Best Stand Alone Fantasy Books
Most of the books listed on this website's top fantasy lists have been part of a series, either because of the financial incentive behind publishing multiple books in the same universe, or because their authors are not inventive and talented enough to write a self-contained one-volume story.
And while some of the best fantasy books are part of a series, not all the best the genre has to offer is. There are certainly some good fantasy books that are standalone, though I will admit that the fantasy standalone is a bit of a "rare" breed these days.
Still, great standalone fantasy books DO exist! This list offers some of the top standalone fantasy novels.
I've draw fantasy books from different fantasy subgenres and from a wide range of different time periods ranging from the previous century to the most recent (2015) to present a balanced overview of the best stand alone books in the genre.
I do my best to present some compelling reasons why each and every book belongs on this list, but I encourage you to read what other people recommend in the comment section and to check out the crowd-ranked version too to see what the public has voted (and submitted) on as the best. You might also check out each book's comment link to see what people have to say about that specific book.
December 2015 Update: This 'best standalone list' has been completely updated. It's been two full years since the last update and a lot of great new stand alone books have been released in that period AND the previous list wasn't as comprehensive and accurate a reflection of the best as I've would have liked. To remedy this, I've changed the Top 25, which was a bit restrictive, to a Top 50 list, added a ton of new recommendations (both older books and recently published), and completely reshuffled the whole list to reflect a more nuanced view of the best books.
Books in The Chronicles Of Master Li And Number Ten Ox Series (2)
Books in Watership Down Series (1)
Neil Gaiman is an ever-popular writer who's branched into cinema, comics, and books. Quite a few people will argue that Neverwhere or Stardust is better than American Gods, but I disagree. American Gods is arguably his best work because it explores some interesting conceits whereas many of Gaiman's other tales are great tales, but don't do anything "new" (other than being really well written of course).American Gods pits the "Old Gods" of the past against the "New Gods" of the digital world.This is not your classic boy wizard versus dark god fantasy tale, but rather a more insightful, intelligent, and deep look into modern and ancient beliefs and the clash that results. It's a whole and whole urban fantasy tale -- a genre in which Gaiman has helped to lead the modern pack. So if you are looking for a stellar standalone fantasy novel, you'll have to search far and wide to do better than American Gods.
The obvious recommendation here is more books by this author. Gaiman writes some other worthy standalone fantasy books: Neverwhere and Anansi Boys.Both books are great (Anansi Boys is set in the same world as American Gods) but I prefer Neverwhere which is a good ol' fashion rattlingly good adventure tale. Gaiman's got more great fantasy standalone such as Stardust and The Graveyard Book (the perfect book to read to your kids before bed!) which should not be missed either.
"For more books about ancient myths coming to life in modern society":
If you like the whole ancient mythical figures coexisting with the modern world theme, give Mythago Wood a read. You'll also want to read Tim Power's The Anubis Gates which incorporates ancient myths coming to life with time travel -- a weird mix but a hell of an entertaining novel. You should also check out Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay which also has a similar theme/plot.
"For more books with a similar "style" to Gaiman"
Honestly, Gaiman is in a league of his own when it comes to HIS style of urban fantasy fiction. However, there are a few other authors that do some interesting stuff in the same fantasy subgenre. Check out China Mieville (start with Perdido Street Station) -- another writer who writes interesting (and oh-so-weird) Urban Fantasy.
For a different, darker urban fantasy tale, you might want to give The Magicians by Lev Grossman a gander which has mixed reviews but really does something different with the fantasy genre.
He writes stories where castration, rape, skull-crushing, and child sacrifice are parred for the course. So it should come as no surprise that George R.R. Martin conquered the sub-genre of horror fantasy before he wrote A Song of Ice and Fire. It's much (MUCH) more subtle than the series he's most famous for “something you'll need to keep in mind if you plan to read Fevre Dream. And you should. Why it made the list thanks to Twinkle Toes Twilight and the many vomit-inducing teenage wet dreams it spawned, vampires have lost much of their mythos. Long before that, Martin published a tightly written tale that combines elements of horror with urban fantasy in a thrilling urban fantasy. If you're experiencing the same kind of vampire fatigue as the rest of the intelligent world, you might be tempted to avoid this book. But that fatigue is exactly why you should read it. Because it will erase the memories of Stephanie Meyer's brand of sparkly literary poison. As with all things Martin, you won't find this a comfortable journey. The story is complex and "as always“ the writing is beautiful. You can say two things about Martin: First, that he's a twisted sunnuvabitch, and second, that he has a way with words that few people do. The action doesn't move quickly in Fevre Dream, but that only serves to heighten the suspense. You will experience real frights, but nothing gory enough to limit it to a horror story.
