The best fantasy books provide windows into imagined worlds, from medieval kingdoms to strange life on other planets.
Fantasy fiction is original, inventive, and thrilling, and it can be incredible to discover the places that authors dream up. When we pick up the best thriller books, the best romance books, and the best historical fiction books we know that, despite action, glamour or the passing of time, we will be reading about people in our world with recognizable human emotions. But fantasy offers something slightly different. We swap the world we know for another, one where magic exists in some form. It allows us to escape from our society, but also creates a space to explore real-life issues in a mirror world. Subsequently, many of the best books of all time are fantasy novels.
In this list, you'll find options for any taste, so add one of these best fantasy books to your must-read list.
The best fantasy books of all time
1. Ice by Anna Kavan
The ice is covering the world, creeping forward, freezing and destroying. In this apocalyptic landscape, a man is searching for a silver-haired girl, transparent as glass. The girl is running, from the men who would pursue her and from the trauma of her own childhood.
Ice was first published in 1968 and through the decades, it's slipped in and out of fashion, but now this haunting and poetic novel is rightly recognized as a modern classic. It is both disturbing and beautiful and creates an atmosphere like no other novel before or since. Still one of the best books in 2022 (opens in new tab), despite being written over 50 years ago.
2. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin
The first of several titles on this list that were originally written for children, but that have themes and writing that mean adults can see greater depths within them. A Wizard of Earthsea is, firstly, a great coming-of-age story, but it also deals with deeper ideas about balance and responsibility.
The first in a series of six books, it follows a young mage, Ged, who lives in the Earthsea archipelago. Whilst fighting with a fellow student of magic, he accidentally unleashes a powerful shadow creature. He begins a long quest to try and banish the entity.
3. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Many of David Mitchell's books interconnect, with characters appearing and reappearing within stories and across different novels. But The Bone Clocks, perhaps, is his most obviously fantastic.
There are six stories, each told from the perspective of a different character. All of them are connected to a girl from Kent, Holly Sykes, who possesses some psychic abilities. While it is set in our world, it is also concerned with the eternal war fought between two immortal groups: the Anchorites and the Horologists. Nominated for the Booker Prize and winner of 2015's World Fantasy Award, The Bone Clocks shows that, under a seemingly normal surface, the world is seething with secret societies, unheard-of religions and powerful beings who can shape our fates.
4. Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is widely loved and admired. The books, all set on a magical, flat world carried through space on the back of a giant turtle, began as a satire of traditional fantasy where men were serious and women had heaving bosoms. As the series progressed, it became its own thing, filled with beloved characters, magical law and some really good jokes.
Wyrd Sisters is book number six (all the titles can be read as standalone novels) and is the first time we meet a coven of witches, high in the Ramtops mountains. Granny Weatherwax, austere and powerful; Nanny Ogg, mother of many and devourer of brandy and Magrat Garlik, overly fond of books and occult jewelry. So, what happens when the fairy tales start to come true?
If you enjoy it, there are another 40 Discworld books in the series, many of which have been re-released in 2022 as audiobooks (opens in new tab).
5. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Like Katherine Arden's Winternight trilogy (see below), Uprooted is an example of the renewed interest in Slavic myths and culture as the basis for fantasy novels.
The farming valley of Dvernik is surrounded by a magical wood. Once every 10 years, a nearby wizard, known as The Dragon, takes a teenage girl as payment for protecting the village from the trees. To be chosen by The Dragon is both an honor and a fall from grace. After all, what does he expect the girls to do? When Agnieszka is chosen she starts to find out.
6. Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter
Over the years, Angela Carter spun fairy tales into literature, keeping the fantastic and the strange, but adding beauty and a strong female perspective.
Nights At The Circus follows Fevvers, a Victorian aerialist who may, or may not, have wings. Was Fevvers hatched from an egg and bought up in a brothel, as she claims? Or is she a beguiling phony? Half skeptic, and half in love, journalist Jack Walser trails after her, from London music halls to Paris salons to the Siberian wilderness. Around them both, the traveling circus spins yet more stories.
7. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
A midwinter book, where 1970s Britain slams up against something much older, stranger and darker. Will Stanton was born on the Winter Solstice (opens in new tab)and, around the time of his 11th birthday, starts to notice events that may be explainable, but could also be magical. Quickly, he discovers he is one of an ancient group called The Old Ones who must protect the country from the gathering dark.
The Dark Is Rising has been loved by generations of children and adults. It draws heavily on British folklore and the landscape of the Thames Valley. A good pre-Christmas read, for when the nights draw in and the shadows grow long.
8. The Djinn In The Nightingale's Eye by AS Byatt
This is a collection of five stories from renowned author AS Byatt, all with a basis in myth and fairy tales. But the standout is the novella that gives the collection its name. The Djinn In The Nightingale's Eye follows recently divorced English academic Gillian Perholt on a work trip to Istanbul.
Browsing the bazaar with friends, she buys a pretty glass bottle. The surprise comes when, back in her hotel room and washing the dust from her souvenir, a djinn escapes the bottle. At first disbelieving and then intensely curious, Gillian asks the djinn to tell her about his long life, spent mostly in the harems of the Ottoman Empire. But, as is the custom, he grants her three wishes. How does an intelligent middle-aged woman make a sensible magical choice?
9. Redwall by Brian Jacques
If you missed out on the Redwall stories as a child, now is the time to dive in – but make sure you have a cake to hand. This is the first book in the series, which loosely centers around Redwall Abbey which is inhabited by a collection of mice, otters and other woodland creatures. When they come under attack from sea rat, Cluny the Scourge, the Abbey animals must defend themselves. Young mouse Matthias knows that if he can rediscover the magical sword of Abbey founder Martin the Warrior, he can repel the invaders.
All of the Redwall books have pacy storylines, full of adventure and set in a world featuring sly foxes, guerilla-fighting shrews and mad sparrows. But their real joy comes in the descriptions of their peace-time life, especially their giant and wonderful feasts.
10. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
In 2015, Marlon James won the Booker Prize (opens in new tab) for A Brief History Of Seven Killings which focused on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the political turmoil in 1970s Jamaica. Not wanting to repeat himself, he plunged into a series of fantasy novels based on African folklore.
However, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is also about political turmoil, this time between warring states. But the world that surrounds this is populated by sorceresses, vampires and witch doctors. The magic is real and the writing is magical.
11. Storyland by Amy Jeffs
Subtitled A New Mythology of Britain, Storyland is a retelling of various ancient British myths by writer and art historian Amy Jeffs. These are tales from a time when Britain was wild, when giants shook down mountains, kings clashed in battle and dragons swooped low over the woods.
Jeffs is an able guide to this imagined past, giving context for royal feuds, reveling in the dramatic landscape and creating beautiful and complex illustrations.
12. City Of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte
American music student Sarah Weston is on her way to Prague for a summer job. Based in the Czech capital's castle, Sarah will be cataloging a collection of Beethoven's manuscripts.
At first, there is nothing more alarming than the various eccentricities of her new colleagues, but Prague is an old, old city and its history is filled with alchemy, magic and blood. Throw in a time-warping drug that allows Sarah to meet the composer she's studying, a 400-year-old lothario and a dangerous US senator and you know it will not be a quiet summer of historical research.
13. The Devourers by Indra Das
Not for the faint-hearted, The Devourers is visceral in every sense. Indian artist and writer Indra Das set his book about werewolves and shapeshifters in and around Kolkata, moving from the 17th Century Mughal Empire to the present day.
Alok Mukherjee is a college professor. One day a stranger who claims to be a half-werewolf tells him a story about shape-shifters that devour human souls. He is skeptical but becomes less so when he is asked to transcribe a collection of texts written on human skin. This is an intense, spellbinding book about love, colonial history and how badly we can treat one another.
14. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Nominated for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, Swamplandia! isn't a traditional fantasy novel, but then it isn't about a traditional family either.
