The fantasy genre is so, so intriguing. You don’t have to dig far to trace its roots back to some of the most primal forms of storytelling; mythology and folklore. Because of these echoes, it still serves as an excellent tool for teaching fundamental truths about the human condition and exploring complex and layered questions.
It’s often served to teach youngsters about life and death, good against evil, philosophy and religion. When we have to grow up, it remains one of the last bridges back to our childhood. Fantasy is incredibly broad, with some tales set in worlds just one step away from our own, and others that carry little trace of it. Fantasy births creatures of power and terror, beings of magic and attraction. Much of its heart lies in the battle between good and bad.
This is all reflected in the best fantasy novels of the 2010s we’ve selected here. With a mix of wonderful, challenging new voices and bittersweet farewells to well-loved worlds, it’s been a very good decade for fantasy.
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
If you like trippy and bizarre fantasy stories, you’ll love The Night Circus. When a book is billed as a ‘phantasmogorical fairy tale’ and is set in ahistorical Victorian England, you had better believe you’re in for a RIDE. (By the way, I’ve read the definition of phantasmogorical several times now, and I’m still not quite sure I get it – a similar experience to reading this book).
The titular circus is Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), which appears at will and without warning, full of wonders and illusions from dusk to dawn. Within the backdrop of the circus, two rivals set up their proteges to challenge each other and unwittingly spark a love story in the process. The non-linear narrative also dabbles with second-person passages, which is difficult to pull off as successfully as Erin Morgenstern manages.
2. The Inheritance Cycle: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini (2011)
My husband convinced me to read these books with one word – dragons. I have fairly simple fantasy requirements, and Paolini’s dragons do not disappoint. The Inheritance Cycle young adult tetralogy, which I learnt today means four books, has sold 33 million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 languages. It first appeared in 2001 (self-published by Paolini and then picked up by a publishing house two years later), and only just sneaks into this decade, with its concluding volume Inheritance being published in 2011.
In Alagaësia, Eragon stumbles upon a dragon egg while hunting. From this egg comes his scaly companion (the film adaptation gave her feathers and the film is wrong) Saphira. Together they rise up to fight King Galbatorix, who definitely does not deserve to be a dragon rider. For a writer who began at aged 15, Paolini’s world building is impressively compelling, and if you’re a dragon fan like me, you should love his take on them.
3. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (2011)
George R. R. Martin is the author of a fairly small and unknown series called A Song of Ice and Fire. Hardly anyone has heard of it, especially people who regularly use the internet. I kid, of course. How could we discuss fantasy of the decade without mentioning the juggernaut that is ASOIAF?
I do wonder if the initials G.R.R. were a deliberate choice because Mr. Martin knew this would be the noise fans would make when they realised how bloody long it took him to finish a novel. The first in the series, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, with an ever-increasing gap between sequels, until the fifth installment A Dance with Dragons was released in 2011. Nearly nine years later, and there’s still no sign of the sixth and seventh books, which apparently will divert from the disappointing outcome of the TV show’s finale. It is quite a rare accomplishment to have the adaptation of your work conclude before the entire source material is even written.
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)
The words ‘modern mythology’ hover in the periphery of much of Gaiman’s work. He is an expert story-weaver and master of all things weird. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, named Book of the Year at the 2013 National Book Awards, is classic Gaiman in its oddness.
In the beginning portions of this twisting tale you might not pick up on much oddness as the narrator takes us back through his childhood as he returns to the family home for a funeral. But is all as it seems? Is the pond at the back of Lettie’s really an ocean?
This has been a good decade for Gaiman, and 2019 in particular has been a good year for his fantasy adaptations – Good Omens, written by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, was released on Amazon Prime to the delight of many, and a play of this book The Ocean At The End of The Lane is currently playing at the National Theatre in London.
5. A Memory of Light by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan (2013)
Posthumous publication is a bit of a theme in this list. The Wheel of Time books were originally written by Robert Jordan, with his first tale published in 1990. He had begun creating the world in 1984, and had planned it to be a six book series. Before his death in 2007, he had been working on the twelfth in the series, and left detailed notes so it could be completed by another author. Enter Brandon Sanderson, who would go on to write books twelve through to fourteen when it was realised one volume would not be enough.
The Wheel of Time has sold over 80 million copies, with the last seven books all reaching Number One on the New York Times Bestseller list. The saga, spanning generations and numerous characters, revolves around the conflict between the Dragon and the Dark One, whose fated battle will determine the world’s future. As the title suggests, it takes inspiration from Buddhist and Hindu teachings to consider time as a cyclical concept. Therefore, it is set both in Earth’s future, and its distant past, with a depth of world-building that draws comparisons to Tolkien.
Every decade will bring out brilliant and bright new voices eager to spin new yarns, but it will also mean closing the book on some of our best-loved writers. In 2015 we lost Sir Terry Pratchett OBE, one of fantasy fiction’s biggest names.
