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10 Iconic Fantasy Novels Ripe for Rediscovery


10 Iconic Fantasy Novels Ripe for Rediscovery

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10 Iconic Fantasy Novels Ripe for Rediscovery

Someone please adapt these immediately.


Published on March 4, 2024

Photo by Dastan Khdir [via Unsplash]

Photograph of multiple stacks of paperback books

Photo by Dastan Khdir [via Unsplash]

Recently, there have been a bunch of adaptations of classic science fiction and fantasy books from previous decades. Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1985) and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989) were all formative books (and comics) I read as a young genre enthusiast and it’s fun to see a new generation of readers rediscover them through their respective shows.

It got me thinking about other books I read around the same time, books that are in conversation with fantasy being written today (including by me, something I’ve been considering as I finished writing The Prisoner’s Throne). Here are my top ten. Someone please adapt these immediately.

It’s worth noting that these books were written in a different time and even though some of them were progressive when they were published, they might not seem that way now. The Story Graph is a good resource for user-generated content warnings. Proceed at your own risk.

Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge (1988)

Book cover of Catspaw by Joan D Vinge

Cat, an orphan and telepath, gets dragged into a job he’s not so sure about, guarding a high-powered world leader who isn’t all that enthusiastic about him either. Soon Cat finds himself attempting to solve big important mysteries while fighting off boredom and having feelings about people. One of my early literary crushes – c’mon, he has cat eyes and his name is Cat and he sulks a lot and is part alien – I still remember this book with immense fondness. And despite all the reader pleasures Vinge made part of Cat’s character, the cyberpunk-esque world she built for him to move through is realistically awful and the outcomes are neither easy nor tidy. This is the middle book in a three book series, so there’s an argument for reading Psion first, but this is the one I remember best.

READ THIS IF: You love an outcast hero and/or have ever worn cat ears (even if it was just on Halloween).

Tales From the Flat Earth / Night’s Master by Tanith Lee (1978)

Book cover of Night's Master by Tanith Lee

These are a little like someone wrote erotic, jewel-like version of Bible stories, but about demons and monstrous gods and terrible people. There are more books in this series (Death’s Master, Delusion’s Master, and Delirium’s Mistress – all concerning a different Lord of Darkness), but the first one focuses on the demon lord Azhrarn, called “Azhrarn the beautiful,” who is the absolutely worst and also canonically irresistible. Lee’s writing is gorgeously ornate and her stories are surprising, strange, and straddle the line between fantasy and horror. Exploring desire, wickedness, immortality, and immorality, this is an immersive, gothic master work. I cannot emphasize how hard I imprinted on these or how many times I read them. 

READ THIS IF: You have a skull decoration anywhere in your house or if you love me – not my work, me, personally.

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)

Book cover of Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Richard St Vier is the finest swordsman-for-hire in a society where the elite use duels to settle disputes. He’s got a boyfriend, Alec, who spends his days drinking, gambling, and getting into potentially lethal trouble. Across town, on the Hill, Michael Godwin takes up the sword even though that’s not precisely a thing a young nobleman ought to do. When the three of them find themselves at the center of a political struggle and their secrets spill out, the moves that follow are genuinely surprising, moving, and delightfully clever. Called “a melodrama of manners,” this book adds swashbuckling to the novel of manners with a bit of courtroom drama to boot, but the charming dialogue and sharp writing is the reason I re-read it regularly. Only fantasy in the sense that this all takes place in a secondary world, Swordspoint remains a book that feels unlike any other.

READ THIS IF: You love clever dialogue, wished the characters in Downton Abbey would stab one another, or enjoy when a bad boyfriend has an even worse boyfriend. 

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock (1972)

Book cover of Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

Elric is the sickly, bone-white, crimson-eyed last emperor of the Melnibonéans. They are a dwindling decadent and cruel race, separate from humanity, and seemingly without any empathy. They have stuff like a throne cut from a single ginormous ruby and musical entertainment made of people basically screaming. Elric is not into it, which puzzles his subjects and convinces his cousin Yyrkoon to plot to usurp him. But Elric has two things on his side – the sword, Stormbringer, which must be fed with souls, and Arioch, Lord of Chaos and Duke of Hell, to whom he pledges himself. Neither have his best interests at heart. What follows is a lot of adventuring, plenty of swords and sorcery, and aaaaaallllll the death. Moorcock wrote lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and Hawkwind and has a deep dislike for Winnie the Pooh — that’s what you’re getting into here. This is also the book my husband gave me when we met in our teens and its aesthetic that has clearly influenced my idea of the decadence and cruelty in Faerie.

READ THIS IF: There’s a heavy-metal soundtrack playing in your head at all times or a voice telling you to kill everything you love. 

