By guest writer Isabella Brotchie

I recently started reading Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice for the first time. As a self-proclaimed die-hard fantasy fan, some would call me blasphemous for not having read her books sooner. To those people I beg forgiveness and extend the following olive branch: I was wrong, they’re amazing.

Robin Hobb shows incredible Skill (*wink*) in every facet of her books, from worldbuilding to magical detail, the words seem to flow effortlessly across the page. But the truly exceptional feature is her characterisation of Fitz.

Time and time again we see good writers fail to capture the voice of youth, falling into the trap of either babying their protagonist or more often, placing an adult mind in a child’s body. But not Hobb; she manages to create a young character whose voice is crystal clear and utterly true to themselves.

Now, halfway into the third book of the trilogy, I begin to wonder if this will be the series to finally supplant the hallowed pages of The Lord of the Rings from its place as my favourite series of all time. This has prompted me to wonder:

What exactly makes an “iconic” novel?

Is it simply about quality of writing? Or originality of concept? Or in Hobb’s case, depth of characterisation?

In an effort to define for myself this inherently undefinable concept, I thought I would revisit the fantasy novels that shaped my love for the genre and provide a short spoiler-free review as I try to dissect what made them so iconic. So, whether you’re a stalwart fan of the genre or looking to get into reading fantasy, I hope you enjoy my fantasy hall of fame.

N.B. For simplicity’s sake I will restrain this list to epic fantasy series, though if this post is well received, I am happy to follow up with more lists detailing urban fantasy or mythological/historical titles.

❃ Middle Grade ❃

His Dark Materials | Philip Pullman

As an out-spoken, tom-boyish little girl who was rarely spotted without her dogs about her, I completely imprinted on Lyra and her animal companion, Pantalaimon. This story takes place in a colourful parallel universe, where all people are bonded with an animal that represents their inner self. We follow Lyra, who, devoid of trustworthy authority figures, must embark on a perilous journey that may change the very fabric of her universe. Though this is marked as a middle-grade book, Pullman weaves enough interesting philosophical threads into the fabric of the narrative that it has much to offer older readers. 

The Chronicles of Narnia | C.S. Lewis

Vivid memories of falling in love with young Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian aside, these books are very rightly considered a classic in terms of children’s literature. Published in the 50s, this series had me poking around in the back of my parents’ old oak wardrobe in the desperate hope of finding a portal to a far-off magical world where animals can talk, and children can be heroes. It is worth noting that in hindsight, due to its strong Christian undertones, certain aspects of the narrative have not aged well, so modern readers should proceed with caution.

The Inheritance Cycle | Christopher Paolini

While this series did not achieve as much acclaim as the first two, I was utterly obsessed with this series as a kid. After all, what child doesn’t want to find a magical dragon’s egg in a forest and embark on an epic quest? Chock full of your typical fantasy characters, rereading this as an adult is admittedly cheesy and a little predictable but hey, Paolini was 15 when he published this – give him a break. 

❃ Young Adult ❃

Throne of Glass | Sarah J. Maas

I do not have enough good words to say about these books. I have reread this series more than any other and though I have enjoyed Sarah J. Maas’s newer material, her first remains my favourite. It begins with an abused assassin, enslaved for her crimes, being offered a chance to fight her way to freedom in a tournament against the kingdom’s best criminals. If that concept is not enough to hook you, the story develops into a sweeping narrative complete with epic battles, diabolical villains, and toe-curling romance. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favour and do so.

The Mortal Instruents | Cassandra Clare

Okay, so I know this probably counts as urban fantasy but hey it’s my list so hush. This series is a defining title of the YA-fantasy genre, that throws our lovely protagonist Clary into a magical world she never knew existed. Adventure and romance abound as Clary must battle the forces of evil as they threaten to overtake her city.

Six of Crows | Leigh Bardugo

Ben Barnes strikes again it seems. The wonderful new tv-show aside, this is the second series from Bardugo and follows a team of morally grey heroes as they navigate the seedy underbelly of Ketterdam and embark on possibly one of my favourite tropes of all time – the heist plot. The brilliance of this duology hangs on the team of characters, each crafted so deftly by Bardugo, that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

❃ Adult ❃

The Lord of the Rings | J.R.R. Tolkein

How does one even review Lord of the Rings? Since I cannot possibly have an original thought here, I shall leave you with this: if you have any inkling of wanting to explore reading fantasy novels, START HERE. Tolkien defined the genre and every single modern fantasy novel follows him.

The Song of Ice and Fire | George R.R. Martin

Another immensely popular title that you have no doubt heard of before. I was one of those annoying people who read the books before seeing the tv show and while I have a lot of love for the HBO production, I am a staunch fan of the books. People have criticised them for being long, overly convoluted, and nihilistic, seeming to pile inordinate amounts of hardship on our favourite characters for no apparent reason. Length I cannot argue with, these are leviathan books, but each word drives the narrative forward and Martin uses this space to explore the intricacies of bloodthirsty political manoeuvring and large-scale warfare in a way never before seen.

The Mistborn Saga | Brandon Sanderson

Commonly hailed as having one of the coolest magic systems ever seen in fantasy, Sanderson’s novel excels in every facet. Starting at the end, Mistborn opens on a world where Evil won the war and has been ruling for a thousand years as a god. The world is reduced to a barren wasteland where ash falls from the sky in place of rain, and it falls to a small team of rebels to free their people from misery. Mistborn also has one of the most heart-breakingly poignant endings to a trilogy I have ever read.

So, there you have it – my fantasy hall of fame. Feel free to disagree with my choices, they are a deeply personal and honest representation of the books that shaped my love of this genre. Though I will always have a place in my heart for these titles, as I continue to read more modern fantasy, I am heartened to see books that feature different voices (read: not straight white cis men), and can’t wait to see what more the genre has coming.

Who would you put in your fantasy HOF? Leave a comment!

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