And of course, I should recommend other vampire fiction. There's a million vampire books out there, but there are a handful that stand out above the rest. Here's my recommendations for other vampire fiction worth reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker -- the book that launched a thousand imitations -- is a must read. Salem's Lot by Steven King ties together the classic King-style horror (small town where residents are disconnected from each other where pockets of evil can fester and hide, a few good people who band together to fight evil,etc). I Am Legend by Richard Matheson which is sort of survivor meets Dracula. And Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons -- a good book by a damn good author. For a Vampire book that does something new with the genre, read Peeps by Scott Westerfield.
Books in Mythago Wood Series (9)
Books in The Acts Of Caine Series (4)
For similar recommendations, I'm give books that fuse action, blood, grittiness, flawed humanity, and anti-heroes. Some books may also feature assassins. All these books also explore the idea of 'the hero.'
The sequels of course! There are 3 of them as of 2014 and it's more of the same with Caine's story fleshed out more and more. Each book does something new though. The books are all good, but the first books is the best and the second book nearly as good. There rest may be a dissapointment though, depending. The direct sequel to Heroe's Die is The Blade of Tyshalle.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. Some elements of Heroes Die here: you have a dark and unforgiving world with a misunderstood hero who's not afraid of being a serious bad ass to those who fuck him over. This is one of the darkest fantasy books you'll read. But oh so good and something unique in the grim dark genre. It's a trilogy with the final book released by the end of 2014 making this trilogy a complete one.
The Heroes. When all villains are really just misunderstood heroes and heroes turn out to be villains. Abercrombie's best book so far, which is saying a lot since every book he's written is some of the best works in the genre. Tons of action, awesome and compelling characters, and vicious battles. Abercrombie is one of the best writers of violent scenes that just pop out of nowhere. If you love the action and blood of Heroes Die and you like the character of Caine, I think you'll like The Heroes. Note Heroes is more of a subversion of the idea of heroes, politics, and war. Heroes Die is more of a straight bad-ass anti-hero guy murdering everything around him rather than a sly statement about the state of humanity.
If you like the Assassin factor of Heroes Die, read Brent Weeks' The Night Angel Trilogy. It's a good read and Weeks is a rising star in the Fantasy world. The series is much, much lighter reading than the Acts of Caine, and the prose is not half as good. Good for light reading though.
For some compelling anti-hero reading about an assassin king, you should read Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Right up your alley if you like the violence and amorality of Stover's Caine character. Honorable Jorg Ancraft, the hero villain of Prince of Thorns, is an immoral and vicious bastard. Even so, you can't stop rooting for him to win.
Also read Robin Hobb's The Farseer Trilogy -- an epic tale about an assassin-in-training in a fantasy landscape, but with one of the best drawn characters ever to grace the Fantasy scene. As for being bad-ass, Fitz has nothing on Caine though and if you are expecting a heroic amount of violence and kickass-ness on the part of Fitz, expect to be disappointed. The whole kick ass that happens is to Fitz who gets ass whooped over and over. Really, he's kind of a bitch. But fabulous read, nevertheless.
The Folding Knife by KJ Parker's might just be up your alley. Dark, gritty, filled with flawed heroes with realistic motivations. Not everyone appreciate's Parker, but if you want a slower-paced 'rich' fantasy that's all about the characters, man Parker knows how to do it right.
The Red Knight. Knight heroes, monstrous elves, and damsels in distress all clash in this remarkable book released in 2013. The tale is a different one than your normal fantasy with a highly detailed and realistic medievil world built by the author who is a legit medievil historian. There's a huge cast of characters (though the focus remains on The Red Knight, the titular hero of the story and series) rather than a single one. However, like Heroes Die there's a lot of sizzling energy to this series, with brutal action, action, and lots of war. You'll probably like it if you like gritty violence and lots of fighting.
Talion: Revenant is the best work by prolific fantasy author Michael A Stackpole. Heroic fantasy with a lot of energy. One of the best 'boy becomes a man and then a hero' tales I've read and certainly Stackpool's best work.
Legend, the book that made Gemmell's career and certainly his career defining work about what it means to be a hero. He also explores the same idea in many works -- including a couple books about a bad-ass assassin turned hero (Waylander).
