Discussion Forums - Fantasy

Topic: Essential Fantasy

Club rule - Please, if you cannot be courteous and respectful, do not post in this forum.
  Unlock Forum posting with Annual Membership.
Subject: Essential Fantasy
Date Posted: 3/9/2010 3:39 AM ET
Member Since: 5/23/2005
Posts: 6,143
Back To Top

What books would you consider essential fantasy reading?  In order for someone to be well read in fantasy, what would you say they need to have read?

Or, alternatively, what do you consider the best of the best in fantasy, even if it's not necessarily popular?

Date Posted: 3/9/2010 9:28 AM ET
Member Since: 9/3/2008
Posts: 455
Back To Top

Interesting question! I hope you get a lot of responses except my TBR pile might get too big! To get a well rounded look at fantasy my guesses would be:

Little, Big by Crowley

LOR tolkien

and now the rest are authors because most of the stuff is good but it's hard to pick one particular book from them that is essential

Robin McKinley - probably the 2 books of the blue sword or maybe sunshine

Charles de Lint - for urban fantasy stories midway in his career are the best (IMO)

An anthology edited by Terri WIndling plus a book from her fairy tale series

Peter Beagle -a great short story of his is -can't remember the actual name but it's The Professor and the Rhino I'll look it up if anyone is interested. He also has some interesting world builds

Patricia McKillip

Ursula Le Guin -I'm not a real fan here but she should be mentioned

Brandon Sanderson (trilogy) and/or Martin (kings) and/or possibly Rothfuss (haven't read his book -name of the wind)

Terry Prachett

I can't think of a steampunk that is more fantasy than Science fiction but you need a futuristic steampunk fantasy maybe the Difference Engine by Wilson -that's a classic

For cocktail party conversation you'll need Neil Gaiman but I'm not sure about him although American Gods and Anasisi Boys were good.

Time and Again Jack Finney -although this might be sci fi -need some sort of time travel

ok my stream is over now. If I were near my bookshelf it would go on and on and on. There's some older authors I didn't mention and some newer ones too -maybe someone else will kick in now.

Edit:  Dracula should be in there

now must work....


Last Edited on: 3/9/10 10:30 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/9/2010 12:01 PM ET
Member Since: 5/17/2006
Posts: 50
Back To Top

Some essential fantasy, in no particular order:

William Morris - The Well at the World's End

Lord Dunsany - The King of Elfland's Daughter

Edgar Rice Burroughs - A Princess of Mars

Jack Vance - The Compleat Dying Earth; Lyonesse trilogy

Robert E. Howard - The Hour of the Dragon; "Red Nails" and other original (non-pastiche) Conan tales

H.P. Lovecraft - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Fritz Leiber - Swords & Deviltry, etc.

A. Merritt - The Moon Pool

Michael Moorcock - The Elric Saga (Stormbringer, etc.)

J.R.R. Tolkien - The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings (of course)

Diana Wynne Jones - The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Date Posted: 3/9/2010 3:54 PM ET
Member Since: 4/18/2009
Posts: 1,376
Back To Top

Well, of the stuff already mentioned that I heartily agree with:

LotR/The Hobbit

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series

Patricia McKillip (just about anything, though I think both her best and the most characteristic of her style is Alphabet of Thorn)

Charles de Lint's short stories set in Newford

Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars or The Land that Time Forgot


The stuff that's already been mentioned, and which I'm pretty sure is foundational, but I haven't read it yet (though it's all on my TBR stack) so I can't recommend without a caveat is:

Little, Big (reading now!), by John Crowley

The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

The Well at the World's End, by William Morris

Something by H.P. Lovecraft


And some stuff that I would add to the above:

Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber

Gordon R. Dickson's Dragon Knight series

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde


And some stuff written in my lifetime that I think will become classic:

Robin McKinley's Damar books (mentioned above)

Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion books

Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel trilogy (and the rest of the books if you love those)

Sean Stewart's Nobody's Son

Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World

Barbara Hambly's Sun Wolf and Star Hawk trilogy

Ellen Kushner's Riverside novels


And the elephants in the room that I'm shocked no one else has mentioned yet, and which I myself haven't read because I don't like literary elephants, but which everyone else on the planet that reads fantasy has read and so I probably should read one of these days are:

Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, and J.K. Rowling

Date Posted: 3/9/2010 4:26 PM ET
Member Since: 2/5/2009
Posts: 30
Back To Top

JRR Tolkien of Course!

