16 massively underrated fantasy books

16 massively underrated fantasy books

In Reading Lists by Emma Contreras

16 massively underrated fantasy books

Fantasy legends like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, and Robin Hobb are household names for a reason. Immersive world-building, unforgettable characters, epic quests to conquer evil, award-winning screen adaptations — it’s no wonder their stories commonly top lists of the best fantasies of all time

I’ll admit, when I’m in the mood to read fantasy (which is often), I default to the series I know and love. Alternatively, I’ll pick something that’s been getting a lot of hype on Bookstagram or BookTok (hello, ACOTAR fandom!). But what about the underrated fantasy books that have been flying under the radar? The hidden gems overshadowed by the award-winning industry titans? 

It’s time to give these underrated fantasy books their time in the spotlight. Some are lesser-known titles from well-known authors, like Robin Hobb’s Shaman’s Crossing. Others, like Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, have achieved cult classic status, but frankly deserve a much wider readership. 

Let’s show these oft-overlooked, but no less excellent, fantasy books some love. 

1. A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

In a setting reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, the lives of two enemy mercenaries — a noblewoman who rejects her lavish upbringing, and an ambitious man with humble beginnings — become entangled amidst the pursuit of power and love. 

This lyrical mix of historical fiction and fantasy ranks right up there with many of Kay’s better-known works, like Tigana and the Fionavar Tapestry series. If you’re unfamiliar with Kay, note before diving in that his brand of historical fantasy is much more understated than others on this list. 

In A Brightness Long Ago, you’ll find wisps of magic imbuing a grand tale that explores the chaotic nature of human existence, the power (or rather, illusion) of choice, and how history, karma, and fate all intertwine in ways we’ll never fully realize. 

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2. The White Hart by Nancy Springer

Switching gears to the other end of the fantasy spectrum, we have Springer’s first book, originally published in 1979. 

The first entry in the The Book of the Isle series reads like an Arthurian fairy tale that takes cues from Welsh mythology. The lives of Cuin and his fiancée, Ellid, are changed forever with the appearance of Bevan, a mysterious stranger who claims the lineage of an ancient High King. Together, the trio embark on a perilous quest to restore Bevan’s throne. 

Fans of the bestselling series Enola Holmes — which inspired the hit Netflix series of the same name starring Millie Bobby Brown (of Stranger Things fame) — may be surprised that this tale of immortal gods, ghosts, and the undead is from the same author.


3. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Hopkinson seamlessly blends science fiction, fantasy, horror, and Afro-Caribbean magical realism to produce what I consider to be a truly underrated fantasy book. 

In the not-so-distant future, Toronto has turned into a hellish land, filled with poverty, despair, and the wealthy who’ve become predators, murdering the desperate and the helpless to harvest their organs for transplants for the elite. Ti-Jeanne must turn to her roots and engage in ancient practices to call upon gods to protect herself and her family.

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4. The One Kingdom by Sean Russell

For a true hidden gem of fantasy, with sprawling, immersive world-building, turn to The Swan’s War trilogy

You’ll find familiar fantasy elements, like ancient sorcery, a land divided by a bitter feud to claim the throne, and a trio of traveling companions who get more adventure than they bargained for, mixed with unique concepts. For example, this series starter has a misty river that’s as central a character as any other, and bards who can communicate with the land itself, which are things you don’t find in your standard fantasies. 


5. The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

This is a fun, lighthearted YA fantasy with a cunning thief at its heart who will appeal to fans of the thief-to-hero trope (see: Riyria Revelations, Queen’s Thief). In it, Aaron (who also writes under the pen name Rachel Bach for her science fiction work) introduces a charming rogue, Eli Monpress, who readers are sure to fall for. 

However, Eli isn’t just a thief (and the world’s greatest thief to boot), but also a powerful wizard with an ability to communicate with spirits. He unintentionally gets caught up in a struggle for power that puts not only his latest heist at stake, but also the fate of the entire world. 

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6. Truthseeker by C.E. Murphy

The heroine of Truthseeker can only tell the truth, and can always tell when people are lying. Her talents have been underutilized until a Prince steps through the portal from Faerie, begging her to help him solve the mystery of his brother’s death.

Fae, portals between worlds, dark and enchanting magic, romance, and court intrigue — there’s something for every fantasy fan to love about the first half of the Worldwalker Duology

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7. The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

This is the coziest, most slice-of-life fantasy that you could possibly imagine. Really, truly, it’s perfection, especially if you’re looking for a low-stakes story about good people doing good things to make the world a better place. They even introduce universal basic income in it! 

If that sounds boring in comparison to the other action-packed underrated fantasy books listed here, I can assure you it’s anything but. Goddard’s 2019 self-published novel takes place in the rebuilding phase after a global catastrophe and a large part of the plot revolves around complex power dynamics, including those between an emperor and his secretary. 


