushes the genre forward in exciting new directions: a climate-wracked supercontinent unlike any fantasy world that came before it, three unforgettable women who can move mountains with their minds, and a truly earth-shattering twist. The Fifth Season is as intricately detailed as The Lord of the Rings, as heartbreaking as Kindred, and the most innovative book on this list. Savor every chapter! You can only experience it for the first time once.
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