Good morning bookworms!
Just in case you haven’t heard me scream about this previously, YA wasn’t really a thing when I was growing up. You had board books for toddlers, picture books for children, then like this weird sort of tween stage (now lovingly referred to as middle grade) where you read 846 books from series such as The Babysitters’ Club (including the mysteries, the super specials, Logan’s stories, the super mysteries, AND Little Sister if you got in on that), Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Uni, The Saddle Club, Teen Power Inc, Goosebumps and whatever else you could order in bulk from the Scholastic book fair. If your library was a million years old and didn’t have funds to update their stock, you also probably read amazing series such as The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and anything published under the pen name V. C. Andrews.
So, by the time I was 13, I’d basically run out of fun things to read. Luckily for me, one of the librarians, Anne, at our (very underfunded) local library used to be my next door neighbour. Just in case you’ve missed me saying this before, Anne is the reason that I read fantasy. Without her, I would likely not have been introduced to this amazing genre, and I certainly wouldn’t be the D&D playing, blog-writing, fanfic reading nerd that I am today.
When my parents dropped me off at the library once per week for my returning, browsing and borrowing, Anne would have a stack of my next reads already picked out for me. I read more adult fantasy when I was a teen, than I do now. (At the moment I read more YA fantasy as an adult… so that’s probably where my life got reversed.) And I read everything. Some of it has stayed with me over time, but there’s a huge chunk I’ve probably forgotten. And of course some of it I’ve bought for myself since growing up (and have very slowly been rereading it).
So, from Anne’s recommendations, through my teenage reading stacks, to your TBRs, here are 10 amazing fantasy novels that you should read… one day. (Because we’re all freaking busy and have TBRs that are crazy. But seriously, these are your timeless fantasy classics.)
Magician – Raymond E. Feist
Look, Magician is one of the oldest books on this list, if not THE oldest (I’m not looking it up, but you can if you want to). It’s an epic fantasy saga that can be read as a standalone, the first book in a trilogy, or as the very grand start to a very long saga. I would recommend starting with Magician, and if you liked it, add on Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, then see how you feel after that. It is a massive book on its own though. Magician comes in at a whopping 841 pages, which is why it was originally published in two separate volumes.
What you need to know: it’s a high fantasy novel (totally different world), there’s magic, dragonish creatures, parallel universes and interdimensional travel, elves, epic battles in war, lots of POVs, written in third person, prophecy/quest storyline.
NOTE: The other thing that you’re going to see in some of these, especially those written in the 1970/80’s (the 90’s is where this starts to change), is that a lot of the characters are men. There are very little women wielding swords and being kickass, like we’re so used to seeing today. That is a product of its time where fantasy and science fiction was a genre fiction that was predominantly for men, by men. So while I didn’t feel that women were degraded in any of these books, they also weren’t central to the plot (except for arranged marriages). In fact, I’d say about 80% of the characters are men. But it’s still really good fantasy, you just need to keep that in mind.
Battleaxe – Sara Douglass
Battleaxe is the first book in the Axis trilogy, which then became the Wayfarer Redemption series of 6 books… which I think then had more added to it later on. As with Magician, you don’t need to read all of them, you can stop after three, or six, or whatever came after that. And, after my mini rant above re old white male authors, Sara Douglass was not only an amazing female fantasy author, she was also an Australian. And not only is this first trilogy one of my faves, the second two books in the trilogy, Enchanter and StarMan, both won the Aurealis award for best fantasy in their publication years. (Other famous Aurealis winners have been Nevernight, Sabriel, Finnikin of the Rock, Illuminae and LIFEL1K3, just to give you an idea.)
What you need to know: high fantasy, male protagonist, magic, races other than humans, war/battle, lots of POVs, written in third person, there are several romantic relationships, mother/brothers/family themes, prophecy/quest storyline, Australian author.
Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings
Pawn of Prophecy is the first book in the 5-book series, The Belgariad. (Which is then promptly followed by another 5-book series, The Mallorean – but they’re all really short books!) If you’ve ever read Harry Potter or Simon Snow, you should 100% read this series. This series is the epitome of the ‘oh-woe-poor-me-I’m-a-13-year-old-protagonist-whose-whole-life-revolves-around-a-prophecy’. Belgarath is Dumbledore, but more grandfatherly and less standoffishly ‘I-won’t-tell-you-important-things-or-look-at-you-for-12-months-in-case-you-are-proper-cursed’. But also, Garion doesn’t just have to battle some other guy who split his soul and wants to murder people. Oh no. Garion has to go on like the longest quest ever (like, actual book years) and then fight a god. So, he’s kind of allowed to be whiny. Also, this could be considered YA nowadays due to the protagonist’s age (and it got re-released in 2006 with cool new covers and I’m kind of jealous).
