There are some big names in the world of fantasy fiction that almost everybody has heard of. Authors like J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, along with titles such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones, have become household names across the entire globe. Although fantasy is often thought of as a smaller and less accomplished genre of literature, it actually has legions of dedicated fans and has spawned some of the largest franchises in human history. Just look at Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings – multiple novels, movies, video games, animated series, merchandise, theme parks and more have arisen from these fantasy series.
Of course, many of the technological and societal imaginings of the fantasy and sci-fi genres have now become our modern reality. Video calls are a standard way to communicate with people, entertainment such as television and games have moved online, and transport has gone electric with battery powered cars and buses. But readers still love to get lost in the alternative and parallel worlds dreamed up by authors in the fantasy genre. Whilst it’s true that some of fantasy’s wildest concepts have now become the norm, we still don’t live in a world of talking dragons, wizards and shapeshifting creatures (at least, we don’t think we do…)
But what about the forgotten ones? The fantasy series that are every bit as good as the aforementioned blockbusters but, for some reason, have been passed over by the mainstream – what about them? Let’s take a look at some of the cult classics that should shoot to the top of your reading list immediately.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s epic series of books set in the imagined world of Earthsea has been a firm favourite with readers for generations. A quick look at the basic premise of the series – boy wizard rises from humble beginnings to become an accomplished mage and save the world – shows how influential this work has been on modern fiction. First published in 1968, in its own subtle way it explores subjects like gender bias, race, spirituality, self-acceptance and more whilst entertaining the reader with tales of epic sea travel, conversations with dragons, awe-inspiring magic and real human relationships. Although it is so clearly a touchstone for a massive part of the fantasy genre, Earthsea is rarely mentioned publicly by fans or critics. This makes it the most precious of hidden gems and one which will provide hours of entertainment for readers of any age, along with raising some thought-provoking subjects.
Moving forward in time to 1982, we find David Eddings’ accomplished series, The Belgariad. Formed of five main books (plus two prequels), this series follows the journey of a young boy called Garion as he tracks the lost Orb of Aldur and learns magic along the way. The Belgariad has its own fully formed world history, set of laws, distinct peoples and detailed religion; like many epic works of literature, it focuses on universal themes such as family ties, the battle of good vs evil, and the meaning of friendship. Although not as obviously influential as Earthsea, it is a solid example of the genre during this period of time and often crops up as a favourite with fantasy fanatics.
The Whitby Witches
Though it is located in a fairly rural stretch of the North Yorkshire coast in England, the small town of Whitby is world-renowned due to its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is where the famed count first came ashore in that country, and so anything mysterious, frightening and otherworldly happily finds its home there. Enter Robin Jarvis’ Whitby Witches trilogy (1991-94), a set of books that examine the secret, magical goings-on of the town from the perspective of two newcomers. Although this series is pitched at a younger audience, you’ll soon find the hairs on the back of your neck begin to rise as you read about the activities of the local coven and the strange ‘Fisher Folk’. Jarvis has taken the uncanny vibe lurking in Whitby’s recent past and transformed it into an enjoyable tale filled with murder, magic and mystery.
Bringing us right up to the present day is lawyer-turned-author Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird series. Over a trilogy of novels, Caldecott’s narrative explores the weird and forgotten English town of Rotherweird and all of the strange things happening there. Although the reader is initially introduced to this world through the eyes of an outsider, the tale expands outwards to include the viewpoints of many different characters. This creates a nuanced, far-reaching storyline that raises as many questions as it answers. The plot is driven by some truly devious ideas and imaginings, which make finishing a single chapter supremely satisfying and finishing an entire book immensely rewarding. It’s certainly something of a mental workout but one which sparkles with humour, intelligence and magic.