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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Saskia Kemsley

30 of the best fantasy novels of all time

Just like the otherworldly maps which often grace the inner covers of these wondrous books, the realm of fantasy novels is surprisingly wide-ranging, with numerous sub and hybrid genres existing within.

From full-blown fantasy featuring witches, dragons, magic and mayhem, to dystopian takes that offer an almost satirical commentary on contemporary reality – the choices are endless and rather daunting, making it difficult to know where to start.

An enduring genre nonetheless, it’s particularly fascinating that so much of our adoration for fantasy novels comes from our experience of them as children. When reread later in life, we tend to realise how valuable the lessons they teach are, and continue to be, as we grow older.

Previously shrouded in mystery, we reflect on the fact that each indulgent magical series serves as a coming-of-age tale that we carry with us for a lifetime. It makes sense, then, that so many of us pass down our favourite fantasy books to our children, nieces and nephews.

Yet the value of returning to the fantasy genre in later life cannot be understated. Mystical novels filled with world-building brilliance at once allow us to explore both the trials and tribulations of otherworldly creatures and of very human characters with preternatural destinies.

In both cases, nevertheless, magic and mystery boil down to very simple universal truths and lessons. Indeed, it was Lewis Carroll in his beloved Alice in Wonderland who wrote, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it”.

Fantasy novels of all shapes and sizes help us return to and heal our inner child, while simultaneously aiding us on the tumultuous journey of adulthood. Looking to re-enter the world of fantasy novels? We’ve got you covered.

Keep scrolling for a selection of the best fantasy novels of all time to get lost in. Go on, escape reality for a little while.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Published in 1937, the story which began the Lord of the Rings franchise is beloved by fans across the globe. When a simple hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins decides to set off on a wondrous adventure which takes him far away from the rolling hills of the Shire – Mr Baggins, alongside the wizard Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves of Thorin’s company - soon finds himself swept up in an unexpectedly Odyssean tale of heroism, sacrifice and delight.

Buy now £8.99, Amazon

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkein

Tolkein’s magnum opus – a masterclass in world-building and a series which continues to serve as an inimitable blueprint for the fantasy genre, The Fellowship of the Ring is the first in The Lord of the Rings series.

The Dark Lord Sauron has gathered all the Rings of Power which will allow him to rule Middle Earth with an iron fist– that is, all except one. Within the rolling hills of The Shire, a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins is thrust into an immense, world-changing task. Thanks to his elder cousin Bilbo, the final ring has been left in his care and must be destroyed. Onwards he must go on a perilous journey across Middle Earth to the Cracks of Doom to destroy the ring once and for all.

Buy now £6.57, Amazon

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

If you’ve already devoured The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit multiple times, The Silmarillion will simply astonish you. Edited and featuring maps crafted by Tolkien's son, this novel is arguably one of his most complex works. It tells the tale of the Elder Days – the first age of Tolkien’s world. Providing immense detail on the ancient stories referred to throughout his later novels, The Silmarillion sheds light on all those questions and concerns fans of Tolkien’s work may have subconsciously raised.

While the book features several shorter works, each storyline takes place within the age of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord who dwelt in Middle Earth. The High Elves waged war on him to recover the Silmarils – the jewels which contain the pure light of Valinor.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

The first of the Inkheart trilogy, you might recall the Hollywood adaptation featuring Brendon Fraser. A fantasy series which chronicles the adventures of the young Meggie Folchart upon her discovery that both she and her bookbinder father, Mo, have the mysterious ability to read stories into existence – Funke’s beloved story is a tale of magic, mystery, mayhem and triumph. When her father accidentally reads to life the villainous Capricorn from the novel Inkheart, Mo and Meggie must work together to prevent evil from taking over the world.

