What’s Your Favorite Fantasy?

By Nancy Jane Moore

As I promised a couple of weeks ago when I solicited a list of favorite science fiction, here’s your chance to list your favorite fantasy novels, series, collections, short stories, even anthologies. Like the SF list, this was inspired by the NPR project to come up with the best SF/F, but I’m doing a separate list because the two genres are different (even if some stories include elements of both) and because I didn’t want the SF buried under an avalanche of fantasy or vice versa.

As with the SF list, I’m just soliciting your ten favorite fantasies. I’m not going to count votes and make list of the most popular ones, so this is your chance to list the obscure stories you love that others may not have read. Your job here is to reccommend works you love and want everyone to read.

There are a few rules:

1. The Vonda N. McIntyre Rule Reversed: This is a fantasy list, not an SF list. While it can be argued that SF is a subset of fantasy (say that on a panel that includes hard SF writers and watch the fur fly) in that both involve, in the immortal words of my Clarion West classmate Rob Furey, “making some shit up,” they are different. If you include something as fantasy that others might call SF, justify it.

2. The Skip the Usual Suspects Rule: No Tolkien. No J.K. Rowling. Everyone knows The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

3. The YA is OK Rule: I started reading grown up fiction when I was about 12 (I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading anything labeled YA back then) and since the YA craze hit, I find myself reading lots of work that is supposed to be for teenagers. As far as I’m concerned, the line between YA and books for adults is artificial and fuzzy, particularly in fantasy.

4. The No True Horror Rule: As with other genre distinctions, the line between horror and dark fantasy can be very vague. Vampires do not (necessarily) a horror story make, and neither does a tragic ending. I leave it to your best judgment as to whether a given work is fantasy or horror, but if you consider it horror, don’t include it. I’m going to try to convince one of my Book View Cafe compadres who reads more horror than I do to solicit a separate list of same.

5. The Sop to Short Fiction Rule: Short stories, novellas, and the like are OK, whether published separately or not. As with SF, there are some great classics in the short form. Also, as I said in the beginning, anthologies are OK if you think an editor has put together a book full of great stories.

6. The Limit So Things Don’t Get Out of Hand Rule: You’re limited to ten items. List the author and title. You can say why you picked a particular piece, but limit that to one short sentence per item.

7. The Expand Our Horizons Rule: Since we’re not totaling this up to create a best fantasy of all time list, this is the place to list authors or works that you think have been overlooked and to include mainstream and literary authors whose work has speculative elements.

8. The Expanded Russ Pledge Rule: There’s a lot of superb fantasy that wasn’t written by white men in the U.S. and U.K. Include it.

Here’s my list to get your started:

The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t need to explain this one.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. This book restored my faith in fantasy at a time when I was flinging most of the fantasy I picked up against the wall.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Don’t let anyone tell you Nobel lauretes don’t write speculative fiction.

The Northern Girl by Elizabeth A. Lynn. I should probably include the whole Chronicles of Tornor series, but the last one is the one that stays with me the most.

“The Fool’s Tale” by L. Timmel Duchamp. What I’ve always liked best about this story is that it’s hard to tell what is historical fact and what Timmi made up.

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. Magic realism in New Mexico.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Classic magic realism. If you can read Spanish, I recommend reading it in that language — the words just flow beautifully.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. An excellent antidote to all the fantasy set in vaguely medieval European culture.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. The book, not the movie: the images were great in the movie but it screwed up the plot beyond all recognition.

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller. Carol was bending fantasy into new directions long before slipstream and the new weird came along.

OK. That’s my list. What’s yours?

No Man's LandMy story “Gambit” appears in the new anthology No Man’s Land, now available from Dark Quest Press. You can read an excerpt on Book View Cafe.

My novella Changeling is available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the latest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 52 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.



What’s Your Favorite Fantasy? — 30 Comments

  1. 1 – Stephen Donaldson – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. 6 books with another trilogy about finished.

    2 – Janny Wurtz and Raymond Feist – the Empire Trilogy. A spin-of from Raymond Feist’s …

    3 – The Riftwar Saga – must be a gazillion books by now.

