Top Five Fantasy Books

Hey, we have a thread for sci-fi… why not fantasy? (Comments from Tom not allowed.)

This is a tough one for me. Picking just five fantasy novels forces me to skip over so many books that I love: Moorcock’s Elric books, Zelazny’s Amber series, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes… all right, I’m cheating. My picks:

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Every time I read these, I gain new appreciation for Lewis’ flair for simple, elegant prose. Great books.

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H.P. Lovecraft. Probably my favorite Lovecraft story, it certainly qualifies as fantasy.

The Riddle Master of Hed, by Patricia A. McKillip. I can’t say enough good things about McKillip’s contributions to fantasy literature, and this is her best book (along with its two other parts, Heir of Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind). I’ve never read a book by McKillip that I didn’t love; I’m currently working on Ombria in Shadow, and it’s fantastic.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. I know they aren’t for everyone, but they are for me. Donaldson writes some of the most complicated and interesting characters in any genre of literature. If you didn’t like these books, don’t write Donaldson off–he’s a fantastic writer. Try Mordant’s Need (The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through) instead.

I would have to say (in no particular order):

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever as well. I much prefered the first trillogy to the 2nd.

  2. David Eddings’ Belgariad series. I just remember the characters being great in that series, and the 2nd but the 2nd was just more of the same.

  3. The Guardian’s of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg. It is entertaining and the story never stops moving. The first four are very good, after that it loses a bit.

  4. Pier’s Anthony’s Xanth series. Early on it was funny and clever. Of course he is still milking it for all it is worth. I quit reading after the first 4 or 5 but it was good up until then as I recall.

  5. Raymond Feist’s Magician Series. I really enjoyed this and started reading it because of the Betrayal at Krondor game.

I have read a lot more but my memory sucks and I haven’t read a lot recently. I only really remember disliking a few series like that Robert Jordan Wheel of Time crap (where I wanted to sue him for lost time by the time I quit reading the series). I am currently starting the Lord of the Rings, which bored the hell out of me when I tried to read it earlier in life.

Oh I had a flashback of the Sunset Warrior series by Eric Van Lustbader. I read some of the reviews at Amazon and it all came flooding back. Some of the best swordplay in a book ever. A ton of action but really a fun read as I recall.

Oh and fun is perfectly valid btw. It is as good as saying I enjoyed it. I may start a thread about this in and of itself.

– Xaroc

Picking my five favorites is tough. What I remember liking years ago, I might not like as much now. Even so:

All time favorites

  1. Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.
  2. The Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula LeGuin. I was surprised her science fiction novels didn’t get more picks on the science fiction thread.
  3. The Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series, by Fritz Lieber. A rare instance in which I liked a series that had more than three books in it.
  4. The Last Unicorn, by Peter Beagle.
  5. The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

Special Mention/Sui Generis

  1. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, especially the annotated version by Martin Gardner.

Recent Fantasy
My favorite recent fantasy has been the Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb.

Other comments
I strongly second the nomination of The Riddlemaster of Hed series, but I couldn’t put it in my own top five. I can’t agree with nominating the Covenant series, though I’ll concede I couldn’t put the books down years ago when I read them. Donaldson is undoubtedly an immensely talented, intelligent writer, but he is unfortunately at least neurotic and may be psychotic. I had a tough time leaving out of my top 5 list the Fionnavar Tapestry series by Guy Gavriel Kay and either the Amber series or Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

When I was about 12, it seemed I wouldn’t read any book unless it had a map at the beginning. ;)

  1. Lord of the Rings if I can count it all as one book. If not, then Fellowship is definitely the best IMO, and would be the one I would choose.

  2. The Magician’s Nephew – my favorite of the Narnia books. The chapter where they visit Charn, and encounter the ancient queen Jadis, is simply wonderful. (The Deplorable Word – shudder!) The Narnia books have a delightful appeal – the idea that another universe is just around the corner (or through a wardrobe).

  3. The Seven Altars of Dusarra (by Lawrence Watt-Evans). I haven’t read this in something like 15 years, but I remember it being a great piece of pulp-fantasy fiction. The “Lords of Dus” series (now out of print I believe) was about a group of strange creatures called “Overmen” – like humans but larger and more powerful, and exiled to a small peninsula. One of the Overmen (Garth is his name, I think) is hired by an incredibly ancient man named the Forgotten King, who is immortal and desperately seeking a way to die. In this book, Garth goes to a great city and must steal artifacts from the various religious cults. In tone it recalls Howard’s Conan books. There’s a great scene where Garth must make his way through a pitch-black maze to reach one of the altars. I’d love to read the “Dus” books again to see if they hold up, or if my fondness for them stemmed more from the fact that I was about 12 at the time I read them.

