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The 50 Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

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The 50 Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

While fantastical stories have been around since before the written word, they’ve gone in and out of fashion throughout history. But the 21st century has been a particularly fruitful time of fantasy literature, with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series ushering in an era of both publishers willing to take a chance on new fantasy writers and readers opening themselves up to worlds of magic. Many readers have worked their way back from movies like the Lord of the Rings franchise or TV series like Game of Thrones to their fantasy novel origins, seeking out new authors after devouring J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin’s books.

If you’re looking for your new, favorite fantasy saga, we’ve got you covered. We’ve gathered Paste editors and writers to compile a list of our favorite books in the genre, ranging from high fantasy worlds with distinct systems of magic to simple fantastical fables to urban fantasies filled with characters ripped right out of own realities.

This list boasts everything from Young Adult novels brimming with magic and violence to high fantasy epics chronicling war and drama. We’ve limited our picks to two books per author, and these books include entries in multi-volume series, standalone novels and a collection of short stories. Nearly 150 titles received at least one vote, but we’ve narrowed it down 50 books we recommend without reservation.

Here are the 50 best fantasy books of the 21st Century:

storm-front.jpg 50. Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)
Jim Butcher layers fantasy elements on top of hardboiled mysteries, following magician-for-hire and Chicago P.D. consultant Harry Dresden—more Philip Marlowe than Albus Dumbledore. In the debut entry of the Dresden Files, 2000’s Storm Front, our gum-shoe wizard must solve a series of murders to avoid having the blame pinned on him—or becoming the next victim—all while trying to overturn his bad luck with women and his inability to pay his bills. It’s a gritty, pulpy, fun genre-romp that spans 15 books in 15 years. —Josh Jackson

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princess-academy.jpg 49. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (2005)
Before Tiana found success through her keen, hard-won business skills, before Merida saved her kingdom through shrewd diplomacy rather than marriage, before Anna and Elsa made the idea of a prince an afterthought by saving each other with sisterly love—and before Anna found her own magical talking rocks—there was Shannon Hale’s not-princess Miri, who earned a Newbery Honor with her use of business acumen, diplomatic finesse, and magical-rock-talking to unite the quarry girls of Mount Eskel’s village first in an existential battle against the strict courtly tutelage of Tutor Olana, and then in a battle for their lives against their wintertime entrapment by mountain bandits. Sure, it’s called Princess Academy, and sure, it promises a cut-throat girl fight for the hand of a prince, but don’t play yourself by writing this diamond of a story off on the assumption that neither of those things might make for a compelling, multi-dimensional framework for a fantastic, fantastical story of human ingenuity and resilience. Miri will steal your heart. —Alexis Gunderson

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all-the-birds.jpg 48. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
Magic collides with science, sometimes violently, in Charlie Jane Anders’ highly imaginative hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy (They’re not combined or conflated; there are two different strands, one in each camp). Two social outcasts, a budding witch and a boy who’ll grow up to be a tech genius, meet in school, become friends, drift apart, and ultimately have to team up to save the world. Also, cats talk. There is a certain unevenness in tone; it wavers between absurd and dead-serious, between allegorical and dramatic, that might confuse some readers, and the middle section sags a little. But the sheer exuberance of language and unfettered whimsy of the concept are more than enough to make up for that. This book is a celebration of ambiguity, and one that transcends “genre fiction” with its luminous prose and inventive hybridizing of two distinct genres. It has its imperfections but it’s a delight to read: Quirky, nerdy-but-hip, eccentric and deeply intelligent, All the Birds in the Sky is a book that, like its author, resists being categorized and is the stronger for it. Not necessarily a book for immovable sci-fi or fantasy purists but an essential one for people who like it when intelligent writers refuse to bow to conventions and create their own. —Amy Glynn

