While I read novels of many genres, my first and favourite has always been fantasy. The magical adventures and brand new worlds of these stories have had me captivated since I could read (or even before then, when they were read to me). And while many will deem fantasy the realm of children, most of these novels have darker undertones, and complex details and allegories that children will skip over. Re-reading childhood favourites as an adult unlocks layers and layers of new meanings and explores fascinating themes and ideas. There are many fantasy novels out there now which are written solely for adults, too dark and explicit for little ones. Fantasy is a place I continue to return to, in part for sheer escapism to magic and adventures, and in part to explore the multitude of meanings a novel may contain. So, here are my top five fantasy book series, highlighting those I enjoyed both as a child, and now as a (sort of) adult.
1. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter is where it all began for me. These books got me into reading, and I immediately loved the world of fantasy and magic within their pages. They were full of action and adventure, and very, very funny, and I basically grew up along with Harry. Like many, of course I hoped for a Hogwarts letter when I was 11, but no such luck. I was delighted when Pottermore sorted me into Gryffindor though! I was only 13 when the last book was published (can you believe it’s been NINE years since then?), so when I re-read the series later, when I was a bit older, I was able to discover even more nuances and details than I’d realised there were before. For more on my love of all things Potter, check out my recent tag post about it.
2. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
When I look back on this trilogy now, I realise that I was quite young when I read these books, and again, they are far more complex than I was aware of during my first reading of them. As a child, I related to the main characters, children who do a lot of growing up throughout the series, as puberty and loss of innocence are prevalent themes. But now I can also fully appreciate all the themes being explored, and there are some fascinating ideas about religion and creation, death, and the human soul, that last one being particularly interesting with the use of daemons in Lyra’s world. I later learned that the books were actually quite controversial at first, given some of the views on religion expressed in them, but I find it all very interesting. But steer clear of that awful film version!
3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
These are some of the earlier fantasy novels written, and helped define the genre. I think most of us encountered them at some point during our childhoods, and there is a strong sense of innocence and, of course, magic to them, which has captivated children for generations now. How many of us checked every wardrobe in our house in hopes of finding a secret, magical land? The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most famous of the series, but there’s plenty more to explore in the other books. And as with many fantasy novels, much deeper themes can be explored, and I even used The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for an essay in my final years at university, exploring how it works as a Christian allegory.
4. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
The Inkheart trilogy is perhaps one of the less well-known series on my list, but it’s definitely one to check out if you’re fantasy fan who hasn’t come across it before (but for goodness’ sake, stay away from the terrible film they made!). It’s been a long time since I read the series, but I have good memories of it. In these novels, fantasy comes to life literally, as some of the characters have the ability to read characters to life out of books. Some familiar characters are mentioned, but most come from a fictional book within the book. Over the trilogy, the story takes many twists and turns, and is full of remarkable and dramatic surprises. Just imagining characters popping to life out your favourite books makes it easy to get swept up in the magic of it all.
5. Discworld by Terry Pratchett
This series contains a staggering 41 books, though part of it’s fun is that they feature different protagonists, many of whom have their own mini-series within the wider collection, but each novel is a self-contained story, and can therefore be read out of order for the most part. Actually, I haven’t read all of them yet, nor many of them in order at all, but my favourites so far are those featuring the Nac Mac Feegle, who embody some gloriously stereotypical Scots characteristics, with a strong accent to match. The series is actually written mainly for adults, with many satirical elements to it, and most of the protagonists are adults encountering grown-up sorts of themes, but the bizarre inhabitants of the Discworld, and the side-splitting humour contained in these pages should appeal to most readers.
– Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien is regarded as one of the great fantasy writers, and I would not dispute this at all. He painstakingly and precisely crafted his fantasy world of Middle Earth, full of wondrous and intricate details, and gave us many of the archetypes and tropes found in other fantasy novels today. His story is grand and epically adventurous, but using simple hobbits as the protagonists keeps it very grounded. I only leave these novels out of my top five because they are a challenge to get through. I think I’ve only read them once (though have watched the films a few times), unlike my many re-reads of the rest of my list.
– A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
How could I write this list without mentioning the Game of Thrones books? It’s proven to be so popular lately, and I can see why. Definitely books for grown-ups, these are full of murder, incest, rape, war, and all sorts of dark deeds. The magical, fantasy elements are on the fringes of the action too, reminding us of how mystifying these things can, and should, be. They feel much grittier and darker than most fantasy novels, but actually they’re just more explicit about it, since most fantasy work has darker themes than we realised as children. Again, these miss out on the top five, because I’ve only read the first couple of books (but am fully caught up on the TV show), so I can’t fairly compare it to the other series that I’ve completed.
What are your favourite fantasy novels? What would you change on my list?