The best fantasy books if you want to be truly wonderstruck

Who am I?

An avid reader my whole life, I jumped into epic fantasy at age eleven. Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan were all high school favorites (and they are wonderful) but by the time I had reached the age that I was supposed to be reading their books, my palette was fairly jaded. The thrill of discovering new worlds and surprising magic was growing elusive, but wonder remains my favorite beat as a reader. I consider it the ultimate challenge in my own writing, and I greedily collect books that surprise me with their scope and imagination, leaving me awed and wonderstruck.

I wrote...

Vows of Gold and Laughter

By Edith Pawlicki,

Book cover of Vows of Gold and Laughter

What is my book about?

The Sun Emperor, ruler of the gods, is dying, cursed by one of his own children. Only the tender-hearted Goddess of Beauty, his youngest daughter, is willing to brave the dangers of the Underworld to save him. She is accompanied by the perpetually intoxicated God of Pleasure, the first immortal who disdained becoming a god, and the world’s second-best thief. 

This ragtag band must journey from the icy peaks of the White Mountain and the lush banks of the Kuanbai River to the palace of the Sea Dragon and the halls of the Moon Deer, through court intrigue and bloody battles, power struggles, and magical traps. The Heavens, Earth, and the Underworld will forever celebrate their triumphs – and mourn their mistakes.

The books I picked & why

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The Elvenbane

By Andre Norton, Mercedes Lackey,

Book cover of The Elvenbane

Why this book?

Probably the most traditional book on this list, I am starting with The Elvenbane because it is my measuring stick for other fantasy. I read it first as a preteen, and I have revisited it many years since, always to be delighted by the world Norton and Lackey created. The detailed illusions, varied settings, the disparate magics, and the mischievous dragons all kept me guessing and in a haze of delight. There was so much that was familiar but with fresh twists that made it new again. It might not be as novel as the other books on my list, but a fantasy has hit the spot if it brings me back to the wonder I felt reading The Elvenbane.

When the Sea Turned to Silver

By Grace Lin,

Book cover of When the Sea Turned to Silver

Why this book?

I encountered Grace Lin’s middle-grade fantasy series as an adult, and I can assure you that they are worth reading regardless of your age! When the Sea Turned Silver is littered with metaphors that will make you catch your breath and yet also become literal as her whimsical magic manifests. Chinese folklore that has been stretched and recreated by Lin’s imagination, the book begins with wild tales that are dismissed by the characters as impossible only to culminate with boundless magic that feels inevitable and is even more splendid than the stories they first heard. If you haven’t read these, you’re missing out!

The Silvered

By Tanya Huff,

Book cover of The Silvered

Why this book?

I trust Tanya Huff to create a complex and fascinating world, but The Silvered goes beyond that because the characters discover magical possibilities that surprise them and thus the reader. Set in a steam-punk world with witches and werewolves, I was expecting this book to be fun; I wasn’t expecting to have my mind blown. But as the threads come together, the main character’s epiphany left me reeling as I processed with her, beautifully merging the paranormal and epic fantasy genres. I love Huff, and this is my favorite of her books! 

The Emperor's Soul

By Brandon Sanderson,

Book cover of The Emperor's Soul

Why this book?

The Emperor’s Soul is technically a novella, but a Sanderson-length novella rivals many writer’s novels in length. Sanderson is a master of world-building, and many of his books have fascinated me, but The Emperor’s Soul has so much mystery and beauty that it tops his other books when it comes to sheer wonder. It features a forger who is a true artist, and like many artists, her process is at the edge of her control and her creations truly exist apart from herself when they are done. If you love the thrill of creating something outside yourself, the high of a surprise that has been perfectly foreshadowed, The Emperor’s Soul is for you.


By Jacqueline Carey,

Book cover of Starless

Why this book?

Starless is a classic epic—a band of characters undertakes a dangerous quest to fulfill an ancient prophesy—but its creativity will keep you gasping. I dare not enumerate the many marvels Carey created lest I ruin the surprise for readers, but I can tell you that it features thousands of fallen stars who become deities in the world, and manifest their power and identities in varied and unpredictable ways. Besides the magic itself, Starless also features many different cultures and lands that make me think Carey’s mind must be a beautiful and dangerous place! This book might be telling the oldest story, but it does so in revolutionary ways.

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