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smoke-bone.jpg 47. Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor (2011)
There is a whole lot to praise in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone, from the richness of the various settings to the startling novelty of the premise to the sleight of hand with which she will make you look at hands and teeth and hair and puppets and goulash with entirely new eyes, but the top thing you are likely to take away from this reading experience is: God, what gorgeous prose. Laini Taylor is a mad sorceress of words in everything she writes, but this epic, mysterious, multi-generational fantasy battle between star-crossed lovers, sprawling between Prague’s cobbled streets and an equally rich (if war-torn) parallel realm is the perfect stage for her skills. Until the very last chapter reveals the secret to Karou’s past and sets up the wildly different story (and setting) of the trilogy’s remaining books, it is also a remarkably strong standalone read. Although, good luck trying to stop yourself from devouring all of Karou’s story, and Taylor’s words, once you’ve started. —Alexis Gunderson

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abyss-surrounds.jpg 46. The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (2016)
An exciting LGBTQ+ novel that blends elements of sci-fi and fantasy, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes place in a world where a teen girl’s family raises monstrous beasts that defend ships from pirates. Like, Pacific Rim-sized monsters. Unfortunately for our young protagonist, she’s captured by pirates on her first mission and is forced to raise a monster for them. You’ll devour this novel and its 2017 follow-up The Edge of the Abyss. —Eric Smith

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uprooted.jpg 45. Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
Witnessing the blossoming confidence of Agnieszka is a big part of the joy of Naomi Novik’s quiet, lyrical fantasy novel Uprooted, more interested in its few characters than building a complex fantasy world. A feared wizard who isn’t what he seems, a corrupted forest ruled by an ancient evil Wood Queen and a charming protagonist made this 2015 stand-alone novel a Nebula Award winner that inspired a bidding war for its movie rights. (Warner Bros. won and hired Ellen DeGeneres to produce.) —Josh Jackson

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thief-of-time.jpg 44. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (2002)
The Discworld books manage to satirize nearly every topic under the sun while also presenting a fully formed and innovative fantasy world à la Middle Earth or Westeros. There were always jokes, but Pratchett was an even better storyteller than he was a satirist. In Thief of Time, time is something manufactured by the Monks of History. They allocate it as they see fit until some upstart gets it into his mind that time should just be stopped dead in its tracks. There’s even more room for philosophical inquiry here than elsewhere within the series. —Mack Hayden

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girl-circumnavigated.jpg 43. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (2009)
Catherynne Valente is a legend in off-kilter, indie fantasy, but while her standalones for adults are terrific, it is her young adult Fairyland series that most people probably know her for—and deservedly so. Following the very first through-the-portal Fairyland adventures of the too-smart-by-half pre-teen September and her new best Wyverary friend, A-through-L, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an achingly true meditation on the confusing, exciting pain of growing up, all wrapped up in pure cleverness and whimsy. And while the plot may at times feel too lullingly gentle, the characters and settings are so thoroughly, gorgeously drawn, and each sentence so meticulously, luminously crafted, that a discerning reader is unlikely to get bored. Adults will find a thousand things to love in this world, but a voracious book-loving kid, for whom this series will feel like a gift from the Universe, will find one billion and four. Do yourself a favor, and share September’s Fairyland growing pains with every kid you love. —Alexis Gunderson

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magicians-land.jpg 42. 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 ignored two facts: 1. Harry Potter was already for grown-ups. 2. Despite its magical school setting, the series owed more to the wonder of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series than to J.K. Rowling’s books. There’s plenty of college-age angst in the first entry, but as the focus shifts from Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy to the fantastical world of Fillory, captured in a set of children’s books that have long fascinated young protagonist Quentin Coldwater, Lev Grossman opens up his heart. Each book cares a little more deeply about its characters—who face the same struggles for meaning and purpose that the rest of us do—culminating in 2014’s The Magician’s Land. Magic corrupts as much as it helps pull its practitioners out of their melancholic existences. The nostalgia for the stories of Fillory can’t hide the darkness at its heart. The loss of that innocence—getting expelled from his own fantastical Garden of Eden—sends Quentin spiraling out of control in a convoluted sequence of events that end up weaving together in unexpected ways. The SyFy TV series based on these books is a fun, at-times sharply written spin on Grossman’s characters, basic plot points and broad themes, but it misses the density and complexity of the modern human struggle found in this trilogy. —Josh Jackson

