A standalone novel to me is a book that is self-contained and independent, able to be understood and appreciated without the need to read anything else. Some fantasy novels are written to be a one shot, standalone story, while others started out as a self-contained adventure only to become the first part of a trilogy or a multi-part epic due to the obvious financial incentives to continue publishing stories set in the same universe. Be that as it may, however, both types of novels can be enjoyed without the need to read any other books written by said author. And those are the types of books this list tries to give examples of.
30) A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Quin
This is a classic fantasy from the 1960s that set the stage for fantasy tales to come. It is best described as a coming-of-age tale and focuses on a boy named Duny, who has an unusually high aptitude for learning and using magic. After saving his village from invaders, he is discovered by a wizard and begins traveling the lands learning his craft before finally enrolling in a school for wizards on Roke Island. Within no time, he is very advanced in his studies but makes a terrible blunder that unleashes a great evil upon the world. Fantasy fun ensues throughout. And yes, it does sound a lot like Harry Potter.
Alaric, a young minstrel with a talent for magic, roams the land in search of his fortune. The story follows him as he travels from locale to locale, attempting to find a new home but always remaining an outcast. There is not much intense action or violence here, but it is still a clever and thought-provoking, old school fantasy.
28) The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
The classic tale of Bastian Balthazar Bux, who is “found” by a copper-colored, silk-bound book titled The Neverending Story. Since he is locked up in his school’s attic, Bastian begins to read the story of the heroic Atreyu and his Great Quest to save the dying Childlike Empress and the world of Fantastica. Only later does Bastian discover he is also a character in the book! Great story that is fun to read no matter what your age.
27) The Paladin by CJ Cherryh
A tale of revenge and love as old as time itself. A young woman seeks out a great warrior to aid her in a quest for revenge against the murderers of her family. This man of legendary fighting ability wants nothing to do with her, because he has withdrawn from the world and wishes to be left alone, but the young woman is persistent and finally persuades him to help her in her honorable quest. Once thrown together, the young woman and older man become not only teacher and pupil but also inseparable lovers. Their dedication to one another more than enough to challenge any corrupt politicians determined to halt their goal of vengeance. Set in an oriental local, this is an excellent story.
26) The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
This is basically the legendary myth of King Arthur retold through the eyes and lives of the women. Certainly, the perspective of Morgaine, Guinevere, et cetera casts all the stories in a much different light, and for that reason, it is very interesting to see how women of the time period could have used their intellect as well as their charms to wield power from behind the throne. While this was labeled a feminist fantasy when it was published in 1982, today it probably would offend more modern feminist. However, The Mists of Avalon was a seminal fantasy novel and a must read for fans of the genre.
Nightfall–assassin, thief, swordsman, adventurer, and wielder of magic–has always evaded his pursuers, until he falls prey to a royal trap that leaves him bound by sorcery and oath to guard young Prince Edward on an epic quest. Naturally, the bitter, cynical Nightfall and the naive, idealistic Edward do not hit it off. Fun ensues from there. Think Hadrian and Royce from The Riyria Chronicles.
24) The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Young magician, Lerris, has a big problem. You see, he is unhappy with his safe, mundane life in the peaceful land of Recluce, which is a society based on order. Due to his discontentment, Lerris finds himself run a fowl of the caretakers of order and is given the standard two options: permanent exile from Recluce or the “dangergeld,” a complex, rule-laden “wanderjahr” in the lands beyond Recluce. Unfortunately, most do not survive their dangergeld, but Lerris chooses it anyway. A nice adventures begin thereafter.
23) The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
Aerin is the only child of Damar’s king and best friends with the heir to the throne, but her problem is that she is the daughter of her father’s second wife, who was viewed as a foreigner and perhaps a witch. After her royal Gift failed to appeared during puberty, Aerin gave up ever being a proper princess and turned her attention to adventuring. Then something miraculous occurred, for against all odds she and her trusty warhorse have become master dragon slayers! Wonderful – and short – adventure story about a female protagonist who does not need any man to save the day for her.
22)The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Pevensie children wander into a world where anthropomorphic animals are the norm and discover that Narnia is locked into a struggle between opposing forces of light and darkness represented by Aslan and the White Witch. Soon, the four children are caught up in this eternal conflict and find that they must decide which side to stand with. Okay, some fans label this as “children” or “beginners” fantasy, it really deserves to receive more love. Sure, kids love it, but it is more than just a children’s book — it was one of the groundbreaking fantasy works of the genre, has deeper philosophical themes within it as well as being an entertaining story set in a great fantasy world.
21) Bazil Broketail by Christopher Rowley
Bazil is a two ton battle dragon, sword champion of the Legion, and always ready for a fight. Relkin is his dragonboy. Together they are the leaders of the 109th dragon squad, fighting against almost godlike enemies and hordes of evil creatures who are determined to destroy the land of Argonath. During their running struggle to defeat this evil horde, a reader is entertained not just by the battles but also by Bazil and Relkin’s humorous relationship. A light and fun military fantasy novel.