Marion Zimmer Bradley - The Mists of Avalon

Meredith Ann Pierce - The Darkangel Trilogy - I can reread this series over and over again.  Usually tagged as a YA series, I'm still rereading this one 10 years later.

David Eddings - The Elenium and Tamuli Trilogies

Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time Series - The series tapers off at the end and honestly I could barely get through book 11, the last one he personally authored before his death.  I highly recommend the first few books and absolutely love the world he created, I just wish it didn't fly into all sorts of tangents closer to the end.

Terry Goodkind - The Sword of Truth Series - I love love love this series and have the whole collection in Hardcover.  Definitely a classic in my mind.  Remains pretty strong through all 11 books in the series.

Jacqueline Carey - Kushiel's Legacy Trilogy - her later trillogies are pretty good as well, but the first of her three are my ultimate favorites.

Robin Hobb - Tawny Man and Farseer Trilogies

George RR Martin - proceed with caution and lots of prozac.  Really good but kind of dark and twisty.


Date Posted: 3/9/2010 4:56 PM ET
Member Since: 10/31/2009
Posts: 84
Back To Top

The basics (not the same thing as the best): Tolkein, Lewis, Beagle, Le Guin, Rowling

All my suggestions, alphabetically by author:

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Vlad Taltos novels by Steven Brust

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Little, Big by John Crowley

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Last Hot Time by John M. Ford

Good Omens by by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Legend by David Gemmell

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Replay by Ken Grimwood

The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb

Requiem by Graham Joyce

The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

The Princess and The Goblin by George MacDonald

A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

The Riddle-Master trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip

The Book of Knights by Yves Meynard

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

The Scar by China Mieville

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Last Call by Tim Powers

The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams

The Book of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Last Edited on: 3/9/10 5:24 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/9/2010 7:50 PM ET
Member Since: 9/3/2008
Posts: 455
Back To Top

I like your list Aaron!

Date Posted: 3/10/2010 12:07 AM ET
Member Since: 5/23/2005
Posts: 6,143
Back To Top

I agree with a lot of what's already been posted.  I think LOTR would probably make everyone's list on this one.  It's interesting to see everyone's lists, though.  My list would include these authors:

  • Tolkien 
  • Robert Jordan
  • George R.R. Martin (but if anyone hadn't read ASOIAF yet, I would hold off on starting it)
  • Robin Hobb
  • Brandon Sanderson
  • Tamora Pierce
  • Terry Brooks
  • David Eddings
  • David Gemmell
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Tad Williams
  • Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Terry Goodkind
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Greg Keyes
  • Lynn Flewelling
  • Jacqueline Carey
  • Katharine Kerr
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Piers Anthony
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Orson Scott Card (probably more for SF, but the Alvin Maker series is good too)

I'm sure I'm missing a few, and I'm too lazy right now to do more than list authors.

Date Posted: 3/11/2010 7:59 PM ET
Member Since: 2/5/2009
Posts: 30
Back To Top

oh I did forget to mention Kate Elliott, I really did like her Crown of Stars series, not sure if it's a "classic" but I own the series in hardcover alongside my Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and David Eddings ;)

Date Posted: 3/11/2010 11:15 PM ET
Member Since: 9/29/2009
Posts: 2,551
Back To Top

Dawn Cook's Truth series. I absolutely loved it.

The study series by Maria Snyder is also excellent.

Date Posted: 3/26/2010 4:25 PM ET
Member Since: 5/18/2008
Posts: 123
Back To Top

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and LOTR, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, and a more recent trilogy in the classic vein would be the 100 Cupboards trilogy, by N. D. Wilson.

Date Posted: 3/30/2010 12:17 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,522
Back To Top

Most interesting idea Brenda. Any listing is totally contingent upon what one regards as fantasy. Virtually all of the earliest religious texts will qualify as long as they are about a religiion other than that of one's own. That  noted:

Gilgamesh, for sure.

Then Beowulf.

Is anything dealing with The Arthurian Legend fantasy?  There was a King back there, but I doubt he had a buddy named Merlin, or the equivalent thereof. Something dealing with Arthur, I think, would be essential.

There is quite a large body of material dating pretty far back involving a character called Monkey. It irritates me greatly that I can't find it and don't know the author, but it is very interesting and quite readable even for us Westerners. Penquin Classics published it.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short but very interesting volume published as Fables and Tairy Tales that isn't too hard to find.

