Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Top 20 Fantasy Novels/Series

I like both Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.   (I mean classic, heroic fantasy, not the ramblings of a political pundit. 🙂 ) So do my family members.  My daughter, Molly (14), found the website, Fantasy 100, listing what it considers the “Top 100 Fantasy Novels Of All Time.”  It’s a good list, but I don’t agree with the rankings.  To rank Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series 4th, but Richard Adams’ Watership Down only 19th seems absurd to me–unless the site is just tracking sales in which case it ought to rename the list, “Most POPULAR Fantasy novels.”

My own, purely subjective, list of the top 20 Fantasy novels/series follows.  Since I consider fantasy to be a separate genre from science fiction (there can be overlap–as in some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories), I am only listing pure fantasy works here.  I might write another post on favorite “hard science” fiction works .I invite readers to list their own favorite works of fantasy. UPDATE: I have slightly rearranged the original rankings after further reflection.

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (a novel in 3 volumes).  Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation is visually stunning and fun, but misses much of the moral depth of the novels.  Although I find Tolkien’s other Middle Earth novels, The Silmarillon, etc., interesting because of the light they shed on him and his world, they lack the narrative power of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
  2. T. H. White, The Once and Future King (adaptation of the Arthurian legend).  Based on Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this is the great Arthurian novel that was the basis for both the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone and the Broadway musical Camelot. (No, ’60s fans, Camelot was NOT an intentional allegory about the Kennedy administration.  It’s only that, after JFK’s assassination, far too many romantics kept seeing parallels where there weren’t any. )
  3. Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas CovenantDonaldson has a tougher, grimmer, vision than Tolkien, but there may be even more moral depth to his characters and stories. Especially compelling is the character of Thomas Covenant, a novelist who contracts Hansen’s Disease, popularly known as leprosy, an anti-hero who struggles with power and powerlessness, faith and unbelief, and the struggle to be loyal to the people he meets in an alternate universe (the magical Land) while also keeping faith with his view of sanity and reality.  The moral power of beauty and care for life and living things is a deep theme of the books.
  4. Richard Adams, Watership Down.  The concept of rabbits having a mythology and culture is odd, but the story is deeply gripping and helps one see the natural world in ways that illumine our world.
  5. Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in TimeThe sequels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door aren’t as good, but still worth reading.
  6. Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of EarthseaThe other Earthsea novels don’t match the power of the first, but are still very much worth reading.  LeGuin is a contrast to the deeply Christian outlook of Lewis and Tolkien or even L’Engle and Donaldson who also have Christian influences. LeGuin calls herself an inconsistent Taoist and a consistent NON-Christian and that comes out in her books, but they are great reading–and I am one Christian parent who believes in exposing my children to several rival worldviews.  The other Earthsea novels are The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.
  7. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter series.  Some will wonder why I haven’t rated the wildly popular series higher.  The stories are great and I’m glad my kids introduced me to them, but they haven’t yet stood the test of time–not even the test of whether I, personally, still like them ten years or so after first reading them.
  8. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of 5 novels which interweave the Merlin and Arthur legends with “modern” (1960s era) British children.
  9. Walter Wangerin, The Book of the Dun Cow.  Written by a Lutheran minister, this is a great fantasy set in a barnyard where the hero is a cussedly endearing rooster and the dun-colored cow is an angel-figure.
  10. Mercedes Lackey, Last Herald Mage Trilogy (Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price).  I like almost all of Mercedes Lackey’s books, but this is her best work.  In addition to being a fine work of fantasy, with moral reflections on power and responsibility and sacrifice, it is also a great “coming out” tale of a young man discovering that he is gay–and the struggles to accept himself and get his very homophobic family to accept him, too.  When Mercedes Lackey wrote these books in the early ’90s, there was little or nothing like this in fantasy genre.  It was much needed–and at least one young person I know was helped to  avoid suicide.
