It seems that Fantasy has been making resurgence in popularity as of late. With the popularity of shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and movies such as the Hobbit Trilogy, it seems that the magic of the fantasy genre has come alive for a new generation of aficionados. But just what is it about the genre that is so powerful, wonderful, and…dare I say…magical?
Fantasy has the unique quality of being timeless. You could read a book written decades ago and the beautifully constructed characters, the complex webs of politics, and the magic are all as relevant now as they were fifty years ago! Listening to these stories brings you into an entirely new world, one where magic is possible, wars need to be fought, and heroes come in unexpected packages.
The Appeal of Fantasy Fiction
So what sets fantasy apart from the rest? Is it the amazing world-building that transports you from your boring life into the life of a crown prince, a dragon-rider, an assassin for a king, or an elfin warrior? High fantasy is typically set in a medieval or primitive landscape, revolving heavily around kings, knights, warriors, and the “lower classes” of merchants, peasants, and farmers. Entire kingdoms are born and fall under the battling forces of men…or other creatures.
It seems obvious, but because fantasy isn’t set in our world, it isn’t bound by our world’s rules. Fantasy is where magic exists, religious deities play in their worshipper’s lives, and cultural history is unique to that world. While Contemporary, Historical, and Realistic fiction authors have to carefully consider the laws, movements, and historical accuracy of their pieces, fantasy is literally a spawn of the author’s greatest imagination. Creativity abounds, and while the author has to stick to the rules of the world they create, they get to make those rules up as they go. Isn’t “Do dragons exist?” a much more fascinating question than, “What year did President Eisenhower get elected?” …it is to me!
Dragons, Elves, Orcs, Hobbits, Dwarves, White-Walkers, Gods, Angels, Demons- these beings all possess unique and fascinating powers, and as races or individuals they often form the allies or opposition to men as they battle for survival and ultimately, the greater good. Power changes hands, battles are won, and creatures are sold into slavery when inter-species politics are at play. When listening to these fascinating power plays through an audiobook, the narrator has the ability to take the experience to new levels. Each character has their own nuances of voice, whether it’s a scratchy rasp for an old sailor, a sultry murmur from a princess, or a sly and sinister whisper coming from an orc or goblin.
Fantasy Tropes and Themes
Common themes in the genre are often good versus evil and how the characters themselves deal with their own sense of right and wrong. Especially when the main character is a teen or youth, themes about growing up can also take center stage. Often the main character or main narrator is young or immature in some way and then throughout the course of the series, this young ruffian grows into the person that fate had decreed they were always destined to be.
That’s another thing…fate and the gods. Religious systems are huge parts of the fantasy genre. Whether the gods are attacking their wayward flock, or the gods aren’t actually players-just used as tools wielded by priests and mages to control the populace- the systems that religion has established within the book are key influencers of all the characters, and often of the setting as well.
Interestingly enough, much of the time religion also includes magic. Magic can be hated and feared, or envied and used as a tool to gain wealth and notoriety. Occasionally magic is seen as being a blessing from the gods, but can also be a curse or a mark of paganism or worship of demons and darkness. Gods, religion, fate and destiny all help to paint the rich complexity of the fantasy genre, be it high, dark, or post-apocalyptic. I will run through some of the best fantasy audiobooks that have ever been written, and I hope that it inspires you to check out some “new-to-you” authors.
The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
A true classic of the fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and its prequel The Hobbit have set the bar for what is considered great fantasy for more than 60 years. Bilbo Baggins was just an unassuming hobbit until the wizard Gandalf sent him off on a great adventure where he just so happens to come across a magic ring.
His experiences in The Hobbit set in motion a chain of events that forge strange and powerful alliances between all the races of Middle Earth, culminating in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and his nephew Frodo’s battle against the consuming power of the Dark Lord Sauron. Elves, Men, and Dwarves must form an alliance against his dark armies if they have a chance in defeating him, but all hope truly does rest within the tiny, furry hands of an unsuspecting boy. When it all comes down to it, heroes come in all sizes and shapes, and there is both good and evil in all creatures.