  4. One of the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin. Probably “Tombs of Atuan,” if I had to pick one. Le Guin’s writing is always intelligent and full of vivid symbolic resonances.

  5. Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard. The only Conan book I have read. It’s pulp, it’s crappy in a way, the prose is overwrought, but there’s still something really fun about the world Howard creates. A world of adventure, of violence, of blood and steel and sinew and Gods and beasts and far-flung kingdoms. Just the thing for a hyperactive adolescent to read.

Honorable mentions:

Another Fine Myth (Robert Asprin)
A Spell for Chameleon (Anthony)
The Gods of Mars (Burroughs) – technically it’s sci-fi, but only technically
Groo the Wanderer (comics) by Sergio Aragones – classic Conan spoof

Dishonorable Mention:

The Belgariad by David Eddings. Yuck!

I’ve been thinking about getting Burroughs’ Mars books. And CS Lewis’ Space trilogy. I have this irresistable urge to read the reference material for the second volume of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

JRR Tolkien - Lord of Rings
CS Lewis - Narnia Chronicles
Glen Cook - Black Company Series
Lloyd Alexander - Taran books
RA Savatore - Dark Elf books

I really havent read much fantasy… compared to sci fi that is.


  • Ray Feist’s Midkemia/Magician series, but excluding the later books written in conjunction with the second Krondor game by Sierra. Those 3 books tend to fall flat and the last one was just plain bad (hey, even a master has his bad days).

    However, the first 8 to 10 books in the series are mesmerizing. His last quartet, the Serpentwar Saga, is incredible. Great characters, great stories.

  • The obligatory LOTR mention.

  • Jennifer Robeson’s two best series, Cheysuli and Tiger and Del.

  • Andre Norton’s Witch World series. Probably more aimed at the juvenile market, but still a good read.

  • Pournell’s Jannisaries series. OK, it is more science fantasy, but I like it.

I’ll second that vote for the Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, which are basically a fantasy retelling of parts of the Mabinogion, the big compendium of Welsh mythology. If you liked those, you might be interested in Evageline Walton’s “Mabinogion Tetralogy,” a more direct interpretation of those stories. I say “might” because I haven’t started reading it myself yet–I Just saw it at the store the other day and was intrigued. I plan to take a copy with me when I go on vacation.

BTW, if you like Lloyd Alexander’s stuff, definitely read the Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and the Beggar Queen, all by Alexander). I haven’t read them in many years, but I remember enjoying them as much (if not more so) than the Prydain books.

Ah the Taran books, I read those when I was a kid and remember enjoying them a lot. I remember the name of the Bard in that series was something like Flwder Flamm. I read the Narnia Chronicles as well but a long long time ago. I am guessing I read both of those series somewhere around the 6th or 7th grades. The Shanara books and The Thomas Covanent stuff around 8th or so.

I also remember around 5th grade about a Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and a book with tripod people that kept humans as slaves that I just can’t put my finger on but those are both in the Sci-fi category.

– Xaroc

You beat me to that one. That and her other book, A Wind in the Door, were both terrific as I remember. I keep threatening to go back and pick them up again and never have. Anyone re-read those two lately?

I’ll go with:

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Moorcock’s Elric Saga (not his later entries though)
Donaldson’s Covenant (I actually prefer the 2nd Chronicles but understand why most people like the 1st set better)
Robert E. Howard’s first Conan book
Beowulf (really, and not just to be “air-e-you-dite”, I’m reading the new Heaney translation now)

Good call on the Lovecraft vote earlier. But his Dream stuff was never a favorite of mine. I probably should try it again.

  1. Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, especially the first sequence.
  2. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series
  3. Raymond Feist’s Riftwar/Magician series
  4. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series
  5. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Legends trilogy

Hmm, lots of series, few books :)

My favorite books not part of a series: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, Zelazny’s young adult book A Dark Traveling, Zelazny’s and Robert Sheckley’s If at Faust You Don’t Succeed (part of a series, but the best part), Paul B. Thompson & Tonya Carter’s Darkness & Light.


