Epic fantasy is one of the most popular and one of the biggest subcategories of the fantasy genre. Books categorized as epic fantasy usually include the following features: vast worlds, a large cast of characters, complex themes, quests, and (to some extent) magic.
High fantasy is often used interchangeably with epic fantasy. While there are some crossovers between the two, high fantasy tends to be more character-driven rather than being centered around the story’s events. High fantasy stories also tend to have well-established magic systems. Like epic fantasy, high fantasy typically involves a quest of some sort. However, quests in high fantasy are a major component of the given story, with the characters’ choices holding significant influence.
Now that you have a solid understanding of what characterizes an epic fantasy (or high fantasy) story, here are seven of the greatest epic fantasy series ever written!
THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY BY J.R.R. TOLKIEN
The Elven-smiths forged the Rings of Power during ancient times, but Sauron crafted the One Ring, filled with his dark power that could control all the other Rings. After the One Ring was taken from him, Sauron sought it throughout all of Middle-earth, but never recovered it.
After many, many years, the Ring came into the possession of Bilbo Baggins, whose fascinating story is told in The Hobbit. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo asks his nephew Frodo to embark on a perilous journey and complete an enormous task. Frodo must journey to the Cracks of Doom, across Middle-earth, to destroy the Ring (and defeat Sauron) forever. Along the way, Frodo and his companions will overcome risky obstacles, meet unforgettable creatures and people, and discover as much about themselves as they discover about Middle-earth, its magic, and inhabitants.
This classic, beloved, and (perhaps the most) famous epic fantasy trilogy begins with The Fellowship of the Ring.
(If you’ve already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, check out this guide on how to read more of Tolkien’s works!)
THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE BY BRANDON SANDERSON
Roshar is a world where bizarre, violent storms have altered the landscape and thus civilization. Nature shies away from the harsh conditions, while cities are built only where the land is favorable.
The consecrated Knights Radiant fell centuries ago, yet their Shardplate and Shardblades still exist: “mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors.” These artifacts hold immense power: men trade kingdoms for them, while wars were fought over (and won by) them.
One of these wars rages on land known as the Scattered Plains, where Kaladin resides. He was demoted to slavery after trading his apprenticeship for a spear to guard his younger brother. The war involves ten armies fighting independently against one enemy. Kaladin does his best to save his men and comprehend the leaders “who consider them expendable.”
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin is a commander over one of the armies. He is enraptured with an ancient text entitled The Way of Kings, as was his late brother. Kholin begins to question his sanity after he’s overcome with powerful visions about the ancient times and the Knights Radiant.
On the other side of the sea, Shallan wishes to train under an esteemed scholar and “notorious heretic,” Jasnah (Kholin’s niece). Shallah’s love for learning is genuine, but her underlying motives are not. While planning a risky theft, she undertakes research that suggests secrets the Knights Radiant possessed, as well as the real cause of the war.
Claimed to be one of Sanderson’s greatest works, the Stormlight Archive saga begins with The Way of Kings.
THE WHEEL OF TIME SERIES BY ROBERT JORDAN
“Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is a story that takes place both in our past and our future. In his fantasy world, the Dark One, the embodiment of pure evil, is breaking free from his prison. The overall plot is about a man who learns that he is the reincarnation of the world’s messiah and is once again destined to save the world from the Dark One — but possibly destroy it in the process. This saga is not only his story, but the story of an entire world’s struggle to deal with war and change, destruction and hope.”
After Robert Jordan passed away in 2007, Brandon Sanderson completed The Wheel of Time series. The series begins with The Eye of the World.
THE POPPY WAR SERIES BY R.F. KUANG
Rin surprised everyone around her when she aced the Keju, “the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies.” The test officials were in disbelief when an orphan passed the test without cheating. Rin’s guardians were prepared to marry her off and “further their criminal enterprise.” Yet, Rin was the most surprised out of everyone; she could not finally be rid of the despair and servitude that defined her life. Above everything else, she made it into Sinegard, Nikan’s most prestigious military school. However, these surprises aren’t necessarily favorable.
