Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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All time best fantasy novels, as chosen by people who may not read much fantasy

The Best Fantasy Novels Of All Time [Updated], from Forbes.

Forbes. Right. My immediate response, without looking at the list: Uh huh, let’s pick ten novels non-fantasy fans have heard of and there you go. Tolkien, I expect. The Game of Thrones, obviously. Harry Potter, probably. What else has been super popular? Oh, I bet The Name of the Wind is on here. Let me see, let me see . . . okay, I’m guessing Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill, which is not that popular (I think?), but is so widely regarded as a great novel that it seems fairly likely to have made anyone’s list.

Fine, whatever, enough guessing, let’s take a look and just see if the list is as utterly derivative and obvious as seems likely.

Aaaand . . . not quite! Four of my five guesses are indeed represented, though. I do feel this level of predictability suggests a lack of careful thought or a lack of awareness of the genre. Picking the most obvious possible titles probably does speed up writing the column, though.

Anyway, here are Forbes’ picks, out of order:

The Lord of the Rings

The Game of Thrones

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The Name of the Wind, which I have actually never read, and which therefore may enjoy (?) special status as the single novel that has sat unread on my TBR shelves the longest. I know a lot of people love it and some people hate it. I guess I should try it, but who knows if the trilogy will ever be finished, and that makes me somewhat reluctant.

Harry Potter is not on this list, so I assume the author of this post excluded YA.

Then the rest of the list is filled out with titles I didn’t guess.

The Last Unicorn, which, sure, I should have guessed that one.

Tigana, which is a defensible choice, though not actually the one of GGK’s I’d pick.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, which I would not have expected. I wouldn’t pick it, but I have to agree, it’s a good, solid novel, a standout in the “gritty fantasy” category.

The Blade Itself — that’s by Joe Abercrombe, as you may know.

And finally two novels I’ve never read:

Mistborn, by Sanderson of course. He’s such a popular author, but I’ve read very little by him and haven’t been super-impressed by those of his that I’ve tried.

The Darkness that Comes Before, by R Scott Bakker, which I don’t recall even hearing about, so that’s startling. Oh, I see, it’s the first book of The Prince of Nothing series, which I have heard of. It’s supposed to be extremely dark with lots of sexual violence, which is why it’s never stuck around on my radar.

All right, the list has some redeeming entries on it. However, I don’t agree that “popular” equals “great” and I’m not keen on any list where the author apparently has never heard of Patricia McKillip. Or if he has heard of her, he doesn’t think she’s great, so there you go, obviously I am never going to be impressed by his lists.

Obviously I should throw together a list of my own. Fine, I’ll take five minutes and do that. The first choices are easy:

1) The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t matter how obvious this choice is. Plainly TLotR deserves its spot on any list of Top Ten Fantasy Novels Ever Written.

2) The Last Unicorn. I have to agree with the Forbes column this far: this is just a perfect little gem of a tale.

3) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I will probably never, ever re-read this tome, far less listen to it again — I “read” it in audio format. The last few chapters move briskly and I could hardly put the book down at that point. Until I got to the ending, I had absolutely no trouble putting it down, and frequently did. This novel kept me company while weeding and gardening for an entire summer. Massive thing. But yes, it is a great book, which I admire very much even if it is not one of my personal favorites.

4) The Book of Atrix Wolfe. I know, I know, it’s almost impossible to pick one book by Patricia McKillip. But when I’m forced to narrow her whole list down to just one novel, this is the one I pick.

5) Death of the Necromancer. Not my personal favorite of Martha Wells’ novels, but so well put together.

I’m starting to slow down, as my personal preferences start to interfere with picking novels I think are objectively great. Should I put The Goblin Emperor on here? What about The Curse of Chalion? How about a zillion others? Mapping Winter, which a commenter just reminded me of. Rosemary Kierstein’s Steerswoman series is (a) unfinished and (b) not really fantasy! Why didn’t I think of it as a candidate for all-time-great-science-fiction?

All right, fine, I gave myself just five minutes, let me press ahead:

6) The Curse of Chalion. I know many people prefer Paladin of Souls, but I do think Curse is the superior novel.

7) The Shadowed Sun and The Killer Moon by NK Jemisin. I know her more recent Broken Earth series got a lot more attention. I loathed the protagonist(s) too much to read more than the first part of the first book. This is the duology I’d pick.

8) The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I really don’t know why Tigana is the one that tends to get picked out of Kay’s oeuvre. I think Lions is the superior book, and I don’t even think it’s close. If I were picking a second one of his, it wouldn’t be Tigana; it would be Under Heaven.

9) Bridge of Birds by Hughart. Everyone who hasn’t read this delightful little masterpiece should rush right out and find a copy.

Gosh, I don’t know how to pick just one more. All right, I will throw a dart semi-blindly at novels and series I think might fit in this slot … let me see … okay:

10) The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler. Really outstanding epic fantasy.

Please weigh in on the comments! What belongs / doesn’t belong on the Forbes list, and on mine?

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8 Comments All time best fantasy novels, as chosen by people who may not read much fantasy

  1. Robert

    I think we’ve had this question before. And there’s probably just no way to be completely objective. Also, there’s so many different types of Fantasy. I wouldn’t even know how to start with a top 10 list, aside from just my personal favorites. And LOTR will be at the top of that.

  2. Elaine T

    My favorite McKillips are a three way tie Atrix Wolfe, Fool’s Run, and Cygnet. And I’d pick Last Light of the Sun for Kay. Lions was ok, but seemed a bit much of same old, same old.

    Susannah Clarke is, yes, a great writer, that I will probably never reread.

    Can’t think of much other off the top of my head to suggest. I know my husband likes Sanderson, but I’ve only read his first novel and never went on. There wasn’t anything wrong with his work, I just wasn’t interested in more. Shrug.

    Ok, I am now having John C. Wright float in as a suggestion for another member of the list. He’s certainly different. I actually can’t read his work, except at very short lengths, but – as with Sanderson – my husband has read all of his work, I think.

    BTW, Tor.com has an appreciation of McKillip by Czernada up today.

  3. Craig N.

    I would definitely want to put in something by Tim Powers, probably Last Call but I would listen respectfully to an argument for Declare.

    Since Fool’s Run is SF and Cygnet is two books, I’d go with your choice even though I pretty much agree with Elaine.

    I’m a huge fan of John C. Wright, but I’d say his SF is better than his fantasy. He does do some interesting things with dragging all sorts of different elements, mostly with some basis in real folklore, though by the time he’s done with them the connection is often tenuous.

    I might also suggest Gene Wolfe’s Soldier series (though it was more complete when there were two books than after he added the third), or possibly his unusually accessible duology The Wizard Knight.

  4. Rachel

    I’m sure I’ve tried to put together such a top ten list before, and no doubt I’ll try again in the future, and I expect the list will always change … except that TLotR will be at the top and something by McKillip will be on the list somewhere. Probably Atrix Wolfe, but maybe The Changeling Sea. The Cygnet duology feels unfinished to me.

    Oddly, I have never read Last Light of the Sun. Huh.

    I’ve never been a fan of Gene Wolfe, and as you know I’m not crazy about Tim Powers for some unknown reason, but I will grant that both are great writers and should unquestionably have a title appear on a list of great fantasy novels.

  5. Rachel

    Mary, you’re not the only one to tell me that. Eventually I’ll have to try it and see what I think, but I may be unable to go into it completely unbiased because I’ll remember people saying they hated it and I think that tends to drown out people saying they loved it. But we’ll see.

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