The Hobbit was the first real novel I read as a kid and ever since I’ve been on a steady reader’s diet of magic and adventure. Which is why a list of essential fantasy series makes perfect sense as my first official reading list.
The series I chose are a combination of well-known and established “fantasy pillars” and exciting new additions to the genre. I avoided children’s books (with the exception of The Hobbit) and I limited myself to epic fantasy as opposed to other sub-genres and off-shoots.
My hope is that if you’re a lifetime fantasy fan like myself you’ll recognize some solid pillars of the genre while discovering a few new and promising titles too. And if you’re new (or relatively new) to reading fantasy you’ll get to experience some of the very best this genre has to offer right out of the gate.
1. The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings
Any list of essential fantasy series would be utterly incomplete without the mention of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; no matter how much their popularity might tempt one to let them go without mention. The fact of the matter is that without these books it is quite possible that fantasy as we know it today would simply not exist.
In 1937 when The Hobbit was published, public interest in fantasy literature had waned dramatically. It was Tolkien’s unique brand of storytelling and insanely detailed fictional mythology – fully realized in The Lord of the Rings and later in The Silmarillion – that re-ignited world-wide interest in fantasy literature and firmly established many treasured fantasy tropes.
If you are a fantasy veteran then you know why these books are so important to the genre, but you also know that independent of their place at the foundation of modern fantasy – they’re just plain awesome. If on the other hand you happen to be one of the lucky few interested in reading this series for the first time, here is what you’re in for.
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He lives a comfortable life in a comfortable hole, in a quaint part of Middle-earth known as The Shire. That is until Gandalf – a very old and very mysterious wizard – appears with a company of dwarves who seem to be under the impression that Bilbo is a burglar and expert treasure hunter. In the course of an evening (and a flurry of events that Bilbo can scarcely comprehend) he is swept off on an exciting – and life threatening – adventure full of trolls and spiders, elves and goblins, dwarves and dragons, and many other surprises; not the least of which is his own remarkable capableness in the face of death and danger.
The Lord of the Rings:
In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
From Sauron’s fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor, his power spread far and wide. Sauron gathered all the Great Rings, but always he searched for the One Ring that would complete his dominion.
When Bilbo reached his eleventy-first birthday he disappeared, bequeathing to his young cousin Frodo the Ruling Ring and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.
The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard; the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider.
(LOTR Description via Amazon)
2. The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time (WoT) by Robert Jordan tops a short list of fantasy series that can safely claim to be in the same league as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, with Tolkien’s work more than half a century old many new fantasy readers will find WoT much more engaging and entertaining.
Begun in 1984, the first book of WoT – The Eye of the World – was published in 1990 and for the last 23 years (and fourteen novels!) has dominated the genre and captivated millions of readers all over the world.
A complex story with over 1,000 named characters WoT is impressive in it’s scope and attention to detail. It’s extensively developed world and magical system make immersion in this series all too easy.
Taking place in a time known as the third age the story follows the events leading up to a final confrontation between The Dark One (a god-like being bent on destroying time and enslaving mankind) and The Dragon Reborn (a yet unknown figure of prophesy destined to save the world but destroy it in the process).
It’s full of mystery, intrigue, war, and political maneuvering as the nations of the world attempt to identify, fight, capture, or embrace The Dragon in preparation of The Last Battle.
The Eye of the World (WoT Book 1):
The Eye of the World revolves around the lives of a group of young people from Emond’s Field in The Two Rivers district of Andor. Their lives are forever changed when their small village is attacked by monsters out of myth known as Trollocs and the Myrddraal who lead them. These dark forces seem to specifically target the three men of the group: Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara.
Their lives are saved by good luck and the intervention of an Aes Sedai named Moiraine Damodred and her Warder Al’Lan Mandragoran – agents of a powerful organization of women able to channel the One Power known as The White Tower.
Moiraine and Lan spirit the group away from Emond’s Field in the night, pursued by the enemy, hoping to find safety and answers to the Dark One’s interest in the young men.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is the third and final of what I’d call this list’s “pillars of fantasy.” This series along with the first two are generally undisputed in terms of their “must read” status. Not to mention being highly influential and widely popular. In fact, many non-fantasy readers may already be familiar with this series as a result of its recent HBO adaptation.