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss -- just about one of the best fantasy books in the genre. Another sort of heroic fantasy, but a tale that focuses on a character-driven narrative about the life of a hero. This is not a subversion of the heroic tale, but an expansion of it. It's frame story that's told after-the-fact, and we are never sure if the tale of Kvothe, a larger than life hero, is truth or exagerration. The writing is lyrical and gorgeous -- showing itself to be a perfect intersection between a powerful narrative and strong writing.
In creating this world, Powers borrowed ideas from all over the place. Mythology, Ancient Egyptian theology, quantum theory, and classical literature“ they're all used in The Anubis Gates. It's a ridiculous combination of ideas, but it's the reason why this book is so entertaining. Why it made the list It's clear that Powers is an ambitious writer. He has zero qualms about chucking whatever he can into the mix. He doesn't even seem concerned about it making sense. And yet, it does. With the diverse concepts thrown around in the book, the plot is complex. But you'll never feel lost it in. It's a testament to his talent that he's able to create clarity out of chaos. This is also a title that comfortably sits between many genres, without veering too far in any direction. There's just enough humor to keep it entertaining without turning it into a Pratchett-style spectacle. There are enough thrilling moments to keep you entertained without it becoming a (pre-born-again) Anne Rice novel. While the characters in The Anubis Gates aren't the well drawn, the plot is excellent, and unpredictable and will keep you guessing until the end“ where the loose threads are pulled together into a tight “and satisfying“ conclusion.
the rip-roaring adventure of The Anubis Gate, another tale that comes to mind is On Stranger Tides which is another awesome standalone novel by Time Powers (and the source material for the new-upcoming 4th Pirates of the Caribbean movie). You can also give Powers' other novels(all standalone) a shot too. They're always a mix of the fantastic and the tangible with a good dose of (sometimes weird) adventure thrown in. And if you like the whole "mythical elements coming to life" aspect of The Anubis Gate,then read Mythago Wood which is a novel about ancient myths coming to life. Neil Gaiman's American Gods and his excellent Anansi Boys are two other books in which anthropomorphized ancient myths struggle to coexist with modernity.
Fantasy about Magicians and Magic Schools...
For a poignant story about competing magicians with a similar feel to it in tone and writing, read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Fantastic book and perhaps the CLOSEST similar read to Susanna Clarke's work that I've found. Definitely literary in tone and style.
A remarkable trilogy by Lev Grossman that subverts many of the fantasy tropes. It also features a precise and detailed breakdown of a magic system that's internally consistent. If you like the emphasis on learning magic following consistent rules, with a captivating story, awesome prose, and many deep themes explored, then The Magician is the best you are going to find. Arguably labeled as literary fantasy, though not so high brow that you can't enjoy it if you like more low-brow style fantasy (i.e. Sanderson books).
Want more good books about 'magicians'? You may also find that you like Sean Russell's Moontide Magic Rise duology. It's kind of the same premise: magic has vanished from the world, a couple of people are trying to bring magic back to the world, etc. In my opinion, this is the closest book/series that you'll find to Susanna Clarke's work.
Magician by Raymond E. Feist. If you want to forego all the literary aspects of fantasy and just opt to a straightforward classic style fantasy about a coming of age with a young boy becoming a powerful magician, then you could also read the standard epic village boy to might magician in Feist's Magician.
Literary Fantasy (fantasy with deep themes and beautiful writing):
The Golem and the Jinni. Another book you may just enjoy if you like fantastical tales that are touching and incredibly well written. Definitely considered literary fantasy.
TOOTH & CLAW by Joe Walton. Dragons living in a Victorian Society? I dare you to try it! Read if you like the rich Victorian fantasy setting present int Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
For an epic fantasy series about fairies, you could read Shadowmarch by Tad Williams. There's lots of little folklore tales about fairies and elder creatures scattered throughout the story -- something that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has in abundance.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet. There's a lot of Brtitishness to this novel that you might just like if you liked Clarke's work.
If you like the slow pedantic pace of Clarke's work, the intense focus on characters and descriptions which almost seem to the point of excess but (finally) a fully realized magical world and with a gripping plot by the end of it, look no further than the majestic Gormenghast books.
For the rich use of the English language, read Lord Dunsany's magnificent The King of Elfland's Daughter. This is one of those proto-fanasy classics in the genre that few have read.
Jack Vance Dying Earth series. Science Fantasy, but oh god the use of the English language.
