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Top 25 Best Heroic Fantasy Books

The Best Heroic Fantasy Novels in the Genre

Heroic Fantasy is perhaps the most iconic of its class. It carries the flagship heavyweights like The Lord of the Rings; hefty not only in size but in imagination. We love to see the little guy get his day in the sun, and this genre is full of these incredible transformations from humble beginnings to dramatic heroism.

To qualify for a slot on my list of the top 25 Heroic Fantasy novels of all time, these stories must be more than a good read, they have to be something I would read again and, of course, feature 'heroism' as one of the main driving forces of the novel and the protagonist. 

Heroic fantasy is often included as part of many other classic fantasy subgenres (epic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark, etc), but it can exist as it's own subgenre too. Just note that because of how inclusive this subgenre is, you'll often find MANY of the books can be included as part of another subgenre list. Read our Heroic Fantasy subgenre guide for a more complex breakdown on what defines this genre.

Now for the picks: these are the books that kept me up through the night (sometimes into the morning) because I seriously had to know what was coming! 

So here are twenty-five heroic fantasy must-reads: the books that I feel stand out above the other books in the genre (and trust me, there are hundreds, if not thousands of heroic fantasy books out there).

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Before J.R.R. Tolkein, there really was no "fantasy" genre of literature at all. All dragons, dwarves, and wizards belonged to folklore and fairy tales of former centuries. We can't really have a top 25 "of all time" without giving him a nod. Beyond that, Tolkein creates a world with thousands of years of history to it, making it easy to lose yourself in it.

While many fantasy stories tend to hang their hopes on one who is the incredibly skilled and powerful, the real heart of the story and hope of the world rests on the simplest of the most humble race. The evil is palpable as every volume dives deeper into the land of the enemy while our heroes fight against impossible odds to overcome the darkness of Sauron and free Middle Earth by destroying the One Ring. Epic battles, political maneuvering, it's all in there.

The Lord of the Rings really set the pattern for the genre, and once you've read it, you see how all heroic fantasy seems to carry on certain characteristics invented here: the hero is a nobody plucked out of nowhere and placed on a journey where the world will end if they don't figure out this hero bit and do their part; it's set in the Middle Ages with limited technology, meaning swordplay on every battle front; there is a guidance counselor (thank you Gandalf) who disappears periodically; and incredible evil to vanquish.  There is no list without this trilogy.

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If you've always wondered why ANYONE would choose to be a bard in D&D, here's your answer. Kvothe unearths hidden truths about the powers that be, fights a draccus, and becomes a legend; all thanks to his up bringing in a troupe of talented Edema Ruhbards and magicians. Rothfuss plays with an interesting story structure here; we have the story of his past told in first person from Kvothe mixed with multiple characters' perspectives at the present.

We also get this sort of meta-fiction going on from anecdotes Kvothe recounts in the course of telling his story. The bardic retellings reach nearly poetic prose at times while the dialogue is natural and entertaining. The tales of Kvothe as a legendary hero excelling at everything contrasted by the lonely seemingly impotent innkeeper he ultimately becomes creates tension and intrigue about what the truth of this man's life might ultimately be.  

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Another series that must be on the list is the story the sparked the ever-popular television show that has broken more hearts than any soap opera ever dared: Game of Thrones. Seriously. Don't get attached to anyone. While it took time for this work to gain traction and come into the limelight, becoming a best-seller five years after coming into print (thanks HBO!), it is now one of the most widely read heroic fantasy series in print. Martin is praised for discarding the old prototypes and creating gritty realism in this medieval fantasy.

As this shifting cast of protagonists vies for the throne we get detailed descriptions of battles and the spoils of war. Heroes fall, and villains become heroes, and the political landscape shifts endlessly. While I've broken my "it needs to be something I would re-read to make the list" rule, this is one that evokes passionate responses. You may love it, or hate it; but most of us love to hate it!

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With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.

In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it. 

From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable. 

No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale. 