With its first book A Game of Thrones published in 1996, the only common critique I hear about this series is how long it takes for new installments to come out. Four to six years between books is not uncommon with this series. So with two books yet come come you may want to hold off on starting if you can’t stand the long waits. Personally I have found this frustrating but ultimately each book has been worth the wait.
The series takes place in a world where summers can last for years and winters can last a lifetime.
Fourteen years before the events of the first novel, a centuries old dynasty falls to a bloody rebellion. The land of Westeros, once united under the rule of the Targaryen family – former lords and masters of fire-breathing dragons – is now precariously held together by the leader of the rebellion; the new king Robert Baratheon.
While his rule seems to be secure the political undercurrents in Westeros are swirling out of control. Factions are preparing to strike at one another when they most need to be pulling together.
Winter is coming. And an enemy that hasn’t surfaced for over a thousand years is about to return.
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1):
A Game of Thrones centers around the Stark family, northern nobility descended from a long line of kings in the days before Westeros united.
For time out of mind they have governed the north and guarded the kingdom’s great ice wall. But their lives change dramatically and the kingdom is thrown into upheaval when the appointment of Lord Eddard Stark as the “Hand of the King” pulls an honest man into southern politics.
What was once mere political scheming becomes open conflict and all of the noble families of Westeros once again try their hand at the game of thrones.
6. The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (Forthcoming)
7. A Dream of Spring by George R.R. Martin (Forthcoming)
4. The Dark Tower
I placed The Dark Tower by Stephen King at number four specifically because I feel his series bridges the gap between what I consider the “pillars of fantasy” above and the crop of “promising newcomers” below.
His seven book series is kind of the odd ball out of this list. Not in terms of quality mind you, but certainly in terms of style.
Stephen King writes fantasy much the same way Quentin Tarantino writes movie scripts. He bends genres with abandon and gives out a handful of overt nods to his favorite writers and influences at every turn. In The Dark Tower King masterfully blends western, sci-fi, and fantasy into a seven novel thrill ride.
At the center of this unpredictable adventure is Roland Deschain, the last living Gunslinger. His mission is to find the Dark Tower, a fabled building thought to be the nexus of all universes, before it crumbles and all is lost. Time isn’t working the way it should and whole kingdoms have simply disappeared. Only at the Dark Tower can Roland face the Crimson King and attempt to set things right.
This series is particularly interesting in that it forms a meta story connecting all of Stephen King’s other works. Meaning that once you read The Dark Tower you could pick up any one of the 50+ other novels Stephen King has written and at some point find a reference or connection to this central story of Roland and The Dark Tower.
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower Book 1):
Eerie, dreamlike, set in a world that is weirdly related to our own, The Gunslinger introduces Roland Deschain of Gilead, of In-World that was, as he pursues his enigmatic antagonist to the mountains that separate the desert from the Western Sea.
Roland is a solitary figure, perhaps accursed, who with a strange singlemindedness traverses an exhausted, almost timeless landscape. The people he encounters are left behind, or worse—left dead.
At a way station, however, he meets Jake, a boy from a particular time (1977) and a particular place (New York City), and soon the two are joined—khef, ka, and ka-tet. The mountains lie before them. So does the man in black and, somewhere far beyond…the Dark Tower.
(Gunslinger Description via Amazon)
Mistborn is the first series by the incredibly talented and extremely prolific Brandon Sanderson.
With the above cast of writers either deceased or getting on in years (may you live long and prosper G.R.R.M. and S.K.) Sanderson is quickly becoming the fantasy genre’s big star.
Sure, there are a lot of other talented and relatively young writers out there right now (two of which are directly below) but Sanderson’s reputation and credibility got a massive boost after Harriet McDougal (Robert Jordan’s widow) selected him to be the writer to complete the last book(s) of WoT after Jordan’s death in 2007. Which he completed to critical and fanboy acclaim.
But even if he hadn’t been the one to finish WoT, his current status as the “it guy” in fantasy right now is well deserved on the merit of his solo work alone. Mistborn being the current crowning jewel in a rapidly expanding portfolio.
The Mistborn story begins 1,000 years after “the hero of prophesy” has failed to save the world and in fact “turned evil.” Given the chance to possess the power of a god or to save the world, the hero chose to take the power for himself. He named himself the Lord Ruler, enslaved mankind and established the Final Empire.
