I’ve been wanting to make this list for a long time, a greatest of, but strictly for fantasy novels. So this list excludes a lot of great books, like the Sci-Fi masterpiece that is Frank Herbert’s Dune. I also left out things that could be construed as fantasy, but also fall into other genres, like Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein. Children’s books, some of which are just as wonderful, like the Velveteen Rabbit, are also out, as are comics, despite being great works of art in their own right (Watchmen and The Sandman immediately come to mind). Also missing, anything written more than one hundred years ago (sorry Homer!).
If you’ll notice, there are a great deal of young adult books on this list. This kind of came as a surprise to me too. I suppose young adult novels possess the kind of nostalgic, wistful, boundless imagination that I love. They also tend to have more heart. I do not really count world-building among my priorities, after all. For me, story is everything, followed closely by character. If a book also has a nice, fully realized setting, that’s just frosting on the cake, but it can in no means take the place of the cake itself.
This is the very best telling of one of the very best myths. It’s the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Guinevere, with everything you might want out of fantasy. But more importantly, T.H. White pulls at the heart strings while teaching you lessons about life, love, and loyalty.
On the surface, The Never Ending Story is children’s fare, but on a much deeper level, the land of Fantastica with its strange and magical inhabitants serves as a continuing metaphor for the many facets of human desire, from simple wants like strength and security to the need to be admired, respected, and even feared. Like many other books in the genre, The Never Ending Story explores themes of identity and “absolute power corrupting absolutely” but Ende works it into his story effortlessly, with subtlety and deep insight.
Peter S. Beagle is one of the great novelist-poets of our time. His prose is literary music, his fiction is story in its purest form. The Last Unicorn is a created myth that doesn’t feel created, but like something found hidden in a fairy wood. For all those people who argue that we should abandon poetic style because it distracts from the story, I challenge you to read Beagle. If anything, beautiful writing is the special effects of books (you can quote me on that!).
Of course I had to include Tolkien on this list, but sorry, ringers, Lord of the Rings is not the Bible of fantasy for this reader. The Hobbit is more charming, has a lot more humor, and is much less plodding than its bigger sibling. It is also superbly written, with such wonderfully descriptive passages that every future fantasist felt compelled to imitate it, thus ruining the fantasy genre forever.
In the category of originality, Mythago Wood takes top honors. This mystery tale is compelling while dodging the pitfalls of excessive exposition. And, just like Beagle and Tolkien, Holdstock manages to not only tap into that subconscious part of the brain (or is it heart?) where fantasy lives, but deconstructs it, making fantasy and the imagination itself the theme of his book.
The most crucial part of making a fantasy series is laying down the foundation. Sorcerer’s Stone not only creates a world you immediately want to live in, but it’s the only book in Rowling’s seven part series that stands on its own. Most of what came after, with few exceptions, is a retelling of this wonderful tale.
Disagree with my picks? Read something better? Post away!