Updated: Jun 24, 2022
Just for fun, here are the top ten fantasy series I (Jason) have read, and some brief reasons why. I populated this list in the order they sprang to mind, figuring this to be at least one respectable metric for the ranking they hold in my heart. I’m sure there are other ways to have approached the ranking, and there are certainly some that would rise to the top if considered on the basis of a narrower attribute, but there it is. Enjoy!
1. Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien – Largely goes without saying, but the world-building is simply god-level (little “g”). Tolkien didn’t even set foot into the story aspect of Middle Earth before he’d charted out its beginnings, the forces that drove it, the struggles between all its gods and warring powers, all the way down the scarred and tormented lines to the point where we enter the story. And it shows in every word, every poem, every glimpse of that history that glows forth in the telling of it. It’s magnificent, humbling, and awe-inspiring. Not to mention the languages, don’t get me started on the languages…
2. Dragonlance Chronicles/Legends, by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (et. al.) – One of the formative readings of my youth. Dragonlance and the world of Krynn had me from the first chapter. The characters were fun, multi-layered, and identifiable by their consistent characteristics, flaws and motives. Caramon and Raistlin, especially, were the sort of ebb and flow of the series, always loving each other, but pulling apart as they grew ever more into their individual representations of the good and evil of things. Tanis half-elven, Kitiara, Flint, Sturm and all the rest were just perfectly laid out and brought color to the stories with every chapter. And how could we exclude Tasslehoff! Right? But also worth mention are the mechanics of the world, from the three moon system that ties into the system of magic and its users, the pantheon of gods, the personification of Paladine in Fizban. It’s like talking about old friends, even now.
3. The Belgariad / Mallorean, by David & Leigh Eddings – One of the very first fantasy series I became enraptured with in my youth, I instantly fell in love with Garion, Polgara, Belgarath, Silk, Barak, and all the other characters. I loved how cleanly Eddings created the world and divided it into cultures that—despite all being human—felt as different as races would in a classic fantasy. From the money to the language to the values and ideals, each was unique and consistent. Plus, Eddings engaged in some fairly well-established tropes, the chosen one, the coming of age, the parents with powers, the powerful relic, etc. Loved it all, and it definitely shaped my writing. Additionally, the system of magic was simple and powerful. Simply willing a thing to be. It was so cleverly and thoughtfully explained that I found myself trying it more than once myself! I may have said too much.
4. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams – I was introduced to this series after having read the Belgariad, the Lord of the Rings, and many, many of the Dragonlance and Ravenloft books, so I had my head fully into what a fully-developed fantasy world should feel like. But I wasn’t ready for the depth and realism Tad Williams brought my way with this series. It immediately dropped me into a mature world that felt…old. I could smell the dust, the decay, the memories and ghosts of the past. It impressed me that with simple words on a page, Williams had transported me to a place where the words disappeared and I was in his world, living and breathing it, and genuinely feeling all the anxieties and hopes and fears of each character. It was brilliant, and remains to this day a high water line of writing mastery I hope one day to reach.
5. The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie – What caught me first about this series was the incredible depth of character development Abercrombie employs. And this could not have been better brought to life than it was by narrator Steven Pacey (yes, I do audiobooks, quite frequently, actually). Each character had profound flaws which truly made them personalities to me. From the bodily brokenness of Glokta, to the unbounded hubris of Bayaz, I was astounded at the layers each demonstrated, and the methodical manner in which Abercrombie revealed them throughout the trilogy. Of course, Logan is such a simple man, and yet even he had a rich tapestry of violence and loyalties and betrayals in his past, all of which shaped him into a demon in human flesh who you also can’t help but pity and root for. Brilliantly done, Joe.
6. The Faithful and the Fallen, by John Gwynne – I love classic fantasies, but I always hold a special admiration for fantasies done with mostly human cultures. John Gwynne pulled this off, as in the Banished Lands there were numerous human cultures, as widely varied as ours here on Earth, and some giants which were uniquely and colorfully done. And even the giants had sub-cultures within their people that added a layer of complexity to Gwynne's world. I was captured by the “chosen one” trope right off, growing up as a silent omniscient reader right alongside Corban and Cywen, learning as they did that the world was bigger, darker, more dangerous than they ever knew. Watching them struggle and fail and struggle more, and eventually start to get glimpses of the idea that everything they’d thought they knew about their past, their parents, their legacy…was wrong. And then of course comes the badass swordsman who teaches Corban to be a man, and I was hooked all the way down into my gut. Tropes have a place, and that place is in my heart. And the battle scenes, don’t get me going on the battle scenes.
7. Of Blood and Bone, by John Gwynne – Again, John Gwynne took the world he’d created in the Faithful and the Fallen, transported me to another realm of it, and added 100 years to the timeline, only to start me off again with a new chosen one, a new hope for a simple life, and a new threat that dashes that hope into a thousand little pieces. Gwynne is a master of making the reader feel “in” a certain place, with words that disappear from the page in place of a window through which his vibrant but bleak world is vividly seen. I gobbled this trilogy up in little time at all.
8. The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks – I probably won’t be saying anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times here, but what really captured me about this series was the core idea of the setting: a world in which technology and magic could not coexist, and where technology had fallen to ruin, and magic filled the void. Throughout the series, the traces of that old world were there, and created the foundation of the races, the gnomes, the elves, the druids. I found it a hugely plausible and refreshing take on origins of the races. Not to mention, again, the classic trope of the clueless chosen one with a past he is oblivious to, caught up in a drama he can’t seem to escape, with mystical artifacts that constitute the key to unlocking his destiny. Though I have yet to write in any sort of post-apocalyptic setting such as this, I am definitely inspired to do so. Maybe one day…
9. The Death Gate Cycle, by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman – Not strictly fantasy, but not strictly sci-fi either, this series was incredible for the fact that all seven novels were interrelated but also stood alone as individual novels. Each took place on a different world with a primary element such as fire, air, water, etc. as the theme. Elemental planes, if you will. I found this fascinating. But not only that, I loved how the magic systems seemed to work differently in each place, if at all. The concept of dance as a method of harnessing magic, or tattoos that when connected in certain ways complete runes that release the magic, both stand out in my mind as incredibly creative and unique systems. And of course, what better writing duo is there in the fantasy genre than Weis and Hickman? None, thank you very much.
10. Ravenloft The Covenant, by Numerous Authors – I included this series simply because it holds a special place for me. Many long hours did I spend in my room, listening to metal music and reading the latest of this series. I discovered these books when I was in high school, and very much into tabletop gaming (AD&D 2nd Ed.). Ravenloft was a spinoff of Dragonlance, as Lord Soth, the damned Knight of the Rose, ended up with his own realm and was featured in one of the earliest books in the series (the second, I believe). Anyway, each book is standalone, each features a particular land within Ravenloft, or a particular cursed lord around which the land was formed, and of course a story surrounding certain characters who have to survive in the unique set of circumstances to be found there. It’s all dark, all foreboding, and nothing is ever what it seems to be. That’s what I loved about the series: that a land could be bounded into curse-doms rather than kingdoms, with borders of impassable mist. Yes, there is much Ravenloft still in this old heart.
Well, that’s it! That’s my list, for better or for worse. One thing I should mention is that I (Jason) populated this list, and it in no way reflects what my beautiful wife Rose might put on her own top 10 list. Maybe we’ll get to explore that together someday soon!
What are your top fantasy series? Let us know! Feel free to post them, either in the comments beneath the blog post itself, or in whatever forum it gets posted. If you just have feedback or comments on how these stories touched and shaped you and your reading/writing lives, share them, too!
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