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Fantasy Fiction: Essential Reads

King, Stephen
The Dark Tower series
This series spans the entire length of Stephen King's career, beginning with his first finished manuscript in college (the Gunslinger) and ending with his "retirement" novel (The Dark Tower). As the series unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that this story is central to everything King's ever written. He references not only his own books, but also many of the other recent great works of fantasy by other authors. By the end, expect King to try tricks that no author has ever tried before. It's definitely fun to read or revisit King's other books, but it's not strictly necessary to "catch up" before starting the series.
Lackey, Mercedes
anything she's written
This author writes primarily two kinds of fantasy: novels about the fictional world of Valdemar, and everything else. The Valdemar novels tend to come in trilogies, focused on a particular character in the epic history of that world. A good place to start is Arrows of the Queen or The Oathbound. "Everything else" really means just that; Lackey's written about vampires (Children of the Night), dragons (The Elvenbane), elves in Los Angeles (Bedlam's Bard), elves involved in NASCAR-like racing (Born to Run), Native American detectives (Sacred Ground), and perfectly normal people who just happen to work for werewolves (The Fire Rose).
McKinley, Robin
Beauty and Rose Daughter
McKinley offers us two very similar but unrelated versions of the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." In Beauty, she more closely follows the traditional plot. This novel is written with rich detail, and graceful, nearly epic prose. Rose Daughter was written years later. It has a unique twist on the story's events but is very much in the same style, with equal depth to the characters. Read them both and compare for yourself!
Maguire, Gregory
For the readers who want more than Harry Potter, but want to stay in their comfort zone, Maguire's Wicked is a perfect fit. This book is a retelling, almost a prequel, to The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and it casts a whole new light on a childhood favorite. Discover the darker, more sophisticated Oz, ideal for the adult palate.
Rawn, Melanie
The Dragon Prince trilogy and The Dragon Star trilogy
These two trilogies comprise an epic story that is both a complex political and ethical discussion, and also a very human tale about personal lives and interactions. The main characters are a talented and interesting family, who just happen to be the rulers of the Desert. The focus of the first trilogy is Rohan, who is descended from sun runners who communicate with light, but is himself ungifted. He struggles to create a better world and a lasting peace without resorting to low means. The second trilogy is about Rohan's son Pol, gifted with every imaginable kind of power, but helpless to defend Rohan's work from utter destruction. Even after multiple readings, this story will continue to grow in ways that surprise the reader.
Roberson, Jennifer
Chronicles of the Cheysuli
This series is about the country of Homana, and an unusual group of people who bond with spirit-animals, gaining them, among other things, the ability to change into the shape of their particular animal. The books deal with a prophecy about Homana's rulers, much like The Lord of the Rings, or even The Legend of Zelda: "One day, a man of all blood shall unite, in peace, two magical races and four warring realms." The heroes and heroines are well developed and likeable, and the action leading to the prophecy's fulfillment is engaging and believable.
Rowling, J.K.
The Harry Potter series
J.K. Rowling's famous fantasy series about a boy wizard was intended for a children's audience. But as Harry grows up, so do the books, and not just in size! Readers follow Harry from his twelfth birthday and arrival at wizard school until (presumably) he graduates and becomes an adult. Only the future will tell just how intense things will get. Anyone who's fond of children's literature will be thrilled by the series, but trust us, it's not just fun for kids! Satisfy your curiosity and see what all the excitement's about.
Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
These books are, of course, the starting point for any discussion about fantasy. The more familiar elves and dragons inhabit Tolkien's Middle Earth, but he also introduces Ents, killer spiders, and Tom Bombadil. Written like a classic Old English tale, it strikes some as "old fashioned," but there's years of scholarship behind every detail. Find out why the movies were so successful and why later generations refer to this author as "Papa Tolkien."