Good fantasy novels

How to find a good fantasy novel?

There are a lot of fantasy novels on the market, so how do you choose a good one? Depending on your tastes, some fantasy stories will appeal to you more than others. Perhaps you are looking for something action-packed, something character-driven or something literary. Perhaps you want lots of fantasy creatures, elves, dwarves and typical mise en scene you expect with the fantasy genre. Or maybe you are looking for something very different to the typical fantasy, but still firmly in the fantastical.

In 1996, I had not yet found my ideal fantasy novel. Although many blurbs covered themes, storylines and characters I was looking for, none did so as completely or enticingly as I wanted. That is part of the original reason I started writing Talon. What I really wanted, and what I would have considered an excellent epic fantasy novel, was the following:

  • Animals and fantasy creatures, especially big cats and dragon-like flying creatures that were not inherently bad
  • A setting in which women can be involved in typically male roles like leadership, the military, building, etc.
  • A spiritual theme that explores the role of faith for individuals and groups
  • Authenticity and believability eg. in the setting, action, characters, behaviour of the bad guys, direction of the plot, etc.
  • Writing that doesn’t take the easy way out (such as having the main character knocked out cold at the end of each turning point so as to move the story forward rapidly)

How Talon is unique but still fits the paradigm of epic fantasy

My novel follows some of the tried and true formulas for epic fantasy (male hero gains magical powers and goes on a journey to seek help for his people), but it does the following things differently:

  • The main character, Talon, is dark-skinned and above the typical age for heroes (he is nineteen in book 1)
  • The female supporting main character, Sarlice, is a few years older than Talon. She is also wiser and more skilled than him
  • Talon is competent in a number of areas, including archery, animal-handling and his occupation of quartermaster’s apprentice
  • Talon is a man of faith, but he questions his beliefs and worldview regularly
  • The novel contains detailed action and battle scenes, including an epic, realm-wide war which the protagonists lose
  • The characters are fallible and redeemable
  • Telepathy was the original, ancient form of communication, but has now almost disappeared
  • The novel features animal-bonding, weapon-bonding, giant flying creatures (called skyearls) and more

There’s a great tongue-in-cheek article online called How to write a best selling fantasy novel, which pays out on many well-known clichés in epic fantasy. While I understand the frustration with these repetitive themes, I do believe some are needed in order to make a novel epic fantasy. Read my thoughts on The Hero’s Journey and fantasy fiction here for example.

While it is probably true that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to storytelling, you can still find some diamonds in the rough that are well-written, uniquely told and feature the kinds of themes you would enjoy and consider “good”.

Obviously I can only truly recommend books that I have already read, and there are hundreds of books I have not yet found time to read, but here’s my take on some good fantasy novels based on what themes you’re in the mood for:

Action-packed fantasy novels

  • The Shadowleague series by Maggie Furey (uniquely set across only a few days)
  • The Greenrider books by Kristen Britain
  • The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist
  • The Rigante by David Gemmel
  • Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star stories by George Lucas (written by various authors, sequels to the movie Willow)
  • The Eragon books by Christopher Paolini
  • The Dragonmaster books by Chris Bunch (poorly written, but certainly action-packed)
  • The Timura Trilogy by Allan Cole
  • The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks

Suggest one

Character-driven fantasy novels

  • The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Rainwild Chronicles by Robin Hobb
  • Age of the Five Trilogy by Trudi Canavan
  • The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Crowthistle Chronicles by Cecilia Dart-Thornton
  • The Tide Lords Series by Jennifer Fallon
  • The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

There are also some great fantasy novels with female lead characters. These tend to be character-driven possibly because the author is so conscious of the unique role being played by their character. Eg.

  • The Deed of Paksennarion books by Elizabeth Moon
  • Age of the Five Trilogy by Trudi Canavan
  • Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star stories by George Lucas

Suggest one

Fantasy novels with strong politics

  • The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
  • Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • The Dragon Prince Series by Melanie Rawn
  • The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
  • The Second Sons Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon
  • The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist
  • Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon

Suggest one

Literary fantasy novels

  • Anything by Ursula Le Guin
  • Some titles by Brandon Sanderson

Suggest one

What I mean by “literary” is that you can read lots into it and it isn’t merely a fantasy romp for the sake of entertainment. You can take different positions and study the writing. Literary fiction explores important human issues and often comments on one or more modes of literary thought, such as Capitalism, Marxism, Feminism, Humanism, Socialism, Modernism, Post-modernism, Fundamentalism etc.

By thinking about the variety of cultures in the world and their social, political, ethical and spiritual views, you can probably think of many more modes of literary criticism. A literary fantasy novel is therefore one that not only entertains, but criticises the modes and views ingrained in a particular culture.

