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Best Literary Fantasy Books

Well Written Fantasy with Deep Themes, Considered 'Literary'

If you're tired of those same old boy villager finds magic sword / talisman / super power, meets a company of sidekicks (with the requisite princess in disguise and old man mentor who's also probably also likely a wizard), then goes to beat down some Dark Lord / evil wizard / corrupt god, then you'll want to find some fantasy books of substance. These type of fantasy books with substance are called "literary fantasy." In short, they are the result when a truly talented writer decides to pen a fantasy book.

In a genre filled with hack writers and wasted tree pulp, it's hard to find a fantasy novel that actually explores MORE than just fighting some dark lord or completing some boneheaded quest. Literary fantasy explores the meaning of life or looks at real issues. Often, the fantastical landscape is just a means to posing a bunch of questions. Sometimes the quest the hero faces is in fact an allegory for something else. Literary fantasy tends to be written by men and women who can actually write -- not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning, but they are often beautifully constructed. Literary fantasy is often more than the sum of its parts; that is, there is more "to" the book then just the words.

Do check out our Guide to the Literary Fantasy subgenre.

These literary fantasy novels presented here are what I consider the best in the genre.

Shadow and Claw is a book that's jam packed with literary allusions, allegories, and all that good stuff that makes reading such a pleasure. The hero is an anti hero -- a man who's vocation is to torture people. Severian is a dark guide to a disturbing and fascinating world -- a distant time in the future when the sun is starting to die. It's a baroque and disturbing world. Ok so this book falls more under that science fiction / science fantasies genre rather than strictly "fantasy" but the book is so damn literary I HAD to mention it here. If you want to a purely fantasy book, read his awesome Knight Wizard.

Wolf's Book of the New sun has often been compared to literary works such as Lord of the Rings and Dune. This is not a banal comparison either - this is actually the truth.

Before reading this book, you must understand that you can't read this book like an ordinary novel. The book is the autobiography of the protagonist, Severian, and his word cannot be trusted to describe things with total accuracy. This means you have to pay attention and separate fact from fiction in some ways. The book is full of such literary convections.

You can think of The Book of the New sun as a working combination of Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Marvyn Peake's Gormenghast.

Drink deep into the well that is The Book of the New Sun -- you'll never find a book like it.

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For the less intelligent reader, this series is confusing and plotless -- too heavy on the descriptions and rich English words.

But for those who love deeper books where you can lose yourself in baroque settings and indelible characters, Peake's marvelous Gothic masterpiece Gormenghast can't be beaten. Gormenghast is not a novel to be read, it's a novel to be experienced. The focus of the novel is on the breathtaking visual descriptions; Gormenghast is a landscape that's painted on the canvas of Peake's remarkable command of the English language. Really, if there was any book that could be called a visual painting made of words, then Gormenghast would be it. When reading this novel the journey itself if the destination. You will never ever forget the characters and landscape created by Peake. Sadly, Gormenghast has remained almost unknown by North American reader. But don't you, literary fantasy reader, make the same mistake.

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The book that created fantasy as we know it. Can I stop here? No, but for reasons I'm not going to bother detailing, this is an astounding work of imagination. Lord of the Rings is not just another fantasy books, it is THE fantasy book and represents the work of a man's lifetime. Tolkien didn't just churn this work out over a three month period on his typewriter, the book represented the man's lifetime work creating a mythology, history, and even languages (Tolkien was a linguistic scholar).

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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. 

Available on Amazon & Audible, Barns & Noble, iTunes, Google, and Kobo.

This is probably a fantasy novel most of you have not yet read. But it's a novel that everyone should read.

For those of you who appreciate the art of good prose, Vance delivers. I've come to the conclusion that unlike most of the other fantasy authors out there, it's practically impossible for Vance to put together a bad sentence, paragraph, or page of writing. Every word BELONGS on the paper.

This is a high fantasy series that's completely untainted by the modern epic fantasy churned out en mass by hack authors. So banish thoughts of evil dark lords, village boys, and awkward sentences. If I could recommend a modern version of Homer's Odyssey, then Lyonesse would be that novel.

