Are you looking for your next fantasy must-read? From wizards and werewolves to weird happenings underground, we’ve pulled together some of the WIRED team’s favourite fantasy series. Some are set in strange and fantastic worlds, while others start a little closer to home. And, if you’d like more reading ideas, read our guide to the best sci-fi books.
Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011)
Set in a lovingly described version of present-day London, the Rivers of London series charts the adventures of Detective Constable Peter Grant, one of two wizards in the Metropolitan Police. It grounds its fantastical elements in the scientific method, and the mixture of flying spells and police jargon gives the ongoing series a unique and enjoyable tone. The first book, Rivers of London describes an encounter with a malevolent spirit that draws Grant into the capital’s magical underworld.
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan (1990-2007)
An epic fourteen novel saga, (as well as a prequel novel and two companion books), the author James Oliver Rigney Jr. (pen name Robert Jordan), published the first entry in 1990 and was still writing on his death in 2007. Too vast to summarise, the fantasy world – actually a distant version of Earth – is epic and magical, with a gigantic cast of characters. The series has spawned a video game, a roleplaying game, a soundtrack album and a forthcoming TV series, and the books have sold more than 80 million copies, making it one of the bestselling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings.
The Gormenghast series, by Mervyn Peake (1946-56)
The first instalment of Mervyn Peake’s epic fantasy series, which features three books and a novella, was published in 1946. It follows the residents of Castle Gormenghast – a giant, gothic castle. In the first book, we meet title character Titus Groan, who stands to inherit the castle and its kingdom. Populated with a host of fantastical creatures, Gormenghast is like a Lord of the Ringsthat didn’t blow up. Unlike much of the fantasy genre gets high praise in literary circles too: Harold Bloom called the series best fantasy novels of the twentieth century.
Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman (1995)
Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a children’s book with a depth and complexity that can satisfy adults. We follow Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon, her daemon – her inner self given animal form – as she investigates rumours of children being separated from their own spiritual companions. Over the series, this transitions into a battle between humanity and heaven. It functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The BBC adaptation premieres later this year.
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville (2000)
China Miéville’s work falls more accurately under the banner of Weird Fiction, an amalgamation of fantasy and horror pioneered by HP Lovecraft. This work, one in a series of books set in the world of Bas-Lag, lies closer to the fantasy genre. As Mieville describes it “it’s basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian-era technology. So rather than being a feudal world, it’s an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind”.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (2001)
The Amazon Prime series failed to spark, but Neil Gaiman’s richly described novel is well worth a read. American Gods pits the abandoned folk deities of the old world against the modern idols we worship now. It follows Shadow Moon, a convict who finds out – days before his release – that his wife has died in a car accident, and falls into the surreal orbit of Mr Wednesday (Odin) and a looming showdown between the old gods and the new.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin (1968)
Ursula Le Guin is one of the titans of fantasy and sci-fi – her books explore political and feminist themes in fantastical settings. The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on an androgynous civilisation, and The Dispossessed is set in anarchist Utopia. The Earthsea series is more traditional but still brilliant – we follow Ged, a teenager at magic school, who causes a disaster dabbling in the dark arts. Readers have pointed to the similarities between Ged’s school and Hogwarts.
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobbs (1995-1997)
Robin Hobbs’ epic fantasy series hero follows FitzChivalry Farseer, or Fitz for short, the bastard son of the crown prince. Raised in a stable and trained as an assassin, the story charts his adventures through the kingdom of The Six Duchies: magic, murder, and political intrigue abound, as well as a zombie curse. Sound familiar? Definitely a good choice for those suffering from Game of Thrones withdrawal symptoms.
The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon (1955-77)
A curveball: not fantasy (the books cover the French monarchy in the 14th century), but a book for fans of fantasy. Its author Maurice Druon is the hero of George RR Martin, who penned the series that became Game of Thrones. As Martin wrote in the Guardian: “[i]The Accursed Kings[i/] has it all: iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin and swords, the doom of a great dynasty and all of it (or most of it) straight from the pages of history.”
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)
One of the more recent publications on this list, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The book’s premise is that magic has returned: two men, Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, wield it. Written in a comedy of manners, Jane Austen style, it took its author British writer Susanna Clarke ten years to write and was widely acclaimed on its release in 2004.
Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987)
One of the best entries in Terry Pratchett’s inimitable Discworld series, Mort focuses on a teenager who is taken under the apprenticeship of Death. Appearing in nearly every one of the Discworld books, Pratchett’s Death is one of the author’s greatest creations, and the source of some of the series’ most famous quotes (“Don’t think of it as dying, just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”) It’s in Mort that Death grows into a sympathetic and likeable character, who loves cats and curry and is continuously baffled by the irrationally of humans.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (2019)
Marlon James, who won the Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, is not traditionally a fantasy writer, but he dubbed his latest book the African Game of Thrones. (Although he later revealed the comparison was a joke). This book focuses on the political tensions between warring states, in a world populated by a host of magical creatures: cannibals, vampires, witches, ghosts and sorcerers.