Don’t let this series’ age put you off. There is a reason that it’s been a favorite for so many decades. The beautifully creative world of Middle Earth is as captivating as the characters that inhabit it. Great battles are fought for the fate of entire races and Good is pitted against Evil for what could be the final time. Frodo is an amazingly timeless hero, relating to both the unassuming quiet people, and the steely and determined among us.
An added benefit of listening to this series is that you can much more easily keep track of family lines. The world building and history that has been created for this series is so minutely detailed that you can trace each character’s family line back through the centuries. While this might be overwhelming at times, it creates a rich and storied background that allows you to fall in love (or hate) with each and every character. Tolkien is revered in many circles, from his native Britain to the far reaches of the world. It’s almost prerequisite to read some of Tolkien’s work before you look anywhere else for fantasy greatness. Start with our reviews of The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
In the land of Westeros, many who play the game of thrones do not live long enough to tell about it. The Seven Kingdoms, all bearing their own histories, petty grudges, and alliances battle for control of King’s Landing. Yet this battle is subtle and made more through the political moves of a chessboard and pacts made in whorehouses than through the battlefield –though war is forced more than once due to multiple claims on the throne.
Meanwhile, the house Targaryen has been usurped and the final member of the royal family has been banished to the mainland-where she learns what it truly means to be the Mother of Dragons. It has been generations since the last time Winter has fallen across Westeros, and it will be another generation before the summer shall be seen again. All the while, the forgotten dangers of the north creep ever closer to a land that has transformed said dangers into the murk of history and legend. The true joy in this series is in the many, many different story lines that Martin is able to maintain with great ease.
Martin has taken the genre by storm with his Song of Ice and Fire series. While this series is lengthy, the reading level is surprisingly attainable for many novice fantasy readers. George R.R. Martin has a very easily legible text, without the extra frills and embellishments that usually crop up when reading this genre. This series is more character and plot driven than by the actual world it inhabits. Expect to fall in love with the procession of seemingly endless denizens of the Seven Kingdoms, and then proceed to get your heart ripped out with every succeeding death. Martin certainly pulls no punches with the death and violence in The Song of Ice and Fire, and no one is guaranteed survival whether they be kitchen boys or kings.
This series is truly character driven, and while some are much more interesting than others, all of the characters are richly created and drive the plot ever forward. For those of you who want to binge read this series and get caught up, beware. The series is not yet finished and Martin himself has announced that he doesn’t know when the next book will be written. It’s best to savor these for as long as they will last-the story is truly one to revel in. For more on the current audiobooks in the Song of Ice and Fire series, see our reviews for: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen Series by Steven Erikson
Set in the titular Malazan Empire, this ten book series is something unique and unconventional for even the most seasoned fantasy fan. Reading in an almost unorganized format, author Steven Erikson charges ahead with his story, leaving little room for clarifications or explanations. Plot clues and details are woven in early and without foreshadowing, allowing the reader to gain insights in early chapters that don’t fully reveal themselves until full chapters or even books later.
While this could lend itself towards being confusing, the style is very original and unlike anything else I’ve seen in the genre. Fans of character driven stories with much internal speculation and reflection on behalf of the characters will love this series. You get an up close and personal window into the minds of characters as different as day and night.
The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan
Moirane must find the Dragon Reborn, or all hope will be lost. Without the Dragon, the world will fall to Shai’tan in the Last Battle. Unable to determine which of the young men in Emond’s Field are the Dragon, she takes three young viliage boys and attempts to make her way to the Aes Sedai so that they can be trained for their destiny. Right from the beginning of the series, Jordan gives his readers an intricate tapestry of rich color and life.
