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Most Influential Fantasy Books

Fantasy That's Been Highly Influential on the Genre and Other Writers

An alternate "Best Fantasy Books List" for those of you who prefer the more "high brow" fantasy books.

You might call this list the fantasy books that have influenced the genre as a whole. These are the pillars in the fantasy genre – books that inspired a generation of new writers or broke some new fantasy milestone. This is not a comprehensive list of every book that's ever influenced the genre, but more of a guide to some of the more stand out ones.

On this list, you'll find a few works you may have never heard of, but they are highly influential in their own right. If you are the type who considers the best fantasy books as books that had wide influence on the genre as a whole, this this list is probably more what you are looking for than the Top 25 Best Fantasy Books list. You might also want to consider the Best Literary Fantasy Books list as well, which shares some similarities with this list.

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A work that’s influenced modern fantasy in a way that no other book has. Tolkien was one of the front runners of the modern fantasy movement, and certainly the father of epic fantasy. It was Tolkien through the publishing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings who catapulted fantasy into the mainstream. Although the fantasy genre was indeed swamped with all sorts of works that we would now label fantasy, it was Tolkien that created the modern concept of “fantasy” spawning many of the common fantasy themes and conceits that we take for granted now. It was Tolkien’s work, combined with the Chronicles of Narnia and Peake’s Gormenghast series that helped cement the fantasy genre and spawn countless derivative works of some form or the other.

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Chronicles of Amber

(Roger Zelazny)
(Amber Chronicles)

A dazzlingly original work that’s often quoted but rarely read by the mainstream fantasy reader (though the author or the books are by no means unknown). The concept of the story is unique (especially for its time of publishing) and compelling: there are an infinite number of worlds (called Shadows) but only one true source world (Amber) of which every shadow world is but a small reflection. Everything is possible (including your typical fantasy world) somewhere in shadow. The only people who can jump from world to world are those with the royal bloodline of Amber.

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A superlative work of fantasy that predates The Lord of the Rings; this means that you get a genuine fantasy tale that in no way borrows from the Tolkien machine. Lyonesse has its own mythology – one that borrows from Old English myths. There’s enough of the typical high-fantasy setting that the average fantasy reader will enjoy the tale – there’s a prince, lost lands, magicians, vivid characters – both good and bad, and a coming-of-age tale. The writing is top-notch too, with no extra chaff – every word and every sentence belongs there; Vance is not one of those authors who was paid per word.

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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.


Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

(Fritz Leiber)

(Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser)

Another writer who helped pioneer the sword and sorcery genre; next to Robert Howard, Leiber was probably the second-greatest influence on sword and sorcery. The sad thing is that these books are underappreciated by the average fantasy reader. You may have heard of these books, but chances are youve never read them. Change that! Fans of some of the traditional fantasy trappings we enjoy will find themselves right at home with the inclusion of evil wizards, helpless princesses, thieves guilds, and barbarian heroes. Theres plenty of action, but theres also a surprising amount of depth to the relationships explored by Leiber far more than your usual run-of-the-mill sword and sorcery. Each book is rather short by todays fantasy standards, with the first book packing a mere 200 pages. Theres no fluff though, only substance, proving that you dont need a heavy page count to tell an outstanding tale. Every fantasy fan should read this series.

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The King Of Elfland's Daughter

(Lord Dunsany)

A high “fantasy” before there was a defined “fantasy” genre written by a genuine, well, Lord. Lord Dunsany was every bit of the Renaissance man, doing everything from riding horses, to shooting, to poetry and fiction. There’s no exaggeration when I say there won’t ever be another book like The King of Elfland, a fantastical tale coming from a man of extremely cultured background. Mind you, while this is a highly influential work, it’s also extremely literary. Most people will have problems getting past the slow pace and tedious language. But for those who enjoy literature made fantasy, this is one of the best books out there.

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Distilled gothic – there is no other fantasy quite like Gormenghast. This is a novel that would make your English teacher cry with joy. You have to be someone who really enjoys the poetic beauty found in good writing, however. If you are looking for a fast-paced, action-driven fantasy epic, then this will certainly not be a set of books you’ll want to read. But if you want to luxuriate and soak in the wonderful writing, and fantastical landscape that is Gormenghast castle and its characters, you’ve got to read this book. The author was a painter, but his visually artistic abilities translate directly into his writing – every scene is so vivid, so well drawn that you can pretty much see the images through his rich and oft baroque descriptions.

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Robert E. Howard invented the sword and sorcery genre with his Conan tales. His influence on fantasy cannot be overstated, with many modern fantasy books containing stories based on, or highly influenced by Conan. Howard with Leiber are the founding fathers of Sword and Sorcery.

