High fantasy is one of the more well-read fantasy sub-genres.
But for the last decade, urban, epic, and steampunk have grown in readership and especially for first-time fantasy readers. Therefore, this article is a primer list for people who have not read high fantasy but might want to start with some of the seminal novels of the sub-genre.
First, a definition of high fantasy and an important distinction with epic fantasy. When The Sword of Shannara published in 1977, many considered it epic fantasy. But since that time, the sub-genre has split and evolved. High fantasy tends to be focused on a lone protagonist who makes his/her way through a secondary world on a Hero’s Journey and who is pulled into a larger battle with a main antagonist. Epic fantasy is similar but features a much larger cast of characters with multiple points of view telling the story. I will write more about epic fantasy in two weeks time.
Looking at it now, I consider The Sword of Shannara as high fantasy. Where does the new high fantasy reader start now? Well, I have some wonderful recommendations below.
The Book of Three (1964)
by Lloyd Alexander
Alexander must be on this list because he is the person who coined the term “high fantasy” in 1971. The Book of Three is the first book in the Prydain Chronicles, featuring Taran, a young pig-farmer’s assistant who dreams of being a hero. While the series is for younger readers, it is a wonderful read and has historical relevance.
The Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Wizard of Earthsea is another book geared toward younger readers but which has gained a broader audience. Ged, a young mage, accidentally unleashes a dark shadow while dueling another student wizard. The dark shadow must be confronted at all costs. It is a book everyone should read at least once.
Lord Foul’s Bane (1977)
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Thomas Covenant is the most grim character in the list, a leper whose life is filled with despair after having lost his wife and son. But when he is drawn to battle the evil Lord Foul, he must travel through the secondary world known as the Land to combat the dark lord. Whether he likes and believes it or not.
The Elfstones of Shannara (1982)
by Terry Brooks
Like its predecessor The Sword of Shannara, Elfstones features a main protagonist who must do battle with a terrible darkness that threatens the world. Wil Ohmsford wields the Elfstones to guide an Elven Princess through the Four Lands to quicken the magical tree known as the Ellcrys.
The Belgariad (1982)
by David Eddings
The orphan farmboy Garion leads a simple life with his mysterious aunt. But when destiny calls, he is drawn into a prophecy where he must seek the powerful Orb of Aldur and use it to fight against the dark lord, Torak. This is quintessential high fantasy and a great deal of fun.
Assassin’s Apprentice (1995)
by Robin Hobb
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. A wonderful first-person-told tale.
The Name of the Wind (2007)
by Patrick Rothfuss
The story of Kvothe is a powerful one, so large that many consider it epic fantasy. But looking at its bones, it is the Hero’s Journey that I mentioned above. An orphan boy must learn magical skills to kill the dark creatures that murdered his parents—and quite possibly save the world. High fantasy at its best!
Again, if you haven’t read high fantasy but want to, these are several of the best books to start with in the sub-genre.
What high fantasy books would you recommend people start with?