The Bigtrees run a theme park in the Florida swamps. Their star had been Hilola, a noted beauty and an alligator wrestler. But she has died, leaving her grieving 13-year-old daughter Ava to keep both family and part together. Ava's father is missing. Her brother has defected to a rival tourist attraction and her sister has started a dangerous affair with a ghost. The wildness and weirdness of the Everglades permeate the novel, even with practical Ava at the center.
15. Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch
The best stories about magic are those that skim close enough to the truth to be plausible, and this is very much the case in Ben Aaronovitch’s hugely inventive and darkly comedic series of creative crime capers—which is why it's one of our best fantasy books. In the first Rivers Of London novel, we meet probationary constable Peter Grant at the scene of a puzzling murder in Covent Garden, where he is approached by a witness who saw everything. Only problem? The man appears to be a ghost. Before too long, Peter has been taken under the eccentric wing of Inspector Nightingale, who cheerfully informs him that not only are ghosts real, but that Peter is, in fact, a wizard. A gloriously fun read in any format, but the audio (voiced by The Split’s Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is particularly excellent, so it's one of the best audiobooks (opens in new tab) to read too.
16. A Darker Shade Of Magic by VE Schwab
There are three parallel versions of London in VE Schwab’s endlessly enthralling fantasy adventure: Red London, where magic reigns and humanity thrives; Grey London, where life is drab and magic has been forgotten; and White London, which yearns for magic. Once upon a time, there was also Black London, a place destroyed by magic. Striding boldly through this strange universe is magician Kell, who, as an Antari, has the rare ability to move between the parallel worlds. During one of his journeys, Kell is asked to deliver a package and accepts, promptly throwing his life into chaos. A compulsively readable and wildly exciting read.
17. A Game Of Thrones: A Song Of Ice And Fire by George RR Martin
Whoever you are and wherever you reside on the planet, you would have found it difficult to avoid the cultural phenomenon that is Game Of Thrones. But as slick, sexy, and scandalous as the HBO series is, it comes in second place to the original source material. The world created by George RR Martin—a place of endless summers and winters, warring continents armed with dragons, assassins with no faces and ravens that can see into the future—boggles the mind in its sheer scope, and that’s before you consider the multitude of characters. And while it may be a daunting series to begin, given each volume’s length, it’s a mesmerizing world to become lost in, and this one (the first), is a fantastic book club book (opens in new tab).
18. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
When two of Britain’s best-loved authors decided to collaborate in 2014, the results were always going to be exciting, and end-of-the-world adventure Good Omens—which is also a major Amazon Prime TV series—is every bit as weirdly wonderful as you would expect. The end of the world is nigh - but nobody is ready for it. Not least Aziraphalé and Crowley who are, despite residing in Heaven and Hell respectively, very good friends. As Armageddon draws nearer, the pair are sent off on a mission to track down the Anti-Christ, and a fantastical theological adventure commences.
19. The Lies Of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
There are many rumors about the strength, courage, and self-sacrificing nature of the Thorn of Camorr, but very few of them are true. In fact, the man behind the myth, Locke Lamora, is no more likely to offer his stolen goods to the poor than he is to win a swordfight. Yet Locke does have something on his side: wit, charm, and cunning. And it’s these attributes that have kept him and his band of “Gentlemen Bastards” afloat in the grubby streets of Camorr, a place run by a criminal mastermind named Capa Barsavi. When a mysterious interloper known as The Grey King arrives to challenge the Capa for control of the city, everyone knows that it’s safer to stay far away from the fight. Well, almost everyone…
20. Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
With a much-anticipated TV adaptation now on Netflix, this is the perfect time to speed-read this thrill-ride of a fantasy adventure, the first of three novels in the author’s Grisha Trilogy.
When criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker is offered the chance to pull off a heist that could not only make him rich but save the world as well, he knows he must try. But he also knows he will never be able to do it alone. Enter six outcasts, all with a thirst for danger, and you have the makings of an unbeatable crew…if you can stop them from killing each other. Six Of Crows may be a young adult novel, but you shouldn’t let that deter you from picking up a copy.
21. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern is a spellbinder and her sublimely strange tale will have you hooked from the beginning. The Night Circus appears without warning, its tents lighting up the dusk like fireflies as its band of performers limber up in preparation of a show. Two such characters are enchanter’s daughter Celia and sorcerer’s apprentice Marco who are, unbeknownst to them, locked in a never-ending magical fight. They are also, rather inconveniently, falling in love. The fate of the circus itself rests on the shoulders of Celia and Marco, and so the circus waits, and watches, and weaves its otherworldly charm around those who have ventured inside.
22. The Coven by Lizzie Fry
This vivid and urgent dystopian novel imagines a world in which witchcraft is real. Mothers pass their magical abilities onto their daughters and the shared power of these women is used for good. When a militant magical group assassinates the US President, his successor makes the decision to lock up these so-called witches for their own safety. Meanwhile, in Exeter, a young woman named Chloe has been “spellbound” by her mother to protect her from being imprisoned, but the process unleashes a fearful and destructive force inside her. Now the world’s most-wanted criminal, Chloe has no choice but to run - though the witch-hunting Sentinels are never far behind… An immersive and fast-paced must for fans of The Power and The Handmaid’s Tale. (opens in new tab)
23. House Of Earth And Blood: Crescent City by Sarah J Maas
As sexy as it is brutal, House Of Earth And Blood shot straight to the top of the bestseller lists when it was released in March 2020, and with good reason. Half-Fae half-human Bryce is scraping up every last morsel of pleasure from her life in Lunathion—aka Crescent City— until a shocking murder brings her world crashing down. Lost for years in melancholy and seeking only oblivion, Bryce is only spurred into action when another murder takes place, and she and Fallen Angel Hunt Athalar begin their search for the truth, determined to uncover it no matter the cost. Compelling, compulsive, thought-provoking and unforgettable, this is a novel to relish.
24. The City Of Brass by SA Chakraborty
This first book in the Daevabad Trilogy introduces the reader to the bustling streets of 18th-century Cairo, where orphan Nahri carves out a meager living as a healer and trickster, an occupation that one day leads to the summoning of a djinn, Dara, who appears to know an awful lot about her early life and who whisks her off to the fabled City Of Brass. It is here that Nahri and Dara cross paths with fanatical young prince Ali, and their adventure really begins. An exquisite blend of history, myth and fantasy, this evocative and richly atmospheric novel grabs you from the opening page.
25. Daughter Of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
To the outsider looking in, Karou is simply another teenager studying art in Prague - but in truth, the teen is hiding another life and another half of herself. She does not know how or why she became beholden to the monstrous creature Brimstone, nor does she understand the world of Elsewhere from which he came. Despite this, when Brimstone summons her for an errand, Karou always answers. It is easier to be compliant. But when the doors to her magical half-home start to close, Karou must make a decision: to stay in the ‘real world’ and be forever in the dark about her past, or step forward on a quest to discover her destiny. A mesmerising read.
26. A Discovery Of Witches by Deborah Harkness
When historian and witch Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it unleashes a flood of magic so powerful that it draws all manner of creatures to Oxford. One of those is geneticist and vampire Matthew Clairmont who, despite Diana’s determined efforts to ignore him, rapidly becomes a fixture in the young witch’s life.
For so many years now, Diana has chosen to shun the magical world into which she was born and the abilities she inherited from the parents so brutally killed, but now she has little choice but to unravel the mysteries surrounding the manuscript, along with her feelings for Matthew. Smart, romantic, fantastical, and gripping - this novel has also been adapted into a major drama series for Sky, starring Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in the lead roles.
