Like most of the seven-billion-plus people on the planet, I firmly believe that my opinions are important, unique and amazing. And as a self-aggrandising writer, I think that it’s necessary for others to be exposed to my excellent taste. To that effect, I’ve compiled a list of my all-time favourite fantasy novels. I’ve made every effort to be oblique and surprising. Two caveats: First, I have left The Lord of the Rings off my list for being entirely too obviously my favourite fantasy novel. And second, it could be argued that only two of these works are ‘novels’ in the standard sense of the word. But hey. I think they’re great, so they’re on the list.
The Odyssey (Homer, trans. Robert Fagles 1996)
Coming up on three thousand years old, The Odyssey is a colossus of literature. Strictly speaking, it’s a poem, not a novel. But it kicks off my list simply because it’s the greatest fantastical adventure story ever told.
You may have been put off from reading The Odyssey due to its musty age, its air of classicism. But don’t be fooled. It’s a cracking read. Heroes, villains, monsters, epic battles, tragedy, triumph, sexual tension, and lots of eating. This book has it all, and washes it down with a couple dozen amphorae of red wine. The tale of the journey that Ulysses takes from the battlefield of Troy to his home island of Ithaca is literally the definition of epic.
And demonstrating that the middle installment of a trilogy doesn’t have to be weak, The Odyssey is actually the second part of a three-part sequence of epic poems. The first being The Iliad, and the conclusion being The Telegony (not written by Homer). As with many later books in a fantasy series, I haven’t gotten around to reading The Telegony, but only because it’s sadly been lost to history.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1982 – 1994)
Readers may be more familiar with Miyazaki’s famous anime films from Studio Ghibli such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and the animated version of this manga. While the anime of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is fantastic, it barely hints at the depth of the compelling world Miyazaki created in his manga. Printed from 1982 to 1994, the manga follows Nausicaä (named after a character in the Odyssey, incidentally) as she walks a fine line between engaging in destructive warfare and saving the planet from environmental catastrophe.
The heroine of this graphic novel is in my opinion the most kick-ass female character in all of fantasy literature. Right from the get-go she is brave, compassionate, a leader of her people, in touch with nature, a brilliant pilot, and a fearless warrior. The action sequences in Nausicaa are a masterclass in raising stakes and elevating tension. Nausicaä repeatedly succeeds in battle due to her fearless ability to take it right to the edge.
The worldbuilding in Nausicaä is incredibly rich and imaginative. I would put it on a par with Tolkien, and I thought I would never say that. I can’t imagine how much time and effort Miyazaki must have poured into each panel and page of this work. The epic sweep of the narrative is staggering. Not to mention that those looking for something beyond the well-worn fantasy tropes will find something different with the flying airships and enormous insects of Nausicaä’s world.
The deluxe edition of this classic manga is a must-have for any serious fantasy reader.
The Worm Ouroboros (E.R. Eddison, 1922)
Before there was The Lord of the Rings, there was The Worm Ouroboros, an epic fantasy novel that details the rivalries of proud warrior-kings on a distant planet.
Dark magic, gloomy castles, fierce battles, and some amazing rock climbing crowd the pages of this thumping tome. The novel is epic in scope, and the writing in The Worm Ouroboros is rich fare. This isn’t a novel you’ll knock over in a weekend at the beach. But for completists of epic fantasy, it’s essential reading. And the quality of the prose, though dense, is several cuts above the work of most modern practitioners.
Upon reflection, the Nietzschean philosophy underpinning the plot may not appeal to the sensibilities of modern audiences, but it’s hard to argue with the staggering imagination of the work, the grand sweep of the saga.
It’s also worth noting that those who persevere to the end will be rewarded with one of the great endings in fantasy literature.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, 1982)
“Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need for your adventure.” How those words thrilled me as a youngster.
I’ve written elsewhere on this site about my love of the Fighting Fantasy series. One thing I didn’t mention was the fact that it was not easy for a child to escape the mundanity of rural Australia through works of fantasy fiction, back in the eighties and nineties. There weren’t many fantasy books to be found where I lived. Seriously, readers today don’t know how lucky they are to have the smorgasbord of books available to them. There was no such thing as steampunk when I was a kid, let alone new weird or grimdark.
As a child, I’d read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a few times, but hungered for more secondary world action. There was The Belgariad. There were a few falling-apart copies of Savage Sword of Conan in the second hand bookshops. There was Damiano’s Lute. But there was not much else.
Thank goodness for Fighting Fantasy. I collected dozens of these books, and practically lived in their pages for several years.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was my introduction to the series. It was my introduction to the hack-and-slash dungeon crawl, beyond the Moria scenes in The Lord of the Rings. It was my introduction to RPGs. As the series went on, authors Jackson and Livingstone explored a wide variety of settings, from dark forests to cities teeming with crooks to pirate coasts. But the first title in the series was a straight-up dungeon dive. With its branching paths and multiple endings, it was a dungeon I spent a lot of time in. And the book remains to this day the only Fighting Fantasy that, despite many tries, I could not defeat. Maybe I need to read it again…
The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett, 1983)
Picking up the baton from the Fighting Fantasy series for me and running with it were the Discworld books. I discovered these in the early nineties, a period when it seemed that Pratchett was bringing out on average three awesome books a year. These books had a big impact on me, and were about 55% of the influence for my first novel, 1001 Monsters You Must Slay Before You Die.
Set on the ludicrous and brilliant Discworld, the series of novels that was kicked off by The Colour of Magic was a loving parody of fantasy, folklore, mythology and history. But they were so much more. Endlessly inventive characters and scenarios, great settings, fast-paced plots. The revelation that all of this fantasy stuff was not to be taken too seriously, that it could be fun.
What I really love about the Discworld series is Terry Pratchett’s writing. His prose is light and swift, and perfectly economical, in contrast to the heft and bluster of E. R. Eddison.
A problem thrown up by Pratchett’s writing umpteen Discworld books is, for the reader, knowing where to begin. Hence the numerous ‘reading order’ infographics floating around the web. Let me make it simple for you: start with Rincewind and work your way out from there.
So there you have it. Capricious, whimsical and utterly subjective. There’s not a hope in Hades that you’ll agree completely with me. But I’ll let these works stand for now as my personal top five, for their standing as literary works and/or for the impact they’ve had on me personally. If you haven’t checked any or all of them out, I can’t recommend them highly enough.