When you hear the word fantasy, you might think of magicians and talking animals, and dismiss the genre in favor of more “adult” literature. That would be a mistake. There is a broad, rich spectrum of books that find themselves in the fantasy category, from YA all the way to treasured literary classics, the unifying thread being that they bend reality in pleasing, terrifying, and enchanting ways.
There was a time, in recent memory, when fantasy fanatics hid their love for sword and sorcery from the world, when talk of wizards and warlocks was relegated to comic book conventions and groups of sweaty teens huddled around card tables in suburban basements. That time is past—we are in the Era of the Nerd, when Game of Thrones was the most popular TV show of all time, when Amazon began throwing tens of millions of dollars at fantasy IP, and Dungeons and Dragons is proudly played by celebrities like Joe Manganiello and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Fantasy might be the oldest literary genre, with a foundation in ancient tales like the Illiad and Beowulf. It often uses magical devices as a foil for the real world, speculating on how society would act and react if the rules of reality were different. Some stories establish elaborate universes and characters, spreading them over many volumes, so that fans will keep coming back for more. And others spawn generations of copycats and derivations, including numerous high-budget movies and TV shows, from Lord of the Rings to the Marvel Comic Universe.
Literature is both a way of escaping the real world and understanding it, being entertained while learning about the nature of the self and exploring the possibilities of human emotion and imagination. Fantasy is one of the purest and best examples of how books can accomplish that dual role of escapism and exploration. Thus, coming up with a list of the 25 best fantasy books of all time is no small task. In fact, it’s impossible, with such a diverse and wildly varying selection. Instead, let’s think of this as a gateway into this cosmically satisfying genre via some of the greatest fantasy writers who’ve reached for the stars in offering us these 25 out-of-this-world novels.