So you’re into fantasy. Only problem is, you get bored with some of the newfangled stuff. I don’t blame you. Finding good fantasy can be tough these days. Well, before you start yearning for the Good Old Days, keep in mind that many of your favorites are still in print. If they aren’t, they could easily be found as used copies on the Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or AbeBooks websites*. While allowing that your Top Ten list might be different from mine, here’s a list of my ten favorite fantasy trilogies and series.
Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Seriously, can you have a Top Ten fantasy list without including this one? Tolkien includes it all, or nearly so: Elves. Orcs. Trolls. A Dark Lord that directs his forces from behind the scenes and desperately wants to regain the thing he lost ages ago. An epic quest and an exiled king who regains his throne — although, in a unique twist, the lost king and the unexpected hero are not one and the same. No dragon, though Smaug does get a mention or two. Some of the writing gets a little advanced, so if you’re buying this for your kids to read after “The Hobbit,” keep their reading level in mind. This is a slice of Tolkien’s masterwork of Middle-Earth that includes “The Hobbit” and “The Silmarillion.” If you’re just getting into the world of fantasy, Lord of the Rinngs makes a good start because this is the standard against which every epic quest tale is measured. Basically, Tolkien is the author that every second-rate fantasy author wishes they were.
The Novels of Valdemar
by Mercedes Lackey
She hides among the trees from family members who want to force her into either marriage, or a vocation. She knows she can’t hide forever, but she does not want to go back. What can she do? A creature that looks like a perfect white horse with blue eyes and silver hooves solves the problem for her by emerging from the forest surrounding the Holderkin village. Thinking that he is only a lost prize horse, she decides to return him. During her journey, she discovers that he is a magical Companion named Rolan and she is now one of the elite band of Heralds who are Chosen as lawgivers and defenders of the realm of Valdemar. Navigating a world that includes spoiled princesses, greedy royalty, and treacherous would-be allies, she rises to become the Queen’s Own Herald. For bonus points, search for “Mercedes Lackey” on Youtube and you’re likely to find songs based on her series that are actually quite good.
The Dragonriders of Pern
by Anne McCaffrey
Every few centuries, Pern is threatened by acidic Thread that falls from the sky and threatens all life on the planet. No one now alive remembers the last Threadfall and all but the Dragonriders believe that it will never come again. Not only that, but the Dragonrider force has been gutted by the mysterious emptying of most of the Weyrs. Only one golden Queen Dragon remains and, when she dies after laying only one Queen egg, the Dragonriders must search reluctant Holds for a Weyrwoman who can change the fortunes of the Weyrs and all of Pern. Dragonrider F’Lar finds the best candidate in the ruined Ruatha Hold but, before he can return her to his Weyr, he must fight the tyrannical Fax and prove to her that the tyrant’s newborn son is worthy of being Ruatha’s new Lord Holder. In return, she finds a way to bring the Weyrs back to full strength, though some may argue that she could have solved the problem and caused herself fewer headaches simply by leaving well enough alone.
The King Raven Trilogy
by Stephen R. Lawhead
Think you know Robin Hood? This trilogy will cause you to rethink the rogue with this grittier, more historically believable version of the Robin Hood legend. All the familiar characters are here, including Bran ap Brychan, an immature prince who is driven out of his kingdom, swears revenge against the usurping Normans and adopts a name that will be twisted into Robin Hood over the centuries. Now the king of the outlaws, he raids the tyrannical usurpers’ cattle pens and the oppressed, impoverished villagers frequently find gifts of meat on their doorsteps. However, Bran wants more. Will he regain his kingdom, and what will the final cost be?
