Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
A heartbreaking tale of vengeance and politics, set in a world ruled by two rival sorcerers who invaded decades earlier. But revolution is coming – to free the conquered states, and restore memories that were magically stolen from the citizens of Tigana. This is a character-heavy book where everyone makes dubious choices & you can’t help loving them for it.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
One of my favourite books of all time. The world Carey builds here is sumptuous. It’s renaissance Europe, shaped by different religions and the occasional stroke of magic. Add brilliant characters - including the best (female) gentleman bastard I have ever read - along with court politics, betrayal, war... . This is epic fantasy at its best.
The Scar by China Mieville
Nautical fantasy, featuring pirates, a chaotic boat city, lots of politics and (of course!) a magical quest. The setting is amazing, but the main character is sullen & fractious translator who barely seems to notice it. I can’t sing its praises enough.
Bareback by Kit Whitfield
There isn’t much urban fantasy on this list, but this totally deserves to be here. The setting is Earth, but the majority of the population are werewolves. Lola isn’t. Discriminated against by wider society and bathed in bitterness about it, she works for an organisation that regulates moon nights and subsequently has extreme power over the werewolves in its system. Moving, despairing, and very interesting.
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
God, this book. You could enjoy it purely on the strength of its magic system; it’s very detailed, based on metals, and inordinately cool. However, it also comes with a strong cast of characters that make up a gang planning their biggest ‘heist’ in history: to overthrow the government, and to do it in style. I approve.
Darkfall by Isobelle Carmody
A portal fantasy about two Australian girls who are sucked into Keltor, a realm with a mysterious connection to Earth. The world they enter is fascinating – full of understated magic, religious unrest, and politicking – and the characters are compelling. The only problem with this book is that it was first published in 1991. Thirteen years later, the last book in the trilogy still hasn’t been released.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Another great novel about a city with many layers. This one is about London’s magical underworld, and a hapless businessman who gets trapped within it. London Below is a stunning and dangerous place (although I always think I’d appreciate it more if I had a better knowledge of London), plus the plot is fun, the ending satisfying. What more could you want?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
This delightful novel is about gentlemen and magic during the start of the 19th century in England. It’s full of dry & ridiculous humour, tangents and footnotes, and an inescapable upswell of magic. Also pineapples. Don’t forget the pineapples.
Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey
I tried not to put too many books on this book by Jacqueline Carey, I really did. But Banewreaker is a stunning novel. First of a duology, it’s frequently described as an epic tragedy: the Lord of the Rings retold from Sauron’s point of view. Which, yes. It is. It’s also beautifully written, with viewpoints flickering between the “good” and the “evil”. There is also a dragon. And magic. This is the kind of book that makes me remember why I love fantasy so much.
Ombria in Shadow by Patricia Mckillip
An amazing book that I just realised I need to reread. Ombria in Shadow is a beautiful novel, with an otherworldly, mythological quality that a lot of other fantasy lacks. The multilayered city of Ombria is endlessly interesting, and there’s plenty of political intrigue too.