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Le Guin's precise, descriptive prose is perfection. No syllable is unnecessary. Though the entire four-book series may be shorter than your average volume of heroism and questing, its complexity and richness are on par with or exceed every novel on this list.

A cycle in every sense these tales woven with themes of life, death, loss, redemption, and balance can be read in any order without becoming repetitive or confusing. Set in the Archipelago that both divides and unites the people of Earthsea, it is full of seafaring adventures of magic and mystery, and the story traverses cultures that vary believably, and add interest to the terrain. Each of the four original stories (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu) has won varying awards on their own merit, as well as contributing to LeGuin's World Fantasy Life Achievement Award in 1995.

I will say, if you are looking for the typical adventurous, swashbuckling yarn Tehanu won't do it for you. It is a journey of a different kind, demonstrating that braving the cruelties of life can require as much courage and wit as facing down a dragon or defying the gods of Death.

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Award Nominations:1997 LocusF

From the age of 6 Fitz begins leaves behind everything he knows and loves and begins his training to be the King's tool, becoming disciplined in loyalty as much as the stealthier arts of being his eyes and ears and sometimes his knife. Even the magic in Farseer is politically charged which adds an interesting tension throughout the story. Hobb's writing is so natural and honest as you follow the path of this precocious youngster through trials that would quail most men.

The characters are deep and richly developed, and watching Fitz grow shaped by his unusual role is in turns fascinating and heartbreaking. While it's no grimdark tale, it can be dark and unsettling. One of my favorite elements is how it features heroes who falter, epic deeds that fail, and motives so very true to human nature. Winner of fantasy awards internationally and at home, Farseer is a trilogy not to be missed.

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A den of thieves is not where I'd look for salvation from a world of ash and ruin, but that is exactly what you'll find here. The first incarnation of the Mistborn series, which includes The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and Hero of Ages (winner of the Whitney Award for best speculative fiction), is one of my all-time favorites.

It begins with the end we all fear: what if the hero fails and the villain rules the world?  Allomancy, the magic here, makes good sense and doesn't make you wonder, "why don't they just" like some fantasy books that leave the door wide open with only imagination for limitation; I'm looking at you, Lisa McMann! I don't want to give too much away, but just when you think you understand what is really happening, Sanderson pulls the rug out and you're left to re-think everything. He goes on to break the boundaries of Fantasy by moving ahead 300 years in time, busting through the age-old question: why is EVERY fantasy essentially set in the Medieval era?

He creates a whole new story in the same world, but the pace of time has swept civilization on to the brink of technology. Think Steampunk meets Cowboy Mystery is that even a genre? Religious and cultural carryover from the original series, and allomantic abilities consistent with the original let you know you're still in the same space, but it has a completely different feel. It's a light, funny read, full of heroic capers, while creating a captivating mystery. Sanderson has stated his intention to continue the series pushing ahead another several hundred years into Urban, and ultimately Space Fantasy trilogies. Definitely something to watch for!

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Told from the perspective of the unicorn herself, this novel is as much satire as it is fairytale. The journey begins when she overhears a conversation insinuating that the unicorns are probably gone out of the world, and maybe they were only ever fantasy. Her journey is full of wonderfully imperfect characters; even the unicorn is vain and at times proud to a fault. King Haggard is clearly depressed and harms out of selfishness rather than because he is some embodiment of evil like in so many stories of the genre.

It is a delightful, relaxing read, but that doesn't mean it's insubstantial. Beagle's descriptions are vibrant and tangible. Undercurrents of social commentary thread the humor woven throughout, and the ending isn't a neat and tidy Disney finale. While it can't tout a long list of literary awards won, it has made numerous readers' choice lists, including being proclaimed as #5 on the Locus list of "All Time Fantasy Novels."

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The Deed of Paksenarrion

(Elizabeth Moon)

(The Deed of Paksenarrion)

Paksenarrion is (well, becomes) a badass paladin in a world of dwarves, elves, and gods. She is farm girl turned mercenary with strong ideals, willing to do whatever it takes to fight for what is right. With background as a US Marine, Moon creates a vivid world, realistic military battles, gruesome torture descriptions, and a sense of the more humdrum side of soldiering.

