Top 25 Best Fantasy Books of the 90's
Ah the 90's. Bad fashion, bad hair and Nickelback.
If fashion and hairstyles (and arguably music) took a hit, fantasy certainly did not. The 90's saw the emergence of some of the best fantasy ever written, with giants like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time and The Malazan Book of the Fallen born.
The Movement of Fantasy in the 1990's
If we could define the 90's fantasy trend in one world, it would be 'epic.'
Epic is the name of the game -- epic fantasy evolves with authors taking some of the classic epic fantasy trends formulated in the 70's and 80's and makes them bigger, thicker, and a hell of a lot more convoluted.
Many of the most popular fantasy series were of the epic fantasy mold. But you can't have 'epic' without a 'series' and the 90's showed us the supersized version of the fantasy series -- long, long multi volume spanning works covering a single story, usually with years between each new book.
The behemoth that is A Song of Ice and Fire started its long march towards pop culture legend by the end of the 90's, merging the likes of a Shakespearean tragedy with historical fiction and epic fantasy, ushering in a new era of fantasy. Heroes dies, villains win, and the seeds of a award winning TV show were planted, coming to fruition over a decade later.
By the mid 90's, the idea of modern fantasy is fully formed and released upon the masses. If the 80's took the classic fantasy developed in the 50's, 60's, and 70's and made it more complex, more gritty, more self-reflective, then the 90's started the long trend of subversive fantasy.
We have A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings released, proving that heroes can die with the story machine churning onward without a stutter.
We have His Dark Materials subversion of the Narnia tale. And we have Malazan Book of the Fallen which merges the epic vastness of the Greek classics with a harsh vision of fantasy that gleefully ignores expectations.
We also see the forward progression of the 'fat fantasy' movement, carried onward by the likes of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time -- a bestselling train that moved deep into the next decade, proving the eager readers are more than willing to put up with a story that spans 10,000 pages.
This fat fantasy trend is seen with many of the fantasy released during the 90s: A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Sword of Truth, and more.
If you haven't read some of the best of the 90's fantasy, you have a very large gap you need to fill. The 90's was another golden age for fantasy and set about paving the way for fantasy to conquer the mainstream in the 2000's.
With practically every new TV series a fantasy one, fantasy authors who have become celebrities and social media personalities, you might forget that fantasy wasn't always mainstream. The 90's planted the seeds that would sprout a decade later.
And fantasy...TV...and pop culture would never be the same.
Welcome to the 90's -- one of the best fantasy era's ever.
How We Picked the Best Fantasy Novels of the 90's
This is our selection of the best of the best fantasy books of the 1990s. It wasn't easy making this list and curating the picks. But we feel these are all books (or series) that were published between 1990 and 1999. And by 'best' we mean the fantasy works that stood out above the rest and, in some cases, completely changed the fantasy genre for good.
Other Best of ERA Fantasy RecommendationsMake sure you check out our other historic fantasy best book lists, which cover nearly a century of fantasy books.Best Pre-Tolkien FantasyBest Early Modern Fantasy (1930's to 1950's)Best Fantasy of the 60's (post Tolkien fantasy finds it's footing) Best Fantasy Books of the 70's (fantasy finds complexity)Best Fantasy Books of the 80's (the golden age)And with the 90's out of the way, bring yourself into the modern fantasy with our Best Fantasy Books Since 2010.
Disclaimer: Your opinion matters to us. Feel free to disagree with us, but be prepared to defend your position. If you feel we've missed something, let us know your recommendation in the comments.
Books in The Wheel Of Time Series (14)
You can literally recommend the entire epic fantasy genre if you like The Wheel of Time. Here's my guide to some of the most similar books to The Wheel of Time, or at least books I feel you will probably like if you enjoyed Jordan's work.
Classic Epic Fantasy with Magic, Swords, and Action Galore
If you loved The Wheel of Time, you absolutely must read Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, first book in his Stormlight Archive saga (a 10-book epic fantasy saga). Way of Kings is Sanderson at his best. This is HIS version of The Wheel of Time (and the man's certainly got the resume to write it, having directly penned the last 3 Wheel of Time books). This is the closest you'll find to Jordan's series, hands down, but updated for the 21st century. For another epic fantasy with a very interesting magic system, where a company of heroes fight against an evil god kin, read Mist Born by the same author (Brandon Sanderson).