27. The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Welcome to a world of wonder, where nothing is as it seems. In a remote village deep in the cold and snow-covered Russian wilderness, an old servant disobeys the strict teachings of the church to share tales about the mythical Winter King with the children of the family. The young and wild Vasya listens closer than most, for she alone knows that these fables are true; she alone senses the spirits around the house and the darkness gathering pace in the distant forest. What it means, she cannot know. But there will be no stopping it… A bewitching and lyrical fairy tale with a wonderful heroine at its heart - one of the best feminist books (opens in new tab) on this list.
28. The Poppy War by RF Kuang
This first book in The Poppy War trilogy won numerous debut awards when it was published in 2018, and upon reading it you quickly understand why. Inspired by China’s bloody history, the novel begins with war orphan Rin scoring high in the test to discover the most talented students in the Empire - a result that surprises everyone, not least Rin herself.
She has grown up as a peasant daring to hope for little more than the aspirations her guardians have of marrying her off to the highest bidder. Instead, Rin is sent to the elite military school Sinegard, where she is relentlessly bullied but also taught how to hone her special set of talents, the key one being her gift of shamanism. As the threat of war looms and Rin delves deeper into the mythical world, it becomes clear that she may hold the key to survival.
29. Circe by Madeline Miller
This captivating feminist reimagining of part of The Odyssey was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019. Circe is an astounding tour de force of talent and imagination from start to end. The titular Circe is born into a house of Gods, yet ostracised by her own kin, choosing instead to seek solace among mortals. After defying her father Zeus in the pursuit of love, Circe dabbles in witchcraft and is banished to the distant island of Aiaia. With her power ever-growing and her understanding of her place in history taking shape in her mind, Circe faces a choice between her divine beginnings and the place she has come to think of as home. A book that everyone should read at least once (opens in new tab).
30. Dune by Frank Herbert
With the rebooted movie version of Dune—starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and Josh Brolin—scoring big at the box office during the autumn of 2021, it was inevitable that the 1965 novel would find its way back into the best-seller charts. The truth is, there could never be a bad time to discover this story or revisit it. The title refers to a planet that, although barren of water, is rich in ‘spice’, a mineral prized throughout the Galactic Empire, and as such it has become the focus of a tussle between warring factions. Astonishing in its scope and thought-provoking in its breadth of themes, Dune is an unforgettable fantasy adventure like no other. One of the best book-to-movie adaptions (opens in new tab) of the last few years.
31. Threadneedle by Cari Thomas
Having heeded her aunt’s warnings that magic can be as much of a curse as a gift, Anna has been counting down the days until her magical abilities will be bound forever. That is until she meets Effie and Attis and begins to explore the hidden world that exists in the shadows of England’s capital. A place where memories can be sold, words are hungrily consumed, and nights are lost in hazy, underground clubs. With time running out, Anna must make a decision about her future - will she choose to err on the side of caution, or embrace the danger that comes hand-in-hand with magic? An enthralling and inventive story you’ll enjoy getting lost in.
32. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
If you like your fantasy reads to come with an enormous dollop of heart-wrenching romance, the Outlander series is an absolute must. It begins in 1946, as Claire Randall and her husband Frank are taking a post-war honeymoon of sorts in the Scottish Highlands. One morning, Claire goes for a walk and wanders through a circle of standing stones only to fall through a time slip to 1743, where she encounters a British army officer who is a distant descendant of her husband - though unfortunately, not a nice one. In a bid to escape, Claire finds herself caught up between the Jacobites and the Redcoats and, fearing for her life, turns to handsome Scots warrior Jamie Fraser for help. Hard-hitting yet breath-taking, this compulsively readable series is a global phenomenon for good reason.
33. The Mermaid Of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
The winner of several literary awards including the Costa Book of the Year 2020, The Mermaid Of Black Conch is set on a make-believe Caribbean island in the 1970s and tells the tale of a fisherman who rescues a mermaid. Drawn to the surface by the man’s singing, Aycayia confides that she is, in fact, an innocent maiden who was cursed by jealous wives to dwell in the sea. When she is then captured by tourists, fisherman David vows to rescue her, and over time, the pair fall in love. But as Aycayia slowly transforms back into a woman, the world around her begins to change in ways that will devastate them both. A mesmerizing tale that shimmers with vibrance and intensity.
34. Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune
From the author of cult hit The House In The Cerulean Sea comes a new slice of fresh, funny, fantasy fiction. Wallace does not want to accept that his life is over, but there really isn’t much arguing you can do with the reaper when he turns up to your funeral. Settling down to tea with Hugo at Charon’s Crossing, where the dead must all pass through, he wonders if perhaps he could have lived his life a little better. By focusing too much on work, Wallace missed out on friendships and love, laughter, and joy—and now he has been granted just seven more days to experience it all. TJ Klune has created something truly special with this story, balancing weighty themes of grief and loneliness with the wonderful buoyancy of the human spirit.
35. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Winner of the Women’s Prize For Fiction 2021, Piranesi is a spellbinding novel from the author of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell. Proving just how powerful stories can be at sweeping the reader into a new world, the book begins with an introduction to Piranesi and the House in which he dwells. Each day, he makes a careful note of its features, recording how the clouds pass through the upper galleries and the tides rush up the stairways. Occasionally he sees his friend, the Other, and sometimes he takes an offering to the Dead, but mostly he is alone. Until one day, when he notices a message scribbled in chalk and realizes there is someone new in the House. Friend or foe, Piranesi is not sure - but it’s not long before he finds out…
36. The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
Dipping a toe into the fantasy genre, the author of The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street whisks her readers off on an adventure through history both real and imagined. When Joe Tournier gets off a train with no memory of having boarded it, he does his best to settle into life in French-occupied London, although he is sure people used to speak English in the city instead of French. Finding himself increasingly drawn to the mysterious Eilean Mor Lighthouse far away in the Outer Hebrides, Joe eventually makes the trip north and ends up embarking on a journey that nobody could have foreseen. An intricate, authentic, and fantastical time-slip story.
37. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman
Work your way through any self-respecting list of must-read fantasy novels and you will be sure to find more than one entry from the masterful Neil Gaiman. Unusually in this instance, the story begins in the real world. A man in his forties, who is feeling disheartened by the way his life has turned out, decides to visit the house that he lived in at the age of seven and, more pressingly, the ramshackle farm a little further along the same lane. It is there that he met the extraordinary Hempstock family—grandmother, mother, and daughter—who not only helped him at his lowest ebb but also showed him another world, one through which he found the strength to face his deepest fears.
38. The Diviners by Libba Bray
Blending magical fantasy with a creepy whodunnit, The Diviners is a wonderfully immersive novel that has the added bonus of being an absolute riot of a read. Set in New York in the jazz-and-gin era of the 1920s, it begins with murder most horrid before introducing us to feisty young heroine Evie O’Neill, who has left behind her small town in Ohio to live it up in the big city at the house of her eccentric uncle. But Evie is hiding a mysterious secret—one that could help her track down a killer, if only she could curb her partying for long enough to try… Packed with lively language and colorful details of the time, this first in a series of Diviners novels is a triumph, and one of the best fiction books (opens in new tab) within the fantasy genre in the last few years.
39. Once Upon A Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber
Evangeline Fox grew up in her father’s curiosity shop, listening to stories about fabled immortals such as the Prince of Hearts—he with mystical powers and a kiss worth dying for. When Evangeline discovers the man she loves is going to marry another, she is so distraught that she strikes a bargain with the Prince, promising to give him whatever he wants if he can stop the ceremony from going ahead. She had forgotten, however, that tragedy is a theme he holds as dear as love and, as it soon transpires, the prince has far more in store for Evangeline than she could ever have imagined. A captivating tale from the number-one bestselling author of the Caraval series.
Anna is an award-winning journalist with over 20 years experience as a writer and editor. The former Associate Editor of Stylist Magazine, Anna has also written for Elle, The Guardian, British Vogue and the New Statesman.
A self-confessed bibliophile, Anna has hosted live literature events and workshops and is also the host of new author recommendations podcast @readlikeapod (opens in new tab).
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