20) Dragondoom by Dennis McKiernan
An epic tale set in the fantasy realm of Mithgar, focusing on the quest of Elyn and Thork to find the one weapon capable of killing the dragon Black Kalgalath. In order to finish their quest, our two unlikely allies must overcome not only numerous enemies but also their hatred of each other. The underlying story of understanding and acceptance by two people divided by eons of racial tensions makes this more than just another fantasy quest story. Give it a go.
19) Conan by Robert Jordan
I’m lumping all Jordan’s seven Conan novels into this spot. Each is a standalone tale, and I believe any one of them is richly deserving a spot on this list. Now, some people consider sword and sorcery fantasy to be nothing more than male, feel-good faire, but me personally, I look at them more like french fries from McDonalds. Are McD’s fries a gourmet meal? No. Are you going to get tired of them if you eat them every day? Sure. Are they really delicious occasionally? Absolutely. Sword and sorcery stories are just like that, and other than Robert E. Howard, Jordan’s Conan stories are the best. Give one a try — while eating your McDonald’s french fries.
18) Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold by Terry Brooks
Ben Holiday is a lawyer who finds little satisfaction in his work. On a lark, he answers an ad in a Christmas catalogue thinking it’s a joke, but instead of getting a laugh, Ben finds himself transported to the magical kingdom of Landover … and as it’s king no less! However, our erstwhile lawyer soon finds his new kingdom has its own share of problems. The Barons refuse to recognize him as king; the land has impoverished peasants; and he must fight to the death in a duel with the Iron Mask, the terrible lord of the demons–a duel which no human could hope to win. And Ben thought being a hated lawyer was bad. A light, entertaining fantasy novel.
17) Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook
A creepy house, a dying General, his strange but beautiful daughter, and a series of petty theft. Just the place our favorite fantasy P.I. for hire finds himself having to visit to pay off a debt owed to his old army sergeant. But naturally, once Garrett arrives, the small favor turns into a major job, because the simple investigation takes a turn for the worst with a hauntingly, beautiful spirit appearing and a series of unexplained murders breaking out. And the worst part is Garrett didn’t get paid a large enough up-front fee to cover all this! This is one of the best Garrett stories – if not the best – penned by Glen Cook. Highly recommend this one for a suspenseful fantasy read.
16) Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson
The story of Tiger and Del. Tiger is a legendary sword-dancer of the deserts, raised as a slave and having won his freedom by the skill of his blade. No man can stand against his sword skills nor any woman resist his charms — until he meets Del that is. For Del is from the icy north, trained by the greatest of Northern sword masters in their secretive, runesword magic, and nothing – not even Tiger – will get in the way of her quest to find the brother stolen from her five years before. How can these two co-exist and complete Del’s quest without killing one another? Read the book and see. It is told from Tiger’s point of view, and he is a very funny dude.
15) Mirage by Louise Cooper
Haven is a city which has long forgotten its glory. The never-ending war with the Sea People has ravaged not only its walls but its soul as well. The last hope for Haven is a specter called forth from the mists of time; one who is imbued with the spirit of the Sun Hound. But is this creature truly a savior? Only time itself and an inevitable battle will decide. Great, moody fantasy from an underappreciated writer.
14) The Master of White Stormby Janny Wurts
Haldeth, a blacksmith turned galley slave, joins his mysterious bench mate in a daring escape. Cast together by fate, the two men decide to strike out together. The mysterious man, Korendir, soon proves himself to be very focused on one thing: building an impregnable fortress on the cliffs of Whitestorm. Read the novel and find out why.
13) The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Yeah, I know it is part of a trilogy or series, but when the novel came out long ago, it was a standalone epic fantasy. Sure, this tale of Shea Ohmsford of peaceful Shady Vale is eerily familiar to The Lord of the Rings, even down to its own mysterious wizard – I mean druid named Allanon. Throw in a quest to obtain the Sword of Shannara, which can only be wielded by a true heir of Shannara, and some intense battles featuring classic good guys versus bad guys, and you have a near LOTR clone. But even with that being said, this novel is still a feel good fantasy worth a read.
12) Against the Horde/Legend by David Gemmell
Druss, Captain of the Axe, was a legendary warrior. The tales say he has never lost a battle, never been bested in combat, and never sacrificed his principles. But as the stories about his greatness grew, Druss himself grew older and withdrew from life, waiting on death to take him. Before the grim reaper can arrive, however, a massive barbarian horde does. All that stands in the way of this massive army a rundown fortress, manned by volunteer soldiers. And so the terrified people call on Druss the Legend to save them. But how can an old, fat warrior hold a broken down citadel until a real army arrives? Great story that is filled with grand heroes and villains, dramatic calls for bravery, non-stop fighting, and desperate last stands. It is the fantasy version of the Alamo, give it a try.
11) Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
In a nameless city, there lies a district of twisted streets where the criminal elite live by dealing death indiscriminately. Among these desperate men and women lives Richard St Vier, the finest swordsman of the day, and he finds himself caught up in a plot to gain control of the city itself. No doubt, the unknown mastermind behind the coup is one of the elite of the city who reside upon the Hill, enjoying the theater, plotting and scheming, and flitting from one romantic liaisons to the next. But soon even the elite will not be able to ignore the power struggle brewing over the city, for Richard St. Vier brings death to even the powerful!