Are you a fan of fairies in a fantasy tale? Another book that deals with old fairy folk tales is Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child. A novel about the search for identity, The Stolen Child makes for a compelling read. The Stolen Child, like Susanna Clarke's work, is very well written. These books are sort of your "out of the box" fantasy. It's quite refreshing to see the fantasy genre has more to it than epic fantasy.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. A battle between two rival magicians vying for power and prestige, set during the baroque Victorian period and coated in flowery language. This is probably the closest recommendation I have for similar books to The Night Circus.
The Prestige by Christoper Priest is a remarkable novel. You've probably seen the movie, but have you read the book. Two stage magicians battle it out, trying to one-up one another with more and more elaborate tricks. Like the Night Circus, it features a conflict/contest between two magicians, but this one is not played out in a circus but across stage halls. The conflict becomes deadly.
The Golem and the Jinni is a beautiful and poignant character about two characters who are forced together by circumstances. It has the same sort of feeling as The Night Circus, though more character oriented.
Lev Grossman's fantastic trilogy. An entirely more depressing, postmodern take on the fantasy genre, but there's a school setting for the magically gifted.
Ah Harry Potter. Is there any fantasy fan who has not read it? Not at all the same type of story, but there is a magical school setting and students of magic. If you are looking for this, then Harry Potter is your book, though an entirely more juvenile story and with poorer writing.
The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolf has the same sort of feeling of mysteriousness, magic -- and subtle danger. This time it's about a magical house and two children who stay there.
The Troupe by Robert Bennett Jackson. Mysterious, magical, beautiful. These are worlds that describe this masterpiece. It has somewhat of a similar feeling as The Night Circus, but the magic here with both books featuring a company of performers where the performances are magical. On that note, if you want mysterious and strange, also read Robert Jackson's American Elsewhere.
Harry Potter did the English magician story very well, but it also overshadowed some incredible books with similar settings. Will is a chosen one of sorts, one of the few that can battle the powers. His mentor is an old, kind wizard, seeking to end the cycle of light and dark. It sounds quite familiar, but other than the setting, that's really where the similarity ends. Arguably, Cooper is a better writer than Rowling, stepping away from a cheery style and into a darker tone. Where JK's story is a mashup of different myths, Cooper's is a careful construct of Celtic and Arthurian legends. That makes for some very clear imagery and some fantastic conflicts. Will narrates the story from two perspectives, his young, content self, and his wise, magical self. As a narrative tool, it highlights the cost of power and the changes of adulthood. It's not an easy journey, and Cooper weaves in heavy themes of loss, unwanted destiny, and darkness. Read if you like: Harry Potter, King Arthur, English settings.
Books in The Dark Is Rising Series (9)
Let's base this strictly on other good Arthurian works of fantasy. You should read The Mists of Avalon if you are even remotely interested in Arthurian fiction. Even if you aren't, read it. Stephen Lawhead's excellent The Pendragon Cycle will fill your Arthur craving with a solid number of compelling books in the saga.
You'll probably like The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart as well, which is another retelling of the Arthur myth but this one is about Merlin. If you want to read the Arthur myth in a different light (some might even argue "a whole new light" even) from a historical fiction light rather than a fantasy one, give Jack Whyte's The Camulod Chronicles a read.
The Neverending Story is a perfect example of how badly a film version of a beloved book can go. For people who hadn't read the book, the film was probably enchanting. For everyone else, it's confusing. (Can we please talk about the luck dragon that was less dragon and more a flying puppy?) But the book is a complex exploration of power and how it corrupts even those with the best intentions. Why it made the list It's not often that you'll read a book where the integrity of the character you root the most for is as annihilated as it is in The Neverending Story. You'll have read about characters that fall from grace, but more often than not, it's a result of an external force. In this book, it's Bastians' good intentions that drag him down. And that's what will get you. Because we assume that, should we be given the power to change things, we'd do it for the better. But when you have that power and can have anything, how do you keep your moral compass intact? It's translated from a German Text, so the language isn't always the smoothest, but the creatures you encounter as you're reading are full of life. Ende has an imagination that could rival Green Lantern's, and it's clear on every page.
a fan of The Neverending Story (you know, those sort of magical books you loved as a "kid" that were full of adventures where heroes always win and the boy always saves the girl and the unfairness of life is eventually balanced out by the end of the novel; that is,until you grew up and got a job and realized that never really happens), The Princess Bride would appeal to you. The Chronicles of Narnia, though not a standalone, are another set of books that delight the inner child. Shall I also mention the obvious Harry Potter series? And let's throw out The Hobbit while we're at it.