This massive, fourteen book series is a true gem in the epic fantasy world. While it follows a typical plot-line where one unlikely man has to face his destiny and battle an evil overlord to save the world or face its eternal damnation-Jordan manages to do so much more than the norm in the process. Curiously, the story takes place both in the past and future and encompasses an entire world instead of just one man. His writing depicts the very best and very worst of human nature. The title itself reflects the intelligence of the series and depicts the ever turning cycle of power between evil and good. This is truly one of the best series that you will hope to read and it is honestly one of the greatest literary pieces in the entire genre.
Robert Jordan is the pen name of James Oliver Rigney, an American author with a host of other pseudonyms and books. Many speculate that his experiences in the Navy during the Vietnam War have inspired several themes in his body of work including the pressure to conform to those in power, and doing what is right despite orders to do otherwise. Unfortunately, Robert Jordan passed away before he could finish the series. Rather than leaving it incomplete, the Wheel of Time Series was completed by Brandon Sanderson. You can learn more about the Wheel of Time series by reading our reviews of The Eye of the World and A Memory of Light.
The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
The Kingkiller Chronicles is a trilogy set in the Four Corners of Civilization and is comprised of mainly four different kingdoms or realms. This series is unique in that it is intended to read as the main character Kvothe telling his own story to the “Chronicler”.
The story flips between the present where Kvothe is recalling the story, and the past where it switches into Kvothe’s direct experiences. This was really cool for me and though you lose the mystery of what is going to happen to him (obviously he will survive any peril that comes at him because he’s alive to tell his own story…) you also get probably the best sense of an individual character that I’ve ever heard. This show is mostly a one man show with good reason because Kvothe has to be one of my favorite characters ever. However, we do get occasional looks into other characters through their various stories and shorts which I also really liked.
The story begins, as stories often do, with Kvothe’s childhood. He knew hardship from a young age, as an orphaned street urchin struggling to get by and working with a traveling troupe of players. While that alone could have been much food for thought, it isn’t enough for this ambitious youngster. His quest has been a long, varied, and tumultuous one. Along with the accolades on his belt of rescuing a princess, attending University (and being expelled from it), talking to gods, and writing songs…he also has darker accomplishments as well. Burning down the town of Trebon was both a blessing and a curse, and no matter where he goes, he may never escape the nickname of Kingkiller. For more about The Kingkiller Chronicles, see our reviews of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Ambercrombie
Revolving around the lives of a rabble of characters you wouldn’t expect, the First Law Trilogy is UK writer Joe Ambercrombie’s debut series, but most definitely reads like an offering from a seasoned veteran. Logen Ninefingers, barbarian, northerner, and possessor of the berserker-rage, struggles to distance himself from his bloody past. He circles the world speaking with the very few primal spirits left in a world being slowly leeched of its magic.
Other main characters Jezal, a nobleman, and Glokta, the torturer, all have their own agendas to meet and will do so at any cost. War abounds between nations and our rag-tag group has to work through their venomous hate for each other in order to find a weapon to defeat the evil lurking behind the Empire’s façade.
The humor in this book is sharp and wicked, causing me to cackle with laughter in one moment, even while the biting humor is being used to completely tear down and ruin another character. That sounds mean, but there’s a shameless quality to the characters that is refreshing and almost fun without being intentionally trite or careless. While introspection abounds in fantasy as characters struggle to find out if they are good enough, strong enough to tackle evil…none of that applies to these characters. Each person is unashamed of who they are, and practically revels in their own personality so smugly it’s unbelievable.