The Age of Fire
by E.E. Knight
In fantasy, dragons are very rarely the protagonists. E.E. Knight introduces a hidden draconic society led by the Tyr, who faces the challenging task of ruling over feuding dragon factions and defending their underground society from enemy bipedals who wish to kill or enslave all dragons. When the old Tyr dies and their underground world is invaded, the Copper Dragon must rise from his outcast status to unite the dragons in their fight for freedom and dominance of the Upper World. Facing siblings that hate him for being the crippled outcast who betrayed their parents and high-ranking dragons that don’t quite know how to end their feuding, his main strength remains his experience with surviving against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The First Chronicles of Amber
by Robert Zelazny
If ever there was a dysfunctional family in fantasy, the one presented in The Chronicles of Amber is it. Amber is presented as the “real” world of which all the others are mere shadows that can be more or less similar to Amber depending on how close they are. Amber’s royal family is marked by some serious feuding among its princes who, among other things, strand Corwin on Earth with a serious case of amnesia. He faces an uphill battle to regain both his memory and his place in Amber. On the other side of the equation is the Courts of Chaos, an equally “real” world that is the antithesis of everything that Amber represents. When Corwin disappears into Chaos, his son Merlin must dare the Courts and the demons of his own past to find him. Because it is three books in one volume and a complex world in which it might be a little hard to tell exactly who is on who’s side, this one might be a bit much to take in one sitting.
His Dark Materials
In a world where people’s souls walk beside them in the form of animals, an orphan sets out to deliver the Golden Compass to her father, only to get much more than she bargained for. Along the way, she befriends a wide variety of characters that include Iorek Byrnison, the talking polar bear whose soul is armor made of primodial materials that fell to Earth, and becomes involved in a war between several parallel worlds including the Kingdom of Heaven. A boy from our version of Oxford also becomes enmeshed in the war when a stranger’s attempt to steal his father’s papers sets him on a collision course with multiple worlds. With any book or series that involves any kind of theology, you’ll probably run across the haters who believe that no true Christian (or member of any religion) would read these. But if you enjoy these as a work of fiction that happens to contain theological and scientific themes, it’s an entertaining three-part story.
The Merlin Trilogy
Myrddin Emrys grows up a bastard son in the Welsh hills, rumored to be the son of a demon and a Welsh princess and haunted by visions and portents of great deeds that would take place in his own lifetime. He makes a name for himself by reporting his visions to first High King Vortigern, then Uther Pendragon, and must act quickly to save and hide Arthur from scheming petty kings scattered across the British Isles. There is less overt magic, but the characters are very believable and gives a good picture of what the England of Merlin’s time might have been like if visions and minor magics were possible and humans believed that a spirit lurked in every grove. It’s a thick book, really three books in one, but so well-written that it doesn’t feel long at all. It’s just fast-paced enough to avoid boring its audience and still contain a lot of details that can make any fantasy world more believable. Be sure to look for the fourth book, The Wicked Day, to complete the series.
Jean M. Auel
At the time of the last Ice Age, an orphaned girl wanders into the camp of the Clan. Because she looks so different and so much like those who moved into their ancestral home, the members of the Clan are suspicious of her at first. She is adopted by an older couple and the suspicion gradually declines as she learns their ways, but some individuals in authority still see her as a threat to the Clan’s way of life. The eBook has been blasted for typos and obvious errors, so buy the hard copy if you want to enjoy this tale without being jarred by publisher mistakes. Anthropologists like this and its sequels for being true to (pre)history and the stories are engaging though some people did say that the first three are better than the sequels. It’s debatable whether some details would have been historically accurate (would someone with blond hair and blue eyes have existed during the last ice age?) but it’s a good read if you’re looking for something new.
The Rain Wilds Chronicles
When the Traders renege on their promises to tend the earthbound descendants of the powerful dragon Tintaglia, the dragons must move or die. Thymara is one of those assigned to escort a group of deformed dragons to a mythical homeland that not even the dragons remember with any certainty. They must stick together through adversity and treachery without even being sure what to expect at their destination. As many readers have noted, this is NOT an Anne McCaffrey series in which dragons and humans form a close symbiotic relationship. These dragons are just this side of being wild, untamable creatures. Neither is it a “kids’ book” and it does contain mature themes. But if you can hack it, this is an enjoyable series for people who like dragons.