Fantasy Essentials: What Should I Have Read?


Somewhere along the line I began getting criticized for not being all that great at writing fantasy because I had not read enough in the genre. Maybe this is true, and if so, I would like to rectify that, to the best of my ability.

So, to all those reading this, I’m calling on you for help. In the comments, let me know which five fantasy novels you think I absolutely must read. They can be any fantasy novel except the following: The Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Harry Potter, and George R. R. Martin. I’ve either already read those or tried to read them, so including them here would be meaningless at the moment.

Have at it. Tell me which five you think I should read and why!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

21 thoughts on “Fantasy Essentials: What Should I Have Read?

  1. The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers
    The Order of Odd Fish by James Kennedy
    Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
    The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway
    Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

    I've tried to hit the major subgenres I see in modern fantasy: comic, YA, urban/steampunk, modern-world, and epic. Hope it helps

  2. Stephen R. Donaldson – Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane)
    C. S. Friedman – Coldfire Trilogy (Black Sun Rising)
    Steven Erikson – Malazan book of the Fallen (Gardens of the Moon)
    Neal Stephenson – Anathem
    Le Guin – Wizard of Earthsea

    The first three (and 5) are all series, but then it's hard to make a list of fantasy that isn't primarily series.
    Donaldson's Thomas Covenant is a great character, and the books definitely feel like a reaction to much of the cookie-cutter fantasy that followed Tolkien
    Frankly I think that the Coldfire Trilogy is one of the best exemplars of the fantasy genre, while also remaining very original and intriguing.
    I'm currently being blown away by Erikson's "Toll the Hounds" so I might be a bit biased. Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates (books 1 & 2 of the series) are some of the best fantasy novels I've read recently. Most of the rest of the series is good but not great (and demonstrates how important a good editor is, since one would definitely have improved the Malazan books), but Toll the Hounds is amazing and lives up to the promise of those first two.
    Anathem is the first book that I've read where I finished and said "I wish I could have written that".
    Wizard of Earthsea is a classic, and if you're going to use "Names have power", you need to be aware of Le Guin's series.
    There are plenty of others, and I'm clearly biased towards classic epic Fantasy, but you did request 5.

  3. I suggest:

    SHADOWMARCH by Tad Williams (he's more famous for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn but the Shadowmarch stuff is much better and accomlished [he's come a long way!])

    ELRIC or HAWKMOON or THE ETERNAL CHAMPION by Michael Moorcock (any of the EC stuff)


    RUNELORDS by David Farland (it's kind of pulpy/cheesy, but huge scores for basically making a superhero swords and sorcery series – it's a shitload of fun, especially BOOK TWO, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF)

  4. You asked for five novels, I'll offer one novel and four series (that's the nature of fantasy!):

    The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis)

    Watership Down (Richard Adams)

    The Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson)

    The Dark Is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper)

    The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)

  5. I’m going to offer one suggestion, it’s a trilogy, because as much as I love fantasy I’m not near as well read as some of your other readers.

    My suggestion —
    The Word & Void by Terry Brooks (the individual books are Running with the Demon, A Knight of the Word, and Angel Fire East)

    There are a lot of people that don’t like Terry Brooks, probably because his first book, The Sword of Shannara, was fairly derivative of Fellowship of the Ring (at least the first half was). I enjoyed the book and have thoroughly enjoyed the entire Shannara series, especially the latest chapter The Genesis of Shannara (which ties the Word & Void trilogy into the Shannara series).

    I’ve also heard very good things about the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin and The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind (I tried to read this one but after working on the first book off-and-on for over a year and getting only 300 pages into it, which was less than half way through the thing, I gave up). I know a lot of people that also have a love/hate relationship with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but I haven’t attempted that one myself.

    Professor Michael Drout, who writes the blog Wormtalk and Slugspeak, has a CD course on fantasy literature called Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature that is really interesting (my local library had a copy). If you can find it at your local library, I suggest checking it out. The majority of the course is about Tolkien but it does cover other authors and series as well.

  6. I don't believe in essential reading, but I think the following fantasies are all worthwhile. They aren't necessarily the best, but I think they'll give you an idea of what's going on out there:

    TIGANA by Guy Gavriel Kay. An historically-informed, single-volume epic fantasy. It showcases Kay's talent for turning epic stories into profoundly personal tales.

    ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb. The first book in a nine-volume epic series, (which is actually composed of three interconnected trilogies, so there are a couple of potential cut-off points if you don't want to read the whole thing). Again, it's a more personal sort of epic; there's world-shaking stuff going on, but Hobb focuses in on her characters' inner growth.

    FLORA SEGUNDA by Ysabeau S. Wilce. A YA fantasy situated in one of the most engaging fantasy settings I've yet encountered. The characters are great, too. It's the first book in a projected trilogy, and there are also a few short stories that help fill out the world.

    HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON by Naomi Novik. Historical fantasy in which dragons serve a military function. It's the first book in what is currently a five-volume series.

    THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch. An epicish fantasy caper about con men. It's supremely entertaining, and is the first book in a projected seven-book series.

