While fantastical stories have been around since before the written word, they have gone in and out of style over time. But the 21st century has been a great time for fantasy literature, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It started a new era for both publishers and readers who were willing to try new authors and open up to worlds of magic. Many people have worked their way back from movies like the Lord of the Rings series or TV shows like Game of Thrones to the fantasy novels that inspired them. After reading J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin’s books, they look for new authors.
For your new favorite fantasy story, we’ve got it. Paste editors and writers have put together a list of our favorite books in the fantasy genre. They range from high fantasy worlds with unique systems of magic to simple fantastical fables to urban fantasies filled with characters from our own lives.
Young adult books with magic and violence are on this list, as well as high fantasy epics about war and drama. We’ve only chosen two books from each author. These books are part of multi-volume series, standalone novels, and a collection of short stories. Nearly 150 books had at least one person vote for them. We’ve narrowed it down to 50 books that we can’t recommend without hesitation.
Here are the best fantasy books of the 21st Century:
Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)
Fantasy elements are thrown on top of hard-boiled mysteries in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, which follows magician-for-hire and Chicago P.D. consultant Harry Dresden. He’s more Philip Marlowe than Albus Dumbledore. Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files, is about a wizard who has bad luck with women and can’t pay his bills. He has to solve a series of murders to avoid being blamed for them or becoming the next victim. It’s a gruesome, pulpy, and fun genre-romp that spans 15 books and 15 years, and it’s a lot of fun. Josh Jackson: —
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (2005)
When Shannon Hale wrote her not-princess, Miri, she used business acumen, diplomacy, and magical rocks to help the quarry gifs work together. She earned a Newbery Honor for her efforts. Before Tiana and Merida used shrewd diplomacy and sisterly love to save their kingdoms, there was Shannon Hale’s not-princess Miri. Sure, it’s called Princess Academy, and it promises a fight for the hand of a prince. But don’t play it safe by assuming that neither of those things might make for a compelling, multi-dimensional framework for a fantastic, fantastical story about human ingenuity and resilience. This is a diamond of a story. Miri will make you love her. The author is Alexis Gunderson.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
It’s a mix of sci-fi and fantasy that Charlie Jane Anders came up with. Magic and science sometimes fight each other, but they’re not combined or conflated. A witch and a boy who will become a tech genius meet at school, fall in love, and then have to work together to save the world. They also talk. There is a lot of variety in the tone of the book. The tone shifts between silly and serious, and between allegorical and dramatic, which might confuse some people. The middle section is a little slow. If that’s not enough to make up for it, the sheer joy of the language and the unrestrained whimsy of the idea more than make up for it! This book is a celebration of ambiguity, and it’s a book that goes beyond “genre fiction” because of its luminous prose and clever hybridization of two different types of stories. It has flaws, but it’s a pleasure to read: You can’t categorize All the Birds in the Sky, and that’s a good thing. It’s a book that doesn’t want to be put into a box, and that makes it even better. Not all sci-fi or fantasy fans will like this book, but it’s a must for people who like when smart writers break with tradition and write their own stories. —Amy Glynn says that she isn’t going to go.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor (2011)
Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone has a lot to praise, from the richness of the settings to the startling novelty of the premise to the clever way Taylor makes you look at hands, teeth, hair, puppets, and goulash in a whole new way. But the most important thing you’ll likely take away from this book is that “God, what gorgeous prose.” All of Laini Taylor’s work is magical, but this long-running, multi-generational fantasy battle between two lovers who were meant for each other is the perfect setting for her magic. It takes place in both Prague and a rich, war-torn world that looks a lot like Prague. As long as you don’t find out about Karou’s past or see how the rest of the trilogy will be different, this is a great book to read on its own, too. Even though, it’s hard to stop yourself from devouring all of Karou’s story, and Taylor’s words, once you start reading. The author is Alexis Gunderson.
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (2016)
One of the best LGBTQ+ books out there right now, The Abyss Surrounds Us is set in a world where a teenager’s family raises monsters that protect ships from pirates. The book is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Like, monsters from the movie Pacific Rim. It’s not good news for our young heroine. She gets caught by pirates on her first mission and is forced to raise a monster for them. You’ll love this book and its follow-up, The Edge of the Abyss, which came out in 2017. This quote is from a person named Eric Smith.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
You can see Agnieszka’s confidence grow as you read Naomi Novik’s quiet, lyrical fantasy novel, which is set in a world where magic is real. After being moved, the book was more interested in its few characters than making a complex fantasy world. This is what happened. People don’t like the wizard who isn’t what he looks like, but he’s not what he appears to be. A corrupted forest is run by an old evil Wood Queen, and this 2015 stand-alone novel won the Nebula Award for best novel. (Warner Bros. won and hired Ellen DeGeneres to make the show.) Josh Jackson: —
Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (2002)
The Discworld books make fun of almost every subject under the sun, but they also show off a fully formed and new fantasy world like Middle Earth or Westeros. There were always jokes, but Pratchett was even better at telling stories than he was at joking. It’s made by the Monks of History. They give it away as they see fit until some newcomer thinks that time should be slowed down. There’s even more room for philosophical thought here than in any other part of the series. This quote is from Mack Hayden.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (2009)
Most people know Catherynne Valente for her young adult Fairyland series. Even though her adult books are great, they’re not as well-known as the series. It follows the first time September and her new best friend, the Wyverary A-through-L, went through the portal to Fairyland. It’s a heartfelt look at what it’s like to grow up, but it’s also full of cleverness and whimsy, making it a great book for kids. The characters and settings are so well-drawn and beautiful, and each sentence is so carefully and beautifully written, that a reader who pays attention won’t get bored. Many things are good in this world, but a voracious bookworm who will love this series as if it was sent from heaven will find one billion and four things to love about it. Every child you love will thank you for it if you tell them about September’s growth pains in Fairyland, so do that for them. The author is Alexis Gunderson.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (2014)
While the shorthand description for Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy was “Harry Potter for grown-ups,” that didn’t take into account two important facts: It was already for adults. Even though the series had a magical school setting, it was more influenced by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series than by the books written by JK Rowling, even though the setting was magical. He opens up his heart when the book moves away from Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and toward Quentin Coldwater’s favorite children’s books, Fillory, about a magical world that Quentin has always loved. A little more about the characters in each book makes us care more about them. This culminates in The Magician’s Land, which came out in 2014. Magic is as bad as it is good for people who use it to get out of their melancholy lives. People who love the stories of Fillory can’t hide the dark heart of the place. When Quentin loses that sense of innocence, he goes off the rails in a complicated chain of events that end up tying together in a way he didn’t expect. If you’ve read the books by Grossman, you’ll enjoy the SyFy TV show based on them. It has a lot of fun, but it doesn’t show the depth and complexity of modern human life that this trilogy shows. Josh Jackson: —
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (2012)
It doesn’t matter how good the note is if you play it tentatively. “Play boldly, and no one will question you,” says Seraphina. I think that if you believe that art can be true (and I do), it’s weird how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself an art form. In this case, I think about it more than I should. Dragons are a big part of fantasy as a whole, but they aren’t usually seen as complex, thinking people who play a big role in the story’s interpersonal dramas. This is how Rachel Hartman frames her coolly calculating shape-shifting dragons in Seraphina and its companion books. Everything about Seraphina’s world is new and exciting, but what will keep you thinking about what it means to be human and what we owe each other long after you’ve finished the series is how important art and music are to dragon-human relations and how Seraphina’s constant tension of self will keep you thinking about what it means to be human and what we owe each other. The author is Alexis Gunderson.