I’ve often written about foundational works of epic fantasy, high fantasy, and other speculative subgenres. But I haven’t talked much about my own favorite works—despite several of them slipping into the mix of content here on the blog.
While I can think of plenty of obvious reasons each book appears on my list, there are likewise plenty of reasons for readers not to love the same books as me. This list probably won’t match anyone else’s breakdown of favorite SFF novels. It’s personal.
I will of course describe some reasons I think other readers will likewise care about the books I’m mentioning. But at the end of the day, I’m listing them chiefly because of my own experiences with each novel listed.
In reverse ranking order, here goes.
10. Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip
My loose summary: Magical bards chase each other because they like knowing stuff and out-harping one another. And to save the world from shape shifting monsters.
No surprise that Patricia McKillip would make the list. Harpist in the Wind is the climactic finish to the Riddle Master Trilogy, and as such, it’s one of the books that really answers riddles that have been posed across the previous two volumes. This, in particular, makes for a riveting conclusion to the trilogy.
Since I’ve talked about the Riddle Master Trilogy in some detail before, let me say simply that every time I read this series (and Harpist in the Wind in particular), I’m astonished at something. It might be the subtle structuring of Morgon’s journey. It might be the evocative beauty and sense of sorrow present in the world McKillip has created. It might just be that I forgot all the answers to the riddles and I love to find them anew.
There’s also the whole matter of mages dueling each other with mystical geolocational powers, shape changers chasing the main characters, Earth Masters showing up with magical demands, and so on. Little wonder that I love a novel so packed with musicians, mysteries, and wizards.
In any case, Harpist in the Wind is one of the strongest conclusions I know to any fantasy trilogy and sits firmly on my list of all-time favorite SFF novels.
9. The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang
My loose summary: A mom and her teenage son deal with parallel disillusionment while also being martial arts masters and having to prove it to some aggressive people.
The only indie work on this list, The Sword of Kaigen is also the most recent addition to my stack of favorite SFF novels. (And yes, I’ve talked about this one elsewhere on the blog as well).
The Sword of Kaigen follows two main characters. One is the 14-year old Mamoru, who experiences a fresh but powerfully relatable coming of age journey as he grapples with governmental failures and a staggering amount of new responsibility protecting his home. The other chief protagonist is Mamoru’s mother, Misaki.
The novel is incredibly unique in how it follows these two very different characters (a teenage boy and an emotionally exhausted mother). Furthermore, it takes a decidedly unusual approach to form and story shape, building up to climactic moments much earlier in the story than is normal and dwelling longer on the resolution needed afterward. It feels like a near perfect balance between slice-of-life fantasy and martial arts epic, rolling the elements together in a way I find seamless.
This novel makes my list of favorites not just because it’s so different and refreshing. It also packs a profound emotional punch (due to its difference, in my opinion), making it unforgettable in nearly every aspect.
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
My loose summary: Harry Potter competes in games that might kill him but cares more about social footing and friends because that’s real life for you.
I love all seven Harry Potter novels, but Goblet of Fire very quickly became my favorite of the series. It’s not just that this is the only volume to win a Hugo or that Harry finally showed that he could be more uniformly competent. Those things help, but there’s so much more going well for this book.
On one hand, Goblet of Fire has an amazing cast of side characters, including Ludo Bagman, Barty Crouch Sr., Barty Crouch Jr., and Rita Skeeter. Every Harry Potter novel has a similarly wondrous cast of characters that are neither chief villain nor principal friend to Harry, but I think the ensemble shines brighter in this volume than in any of the previous books, paving the way for some serious expansion in the next two volumes.
Likewise, Goblet of Fire really set the tone for how the series could continue to be deadly serious while also zooming in on the everyday struggles of homework and having to go to a school dance. I think it’s fair to say that the plot is less fully baked in this book than in a few others in the series, but the constant tension between big stakes and small ones that really matter to the characters makes for a book that is constantly engaging, funny, warm, and heart-wrenching.