Most of the population (known as Skaa) belong to a slave class seen solely as property, owned and used by the Nobility; descendants of the Lord Ruler’s close friends and supporters from the beginning of his thousand year rein.
The Lord Ruler gave the Nobility the power of Allomancy in the beginning. Special hereditary abilities that allow “Mistings” and the much more powerful “Mistborn” certain telekinetic powers related to different types of metals they “burn” after ingesting.
As a result, cross breeding between Skaa and the Nobility has been strictly forbidden lest these powers make their way into the slave population and dilute the power of the Noble bloodlines. But after several generations of indiscretions and brutal oppression, a new kind of slave rebellion is coming. And it’s lead by a Mistborn.
The Final Empire (Mistborn Book 1):
The Final Empire is a mix between heist thriller and epic fantasy. A thieving crew comprised of geniuses and Skaa Mistings take on an impossible job: overthrowing an everlasting empire, and killing a god.
Lead by the indomitable Kelsier – an incredibly rare Skaa Mistborn who came into his abilities late in life – the crew attempts to con, kill, or otherwise sabotage the Nobility, the Lord Ruler, and his most dangerous minions. Hoping to collapse the Final Empire and liberate the Skaa.
5. Unknown standalone novels and two other trilogies – one set in present day and one in the distant future – still to come.
6. The Kingkiller Chronicle
“The Kingkiller Chronicle is a fantasy trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss (b. 1973), telling the autobiography of Kvothe an adventurer, arcanist, and famous musician. The plot is divided into two different action threads: the present, where Kvothe tells the story of his life to Devan Lochees (known as Chronicler) in the main room of his inn, and Kvothe’s past, the story in question, which comprises the majority of the books. The present-day interludes are in the third person from the perspective of multiple characters, while the story of Kvothe’s life is told entirely in the first person from his own perspective. The series also contains many metafictional stories-within-stories from varying perspectives, most of which are recounted by Kvothe, having been heard from other characters in his past.”
This series is similar to Mistborn in that it came on to the scene somewhat unexpectedly and garnered almost instant popularity. These books have been favorites of mine since I first read them and even though the latest one came out in 2011 I’ve read them both multiple times.
The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle Book 1):
This is the riveting first-person narrative of Kvothe, a young man who grows to be one of the most notorious magicians his world has ever seen.
From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard.
(The Name of the Wind Description via Amazon)
3. The Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss (Forthcoming, working title subject to change)
7. Demon Cycle
Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett is the newest of these essential fantasy series, and it came to my attention late in December 2012. But the impression it has made on me in the short time between then and now is immense.
Every night when the sun goes down, demons rise from the core of the earth with one mission. To kill anything that lives above.
Now imagine that this struggle has been going on for centuries and the forces of human-kind have lost their only weapons against the demons. Meaning that every night their numbers dwindle while the demons grow stronger.
This is precisely when this series picks up.
It’s awesome. And you should read it.
The Warded Man (Demon Cycle Book 1):
As darkness falls after sunset, the corelings rise—demons who possess supernatural powers and burn with a consuming hatred of humanity.
For hundreds of years the demons have terrorized the night, slowly culling the human herd that shelters behind magical wards—symbols of power whose origins are lost in myth and whose protection is terrifyingly fragile. It was not always this way. Once, men and women battled the corelings on equal terms, but those days are gone. Night by night the demons grow stronger, while human numbers dwindle under their relentless assault.
Now, with hope for the future fading, three young survivors of vicious demon attacks will dare the impossible, stepping beyond the crumbling safety of the wards to risk everything in a desperate quest to regain the secrets of the past. Together, they will stand against the night.
(The Warded Man Description via Amazon)
4. The Forest Fortress by Peter V. Brett (Forthcoming, working title subject to change)
5. The Core by Peter V. Brett (Forthcoming, working title subject to change)
Which Fantasy Series Did I Miss?
I know that inevitably there will be some readers out there who disagree with my list of essential fantasy series. Which is totally fine! I just ask that you please leave your picks in the comments below so I can read them too!
Oh, and if you’re looking for a truly massive and less wordy list of good fantasy reads, check out this fantastic post on Reddit.