Right now, we could all use a little distraction from the real world. Whether you are a voracious reader or have just burned through your entire Netflix catalog, this is a great time to pick up a book and lose yourself in a far, far away world .
Many genres offer a distraction from day-to-day life but none offers more or better escapism than fantasy novels. These novels transport you to far off worlds with mystical, magical characters and places the likes of which you might not even have dreamed about. They are the perfect antidote to the stresses of the real world by giving your mind a rest in an imagined someplace else.
This list offers some of the best fantasy novels for adults to read this year. It is a mix of some of the best fantasy novels of the last few years and the best fantasy novels of all time. There will be some books on this list that will be very familiar to fantasy fans and are great gateway novels for fantasy newbies. There will also be some hidden gems for hardcore fantasy-heads looking for something new. Here are the best fantasy novels to lose yourself in this year.
1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien – 1937
The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again by J. R. R. Tolkien (2012) Paperback
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If you are new to fantasy, this J.R.R Tolkien classic is probably the one of the best access points. If you love fantasy, there is a good chance this is the book that kick-started your love for this genre. Either way, losing yourself in Middle-earth with Bilbo Baggins and his enormous cast of friends and enemies is a great time. This book – and the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed – have spawned multiple films and are considered by many to be not just the best fantasy novels of all time but THE best in the genre. Reading, or even rereading, The Hobbit is a great place to start your 2020 best fantasy novels kick.
2. A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin – 1996
A Game of Thrones (Song of Ice and Fire)
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- A Game of Thrones (Song of Ice and Fire) Hardcover
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last decade, it is likely you are at least somewhat familiar with Game of Thrones. This is the first book in the epic sword and sandal-style tale that was used as the template to create one of the most successful TV shows of all time on HBO. The story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Westeros and is known for its shocking twists and turns. Even if you have seen the TV show, there is enough difference and additional detail in the books to make it worthwhile to read this series. Once you have read the 5 novels Martin has written, you will be well prepared to read the remaining two volumes that are supposedly coming. Reading the books will give you a new perspective while watching (or re-watching) 88 hours of the TV show. That should keep you busy for a while!
3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis – 1950
Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: A Celebration of the First Edition (Chronicles of Narnia)
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- HarperCollins Publishers
If there is such a thing as a triumvirate of the best fantasy novels of all time, this C.S. Lewis classic would join A Game of Thrones and The Hobbit as the three most iconic and best fantasy novels ever written. This is the first title in the seven-book series The Chronicles of Narnia. It tells the story of what happens when Lucy and her three siblings step into a magical wardrobe and are transported to the world of Narnia. Here, they encounter mystical talking animals and are enlisted to help fight the evil White Witch. It is an amazing world fantasy fans have appreciated for 70 years. Just remember: Aslan is not a tame lion!
4. The Name of the Wind– Patrick Rothfuss – 2007
The Name of the Wind
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- Discover #1 New York Times-bestselling Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy series, The Kingkiller Chronicle.
If you are looking for one of the best fantasy novels for adults written in the 2000s, this first book from American fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles series is a great choice. Like most of the best fantasy titles, this book and its accompanying series are genre-redefining so you don’t have to already be a massive fantasy fan to enjoy it. It is an “autobiographical” tale told by Kvothe, the narrator, who is a world-class magician, musician, and sword-fighter traveling through the fictional world of Temerant. It is a great book and a great series – but be warned, if you want to read the entire story you will have to be patient. The 3rd book in the series, The Doors of Stone, is yet to be released. Rumor has it that the next installment will arrive in bookstores in August 2020.
5. Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)– Phillip Pullman – 1995
His Dark Materials: Northern Lights (Gift Edition)
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For those fans who were introduced to fantasy novels through Game of Thrones, HBO has recently released a new show inspired by another high ranking title among the best fantasy novels of all time: His Dark Materials. This show is based on the trilogy of the same name by the English novelist Phillip Pullman. Northern Lights is the first book in the series. Published in the United States as The Golden Compass, the opening book features the coming-of-age story of Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who travels through parallel universes in search of her missing friend, Roger Parslow and her imprisoned uncle, Lord Asriel. The other two parts of this trilogy are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. This is the perfect set for people who enjoy complex plots and want to be in the know about the next HBO fantasy hit.
6. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell – 2004
Cloud Atlas: A Novel (Modern Library (Hardcover))
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This epic tale is a standalone fantasy novel that spans time from the 1800s to a post-apocalyptic future. It is written as 6 different interconnected, nested stories with the main character of the next story telling the prior story. The first 5 stories are all interrupted at a key moment to move to the next, and as the 6th story finishes, the other 5 are concluded in descending order. It is a very interesting and engaging story and style of writing and, like many of the best fantasy novels, has already been made into a movie. The 2012 film based on this novel stars Halle Berry and Tom Hanks.