You might also try Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis's The Death Gate Cycle, a monolithic seven book saga that's reminiscent of Jordan's style: heavy on the magic, tension and action, but unique enough not to be a banal hack. By far it's the best stuff both authors have done up to this day (they usually write the sort of hack fantasy that I rail against on this site).
You might also try Raymond E. Feist's Magician (and the direct sequels), as he writes in a style and flavor similar to Jordan (heavy on politics, action, and magic). It has a callow youth vs end of the world plot (eventually).
For a high-fantasy series that's criminally under-appreciated, read Dave Duncan's classic A Man of His Word (starts with Magic Casement). The basic premise sounds pretty hackneyed, but it's far from that. Duncan takes many of the classic fantasy conventions and puts a unique twist on everything. Some of the best classic epic fantasy in the genre.
Jim Butcher's Codex Alera is also another magic-packed, plot-driven, epic fantasy feast of a series you might like. It's got a really unique magic system and it's fantasy set in an alternate Roman Empire where magic actually works.
You can read The Briar King series by Greg Keyes for an epic "save the world" fantasy that starts with a big big bang but ends in a bit of a whimper. Despite the somewhat disappointing ending, it's a very well written series that's better than your average epic fantasy.
If you are hunting around for more action- and magic-heavy series, you might give The Rune Lords series. It probably has one of the more unique magic system I've seen; the story itself is pretty standard fare though, as are the characters and writing.
For an interesting epic fantasy that's big on adventure and exotic characters and landscapes and one that takes place on the sea aboard a giant ship, give the Chathrand Voyage series by Robert VS Redick a read. I was not a fan of the very last book, which I felt was a letdown, but the first few books are great reads. Wheel of Time on a boat of sorts.
Also read Amber (the first half) by Roger Zelazny. Not the same plot, but there are some similar things I feel. Better written, however. Its epic overall and combines modern elements with the fantastic. Really, this is a classic you should read.
If you like classic village boy vs dark lord fantasy of the 80's and 90's, then read David Eddings The Belgaraid.
You might try Dragonlance if you like action and magic and plenty of shallow characters. I'm not a fan, but there are quite a few. You might just like Dragonlance if you love The Wheel of Time.
Slow-Paced, Character Driven Epic Fantasy
If you are looking for epic fantasy that's not necessarily driven by pure action and magic and battles, these are some recommendations to look at
Try Michelle West's The Sun Sword, another large epic fantasy saga (six books) that shares some similarities with Jordan's Wheel of Time. West's writing style is drastically different that Jordan's, however -- far more subtle, and often ponderous. If you are an action freak, The Sun Sword pacing will probably be a bit too slow for you. Good for lovers of fine writing where every plot is meticulously woven together over a long period of time and characters are slowly built up. NOT for the action freaks.
For a slower-paced, character-driven epic fantasy, give Janny Wurts "The Wars of Light and Shadow" a read. It's a huge epic fantasy that concerns itself with the actions of two opposing "heroes", one that's on the light side and one that's on the dark side. Much slower paced and more character driven and better plotted than the Wheel of Time -- which some will love and some will hate. But hands down, the prose is much superior.
Tigana by Guy Gaverial Kay. One of the best writers in the genre. This was his first series and it's a flawed one. But there's a lot to love. Some similar elements to Wheel of Time (dark lord, group of heroes fighting) but plenty of non-similar elements too (heroes are from our world transported to a magical world and it's actually WELL WRITTEN). Not as much action and magic as Wheel of Time though.
Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Another classic fantasy that's character driven. Not as epic in scope (it's the tale of a bastard boy who becomes entwined in politics and eventually has to save the kingdom).
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. High fantasy, not epic fantasy. But man, an astounding read. One of my favorite books of all time. Not the same as The Wheel of Time, but in regards to the magic system, a very systematic breakdown of magic (like Wheel of Time) usage and a wizard school setting (WOT features this in quite a few of the later books).
Modern Dark and Gritty Epic Fantasy
Fantasy has evolved the past 10 years. Now dark, gritty and sarcastic is in vogue. If you want a more complex fantasy where characters are often shades of gray and heroes are more anti-hero than hero, where heroes sometimes die and no good deed goes unpunished, these series are the best.
Give George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire a try. It's a massive epic like Jordan's The Wheel of Time (but not as long), and it's universally held in the highest esteem, a sort of paragon of what all Fantasy books should strive to be. You thought those "Dragonlance" books were good? Feast on Martin for a taste of what Fantasy books should be like.