    I know that's kind of weighted towards the epic side of things, but I didn't want to start throwing out recommendations for really nichey subgenres that I think are probably most enjoyable if you're already really comfortable with fantasy.

  7. Dave Baxter: Thank for those! I'll have to check them out. I have Runelords in my library.

    Anon: I've read Watership Down and some of the Narnia books. The rest, though, are either on my list, or ones I have thought of.

    Dave: Thanks for the suggestions. I will check out that course too.

    Memory: Ah, the Lies of Locke Lamora! I've heard good things about that one.

    Hagelrat: I think I have that book.

    Thanks for the suggestions everyone!

  8. I've got so many suggestions floating around it's hard to pick. I second The Word and the Void by Terry Brooks. I also loved his Magic Kingdom for Sale series and Shannara will always have a special place in my heart since it was the first real fantasy book I read (in fourth grade, wow I was such a little geek).

    I didn't know I could truly like first person stories until I read the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. At least read the first 5. The second 5 are good, but not as memorable. They are very quick reads.

    His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is a great series.

    I rather liked Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind, but it does get a bit repetitive and is ungodly long.

    My current favorite series though, is Kushiel's Legacy by Jacqueline Carey. It's rather light on fantasy, especially in the beginning, but the writing is great. It starts of slow, but give it a chance. The main character of the first 3 books is a prostitute/spy. What is there not to love?

  9. Wow. Well, I'm going to hit some highlights that haven't been touched.

    -Peter S. Beagle. Pretty much you can take your pick, but both Tamsin and The Innkeeper's Song are more recent and amazing (most people stand by the Last Unicorn, which was quite well done).

    -Patricia A. McKillip. I liked both The Magical Beasts of Eld and Od Magic quite a bit. Solstice Moon is a bit of a more contemporary departure from her usual work, but still good.

    -Charles De Lint. Writes contemporary fantasy (the old school version of urban fantasy) mostly set in an interconnecting world. His short story collections are equally awesome, but in terms of novels Memory & Dream was very well done (reminded me of Terri Windling's The Wood Wife, which is also a sweet read).

    -Mercedes Lackey. Can really tell a story (sometimes without much plot at all) and has a wildly successful series of series, regardless of whether or not you may consider her preachy (a few people I know had that problem).

    -Ellen Kushner. A Privilege of Swords and subsequent novels in that world epitomize the fantasy of manners (I am a fan of this type of book, so I can suggest more along these lines).

    I also notice a lack of urban fantasy type books… I would suggest starting closer to the beginning with Mike Resnick's Stalking the Unicorn and Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde novels (both out before the term urban fantasy was really even coined).

    Anyhow… if you ever want to just chat about fantasy I'm always game. I read much more of it than SF and have at least 20 more suggestions 😛

    –Sara J.

  10. Start with the basics:
    The Iliad & The Odyssey
    A good translation of the Arabian Nights
    Collected Grimm's Fairy Tales
    A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
    (this list is kinda Euro-centric, but you get the idea)

    Myths, legends, folk & fairy tales have endured in our consciousness because they not only speak to the human condition, but they are also great stories.

    Too many writers fail because they simply cannot tell a good story.

  11. 1. A Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R. R. Martin
    For excellent world-building and following through on an idea, even if it becomes painful to read.

    2. Temeraire (series) by Naomi Novik
    For the best merge of fantasy and historical fiction I have ever encountered.

    3. Discworld (series) by Terry Pratchett
    For its peerless wit and brilliant manipulation of fantastic elements to deliver satiric messages. I'd call this a fantastic satire more than a satiric fantasy, but the two could be easily interchanged.

    4. Towing Jehovah (and subsequent books) by James Morrow
    For using Popeye and poking fun at a very old, very powerful institution in the world. (The two aren't necessarily related.)

    5. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
    Because you mustn't judge a book by its movie adaptation, and frankly, the author's ambitions shine through in his writing, and it's something to be respected.

    These five I can consider my "ports" for reading, and serve as my touchstones whenever I venture out into the sea of fantasy beyond them. I judge the books I read in five ways: its theme, its ambition, its skill in conveying plausible explanations for the impossible, and, chiefly, how the author insinuates his thoughts into the story and then, magically, mysteriously, how he/she delicately extricates himself from his/her creation and allows it to stand on its own.

  12. Anon: I couldn't get into the GRRM, unfortunately. I do want to read the Novik books, though. I also own the Morrow books, and have plans to read them eventually. Thanks!

  13. I am quite sure that the reason Tolkien has not been mentioned is that it is assumed that everyone who likes fantasy has at least read the Hobbit and hopefully the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That being said, a few other essential titles would be the Mabinogion (Welsh mythology) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

  14. Missa: No, the reason it hasn't been mentioned is because I specifically asked for folks not to mention it. I've already read it, so it would be meaningless to tell me to read it when I already have 😛

  15. There are some masterpieces left behind so far:
    King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dundany. Ah, what the heck, all of Dunsany.
    The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake.
    Dying Earth Series by Jack Vance
    Thieves of Lankhmar series by Fritz Leiber
    And, because I am Finnish, the last one would be our national epic, The Kalevala.

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