At Sinegard, Rin struggles with her identity as a “dark-skinned peasant girl from the south,” outcast for her gender, color, and poverty. While at the school, Rin discovers her power for shamanism. Rin explores this “nearly-mythical” ability with the assistance of a “seemingly insane” teacher and “psychoactive substances.” Rin learns the gods she originally believed to be dead are actually “very much alive.” Even more so, Rin realizes achieving mastery over her powers holds greater meaning than just simply passing school.
Rin’s shamanic abilities may be the only chance of saving her people from a potential Third Poppy War. The Federation of Mugen occupied her nation after the First, and barely lost its hold after the Second. The more Rin learns about the god who chose her, the Phoenix, the more she realizes that winning the war might cost more than her humanity…and that she may already be too late.
The Poppy War is the first book in the series.
CHRONICLES OF THE WOLF QUEEN BY K.S. VILLOSO
“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”
Queen Talyien represented the legacy and a paradigm of the brutal War of the Wolves, a conflict which almost broke her nation. The promise of peace comes when she is arranged to marry a son from a rival clan. However, he vanishes before their reign begins, further severing the kingdom.
Years after he vanishes, this son sends a note to Talyrien, asking her to meet with him. Talyien embarks on the long journey, hoping to rectify things between them. Her hopes are jeopardized after the occurrence of an assasination attempt. Talyien must now “embrace her namesake” after she is stranded on a foreign land, unsure of who she can trust.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the first book in the series.
THE MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN TRILOGY BY TAD WILLIAMS
The land of Osten Ard is about to be consumed by a war “fueled by the dark powers of sorcery.” The High King, Prester John, is on his deathbed. His death will lead to the Storm King (“the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi”) trying to reclaim his lost realm when the new king ascends the throne. Aware of what might befall with this bargain, the king’s younger brother unites with a “small, scattered group of scholars” (the League of the Scroll) to face the real dangers that threaten Osten Ard.
Simon is merely a kitchen boy in the royal castle. He’s “unknowingly” apprenticed to the League, and must embark on a quest “that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power.” Simon will leave behind the only home he knows and face enemies more horrific than Osten Ard has ever faced before, all while the land begins to die.
Tad Williams’ epic trilogy begins with The Dragonbone Chair.
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE BY GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
“Winter is coming” are the words of House Stark, the northernmost fiefdom in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Eddard Stark sits as Lord of Winterfell with his wife Catelyn, their five children, and Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow. Far north, beyond the Wall, is where the Wildlings and more terrifying creatures live- “unnatural” beings whose existence seems to lie only in myths and legends, but are proving to be much too real and deadly as the seasons turn.
To the south, a more pressing threat arises when Jon Arryn, Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon, dies under suspicious circumstances. King Robert rides to Winterfell with a monumental request for Ned. Accompanying him are his queen Cersei, their three children, and Cersei’s brothers Jaime (the “Kingslayer”), and Tyrion (a clever, but often-drunk dwarf). This meeting between Ned and Robert will forever change the history of the Seven Kingdoms.
Across the Narrow Sea dwells Prince Viserys Targaryen and his younger sister Daenerys. As the heir to the fallen House Targaryen, Viserys will do anything he must to claim his father’s throne and kill the ones who stole it from him. He will use Daenerys as his pawn in his plans by marrying her to the head of Dothraki: Khal Drogo. Before long, Daenerys will surprise Viserys (and herself) by not only demonstrating her underlying strength and determination, but also by embodying the words of House Targaryen: “Fire and Blood.”
A Song of Ice and Fire begins with A Game of Thrones.
Note: A Song of Ice and Fire is also often classified as low fantasy. However, due its many characters, vast world, and inclusion of dragons, giants, direwolves, Melisandre’s dark powers, and Others (aka White Walkers), I am including it in this list.