List more than a few entries on this Top 100 list, Talion is a completely underrated fantasy book. Stackapole is a prolific author, writing everything from Star Wars novels, video game stories (he was part of the writing team for the recent 2014 Kickstarter-backed Wasteland 2 PC game), to fantasy.Talion, however, is his best book. And not only is it Talion's best book, it's also one of the best heroic fantasy books in the genre. What's remarkable is that it's Stackapole's first fantasy book. What sets Talion apart from other similar books is the heavy dose of pathos pervading the novel. It's not a "happy" type novel; there is a deep sadness that rings through the prose the whole way through. But the characterization of Nolan, a young man forced to choose between love and honor, is fantastic. You literally can't put the book down until the last page. So for a top notch heroic fantasy, Talion: Revenant must be read.
the fantasy books out there feature some sort of "Hero" of the story. But there are a few books that really do the hero conceit some real justice, either looking at the price of heroism or just telling an outright killer story. I've recommended a few books here that will suit your taste if you like the flavor of Talion.
Once a Hero is another book that focuses on the cost of being a so called "Hero." It's a great read and while not as good as Talion: Revenant, should certainly be read if you enjoy Stackpole's book.
If you like vicious fantasy with a lot of focus on a bad-ass main character, Heroes Die fits that particular bill. The protagonist is about as deadly as they come and, like Talion: Revenant, combines vicious action with an addicting plot. Another heroic fantasy tale worth reading is David Gemmell's Legend. Legend really sets you in a brutal world where only one man can make it right -- Druss the aging and retired hero. Quite a few of Gemmell's other books explore the idea of heroism quite extensively as well, so if you want more of the same, look at his other work.
For a fantasy that centers around the exploits of a hero (a trilogy though and not a standalone) , check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This book has been lauded by critics and readers alike for years as one of the best heroic fantasy tales in the genre.
This fantasy fiction novel will suck you in. Elantris is one of the best standalone fantasy books in the genre. It's about addictive as chocolate and a whole lot healthier! .Normally, I prefer to avoid novelizations of myths such as Arthur or Atlantis. This book is no rewrite however. I didn't stop reading this one till my eye skimmed the last page. Sanderson's newer works are better in some ways, but Elantris, his debut novel, has quite a few wow movements. If you are tired of picking up yet another fat fantasy saga and want a well-drawn tale that's completed in one book, you won't go wrong reading Elantris. Apparently, Sanderson will be writing a sequel to Etlantris -- according to one of his 2014 blog posts.
if you like the "style" of writing in Elantris is to read Sanderson's other books (which sadly are NOT standalones, but series). He's got quite a few now. You could give his Mistborn series a go which features a very strong heroine like the one found in Elantris. For a more "end of the world" mega fantasy series in the vein of Robert Jordan, his new Stormlight Archive series (starts with The Way of Kings) looks like one of the most promising fantasy tales I've read to date.
similar feel to Elantris (though a much more intricate and complicated tale than Elantris) in setting, you might look at Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer (part of the Long Quartet series). There are some rich characterization, intelligent plotting, and some really ambitious ideas (literally and pun totally intended -- read the book to see what I mean).
possibly recommend for faerie-related novels. Quite frankly,there's a zillion fantasy books about fairies, from romantic ones to dark horror ones, to sappy Twilight teeny-bopper series. I'll recommend the best I've stumbled across.
I've read that's similar to War for the Oaks, give Holly Black's Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale a good read. It's an edgy, intensely gritty modern faerie tale that should satisfy Emma Bull fans who those who want a darker sort of story. Ostensibly, it's a YA book (the protagonist is 16), but it's so dark and jaded, I don't see how that's the case.
girl-versus-urban-faeries-and-finds-self-empowerment tale, you can give the Wicked Lovely series a read. This one is less dark than Holly Black's Tithe and it's several books long. Women who love romance will especially like the series.
that deal with individuals getting caught up in Faery court wars, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files feature a wizard who keeps getting mixed up with Faerie politics (especially the fourth book in the series, Summer Knight, which is only about Faerie politics and intrigue).
take on the whole Faerie mythos (about a boy who is stolen away from his parents and forced to live with Faeries) read Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child.
