What makes a great fantasy series? The market seems to be flooded with fantasy books nowadays and the wealth of options can make it difficult to find a series that you can get lost in. I think for a fantasy series to be successful, it needs to have a well-crafted world and well-crafted characters, and how far the fantastical aspect of the story goes is secondary. Thus, my best fantasy series list is a mixture of a bunch of types that run the entire spectrum between high fantasy with lots of magic and grimdark fantasy with gritty battles:
J. R. R. Tolkien
No list of the very best fantasy series would be complete without J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Middle-earth is the fantasy world that many of us fantasy readers grew up imagining. The epic conflicts of the series is supported by a vast, richly-detailed world, full of meticulously-crafted lore and vibrant imagery. The Lord of the Rings isn’t a perfect fantasy series by any means, but even after more than 50 years since its inception, it still stands as one of the best ever written.
Brandon Sanderson has a gift for world-building and it shines in the Mistborn trilogy. In it, he details a deep and unique trio of magic systems based on metallurgy, and the systems are sufficiently complex enough to surprise readers with new concepts every now and then. This is important, as the mechanics of the magic systems are often at the forefront of the story, as it ties in intricately with the plot. Well-written characters and action sequences bolstered by a fascinating magic system make the Mistborn trilogy a must-read for all fantasy fans.
Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series is fast, bloody, and fun. Where other fantasy stories are about magicians or kings, The First Law is about a barbarian, and the books are what you’d expect a barbarian story to read, with visceral action sequences, dark humor, and a plot that speeds right along to its conclusion. A fantastic trilogy.
Raymond E. Feist
The Riftwar Cycle is the encompassing universe that contains many other series in Raymond E. Feist’s world of Midkemia (and in the case of The Empire trilogy, the sister world of Kelewan). The first series, The Riftwar Saga, chronicles the origin story of Pug and his friend Tomas — both of whom play important parts in other series in the Riftwar Cycle universe. Other series, like the excellent Serpentwar Saga, focus on more minor characters who have effects less grand in scale. If you’re looking for a vast fantasy world to get lost in, The Riftwar Cycle is a good bet.
The Runelords series definitely overstayed its welcome: by the fifth book, plot points seemed to repeat and new characters felt stale. The first three books in the series, however, were brilliant! An entirely new, and fascinating system of magic revolving around the use of people’s physical and mental attributes — brawn, grace, voice, wit, metabolism — made the series a fresh fantasy adventure. Though the main protagonist Gaborn is a bland fantasy-hero trope, his adversary Raj Ahten is a delightfully complex combination of mystery and likable evil. Read the first three books in the Runelords series (the fourth book, The Lair of Bones, was also a decent enough read) and if you like them enough, read as much of the later books as you can stomach.
Roland Deschain travels the desolate wasteland of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, hunting the elusive man in black — along the way, there’s adventures, horrific creatures, and an ever-changing landscape, all part of a fantastical backdrop for a battle between good and evil. The Dark Tower shies from a lot of the common tropes found in fantasy literature; there’s a small, yet well-developed cast of characters, each with their own motivations and history and the conflicts aren’t grand wars fought on battlefields, but are fights over self-control and self-doubt. This series is King’s best, and one of the best fantasy series ever written.
The world of Malazan Book of the Fallen is big, populated with mysterious characters and an intricately-crafted history. The lore of Malazan, much like the characters and storyline, must be unpacked with care; the chapters are there to be read and re-read, as the first book, Gardens of the Moon, drops you in the midst of a political and literal battlefield, with zero exposition and zero setup. The appeal of many fantasy series is exploration and discovery — maybe of strange lands, as in The Lord of the Rings, or maybe of a character’s history, like in The Name of the Wind. In Malazan, the reader is the explorer and discoverer of Steven Erikson’s fascinating world.
A story about men who quietly train in a secluded monastery without the distractions of women or family should, by all rights, be boring. Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow isn’t. Somehow, the series is packed full of action sequences, political intrigue, conspiracies, and romance, with a detailed world in a plot that speeds along at a brisk pace. I like to call these types of fantasy series weekenders — not because its short enough to read in a few days, but because it’s hard to stop until it’s finished.
The main protagonist in many fantasy series tend to follow one of the many common tropes, like a dishonored knight seeking vengeance or a young boy from modest beginnings rising to importance though great deeds. Some series — Raven’s Shadow, The Queen’s Thief, or The First Law, to name a few — defy expectations by featuring a unique character as the star. Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun does as well: its main character Severian — a torturer — might have been relegated to the background as a minor character in other fantasy stories. In The Book of the New Sun, he’s the main puzzle for readers to solve.
J. K. Rowling
Few book series have instilled a sense of wonder and magic in me than Harry Potter, and a lot of that has to do with how Harry is introduced to the magical world of Hogwarts: as he meets new people and becomes familiar with new concepts, so do we, and as the series progresses and Harry becomes more and more comfortable with this hidden world, we do as well. This is a fantasy series for everyone.