    4 – Robin Hobb – the Liveship Traders trilogy – part of the Realm of the Edderlings series. Going stong at 11 books to date

    5 – Trudi Carnavon – the Black Magician trilogy

    6 – Sara Douglass – the Axis trilogy

    7 – J.A. Pitts – Black Blade Blues

    8 – Faith Hunter – the Jane Yellowrock series

    9 – MZB – all her Darkover books

    10 – C.J. Cherryh – the Fortress series

  2. 1) The Elemental Logic books — Laurie J. Marks

    2) The Symphony of Ages — Elizabeth Haydon

    3) The Sun Sword Saga — Michelle West

    4) The Deed of Paksenarrion — Elizabeth Moon

    5) The Black Jewels Trilogy — Anne Bishop

    6) The Blue Sword — Robin McKinley

    7) All the Windwracked Stars — Elizabeth Bear

    8) Oath of Swords — David Weber

    9) The God Stalker Chronicles — P. C. Hodgell

    10) Sabriel — Garth Nix

  3. Ashe, thanks for including the Elemental Logic series. I must have been half asleep when I made my list — I love those books, and they, too, restored my faith in fantasy at a time when everything else I picked up just read like bad Tolkien.

    I somehow forgot Robin McKinley, too. I especially like The Hero and the Crown.

    From the first two comments, I can see we’re going to get another interesting reading list here.

  4. Mine are mostly children’s and YA, mainly because I haven’t done much fiction reading since starting university and because I find YA better suited to my short attention span.

    In no particular order:

    The Wind on Fire trilogy – William Nicholson
    Everything by Tamora Pierce
    City of the Beasts – Isabel Allende (not sure if this counts; it’s more magic realism. I love this book but was disappointed by the sequels)
    Un Lun Dun – China Mieville
    The Moomin series – Tove Janson
    The Wren books – Sherwood Smith (these were the books that got me interested in fantasy. Thanks, Sherwood!)
    His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
    Young Wizards series – Diane Duane (Not sure if this is fantasy or SF – I’ve seen it classified as both. These books do not receive nearly as much attention as they deserve, in my opinion)
    The Halfmen of O trilogy by Maurice Gee (I don’t know if these were even published outside New Zealand, but they made a big impression on me)
    Dreamhunter duet – Elizabeth Knox

  5. Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword (and everything else she’s written, but I’m trying to limit this list to one work per author)
    Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion
    Patricia McKillip, Riddle-Master of Hed/Heir of Sea and Fire/Harpist in the Wind
    Marion Zimmer Bradley, Thendara House
    Beth Hilgartner, Cats in Cyberspace
    Margaret Ball, Flameweaver/Changeweaver
    Mercedes Lackey, The Fire Rose (since I spent too long dithering over which Valdemar book)
    R.A. MacAvoy, Tea with the Black Dragon
    Katherine Kurtz, Camber of Culdi/Saint Camber/Camber the Heretic
    Anne McCaffrey, Dragonsong/Dragonsinger

  6. Sunshine, Robin McKinley

    A Doctrine of Labyrinths, by Sarah Monette

    All Tamora Pierce. I love them too much not to include them, even if they’ve been mentioned before.

    Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

    The Orphan’s Tales, Cathrynne M. Valente – Also a good antidote to male-dominated medieval Europe.

    The Other Ones, Jean Thesman – there’s something so sad and delicate about this YA book. The heroine reminds me of a Robin McKinley heroine.

    Green Rider, Kristen Britain

    Tir Alainn Trilogy, Anne Bishop

  7. Oooh, how to limit to ten? I guess I could pick a random ten out of my list of many beloved books, aiming to try to point out the ones that don’t show up on the usual lists:

    Mary Chase, Loretta Mason Potts. We’d now call it a middle grade, but it had everything I loved–step kids you didn’t know about, secret tunnels at the back of the closet, magic, danger, and the kids have all the agency.

    Kate Elliott: The Crown of Stars series–powerful worldbuilding, epic in scope, ranging from grit to glimpses of the numinous, with such complex characterizations that the huge scope never overwhelms the story.

    Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell: clear back to the days after Napoleon’s defeat, Keats showed in his poem “Lamia” that we have a weakness for dangerous prettyboys, especially ones with a touch of strange–and I think she gets both aspects splendidly in this book.

    Robertson Davies: The Deptford Trilogy though sometimes called slipstream or transrealist, they read like fantasy to me, with subtle characterization, and that sense that the world is much bigger and weirder than we know.

    Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber: one of the four great novels of China, it’s got it all–fantasy, terrific characters, and unlike the other three, which are mostly about the boyz and their toyz, this one focuses on interesting women–it’s a lifetime work, and was amended by other hands, making it a novel with its own fanfic woven in. What could be cooler?

    Steven Brust, Agyar, a tight, terrific, subtle, amazing vampire novel in which the word vampire never appears.

    Dorothy Dunnett: The Lymond Chronicles–yes, often listed under historical novels of the Tudor period, but the element of the fantastic, though subtle, is far too important to be overlooked, and also, not only a riproaring read, spiced with biting wit, but tremendously influential on an entire generation of sf and f writers.

    Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword–this young adult fantasy-without-much-magic is set in Kushner’s popular Riverside world, as a girl is chosen seemingly randomly by her eccentric uncle to be trained as a swordswoman, and what happens as she and her friends, sequestered to “keep them pure” try to parse how the world works from romantic books, a la Charlotte Lennox. But better. Way better.

    Tim Powers, Declare–World War II, spies, and the supernatural . . .combined in the inimitable Powers way, only even better.

    Pamela Dean, Tam Lin–The perfect book is always going to depend on the experience and tastes of the reader, but this is a perfect book to me: there are many boarding school stories, but few set in a college, especially the sort of college I longed to go to instead of my enormous and impersonal university, and this book not only has the setting, and the smart, interesting characters who thrive in such a setting, but it’s got the Tam Lin story which has been done a lot, but I find this version extremely powerful.

    Okay, ten–and this list would change tomorrow. I apologize for the blatant run-ons as I tried to confine myself to a single sentence apiece!

  8. In making my list, I realized how many of my favorites were not necessarily great literature, but comfort reading.

    Lois McMaster Bujold. The Curse of Chalion.
    Barbara Hambly. Dragonsbane.
    Susan Cooper. The Dark Is Rising series.
    Alan Garner. Brisingamen.
    Diana Wynne Jones. Charmed Life.
    Jennifer Roberson. Sword Dancer.
    Elizabeth Goudge. The Little White Horse.
    Pamela Dean. Tam Lin.
    Andre Norton. Witch World.
    Carol Kendall. The Gammage Cup.

  9. 1) Diana Wynne Jones – Aunt Maria (I love pretty much anything she wrote, but this one was twisty and realistic and grim, and I loved it.)
    2) Oscar Wilde – The Canterville Ghost (Because Americans suck sometimes. :D)
    3) Edgar Eager – Knight’s Castle (Because of course Rebecca was so much more awesome than Rowena.)
    4) Susanna Clarke – The Ladies of Grace Adieu (Short fiction!)
    5) Piers Anthony – Yon Ill WInd (Because I never claimed to be classy.)
    6) Mark Twain – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
    7) Patricia C. Wrede – Dealing with Dragons
    8) Terry Pratchett – Hogfather
    9) Zeami – Atsumari (did we say no drama? Or no Noh drama?)
    10) LJ Smith – Night of the Solstice (I think I went for abandoned step-children books here.)

    This was really hard. Can we do historicals next?

  10. Hmmm. Lemme think.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke: dense, rich, incredibly layered, dark. MMmmmm.

    Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey: a really bravura piece of worldbuilding; all the way through I kept scratching my head, wondering how the hell she did it.

    Among Others, Jo Walton: my favorite kind of fantasy, where the fantastic is so woven into the real world that when you stop reading it’s sort of a shock to find that the real world doesn’t contain the fantasy.

    The Farthing Trilogy, also Jo Walton: fabulous alternate history of 20th century Britain under the thumb of a fascist regime.

    Tam Lin, Patricia Wrede: what Sherwood said. I went to a college not unlike the one in the book, but it was never this magical, and none of us were as clever as her characters.