10) The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This novel is arguable the ultimate Arthurian tale: the story of the mighty blade Excalibur, King Arthur, his noble knights, the beautiful Queen Guinevere and her star-crossed love for Sir Lancelot. Most people know the tale, but not enough have actually read the story that T.H. White “chronicles” for his reader. And those who have read this volume generally fall into two distinct groups: people repulsed by its medieval flavor or those charmed by it. If you are a fan of Arthurian myth, you probably have already read this one, and if not, what are you waiting for?
9) Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly
This is an old school epic fantasy with a unique twist. Dragonsbane does not have empires clashing, huge armies waging war, the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it quest, or bloated worldbuilding. What it does have is a mature couple, involved in a very convincing relationship, who set aside their semi-comfortable life to accompany an idealistic youth back to his homeland in the south to kill a rampaging dragon. And not just any dragon, but the wisest and largest dragon of this world. However, that is just the least of this couples’ problems as one of them is presented with the opportunity of a life time, but to accept it will cost them their humanity.
8) The Tower of Fear by Glen Cook
Most people only know Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, but he has written many fantasy tales including this one. Here, a reader is transported to the city of Qushmarrah, which has been conquered by the militarily methodical Herodians. Since then, the residents of the once mighty city-state have waited for the wizard’s citadel to open up and spew out its vileness; the foul sorceries within driving the hated invaders from the land, even as their former tyrannical leader returns from the grave to ascend back onto his throne. And so the city sits on a powder keg, waiting for one spark to ignite a conflagration.
7) Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Brandin the Tyrant and Sorcerer had conquered eight of the nine provinces of the Peninsula of the Palm before the last one, Tigana, made a horrible mistake: killing the beloved son of the world’s most powerful wizard. Thereafter, Brandin’s grief drives him not only to annihilate Tigana but to also cast a spell so powerful it makes it impossible for anyone to even recall the land’s name. And so begins starts the quest of an entire world to remember a place called Tigana.
6) Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
Elantris was once a beautiful city filled with benevolent beings who used their magical abilities to aid all people. But ten years ago, something horrible happened, as the magic of Elantris failed, and all the people of that shining edifice found themselves transformed into leper-like creatures, living in a dark and filthy city slowly crumbling into ruins. But now the Crown Prince Raoden has been banished to Elantris due to his affliction with the same deformities as the Elantrians, and once there, he struggles to help the wretches trapped with him, and so begins a series of events that promise to reveal the very secret of Elantris itself.
5) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Sometimes, you make mistakes, and unfortunately for the Grand Duke of Orso, he decided to betray Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, without making sure she was absolutely, completely, without-hope-of-ever-being-resurrected dead. And since – during his betrayal – the Grand Duke made the horrendous mistake of helping to kill the Snake’s family, he and six other men involved are going to pay. Pay in full with their screams of agony! Pay with blood for the suffering they have wrought! Because the Snake is on a mission for vengeance, and it is a dish that is Best Served Cold!
4) Magician by Raymond E. Feist
This is an old school epic fantasy tale that incorporates all the standard fantasy cliches. However, somehow Mr. Feist takes this simple story of two friends from a backwoods town on the wrong side of the Empire and crafts an engaging action/adventure coming-of-age tale. Sure, Pug and Tomas’ story might sound familiar, but as they discover the world around them, the tale grows more complex, the world and its war more intriguing, and the twists and turns so unexpected that soon the cliches are forgotten.
3) Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Grimdark at its bloody finest, Prince of Thorns tells the story of Jorg Ancrath, who at ten years old flees privilege to grow up as a highway man: stealing, raping, torturing, and killing everyone in his path, as he follows a convoluted pathway to revenge. Revenge against the man who killed his mother and brother, but also revenge against the world which has somehow failed him. Not a hero, not an anti-hero, but rather a man above the petty, frailties of humanity. His lack of empathy for his fellow humans has allowed him to see life for what it really is: a game. One where you can only win if you are willing to sacrifice anyone and everything you love — even yourself.
2) The Gunslinger by Stephen King
A genre blender book that mixes fantasy, western, horror, and other themes together into a classic. Naturally, this eclectic brew does not suit everyone, and I know some will disagree with my inclusion of it on this list, but to me, The Gunslinger has more than enough fantastical elements (wizard, ghosts, spells) to have it labeled a fantasy. Plus, it is just a really good novel with a great main character in Roland on a mesmerizing quest to the Dark Tower. And it all begins right here in this novel with the Man in Black feeling across the dusty land, pursued by the Gunslinger.
Yes, I know that Lord of the Rings is more epic in tone, reading more like an “adult” fantasy story and that The Hobbit is more a children’s story. However, no matter its lighter tone this is the adventure that began the greatest fantasy story ever told. If for no other reason that that, this novel must be on top of this list.