Fantasy has been around for millennia.
Yet some eras in that time have seen explosive growth when it comes to interest in the genre. The 1980s is one of those times. Before it, science fiction dominated the speculative fiction publishing world — and even then, few SF writers were being published compared to today. It was an exciting time for fantasy writers, their publishers, and of course readers.
How did this happen? Things began to change in the mid ’70s. With the success of authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen R. Donaldson, and a few others, publishers began to take note of fantasy despite the long shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien. Then editor Lester del Rey took a bet and won it by publishing The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks in 1977, a book that went on to spend 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the final wake-up call for editors at that time. For better or worse, fantasy became commercialized and accepted in a way that it hadn’t before.
Brooks would of course enter the ’80s with a full head of steam, beginning a career that would span decades. He was not the only one. An abundance of fantasy writers found they had a much larger voice with publishers than before — and as readers we gained several dozen masterpiece works. I know this because it is the decade I grew up in. I started with The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara in 1988. And I haven’t stopped reading it since then.
This list in no way represents every great novel from the ’80s. Rather, it is a wonderful and magical starting point. How many of these have you read? And what would you add? Comment below!
The Blue Sword (1982)
by Robin McKinley
I first read this book as a school assignment. Needless to say, I had a badass teacher. The story of Harry is an ageless one — a person brought into a different culture and discovering something more. The book won the Newbery Honor Award among others. It is perfect for young adults but also works on different levels for adults.
Pawn of Prophecy (1982)
by David Eddings
When many fantasy readers think of work from the ’80s, David Eddings is sometimes the first author that comes to mind. Another of editor Lester Del Rey’s writers, Eddings wrote the first book in The Belgariad series and it went on to great success. Featuring all of the tropes that fantasy has come to be known for — orphan boy, ancient wizard, hero’s journey — Pawn of Prophecy is still a fun read.
The Elfstones of Shannara (1982)
by Terry Brooks
While The Sword of Shannara has long been criticized as a doppleganger of The Lord of the Rings — and rightly so — The Elfstones of Shannara is a masterpiece of epic fantasy and firmly placed Brooks near the top of the ’80s. It is a magnificent quest story with high stakes, ultimate evil, an unusual love triangle, and magic throughout. Tear-jerker. A must read.
The Anubis Gates (1983)
by Tim Powers
I didn’t come to The Anubis Gates until I was well into my thirties, something I hate even to this day. Because it has everything. An ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, our hero, Professor Brendan Doyle. Defies the epic fantasy conventions that haunt the decade. Simply brilliant.
The Talisman (1984)
by Stephen King & Peter Straub
While The Gunslinger and Eyes of the Dragon have cultish followings, no Stephen King book represents the ’80s to me than The Talisman, a book he co-wrote with Peter Straub. It is the story of Jack Sawyer, a boy who discovers his mother is dying and will do anything to prevent it — even crossing into a different world that features twinners of ourselves. And werewolves wearing coveralls. M-O-O-N, that spells awesome!
Daughter of the Empire (1987)
by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts
Every fantasy reader knows of Magician by Raymond E. Feist. It should be on this list, to be honest. But I decided to feature a remarkably brilliant parallel novel to it, one Feist co-wrote with Janny Wurts, featuring a different world with different rules. Mara is a ruling lady who is thrust into keeping her family alive in a political world. Assassins. Spy-master plots. Rebel warriors. This feels like A Game of Thrones before George R. R. Martin wrote his epic fantasy!
Dragon Prince (1988)
by Melanie Rawn
Again, another book that feels a lot like A Song of Ice & Fire before George R. R. Martin wrote it. Melanie Rawn created an amazing world populated with complex characters — and the magic of Sunrunning. Political intrigue from the evil High Prince to the leader of the Sunrunners to the newly crowned Prince of the Desert! All vying for power. And dragons with a secret!
The Dragonbone Chair (1988)
by Tad Williams
Given the history of the genre, any ’80s list certainly must have Tad Williams on it. The author of one of the decade’s most important epic fantasy trilogy’s was instrumental in helping other writers achieve their own masterpieces — including George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. A brilliantly-wrought world with great cultures that transcend the usual medieval trappings. Along with great characters. You must read this if you haven’t.