  11. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, Arthurian legend from a feminist perspective.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.  Not all even in quality, but Lewis manages to include the Christian allegorical allusions without being heavyhanded or forgetting that the story must come first.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and A Horse and His Boy are the best in the series.
  13. Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials” Trilogy, The Golden Compass (U.K. title, The Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass.  Pullman is a self-declared secular humanist and his works have been greatly criticized as “atheism for children” by the likes of James Dobson.  They do present a worldview that is highly critical of religious beliefs, but, again, children should wrestle with all viewpoints–and the books are VERY well written.
  14. Tamora Pierce, Becka Cooper series (Terrier, Bloodhound, and Mastiff (due out 2010).  Like Mercedes Lackey, I think Tamora Pierce is one of the best fantasy writers currently in the biz., but most of her heroines and heroes come from upper-class aristocratic backgrounds.  Becka Cooper, by contrast, is a child of the streets turned “dog,” the nickname of the Provost Marshall’s Guards (primitive police). 
  15. Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series.  There are 7 novels, but the only boxed set so far is for 1-4.  So, the novels in the series are: The Gunslinger;The Drawing of the Three  The Waste Lands ; Wizard and GlassWolves of the CallaSong of Susannah;  The Dark TowerKing is far more famous for his many gothic and horror novels (although some cross over into science fiction), but this great series creates an alternate universe that is almost a cross between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the wild west as imagined by Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” (mostly starring Clint Eastwood). King pits a gunslinger named Roland against a “man in black” that is nothing like Johnny Cash!  There is also a Dark Tower series of graphic novels.
  16. Patricia A. McKillip, Riddlemaster Trilogy, (The Riddlemaster of Hed; Heir of Sea and Fire; Harpist in the Wind).  Brilliant and far from formulaic, with surprise twists and turns.
  17. Katherine Kurtz, The Chronicles of the Deryni.  I love all  Kurtz’ Deryni books, but especially this first trilogy (Deryni Rising, Deryni  Checkmate, High Deryni).  Kurtz’ world is a fantasy version of Medieval Wales (Gwynedd), complete with a Medieval Catholic Church Militant; Moors (Muslims); a sundered Eastern church;and a persecuted race of magicians known as the “Deryni.”
  18. Jim Butcher’s novels of Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phonebook.  Dresden is a practising wizard who works as a private investigator and a consultant for the Chicago Police Department.  Sci-Fi channel made a half-hearted attempt to turn this into a series  known as “The Dresden Files” but only about 5 episodes ever aired. Update: I’m told that 27 episodes were made, but I don’t think all 27 ever aired on Sci-Fi channel or anywhere else.
  19. Orson Scott Card, The Tales of Alvin Maker series (Seventh Son; Red Prophet; Prentice Alvin; Alvin Journeyman; Heartfire; The Crystal City and the forthcoming Alvin Maker).  Card is more known for his science fiction work (as Stephen King is for horrorand gothic), but these are a great series of stories set in an alternate-reality version of 19th C. America.  Card is a practicing Mormon whose politics is an odd mix:  He is a Democrat because he is convinced the Republican Party in the South still supports racism, but he was an enthusiastic supporter of Bush and the Global War on Terror and strongly opposes same-sex marriage as a “dangerous social experiment.”  He is a strong environmentalist.  His odd mix of progressive and conservative views comes through in his books, but they make excellent stories in their own right. 
  20. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, beginning with Eragon.  The movie is terrible, but these novels, begun when Paolini was only 15, are amazing and original.  After further reflection and input from friends, I realized that I was ranking this too high because of compensating for Paolini’s age.

So, here are my fantasy favorites.  What are yours?  I would love to see someone try to write a major fantasy novel from a pacifist perspective–preferably from a perspective of Christian  nonviolence, but Gandhian, Buddhist, or other pacifist perspective would also be fascinating.  There also needs to be far more multi-culturalism.  Even the European Middle Ages of the “real world” wasn’t as lilly white as portrayed in too many Medieval fantasies.

June 13, 2009 - Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction


  1. Dark Tower series: epic, but really, the confrontation with the Red King falls so flat. But the ending…wow. Good.

    Here’s a little treat for you: there’s a little known closer to The Once and Future King–it’s called The Book of Merlyn. You might take a look at it…it’s T.H. White struggling with his own pacifism and the war.