Books in Ile-rien Series (5)
Sherlock Holmes for the Victorian era and the master criminals
Books in New Crobuzon Series (2)
Books in Dune Chronicles Series (8)
Big Brother is Watching You
Winston Smith rewrites history. It’s his job. Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, he helps the Party, and the omnipresent Big Brother, control the people of Oceania. Winston knows what a good citizen of Oceania must do: show his devotion for Big Brother and the Party; abstain from all vices; and, most importantly, possess no critical thoughts of their own. The new notebook he’s begun to write in is definitely against the rules – in fact, the Thought Police could arrest him simply for having it. Yet, as Winston begins to write his own history, a seed of rebellion begins to grow in his heart – one that could have devastating consequences.In George Orwell’s final and most well-known novel, he explores a dystopian future in which a totalitarian government controls the actions, thoughts and even emotions of its citizens, exercising power through control of language and history. Its lasting popularity is testament to Orwell’s powerful prose, and is a passionate political warning for today.Review‘His final masterpiece … enthralling and indispensable for understanding modern history’ New York Review of Books‘A profound, terrifying and wholly fascinating book … Orwell’s theory of power is developed brilliantly’ The New Yorker‘A prophet who thought the unthinkable and spoke the unspeakable, even when it offended conventional thought’ Daily Express‘Brilliantly constructed and told’ Guardian‘There is not a smile or a jest that does not add bitterness to Orwell’s utterly depressing vision of what the world may be in 35 years’ time’ TIME
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Books in The Red Queen's War Series (4)
What can I possibly recommend if you like Lord of the Rings? 'Rings' is the progenitor of an entire genre, and one can recommend almost anything. Regardless, I'll try to suggest a couple books based on the "feel" of Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien has always been about the world in which his characters live, never about the characters who live in his world. He created a world full of myth and legend, starkly real and full of mystery. There is always some strange power deep in a mountain, or some magical glade in the heart of a forest. There are worlds deep in the world, and worlds high in the heavens. It's a land full of wonder, a world too large to explore; it's an earth that still has mysteries and unknown lands.
There are several authors who recreate this type of world -- but with stronger characters and more meaningful relationships. Tolkien's characters were always too perfect, too evil; their motivations are at best unclear and at worst, unrealistic. Modern fantasy has taken the roots created by Tolkien and grown them into full trees and in some cases grafted those roots to new trees completely.
If you like Tolkien, read Eye of the World by Jordan. This man, when he was alive, claimed Tolkien's world building mantle: Jordan created a massive world, richly developed cultures, and well-defined magic system. When you read Jordan, youexplore an ancient world full of secrets. I have to throw out a disclaimer though: Wheel of Time is far from perfect; Jordan becomes lost in his own world as it grows too big even for him; (some of) his characters devolve into caricatures, and Jordan's handling of romance between characters is puerile to say the least. However, many people still find the books great fun, and if you like Tolkien's epic style, Jordan is a must read. Jordan died a few years ago, but the talented Brandon Sanderson is finishing the series and looks to be doing a good job. In fact under Sanderson's finishing touch, the Wheel of Time is finally getting back on track; Sanderson's last two Wheel of Time books were some of the best Wheel of Time books since books 5-6. This year (2011) will mark the final completion of the series when A Memory of Light, the final book, will be released.
For another epic fantasy with an end-of-the-world plot and a coming of age (sorta) story, read Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings (first book in the Stormlight Archive saga). If Jordan took up Tolkien's world-building mantle with A Wheel of Time, Sanderson is picking up that epic fantasy mantle with this generation's new epic fantasy series.
If you want a book that's like Lord of the Rings but longer, has strong female characters, and very strong characterization (FAAR better than Jordan's), read Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn saga, another classic.
If you want the beautiful, almost lyrical writing of Tolkien and a world in which magic is present but still a grand mystery (i.e. not every character is throwing around magic like kids throwing sand at a beach), Sean Russell's The Swan's War is the answer.
Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle is also a beautiful tale, full of lyrical, often sad, prose; a tale about a village boy who seeks his destiny.
Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master is also another series(trilogy) that brings back similarities to Tolkien's style of writing.
For a 12th-century version of Middle Earth set in a stark (English) European landscape that's as cold as the world is gritty and brutal where main characters can die at any moment, read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga tale.
If you want to see some of Tolkien's conventions turned on their heads and enjoy a noir version of a classic high fantasy tale with a starkly realized cast of grey characters, read Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy.
Books in Runelords Series (8)
This book and the Prince of Nothing trilogy, as well as the other books that follow, are so dark that you'll need a shower after reading them. And therapy. This bad-boy was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. It's a deep, philosophical read that demands your full attention, rather than being a light, pacey read like, for example, some of the young adult entries on this list. The prose is deep and enthralling, thick as rich chocolate but with the mental nutritional value of, like, kale or something. , the content of the book is deeply philosophical and intellectual, not in an 'everyone sits around and discusses the meaning of life' way, but in that the underpinnings of the characters and plot draw from eastern and western philosophies. The plot is epic and with many threads that play out across the series. Both monstrous and human entities within the book are horrifying, and the way magic-users operate is particularly unsettling. Read this book if: you like more intellectual novels, but don't want to miss out on all the sex and violence either.
