One of the best—and yet worst—things about being a fantasy fan is the pressure to commit to reading an epic series that spans entire shelves’ worth of books. If you like the characters and their world, then you’ll be delighted by how many more adventures await you. But all too often, you’ll hear fans caution new readers that “the series doesn’t get good for a few books.”
If you’re not sure whether to pick up a fantasy series, let this list be your guide. I’ve collected some of the best long-running series in the genre. You’ll find something for every reader, from epic high fantasy, humor, alternate histories, to urban fantasy.
Let’s start with one of my personal favorites: the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Starting with 2009’s Rosemary and Rue, this urban fantasy series about a changeling detective is up to 15 published books with at least another two on the way.
I will warn new readers that the first two books aren’t as strong as the rest. Yes, I just said that that was annoying, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. You really can’t skip them, but like many of these long-running series, it takes a minute for Toby to find her feet. Still, the blend of gritty noir with beings from folklore works surprisingly well, and McGuire has repeatedly proven herself to be a master of her craft.
The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan kicked off his epic fantasy series with The Eye of the World in 1990. He would go on to publish ten more volumes in the series before passing away in 2007. Fellow fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson was handpicked by Jordan’s widow (and his longtime editor) to pick up the torch and completed the final three books in the series. Thanks to Amazon’s adaptation starring Rosamund Pike, the series has found many new fans.
Jordan passed away in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. A bookshop in another South Carolina town where I live sold his library collection, and I was lucky enough to pick up a couple of books about writing from the sale. Sadly, they don’t have bookplates, but I know where they’re from!
A Crown of Stars
If you like your fantasy with a side of medieval history, then you might enjoy Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars books. There are seven books in the series, beginning with King’s Dragon (1997). Fans of Game of Thrones will enjoy the intricate court politics as King Henry tries to hold his kingdom together and choose a successor to the throne.
Kate Elliott is the penname of Alis A. Rasmussen, who first cut her teeth in the sci-fi genre. Most recently, she published Unconquerable Sun, a space opera inspired by the life of Alexander the Great. Her work is eclectic and meticulously plotted, heavily inspired by her interest in medieval history.
If you haven’t picked up a Discworld book, what exactly are you waiting for? Sir Terry Pratchett’s beloved fictional universe sprawls across an astonishing 41 novels. There would have been even more, had Pratchett not passed away in 2015.
Pratchett envisioned a world balanced on the backs of four elephants, carried on a massive turtle swimming through space. In Discworld, he found infinite opportunities for gentle satire, humor, and magic. A handful of characters pop up in multiple books, such as the wizard Rincewind, the young witch Tiffany Aching, and Death. Yes, actual capital-D Death.
Figuring out where to start with this series can be a bit overwhelming. If you’re a fan of YA lit, then you might want to start with Tiffany Aching’s books, beginning with The Wee Free Men. Most fans will tell you to either start at the very beginning with The Colour of Magic or to hop on with Mort, the first book featuring Death as a major character. Book Riot offers several additional paths for the Discworld novice.
Diana Gabaldon’s long-running historical time-travel romance series was already legendary before the TV show premiered. Thanks to the popularity of the Starz show, the books have found legions of new fans.
The series combines the “Scottish highlander” romance trope with time travel and a sprawling historical family epic. The story of Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall takes them across continents, from Scotland to the American Colonies. The most recent book—number nine in the series—was Go Tell the Bees That I’m Gone (2021), but you’ll definitely want to start with the first novel, simply called Outlander (1991). These books are definitely not light reading—both in terms of the plot and the literal weight of these massive doorstopper tomes.
Kat Ross’s Gaslamp Gothic series is outstanding. I’ve read it twice and will probably go for round three when the next book is published. There are currently seven books in the series, with an eighth scheduled for December 2022. Ross is a fantastic writer who weaves real-world historical details from the Gilded Age into a tapestry that also contains threads from Sherlock Holmes, Victorian horror, and folklore from around the world.
The first book is The Daemoniac, a surprising take on the Jack the Ripper legend set in 1888 New York. The series takes off from there to England, then Transylvania, and eventually to a timeless city in the desert. Not every book features all of the main characters, so here’s a cheat sheet:
- Harrison Fearing Pell and John Weston – books 1, 2, 5, and 7
- James Moran – books 1, 5, and 7
- Lady Vivian and Alec – books 2 and 3
- Anne and Gabriel – books 3 and 4
- Count Balthazar – books 2, 4, and 6
The Dresden Files
I debated about whether to include Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. Beginning with 2000’s Storm Front, Butcher has now published 18 books out of a planned 25. Even the most diehard fans will tell you that not every book is a winner, but Harry Dresden’s adventures are an urban fantasy institution.
Harry Dresden is a wizard—not just any wizard, but one who advertises in the phone book. Storm Front is his first adventure, and it establishes Harry as an outsider in a magical society who works as a private investigator. The world that Butcher created is populated by mages, vampires, faeries, and other magical beings. While I respect the craft and dedication on display in the Dresden Files, I have to point out that Butcher has been criticized for problematic aspects of his work. The first books in the series are some of the worst offenders, and some fans will encourage new readers to start with Grave Peril or Summer Knight instead.
Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books are a breath of fresh air for readers who need a break from epic, pseudo-medieval fantasy. The series, published over the span of ten years, begins with His Majesty’s Dragon. It follows William Laurence, a British naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars. While much of society and history are unchanged in Novik’s universe, there’s one little bitty difference: dragons.
Dragons are used as flying war vessels in the Temeraire books, each one harnessed by a rider that the dragon bonds with upon hatching. When Laurence’s ship captures a French vessel with a strange black dragon egg on board, he finds himself the reluctant companion of a newly hatched dragon he names Temeraire. The two develop a beautiful friendship, though their lives are anything but easy over the course of the nine books.
Kim Harrison’s signature series is The Hollows, which now includes a staggering 16 books. The series technically ended in 2014 with The Witch with No Name, but fan pressure encouraged Harrison to bring it back.
In the world of The Hollows, bioengineered tomatoes wiped out a large percentage of the world’s human population. (Just go with it.) In the aftermath, familiar supernatural creatures such as witches and vampires arise to fill the power vacuum. Rachel Morgan is a magical bounty hunter in Cincinnati, and the books follow her many adventures—and romances.
The Tortall Universe
Although Tamora Pierce’s books set in the fictional kingdom of Tortall are broken up into multiple series, all of them take place in the same universe and frequently share characters. The first of those series is The Song of the Lioness, featuring a young woman named Alanna who dreams of becoming a knight of Tortall. The Protector of the Small quartet is about a girl named Kell who follows in Alanna’s footsteps, while the Trickers duology follows Alanna’s daughter on her own adventure.
All told, there are 18 novels in the Tortall Universe. They are intended for young adult audiences, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re any less thrilling (and violent) than the work of George R. R. Martin. Although smaller in scope, these books are packed with action, politics, magic, and surprisingly frank discussions of sex for the era that they were written.