We all have a few literary blindspots, those novels we’ve heard about or that everyone tells us are classics, but for whatever reason we just haven’t gotten around to reading. When it comes to classic fantasy books, it is sort of understandable. We’re in the middle of a boom in great fantasy at the moment with authors both paying homage to fantasy has been and reimagining what it could be. But even the best of today’s fantasy stand on the shoulder of giants. There are landmarks and wellsprings that led the way for the fantasy scene we see today. These are a few our favorites – classics that have inspired countless readers and, in some cases, generations of writers.
The Hero and the Crown
The Hero and the Crown tells the story of Aerin – born to a witchwoman who had enthralled the king. She was unwanted, her story told and her value apparently found wanting. But there was still more to Aerin’s story waiting to be told. A hero’s destiny awaited her in this beloved fantasy classic.
The Dragonbone Chair
The Dragonbone Chair, the first in Tad Williams’ Osten Ard cycle, is a landmark work of fantasy fiction that inspired some of today’s best fantasy writers. Set in the war-torn land of Osten Ard, Dragonbone Chair centers on a kitchen boy who may hold the key to save the realm from total destruction. It’s a masterwork that paved the way for much of what we think of as modern fantasy inspiration for stories ranging from A Song of Ice and Fire to The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Gloria Naylor set a particularly high bar for emotional and nuanced storytelling in fantasy fiction with Mama Day. Set on the island of Willow Spring off the coast of Georgia, the story follows Mama Day, a powerful healer who’s skill is tested when the island’s darker forces descend on her great niece Cocoa. It’s a powerful generational saga not quite like any other fantasy.
While Tolkien is arguably best known for his genre defining work in The Lord of the Rings, it all began with The Hobbit. The unexpected journey of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven companions introduced readers to the world of Middle Earth and began the work of positioning Tolkien as perhaps the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century.
A Wizard of Earthsea
URSULA K. LE GUIN
This coming-of-age tale cemented Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the most imaginative and influential voices of fantasy fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century. Building on the structure of the traditional epic, Le Guin nonetheless challenged the basic preconceptions of what a fantasy novel could be and introduced a subversive classic that would prove to be a wellspring for modern fantasy fiction.
The Last Unicorn
PETER S. BEAGLE
Few other fantasy novels combine the seeming simplicity of the fairytale form with the darker edges of fantasy fiction. The Last Unicorn is both a classic adventure and a powerful meditation on grief and loss centering around a unicorn who discovers all the joy and sorrow the world has to offer, even as extinction looms.
PATRICIA A. MCKILLIP
Patricia A. McKillip captured the imaginations of thousands of fantasy readers with her Riddle-Master trilogy. It is the epic story of a young prince journeying through a strange land where wizards no longer exist but magic is on the verge of being reborn. The story has been engaging readers for well over twenty years, and this is the perfect time to discover what you’ve been missing.
The Princess Bride
If you only know The Princess Bride from the film, which is itself a classic, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the novel. While the major beats are basically the same, Goldman uses the idea that he’s abridging a longer work by the fictional S. Morgenstern to truly great effect and the novel is full of laugh-out-loud moments and brilliantly witty asides that you simply can’t get on the screen.
The Annotated Sword of Shannara
More than 40 years after its initial release, The Sword of Shannara stands as one of the defining pillars of epic fantasy. The Sword of Shannara, the first in The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, spawned a series spanning multiple novels and beloved by readers the world over. With Sword, Terry Brooks introduced readers to Shea Ohmsford, a half-elf who may very well be the key to pushing back the forces of darkness that threaten to envelope the world. This is where it all began.
The Color of Magic
No one writes fantasy quite like Terry Pratchett and no one lovingly skewers fantasy tropes quite as well. Spanning over 40 novels, Discworld is a truly epic fantasy undertaking that is equal parts homage, satire, and innovator. With The Color of Magic, Pratchett introduced the concept of Discworld, the city of Ank-Morpork and all of its raucous denizens, as well as a host of fantasies most indelible (and delightfully absurd) characters.