Fantasy as a genre is often unfairly maligned. While there are plenty of authors who seem to be paid by the word and are only concerned with churning out volume, there are many authors producing fantastic works that transcend genre and often are even worthy of the word literature. While there were many worthy contenders, here are what we consider to be the 10 greatest fantasy series of all time.
10. The Wheel Of Time by Robert Jordan
I could probably write several pages on what’s wrong with The Wheel of Time (Jordan never could write female characters, the quality fell off a cliff after book four, the series should have ended many, many books ago, etc., etc.), but the positives of the series greatly outweigh the negatives. The Wheel of Time was made for those who like their fantasy writ large, and The Wheel of Time fulfills that desire epicly. You won’t find a more in depth work (which has it’s downsides as well, every new book release begs for a rereading of the incredibly long series since it’s nearly impossible to keep track of every minor character) and Jordan clearly takes as much pleasure in world building as any fantasy author since Tolkien. As previously mentioned, WoT has a huge cast, a fully realized world with dozens of races and nations, and a huge tapestry of plot lines that combine to form one of the greatest fantasy series of all time. It’s a shame that Jordan didn’t live to complete it, but hopefully Brandon Sanderson will bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.
9. The Dark Tower by Stephen King
The Dark Tower actually shares some similarities with The Wheel of Time. In both series the first four books are the strongest, and you also get the sense with both Robert Jordan and Stephen King that they didn’t quite know how to end their creation, which led to a very controversial ending in The Dark Tower’s case along with some questionable decisions by King like his self-insertion in the story.
That being said, like The Wheel of Time, the pluses outweigh the minuses in the case of The Dark Tower series. King has created one of the most iconic fantasy characters of all time in the Gunslinger Roland and the world (dimension? alternate universe?) he creates, with all of it’s similarities to our reality, is lush and feels tangible. It’s too bad that Stephen King doesn’t dabble more in fantasy, because he clearly has a knack for world building. Not to mention everything he writes seems to be phone book sized, which would fit right in with the fantasy genre.
8. The Farseer by Robin Hobb
Zombies! Sort of; the big threat in The Farseer trilogy comes from the villain turning the people of the Six Duchies into Forged ones, a type of zombification that removes all emotion from someone. That alone would probably get The Farseer on my list as I’m a pretty big zombiephile, but the writing and story here are both top notch. The premise sounds a little stock (boy grows up never knowing his mother, turns out to be a royal bastard, etc. etc.) but the predictability stops there. Hobb really fleshes out her main character, making him one of the more real characters I have had the pleasure of reading.
7. Discworld by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might not have the gravitas of other fantasy works, but it makes our list by virtue of being pure fun. Pratchett is a rare thing in the fantasy niche – an honestly good writer who masterfully parodies the genre while still creating an internally consistent world that is interesting and enjoyable to read. If you’ve never read a Discworld book but feel interested I’d recommend getting cracking – the series is up to 37 books as of the end of 2009.
6. Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
Ursula LeGuin is one of the more literary writers you will find writing fantasy. Her Earthsea Cycle takes place in a world of uncharted sea that contains a huge archipelago of islands. The books are full of lyrical prose that bring to mind Tolkien style fantasy. LeGuin doesn’t beat you over the head with normal fantasy tropes, the Earthsea Cycle is understated and an intriguing story that just happens to take place in a fantastical world.
5. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn takes place in a world not entirely different from our own, drawing upon history and folklore to create a new story. Reading this series you will find elements of Arthurian England, Nordic stories and religion (including a Christ figure that was executed by being nailed upside-down to a tree, leading to the formation of this world’s main religion which is a mixture of Christianity and Norse mythology), and many other parallels to our own world. This is high fantasy at it’s best, writ large and with bold strokes. If you enjoy Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and other similar writers check out Tad Williams who does things somewhat similarly, and often arguably better.
4. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
When considering a ranking of the greatest fantasy series of all time, the question of Harry Potter is a thorny one. There’s inevitably a backlash when something is as popular as Rowling’s work, and add to that the fact that the series is ostensibly meant for children and you have a case that naturally inspires a lot of debate. I’m not sure I believe Rowling did anything particularly new with Harry Potter, but a work doesn’t necessarily have to be innovative for it to be great. Nearly every fantasy series owes a debt to Tolkien for instance, but that doesn’t mean Tolkien has written the only work of fantasy that matters. Rowling didn’t really come up with anything new, but her execution was peerless, and the connection she made with tens of millions of readers is laudable. People will be reading Harry Potter for decades to come, and I’m not sure a better introduction to fantasy could be found.
3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The king, you knew Tolkien would be showing up here sooner or later. The real surprise is that he’s not number one, which isn’t so much an indictment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as it is praise for the top two. Gallons of ink have been spilled when it comes to Tolkien. I’m not sure any other genre of fiction owes as much to one person as fantasy owes to Tolkien. Even today in our 21st century life Tolkien touches many different avenues of entertainment, including (obviously) books, movies, role playing games, and video games. You’d think with his trilogy being such well worn territory by now that it would have lost some luster, but it’s actually still a fantastically good read, and if you haven’t made the effort yet because it seems old or you’ve seen the movies you really should. The payoff is definitely worth the time.
2. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Book of the New Sun is a novel written in four parts. It is written in first person by a man named Severian. His profession is torturer and the books chronicle his rise to power as ruler of the world. The world is our world, but set in a distant future where the sun has begun to cool and dim. The books are rare in the fantasy genre in that they have invited serious analysis and literary criticism. The Book of the New Sun starts with a killer premise and more than delivers. I came to the series only recently and count it as one of the greatest reads I have ever had, fantasy or no. It is a more challenging work than most “wizards and knights” fantasy, but oh so worth it.
1. A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R.R. Martin
It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that this series has seen a premature end, and yet I still would call it the greatest fantasy series of all time. Martin is standing on the shoulders of giants here certainly, Tolkien especially I think, but his series is mature in ways that others simply can’t match. For some reason the parallel that enters my mind is the television series The Wire, a show that at first glance looks like a normal police procedural but actually goes so much more in depth when it comes to realism that it’s practically it’s own genre. The same holds true for A Song of Ice and Fire, where despite the fantastical setting, people behave like real people with real motivations for their actions. In a genre where many writers build fantastically deep worlds only to fill them with characters who are mostly cliche, Martin rises above the crowd, and that’s why, even if he never does get around to finishing it, we think A Song of Ice and Fire is the greatest fantasy series of all time.