PASTE magazine The 50 Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

If you’re looking for your new, favorite fantasy saga, we’ve got you covered. We’ve gathered Paste editors and writers to compile a list of our favorite books in the genre, ranging from high fantasy worlds with distinct systems of magic to simple fantastical fables to urban fantasies filled with characters ripped right out of own realities. This list boasts everything from Young Adult novels brimming with magic and violence to high fantasy epics chronicling war and drama. We’ve limited our picks to two books per author, and these books include entries in multi-volume series, standalone novels and a collection of short stories. Nearly 150 titles received at least one vote, but we’ve narrowed it down 50 books we recommend without reservation.
20,768 members
793 reviews
½ 4.4
Explanations Kvothe’s tale, reluctantly told by the old innkeeper himself, is as gripping, emotional and imaginative as any fantasy story put to paper. Born into a family of traveling musicians, Kvothe’s world is upended when the mythical Chandrian murder his family. He becomes a directionless pickpocket and thief before learning more about his parents’ killers and resolving that the ultimate answers can only be found by attending the University. His years there are filled with young love, rivalry with wealthier classmates and music. Kvothe the narrator is a world-renowned magician, musician and sword-fighter, but his autobiography is a coming-of-age story with full of hardship and drama. And Patrick Rothfuss is the kind of writer that transcends genre qualifiers. The prose is masterful with rich characterization exhilarating storytelling. Not a word feels out of place. This is the kind of book you recommend to anyone, whether or not they think they like fantasy. And then they can join you in waiting impatiently for the third installment in the Kingkiller Chronicle following 2011’s The Wise Man’s Fear. —Josh Jackson
9,592 members
304 reviews
½ 4.4
Explanations Brandon Sanderson is a master of many aspects of the fantasy genre: epic world-building, coherent systems of magic and unforgettable character development. All those are in peak form in his masterwork, The Way of Kings, the first of his three-book-long-and-counting series The Stormlight Archive. Roshar is a world where magic is rare, but spren—the spirits of just about every object or idea—are common. A few magic items like soulcasters, shard blades and shard plates are remnants of a grander age. In nations like Alethkar and Jah Keved, light eyes are revered, while those with dark eyes remain a lower caste. The Way of Kings is told from the points-of-view of four loosely connected characters, but the main focus is on Kaladin, a darkeyed soldier betrayed by his light-eyed commander and sold into slavery. With every shred of humanity and defiance beaten out of him, his final indignity is getting forced to carry bridges to the frontlines of an endless war—a death sentence. But his fellow crewman of Bridge Four find brotherhood and redemption in the most hopeless of places. The other two books of the Stormlight Archive are fantastic, but nothing compares to Kaladin’s original heroic journey in The Way of Kings. —Josh Jackson
97,717 members
1,570 reviews
½ 4.4
Explanations The culmination of the Harry Potter series was, it has to be said, pretty overweight—a competent copy editor could’ve removed a hundred pages from the manuscript without doing a thing other than deleting repetitive lines and phrases. But the voracious readers of the series would’ve forgiven a lot more than imperfect prose styling: We were dying to see Harry’s search for the Horcruxes and his final showdown against Lord Voldemort. And we got that plus a lot more: In the conclusion to the seven-book series J.K. Rowling not only continues to evoke the magically vivid secret world of Wizards living unnoticed under the noses of the non-magical, but she also does some of her best character development work as Harry is forced to confront his own death, his relationships with loss, with power, with bereavement, with knowledge gotten too late, with questions that didn’t get asked, and with love. It largely dispenses with the good-versus-evil paradigm that characterized the earlier books; as Harry has grown up, he’s learned that no one is truly 100% one or the other (though Voldemort’s still pretty close). An archetypal, alchemy-suffused coming-of-age tale set in a highly clever and lavishly realized alternate world, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the kind of book you read over and over, simply because the culmination is so satisfying. A flawed piece of prose but a wonderful finale to a thoroughly marvelous concept. —Amy Glynn
9,940 members
226 reviews
Explanations It’s borderline frustrating that Neil Gaiman has yet to meet a storytelling medium that he can’t master, and so it’s no mistake that Fragile Things, his 2006 collection, is subtitled Short Fiction and Wonders. From a gothic send-up (“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”) to a Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes tale (“A Study in Emerald”), a humorous poem later adapted into a series of t-shirts (“The Day the Saucers Came”) to an American Gods novella (The Monarch of the Glen), Fragile Things spans the breadth of what constitutes fantastic fiction, and each and every one is a “wonder” indeed. Aside from the previously mentioned Lovecraft/Holmes mashup, though, Fragile Things is probably best known for “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” a melancholy Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction story that perfectly captures the alien experience of being a teenager. —Steve Foxe
5,217 members
215 reviews
Explanations Set in a world resembling ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy novel of love and revenge. When a young soldier groomed to take over the oppressive, military government decides to turn his back on the regime, he collides with a young scholar determined to save her brother. He’s a soldier, she’s a slave, and together they prepare to discover their freedom. It’s a hefty book, but you’ll devour this electrifying tome in no time. The story continues in A Torch Against the Night. —Eric Smith
10,345 members
439 reviews
Explanations This is not the only tale of young orphan escaping a world of abject poverty on this list, but it’s the one that takes the most joy in the scheming thievery that makes his escape possible. Lock Lamora is a precociously gifted pick-pocket and con artist before he’s tall enough to reach the hips of most adults, but his skills are perfected once he apprentices with Father Chains, becoming an official priest of the Crooked Warden and one of the Gentleman Bastards whose motto is: “Richer and cleverer than everyone else.” The Lies of Locke Lamora gets its inspiration as much from heist stories as it does from the worlds of epic fantasy. Locke and his crew must rely on their wits, disguises, acting, sleights of hand and good ol’ fashioned muscle as they go up against an actual magician. Locke Lamora—the Thorn of Camorr—takes his place among fiction’s most lovable rogues and gentleman thieves, alongside Robin Hood, Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean and Moist von Lipwig. —Josh Jackson
13,124 members
443 reviews
½ 4.3
Explanations In exploring a shocking question—What happens if the hero fails and the villain reigns?—Brandon Sanderson kicks off a thrilling fantasy saga with Mistborn: The Final Empire. It boasts all of the best fantasy elements: a unique magic system, a ragtag group of rebels led by a charismatic rogue, an orphan with mysterious powers. But Sanderson weaves those predictable elements into a breathtaking saga that promises twists every step of the way. Mistborn succeeds in celebrating what makes fantasy magical while simultaneously delivering a fresh adventure that’s endlessly entertaining. —Frannie Jackson
8,273 members
362 reviews
17,883 members
681 reviews
3,926 members
131 reviews
18,805 members
1,268 reviews
25,366 members
449 reviews
½ 4.4
102,491 members
936 reviews
½ 4.4
10,991 members
422 reviews
½ 4.3
11,473 members
349 reviews
½ 4.3