    Comment by dcrowe | June 13, 2009

  2. A great list here! I would recommend a couple of newbies too. Luthiel’s Song if you enjoy Mercedes Lackey and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborne if you like Donaldson. Some great new writers out there and these are just two!

    Comment by Lucy | June 13, 2009

  3. Thank, DCrowe. I just found out that L’Engle wrote 2 additional “Wrinkle” books and that Stephen Donaldson is writing a third “Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.” So many books, so little time.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2009

  4. How about Walter M. Miller Jr.’s “A Canticle For Liebowitz?” Its dark humor, antiwar sentiment, and theological playfulness still put it at the top of my SF list.

    Comment by Anthony | June 14, 2009

  5. Good catch, Anthony. I tried to keep my list for fantasy and not for science fiction (although there are often overlaps) and judged Miller’s work to be in the latter genre. It’s a great read, though, with a post-nuclear apocalypse 2nd Dark Ages and a mysterious not from the past leading to a rebirth of science and knowledge.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2009

  6. There are always new writers, Lucy. But I usually want to see if I continue to like something a few years later before it becomes part of a top list for me. There are exceptions: I knew immediately, even as an adult, that the Harry Potter series would be great and the same goes for Paolini’s “Inheritance” series.

    On the other hand, I find the “Twilight” vampire series to be boring. Lots of “instant classics” are more instant than classic.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2009

  7. thank you
    very much!!

    Comment by emo | June 14, 2009

  8. Great list. Check out my recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This narrative tale is a romantic action adventure in space and more about the characters than their technology. Don’t for the Chronicles of Amber.

    Comment by Sharon E. Dreyer | June 14, 2009

  9. I am interested that you didn’t find A Wind Through the Door as good as A Wrinkle in Time. I agree that the middle book is not as good, but I found Wind one of the best treatments of the problem of evil that I’ve ever read. Not so thrilled by His Dark Materials – Pullman was unable to create a major character about whose fate I actually cared, although I finished the series. Thomas Covenant and the Lord of the Rings series were also unable to engage me. Didn’t manage to get more than a third of the way through the first book in either series. 🙂

    Writers that appear on the 100 list but not here that I enjoy are Anne McCaffrey (Dragonflight), Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl), Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Ursual LeGuinn (Wizard of Earthsea).

    Comment by Judy Redman | June 14, 2009

  10. Hi, Judy. Well, I found the narrative style of A Wind in the Door less engaging than A Wrinkle in Time but you make a VERY Good point about the way L’Engle wrestles with the problem of evil.

    We’ll just have agree to disagree on Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson. I also didn’t find Pullman’s characters sympathetic, but his writing kept me reading anyway.

    I didn’t list McAffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon and then all the later Pern books past the original trilogy) because I don’t classify them as fantasy, but as straight science fiction. My rationale is this: The events take place on a planet colonized by earth humans (Pern in the Rugbat system in the constellation Sagittarius). The “dragons” are not mythical or magical creatures, but genetically altered native species (“fire lizards”) then bred larger. There is no magic. Everything has a scientific basis. So, despite the dragons, I find this to be science fiction–and so does Anne McCaffrey herself. (They are wonderful books, by the way.)

    I like the Artemis Fowl books, but they didn’t make my top 20. I haven’t read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, though many have recommended them to me. So, I’ll have to get around to that. As my list reflects, I agree with you, Judy, about LeGuin and A Wizard of Earthsea. (LeGuin herself, I should note, loves Tolkien’s works despite not sharing his Christian faith at all.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 15, 2009

  11. I haven’t had a chance to check out The Chronicles of Amber, Sharon, but you are far from the only one to recommend them to me. Congratulations on finishing your novel. I will look for it. So many books, so little time. . .:-)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 15, 2009

  12. Oops. Can’t read. I missed LeGuin in your list.

    Point taken about McCaffrey.