8. The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

Gomez’s cult classic queer vampire story deserves a much wider readership for a number of reasons. For one, it’s an intricate blend of urban fantasy, history, and vampire lore that is not only entertaining, but also extraordinarily thought-provoking. For another, it teases out issues of sexuality, race, and the climate crisis in a manner that was ahead of its time when it was initially published in 1991.

Gilda’s tale begins in 1850s Louisiana and, as she escapes from slavery and joins a coven of vampires, spans the next 200 years. Each story recounts a segment of Gilda’s long, fascinating life. 

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9. The Broken Crown by Michelle West

This is another underrated fantasy book that you likely won’t find on many best speculative fiction book lists. Part of the reason why is likely because it was written by a woman and was ahead of its time when it was published in the late ’90s. 

West fleshes out an intriguing world inhabited by even more fascinating cultures and characters. Particularly of note are her extremely well-written female characters, who showcase different kinds of strength that go beyond the ability to wield a sword. 

The start to the six-book The Sun Sword series introduces two warring countries, the Empire and the Dominion. Diora, a woman of the Dominion, has no governmental power, despite being married to the prince. However, she does have a magic of her own that she learns to master, alongside Game of Thrones-esque political maneuvering.

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10. Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Shawl’s awesome steampunk alternate history tackles heavy topics of racism, religious extremism, homophobia, and colonialism. Told episodically over a span of 20 years through rotating points of view, Shawl reimagines history by asking: What would have happened if the Congolese people had access to steam-powered technology so they could fight back against the barbaric rule of the King of Belgium? 

A fresh view on an often-overlooked time period makes this a standout within speculative fiction. 

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11. Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip

Though McKillip is an acclaimed author, this collection of short stories is tonally different from many of her other works (Harpist in the Wind), which is likely part of the reason it’s not as widely read. Some stories have a more contemporary feel that McKillip fans might be surprised by, but all are nonetheless just as enchanting as any of her other books.

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12. Shaman’s Crossing by Robin Hobb

I consider this series starter to be underrated in comparison to Hobb’s other works, especially when put up against a behemoth like Realm of the Elderlings. Much like her well-loved Farseer trilogy about lovable bastard FitzChivalry, the Soldier Son series focuses on one main character, Nevare, a second son destined to become a solider. But because so many Hobb readers are diehard Fitz fans and this trilogy is not set in the same universe as Elderlings, many people overlook Nevare’s adventures. 

With her signature complex world-building and lack of hesitation to put her heroes through the wringer, Hobb introduces a series loaded with suspense, political machinations, and a young man on the precipice of a great destiny.

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13. Wish Out of Water by Holley Trent

Ariel could never. 

Loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, Trent’s intense tale of star-crossed love between a mermaid and a human prince kicks the steam factor up a notch. After Brook saves Cooper’s life, he realizes that they can help each other get exactly what they want: He needs to get married to avoid the responsibilities of the crown, and she needs cash to keep her floundering swim school afloat. 

What starts as a marriage of convenience quickly evolves into something more; but when fate comes knocking, it will test the limits of their love.

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14. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Political intrigue mixes with magic in this epic historical fantasy series from Bear, a Hugo Award-winning author. Fans of extensive world-building and evocative adventure have a lot to like in this underrated fantasy trilogy, including: ruthless usurping relatives and gory power struggles; blood ghosts (you read it right) and a massive part-human-part-tiger; a wizard princess; and a secret cult.

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15. Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Hambly as a whole is an underrated fantasy writer whose books were well-received when initially published, but have lost steam as the years have passed. 

Her books include multi-dimensional creatures and protagonists that don’t adhere to the typical fantasy archetypes that ran rampant in the ’70s and ’80s when her earliest works came out. For example, one of the heroines in Dragonsbane is a middle-aged mother of two, and Hambly’s characterization of the dragon, Morkeleb, is much more nuanced and sympathetic than was commonly found in fantasy books at the time. 

It’s easy to lose yourself in the Locus award-nominated first entry of the Winterlands series, a refreshingly straightforward sword-and-sorcery adventure in which a trio of heroes embark on a dangerous journey to slay a dragon. 

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16. A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones

Set in a frigid, Arctic-like world, the paths of a young archer with a murky past and a sorceress fleeing a political marriage converge as ancient, evil powers awaken. Although they each have their secrets, the two must learn to trust one another if they want to survive in a harsh world. 

This grimdark series starter should be an automatic add to your To Be Read shelf if you like gritty epic fantasies. 

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About the Author: Emma Contreras

Emma is an Everand booklist curator and a freelance content marketing writer covering finance, business leadership, and B2B SaaS communications.