If you aren't a fan of high fantasy, where there are extremes of both good and evil, this may not be your cup of tea. For those who love a heroic tale of sacrifice, courage, and gut-wrenching loss, it is absolutely worth it. It is rare to find a book that allows for divine intervention without feeling preachy or didactic, but Moon manages it easily. Add to that a strong, realistic, female heroine, and you have one of the best heroic fantasy tales of all time.

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Yeah, yeah, I know he's been mentioned already, but this series is just so innovative it deserves to be on the list regardless. It's not finished yet, but the final volume is due sometime soon, and as The Way of Kings has already won two Whitney awards it's looking to be a contender for the Hugo awards as a complete series next year. It's Sanderson, so the world building is incredible, you have fully developed magic and political systems, you never know what you think you know, and the characters matter to you intensely.

What's unique about this work is how he's created and brings to light what he's termed elsewhere "The Cosmere," an alternate universe wherein nearly all his fantasy works reside. In The Stormlight Archives we encounter certain personalities that cross over to reveal a bit more about who they might be in the grander scheme of things. This massive over-arcing story is only slowly being revealed, and may not be fully revealed until the author's death, but it's an unprecedented attempt.

Every novel is written from multiple viewpoints, each revealing a completely different perspective of the tale. Kaladin clearly suffers from depression, incredibly well-written as a broken hero. Shallan is bisexual and her meek disposition contrasted with her hidden scheming ambitions make for great reading. Dalinar appears to be slowly losing his mind. Each of these pioneering moves in fantasy deserves recognition, and together they make for a powerhouse.

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This series began humbly with Blood Song as a self-published ebook but has won rave reviews from the start, though its companions have a very different feel and tend to garner a lackluster response as a result.

Blood Song is structured as a skillfully written flashback, and despite knowing approximately where the trail will lead, Ryan keeps the tension high as you find your way through the wilds of Vaelin's youth. Heir to the Battle Lord of the King, he is dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order to become a Warrior of the Faith as a child. Grueling trials in survival and combat shape him into a man fueled by rage at being deprived his birthright, fanned higher by the intrigue and lies unearthed throughout.

The camaraderie that develops between the initiates of the order is inspiring, though Ryan shaves no corners off the grit of the toll war takes both physically and psychologically. If there is fault to be found it is that the protagonist evolves to be almost too powerful, overcoming what would be his biggest foes almost too easily, but the story itself is well-crafted, creating a novel you don't want to set down!

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This is a collection that needs to be on the list despite its flaws. In Jordan's defense, with fourteen volumes, each fleshing out to 800 pages plus his somewhat formulaic methods of describing characters serve the important purpose of reminding us who everybody is and what's driving them in this increasingly large and complicated cast of characters.

Though the writing is weak at times, the magic system is intriguing, the world is elaborate and well-fleshed out, the characters are entertaining and evolve as the story unfolds, and the politics at work are so involved, it was worth seeing through to the end. The Wheel of Time is the quintessential heroic fantasy employing the farm boy archetype, though Rand's role is just one point on which the story turns. The five teens who start out from their village each have an epic evolution into increasingly interesting heroes which keeps you engaged and invested in each storyline.

Even though it kind of drags in the middle of the series, skim if you have to, but make it to the end. Jordan's untimely demise ended up working out well for this story as the very talented Brandon Sanderson took over the final three volumes, which livened up the pace, answered our burning questions, and reminds readers of why they started on this journey to begin with!

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The world created here by Zelazny is mind-bending. It opens in "modern" day USA but swiftly transports us to the world of Amber where we learn that our reality is but one shadow of the many cast by the true realms. The unfortunate depiction of women can be off-putting, but can be regarded as an artifact of the time when it was written. 