    The trouble with the Discworld series is that there are sooooo many of them and the focus is so varied that some are significantly better than the others. I like anything about the Wyrd Sisters, the Ankh Morpork guard and Death. Some of the ones about the Wizards are better than others. They are generally very funny and include significant social comment. Although the humour is very British (not of the toilet variety), which I find that some people from the US find less amusing than I do.

    Comment by Judy Redman | June 15, 2009

  13. […] Top 20 Science Fiction Novels In an earlier post, I listed my (purely subjective) list of the top fantasy novels/series.   Here I will attempt a […]

    Pingback by My Top 20 Science Fiction Novels « Levellers | June 29, 2009

  14. OK. I went to my library and could get Card’s Alvin the Maker series (or the first book was out, I think), so I tried Ender’s Game instead. Not really my thing – glorified violence – but raises some very interesting issues about what we might be justified in doing to save humankind. Speaker for the Dead is similarly fascinating and less overtly violent, so I enjoyed it enough to go back for book 3 of the series Xenocide, which I’m about to start.

    I also borrowed Terrier, having read other Tamora Pierce and enjoyed her. Found it slow to start but I became fascinated by about 1/3 of the way through and was annoyed that book 2 still isn’t in.

    Finally, I also got the first two books of Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series which are very funny. I’ve already read the Herald Mage series and a number of other of her books, and like you, enjoyed them, but don’t remember them being as amusing as the 500 Kingdoms ones.

    So, thanks for introducing me to some new reading matter.Of course, I should be reading Gospel of Thomas literature for my PhD, or time management books for work, but the bit I read today suggested that I could be a workaholic and should develop some interests outside work, so…. 🙂

    Comment by Judy Redman | July 6, 2009

  15. I didn’t enjoy Enders Game, either.

    When I was at the dissertation stage of my Ph.D., I had to quit reading anything not directly related to my dissertation. When I finished defending successfully, I spent the next month ONLY reading escapist fiction. 🙂

    Glad I could help, Judy. You’ve also given me ideas for future reading.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 6, 2009

  16. This is absurd. Have you read any of the stuff you are talking about?

    Comment by esteban | July 19, 2009

  17. Yes, yes I have.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2009

  18. Great list. Wow. Have not read all of them. I would probably add some of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marques, the master of magical realism.

    Comment by Wilhelm | September 14, 2009

  19. Nice List, just missing some A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which in my opinion puts mostly all those other fantasy series to shame. Then there is also Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss which is really good too.

    Comment by Nick | March 23, 2010

  20. Definitely missing some, like the Wheel of time. I can’t believe it didn’t make your list, especially compared with books like Eragon.

    Comment by Nicole | March 25, 2010

  21. I appreciate your recommendations, and respect your opinion because it agrees with mine about the books on your list that I have read 😉 May I suggest the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik? It’s fantasy in that the focus is on dragons, but historical fiction in that it is set in the time of the Napoleanic Wars. The dragons are the “air force” of Britain and France, and are large enough to carry crews as a ship does. Themes include loyalty, class divisions, and treatment of sentient animals. Titles include “His Majesty’s Dragon,” “Throne of Jade,” “Black Powder War,” “Empire of Ivory,” and “Victory of Eagles.”

    Comment by Leslie | July 6, 2010

  22. I myself prefer Tehanu over all the other Earthsea books, and it’s still not the best thing Le Guin wrote (that distinction goes to “The Dispossessed”). “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is, I feel, one of the best Fantasy novels ever written, and as such deserves a mention in any “best of” list. Likewise Gene Wolfe’s “The Book Of The New Sun” (although any of his novels could be used in its place; he is a very consistent writer). M. John Harrison has, for the past 40 years, through his books, been making a very fine argument for Fantasy as literature, and deserves a place in any such list.
    Also, Eragon “original”? Still, I understand that this is your personal opinion and is not in any way meant to be an objective, comprehensive statement. Just take the above mentioned books and writers as recommendations. I’ll also welcome any from you.

    Comment by Sanveer Bindra | September 12, 2010

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