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The 7 best classic fantasy books to get lost in

Even adults can enjoy entering the fantasy world

Man reading a book
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Using the term “fantasy” when it comes to fiction, we are admittedly casting a pretty wide net. After all, think about just how many shows and movies could technically be considered fantasy, too. If. we’re talking about classic, canonical fantasy, though, the net shrinks considerably. If a book is to stand the test of time to be considered a classic — regardless of genre — it has to be damn good. At the risk of offending plenty of authors and fantasy fans both of yesteryear and today, most fantasy writing … how should I put this? In a few decades, it won’t be on some future writer’s list of fantasy classics.

I say all that as an absolute fan of fantasy writing. From the Game of Thrones books, our era’s Lord of the Rings, to the novels of Neil Gaiman, to the Twilight series (except not that), there is a plethora of great fantasy writing being produced today. But if you’re looking to get into the genre or are already an aficionado with a few gaps in your reading list, classic fantasy novels are always a fine choice, as are classic mysteries, classic adventure books, and on it goes across every genre of literature.

First, though, what is fantasy? Simply put, it is a story set in another world, or else in a version of our world, unlike reality in many ways. Distinct from science fiction (a genre featuring strange and amazing things that are nonetheless plausible if scarcely likely), in fantasy, author and reader alike are unbound by the limits of the possible. When in that boundless region, a writer cobbles together powerful characters and a gripping story, the makings of a classic are at hand. Here are some of the best classic fantasy books (or series) in which that is just what happened.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
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H.G. Wells is generally considered a science fiction author, but the world into which the protagonist of his novel propels himself is so unlike ours that this late 19th-century classic propels itself into the realm of fantasy. This story does not feature lots of time travel, but is instead, centered on Earth in the distant year 802,701. Humans still inhabit the planet (apparently, we figured out global warming), but they are not the many superficially different, innately similar peoples of our world today. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know who else is around other than the people called the Eloi.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
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A hundred years hence, these novels, regarded as a trilogy though conceived as one sprawling epic, will still remain a high watermark of the fantasy genre, a genre that in many ways, J.R.R. Tolkien created with his 1937 novel The Hobbit and then perfected over the next 10 years with The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Even if you have seen the LOTR films many a time, these books still more than deserve a reading. Not only will you come to know the characters and story more intimately, but you will enjoy writing and see the very foundation on which almost all recent and contemporary fantasy fiction stands. You can also check out our list of books that were better than the movies for more options like this.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
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T.H. White’s seminal fantasy book, The Once and Future King, goes well beyond the Arthurian legends to show us not only the great fabled King of the Britons, but also Arthur the boy, the little lad known by the nickname “Wart” who seems anything but kingly. Written as four novellas and joined into a novel in the 1950s, the book is rich in magic, chivalry, and romance and also features plenty of humor as we follow Arthur’s journey from the lad named Wart to the man who holds court at Camelot and leads his Knights of the Round Table.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert
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Between Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones sits Frank Herbert’s epic space saga Dune. For the world building in Dune alone Herbert would deserve celebration: the desert planet of Arrakis, the nickname of which gives the book its title, will feel as real to you as places where you have set foot. The rich, deep cast of characters also deserve much respect. Then you have the complex yet manageable story (and rich back stories) Herbert weaves. And finally, you have the fact that the writing and dialog are also excellent. Overall, Dune is a towering masterpiece of the fantasy genre. Though the sequels are … not.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
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Anne McCaffrey’s writing is not universally revered for its word craft — not every sentence is a work of art — but her world building and the characters with whom she populated her stories cemented her place as a fixture of the fantasy genre. She wrote more than twenty books in the Dragonriders of Pern series, and the types of lord and lady and of course, dragon that populate her books further defined the genre as a whole. Try this first novel set on the world of Pern — if you love it, you have months or even years of pleasurable reading ahead of you. If not so much, well, then at least you have the rest of this list.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
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First created as a BBC radio program and later made into everything from a TV show to a stage play to a feature film, and complete with myriad companion books and updated editions, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a sprawling and hilarious and truly strange work that follows unwitting protagonist Arthur Dent all throughout the universe after aliens destroy Earth effectively in the name of eminent domain — they need to expand a bypass between galaxies, and Earth is in the way. Throughout the strange travels and trials of Dent, the character and the reader are met with the same question: What is the meaning of life? The answer is… well, you’ll have to read the book.

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
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David Eddings was a bit past 50 when he finally wrote the first of many novels that would see his name added to the canon of revered fantasy writers. Before the publication of Pawn of Prophecy, he had worked at a grocery store, been a college professor, worked at Boeing, and spent a year in prison. Pawn of Prophecy is a coming of age tale set in a magical world and following the adventures of young Garion, adventures that fan out through five novels that Eddings cranked out between 1982 and 1984. The books are easy to read and invite repeat revisits over the years.

What are some well-known classic fantasy books that turned into movies?

Here are some classic fantasy stories so well told and written that they turned into movies (that aren’t on the list above). You may consider giving these a read, too.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: This beloved children’s fantasy series was adapted into a film series that included The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings was also adapted into a film trilogy by Peter Jackson. While not quite as acclaimed as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit films were still box office successes.
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman: This cult classic fantasy comedy romance was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1987 starring Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, and Mandy Patinkin.
Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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