    Territory, Emma Bull: holy cow. It’s set in Tombstone, where Wyatt Earp is one of the wielders of earth magics. Just amazing.

    War for the Oaks, Emma Bull: a lovely fusion of rock and roll and elfland. I maybe want to be Emma Bull when I grow up.

    Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton (I know. Is there anything she’s done that I don’t like?) It’s Anthony Trollope–a perfect Victorian novel, except everyone is a dragon. Honest to God, the way I describe it does not begin to explain the wonderfulness of it.

    The Perelandra Trilogy, C.S. Lewis. I was raised, for the purpose of religious discussion, by wolves. The very thing that some people don’t like about Lewis’s adult books is a thing that engaged me: his use of fantasy as a framework for looking at God and faith (from a distinctly Christian pov).

    The Stars Dispose, Michaela Roessner: different kinds of magic in Renaissance Italy, political and (most fetchingly) food magic. I think there were supposed to be more in the series; alas, no.

    That’s a start, anyway.

  11. Night Watch–Terry Pratchett
    Dreams Underfoot–Charles de Lint
    The Last Unicorn–Peter S. Beagle
    A Wrinkle in Time– Madeline L’Engle
    Winter Rose–Patricia McKillip
    Palimpsest–Cathrynne Valente
    The Black Unicorn–Tanith Lee
    Orlando–Virginia Woolf
    The Mists of Avalon–Marion Zimmer Bradley
    “The Happy Prince”–Oscar Wilde

  12. Steven Erikson: Malazan Book of the Fallen (all 10 of them 🙂 )
    GRR Martin: A Song if Ice and Fire
    Bernard Cornwell: Warlord trilogy
    David Gemmell: Drenai novels (if Feist’s magnus opus counts as one …. 😉 )
    Paul Kearney: Monarchies of God
    Joe Abercrombie: First Law trilogy
    Lois McMaster Bujold: Curse of Chalion (and the other two; yes, I’m cheating here 😛 )
    Adrian Tchaikovsky: Shadows of the Apt series
    R.E. Howard: Conan stories
    R. Scott Bakker: Prince of Nothing series
    J.V. Jones: Sword of Shadows series

  13. Most recently, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the His Majesty’s Dragon series, by Naomi Novik. It isn’t quite O’Brian/Aubrey-Maturin (but then nothing is), but it’s a lot of fun.

  14. I can’t believe I forgot about Terry Pratchett! Seconding Hogfather, and I also especially love I Shall Wear Midnight.

  15. I’m loving this, because I have other other “favorite fantasies” that I couldn’t get in under the 10 works limit that are showing up here.

  16. What Madeleine and Gabriele said gets at the heart of what’s wrong with “ten best” lists, or even “100 best of all time” lists. There’s always another book that ought to be included. The ten-story limit here is arbitrary in the interest of keeping the comments to a reasonable length; it’s not meant to imply that the number ten means anything.

    Isn’t it nice to contemplate what a wealth of stories we have available to us?

  17. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I also have to add my vote for Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic series of:

    * Fire Logic
    * Earth Logic
    * Water Logic

    Absolutely amazing books. Terrific writing, sophisticated characters, sophisticated worldview and kickass adventure.

    Also wonderful is Laurie’s Dancing Jack. I think it’s out of print, but it’s a terrific book if you can find it.

  18. The Fionvar Tapestry trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay
    Running with the Demon, Terry Brooks
    The Silent Strength of Stones, Nina Kiriki Hoffman
    Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher and the other Magic Shop books, Bruce Coville (… kid’s books, sure, but I still re-read them)
    Spellsinger, Alan Dean Foster
    The Assassin books, Robin Hobb
    Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock (also anything else of his – seriously mythic stuff)
    Strands of Sunlight & sequels, Gael Baudino

    (Cara M: Yay for Night of the Solstice! I didn’t think anyone else had heard of that one. It was just about my favorite book ever as a kid – I still have it in hardbound.)

  19. 1) A Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen by Barry Hughart – my favorite is the second, but they’re all excellent, and you have to read the first one first.