What you need to know: high fantasy, male protagonist, magic, races other than humans, war/battle, lots of POVs, written in third person, family themes, extreme prophecy storyline, epic quest (go to X to find the thing that will give you a puzzle piece and send you to K, where you will meet someone important and then travel to B, where you’ll find a totally different puzzle item that will lead you to R, etc.) religious overtones.
Dragonclaw – Kate Forsyth
Dragonclaw, or as it’s been re-released as, The Witches of Eileanan, is probably one of only two books on here that are commonly considered YA. It’s the first of 6 books in the Witches of Eileanan series, and then there’s a following trilogy, Rhiannon’s Ride. This series will always hold a special place in my heart as one of the main characters is a Meghan (like the Duchess, which is probably the closest I will ever see my name in a novel – also, Meghan is a witch, so sign me up). The story follows Isabeau, Meghan’’s apprentice, as she fights against the rulers of the land who have banned magic and witchcraft. This series helped shape my teen years, and I plan on doing a reread of it this year. And finally, Dragonclaw was also an Aurealis award winner!!
What you need to know: high fantasy, female protagonist, disability rep (from book 2/3 onwards I think), magic, dragons, witches, sea-creatures (not quite mermaids), war/battle, multiple POVs, written in third person, family relationships, prophecy/quest storylines, Australian author.
Discworld – Terry Pratchett
This one is probably the hardest for me to write because I love so many of these books for so many different reasons, and because you don’t have to read the books in order then it’s hard to recommend a place to start.
My introduction to the Discworld was when a boy at summer camp that I liked was reading these and because I liked fantasy books, he recommended them to me. I started with Lords and Ladies which is smack bang in the middle of the witch books, and honestly, it’s as good a place as any to start. By about 12 books in, Pratchett had really started to nail his writing style and they feel easier to read. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend starting at the beginning if you are interested because those are some of the hardest to get through. Pratchett’s humour and comparison to social constructs was still somewhat underdeveloped – you can see it, but it’s so much more refined later on.
If you’re stepping in as a predominantly YA reader, then you should absolutely start with The Wee Free Men, which is the first book in the Tiffany Aching set (it’s the 5 YA books), but DO NOT read The Shepherd’s Crown until after you’ve gone back and read all the other witch books. I cried so hard after reading it, it actually broke my heart and it was many years until I picked up a Pratchett book again.
What you need to know: high fantasy, male and female protagonists (depending on which books you read), POC rep, disability rep, magic, dragons, witches, wizards, vampires, thieves, assassins, multiple POVs, written in third person, active social commentary and observations on multiple themes.
Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody
This is the second actual young adult series on my list. I started reading Obernewtyn when I was twelve and there were four books (of seven) out at that time. Isobelle Carmody writes all these amazing stories, she just takes a really long time to do it. (Book 1 was published in 1987, and book 7, the final book, was published in 2015.)
Ok, so this is going to sound strange, but you know how I don’t really enjoy dystopian novels all that much, well Obernewtyn is about as dystopian as it gets. Set as a futuristic Earth, there has been nuclear war and human destruction leading to a cataclysmic event where much of the current world is either wiped out, infected or just forgotten about. Our time is called The Beforetime, and not a lot about it is known as almost all technology has ceased to function. It’s almost as though the world today was transported back into the 1800s. However, the event that occurred has evolved humanity to include people with abilities, that refer to themselves as Misfits.
What you need to know: dystopian setting, female protagonist, disability rep, abilities include mental telepathy with humans and animals and emotional manipulation, sassy cat character, written in third person, family relationships, orphans and found family, prophecy/quest storylines, Australian author.