His first book was published in 1971, and his very last, The Shepherd’s Crown, was published in 2015, five months after his death. During this 44-year span he published over 70 works, including the 41 that made up his infamous and comical Discworld series, of which The Shepherd’s Crown was one. Sir Terry was translated into 37 languages, sold more than 85 million books, was knighted for services to literature, and was awarded the Carnegie Medal and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2010. I could fill several articles on his many accomplishments, and indeed Nat has completed a whole series for Cultured Vultures on Discworld Discussions. For a poignant and in-depth analysis of The Shepherd’s Crown, proceed in an orderly fashion to her article.
7. The Book of Dust: The Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman (2017)
If you haven’t been watching the TV adaptation of Pullman’s His Dark Materials on BBC, please go do so now. The Book of Dust trilogy expands on the intriguing world of the original tales, where people are born with an external representation of their souls in the form of a daemon animal. Pullman sought to explore themes such as the nature of consciousness and its relationship to spirit. He has also joked that this trilogy could have been titled His Darker Materials instead.
So far two of three books have been released. La Belle Sauvage is set before Lyra came to live at Jordan College, and follows those who are seeking to deliver her there safely. The next installment, The Secret Commonwealth, follows on from His Dark Materials, with an older Lyra still seeking to make sense of her world. The third has yet to be published.
8. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R Tolkien (2017)
Tolkien is considered the father of modern high fantasy literature, and it’s really not hard to see why. He created several entire languages for his world, and I’m physically restraining myself from geeking out right now. I’ve been trying to not let my bias show, but Tolkien is one of my absolute faves. And his appearance on a list for this decade is slightly more impressive than Pratchett and Jordan, considering he passed away in 1973. His son, Christopher Tolkien, has been responsible for editing and bringing his previously unseen work to light, including The Silmarillion, which contains one of the most beautiful creation stories I have ever read.
The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is one of Tolkien’s oldest, its subject matter reflected in The Lord of the Rings through their descendants Aragon and Arwen. It’s a gloriously sad tale of an immortal elf and her mortal human lover. Apparently the inspiration for Lúthien came from Tolkien’s wife Edith – the names Beren and Lúthien are written on their joint grave under their own. The first appearance of this story was in The Book of Lost Tales, titled The Tale of Tinúviel. Tolkien would later rewrite it as an epic poem he would not finish. A prose version of the story was included in The Silmarillion, but Tolkien had felt this story deserved to be properly expanded.
9. The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy: Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (2017)
Another theme for this decade seems to be series finales. Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series is comprised of 16 books in total, which are split into four trilogies and a quartet (or tetralogy), the latest of these being The Fitz and the Fool. Much of the series is centred around FitzChivalry Farseer, who is the illegitimate son of a prince, and the mysterious figure The Fool, who appears in various guises and whose gender is ‘nobody’s business but his own’.
Many fans were underwhelmed by the first two books of The Fitz and The Fool, but found its overall arc redeemed in Assassin’s Fate, which sought to bring together threads from many parts of the Realm of the Elderlings series as a whole. This book was nominated for a Goodreads award, and fantasy titan George R R Martin has been quoted as calling Hobb’s work ‘diamonds in a sea of zircons’. If you have some spare time for the next few years and you haven’t committed to this series, maybe 2020 is the perfect time to start.
When this book was released, it seemed to be everywhere, much like Madeline Miller’s other success The Song of Achilles. It was hyped on a lot of book lists and reached Number 1 on both the New York Times Bestseller and Indie Bestseller lists. And it’s about Greek mythology – do you need any more convincing this book is excellent?
2018 was a bit of a year for feminist retellings of old stories and female characters commonly marginalised and demonised for their sexual freedoms. One such as this is Circe, goddess of magic, daughter of Helios and master of potions who appeared in the Odyssey as an enchantress that turns most of Odysseus’s men into pigs. Because of her fondness for turning men into animals, she is often depicted as a loose-moralled temptress of men.
Miller gives Circe her own voice and story. Born without the power of her father or appearance of her mother, Circe is banished by Zeus for her witchcraft abilities. She grows her abilities, meets many a Greek hero and villain, and must rise against those who are threatened by her power.
Well, we’ve made it to the end of our countdown of 100 books of the decade. It’s been so interesting to look at this with a ten year hindsight and to see some of the trends and themes that maybe you miss on a granular level. Kids and YA books are going strong, with a slow but steady increase in diverse stories and characters. LGBTQ+ stories are becoming more mainstream, and graphic novels are becoming more appreciated for the art that they are. There’s been an influx of great debut authors in the romance and historical fiction genres, while the fantasy old masters have been going strong. Thrillers and sci fi books continue to publish ever better examples of best in genre, and non-fiction books are becoming more accessible and personal. 2020 and beyond is going to be great!
Thanks for coming along for the ride – we hope that you’ve been inspired to pick up some great books that you may have missed.
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