Fantasy novels with animals and/or fantasy creatures

Most fantasy novels feature animals or creatures of some description, but some focus more heavily on them than others. Eg.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • The Ki and Vandien Quartet by Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb)
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
  • Path of the Stray Kim Falconer

The adult adaptation of talking animals from children’s storybooks are bond-mates who have a telepathic and/or empathic relationship usually with one special human. I enjoy novels with telepathic animals or creatures, including:

  • The Chronicles of the Cheysuli by Jennifer Roberson
  • The Shadowleague and The Artefacts of Power by Maggie Furey
  • The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (spren not animals)
  • The Ghatti’s Tale books by Gayle Greeno
  • Animist by Eve Forward

There are also some fantasy novels where the animals or creatures are the main characters and there may be few or no humans. Eg.

  • Tail Chaser’s Song by Tad Williams
  • Dragoncharm and Dragonstorm by Graham Edwards
  • A Wolf Story by James Byron Huggins

Fantasy novels about elves and other immortals

The only one I’ve ever read where the main character was an elf is the self-published novel by my front cover illustrator Adele Sessler, The Wars of Avenan. I read book one and found it to be a fresh take on the fantasy genre, with Falen, the main character (an elf) somewhat of an antihero, despite his best intentions.

Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords Series feature a number of immortal main characters. They do not age and are also invulnerable to physical hurts. With some of these characters millenia in age and completely impervious to harm, you might be wondering where the tension comes from. It is a testament to Fallon’s talents as a writer that she is able to pull this off. The immortals may be invulnerable, but they are susceptible to mental damage and megalomania. Most of them are power-hungry warlords who seek to rule the common people for their own benefit. The drama comes from the conflict between the immortals as they jostle for power and from the mortal characters who are trying to find a way to resist them. There are also a few immortals who care about the fate of ordinary people. Each immortal has their own unique agenda, which makes The Tide Lordsa fascinating read.

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Wars of Avenanby Adele Sessler
  • The Tide Lords by Jennifer Fallon

Suggest one

Fantasy novels with romance and love

I have not found any truly satisfying love stories in any fantasy novel I have read, but some fantasy novels with romantic elements include

  • The Chronicles of the Cheysuli, The Sword Dancer Series and the Novels of Tiger and Del by Jennifer Roberson
  • The Artefacts of Power by Maggie Furey
  • The Crowthistle Chronicles by Cecilia Dart-Thornton
  • The Tide Lords Series by Jennifer Fallon
  • The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

Suggest one

Fantasy novels focused on a rich setting

Detailed world-building is a feature of many fantasy novels, but some are more focused on setting than others, such that the setting could even be described as a character in itself. Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s Crowthistle Chronicles does this with the magic-imbued marsh and mountain settings and the vibrantly detailed environment and ecology. Almost as a counterpoint to Dart-Thornton’s marshes are Robin Hobb’s deserts in The Soldier Son Trilogy. Different again, is the mind-blowing and stunning scale of the settings of Heaven and Hell in Wendy Mac’sThe Fall of Lucifer.

K.J. Parker also has a strong focus on setting in The Fencer Trilogy, which is staggering and disturbing in its authenticity. There is nothing fluffy or fun about this series of novels about a professional killer (lawer/fencer Bardas Loredan) who kills his own relatives and even uses human parts when crafting a bow. Despite these horrors, The Fencer Trilogy contains fascinating details in a middle age setting, including how bows are made, how trenches are dug during castle sieges and more.

  • The Crowthistle Chronicles by Cecilia Dart-Thornton
  • The Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb
  • The Fall of Lucifer by Wendy Mac

Suggest one

Spiritual fantasy novels

Most fantasy novels, especially epic fantasy, focus heavily on the battle between good and evil, which is an age old spiritual battle fundamental to most world religions. Spiritual themes in fantasy novels are often open to interpretation and the impressions of the reader. Some examples of Christian-themed fantasy fiction are:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Chronicles of Tenebrak by Shannah Jay
  • The Fall of Lucifer by Wendy Alec
  • A Wolf Story by James Byron Huggins

Suggest one

Great young adult fantasy novels

  • The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer
  • The Orc by M. C. Martine

Suggest one

Fantasy–horror novels

I do not enjoy horror at all, but I have read some of Sara Douglas who I would consider a fantasy-horror writer.

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Amanda Greenslade discusses her latest works and anything else of interest. This includes children, children's books, ebooks, writing, editing and publishing, fantasy, science fiction, creativity, graphic design, website design, technology, the Internet, animals, science and more!

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