So for a grown up fantasy tale with some serious literary merits to it, read this series.

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A simple tale about talking rabbits on an epic quest to save their warrant from destruction. But like most great works, so much deeper than it appears to be. One of the great classic works of literature and a sobering tale for all ages. This one belongs on every list of not just the “best literary fantasy books” but the best books ever written. If you have not yet read it, do so. Now. 

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If there was an award given out for the Most Influential Fantasy Novel Ever Written That No One Ever Reads, this book would get it.

The book tells a stylized story of the epic battle between the Lords of Demonland and the evil King Gorice of Witchland, set in an world ripped straight from the pages of a classic Norse saga.

Like most of the authors mentioned on this recommendation list, Eddison's prose is beautiful -- a work of art in itself. If you are one of those readers who's got a phobia about classic English (read archaic English), I suspect this novel is not one that will appeal to your senses. If you do enjoy classic English (read: English in the style of the King James Bible), then this book is going to make you might happy.

This book harkens back to the Greek Classics and the Norse sagas in form and style. Eddison is a man obsessed with the concept of the Heroic, in much the same way of Homer's own fascination. The doomed hero, the passionate hero, the reckless hero, the hero that combines all of these. This is what Eddison wants to detail in his epic style and write about heros he does! The Worm Ouroboros is Eddison's ode to heroism -- and what an ode it is.

This is a book that features the All Star Team of some of the most courageous and honorable heros and the most villainous of villains.

Keep in mind that Eddison's work predates Tolkien's works. So don't go into the novel expecting to read about the elves, demons, sorcerous, and fairies that you're used to in a Tolkien-derrived novel.

It's a strange world created by Eddison, but also a wonderful, romantic world too. So if you want a book that celebrates the reckless hero, dressed up in a stylized language and format that would have Homer himself proud, The Worm Ouroboros is that book.

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I'll describe this one as a post modern fairy tale. Like all fairy tales this one begins with "A once upon a time..." Like all fairy tales, things happen in a predictable sequence. At first.

The unicorn meets a bumbling magician and a talkative (and somewhat annoying) spinster, both characters more than they appear to be. All three characters find themselves at the gates of a rather forbidding castle, where resides a gentle prince and evil king. Inside the castle lies the truth of things. But, is the truth really worth learning? This question is the crux of this marvelous literary novel.

Peter S. Beagle has created a fairy tale for the ages, a story about of the deepest love, of the darkest loss, and of the beauty of hope. The characters in the story are lovingly painted, reservoirs of humanity. This folks is a novel about the soul -- of it's brightest beauty and darkest horrors.

As you may surprise, The Last Unicorn is far more than just a simple meandering quest for unicorns. At it's heart it's a story about what people will do (or won't do) for love. What is the meaning of really being a hero. What is the cost of being a hero? These are all issues The Last Unicorn tackles -- successfully I might add.

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If there is one book that started started the fantasy ball rolling, it's not Lord of the rings, but rather the much less well known King Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. This book started the sword and & sorcery genre; his pen transformed high fantasy into what it's become. Tolkien, Lovecraft, and even Neil Gaiman were all profoundly influenced by this man.

If you want to read a work of astounding value that people will still be talking about in a hundred years, this is one such work (sorry, Wheel of Time fans, Jordan will likely be forgotten by than).

King Elfland's Daughter is one of those books that stand completely on it's own, marches to the beat of it's own drum and all that. It's not a book that's easily cauterized as this type of fantasy or that type of fantasy.

So if you want to read one of the true masterworks of early fantasy, King Elfland's Daughter should not be missed.

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This classic kid's story is home to the biggest Christian allegory ever written. Lewis was a prolific (Christian) writer with his masterpiece being his children's story -- the Chronicles of Narnia. Call it a ham-fisted attempt to bash readers with Christian allegory after allegory, call it a timeless classic, call it the perfect story to read your kids to bed with, or simply call it a series that's had a profound influence on the fantasy genre. Whatever you decide to call it, the series should be read, even if you are an adult.