7. Eldest by Christopher Paolini
My loose summary: All the main characters realize they’re making serious mistakes and have to learn or do some big stuff or else get eaten by the Raz’zac.
Unusual though this may be, I often like book two in a series best of all (you’ll find three instances of book number two in a series on this list, actually). In most cases, the story doesn’t stand alone. The ending might not even be an end. But these still so often wind up as my favorites, as Eldest is among Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle.
Paolini (and everyone on this list) has plenty of critics, but one of his great strengths as a writer is his ability to create a story spanning a wide spectrum of emotions. Some writers try, rather, to get one consistent tone or feeling throughout the full novel. This might seem cohesive, on the surface level, but it’s actually draining to read (no matter what the emotion is) and unrealistic.
Eldest, in particular among Paolini’s books, weaves together smaller storylines about fear and suspicion, new friends found, pain, growth, unrequited love, unflinching love, new wounds forming, older wounds healing, and so many other parallel lines of feeling. There are within the manuscript great moments of failure, just as there are moments of immense hope.
Every volume on this list (not an exaggeration; every volume) stitches together a similarly wide band of emotions, but Eldest is one of the books that first made me conscious of this dynamic.
I think it could remain on my list of favorite books for that alone. After all, reading it has subsequently enriched my reading experience of all other stories.
6. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
My loose summary: Four wildly smart people hatch secret plots to save the world while under constant up-close surveillance. Most of them end up getting tried for crimes against humanity.
The second second book on the list, The Dark Forest is the lesser known volume following Cixin Liu’s highly regarded The Three-Body Problem. It is, however, not only an exceptional sequel but an incredible novel in its own regard.
Part thriller, part mystery, part hard science fiction philosophical inquiry, The Dark Forest follows Luo Ji, a somewhat indifferent sociologist who gets thrown into an elite international circle and tasked with saving humanity from invading aliens. Various parties try to cripple or remove Luo Ji and his colleagues, so there’s no shortage of close calls, escapes, and intrigue.
The real heart of the novel, however, comes from the link between Luo Ji’s task and his motivation for actually trying to complete it. To keep this fairly spoiler free, I’ll simply say that Cixin Liu really brings together the best of character-led storytelling and compelling hard science fiction concepts. Your reading might be enriched if you’re familiar with the first law of thermodynamics or the Fermi Paradox, but the story itself is powerful even without its ties to physics and cosmic sociology.
5. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My loose summary: Scientists and aliens try to understand each other and keep messing up, which risks their planet getting obliterated.
Another second book in a series, Speaker for the Dead often falls under the reputational shadow (this is a pun) of other Enderverse novels. But there’s a stellar story here about the cultural power of words and the pain and solace that accompany them.
Where Ender’s Game, mentioned later on this list, focuses on a much smaller cast of five or six key characters, Speaker for the Dead follows a large community of scientists, sentient aliens, families, and community leaders entangled in a search for knowledge.
It’s a fairly standard sequel in the sense that it directly follows the events of Ender’s Game. It’s a wonderfully different sequel in how it stands on its own, thematically, and tells several whole stories even without finishing the series. This is not the only book on this list that ends with many threads left untied, but it might leave the biggest ones handy of any books I’m mentioning here. That said, Speaker for the Dead also has one of the most vivid endings of any novel I’ve read—hitting with greater force than nearly any other.
Since I can remember the endings of eight books on this list well enough to quote them directly, I take Speaker for the Dead’s ending, almost alone, as evidence of its lasting impression on me.
4. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
My loose summary: A slave becomes a boss.
I was an early Brandon Sanderson reader. I got my hands on Elantris and later Mistborn shortly after they were released, with high hopes for both. It wasn’t until The Way of Kings came out and my brother gifted it to me that I became a Sanderson fan, however.