A perfect blend of wit and power, Joe Ambercrombie is one to watch if you enjoy a different side of the epic fantasy genre, one charged with barbarians, cripples, slaves, and swordsmen all with more personality than 1000 kings and princes combined. Don’t expect these people to be overly concerned with being heroes or with sacrificing for the greater good. No-everyone is out for themselves and that is what makes this series such a bloody, dark, and wonderfully cynical good time.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
The one true world is Amber, no matter how many infinite reflections and possible worlds co-exist alongside it. Only those with Amberite blood, royal blood, can navigate these shadow worlds and use them to their advantage. However the power has gone to the royal family’s heads, causing those self-same heads to roll as jealousies and petty rivalries build and the king goes missing. Yet the king’s successor has lost his memory and is awash in a sea of confusion. Getting to see things through the prince’s eyes was absolutely brilliant. As he makes his recovery, we get to ride along on his journey of self-discover-a very clever way to inject world-building without making the story drag!
While many series settle for one world, Zelazny takes on infinite worlds all with different properties and values. That feat is impressive in its own right, but it’s almost more impressive when the pace of the series takes you on such a ride that you barely notice the time passing until it’s all over. With so many worlds, so much backstory needed, you would expect the story to drag but it never does. Themes varied from the existence of reality and madness, to coming to terms with your destiny, and discovering a true path in life. The action is constant and I am flabbergasted again and again at how well the plot ties together, takes massive turns, and then smashes forward again as you see beautiful cities, peaceful realms, and then horrific wastelands all flashing before your eyes.
The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
In the Final Empire, a world perpetually darkened by the ashes of nearby volcanoes, the fiery landscape has built a hardened civilization that is deeply divided by the ability to use magic or not. The magical system called Allomancy is one of the most unique I’ve ever read. Allomancers actually ingest the metals that they then burn to give them special powers. How gross, cool, and different!
The Mistborn are the only true masters of this magic, being able to burn every metal and use the powers within in any way they choose. Vin is our hero, and she’s actually a good guy! She doesn’t struggle with what is right and wrong, she knows it and though she is herself flawed, you don’t have to worry about her flipping and turning evil at the first chance he gets. This is actually one of the first series I’ve found that truly does an excellent job of making the female lead into a strong, robust heroine that could actually take on the heroes of neighboring novels.
While Brandon Sanderson is best known in fantasy circles for being the author to finish Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, his own works are in my opinion some of the best the genre has to offer. The plot is tight for all three books, culminating in satisfying and intriguing finales for all three, instead of dreaded cliffhangers that leave you full of angst and sorrow. The Nebraska native currently teaches Creative Writing at university-sign me up! – and still finds the time to churn out at least two books a year, usually more.
The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
Roshar is a world ravaged by storms and stone and used to hardship. While the Knights Radiant have fallen centuries ago, their Shardblades and Shardplates are commodities of the most valuable-worth killing thousands for the right to possess. Each blade or piece of armor grants its owners near insurmountable powers which are absolutely necessary to maintain power in this rough and desperate world. Wars for land and titles ravage the Shattered Plains and it is there we first meet one of our heroes, Kaladin. Though multiple characters come into play, Kaladin is one of the major players and it’s up to him and a rag-tag group of others to ensure that the Knights Radiant rise again.
One of the better aspects of this series, aside from great imagery and characters, is that the class system is so unique and well defined. There are classes divided by eye color, and ten different ranks of knights to choose from, all painting an amazing picture of this world and how it works. Sanderson is so creative with his powers as well. These aren’t the run of the mill powers like fire or control of the dead. They include the likes of Abrasion and Progression, Cohesion and Tension, and many others, all with unique uses in the everyday world. I could have spent decades among all of the classes and knights just learning their varied powers and how they could be applied!
While the series tends to be scarce on the mythical creatures, it has a host of powerful races of human who help shape the battles for the kingdom. While the desolation of the environment in Roshar might not be very hospitable, this is one world I would be thrilled to find myself in. Brandon Sanderson continues to prove himself to be the best new addition to the fantasy canon this generation. Discover more about The Stormlight Archive series with our reviews of The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance.
The Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks
No list of fantasy greats would be complete without Terry Brooks. An American writer born in the middle of the Second World War, his prolific career has spanned over five decades and has paved the way for many of today’s modern fantasy authors. For over four decades now, Terry has been creating book after book of amazing worlds, fantastic creatures, and plots that send you over the edge. Set in the Four Lands, this series follows Shea Ohmsford, among others, on his quest to wield the Sword of Shannara and to defeat the evil magic that threaten the kingdoms.
Many of the over-arching themes of the series can be found within Shea’s own personality as he searches for a meaning within himself and struggles to be a strong and confident leader. The series continues to progress around the lives of various Ohmsford’s, including Shea’s grandson Wil, and great-grandchildren Jair and Brin. A cool fact about the series is that it is supposed to actually be set in our world, centuries after any known civilization that we know of was destroyed in some sort of nuclear apocalypse. The effects of this apocalypse can be seen in some of the aspects of the Four Lands, and helps to shape the rough, gritty landscape that people now live in.
Broken Empire Series by Mark Lawrence
The Broken Empire is another fantasy set in the future of our broken world. Radiation leftover from whatever apocalypse destroyed the known world (the world of “the Builders”) is a constant danger in the old ruins. Many fragments of our world remain, from distorted names like Vyene for Vienna, and others make this a fun game in spotting the ancient relics. It was fascinating to have the skeleton of our world provide the building blocks of the Broken Empire.
Dark fantasy is a type of fantasy that brings the blood and violence to the extreme. Typically the descriptions are very graphic, both of sex and of battles or death. The tone of such pieces can be described as gritty, meaning that the plots and themes come off as rather hopeless, somber, and bleak compared with similar novels.
The hero is also far from your average golden boy who’s striving for good. Anti-heroes that you align with simply because they are there, and certainly not because of their mortal fiber, are the norm in dark fantasy. Jorg is a textbook anti-hero, and he isn’t just imperfect…he’s a horrible human being. Sometimes you can’t tell if you love Jorg, or love to hate him, but he is who he is and you just have to learn to enjoy the base nature of the character if you want to be happy with the story! Very few authors are as successful in their endeavors with dark fantasy as is Mark Lawrence.
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Young FitzChivalry is not your average run of the mill hero. He’s not a prince or a mage, but a bastard held in low esteem at court and an embarrassment to his noble relations. The King makes him apprentice to the Royal Assassin, having the knowledge and wisdom to understand even a bastard’s worth. However, Fitz still has many enemies, including the ambitious Prince Regal. He sinks into the shadows to avoid certain death, becoming a shade of a person and using the freedom that brings to practice the forbidden magic of Wit. I loved the magic in this book, as it allows characters to magically bond with an animal and utilize their skills and powers as their own.
The Farseer is Robin Hobbs’s masterpiece. The prose is beautiful, flowing, and marvelous. Hobbs creates such depth in her characters that it’s more than impressive, it’s unbelievable. Animal characters even have personalities without coming across trite or insincere. This trilogy is a series that plays on the age-old concept of growing up, finding your place, and striving to be just in the face of adversary. FitzChivalry is a great unexpected hero with a fascinating skill set that includes both assassination and the magical bond with a wolf that, though it marks him as less than human, also gives him a great source of insight and power. Better still, Chivalry makes mistakes-sometimes drastic ones. He’s not the kind of hero that is holier-than-thou, or marked with goodness from the beginning.
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
A series typically spoken of as a young adult, the Inheritance Cycle offers just as much depth and character development as any adult series, and in this listener’s opinion, does a better job with the imagery than many of its adult counterparts. Eragon is a young boy who never expected to do great things, but his plans for his future are destroyed when he finds a beautiful blue egg in the forest while hunting and becomes the youngest dragon rider in history and the only new dragon rider in a hundred years. He is forced from his home and embarks on a journey fraught with peril, love, glory, and death. His dragon Sapphira is his constant companion and friend-and the pair’s choices along the way will seal the fate of Alagleasia.
