I had a lot of fun writing my pick of the 9 science-fiction stories you must read so I thought I would take a look at my other genre of choice, fantasy. The same rules apply as last time, namely that these stories can be anything from flash fiction right up to epics, and only one story can feature per author.
With that said, let’s dive right into the list.
9. The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton
Putting a children’s book on this list might at first seem weird when compared with the other entries but stick with me for there is reason in my madness. The Magic Faraway Tree (book two in Blyton’s Faraway series but by far the most famous of the set) is not only a gateway story into the fantasy genre but also a very clever discussion of how an anarchic society is inherently unstable.
This book has influenced so many others that came after it, from myriad children’s stories to adult works like V For Vendetta. It is part story, part philosophy and part morality tale. For all that, it deserves a place on this list.
8. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
What happens if you take the pulp noir detective story and mix it with modern urban fantasy? You get The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher’s most famous series. Ignore the awful TV adaptation that lasted only one season (for good reason) and go straight to the source novels. There are nineteen so far and they are all fantastic.
Storm Front is book one in the series and it reads like a masterwork in establishing a successful formula. Private Detective and Wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden has money problems, weird friends and a case to solve involving the occult underworld of a modern day Chicago that’s filled with crime bosses, shady characters and femme fatales. There’s not a part of that to not like.
It’s fast-paced, action-packed and amazing fun. The later novels bring in a huge amount of pathos and a world that feels increasingly real despite its heavy fantasy setting but here in the first novel it’s action all the way. Definitely worth a read.
7. The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K Dick
Some people are going to scream at me that Philip K Dick writes science-fiction and thus should not be on this list. To them, I ask only one thing: point to a single sentence in this brilliant novel that is in any way science fiction. This is a fantasy novel, specifically an alternate history novel, that deals with the metaphysical in a big way. It’s fantasy, it’s good and it deserves to be on this list.
The Man In The High Castle revolves around the lives of a few people living in a world where the Axis powers won World War II and America has been divided practically 50-50 by the German and Japanese powers. There’s an alternate history novel doing the rounds that depicts a world where the Allies won World War II and the British Empire is on the verge of ruling the planet.
One of the main characters, a Jewish man in hiding from the Nazi government, struggles to survive as a seller of hand-made jewellery. Meanwhile, discovering the identity of the titular Man In The High Castle and his relationship to the I Ching is a central driving force of the plot.
It’s weird, it’s sometimes convoluted but it is also amazing.
6. The Picture Of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
I think everyone knows at least something about the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel Wilde ever wrote, so we don’t need dwell on that too long here. It’s somewhat Faustian in its plotline but that’s no bad thing.
As a philosophical work its message has perhaps been dulled over the intervening decades but its influence on modern culture, especially later fantasy and science-fiction works, is not to be dismissed. Hence it fits very neatly onto this list.
5. Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett
Influenced very obviously by the film Death Takes a Holiday, Reaper Man sees one of Terry Pratchett’s most loved characters, Death himself, fired from his job and forced to take on work as a farm hand to make ends meet.
People may be surprised that out of the forty Discworld novels, I chose this one for the list but the fact is, it epitomises Discworld as a series. It is hilarious but it is also full of the social commentary and moving scenes that the later novels have in spades. In essence, Reaper Man encompasses everything that makes the Discworld novels great. That’s why it makes this list.
Plus it’s not a doorstopper like the later books, so you can finish it in a day. That makes it a great entry point to the series for newcomers.
4. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Fourth on the list is another urban fantasy tale, this time set in an America where all gods are real, and most of them are out-of-work people just trying to make ends meet in a world that no longer believes in them.
Our hero, Shadow, is taken on by the mysterious Mister Wednesday and embarks on a road trip across the continental United States. On his travels, he meets a multitude of deities from across human history and must unravel a conspiracy of sorts while evading the clutches of the modern American replacement for the old gods; all of whom never managed to get a proper foothold in America.
American Gods won both the Hugo and Nebula awards – and for good reason. It exemplifies the modern urban fantasy genre and is such a compelling read that fans are still debating the precise identities of one of the gods Shadow encounters on his travels, 14 years after its release.
3. Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, by M.R. James
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad is often called the greatest ghost story ever written, and if you read it you’ll see why. There’s something inherently creepy about it even today, 111 years after its first publication in the short story collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
Ghost stories were nothing new when M.R. James was writing them and James doesn’t even bring anything really new to the table with this story. Instead, he condenses the feeling of terror that those who experience a ghost sighting are supposed to feel and makes the reader experience it too.
This story may also be the reason we typically think of ghosts as wearing bedsheets, and for that little bit of pop culture meme generation I think it deserves a place on this list.
2. The Ring Saga (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, I know, I’m kind of breaking my own rule here by putting two stories by the same author on the list but they are essentially part of the same story and they are occupying the same spot on the list so I think I can get away with it.
If you don’t know the plot of The Lord of the Rings by now, you must have been living under a rock for the past decade but I’ll summarise it for you here: Bilbo Baggins finds a magic ring while helping some friends reclaim their homeland. He takes the ring home and for fifty years, it lies mostly dormant. During that time, a great evil regains much of its lost power and suddenly the world is on the brink of destruction again. Bilbo’s ring turns out to be the only way the great evil can be defeated, so his nephew must set out on a quest to destroy it.
The Ring saga is set in Middle Earth, a constructed world that is so detailed it has multiple languages in it that you can learn and use to speak to other nerds who like to learn fantasy languages. Middle Earth has a history spanning millennia, all of which is laid out in exquisite detail, and all of which has inspired literally every epic fantasy saga that has come after it.
Few stories have had more influence on the modern fantasy genre than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is so influential that you can literally draw a line in literary history, marking the two halves as “Before Tolkien” and “After Tolkien”. Who else can say that?
1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker can say that.
Before Dracula was first published, vampires had a grab bag of strange powers that varied from story to story. After Stoker came along, the powers of vampires quickly solidified into what we know them to be today. Even pointing out the differences between the powers of the titular Dracula and what we expect a vampire’s powers to be is quickly becoming a staple of fantasy and horror (watch a modern vampire film and take a drink when you hear something along the lines of “How can you walk in the sunlight?” “Haven’t you read Stoker’s fable?”).
The influence of Dracula on the horror genre has been immense and its influence doesn’t stop there. Stoker’s story may not have invented the urban fantasy genre but it certainly planted horror firmly at its core.
Dracula is such an iconic character that when you think of vampires, you see Dracula. When you put on a vaguely Eastern European accent to affect a “vampire accent”, you’re aping Dracula. He’s become firmly entrenched into Western culture and every vampire since (plus every vampire that came before him, now) has been compared to him. For that reason and more, Dracula belongs firmly at the top of this list.
So there you have it, nine stories from the fantasy genre that you really must read. I’d like to think I’ve covered all the main sub-genres of fantasy and given you a reading list that will make you pretty well-versed in what styles fantasy has to offer.
No doubt you will disagree on some (all?) of my choices but hey, that’s okay. Leave your own recommendations in the comments and maybe we can get a discussion going on what the definitive top fantasy story list would look like.
But until next time, happy reading!