From there, and accessible top all of us, is a bunch of Brits. Most of them are definitely not to my taste, but I think this is a matter of stylistic preferences. I do think that to be well-read.Iwouldput James Branch Cabell at the head of this list, though I personally enjoy his work the least. He expects readers to be extremely literate as well as multi-lingual. Very hard to read. Of his works, Jurgen, The Silver Stallion, and Something About Eve, are regarded as his best. The best critic of this time is Lin Carter, and of Cabell, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and H.P. Lovecraft, he says, "Some will find them boring and interminable because of their length, lack of colour, excotement. and drama. But they constitute a remarkable and very unusual form of imaginary-world romance and are, in their genre, very unique."

Next, chronologically speaking, is William Hope Hodgson, and he is definitely one of the Big Boys. He is best known for  a big book/books titled The Night Land. If you read this, you will speculate as to what degree he must have inspired Tolkien. Personally, I think one must know it first-hand to call theirself knowledgable of the genre. Hodgson enlisted in the cavalry, transferred to Field Artillery, was decorated for bravery at Ypres, blown to bits soon after at age 40. The Night Land.

C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters and Narnia.

Norman Bean, working out of Chicago, I expect you have never heard of. Lin Carter simply calls him the greatest adventure story writer of all time. Twenty five of his books, about a cat he called Tarzan, you have heard of. Try one. They are surprisingly good.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Well, if The Lord of The Rings is not the greatest fantasy novel, then what, pray tell, is?

Essential fantasy novels after Tolkien: not very many. I don't mind recommending and commenting on them, but evaluating current stuff is necessarily largely a personal and highly subjective matter.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Red Moon and Black Mountain  by Joy Chant.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, to my thinking, towers over all the rest except for Tolkien. His major characters are all fully developed (so few writers of science fiction or fantasy even try to do this). He remains consistent to the role of The Hero in literature that runs strong from Gilgamesh through The Mahabharata, through Jesus, but which we are in great danger of losing forever.

There are a lot of others who are a lot of fun to read, but not in the same class. I like Terry Goodkind, but he is little more than Jordan lite. Very derivative, and I find it most aggravating that whenever his creativity lags, he interposes some new kind of magic that the hero must counter. J.K. Rowling --- a lot of fun to read, but real heroes have to engage in very serious quests and most of all, must pay the price. In 50 years, she will be regarded mostly as a publishing phenomenon.

Prachett, Anthony , Brooks: all are great reads, but serious fantasy -- hardly. And if you like them (I do), how can you leave out Philip Jose Farmer and Raymond Feist ?

And The Fafrd and the Grey Mouser series by Fritz Lieber was a serious omission to what I listed above.



Date Posted: 3/30/2010 11:13 AM ET
Member Since: 5/23/2005
Posts: 6,143
Back To Top

Good post, John.  When I listed authors, I only thought of recent fantasy, and not clear back.  I've read some of those older texts, like Gilgamesh and The Iliad, but they're not really to my tastes.  Definitely not something I'd read more than once.

I also agree that our lists are largely subjective, and will reflect our personal tastes.  There are probably plenty of fantasy authors that I didn't list simply because I haven't read them, or don't know of them.  I remember reading on a blog a top 25 fantasy books list, and I don't think I'd even heard of half the authors.  You'd think there would be a clear list of essential/important fantasy authors, but I don't think there is.  It just depends what you like, I think. 

That's why I like reading lists like this, because it gives me new ideas of what to read.  Have you ever read Martin?  You listed Jordan as towering over all the rest except Tolkien, but I find Martin's writing better (although to be fair, I've only read the first of the WoT series).

I have read one book by Philip Jose Farmer, Father to the Stars, which I quite liked, but I didn't realize he had written any fantasy.  I thought he was strictly a science fiction author.  What I've read of Raymond Feist I thought was just okay, that's why he wasn't on my list.  See, again, all a matter of what you like.  Although if one were truly making a list of essential fantasy, they'd probably include authors and books they didn't care for as well. 

Date Posted: 3/30/2010 11:30 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,522
Back To Top

For a long time I didn't read any sci-fi. My doctorate is in Literature; area of specialization, American Lit; dissertation, on "Faulkner. Character is always most important to me, and though I always respected sci-fi as literature of ideas and the possible, I wanted to read books with better characterization. And those are the reasons I place Jordan in such high regard. Funny that you mention Farmer, though. It is hard to say whether Farmer's Riverworld series is sci-fi or fantasy. There are no dragons, fairies, etc. Nor are there technological advances since the Riverworld inhabitants are deprived of all, even metal of any kind. I have always thought Farmer stumbled onto one of the greatest scenarios when he set it up. I liked the reality of the behavior of the humans. Put them in a world with no want, no sickness, no getting old, and what do we do?  Of course: male humans fight for women, turf, and power in general. The very great Octavia Butler also had us pegged. (Xenogenesis Trilogy).

