Welcome to my top 5 series list.
This list is for series I have read up until the end of 2020 and is made of my very favourite series. I have cheated slightly as you will see as we go through, the main cheating I have done is putting anything from the same connected universe as one series. This is to try and make the list a little more exciting, as otherwise it would only contain three different authors, and let’s be honest that’s a little boring.
First an honourable mention. I started reading The Wheel of Time in 2020 and I can absolutely see it being in this list in the future. Currently however, I have only read eleven of the fourteen books in the main series and I want to hold off adding it to this list until I have completed the series. All the series on this list I have either completed, or completed up to where it is currently published.
Without any further ado, my 5 favourite series as of December 31st 2020.
5. The Poppy War Trilogy by RF Kuang
RF Kuang completed her debut series in 2020 with The Burning God, the final book of the Poppy War trilogy. This series is an Asian inspired grim-dark fantasy following Rin, a southern war orphan who tests into an elite military school in the north of the country. The start of the first book follow’s Rin’s journey through the academy until war hits the country, and war is what carries us through the rest of this series.
You may have seen this series earn my “biggest surprise” of the year on my previous post. I don’t think of myself as a grim-dark reader, yet this series resonated with me hard.
Beware, this series is grim-dark. I mean it. Seriously.
I would not have described large portions of this series as enjoyable, it was however very impactful for me. Kuang uses this series to mirror many events from the second Sino-Japanese war and those events hit hard. I can’t remember having such a visceral reaction to a book before. Multiple times in each book I was sickened and angered by the horror of war and the choices forced upon our characters.
This series is almost entirely single POV, with incredibly minimal viewpoints from secondary characters. Without going back to check I think there were two short chapters in the entire series not from RIn’s viewpoint. This focus on Rin really puts us in her shoes, we see her struggles and understand decisions no matter how much we may agree or disagree with them.
This series is not for the faint of heart, it hurts to read at times and it highlights the darkness in human nature and the vileness of war. The way the world is at the moment I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this series at the moment. If however, you are feeling the need to plumb the depths of human depravity this series will give you plenty to think upon.
Would recommend it to people who love grim-dark and people who love historical parallels in their fantasy.
Avoid if grim-dark isn’t for you, if you want some classic good versus evil, or if 2020 has been too much for you and you need some popcorn fantasy.
4. Lightbringer by Brent Weeks
This five book series has become an unfashionable pick in recent years, but I still love it despite all its flaws. Lightbringer is a flintlock era fantasy series with a hard magic system based on colours and being able to draft the colours you see into a substance called Luxin.
The series has a large multi-POV cast and has one of the twistiest plots around. Crazy reveals abound throughout all five books, and characters develop in ways that are understandable, epic, and satisfying. This series boasts some of the better realised characters in any series I have read. The books are never dull and are often action packed.
For me, books two and three are the strongest entries, yet I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books on their own merit. Book two, The Blinding Knife, really built upon the first book and drew me into Weeks’ world, it was at this point that I knew the series would be one I love.
The finale to this series, The Burning White, has certainly split the opinions of reviewers and consumers alike. Many people really hated it and I have seen people go as far as to say that it has soured them from ever reading anything else from Weeks. I can understand the criticism it received and I do have it as the weakest book of the five, however I felt it still served as a good end to the series even if it wasn’t what people generally wanted. There are a few odd choices with how plot threads were wrapped up (or in some cases weren’t), but I would still highly recommend this series to people who want a good time with a plot that keeps you guessing, and characters who are both highly likeable and interesting.
Would recommend it to people who like Sanderson, it has his style of hard magic system and a plot that you won’t always see coming even though it is perfectly foreshadowed.
Avoid if the destination is more important than the journey for you.
3. The Dresden Files By Jim Butcher
This is the series that got me back into reading fantasy, as such it will always have a special place in my heart. In this urban fantasy series we follow Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only wizard for hire as he solves mysteries that would otherwise be beyond the skills of local law enforcement.
This Series currently has seventeen books in it. Yes I said seventeen. With at least five more planned before it comes to an end. The early books have a noir aesthetic and styling that adds interest to what are otherwise enjoyable if not outstanding novels. As the series progresses it loses some of its noir tendencies, but the world opens up into a world that is well realised in a way that I haven’t seen matched in any other urban fantasy.
The first person perspective of these books really lend themselves to the fast nature of the stories, while still giving us wonderful insights through Harry’s inner monologue and general wise-assery. Harry Dresden is possibly my favourite character in the fantasy genre and with each book this series steps up the epic level, so by book twelve you felt there was really nowhere left for it to go. If you thought that you would have been wrong.
From it’s noir detective roots the Dresden FIles slowly builds a sprawling world and develops into a true fantasy epic, something that (at least for me), is unheard of in an urban fantasy setting. Many of the antagonists throughout the series are incredibly easy to hate, however some find their way into a grey middle ground. As a reader I want to hate them, yet they somehow seem a necessary evil, a character that is needed if Harry is somehow going to keep Chicago safe. For those characters you are likely to build some form of grudging respect, it makes it much harder to truly hate them.