The depth and complexity of the world building of Alaglaesia can be seen as even more impressive when you consider that Christopher Paolini wrote and published the first book Eragon when he was only 15 years old. Expect to find new and unexpected creatures in this series, as well as many twists that will have you falling out of your seat in agony or triumph. The story has an impeccable history and the magic system is unique and very well built up using complex language systems. Throughout the series you learn not just about Eragon and the Dragon Riders, but all of the creatures of this world from the Dwarves, to the Urgals, to the Elves. You can find out more with our reviews of all four books in The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance.
Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles Series by Michael J. Sullivan
Mankind is the dominant force in Riyria, and has been for an age or more of recent memory. The elves, long ago enslaved, are now free but still live in filth and are the definite under class. The world is divided by kingdom and race, and many squabbles dominate a once great Empire.
It’s hard to call them heroes, but the two main characters Royce and Hadrian are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and unfortunately a series of events is set into motion that leads them to unknown places with drastic mysteries and alarming situations, all culminating with a surprising twist of fate that renders unimaginable changes on this broken world. Individualized plots move each of the six segments of the story forward and allow us to get views into the hearts and minds of multiple characters at once.
The Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles were originally self-published as a six novel series, but when Orbit took over rights, the publisher re-issued the books as a two-trilogy set. You can read these in either order, as Chronicles are meant to be a prequel to Revelations, but can be read before or after. While there is a major over-arching storyline, I find that each book can be read on their own and have an amazingly tight plot that wraps up nicely at the end of each book. This series is easy to read, very funny, and have a much more lighthearted feel than many other series on this list. This is pure traditionalist fantasy with all the tropes of kings and beggars, urchins and wizards. You won’t find any graphic sex here and although there is violence, it is much less gruesome than say, George R.R. Martin’s work.
Raven’s Shadow Series by Anthony Ryan
A young boy banished from his familial wealth and forced to train as a member of the Sixth Order-the fighting class. From a young and tender age, Vaelin Al Sorna is trained as a warrior of the faith, and grows into a strong and passionate fighter. Called Hope Killer, the blood song sings in his veins and allows his blows to be deadly, his stroke sure.
The world battles for power, and though some battles may be lost or won on the fields of death, others battles must be fought Themes rotate heavily around the religious orders of society and also take into account matters of loyalty and who is capable of being trusted. The faiths in this series vary from the obviously insane, to the insidiously dedicated faithful whose sole purpose seems to be fighting in the name of their religion.
This is the British author’s debut fantasy series and critics have taken to him by storm. It is Ryan’s stylization and unique choices that set this series apart. The gritty and realistic settings, impressively terrifying court politics, lots of betrayal and tons of action set the tone for what will surely shape up to be a fantastic and prolific career for Mr. Anthony Ryan. Catch up on the first two audiobooks in the Raven’s Shadow series by reading our reviews of Blood Song and Tower Lord.
Gentleman Bastard Series by Scott Lynch
Forget Ocean’s 11, the Gentleman Bastard series takes organized con artists to an entirely different level. The titular bastards are a group of conmen, elite in their skills and dodgy with their pasts but wonderfully table mannered. They are a sort of band of Robin Hoods, stealing mainly from the rich of the Therin Throne Empire and the fractured realms that comprise it.
The series mainly follows Locke Lamora over the course of two decades, as well as interspersing historical fragments about the foundation of the group, and the cities which each of the books is set. Locke was a very cool character, and because he is the sole focus (for the most part) you get a laser focused concept of his character and what makes him tick. The Gentleman Bastards is a fun and wonderfully solidified group of ruffians that makes you want to cheer for the thieves and hold the law in contempt.
Currently there are only three books out, but Scott Lynch has been slated for a full seven and reports that there will most likely be a number of sequels and spin offs set in the same world. Though the series is Lynch’s first, it was immediately picked up by Orion Books upon completion of the first book. The American native has a very active presence on his blogs and social media much to the delight of his fans.