By the way, I read sci fi a lot now. Why, for all the reasons I claim it doesn't measure up as literature. And because it is, always, optimistic; a whole genre about the possible.

Date Posted: 4/1/2010 1:33 AM ET
Member Since: 5/10/2009
Posts: 826
Back To Top

There is quite a large body of material dating pretty far back involving a character called Monkey. It irritates me greatly that I can't find it and don't know the author, but it is very interesting and quite readable even for us Westerners. Penquin Classics published it.

Are you thinking of Journey to the West? It's an old Chineese collection.  I think it's also sometimes called "Monkey" and one of the character's names is sometimes translated as Monkey.  I'm not aware of any editions done by Penguin, but there's lots of different editions and translations, so it wouldn't surprise me if there was one.

Date Posted: 4/1/2010 10:39 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,522
Back To Top

Melanti: I think you are right. I just remember the character who seemed to be most important was called Monkdy, and, of course, I didn't read it in 'Chinese. I am, though, pretty sure the book I have/had? was a Penguin Classic.

Date Posted: 4/1/2010 11:35 AM ET
Member Since: 5/10/2009
Posts: 826
Back To Top

Hm.  Maybe this version?

Though at less than 400 pages, it's most likely heavily abridged.

Date Posted: 4/7/2010 3:39 PM ET
Member Since: 5/19/2008
Posts: 447
Back To Top

Hmm, fascinating thread.  I consider myself rather well read in fantasy but there are a lot of books and authors I have never heard of.

I'm not a big fan of "modern" fantasy, or "paranormal" stuff, taking place in our world.    With a few exceptions.

I can't believe no one has mentioned A Wrinkle in Time!  I like most of Madeleine L'Engle, but the time quartet is probably my favorite.  I think they will be classics.

- LOTR, of course

- Tamora Pierce - her earlier stuff is better, but I still read anything she publishes

- Damar Series

- The Giver, Lois Lowry

- Narnia

- Anne McCaffrey - some are better than others, but any fantasy lover should read the Pern series

- Robin Hobb - some of the best characterization I've ever seen in fantasy - particularly the Farseer and the Tawny man trilogies

- George R.R. Martin ASOIAF.  Excellent.  I really hope the series is finished.


That's all I can think of for now.

Karen B. - ,
Date Posted: 4/17/2010 12:47 PM ET
Member Since: 3/31/2007
Posts: 32
Back To Top

Barry Hughart - if you haven't read his trilogy you're missing a beautifully written, funny and poignant fantasy.  Read slowly and savor - Mr. Hughart has'nt written anything else.

Subject: William Hope Hodgson
Date Posted: 1/1/2011 9:14 PM ET
Member Since: 6/15/2009
Posts: 1
Back To Top

Hey, John W.

I don't know if you remember me, this was a couple of years ago.  I like to fancy myself a Hodgson scholar, having read 70-80% of his total works.  Myself, the Night Land is without a doubt my favorite book ever, even more so than the Bible.  That is what brings me to this subject.  I recently pulled out a slight Wildside Volume of his epic poem "The Voice of the Ocean".  I consider it to be the key to understanding all of Hodgson's work, much like Poe's "Eureka" cycle.

I can say "more so than the Bible", because I believe that he was as inspired as any of the Prophets or Church Fathers.  He truly was an immortal writer.  You should try to get a copy of it, if you would like to understand Hodgson's system better.  He talks mostly of God, and of those who do not believe, of their uncoothe ways, doubts, and rejection of the ideas of karma.  He hints many times about reincarnation, but from a concertingly Christian standpoint.  I believe him to be of that brand of theology, having read him.  In this poem he does talk about how "God conversed with him", and revealed things (which are mind-blowingly revealed in this poem) to him.

He talks about all obscure and strange truths that rival anything that Quoheleth wrote, or Jesus said.  I'm not saying he was the son of God, nothing quite like that, but still......

If you really want to read some inspired writing, even if you haven't read "House on the Borderland", or "The Stone Ship", this slight (45 pages) volume will speak to your very heart.


Date Posted: 1/3/2011 10:19 AM ET
Member Since: 2/25/2007
Posts: 13,991
Back To Top

"Red Moon Black Mountain" was one of the first fantasy books I read, and it turned me on to the genre. Time to revisit that one, I think!

"The Wood Wife" by Terri Windling should be on there somewhere---also an older book.

Surprised not to see George RR Martin's "Fire and Ice" listed more......