I need to think about my list, but I know this. I love the LotR is on your lists, but The Hobbit should be there as well, as it defined several things for the genre, most importantly the Dragon.

Smaug is the grandfather of just about any sentient scaley critter in fiction, just as Gandalf is to wizards, Aragorn to rangers, etc.

Sorry… no.
Smaug is very much like all the dragons before him. From the one that bothered St. George, the one Hercules tussled with, to Smok Wawelski of Krakow. Smaug is a European Western Dragon through and through, but there’s almost nothing original about him… including that tragic missing scale. Yeah, a great dragon character but he is a direct and clear descendant of a long scaly line of mythology and storytelling.

(So is Gandalf, btw.)

Did those dragons talk? (I haven’t read those myths and would be interested to know… I always figured, for instance, that St. George’s dragon was just a snarling beast he speared.) The thing about Smaug that always struck me was his personality. One obvious descendant is Yevaud in the Earthsea books.

Yes. I know there’s a talking dragon in a Greek myth but I can’t find it right now. Also, pretty much all Eastern/Asian dragons talk. The George dragon did not. I think Tolkien got it from the Scandanavian, let’s see if you recognize anything else from that story.

Here’s why: The hero Sigurd of the Volsungs inherited a magic sword that had been broken and then reforged . He met and slew the talking dragon Fafnir, who rested on a horde of gold and in that horde he found a magic ring that brought curse and ruin upon him. He called that ring his birthday present… ok, I made that one up. Also Fafnir could read minds… which strikes me as being similar to being able to see/sense invisible hobbits.

As an aside: Beowulf’s dragon gets all mad when someone steals a meager cup from his horde. That dragon didn’t talk, but, well, that’s familiar too.

Tolkien wrote the definitive Beowulf translation at one time, btw. and he specialized in Scandanavian lore. Hence the dwarves, elves, trolls, goblins and talking horde guarding dragons. Don’t get me wrong, Smaug is an excellent character and the archetypes Scott A. mentions are true. Most fantasy freaks don’t go any further back than Tolkien when creating their Wizards, Rangers, Elves, Dwarves and Dragons.

Oh, didn’t Tolkien write another dragon story? The Smith of Wotten Major or Farmer Giles of Ham? Didn’t that dragon talk? I’m not sure if it predated The Hobbit but it was Tolkien drawing upon fairy tales… and worth checking out.

Dragons in early folklore from the British isles (which were heavily influenced by Norse folklore), are’t much like Smaug or modern dragons. In Britain you have the Wyrm, a scaly, wingless, legless beast more like a serpent than a contemporary dragon. Often they were described as being able to rejoin after being cut into pieces and as having poisonous breath. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen a traditional story in which the dragon could talk, at least not in Britain. Asian dragons could, of course, and some Norse dragons could (Fafnir, et al). They were said to guard treasure in lakes and caves, however–particularly lakes. Dragons are often associated with water. The Brits used to call their swamp dragons “knuckers,” a word that probably derives from the Welsh “Nicor,” meaning “water monster.”

When Christianity became the new trend, the dragon became the popular symbol for paganism, which is where you get all the medieval paintings of saints slaying various dragons. The dragon that is most often depicted in art and visualized by most people is the heraldic dragon, which is fire breathing, has legs and arms equipped with sharp talons, and wings like those of a bat. This is a later rendering of the dragon, and may date from influences brought over by the Romans. It may have also developed from the Wyvern, which had the legs of and wings of an eagle and the body of a serpent.

Tolkien’s Smaug most closely resembles the heraldic dragon in appearance, while borrowing some characteristics of dragons from earlier folklore, particularly the dragon from the story of “Peredur the Son of Evrawc” in the Mabinogion:

“Peredur rode forward next day, and he traversed a vast tract of desert, in which no dwellings were. And at length he came to a habitation, mean and small. And there he heard that there was a serpent that lay upon a gold ring, and suffered none to inhabit the country for seven miles around.”

I actually wrote a paper in high school comparing similarities between Beowulf and Tolkien. I remember noting parallels in descriptions of the dragon’s hoard.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Tolkien invented the wizard or the dragon. I just think his particular spin on the characters ( and not the myths that he was basing them on) became an archetype for dozens of fantasy hacks.

2- A Song of Ice & Fire series
3- The Belgariad
4- The Dragonlance trilogy
5- Early Xanth(The first fantasy I got into. Ogre Ogre was my first one…Smash rules. :D)