Books in The Prince Of Nothing Series (6)
The vast scope of The Darkness That Comes Before is very redolent of Steven Erickson's Malazan Book of the Fallen saga, though the characters are less gray, and the story more focused.
Also try George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which is very epic and very gritty but way less philosophical. I'd also say it's more "character driven" as a whole than is The Darkness that comes before.
Another series that does that is Abercrombie's First Law series (starts with The Blade Itself) and Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains.
I'd say you'll also probably find Acacia by David Anthony Durnham a good read too -- there are gray characters, an exotic landscape, and world-ending powers at play in the background.
For another fantasy about war, look at John Marco's Tyrants and Kings trilogy. It's a great read with a cast of grey characters.
Another gritty military fantasy you'll probably like (though it's less cerebral than The Prince of Nothing) is The Black Company by Cook.
The Godless World series by Brian Ruckley is dark, atmospheric and very gritty, though it lacks some of the polish of the other series. The series never full lives up to it's potential, however.
For a deep character-driven fantasy you might try Daniel Abraham's The Long Price Quartet.
For a gray fantasy with lots of politics, different kingdoms going to war, a cast of ambiguous characters, adventure and magic, check out Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God.
Like pointed philosophical bits about the state of mankind thrown out by the hero? Try Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire trilogy. It has a gritty and dark world it's probably the closest in theme and style you'll find to Bakker's works.
Books in First Law World Series (6)
The Etched city was formed from the love union between Stephen King and China Mieville. If you want a more complex fantasy novel with a good dose of the bizarre, a sprinkle of noir, and a dash of pathos, The Etched City is it. You'll find a lot of comparisons with King's The Dark Tower, as both novels feature a dark, brooding hero tromping through a wasteland of a world. But the stories, in terms of similarities, end there.Bishop is a strong storyteller with a keen knack for crafting characters that don't fit into the normal mode. You won't find those canned fantasy characters such as the spoiled princess, the dumb hero, the evil dark mage, etc. Rather, you will be presented with a cast of (sometimes despicable) characters, human warts and all.Let me emphasize that if you are looking for standard fantasy (village boy discovers secret power, gathers up companions including a beautiful princess in disguise, and sets off to fight a dark lord), you should look to other authors. But if you want an entirely different kind of fantasy, a dark, dirty, sensual fantasy where the norms are still yet undefined, where you can root for evil to win and the wretched to victory. Yes, it's that kind of novel. Don't think you can fit The Etched City into your standard fantasy. Reading this book is like going on a trip and experiencing something bizarre -- it's likely the experience may not be entirely comfortable when it's happening, but afterwards you wouldn't trade it for the world. The Etched City is not always a comfortable read, nor is it a casual read. Concentration and attention on your part is required, but if you are prepared to put in the effort of reading the novel (and it's not such an effort as you might think), there is a potent and wonderful story to lose yourself in.It's unfortunate that even as of 2015, the author has not written anything else. Not only is this a Stand Alone book, it's the ONLY book written by Bishop.
You should read works by China Mieville. Mieville writes in what's called the fantasy "New Weird" subgenre. The Etched city is influenced by Mieville's works. I would recommend starting with Perdido Street Station. This author writes strange, twisted, genre-blending fantasy.
And for yet another writer who writes in this New Weird style, give M. John Harrison's Viriconium a go.
It's weird but reminiscent The Dark Tower by Stephen King. Some elements are similar -- horror and darkness, though King's work is a more traditional heroic tale while Parker's work is...not.
Ghormenghast. Not exactly fantasy, but with rich, evocative language, atmospheric settings, and indelicate characters, and a strange almost dreamlike landscape and world, you can't but help feel some similarities, though Parker's world is darker and more undefined.
You'll also probably like Jeff Vandermeer, also another "New Weird" writer. Start with his City of Saints and Madmen.
Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War might fit your taste too.
For an atmospheric mishmash of steampunk, fantasy, and fairies, give Michael Swanwick's Iron Dragon's Daughter a read -- I've got a feeling you'll love it if you like KJ Bishop.
