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Are these really the most essential epic fantasy books ever written?

Illustration for article titled Are these really the most essential epic fantasy books ever written?

Five different people have taken a stab at creating lists of the top 50 most essential epic fantasy novels of all time. And their different lists reveal that... nobody's quite sure how to define "epic fantasy." And there's been a noticeable shift in the parameters of the genre lately.


Top image: Michael Whelan, via Staffers Book Review.

Jared Shurin at PornoKitsch posted his list here and here, including some odd choices like I, Claudius and The Night Circus — and including a lot of very recent stuff that shows how fantasy has gotten both more gritty and perhaps more postmodern.


Liz Bourke's lists are here and here, and she includes Dune, a lot of classical texts, and a ton of stuff published in the last ten years. Very glad she included Jacqueline Carey's underrated Sundering duology.

Tansy Rayner Roberts posted her lists here and here. There are some interesting choices here, including comics, movies, TV series and Ozma of Oz.

Justin Landon shares his list here and here, including the Bible, plus Star Wars. And a lot of the classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, his list has a lot more stuff from the 1990s, and less from the past 10 years.

And finally, Ian Sales weighs in, and pretty much admits his list is mostly not epic fantasy.


All of which leaves me wondering: Can we agree on a definition of "epic fantasy"? How do you decide which books fit and which don't? Are the Bible and I, Claudius really epic fantasy books in the same way Lord of the Rings is?

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I'd say there are only 5 or 6 essential epic fantasy novels, because they feed into everything that's happened since:

1) Lord Of The Rings. The archetypal doorsop novel.
2) Hour of the Dragon. The only Conan novel. Popularized the heroic fantasy subgenre.
3) Elric of Melnibone. Elric is literally the anti-Conan.
4) The Swords of Lankhmar. Perhaps the archetypal "buddy" fantasy. Until Lieber, fantasy heroes rarely spoke in the vernacular.
5) Mists of Avalon. Because women can be heroes too.

And, as a wildcard, Gormenghast. Less known, but it casts a long shadow.