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The Worm Ouroboros

(E. R. Eddision)

Before there was Lord of the Rings, there was The Worm Ouroboros. This is a book that helped shaped the fantasy landscape that we currently occupy. You might think of Dunsany as the “grandfather” of fantasy. Tolkien himself is quoted as saying “the greatest and the most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read.” High praise from the ‘Lord of Fantasy’ indeed. This is a book that inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – some of the founding fathers of modern fantasy. The tale recounts the grand traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, of the heroic sweeping sagas of the battle between warriors and witches, all told in a very high style. The characters are great heroes and villains, paragons of extreme virtue or of the most dastardly villainy. This is the story of the Lord of Demonland and their arch-enemies, the Lords of Witchlands. It’s not the easiest book to follow and the naming convention for, well, everything is pretty confusing if you are coming straight from modern fantasy to this forgotten classic fantasy tale, but it’s a book that’s worth plowing through. The book is challenging in the way that trying to read and understand Shakespeare is challenging: once you get it, it’s immensely rewarding. Like many of the forgotten fantasy classics, it’s not a book for everyone, but for those who do read it and “get” this style of writing, it’s an amazing literary work.

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A Wizard of Earthsea

(Ursula K. Le Guin)

Fantasy in its most pure, distilled form. The Wizard of Earthsea has been around for decades now and it’s still as wonderful and beautiful a story as it was, despite all the changes to the fantasy genre over the past few decades. This is a tale that transcends ages and genders. LeGuin has a very delicate and spare prose; it’s beautiful in its simplicity with virtually no extra verbiage. The world of Earthsea is brought vividly to life and is it very own universe – not based on a Tolkien setting or even borrowed from ancient English/Welsh folklore. She developed the world of Earthsea without sounding like she was trying – a common mistake that less talented writers make by info dumping. There are two levels to this book. On the most basic level, it is the fantastical story of a young man’s journey from ignorance to knowledge and the cost of that knowledge; and with knowledge comes pride, the old human frailty, which in a moment of weakness gains a foothold in Ged, nearly destroying him and those around him. And so Ged must set rights to his own wrong and in the process, save himself and the world. On the deeper level, we see LeGuin’s knowledge as an anthropologist come to the surface as the book explores what makes a culture a culture, and looks at power and the personal consequences of abusing that power – consequences that not only affect the individual, but the greater whole of society as well.

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The Wheel of Time

(Robert Jordan)
(Wheel of Time)

Certainly not an unknown series, but and despite whether or not you feel the luster of the series has faded with recent times, its a work thats captured the hearts and minds of millions of readers around the world. In no small way has it also influenced a crop of new fantasy writers. Jordan really took up the world-building mantle that Tolkien started, creating a fantasy universe thats vast and highly detailed with a strong mythos. While its certainly not as steeped in the literary tradition of Middle Earth, theres a lot of substance to Jordans world. The Wheel of Time has had a profound effect on the fantasy genre and should be read by every true fantasy fan; whether you like it or not, youll have to decide, but at least READ IT.

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Comments (21)
Awards Won:1997 LocusF
Award Nominations:1997 NEBULA, 1997 WFA

Martin is being called the American Tolkien – a title that fits him quite well. Over the past decade, this series has taken the world by storm and has helped spread a new generation of “gritty” fantasy tales where characters are morally ambiguous, and the world brutal and unforgiving. Martin was also one of the first fantasy authors who kills off main characters with seeming impunity while managing to continue the story without a narrative hitch.

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The Black Company was THE series that brought the gritty aspect to fantasy; one might argue its a key contributor to the modern fantasy movement. The novels have also inspired some of the greatest fantasy writers out there, including the likes of Steven Erickson and George R. Martin.

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H.P. Lovecraft

(H P Lovecraft)

One of the most influential writers in the horror/supernatural genre; Lovecraft influenced the entire genre, and elements of his style pop up in (some) modern fantasy tales.

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The Chronicles of Narnia

(C.S. Lewis)

(Chronicles of Narnia)

This one has been around for ages and has been a classic children's fantasy stable for years. A series written as a Christian allegory, it can nevertheless be enjoyed simply as a fantastical tale of magic, warriors, and kings.

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An interesting tale that brought new life to the fantasy genre, bringing in a new crop of readers to the genre and one that spawned countless imitations.

You might argue that Harry Potter brought fantasy out of the closet and into the mainstream cool.

I'm not going to argue that Harry Potter will win any literary awards, but whether you like it or not, you can't argue that Harry Potter did not introduce millions of new fans to the fantasy genre and re-ignite a love of reading for many a child. The pop cultural impacts and the direct impacts to the fantasy genre (especially the young adult fantasy subgenre). So for that alone, Harry Potter deserves a spot on the list.

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The first fantasy novel to appear atop the NY Times bestseller list, showing that fantasy could play with the big boys in terms of economic success. While I’m not personally a huge fan of Brooks’s Shannara series, even I can’t deny the profound effect the Sword of Shannara has had on the fantasy marketplace over the years. As for how much of an influence Sword of Shannara has had on other writers of the genre, there are much better stories to derive works from – namely The Lord of the Rings, on which Brooks based his own earlier Shannara books.

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Elric Of Melnibone

(Michael Moorcock)

A highly influential sword and sorcery series -- right up there with the likes of Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Elric itself is influenced heavily by Conan.

I like to think of Elric as a far more complex, darker version of Conan. Elric of Melnibone could be Conan; that is, IF Conan was an anti-hero with a drug problem who habitually destroys everything and everyone he loves and wields an evil sword that eats the souls of men.

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Publicly Ranked Version of the List

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