7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King – 1982
The Gunslinger(The Dark Tower I)
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This novel, the first in the Dark Tower series, is among the best fantasy novels even though it was written by the author known as The Master of Horror. Stephen King once said that this series is a cross between Lord of the Rings, The Legend of King Arthur, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The story follows the last legendary gunslinger, Ronald Deschain, as he travels through the vast desert and beyond to find his nemesis, “the man in black”. We all know what an amazing horror writer King is. His ability to write fantasy may surprise you.
8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke – 2004
Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)
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Although this debut novel by British author Susanna Clarke was written less than 20 years ago, it is already considered one of the best fantasy novels of all time. Written as an alternative version of history set in 19th century England during the Napoleonic Wars, the story reveals that magic used to exist in England, faded away and has now returned to two men, Johnathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. The book chronicles their relationship in 3 parts, Volume I: Mr. Norrell, Volume II: Jonathan Strange, and Volume III: John Uskglass. Clarke spent a decade writing the story. The extended time was well worth it, both for her and her fans alike.
9. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman – 2006
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (P.S.)
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Whether you are already a fan of Neil Gaiman, or have never heard of him, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, is a great reading experience. Be prepared, though. This is not a typical book. Gaiman is a prolific modern British fantasy writer who has produced such classics as Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. If you are not familiar with his work, Fragile Things is a great collection of short stories to help the reader get a sampling of how the author writes and tells stories. For Gaiman fans, you will be treated to a short postscript to “American Gods”, a story set in the world of The Matrix, and even some poetry. It is one of the best fantasy novels for adults written this century even if it does stretch the definition of a “novel”.
10. Storm Front – Jim Butcher – 2000
Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1)
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If you are a fan of hard-boiled detective novels and want a gateway into the fantasy genre, The Dresden Files series has the best fantasy novels to help you do this. Storm Front, the first in the series, recounts the adventures of Harry Dresden, a private investigator who also lends a hand to the Special Investigation Unit of the Chicago PD. The only difference between Dresden and the usual literary PI’s is that Dresden is a wizard. He takes cases involving werewolves, vampires, demons, and other assorted monsters and spirits. If you like the series after this book, there are 15 others featuring Dresden with 2 more announced for 2020 publication.
11. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett – 1983
Not only are the books in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series some of the best fantasy novels of all time, but they are also some of the funniest. This novel is the first in the incredible 41-book series that hilariously chronicles adventures on the planet Discworld, a flat planet that rests on the backs of four enormous elephants, all standing on the back of a giant sea turtle named Great A’Tuin. This first book tells the tale of the misadventures of Rincewind, a cynical and inept wizard. The late author once described this book and the series that followed as his “attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns.”
12. Dying of the Light – George R.R. Martin – 1977
Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and all George R.R. Martin, this book is Martin’s first novel and a great piece for Game of Thrones fans to explore. Set on the dying planet of Worlon, this novel can easily stand on its own but exploring the beginning of Martin’s career is the real treat. In this first novel from an author who has been called “the American Tolkien”, you can see some of the literary styles that would undergird some of the best fantasy novels and TV shows. This novel is replete with the epic battles, main character deaths, and ambiguous mortality that have carried Martin’s work for the last four decades.
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch – 2006
Another of the best fantasy novels written in this century, this story by Scott Lynch is the first in the Gentleman Bastard series . The novels are set in Camorr, a fictional place modeled after 16th and 17th century Venice, Italy. In this book, the chapters alternate between the main characters fighting the Gray King, a shadowy figure fighting for control of the underworld, and chapters that describe the history of the city and the main character, Locke Lamora. The world is filled with magic, crime, and a mystical, unbreakable material known as Elderglass. This book, and the accompanying series, is one of the best fantasy novels for adults. The series is still being written. If you enjoy this book and the others in the series, there are more to come!.
14. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman – 1990
Both Pratchett and Gaiman have books on this list individually. However, the collaboration between these two fantasy masters is what makes this title unique among best fantasy novels. The two authors, who were friends for years, decided to write a book together in the late 1980s. The result of this collaboration was the story of Aziraphale and Crowley, an angel and a demon who team up to stop the End Times from happening because they have both become accustomed to the trappings and ease of modern life. What follows are some of the best fantasy comedy stories ever told, which is no surprise since they come from two masters of the genre.
15. The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski – 1993
What started as a fantasy novel and then a book series with a cult following in Poland and Eastern Europe has exploded into an international phenomenon that has spawned a movie, two TV series, and a trio of best selling video games. This is the first novel in The Witcher series, written by Polish fantasy novelist Andrzej Sapkowski. The story follows Geralt of Rivia and his fellow witchers. Witchers are beast hunters who possess the supernatural powers needed to do battle with mythical creatures and monsters. Unfortunately, Sapkowski’s first book in the series, The Witcher, is no longer in publication. All is not lost, however. The stories have been added to The Last Wish. Even though this book was published a year after the second book in the series, Sword of Destiny, it is the first book in the chronology of the story.
16. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain – 1889
You might not think of Mark Twain or his writings when you think of “best fantasy novels”, but this book, written over 100 years ago is one of the first works that can be considered fantasy. The story, written with Twain’s trademark humor, is about Hank Morgan, an engineer from Connecticut. Morgan takes a serious hit to the head and is transported back in time to King Arthur’s Court. Using his knowledge of “modern” practices and technology, he convinces the King and his knights that he is a powerful magician. This book is different from much of what Twain wrote and, as a fantasy novel, it is very interesting reading.
17. Eragon – Christopher Paolini – 2003
Christopher Paolini is a bit of a fantasy novelist prodigy. He wrote Eragon, the first in his series, The Inheritance Cycle when he was only a teenager. He self-published the novel when he was 21 and a year later a major publishing house picked it up. Eragon soon became a New York Times bestselling book. In the ensuing years, this and the other titles in the series have sold over 25 million copies worldwide. The books follow the title character, Eragon, who finds what he thinks is a mysterious stone. The stone turns out to be a dragon egg that hatches Saphira. The boy and his dragon must fight off the evil King Galbatorix who is after them. This is a great novel made even more impressive by the young author’s personal story.
18. Wizard’s First Rule – Terry Goodkind – 1994
When author Terry Goodkind sent the manuscript of Wizard’s First Rule to publishers in the early 90s, publishers were so enthralled with it that a bidding war ensued. Publishers bid against each other driving the price of the book rights to $275,000, a fantasy genre record. What came after was 20 more epic fantasy novels which would eventually make up Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series. This book is the start of the series and a masterwork of fantasy. You should read it for the story of Richard Cypher investigating the murder of his father, as well as to see what all the fuss was about. The title is drawn from the revelation of a “Wizard’s Rule” in each book in the series. It’s a handy way to know which book to read next.
19. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake – 1946
This book, the first in the Gormenghast series, is widely considered to be the well-kept secret series that rivals Lord of the Rings. This is why, even though it is among the best fantasy novels for adults ever written, not that many know about it. Written about a decade after the first book in Tolkien’s classic series, this book is about the goings-on at the gothic Castle Gormenghast and follows the titular protagonist through his life and adventures. The first book here is not out and out fantasy as some might expect, but the series grows more fantastical as it continues. For those readers looking for something less mainstream but as engaging as Tolkien, this is a great book.
20. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 1967
Some may quibble with the inclusion of this classic of South American literature on a list of best fantasy novels but this is as much fantasy as any other story here. Technically, this book hails from the magical realism genre but there are plenty of fantasy elements that fans know and love. The story covers 7 generations of the Buendia family along with the rise and fall of the fictional town of Macondo in Colombia. Although the genre fit might not be perfect, the novel pretty much is. No matter what you call this story, fantasy fans will love it.
21. The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson – 2010
This is the first of a planned 10 book-series from modern fantasy master Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is well known in the genre for this, the Mistborn series, and for finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series after the author passed away. In The Way of Kings, Sanderson introduces us to Roshar, the planet, and supercontinent where the novel and the series take place. What follows are tales of warring nations, magic, knights, and mystical swords. This is a must-read for fantasy fans and, with a 3rd book to be released in 2020 and 7 more to follow, now is a good time to jump on this fantasy bandwagon.
22. Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey – 1968
This is book number 1 in the iconoclastic Dragon Riders of Pern series written by Irish author Anne McCaffrey. As the title of the book and the series suggest, these books involve humans who have inhabited the planet Pern and the dragons who help defend their civilization from attacks by the Threads. This first book follows the story of Lessa, a former noblewoman whose family was killed. She is forced to go into hiding as a servant until her natural Dragon-riding gifts allow her to find a new life. An interesting note about the authorships of these books is that, starting in 2003, McCaffrey’s son Todd began helping his mother write and has since taken over since his mother’s passing in 2011.
23. The Chronicles of Amber: Volume 1 – Roger Zelazny – 1970 – 1978
The Chronicles of Amber is a fantasy series by famed fantasy writer Roger Zelazny. The series itself is actually 10 books long but nowadays it is generally published in 2 volumes, representing the two main story arcs. Volume 1, also known as The Corwin Cycle, is made up of 5 books written by Zalazny between 1970 and 1978. These titles include, Nine Princes in Amber (1970), The Guns of Avalon (1972), Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976), and The Courts of Chaos (1978). These first 5 stories are narrated by Corwin, a prince of Amber, one of the two true worlds. The book is set here, in the other true world, Chaos, and in the shadow worlds that exist in-between these places. These are quick reads – the combined books are less than 800 pages in paperback – and readers will love Zelazny’s flawed heroes who try their best but often fail.
24. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle – 1968
This fantasy classic has sold over 5 million copies in the last 50+ years and has been translated into more than 20 languages. When a Unicorn is told by hunter’s that she may be the last of her kind, she sets out to confront the beast that may be responsible for this near-extinction, Red Bull. On the journey, The Unicorn is joined by Schmendrick, a blundering magician and the resolute Molly Grue. Together these three go on an epic adventure, away from the woods where the Unicorn is protected, and all three learn many valuable lessons along the way to the castle of King Haggard.