Fantasy is one of those genres with a couple of heavy hitters. You can hate fantasy as much as you want, but you still know that Hogwarts is a school for snotty wizard children, that Narnia is about a talking lion who lives in your closet, and that Elijah Wood is a Hobbit. Mainstream fantasy series have wormed their way into all of our brains. But, as much as I love the all-star line up of fantasy novels, there are a lot of amazing books out there flying just under your radar. Here are a few of the fantastic books from the fantasy genre that your probably haven't read yet, but need to.
You don't have to be a die-hard fantasy fan to check out these books, either. Even if you can't name more than two characters from A Game of Thrones, I still think it's worth dipping into the less over-exposed end of the fantasy pool. You might find that, the farther you get away from Tolkien, the more you find inventive systems of magic, unique characters, and even fantasy worlds that are (gasp!) not based on medieval Europe.
So ready your swords, wands, and magical animal sidekicks, and pick up one of these great fantasy novels that you definitely should have read by now:
1'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' by N.K. Jemisin
If you're not reading N.K. Jemisin right now, I might have to revoke your credentials as a fan of high fantasy. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of Yeine Darr, an outcast from the barbarian north, who finds herself next in line for the throne in the magnificent city of Sky. It's a fantasy world completely unlike any other, with all the gods and orphans and vicious political struggles you could ever possibly want.
2'The Last Unicorn' by Peter S. Beagle
You might have a vague memory of the animated movie, but there's a good chance you've never actually read this fantasy classic. It's about a unicorn who thinks she might be the last unicorn. So, naturally, she teams up with a bumbling magician and a tough-as-nails spinster to find her long lost sisters. It might sound trite in our modern world of unicorn-themed drinks, but Beagle manages to take a story about unicorns and weave a gorgeous, emotional fraught narrative about a creature who's the last of her kind.
3'The Color of Magic' by Terry Pratchett
There's a lot of Internet discourse about which Discworld book to start with, and there's really not a wrong answer. I offer you The Color of Magic as the very first book in the confused and non-linear Discworld series, but you can jump in anywhere you like. The point is that Discworld is one of the most ridiculous fantasy worlds ever imagined, and the stories it has to tell range from slapstick parodies about struggling wizards, to nuanced coming of age tales about young witches, to change-of-career stories about Death himself.
4'A Wizard of Earthsea' by Ursula Le Guin
If you're looking for old school, "hero's journey" style fantasy, except not so Euro-centric and written by a woman, then Earthsea is the place for you. A Wizard of Earthsea follows young Ged through his reckless youth. One day he will become the greatest sorcerer in all of Earthsea, but for now he's messing with long-held secrets, releasing dark shadows into the world, and taming ancient dragons to try and put things right.
5'Fledgling' by Octavia E. Butler
Yes, it's a vampire story — but Fledgling is also so much more than your typical vampire story. If you only know Butler for her sci-fi, you're going to want to try her fantasy. A young girl wakes up in a cave, alone and in pain, with no memories of her past life. It's up to her to uncover who she is and who she once was, but first she must address the gnawing hunger that fills every fiber of her being.
6'Perdido Street Station' by China Miéville
If your fantasy tastes run towards the strange and inexplicable, you simply must visit the weird world of Bas-Lag. Here, cities sprout up in the rib cages of ancient beasts, women have scarab beetles for heads, and an eccentric scientist will find himself faced with a unique challenge from a giant bird. Perdido Street Station is a wild ride through the weirdest corners of the fantasy genre, and it'll keep you guessing until the last page.
7'Dark Lord of Derkholm' by Diana Wynne Jones
You know the drill: travelers find themselves in a magical land full of vicious fantasy creatures, alluring enchantresses, and dark lords. But what if all of that quest nonsense was just for show? What if the inhabitants of this magical world would really rather just go abut their business? In Dark Lord of Derkholm, we see the other side of the fantasy tourism industry, and one family's life is completely upended when the sweet-natured Wizard Derk is chosen to play this year's evil Dark Lord.
8'Anansi Boys' by Neil Gaiman
Let's not forget that "fantasy" doesn't always have to mean far off worlds where people ride around on horses. Fantasy can also mean dealing with life in modern day London when your father just happens to be Anansi the Spider. Fat Charlie Nancy finds himself dealing with the legacy of his (deceased) deity of a father when his long lost brother turns up on his doorstep. It's technically a sequel to Gaiman's American Gods, but Anansi Boys easily stands on its own as one of the funniest and most inventive fantasy novels around.
9'Sabriel' by Garth Nix
Sabriel is one of those books that most people either love or have never heard of. In a world of necromancy and the random power of "Free Magic," young Sabriel has led a fairly sheltered childhood. It's only when her father goes missing that she must enter the hideously dangerous realm of the Old Kingdom to find him again. It's part coming of age story, part fantasy horror, and all witty adventure as Sabriel fights to save her father and herself from those pesky Dead.
10'The Once and Future King' by T.H. White
You already know the characters of The Once and Future King. King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot show up in plenty of other stories. But The Once and Future King is the often forgotten fantasy masterpiece about King Arthur that more or less created the genre as we know it today (the wizard with the long white beard and the pointy hat trope came from this book). It starts off as a fun romp with the boy known as Wart as he learns from his teacher, Merlin, and becomes an epic romance that'll challenge everything you think you know about kings, knights, and magic.