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A cautionary children’s tale for the adults that’s absolutely captivating. A young boy runs away to escape a life he feels is unfair and unjust finding himself in a magical world, a world that he must first conquer before he’s allowed to return home. A bittersweet tale that’s will keep you in awe at how intelligent and well-put together the entire story is and enthralled by the whole adventure itself. This is one of those smart books that speaks to you on more than one level – the adventure and story itself and the didactic behind the story. 

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This book is a monstrosity at almost 1000 pages. It's also a book that's rich in descriptions, harkening back to the days of Jane Austen where books were written not only to entertain with plot but to entertain with words themselves.

There's a lot going on in this novel -- there's the slow pedantic life of the 1800's during the Regency period of the Napoleonic Wars lovingly detailed by the author, there's the baroque descriptions and flowery language used to paint every little minutia, but there's also the dark struggle between two magicians locked in a death struggle to one up the other, there's inimical faeries plotting on the sideline; when it all comes to magical head, the novel is a full force dark decent into the madness of magicians gone mad.

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Elric is a hero that would give any "princess" saved the chills. He is the definition of an anti-hero. He takes drugs to transform himself from a physical weakling to a bad ass killer, he's the prince of a dying kingdom he himself has destroyed, and he calls on dark beings who by every standard of the word are evil. And on top of that, the guy's a freaky-looking albino.

Basically, in any other story, Elric would be the antagonist to the real hero. Michael Moorcock is one of the lesser well known fantasy writers than the usual suspects you see on the shelf, but the man has put in his dues and crafted one of the most interesting anti-heroes in the genre. Reading Elric of Melinbone is like reading a tragedy that keeps on getting worse but one that you simply can't stop watching until the final sordid end.

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An intelligent re-take on the "Harry Potter" style of fantasy -- the magically gifted kid who finds that magic really does work in our world and gains entrance to a school of magic. But the similarities end there. This is a dark and depressing look at the price one pays for having power and a look at what happens when you achieve your dream, only to find there's nothing left to do. Grossman gives a nod to just about everything here, from Narnia to Harry Potter to Alice in Wonderland and more. It's a fantastically intelligent subversion of some of the fantasy conceits. Hands down one of my favorite reads. The sequel, The Magician King, is even better. 

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Awards Won:1991 WFA
Award Nominations:1991 LocusF
A fantasy book thats written in a lyrical style that weaves into it various myths, legends, ballads, and riddles as the mysterious of the human heart are explored through the fluid prose. The tale centers on the young Thomas the Ryhmer, a man who lives by his words, tunes, and occasionally a lie or two. Thomas is a man with the gift of the gab a gift that gives but as hes to find out, can also take. His charismatic tongue land him in trouble: he awakens the desire of the Queen of Elfland and finds words wont save him from a terrible fate and he is swept away from all he knows and loves. This book is the definition of literary, incorporating a narrative frame that harkens back to some of the old classic works. The legends and myths themselves touch on some of the older fantasy works and ballads. This one is an intoxicating mix of fairy tale and love story, with plenty of poetry, balladeering, and no small amount of heartbreak.

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A book that spawned thousand Films and the true modern version of that great saga of King Arthur. It's a big book but one that contains a poignant story of pure adventure, lusty romance, and powerful magic that's kept a generation or two of readers spellbound. This is surely one of the English world's greatest classics. If you consider yourself a fan of literary fantasy (no, literary books in general), you owe it to yourself to read this.

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challenging classic literary fantasy that will appeal to those who love The Lord of the Rings. This is not as easy a work to follow though, as the pages incorporate a hefty amount of archaic English (though, thee, forsooth, quoth, whither, erstwhile, deem, and so on). This one is a fairy tale with no fairies and a beautify love story.

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Labeled as a faerie romance for men and women to which it is in fact, is. Much of the story reads as an clever allegory. The style of writing is highly literary – that 19th century flowery style that can be a bit dense at times and will take some getting used to. But if you want to read a phenomenal literary work of high fantasy that combines a lyrical composition of prose with a spiritual nature to the story quest, one that will bring about some deep enlightenment as you progress through book, read it. For some this book might be boring, but for those willing to commit to the prose and read deeply into what’s going on, there is an spiritually enlightening and quite touching read to be found here. 

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