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seraphina.jpg 41. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (2012)
“The right note played tentatively still misses its mark, but play boldly and no one will question you,” says the 16-year-old, half-dragon Seraphina. “If one believes there is truth in art—and I do—then it’s troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself a kind of art. I think about that more than I should.” Dragons are a mainstay of fantasy as a genre, but rarely as complex, thinking beings integral to a story’s interpersonal dramas, which is how Rachel Hartman frames her coolly calculating shape-shifting dragons in Seraphina and its companion books. Everything about Seraphina’s world is novel and compelling, but while the dragon-human political dramas and various terrestrial and airborne battles are exhilarating, it is the central importance of art and music in dragon-human relations publicly, and in Seraphina’s constant tension of self privately, that will keep you unable to stop thinking about what it means to be human, and what we owe to each other, long after you’ve finished the series. —Alexis Gunderson

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leviathan.jpg 40. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)
Scott Westerfield’s alternate history, dystopian steam-punk trilogy is also full of fantastical beasts, which is enough to qualify it for this list. But it’s his imaginative re-telling of World War I from the perspectives of the young heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire and a girl pretending to be a boy in the British Air Service that makes it worthy of a spot. The Clankers (Germans and other Central Powers) rely on steam-powered robots and futuristic machines to battle the fabricated animals Darwinists (the UK, France, Russia and their allies) employ as weapons in the war. Written for young adults, Leviathan and its sequels Behemoth and Goliath are entertaining for all ages. —Josh Jackson

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egg-spoon.jpg 39. Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire (2014)
The overlap of readers who would count both Diana Wynne Jones and Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol in their top ten might be slim, but for those who fall within it, Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon, a Jonesian-Gogolian romp through Russian folklore that comes as close as anything to proving that Heaven is real and all of humanity’s greatest geniuses are up there spending their eternities in the most fantastic of creative collaborations and then whispering them down through Earthly vessels for our collective enjoyment, is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the wildest dream you never knew you had. For everyone not in that vanishingly small overlap of Jones & Gogol obsessives—that is, most readers—Egg & Spoon’s dip into the Baba Yaga-centered mythology of the old pagan Rus is still a joyously weird fabergé egg of a romp, opening a window onto a folk tradition too infrequently explored in English-language fantasy, and doing so in a way that reflects the nihilistically wry voice and passionately melancholic soul of the Russian literary tradition with almost shocking accuracy. —Alexis Gunderson

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crooked-kingdom.jpg 38. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (2016)
Six of Crows, the first book in Bardugo’s duology, often gets compared to a fantasy version of Ocean’s Eleven and follows a band of teenagers executing a heist. And if Six of Crows is the heist, then Crooked Kingdom is the glorious getaway drive. Want to read about a grand scheme, involving magic, fighting, and all the joys of fantasy? These books are for you. And one of the truly great things about this duology is that if you haven’t read the previous books (The Grisha Trilogy) that take place in Bardugo’s fantastical world, you can still dive in. —Eric Smith

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grace-kings.jpg 37. Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
  Game of Thrones comparisons abound in epic fantasy, and are often more burden than boon, but Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings may be one of the few fantasy tomes to earn that comparison favorably. The first volume in The Dandelion Dynasty series, Grace of Kings follows the diminutive Kuni Garu, a charming bandit, and the towering Mata Zyndu, the resolute son of a deposed family lineage, as they suffer under—and eventually help topple—a tyrannical ruler. But what sounds like a spoiler is really the prelude to Liu’s true plot, as these two find themselves with opposing views on how to establish justice in this new world. Liu, who also translated the first volume of the wildly popular Chinese sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, draws from Asian inspirations but creates a fantasy world that feels wholly original, not like an amalgamation of existing cultures. The Wall of Storms, Liu’s follow-up, masterfully builds on the seeds planted in the first volume, and readers would be wise to catch up now before the impending trilogy conclusion. —Steve Foxe