    2) Anything by Dave Duncan, though there is a special place in my heart for Children of Chaos/Mother of Lies since it was the first of his works that I read.

    3) Mushishi (series) by Yuki Urushibara – the most concise description I can give is that it feels a lot like the things I enjoy about The Twilight Zone.

    4) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis – I like all the Narnia books, but this is far and away my favorite (and incidentally, bears almost zero resemblance to its movie).

    5) The Marmalade Shore by Richard Comus Tammar – proof that vanity press produces something good very occasionally.

    I’ll leave the other five until I have some room to rummage around and see what I migh have forgotten…

  20. Mushishi! Lord, yes! If there’s something that perfectly embodies what I want when I want fantasy, Mushishi is it. It’s a lot like Susanna Clarke in that way. Neither good nor bad, just different. xxxHolic is almost the opposite, since it’s morality is like a supernatural presence, but it’s similar at the same time.

    I wanted to put Yumiko Kurahashi’s Woman with the Flying Head and other stories, and Tanizaki’s short fiction too, but I didn’t ‘like’ them so much as feel like I was enlightened/changed/horrified for having experienced them.

  21. Unquenchable Fire – Rachel Pollack
    Little, Big – John Crowley
    Saffron and Brimstone (collection) – Elizabeth Hand
    Talking Man – Terry Bisson
    The Stress of Her Regard – Tim Powers (if I were making this list on a different day this entry could be The Anubis Gates or On Stranger Tides)
    Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner
    Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock
    The Tower at Stony Wood – Patricia McKillip (again on a different day this could be Ombria in Shadow or Winter Rose)
    The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories – Jeffrey Ford
    The Book of Chameleons – Jose Eduardo Agualusa

  22. In no particular order:

    The Queen’s Thief books by Megan Whalen Turner
    The Lions of Al Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin (not exactly obscure, I know)
    the Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
    The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
    Websters’ Leap by Eileen Dunlop
    The Old Kingdom Series by Garth Nix
    The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
    Perloo the Bold by Avi
    The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper

  23. Melusine by Sarah Monette (1st of 4 books in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series)
    The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg
    Flesh and Bone by Carol Berg
    The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust
    Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale
    The Bone Key by Sarah Monette
    “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith
    “Three Twilight Tales” by Jo Walton (Made me a fan!)
    Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
    Bridge of Dreams by Chaz Brenchley

    I always find making lists like these unsatisfying and vaguely depressing. But these are all great books/stories that I have/would recommend.

  24. There are many selections I want to second, but in the interest of expanding the list:

    1. A Fistful of Sky — Nina Kiriki Hoffman
    2. The Discworld books — Terry Pratchett (start with Guards! Guards!)
    3. Stardust — Neil Gaiman
    4. Sorcery and Cecelia — Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
    5. Chalice — Robin McKinley
    6. Alphabet of Thorn — Patricia A. McKillip
    7. The Dalemark Quartet — Diana Wynne Jones
    8. the October Daye books — Seanan McGuire
    9. The King’s Peace/The King’s Name — Jo Walton
    10. Treasure at the Heart of the Tanglewood — Meredith Ann Pierce

  25. Jack Vance- The Lyonesse series- Funny, fine use of colors and understatement.

  26. Back to this finally. The usual suspects rule actually eliminates several of my favorite fantasy novels by women…

    6) The SO’s pick: The Belgariad and Malloreon series by David Eddings. Particularly worth mentioning because the SO doesn’t like much fantasy.

    7) The Ethshar novels by Lawrence Watt-Evans – constantly inventive and highly readable.

    8) Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke – right by the borderline between science fiction and fantasy, but I’d put it just barely on the fantasy side.

    9) The Arrows trilogy (starting with Arrows of the Queen) by Mercedes Lackey – I feel I’ve outgrown these, but I’ve recommended them to a lot of people asking “What do I read after Harry Potter?”.

    10) Sabriel by Garth Nix – the first fantasy novel I’ve ever read where the Chosen One who must be hidden from Dark Forces is not kept in crippling ignorance, and even has been given some proper training in what she will need to do when it’s time to emerge.