For a different style of epic fantasy, you may want to give Malazan Book of the Fallen a read. It's also a massive series like WOT, spanning 10 books and it's completed as well, so no waiting around for the sequel books. The series has a huuuuge cast of characters, magic galore, and features large-scale battles that are as vicious as they are exciting to read. But don't expect the WOT; Malazan is a different sort of fantasy that provokes strong feelings -- you will love it or you will hate it.
Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. It's an epic series with different races, peoples, magic, and a dark lord. But for all the elements that are the same as Wheel of Time, there are as many differences. This series is arguably a subversion of the fantasy genre.
A new fantasy series that's been making some pretty big waves in the fantasy world is The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham. It's sharply written with a cast of complex, grey characters. In the background, it has many of those epic fantasy conventions (world ending darkness coming into the world, many different races and creatures, mysterious magic, etc). It's not your typical epic fantasy though -- think of it as epic fantasy 2.0.
For a darker less "epic" fantasy where all the characters are completely grey (and evil is not necessary evil), give The Black Company by Glen Cook a read. There are a number of books in the series, but I recommend reading the (best) first series (called "The Books of the North") of the Black Company followed by the next best series (The Books of the South).
For a different take on the whole epic fantasy movement, one that's darker and more gritty where heroes are not always heroes or good guys, you might look at Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing series. Epic fantasy, wars, brutality, heroes and philosophy? If you love epic fantasy that does something different, read this one.
In the same vein, check out Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series. And for a real subversion on the whole epic fantasy genre, give Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains a read. These recommendations are a more modern, "adult" take on the classic epic fantasy that Jordan wrote
And for my final "epic fantasy recommendation," read Steven King's The Dark Tower. It's a 7-book monstrosity that's taken King several decades to finally finish. In fact, many of King's books indirectly tie into the The Dark Tower in some way or the other. It's sort of like a cross between the western genre, the post-apocalyptic genre, and the fantasy genre. Well worth reading for a different take on the whole epic fantasy thing.
You may find you like The Red Knight (Traitor's Son Cycle). Lots of action, lots of magic, a large cast of heroes, monsters to kill, lots of war, castles, knights, and ladies. This was one of my favorite reads of 2013. Book 2 came out this year.
Sword of Shadows series. Classic Jordan style fantasy with a darker and grittier edge. Only, it's not finished and I can't remember when J.V. Jones wrote the last book. There are 4 of 5 books out.
For more epic fat fantasy recommendations in the vein of The Wheel of Time, check out the Best Epic Fantasy Recommendation list.
Books in Farseer Series (2)
Books in Abhorsen Series (4)
Books in Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Series (2)
I'm going to give my recommendations on works of similar "style" to Williams. Williams writes with an almost pedantic eye -- every little detail is lovely detailed -- to practically everything. This includes characters, settings, and even pots. Everything down to the minutest detail is lovingly rendered into prose. It can take a long while before things happen in a Tad Williams book, which may turn off those who love instant action with no patience for slow pacing.
For a series (and author) who's often a bit slower paced with an attention to beautiful, sometimes lyrical prose, give works by Sean Russell a read. I would start with his Moontide Magic Rise duology.
If you like his work, give his The Initiate Brother (an Asian fantasy) a go.
For a high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien with gorgeous and lyrical prose, read Swans' War.
You should read Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien, if you have yet not. Tolkien is a writer who loves to write. The pacing is quicker than Memory, Sorrow, Thorn, but the language is gorgeous as is the setting portrayed by Tolkien
Another book that shares some similarities with Memory, Sorrow, Thorn is Michael A Stackpole's The DragonCrown War Cycle , which features an epic, black & white struggle, struggle between good and evil. Also, read William's new fantasy saga Shadowmarch. Wonderful prose and a strong plot.
I also recommend reading Tad William's other works. His Shadowmarch series is really good (and completed). His other series, Otherland is a stellar read too. It's science fiction, but there are quite a few fantasy elements too; it's kind of like the Matrix. Otherland is of the best Science Fiction books, IMHO.
Read Guy Gaverial Kay's own conversation with Tolkien's Rings with his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Another take on the Lord of the Rings concept and like Williams, wonderfully written though less pedantically paced.
Books in The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series (11)
Books in The Acts Of Caine Series (4)
Books in Ile-rien Series (5)
Sherlock Holmes for the Victorian era and the master criminals
Books in Deverry Series (14)
Books in The Death Gate Cycle Series (6)
Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.