Nifft the Lean by Michael Shea (1982)

Book cover of Nifft the Lean by Michael Shea

A novel that is really composed of four stories, this tells the story of master thief, Nifft, and the completely bizarre trouble he gets into. Unlike the others on this list, I read Nifft as an adult at the behest of Cassie Clare and two of her long-time friends who can all recite the entire poem “Something Unspeakable Followeth Me” from one of the sequels (spoiler: it’s a very large spider). You can see the influence of an even older classic, the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, on Nifft, but Shea’s work is more violent, more strange, and more full of monsters. Like, at one point, a giant bee eats a guy’s head.

READ THIS IF: You are on a lot of psychedelics right now. Oh, or if you want to guess one of Cassandra Clare’s passwords.

Jack, the Giant Killer by Charles de Lint (1987)

Book cover of Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint

A contemporary retelling of Jack the Giant Killer starring Jackie Rowan, who gets drunk one night and is able to see between worlds, into Faerie. After spotting the Wild Hunt on motorcycles, she’s dragged into a conflict between the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts, one in which she emerges as Jack – a trickster figure who, with her friends, saves the day. This is one of the seminal urban fantasy classics by one of the people who created urban fantasy as we know it today. This was also one of the books that massively shaped my idea of Faerie in the modern world. When I met Charles and he said he’d read and liked my first book, I burst into tears. As opposed to so many of the other selections, this is a gentle book, one in which kindness matters as does making real connections.

READ THIS IF: You love faeries, cozy fantasy, or need an antidote after reading one of the other books on this list.

Shards of Honor / Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)

Book cover of Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cordelia Naismith, the Betan captain of a survey ship, winds up stuck on a planet with Captain Lord Aral Vorkosigan, the Barrayarean “Butcher of Komarr.” They have some excellent enemies-to-lovers energy – neither trust one another, and even after they do, he still maintains the artifice of taking her prisoner, while also asking for her hand in marriage. I read this packaged with its direct sequel Barrayar in a bind-up called Cordelia’s Honor and while Barrayar was published in 1991 and is therefore out of my self-imposed limit of 1990, you one-thousand percent want to read these together. It has one of the greatest bangers of an ending I’ve ever read. Also these lead directly into the much-beloved Miles Vorkosigan saga.

READ THIS IF: You watch space opera or play video games set on distant planets and wish there were more prickly, tense romances between badasses.

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970)

Book cover of Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Waking up from a coma with amnesia, Prince Corwin struggles to remember who and what he is – one of the godlike heirs in competition to rule the throne of Amber, a “true” world of which Earth is only a shadow. There’s lots of delicious worldbuilding, some fun mixing of 70s slang and archaic speech, and devious swashbuckling to boot. This book was so widely and deeply beloved that one of my best friends even had a younger brother named Corwin, after the prince.

READ THIS IF: You loved Song of Ice and Fire and want some more family drama, this time across worlds.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)

Book cover of Drafonflight by Anne McCaffrey

The first of the Dragonriders of Pern series features a feral girl named Lessa whose entire family was murdered by a guy named Fax before he took over the family Hold. She’s dreaming of revenge while using her telepathic abilities to help her stay hidden. She gets her chance when a few dragonriders arrive looking for a woman who can bond to (“impress”) a queen dragon while still in the shell. Though it has fantasy trappings, this meant to be a science fictional universe — the dragons are necessary to destroy the “thread” that comes from the sky and will otherwise turn the world barren, plus there’s time travel, which I absolutely will not explain. Lessa is able to use her powers to push F’lar into a duel with Fax – one that leads F’lar to kill him. But it also leads F’lar to realize what she did and drag her off to attempt to bond with the golden dragon that’s about to hatch. There is a lot of fun in the journey of a powerless, filthy, and conniving protagonist moving into a position of authority and despite the weirdness around dragon mating triggering sex between people, I have always loved Lessa for her sheer viciousness.

READ THIS IF: You love feral girl vengeance or enjoyed Fourth Wing and want some of the original bonded-to-dragon action.

Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip (1974)

Book cover of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Lyrical and poignant, this is the story of Sybel who lives in the forest with a group of majestic and strange beasts (the huge black Cat Moriah, the blue-eyed falcon Ter, the gold-pelted Lyon Gules ,just to name three) collected by her sorcerous forbearers. She is cold and withdrawn, caring nothing for other people until she is given a baby to raise by Coren of Sirle. But when Tamlorn is taken from her, and she begins to understand the wages of power, she plans a revenge that will cost her heart. McKillip’s dream-like prose makes all of the emotions feel sharp, clear and true.

READ THIS IF: You’re here for the vibes, but also for ladies who make mistakes.


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Holly Black


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