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blade-itself.jpg 36. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2006)
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence,” Homer wrote in The Odyssey. And while Logen Ninefingers would be unlikely to read Homer, even if there was a Homer in his rugged land of the North, he’d probably agree with that sentiment. The “Bloody-Nine” can’t seem to escape the violence of his life, even after joining up with the much more civilized Bayaz, the First of the Magi. Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy world may feel like an amalgamation of places you’ve visited in your reading before, but the characters feel fully realized and the storytelling is taut, avoiding an over-reliance on fantasy trappings and delivering a gritty, gripping tale. —Josh Jackson

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winners-kiss.jpg 35. The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski (2016)
Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Kiss makes us say goodbye to a beloved YA fantasy series, The Winner’s Trilogy. I’ll avoid spoilers for those of you who haven’t dug into the series, but Rutkoski’s lush fantasy romance is set in a world of politics, war, and scheming. It’s also a story of forbidden love between the privileged daughter of a general and a teen from a class of people her father has conquered. From the music to the balls to the swoon-filled romances, this is a gorgeous series the YA community is sad to see go. But we can’t wait to see what Rutkoski writes next. —Eric Smith

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dance-dragons.jpg 34. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (2011)
If A Feast for Crows is when A Song of Ice and Fire sprawled to almost unmanageable proportions for one author, causing George R.R. Martin to split the book geographically in two, A Dance with Dragons was the beneficiary of the more interesting story lines. Devoid of the goings-on in Dorne, the Iron Islands and the Vale, the fifth novel features Tyrion’s adventures in the Free Cities, Daenerys’ struggles to control her city or her dragons, and Cersei’s walk of shame. It took 11 years for Martin to publish the pair of books that span a single timeline. So it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that we’re still waiting on the sixth installment in 2018. —Josh Jackson

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torch-against-night.jpg 33. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (2016)
The gripping sequel to An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night expands a chilling, magical world modeled after ancient Rome. Book Two avoids the sophomore slump, prioritizing character development and increasingly insane stakes to keep your adrenaline pumping. And Tahir continues to tackle serious topics like slavery and government corruption with strength, proving that compelling fantasy stories exploring real-world issues are not only entertaining but essential when done right. —Frannie Jackson

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strange-beautiful-ava.jpg 32. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (2014)
Not to fall prey to hyperbole, but The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is nothing less than a tightly-written, Pacific Northwest cousin to 100 Years of Solitude. While it is marketed as Young Adult, the book’s shifting narrators—in the introduction, a venerable Ava telling “her” story, starting with her great-grandfather and the reasons he moved his family from France to Manhattan; next, the story of Ava’s grandmother (and her siblings) and their move out west; next, the story of Ava’s mother (and her loves) and their life in Seattle; and finally, only in the last quarter of the book, the harrowing story of Ava’s own, angel-winged teenage experience—make it clear that this is a story not of one teen, but of a whole, magically cursed line of Lavender women. The harrowing climax is frustratingly predictable, but the beautiful, strange journey here is what matters. —Alexis Gunderson

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obelisk-gaet.jpg 31. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (2016)
The Hugo Award-winning second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy proves that sequels can be just as mesmerizing when done right. The Obelisk Gate boasts everything that made The Fifth Season phenomenal—a brilliant magic system, three-dimensional female characters, world-ending stakes—and ratchets it up to 11. Jemisin consistently pairs fascinating character development with intense action, continuing a fantasy epic that demands your undivided attention. —Frannie Jackson