The Way of Kings isn’t just next level for Sanderson. It’s next level epic fantasy in many genre-reaching ways. The scope and breadth of the story are, of course big (for lack of a more appropriate word that hasn’t been bandied plenty often already). But The Way of Kings still manages to thrive in smaller, more personal moments about perseverance, purpose, curiosity, belief, and fellowship. Long story short, the epic moments are about as epic as epic fantasy goes. And the personal moments are poignant in ways that bely the book’s massive wordcount.
The worldbuilding is incredibly refreshing, the action is gripping, but what I love most about The Way of Kings is how hopeful it feels. Even as it tells a story about cycles of cataclysmic collapse, it presents a stalwart optimism that there’s a way forward. For all the instances of brutal mistreatment of underlings—some who are soldiers and some who are slaves—it’s a story about people rising above circumstances they shouldn’t be able to control by themselves.
In most instances, The Way of Kings is about how people nurture each other’s hope and buoy one another only by banding together. Interestingly, nearly half the books on this list are about serious loners. Whether because of that trend in my tastes or in spite of it, The Way of Kings puts its stake in a wonderfully different spot of ground.
3. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
My loose summary: The world’s coolest wizard goes on an epic sea quest to stop everyone in Earthsea from getting seriously depressed.
My loose summaries are obviously a little silly, but this one actually speaks to one of my favorite parts of this novel. The Farthest Shore isn’t a story about how horrible it would be if Thanos snapped his fingers and half of everyone died, or if Sephiroth called a meteor and it blasted the planet to bits. The stakes are much lower on the cosmic scale and much more real on the personal one.
Where countless other fantasy novels are about the danger of everyone dying, The Farthest Shore is about the danger of everyone in the world losing their love of life.
Magic, music, artistry, poetry, all these crafts are vanishing from the world, leaving people discouraged, listless, and hopeless. In a very Le Guin way, the novel’s events demand a solution that fits the issue, so instead of seeing a heroic character like the wizard Sparrowhawk get killed to save the world, we see many characters give up something beautiful and go on living anyway, not really knowing how they’ll proceed.
It’s tragic, heroic, epic, poetic, and I never get tired of revisiting it.
Oh, and there’s plenty of cool wizardry along the way.
2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
My loose summary: A lonely kid has to save the human race from aliens because the grown-ups won’t let him have friends until he does.
Another hard science fiction novel, another novel about finding a way for humanity to survive the threat of alien invasion, and the first author repeat on this list, I’ll leave most of Ender’s Game unsummarized. Since this is the second most well-known book on the list, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept, at least: After narrowly surviving one alien invasion, humanity has turned for help to a small coterie of highly intelligent children in anticipation of another.
Ender’s Game is in many ways about how children and adults are so very alike. It’s also concerned with the ones we call our heroes are very much like the ones we call our enemies. At any rate, what I love most is how packed this short novel is with keen insights into why we do the things we do. It’s a masterwork in terms of worldbuilding, pacing, and point of view, but for me the wisdom and paradox of the narrative outweigh even the expert assembly that make a story of them.
1. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My loose summary: The world’s coolest wizard goes on an epic sea quest to confront his childhood trauma and personal mistakes.
This is the novel I’ve read the most times of any on this list (by far). Like Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, A Wizard of Earthsea has presented me with new gems to treasure each time I return to its pages.
On the surface, this looks like a simple coming of age redemption story. A reckless young wizard looses a monster on the world and has to stop it before it ruins everything. In standard Le Guin fashion, however, the stakes are actually personal rather than explosive. Yes, there’s a risk of trouble and even destruction if Sparrowhawk fails in his quest, but the real prices are for friendships that fail, boats that get broken, pets that get left behind in the snow, and the loss of selfhood threatening Sparrohwawk at every turn.
I’ve written more about this book on the occasion of A Wizard of Earthsea’s golden anniversary in 2018, but for the sake of this already lengthy post I’ll just leave it at this: I waffled for years between reading and not reading, having a legitimately hard time believing I’d find a book worth my time. But after reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I’ve never stopped reading new ones.
Since this book made a hungry reader of me, I can’t praise it enough.
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About the Author
Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future Fire, MYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.