There is no doubt that George RR Martin, Andrejz Sapkowski, Diana Gabaldon, C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and JK Rowling have all had significant impacts on the entire fantasy genre with their books. Primarily due to their popularity in television and movies but also because they can write compelling stories. I love their bodies of work, there is no doubt, but I wanted my list to include those authors who have also made an impact. I wanted to write about those who inspired me and made such an emotional impact on my life that they changed my perspective on the world and were a litmus test for great story-telling. From high fantasy to contemporary, these authors deserve all the accolades.
So, here they are in rank order, starting with number five:
#5 Jim Butcher: Contemporary Fantasy
Jim Butcher appeals to my desire to do my own thing even when all the cards are stacked against me. Which is no more true than in his most famous series.
A lot can be said about the Dresden series, but like my number two pick, there is just something about his characters that call to me. Set in a contemporary/urban fantasy setting, the different books explore all the facets of being an outlier in modern society. His main character, Harry Dresden, is a magician who finds his own niche in the world–not wholly human or a magician. Butcher weaves in views on politics and religion, belief and hard truths in a mystical Chicago both recognizable and illusive.
There are a few issues, like Harry being a little sexist (though he admits it) and a few of the later books in the series moving way too fast (seriously, the last two felt like an out-of-control bullet train). But overall, if you like fast-paced action, a hero who doesn’t fit in anywhere except a world of his own making, fights against the status quo at every turn, and characters who are larger than life, then Jim Butcher is the one you should look up to. https://www.jim-butcher.com/
#4 Erika Johanson: Contemporary Fantasy and Dystopian
I was first introduced to Erika Johansen in her Queen of the Tearling series. Both Fantasy and a Dystopian future woven together masterfully into a story about fighting for your future, love, and doing the right thing no matter what it costs.
The story opens on what could only be described as a scene straight out of high fantasy. A princess being taken back to her kingdom to rule, an enemy close on their heels. In an apparent drastic shift, it shows modern society breaking down in A Handmaid’s Tale type of chaos and control. It should be disorienting, but it is not. Johansen leaves the reader with a sense of wanting to know how these two somewhat disparate stories will come together.
And boy, does she bring them together. If you like amazing twists and heart-wrenching stories that bring out all the emotions, Erica Johansen is the author for you. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6953956.Erika_Johansen
#3 Raymond E. Feist: High Fantasy
My first venture into reading high fantasy was Tolkien and Lewis, but a quick third was Feist. He wrote several series in his Magician series and world. It also inspired off-shoots co-written with other authors. The world and stories are multi-generational and vast. His world-building is phenomenal and something to aspire to. Why his Riftwar Saga hasn’t been turned into a movie or series yet astounds me.
His portrayal of elves and dwarves, the battles of men, how cultures can completely misunderstand each other to the point of almost utter annihilation, and how the acts of one person can and do have an impact on the wider world, is both beautiful and damn near impossible to write without bringing current political and religious structures into it. But Feist does it and does it masterfully.
If you want to read a vivid world, populated by well-rounded characters who jump off the page, then pick up any of Raymond E. Feist’s extensive catalog–you won’t regret it. http://www.crydee.com/
#2 Ilona Andrews: Contemporary Fantasy
This husband and wife writing team are both creative and turns the urban/contemporary fantasy genre on its ear. All their series are witty, snarky, and full of characters you can’t help but root for. Somehow, they turn most of this subgenre’s tropes on its ear for a truly refreshing read. Do they use vampires, shifters, and fairies? Oh yeah, but they are nothing like what you would expect.
I was first introduced to their books through the Kate Daniels series. The first three were good and unique but by the fourth book, they hit their stride and took the term daddy issues to the next level. I have read this series numerous times, and that’s saying a lot.
If you want to laugh, cry, and escape reality for a while, pick up any of their series. There’s a reason they’re my number two on this list. https://www.ilona-andrews.com/
#1 Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical High Fantasy
I have never ugly cried more over a book than I did the first time I read this man’s Tigana. Heartwrenching and hopeful, he leaves all other authors in the dust when it comes to weaving a tale evoking the entire spectrum of emotion. It’s almost like he leaves a small piece of his soul in every story, and you feel it. Other authors want to be able to do this, but there is just something about the way he sets up a story, and then sucker punches you that very few writers will ever be able to accomplish. I think it’s because he pulls so much of his stories from our own ancient past that makes them so poignant. Only a few even have true magic like other high fantasy. His stories are a genre of their own.
The Lions of Al-Rassan, Ysabel, The Sarantine Mosaic, The Fionavar Tapestry, and so, so many more. These are all beautiful examples of a writer who can take masterful world-building, deep characterization, and complicated but well-drawn-out plots to such a level we could only hope to accomplish the same feat. https://brightweavings.com/
The next time you want a great fantasy read, be sure to check out any of the above authors. They are truly masters of the craft.
Denise Spain is the author of the Crossroads Series and is currently writing a variety of other books and novels. She loves creating adventures for her characters and readers alike. Whether it is surviving in some dystopian future or teaming up with Sasquatch and other mythical creatures, all her stories involve people discovering just how amazing they already are. Life and good storytelling should be about the fundamentals: living life to its fullest, love, and self-discovery.