100 best fantasy books of all time


By N.K. Jemisin


Consider the “flat-earther” who constructs elaborate chains of causation and meaning from facts that have little to do with each other. Consider bigotry, which does the same—and yet we have built entire school curricula, legal systems, infrastructure and industries around such ideas as “women can’t handle pressure” and “poor people are lazy.” Why do we believe one set of paranoid, questionable hypotheses and not another? Why do we designate some people as “heroes” and others as “villains,” and why are we so loath to change those designations when the people in question turn out to be just … people? How is it that we lately seem to have become a society that cares more about compelling nonsense than about boring rationality? Or were we always that kind of society, and we just care more now because the nonsense is hurting a broader swath of people?

These are fraught times—but there have always been fraught times for someone in the world, somewhere. And there have always been those whose mastery of the art of storytelling has helped us understand how powerfully stories shape the world. C.S. Lewis sought to comfort children with faith. Philip Pullman disturbed them with warnings of encroaching fascism. There are many stories aimed at children on this list, possibly because we’re still openly hungry for stories in childhood, and thus the ones we absorb then have a lasting effect. That hunger doesn’t really change when we grow up, however; the need is still there, acknowledged or not—especially if the stories we’ve been given up to that point don’t encapsulate reality. Thus it’s fitting that some of the most powerful storytellers on this list, such as Victor LaValle, engage with adult concerns like parenthood instead of myth.

Is it comforting to see how many of the stories on this list wrestle with the need to reform institutions and leadership? It could be. Yet the newer storytellers here, many of whom hail from colonized cultures and thus have vastly different backgrounds from those of “classic” fantasy authors, also warn us of the realities of societal strife. The good guys don’t always win, the bad guys don’t always lose, and either way, the ones who suffer most will be the people who were already struggling to get by.

This is what both classic and modern fantasy teach us, however: that you have to fight anyway. That sometimes it is the journey, and not the final battle against some Dark Lord or another, that defines who we are. That our happy ending might very well depend on how loudly and powerfully we tell our stories along the way. Don’t think of fantasy as mere entertainment, then, but as a way to train for reality. It always has been, after all.


This collection of folktales, also known as One Thousand and One Nights, has an infamous framing device: Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, is set to be married then killed by the king; she forestalls this fate by persuading him to hear a story, which she draws out for 1,001 nights by ending each on a cliff-hanger. These short stories are deeply misogynistic. They’re also tremendously influential, having shaped storytelling far beyond the Islamic golden age when they were initially compiled—the earliest known printed page dates to the 9th century.



One of the earliest printed works of the genre can be found in Le Morte d’Arthur, French for “the death of Arthur,” which has gone on to inspire everyone from Monty Python to Stephen King. The 500-year-old text mixed and matched its parts from the work of many, all while inventing new perspectives and themes—much as the genre still does today.



The tale of a curious girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a magical world never ceases to ignite children’s imaginations. The book helped to replace stiff Victorian didacticism in children’s literature with a looser, sillier style that reverberated through the writing of 20th century authors as different as James Joyce and Dr. Seuss. Amid hundreds of derivative works (and that’s a conservative estimate) in mediums ranging from opera to amusement-park rides to video games, Disney’s 1951 animated feature has become a classic unto itself.



Decades of adaptation and consolidation have jumbled Carroll’s two Alice books in our collective memory, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland largely subsuming its 1871 sequel. But it was Looking-Glass that introduced indelible English nursery-rhyme characters like Humpty Dumpty and twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum into Alice’s world.



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