Buy now £26.23, Amazon

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

A 150-year-old fantasy adventure which continues to enchant and enthral both adults and children alike, ever-curious Alice falls down the rabbit hole to discover an entire universe lies hidden beneath it. Featuring Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations depicting iconic and beloved characters, many readers are unaware of the fact that the novel also has a marvellous sequel. Follow this classic up with Through the Looking Glass.

Buy now £4.38, Amazon

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

If you’ve ever wondered how King Arthur truly came to rule Camelot, look no further than T.H. White’s classic retelling of the treasured story through The Once and Future King. An inspired re-imagining of the iconic tale which was originally published as a collection of shorter novels between 1938 and 1940, the novel is divided into four parts, including The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

From Arthur’s upbringing under the rule of King Uther Pendragon, to his initial training by the wizard Merlyn, to the illicit affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere – White covers it all.

Buy now £12.99, Waterstones

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

This brilliant box set contains each of the seven novels which make up The Chronicles of Narnia. When four siblings are taken in by the incredibly wealthy and eccentric Professor Kirke to escape the air raids of WWII, they endeavour to explore each and every corner of the mansion that they’ve been placed in. The youngest Pevensie, Lucy, discovers a wardrobe that leads them to the mystical land of Narnia, and in turn, learns of her family’s mystical destiny.

Buy now £12.99, Amazon

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A timeless piece of literature, if you’ll pardon the pun, L’Engle’s masterful five-book series begins with A Wrinkle in Time. This edition contains the first three, with the second and third tales being A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Siblings Meg and Charles Murray alongside their friend Calvin O’Keefe must travel through space and time to rescue Mr Murray after his strange disappearance and defeat ‘the black thing’ – a looming, dark evil which threatens to destroy the universe. With the help of three supernatural beings known as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, the three teenagers traverse the universe – learning moral lessons along the way, and discovering just what Mr Murray's invention, known as the ‘tesseract’ was made for.

Buy now £15.74, Amazon

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Known by many for its masterful Studio Ghibli adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle was written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. The best-selling, award-winning fantasy story follows beloved Sophie Hatter who, deciding she has nothing more to lose in life, endeavours to enter the moving castle that hovers within the hills above her village, Market Chipping. Yet the castle belongs to the Wizard Howl, who is said to feast on the souls of young girls.

Buy now £7.35, Amazon

The Song of Achilles by Madeiline Miller

A retelling of The Trojan War from the perspective of the exiled prince Patroclus, Miller’s formidable piece of fantastical, historical fiction focuses on Patroclus’ intimate relationship and ultimately unbreakable bond with Achilles. Taking place within the Age of Heroes, Miller’s suspenseful, gut-wrenching romance features bone-chilling characterisations which will delight Classics enthusiasts.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A series which frankly needs no introduction, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is the first in a five-book series referred to as A Song of Ice and Fire. As the title suggests, the series spans roughly a decade of power struggle and throne-switching within the mythical realm of Westeros. With over 50 main characters and rather graphic scenes, we wouldn’t recommend delving into this collection of record-breaking novels if you’re of the faint-hearted.

Buy now £6.99, Amazon

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

For those who have raced through Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, The Six of Crows is also set within the mystical Grishaverse. It follows criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker and his crew of six dangerous outcasts. Faced with the challenge of an impossible heist which could make the Crows richer than they ever thought possible, the motley bunch of flight risks, criminals and shadow-dwellers must work together to avoid definite destruction.

Buy now £7.30, Amazon

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Simply can’t get enough of Arthurian legend? Ishiguro reimagines the iconic fantasy genre with this post-Arthurian fable set within a land shrouded in a mist of forgetfulness. Despite living in a community where no one can retain long-term memories, an elderly couple known as Axl and Beatrice have a faint recollection that they might have had a son. Together they embark on a treacherous yet adventurous journey to find him.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

The first book within the series known as The Inheritance Cycle, Paolini’s Eragon has been adored by adults and school children alike since its original publication in 2002. Drawing inspiration from the medieval epic Beowulf as well as the works of J.R.R Tolkien, Paolini tells the story of a poor farm boy named Eragon who finds a polished stone in the forest. Yet when a baby dragon hatches from the stone, Eragon discovers a centuries-old legacy which he has been thrust into the middle of.