I have overwhelmingly positive thoughts on The Dresden FIles and look forward to how Butcher is going to keep developing and eventually draw this series to a conclusion.
Would recommend it to people who like single-POV books, urban fantasy, characters who don’t know when they are beat, and to people who listen to audiobooks. (Did I mention that James Marsters does an incredible job with these audiobooks.)
Avoid if you are sensitive to some male-gazeyness (particularly prevalent in the early books).
2. The Banished Lands Saga by John Gwynne
Here is the first of my cheats. The number two spot actually encompasses two series set in the same universe. The Faithful and the Fallen is a four book series, following Corban and company as a war for banished lands unfolds before them. If you saw my last post you will have seen me gush about this series. It is a Celtic inspired fantasy world with characters that you will grow to love, and Gwynne uses that to rip your heart out. Multiple times.
The Faithful and the Fallen is trope laden. Think of a fantasy trope. No seriously think of one. I’ll wait… got one? Yeah that’s in the Faithful and the Fallen. Gwynne uses these tropes so well though that it just works, it’s written well and moves at a rapid pace. There is also a some amount of subversion of the standard tropes, this generally comes later in the series though. Combat is frequent, but written in a way that is always engaging, and motivations and stakes are always clear.
I don’t have much more to say about The Faithful and the Fallen, except you should read it.
The second series set in the Banished Lands is “Of Blood and Bone”. This is a follow up trilogy to The Faithful and the Fallen, set about 130 years after the events of the first series. Of Blood and Bone follows three main protagonists who live in lands changed by the first series. Allegiances are different, organisations and nations have changed, yet the wonderful writing and gripping pace is just the same. I don’t want to give you too much setting in case you haven’t read the first series, but I will say that it feels familiar, yet still different enough as to not just be a rehash of what we have already read. This trilogy is a bit leaner than The Faithful and the Fallen, each book being significantly shorter yet still packed with all the good stuff.
Of Blood and Bone is a solid follow, and could be fighting for a place in this list on it’s own merit.
Would recommend it to anyone who loves David Gemmel, people who want a fast paced action orientated read, and anyone looking for a relatively low magic setting.
Avoid if combat in fantasy books just isn’t your thing.
1. The Cosmere by Brandon Sanderson
Here we are, my favourite fantasy series. This isn’t a series I hear you cry.
Let me explain.
I know this is multiple series and standalones in a connected universe, but I don’t want Sanderson to dominate this list so I am grouping them all together. With the latest release in The Stormlight Archive, Rhythm of War, the cosmere as a whole began to really come together with some amazing cross-series reveals for those who read closely.
For those of you who somehow don’t know, the cosmere is the interconnected universe that the majority of Sanderson’s adult fantasy takes place in, the two big hitters in it so far are Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive. I won’t go into too much detail for the premise of these series because if you are a fantasy fan you have probably heard about them before. What I will say is that these are two of my top three series of all time and therefore it felt pretty fair to combine them at the top of this list.
The Stormlight Archive were the first books I read by Sanderson, I binged up to the end of Oathbringer over the course of a few weeks and I adored it. It was only at that point that I realised there was an overarching universe that the series took place in. Knowing I would be waiting for the next book in the series it made sense to pick up another series by the same author.
Mistborn was where I headed next and the original trilogy absolutely blew me away. The Final Empire was an amazing kick off to a series and almost works as a standalone. I found The Well of Ascension a little slow but oh man did the end make up for that. Book three, The Hero of Ages, is where Sanderson made me a real fan though. It showed me that he could really end a story, the foreshadowing all the way from the start of book one was incredible, and the finale had all the wonderfully satisfying payoff I want in a series. The end wasn’t predictable and yet made perfect sense and having read it seems like the only way it could have happened.
Plotting is probably the ultimate strength of Sanderson, everything is so exquisitely planned and fits together like a perfect puzzle. Alongside this, the man is a master worldbuilder, both Roshar (Stormlight) and Scadrial (Mistborn) are wonderfully realised worlds, with beautifully cinematic geology and amazingly complex societies. There is something so incredibly immersive about these worlds, and the character’s only serve to draw you in further.
The second era of Mistborn and the cosmere standalones continue to further the universe as a whole, they build wonderful new worlds and add layers upon layers to the magic systems and to the cultures throughout the cosmere.
Now don’t get me wrong, Sanderson is not a perfect author. Many people have legitimate issues with his prose and cannot get on with his style. Obviously personal preference is a thing, but for me the utilitarian and sometimes boring style of Sandersons prose, is vastly outweighed by his incredible plotting and hugely immersive worlds. There is no book I can point to that I am more excited for than Stormlight five, and I trust Sanderson to finish the first arc of The Stormlight Archive with a bang.
Would recommend it to people who love absurdly massive worlds, great world building, and plots that culminate in satisfying ways.
Avoid if a bland and often boring style of prose is off putting for you.
Thanks for reading. I am hoping 2021 can shake up this list and give me more series that I adore.
Go forth and read.