When we use the term “fantasy” to refer to fiction, we’re casting a pretty wide net. But when we talk about classical fantasy, we narrow our catch considerably, because in order to stand the test of time and be considered a classic, any book, regardless of genre, has to be damn good. And 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 fantasy novels (or series) in which that is just what happened.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
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 all about, 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. Tolkien
A hundred years hence, these novels, regarded as a trilogy though conceived as one sprawling epic, will still remain a high water mark 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.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
T.H. White’s seminal fantasy novel 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
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
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
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
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, 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
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.
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