Buy now £6.12, Amazon

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

When two of Britain’s most famous, inimitable fantasy authors come together to write a novel – the result is bound to be an enthralling hit. Outrageously funny and astonishingly clever, Pratchett and Gaiman’s tale begins when the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, a witch from the mid-17th century, decide to come true. The world is said to end next Saturday, but an unlikely angel and demon duo would like a put an end to it. First things first, where on earth is the Antichrist?

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

A contemporary retelling of The Arabian Nights – one of the many stories with the Medieval collection Tales of One Thousand and One Nights – Ahdieh’s bold and beautiful novel tells the tale of the evil Caliph of Khorasan who takes a new bride each night only to have them executed at sunrise. Yet when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers herself as his next bride, the consequences are unimaginable.

Buy now £5.80, World of Books

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

Originally published in 1954, Tutuola’s intrepid novel tells the story of young boy who wanders into the heart of a mysterious, fantastical African forest. Utterly lost and faced with overwhelmingly terrifying beings who desire his destruction, our unnamed protagonist is captured by ghosts, buried alive and entangled in spider webs. With the help of a television-handed spectre, he is offered an escape route – but can he reconcile dreadful experiences in the real world?

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Based on tales of Mexican folklore and mystery, Moreno-Garcia’s magical novel is the coming-of-age tale of Casiopea Tun. Desperate to escape the walls of her wealthy yet abusive grandfather’s home, Miss Tun finds an unlikely accomplice in the form of a Mayan god who offers her the promise of a new beginning.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A fantasy novel written with romantics and dark academia enthusiasts in mind, A Discovery of Witches is about a centuries-old vampire, a reluctant witch and a mysterious alchemical manuscript hidden in the depths of Oxford’s Bodleian library. An object desperate to be discovered, Diana Bishop unwittingly comes across the ancient, bewitched text during the course of her research – and it changes the course of her existence forever.

Buy now £6.00, Amazon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

One of nine cult-favourite books, Outlander is a time-travelling mystical novel filled with romance, death-defying adventure, monstrous horrors, war, kidnappings and so much more. The year is 1946, and Claire Randall is on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank. Yet one afternoon, while exploring her surroundings, Claire walks through a circle of stones and disappears into the year 1743.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

While Pullman’s beloved trilogy has since been brought to the silver screen, we highly recommend delving into the original masterfully crafted fantasy world before watching the acclaimed adaptation. Hailed as a modern classic, His Dark Materials follows the journey of an orphan called Lyra who inhabits a magical realm where science, theology and the preternatural overlap in wondrous ways. Throughout the trilogy, we follow Lyra on her hunt for a missing friend as she uncovers a dark conspiracy which plagues both her world and countless others.

Buy now £14.99, Amazon

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Yet another beloved fantasy novel which has been adapted for the silver screen, Gaiman’s Stardust remains a classic piece of escapist literature for adults and children alike. When speaking of his inspiration for Stardust, Gaiman stated “I wanted to write a story that would feel, to the reader, like something he or she had always known.” Indeed, the mythology which Gaiman builds feels like the type shared between childhood friends at the bottom of imagined fairy gardens.

Protagonist Tristan Thorn falls in love with a local girl called Victoria Forester and, in an attempt to win her love, vows to bring her a star from the night sky. Crossing over his town’s ancient border, Thorn finds himself in the Faerie realm – a dangerous land which is unfit for an ignorant human. We follow along as Thorn attempts to keep his promise to Forester in this devourable read.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Before we explain the wonders of Susanna Clarke’s hefty debut novel, we highly suggest diving into the critically acclaimed Piranesi. More of a Novella, the 272-page book will familiarise you with Clarke’s masterful, almost surrealist style and get you excited about retroactively discovering her earlier works.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, Neil Gaiman himself declared Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to be “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”. The 782-page novel isn’t exactly a light read, but it’s one that won’t leave your consciousness for years to come. The story follows the adventures of two 19th-century magicians who find themselves in fierce and decidedly dangerous competition with one another. Think: Christopher Nolan’s Prestige but if it were written by Charles Dickens.