Amber brings so much to the fantasy table in terms of innovation almost touching sci-fi while staying anchored in the magical seat of fantasy, that it needs to be represented here regardless. Struck with amnesia, our hero discovers he is one of fourteen ruthless princes and princesses vying for the throne of their father, Oberon. Being of the Royal blood of Amber grants Corwin the ability to travel between the shadows and alter reality. With plot twists as labyrinthine as the Pattern, the story pulls you along one incredible ride.

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Old gods and new collide in this urban fairytale that draws upon deities from every tradition ever represented in the fantasy genre and beyond. American Gods takes you on a curious journey to explore the heart of America. While some readers recoil at what's found there, that very discomfort is what many other readers love so very much about this book. Shadow, as his name suggests, is a dark anti-hero, moving through the story as our guide more than as a catalyst for the action.

The pacing is different from most fantasy works, but the prose is excellent, and makes you think about the metaphors in play. While it's another book that is polarizing, its premise is wildly unique and holds its weight as one of the best out there.

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Lloyd Alexander is one of the most decorated authors of the fantasy genre, including two National Book Awards, and could be said to be the gateway author for children to acquire an addiction to High Fantasy. He loves to take familiar mythology and spin new stories with it. The Iron Ring transforms typical heroic themes through the lens of Indian folklore, and is one of my personal favorites. 

The Chronicles of Prydain are touted as his highest achievement, rooted in Welsh mythology, and if you've read the Mabinogion, elements may seem familiar, but it is certainly a world and story of its own. While Arthurian heroism abounds, the main characters aren't just some concoction of the author's own wish fulfillment. Taran is a pig-keeper of all things, and brave mostly because he's so stubborn and impetuous. Eilonwy is smart and sassy, but she can be scatterbrained and a bit of a smartass.

The Death Lord Arawn uses his black cauldron to cook up (pardon the pun) an undead army and conquer Prydain, and his champion wears a human skull mask with arms stained red with the blood of his enemies so yeah, there's that. Chronicles of Prydain is one of the pillars cementing the classic features of the heroic fantasy genre.

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With a long and tangled literary past, Conan the Cimmerian (or Barbarian depending on where and when you dive into the stories) stands out as the iconic warrior figure and can't be left off this list of the Best Heroic Books of all Time. He first makes his appearance in 1932 and by the time of his tragic death four years later had written 21 complete stories, though not all were published.

Other writers have expanded his work from unfinished manuscripts, adapted the stories into comics, and translated them into movies for decades. While in later iterations he is a fairly flat character, Howard's work presents him as a man filled as much with wanderlust as bloodlust. He easily blends with whatever land he is in, learns many languages, and adapts to infiltrate (and ultimately lead) every group of soldiers he encounters. He is chivalrous, at times choosing to forsake the treasures he's worked so hard for in order to rescue a damsel in distress.

He has no qualms about plundering wherever plunder is to be found, but is never seen to attack when unprovoked, or straight-up mug anybody. Make no mistake, he is also a study in hyperbole; he's heavily muscled, he defeats every foe, makes women fall in love with him, and can withstand the unbelievable. But he is more complex in the novelettes than in later depictions. Conan is the hero every man wishes he could be and is a classic in the genre.

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Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne

(Brian Staveley)

(Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne)

The Emperor has died, tumbling the Annurian Empire into chaos. This grimdark tale follows the paths of his three children, training in vastly different societies, who try to unravel the conspiracy that felled him. Staveley pulls in some wildly imaginative elements, including a special ops team flying giant birds, and an ancient race of powerful humanoids who nearly destroy the world. Vying religious sects, harsh and brutal training, and the cunning political maneuverings of the powers that be, each shaping the character of the three heroes.

The world-building is solid, creating a realistic backdrop for the weaving, mystery-unfolding, magic that happens there. Staveley was awarded the Gemmell Morningstar Award in for The Providence of Fire; book two in the series, so this trilogy isn't one that starts off with a bang, then fades. The prequel released in April 2017 has received excellent reviews as well, as his prose has continued to improve.

