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Top 10 fantasy books to read if you’re a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan

The road goes ever on and on...

Covert arts by Michael Whelan and Charles Vess /Remix by Jonathan Wright

We can all agree that The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of literature in history, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus is far from perfect.

Before you bring out the pitchforks, let me clarify. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best stories in history, a groundbreaking work of speculative fiction that has informed not only a genre but inspired all the different entertainment media we currently consume. And yet, that very magnitude is the franchise’s biggest shortcoming.

You see, when you read The Lord of the Rings and close the book on that last chapter, it leaves you with a sense of purgative emptiness. In a little while, the post-read-through depression is going to sink in, and after that, all you can think about is finding more to devour in that fictional world; reading stuff in Middle-earth, reading stuff about Middle-earth, and anything in between so long as you can get your next Tolkien fix.

In a way, that’s the problem. The biggest issue with The Lord of the Rings is that there are no books similar to it, and perhaps no other books that can reach the same pinnacle of literary achievement. It’s easy to walk away from The Lord of the Rings thinking your escapist fantasy journey has peaked here and there’s nothing you could do to recreate the experience, but despite being a massive Middle-earth nerd myself, I always try to fight against that nagging sensation in the back of my mind — the unkempt voice that persistently asks, “How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand there is no going back?”

You will never experience something like The Lord of the Rings again, but like myself, you may be able to find an echo of solace or a shadow of consolation in other great works of high fantasy literature. If and when you decide to do that, here is a list of best fantasy books that not only pay homage to Middle-earth by capturing that sense of wonder and awe, but also move out from under Tolkien’s shadow by introducing narrative inventions and worldbuilding novelties of their own.

10. The Once and Future King by T.H. White

“The bravest people are the ones who don’t mind looking like cowards.”

The Matter of Britain — involving the legendary King Arthur and his court of Camelot — has had a large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien as an author. There are even motifs in The Lord of the Rings which trace their origin back to the legend, like Aragorn’s role as the promised king, or even his sword Anduril, serving as another incarnation of Excalibur in fiction.

To that end, there are a lot of sources for the study of Arthurian Romance, even Tolkien’s own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or The Fall of Arthur, but if you want a well-rounded fresh take on the myth, which actually incorporates Sir Thomas Malory’s famous work Le Morte d’Arthur into the plot, then T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is the fantasy book for you.

9. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

“People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

There are a lot of elements that tie Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Middle-earth. For one thing, the story’s most prominent setting is a nod to the U.K. in the Edwardian period, and in terms of philosophical themes, Pullman certainly alludes to a lot of religious concepts such as fate, free will, and moralism — all of which are the bread and butter of The Lord of the Rings, if ever subtly, at that.

A television adaptation of the book trilogy by the BBC premiered in 2019 and received positive reviews, so His Dark Materials will be right up your alley in case you want an escapist fantasy adventure in live-action form as well.

8. Discworld by Terry Pratchett

“He’d been wrong, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”

The Discworld book series by Terry Pratchett is undoubtedly one of the best works of fantasy literature. If you’re tired of the genre’s burnt-out tropes, then reading Discworld is a must, because Pratchett actually sets out to undermine or mock all of them, but in a good-hearted way.

The story essentially takes place on a flat disc-shaped plain that is floating in space on the backs of four giant elephants, and those giant elephants are supported by the shell of an enormous cosmic turtle. Yes, you read every word of that sentence correctly. If you want a humorous fantasy story that’s actually profound, then make sure to pick up Discworld.

7. The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss

“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss are now recognized as some of the best works in the genre, mainly due to the author’s flowery prose and his impeccable characterization.

The story centers around a young man named Kvothe, whose exploits help him turn into a legend throughout the Four Corners of Civilization. Kvothe has fought with demons and gods, saved princesses, made music to make minstrels weep, and lived through it all to sit down and pass on his tale. The Kingkiller Chronicle isn’t necessarily epic in scale, but you will nonetheless fall in love with Rothfuss and his ability to weave a story together.

6. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

“But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.”