And for more books with atmospheric and dreamlike settings that make for intelligent reads:
- Michael Moorcock's Gloriana
- Jack Vance's Dying Earth
- Writings by Edgar Allen Poe
- Works by Lord Dunsany
- Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard
If you want more suggestions for New Weird/Literary fantasy, take a good look at the new Best Literary Fantasy Books list.
- American Gods by Neil Gaimen
- Mythago Wood
- The Anubis Gates by Tim Power
- Ysabel by Guy Gaverial Kay
- American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson
- The Night Circus
- The Stolen Child
- The Wizard Knight
- Rise of Moontide and Magic
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
- Perdido Street Station
Books in Warbreaker Series (2)
Heaven and Hell books are a semi-popular fantasy genre. My pick for one of the more exciting books is God's Demon by Wayne Barlowe. Lucifer, rather than being that despicable guy everyone loves to knock as being the evil force is good. He loses the battle for heaven and gets kicked out of heaven and into hell, then dies. Well, all the fallen angels kind of go psychotic except for fallen angel Sargatanas who doesn't want to play at being a demon anymore. After being separated from God and heaven for countless eons, he decides to mount a revolt against Lucifer's regent, Beelzebub, in a desperate attempt to get back to Heaven.God's Demon is an interesting thing and it does something completely new with the classic heaven and hell conventions. It poses the question: can evil find redemption? Those who like military fiction, action, heroes, and just thrilling reads will find it hard to put this book down.
There are a few other interesting books that fictionalize the whole Heaven and Hell, Angels and Demons, God and Satan dichotomies. Probably the best written one I can recommend is Mark J. Ferrari's The Book of Joby. A marvelous (and long!) book about a contest between God and Lucifer with some poor schmuck (Joby) who's used as the experiment. Yes, anyone who has studied the bible will see the connections between Joby and Job. I'm just glad I'm not that poor schmuck.
For one of those afterlife gone completely to hell stories, where (one) of the main characters dies and finds out the afterlife is really shitty place to go, a place where new souls are basically hunted down and fed to some dark monstrous god, read The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams. It's a dark and twisted tale that sucks you in and scares you at the same time.
For a new 2014 release about a subverted afterlife, read The Waking Engine.
Of course, you can't forget the classic Riverworld by Philip Jose Farmer.
If you want a sort of twisted, erotic, dark fantasy version of hell where Satan is good and God is the bad guy where torture and rape are common, read Anne Bishop's The Black Jewels. It sounds pretty twisted, but it's actually pretty entertaining.
If you want one of those sappy romance novels with good plotting and characterization about Archangels falling for pretty human girls, read Sharon Shinn's Samaria trilogy.
My final recommendation for a good "Heaven gone wrong" page turner is The Shivered Sky by Matt Dinnaman.
You either love him or hate him (and if you do hate him, it's probably because every second sentence is a ridiculous metaphor), but there's no denying that Stephen King deserves a spot on this list. Even if it's only because he's the Stephen King. Something to keep in mind before you pick this up: There are two versions of The Stand. One set in the 80s and one in the 90s. King rewrote the 80s version to reflect 90s pop culture and add things that he'd left out of the initial publication. It probably depends on when you grew up as to which of the two you'll find most horrifying, but if you do read the original version, remember that it was written post-Vietnam and during the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Why it made the list While there are many comments sections devoted to arguing over which of his books is the best, The Stand is almost always listed near the top. This is because, of all of them, this is the most quintessentially KING. There's no one better at making the reader feel so uncomfortable. This doesn't happen as a result of the horror genre aspect of his books, it happens because he takes the real world and then distorts it so that the world we're familiar with becomes one of horror. There are elements of this book that are simplistic to the point of immaturity (the obvious delineation of good and evil is a good example), but â€“ as always â€“ the strength of the book is in the way King uses a (very) large canvas to allow the characters to grow. Every one serves a purpose, whether it's to move the action along or to provide an extra shade to the greyness of human morality. It's a long read. But it's one of the greatest examples of dystopian fantasy. And the length King goes to in order to show the breakdown of civilization after most of humanity is killed puts The Walking Dead to shame.
The Talisman is my other King recommendation. A novel about a small boy, Jack, who will travel into parallel worlds to save his dying mother. The Shining is another classic King novel; and how can I possibly leave out The Dark Tower series. All of those books share the same universe (a place of parallel universes).
If you are a King fan, you should give Dean Koontz a read too. Both authors put a lot of time into characterization. If you try Koontz, give Odd Thomas a go. I feel it's his best work.