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Award Nominations:2012 BFS

The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as Abercrombie himself describes it this way: "Three men. One battle. No heroes." It was designed to be a standalone novel, but is set in the world of The First Law. The entire novel transpires during a three-day battle between the North and the Union.  

In true Abercrombie style, The Heroes is a bloodbath full of wit and dark humor. Far from the typical heroic fantasy, good doesn't prevail over evil; in fact I'm not sure any of these dudes could really classify as "good," but you are invested in them either way. This rough, thrilling ride features realism done well. Full of jealousy, revenge, and recklessness, we follow their adventures, exposing the gory truth of both war and human nature.

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A refreshing break from fantasy led by a hero who is the strongest and the best at everything, Codex Alera trails 15 year old Tavi, the only Aleran who isn't able to command elemental spirits called furies. Being essentially disabled in this way makes his triumph at each challenge with only ingenuity and intelligence to his credit even more entertaining and heroic.

The magic and fantastic races imagined here are unique and interesting, and of course Butcher's writing is so great. Codex Alera also does this fascinating alternate reality, historical fiction thing, where Butcher imagines these people as the descendants of the Lost Roman Legion transported to the continent of Carna a la Bermuda Triangle style. Lively with violent combat, wonder-inspiring magic, and believable romance; I'd say there's something for everyone in here.

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This collaboration proves that you don't have to wade neck-deep in magic to make a great fantasy. This series showcases the other side of Feist's Riftwar Saga, which is a great read, but pretty standard as far as fantasy lore goes with the typical magician, orphan, dragon, elf, combo. Empire is something entirely different.

Set in Asian-inspired Kelewan, we ditch the medieval European landscape for once, and enter a world where Akoma Honor drives the politicking of the ruling class. Mara is the new empress after her father and brother are killed, and learns to navigate these deadly waters with alacrity driven by need. She is one of the most multidimensional and fearless characters I've read, rising from precariously clinging to her title to a truly powerful contender.

The synergy between these two masterful authors yields up something richer than either alone. Even seemingly small characters have big ambitions and impact the story in surprising ways. Intrigue, murder, fantastic creatures, fervent love, and battle; Empire is everything that makes fantasy worth reading.

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This best-selling series imported from Poland is the foundation for the popular monster-hunting video games of the same name, and a card game is soon to follow suit (beta came out May 2017). It also inspired the movie and TV series called The Hexer. Only five Northern Kingdoms remain, warring with each other as much as fending off the greater Nothgardian Empire from the South. Dwarves and elves have been marginalized, and horrific monsters roam the land. To combat them, humans called Witchers have taken all sorts of magic potions, elixirs, even poisons, to genetically modify themselves to be faster, stronger, and have monster-like reflexes.

Geralt is heralded as the best of the best and Ciri, his protg, has a destiny of her own. This dark fairy tale is told from multiple perspectives, and all these wonderfully detailed characters who cross all mediums through which the story has been told are what drive fans to ask for more and more. Meanwhile, the Wild Hunt is on the loose (a band of skeletons that kidnap and impress its captives into service in its army), and secret groups are scheming to bring other factions down. The whole world has a feeling of reckless instability while our heroes try to piece their lives together after each ill-fated blow.

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Elric of Melniboné

(Michael Moorcock)

Moody and bookish, Elric the albino is no burly barbarian. Nor is he a product of heroic destiny fated to save the world, but rather kicks against prophecy and wants to see men succeed without the fickle gods' intervention. Moorcock's writing can be a bit flamboyant for the modern palate, but has captivated imaginations for decades beginning as pulp fiction, making its way into comics, and continuing to influence the fantasy genre today.

Stormbringer sound familiar to anyone? Our hero begins as a sickly young emperor dependent on herbs to keep him strong enough to carry on, but evolves to become herbalist, summoner, sorcerer, and swordsman; establishing sword and sorcery as a genre unto itself.