This acclaimed and highly popular trilogy by Tad Williams is certainly closer to the Middle-earth experience in a number of ways. For one thing, Williams is an absolute master of his craft, seamlessly building a fictional world and weaving it together with an intricate story and nuanced character. And for another, while the story in The Dragonbone Chair has a fairly unambitious start, the narrative grows to encompass the fate of the world.

5. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

“When you didn’t say a lot, he thought, you said the important things.”

Gavriel Key is the single most underrated author in all of fantasy. The Fionavar Tapestry is a trilogy of his books set in a high fantasy setting, and the worldbuilding is so similar in terms of style to The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth that no one could disregard it as a simple homage.

It makes sense, too, because Guy is a huge Tolkien fan. He even helped the author’s son Christopher Tolkien with the editing and publishing of The Silmarillion. Gavriel Kay definitely knows what he’s doing if nothing else, and that mastery certainly shines through at every step of the journey in Fionavar. Remember what I said about no other work in literature having the capacity to challenge Tolkien? Well, if you’re a Middle-earth fan, just do yourself a favor and pick up Guy Gavriel Kay.

4. The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

“The most important step a man can take. It’s not the first one, is it? It’s the next one. Always the next step, Dalinar.”

Epic in scale, and grandiose in length. Those are the best words to describe what Brandon Sanderson has accomplished with his Stormlight Archive saga. This is a planned 10-book series by one of the most prolific fantasy authors of our time, and when complete, it’ll certainly go down as his magnum opus. But even though we only have four books at the moment, they’re definitely worth a read.

Everything about The Stormlight Archive, from its characters to its setting to its story, is epic. So, if it was the scale of the conflict and the stakes involved that hooked you to The Lord of the Rings, then go to your local bookstore and buy The Way of Kings immediately.

3. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

“Only a battle lost is sadder than a battle won.”

In terms of fantasy books that revolutionized the genre or opened a new chapter on it, The Wheel of Time can be considered the direct successor to The Lord of the Rings. This is a typical war between good and evil, but with a level of nuance that will leave you completely baffled.

Robert Jordan excels at climactic payoffs and character work, so if you want a story that gives you the riveting excitement of the Battle of Pelennor Fields, while also providing a glimpse into the inner workings of its protagonists like Tolkien does with Frodo and Sam, then The Wheel of Time will charm its way into your heart.

2. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

“For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.”

The Earthsea cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin is very similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in that it also follows the traditional high fantasy storytelling tropes. The tale features a hero’s journey from an insignificant bystander to one who takes on an enormous responsibility, while worldbuilding elements like going on an adventure and having a mentor figure will also eerily remind you of the quest to destroy the One Ring.

The Earthsea books are generally short in length, making them a perfect literary getaway for those who just wish to immerse themselves in a fictional setting.

1. The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomable at the foundations of the Earth.”

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you love J.R.R. Tolkien, you should read the other Middle-earth books set before The Lord of the Rings. There are two major novels in the legendarium.

One is The Silmarillion, which deals with the history of creation, the war against the fallen angel Melkor, and his ultimate demise at the end of the First Age. The other, actually written in story format as opposed to Silmarillion’s textbook style, is The Children of Húrin which deals with the tragic fate of Túrin Turambar. Some suggest that the latter might be the best work Tolkien has ever produced, so you should definitely put it on your list. And if you do, make sure to get the audiobook by the late Christopher Lee, because there isn’t anything quite like it so far as Middle-earth media are concerned.

And when you’re done with that, there are even more books like the 12-volume History of Middle-earth or standalone titles like The Fall of Gondolin and Beren and Lúthien to get into. Tolkien’s written collection is an endless well, and reading The Lord of the Rings alone would be akin to barely scratching the surface.

About the author

Jonathan Wright

Jonathan is a religious consumer of movies, TV shows, video games, and speculative fiction. And when he isn't doing that, he likes to write about them. He can get particularly worked up when talking about 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'A Song of Ice and Fire' or any work of high fantasy, come to think of it.