Buy now £10.99, Amazon

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

For all of J.K Rowling’s controversies, the Harry Potter series remains the bestselling set of fantasy books of all time. We’re not sure we have to remind you of the plot – which follows a young boy who discovers that he is a wizard – but take this as a sign to finally pick up a physical copy of your favourite magical series.

Buy now £7.99, Waterstones

Babel by R.F. Kuang

If you’ve ever found yourself enraptured by the mythological concept of the Library of Alexandria, then R.F. Kuang’s Babel is for you. The capital of all knowledge and progress in the world is an alternate, mythical re-imagining of Oxford, England. At its centre lies the Royal Institute of Translation (nicknamed Babel), and our orphaned protagonist Robin Swift can think of no better location to spend his days. Following themes of the power of language and imperialism, Swift quickly discovers he must do all he can to battle the systemic injustice brought about by the world's most prestigious institutions.

Buy now £14.07, Amazon

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

A masterpiece of magical realism this Nobel prize-winning novel follows seven generations of the Buendía family, and the town they built from the ground up called Macondo. Though scarcely considered a settlement, the isolated dwelling of Macondo suffers wars, disasters and even miracles on an almost global scale. As such, it slowly becomes clear that the Buendía family’s small town serves as a microcosm for Columbia as a whole. It’s extremely difficult to put into words the swirling, paradigmatic semantics of Márquez’s work, but it is often cited as one of the supreme achievements in world literature.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Vampires, ghouls and werewolves have truly never been more appealing - and we don’t mean in the romantic sense. In the Black Leopard, Red Wolf trilogy, Marlon James breathes new life into the otherwise tired fantasy tropes by drawing on African history, mythology and his own unfathomable imagination. One of Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, James’ story follows a mercenary who is hired to find a missing child, as he travels through the thirteen kingdoms with a band of dangerous companions – including a witch and a shape-shifting leopard.

Buy now £21.14, Amazon

Watership Down by Richard Adams

In a slight subversion of the classic ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ parable, a young rabbit called Fiver is convinced that his burrow is in imminent danger. Yet the rolling hills of Sandleford Warren are experiencing fresh dapples of Spring sunshine, and none of the other rabbits have any concerns. Together with his sister Hazel and a few other daring rabbits, they nevertheless leave Sandleford in search of the safe haven of Watership Down – encountering many trials and tribulations along the way.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundel

A masterful builder of fantasy realms, Rundel’s brand-new novel has already been earmarked by reviewers as a classic in the making. Though technically a children’s book, just like many other age-old classics, Impossible Creatures has received rave reviews from adults since its release.

Whether read with children or independently, fans of the first of Rundel’s trilogy will be introduced to the cluster of magical islands known as Archipelago, where mythological creatures have roamed free and undiscovered for centuries. As the magical barrier which protects these creatures begins to wear thin, the young Christopher and Mal must work together to solve the mystery of the Archipelago and save both the human and mythical worlds in one fell swoop.

Buy now £14.99, Foyles

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The first of 41 books set in the Discworld universe, Pratchett crafts a marvellous and perennially entertaining world of mischief, magic and mayhem. The story itself takes place on Discworld – a planet shaped like a flat disc which is carried through space on the backs of four gargantuan elephants, who themselves stand on the shell of a gigantic star turtle. The first novel features a protagonist named Ricewind, a rather befuddled and incompetent wizard native to Ankh-Morpork who has been hired as a guide by a visiting insurance clerk.

Buy now £6.99, Amazon

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