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The Once and Future King

(T. H. White)

(The Once and Future King)

This classic is the Arthurian tale standard by which modern iterations are measured. Or blatantly ripped off ('cough' Disney 'cough'). While the first section is a bright and comical depiction of Arthur as a familiar young orphan called the Wart, the novel becomes increasingly dark and dismal as the golden age of Camelot crumbles. White takes age-old questions and dresses them in Old English folklore, creating a thought-provoking rendition of a legend with which we are all familiar.

He pokes fun at our modern day mess, as well as the typical foibles of human nature to which none of his heroes is immune with flippant anachronistic references throughout. Despite the ease with which even the most noble fall, there is a kindness in the way they are each so relatable, even the baddies. The cast is so well written, and the prose so enjoyable it's one of those volumes that can be re-read annually and still retain its impact.

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This eight book series is regarded by many, including King himself, as his magnum opus. It's an extraordinary compote of western, sci-fi, and dark fantasy flavors strange as that sounds, it works. Roland Deschain is the last of the knightly gunslingers, the ultimate stolid cowboy, relentlessly pursuing the Man in Black across unforgiving lands at any cost. King's sparse narrative amplifies the feeling of mystery and suspense throughout, creating more questions than answers up to the end. Though it is definitely dark, even haunting, this isn't your typical Stephen King gruesome horror show.

Hints of alternate dimensions and gateways tip your sense of reality. Themes of friendship, honor, survival, sacrifice, and the quest for knowledge heave the story firmly onto heroic fantasy ground. Excellent character development and world-building bring it all together. The Dark Tower is truly a standout in heroic fantasy.

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Award Nominations:2000 WFA

Ten volumes of epic fantasy. 16 if you count those written by co-creator Ian Esslemont. That's what you get when a really great GM starts a GURPS campaign.

Despite being praised by the likes of Stephen R. Donaldson and compared to the caliber of Faulkner and Dostoevsky, it's won no major awards aside from a World Fantasy nomination. This vastly underrated work is complex and drops the reader smack into the world with neither explanation nor apology. Even his characters exist in the midst of conflict and political schemes without fully comprehending what is happening on a larger scale and why.

It's a world with deep and ancient history and magic on the scale of Tolkein's Middle Earth, and with profound parallels to our day. It's truly epic in that it's the story of a place as much as of the people in it.

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Drawing heavily on the culture of the ancient Norsemen, Gemmell takes familiar archetypes and crafts them into a well-told tale of sacrifice and dying well. Druss and his once-possessed axe Snaga come out of retirement to shape the men of Drenai into an army that can do the impossible, affirming he really is a legend. While pretty straightforward, Gemmell's prose manages to inspire despite making no effort to downplay the grim tragedies of war. Legend has become a classic standard of the heroic fantasy genre.

Gemmell has written an extensive body of work in his lifetime and all of it pretty much classified as 'heroic' fantasy in the truest sense. Legend is perhaps his most well-known book and his breakout read and many would argue some of his other works are superior (my top pick would be his Troy trilogy). However, as Legend is his first and most well-known, we've chosen this book to represent his body of work.

But don't think of this as the first and only book, but merely the place you should start when reading his fantasy.

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Harry Potter Series

(J.K. Rowling)
(Harry Potter)

Each volume in this series deserves it's own place on this list thanks to an impressive collection of prestigious awards for each, including the coveted Hugo for The Goblet of Fire, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature for the set. Rowling creates a vivid world of believable magic nestled within our own that has you looking for evidence that you aren't just a muggle. While Harry is at the center, she creates a network of supporting roles who grab your heart and become incredibly important not only to the story but to you, personally.

The character development is gratifying, as the lead characters learn and grow into themselves in authentic ways. It's a coming of age story, but not just for Harry. Themes of love, loss, and sacrifice create meaningful anchors throughout the series and have moored readers for the past decade. The movie, video game, and theme park franchise that bled from this series is a subject for another debate, but I don't doubt that I've witnessed the birth of a classic.

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