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.
- 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.
- 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. )
- Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson 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.
- 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.
- Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. The sequels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door aren’t as good, but still worth reading.
- Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea. The 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.
- 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.
- Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of 5 novels which interweave the Merlin and Arthur legends with “modern” (1960s era) British children.
- 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.
- 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.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, Arthurian legend from a feminist perspective.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 Glass; Wolves of the Calla; Song of Susannah; The Dark Tower. King 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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