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
So when I finally read this book, it was pitched to me as a fairytale for adults. And that is exactly what it is – I genuinely cannot describe it any better. If you enjoy reading retellings because they give you that fairytale feel, then this is a book you need in your life. Except please keep in mind that this is not a retelling. Gaiman actually crafts his very own fairytale about the people who fall between the cracks in society, and pairs it with iconic London names – The Angel Islington, Earl’s Court, Knightsbridge, etc and weaves them all seamlessly into the plot. This is a truly exceptional piece of urban fantasy fiction.
What you need to know: urban fantasy (set in our world but with a fantastical element), male protagonist, mental health rep, POC rep, magic, assassins, battle, multiple POVs, written in third person, found family, murder, corruption, social commentary.
Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb
Before I really get into this one, I have a confession to make. I read this when I was in the middle of studying for exams. I was about 2.5 books into the trilogy and I was in a little bit of a slow section and I was slumping because I was also studying a million hours a week and working and had school. So I did something that I had never done before and have never done since. I read the last couple of pages. To this day I still don’t actually understand what happened because how I thought the book ended (despite skipping half a book) was not actually how it ended. And I’m so annoyed at myself because I was LOVING these books. So, lessons to be learnt: don’t do that.
Anyway, this is a very unique type of fantasy novel because the key ingredient to this story is the characters, their relationships with each other and their interactions. Because this is an assassin story, all the drama and the action happens in whispered conversations and hand gestures. It’s an intimate story, so don’t go into it expecting war and battle and raging, epic fights for valor and domination. It’s this court intrigue in particular that sets this series apart from others on this list.
What you need to know: high fantasy, male protagonist, magic, shapeshifting, assassins, character driven, multiple POVs, written in third person, family relationships, prophecy/quest storylines.
The Rook – Daniel O’Malley
The Rook is one of my absolute favourite books on this list – which is a hard thing to achieve considering I love all of them. I’m sure that I’ve shouted about it before, but this is such an interesting concept to me, and one of the only times I have seen it done amazingly well – the amnesia storyline. Yup, you heard me. Our MC, Myfanwy, wakes up on the first line of this book, surrounded by dead bodies and absolutely unaware of how she got there and, more importantly, who she is. Throughout the book there are a series of letters to her new self that contain pertinent background information, and this is such a unique and interesting way to share all that contexture that builds a novel in an enterprising and effective way.
Not only that, but it’s essentially a murder mystery type story, set in an science fiction / urban fantasy, modern London scene. Add on to all that ‘special abilities’, a secret government organisation, and a terrorist organisation that is part myth and part horror story, and you have one thrill-seeking adventure story from start to finish. Oh yeah, and it’s been made into a TV series. (I haven’t seen it yet because I’m scared that they’ve changed too much…)
What you need to know: urban fantasy / science fiction, female protagonist, human mutations / abilities, assassins, character driven, written in first and second person, family relationships, government organisation, spy thriller, Australian author.
Enchantment – Orson Scott Card
Yes, I did it. I put ONE fairytale retelling on my list. But honestly, I still think this is the best one out there. Just in case this is new to you, Enchantment is a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but with very heavy overtones of Slavic folklore. And it’s FREAKING AMAZING (even though Orson Scott Card isn’t).
Ivan is a graduate student in the US. His parents have moved from Russia (I think it’s set in the 1990’s) and he decides to go back to Russia to study for his PhD in folklore or something. What ends up happening is that he accidentally stumbles onto a portal to the past or an alternate universe (this part was never clear to me but it has been years since I read it) and there he not only finds Sleeping Beauty and the cursed lands, but also Baba Yaga. If you don’t know about Baba Yaga, please let me tell you!! She’s essentially the Russian version of the witch in the forest, but depending on the story she may be good or bad. But one of the things I love most about her is that her house has chicken legs (see also the MG book The House with Chicken Legs). Anyway, this Baba Yaga is evil, and there are ties with the folk tales of Ivan and the Bear, and the whole story is just so beautifully and masterfully done.
What you need to know: high and urban fantasy, male protagonist, magic, shapeshifting, witches, time / dimensional travel, multiple POVs, written in third person, family relationships, prophecy/quest storylines, Slavic folklore basis.
Of course I read other authors who have amazing books, such as Anne McCaffrey, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis… I just can’t talk about their books here because either I genuinely don’t remember what happened in them (McCaffrey) or it’s highly likely you’ve already read them! Then, of course, there are the books that are still on my own TBR, such as Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, Brandon Sanderson, etc.