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lirael.jpg 30. Lirael by Garth Nix (2015)
When Sabriel came out in 1995 and, through Sabriel’s bell-wielding “Chosen One” Abhorsen, introduced readers to a wholly novel, deeply humanist, alarmingly weaponized way to imagine necromancy, it was clear that a modern classic had been born. What was not clear, at least until Nix returned six years later with a legacy-building sequel following Sabriel’s yet-undiscovered half-sister through her failed training as a Clayr and discovery of her own necromantic powers, was that the world of the Abhorsens had so many more quietly harrowing stories to tell. Thankfully, Lirael and all her messy, anxious necromantic/remembrancer powers did appear, and with them, all the elements needed to keep a great fantasy epic ticking indefinitely. —Alexis Gunderson

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night-watch.jpg 29. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)
One could be forgiven for having a hard time making heads or tales of Terry Pratchett’s sprawling Discworld series, looking from the outside in. The master satirist/fantasist’s ever-growing stable of characters can be profoundly complicated and variable in terms of how interesting they genuinely are, but most fantasy fans would agree that the entries focusing on the city of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch are among the strongest and most rewarding. In particular, the journey of Watch captain Samuel Vimes is perhaps Pratchett’s best overall character arc, which is one of the reasons that Night Watch is such a joy—it takes a character we already know and love and then deepens his history in ways the reader wouldn’t have thought possible. By dipping a toe into what is essentially a science fiction premise and thrusting Vimes back through time (and into contact with an earlier version of himself), Pratchett mines the unreliability of his own character’s previous narration when alluding to the past. As in the best of Pratchett’s work, numerous threads weave together into a madcap crescendo of a conclusion, resetting things back to more or less the way they were—with some subtle changes that will continue to pay dividends in future novels. This was always one of Pratchett’s greatest strengths—even while crafting a satisfying stand-alone story, he was constantly thinking about how his actions could ripple effect into additional tales down the line. —Jim Vorel

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tuesdays-castle.jpg 28. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (2011)
In her lovely Middle Grade Castle Glower series, which kicks off with Tuesdays at the Castle and concludes five books later with Saturdays at Sea, Jessica Day George has managed to bottle pure, concentrated charm. The series’ heroine is Celie, youngest daughter of King and Queen Glower, who has made it her mission to finally map out an official, exhaustive compendium of their magically-shifting castle’s many different floor plans, secret rooms, and hidden amenities. What starts out as an inquisitive kid’s adventure through fantastical, sentient architecture turns into a portal fantasy hinging on ancient, inter-realm political drama and the endangered status a woefully underutilised (surprise) mythical creature. While the whole, breezily short series is worth your while, Tuesdays at the Castle is a satisfying gem of a standalone book, a modern classic that belongs on everyone’s shelf right next to Howl’s Moving Castle. —Alexis Gunderson

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jonathan-strange.jpg 27. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
Susanna Clarke’s debut historical fantasy imagines a 19th-century world in which a pair of practical magicians revive the tradition of English magic. Jonathan Strange serves as apprentice to Mr. Gilbert Norrell, but the two men couldn’t be more different in temperament or their views of magic, particularly the role of the Raven King. As their rivalry intensifies, so do the dangers of the fairy world they’ve tapped into. The 782-page novel includes copious footnotes following one rabbit hole after the next. It’s a distinctly English work, recalling Jane Austen as much as J.R.R. Tolkein and offering a world of moral complexity, never shying from the darkness of men’s souls. —Josh Jackson

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spindles-end.jpg 26. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (2000)
Robin McKinley takes on a dated fairytale—Sleeping Beauty—and transforms it into a magical novel that gives the Princess agency. Though Rosie grows up in the shadow of a curse, she proves to be a fierce, courageous and spirited woman who seeks to save herself and her kingdom. Beyond Rosie, Spindle’s End is packed with even more three-dimensional female characters who consistently defy damsel-in-distress tropes. This captivating tale delivers a refreshing adventure, revealing that female friendships and high-stakes action belong together in fantasy. —Frannie Jackson

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