I’ve mentioned a few times before that I’m a fantasy/sci-fi nerd. As a kid I wanted to be a wizard, a mad scientist, or ideally both. That’s part of why I love being a fitness coach- by curing my caffeine addiction, tinkering with my workouts, or experimenting with mind-reading meditation headsets, I get to indulge those fantasies.
I also read a lot. As a kid I went through a phase where I read two novels a week. Now that number is down to two a month as I’ve started reading more non-fiction, but I’m starting to make more time for novels, as my reading list just continues to grow.
I could list of the names of dozens of great authors whose work I’ve devoured with glee over the years. But I forced myself to pare down the list, so here are nine underrated fantasy and sci-fi authors who have truly amazed me.
At 87 Ursula LeGuin is the oldest person on this list, edging out Gene Wolfe by just one year. She grew up in a family of anthropologists, and way back in the 60’s, she was the first person to apply concepts from the real-life fields of anthropology, psychology, and sociology.
This approach has helped her to craft unique and memorable worlds, and made her one of the first and most well-known fantasy authors to write settings that couldn’t be boiled down to “medieval Europe, but with magic.” Her work explores themes such as anarchism, taoism, race, gender and environmentalism.
Fun fact: She went to high school with Phillip K. Dick, another amazing author who almost made it onto this list. They were in the same class, but they never knew each other.
My recommendations: She has two novels that are particularly well-known. A Wizard of Earthsea is a mythic coming of age story about a young wizard who learns to use his power responsibly- while coming to terms with its limits.
The Left Hand of Darkness, her most famous sci-fi novel, is about an envoy who goes on a diplomatic mission to a planet whose inhabitants have no fixed sex, alternating between male and female. It was considered to be the first ever feminist science fiction novel.
However, my favorite work of hers- and the one I’d start with- isn’t a novel, but a short story that weighs in at just four pages. It’s called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, and it’s…well, I don’t want to give away the story. Suffice it to say it’s about having moral courage, and it’s one of the very few works of art that has ever brought a tear to my eye. You can read it for free using that link.
Gene Wolfe has been described by other famous sci-fi authors as “The greatest writer in the English language alive today,” and the most underrated sci-fi author in the world. In my opinion, that’s very accurate.
The thing about his books is, you think you understand them. He uses words you don’t recognize, but you look them up, and you think you get it. There’s a person riding a horse through a city, carrying a lance. Simple, right? Except it turns out the horse isn’t a horse, the lance isn’t a lance, and neither the person nor the city look like you pictured them.
On top of that, his stories are told by unreliable narrators, and full of layered metaphors and hidden allusions that you won’t notice until your second reading- and maybe not even then.
My Recommendations: His best-known series by far is The Book of the New Sun. It’s so dense, so packed full of subtle hints, mysteries and metaphors, that his fans continue to debate and discuss interpretations of it decades after it was published.
His other two well-known series that I can personally recommend are both set in the same world. The Book of the Long Sun is set on a generation ship where people worship the ship’s crew as gods.
The Book of the Short Sun is set on the planet subsequently colonized by the inhabitants of that ship. It has been described as being like “a Star Wars-style space opera penned by G. K. Chesterton in the throes of a religious conversion.”
One of the best people to come out of the new wave of British sci-fi authors, Charles Stross’s books feature transhuman and post-human characters, computer hackers, anarchist and post-cyberpunk themes, and a good mix of humor. Out of all the sci-fi authors I read, he does perhaps the best job of creating truly plausible future worlds.
My Recommendations: Start with Saturn’s Children. The characters are all androids left behind after the human race has died out, trying to maintain a functional society. “Robot” is considered a horrifying racial slur, and in a clever inversion of the “grey good” scenario, there’s an organization called Pink Police who wipe out all biological life for fear that it will replicate and displace android life.
I also enjoy his Laundry Files series, about a British spy agency tasked with defending the UK from Lovecraftian horrors. It deftly mixes horror and espionage themes, along with a hefty dose of comedy, mostly revolving around how stiflingly bureaucratic the titular Laundry is. The characters seem to divide their time evenly between office politics, saving the world, and filling out TPS reports.
Brandon Sanderson is actually very well-known, but I’m including him here because I think he’s the greatest fantasy novelist of all time. He’s also one of the most prolific, as he seems to average about two novels and two short stories a year.
His novels are notable for having well thought-out magic systems with clear and internally consistent laws of physics. According to Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magics, giving magic clear limitations makes stories more interesting by giving characters opportunities to win through cleverness, rather than just “being a better wizard.” Like Ursula LeGuin, he thinks through how magic and technology would affect society- and he’s also one of the few fantasy authors whose worlds experience technological growth, as opposed to being stuck in medieval stasis.
Oh, and one other thing. Nearly everything he writes takes place in a shared universe that he calls The Cosmere. They’re connected by a meta-plot involving a god having been murdered, his power sundered into sixteen parts and stolen by his killers who became lesser gods themselves and all colonized their own planets within a small dwarf galaxy…yeah. As time goes on, his novels start connecting to each other more, and he’s said that future novels will involve interstellar travel, further connecting some of the Cosmere worlds. The whole Cosmere series is planned to encompass 32-36 books, which will make it by far the most epic fantasy series of all time.
My Recommendations: Jesus, where to start. His first novel, Elantris, is a great novel in its own right, and not part of a huge series like his other stuff.
His big epic fantasy series is The Stormlight Archives. I finished the first book- over a thousand pages long- in three days. It’s just that good. I check his website at least once a month for updates on book three.
And then there’s the Mistborn series, which he began with his second novel. The evolution of his writing from Elantris to Mistborn, in the space of one year, is truly astounding. And once you finish the original Mistborn series, you can move on to The Bands of Mourning, which features- no joke- wizard cowboys.
Many of my favorite authors are adept at creating dark and morally ambiguous worlds, and writing situations where the hero is forced to make tough moral compromises. Brent Weeks does this better than anyone else, and he might also be the best author in the world at writing morally flawed heroes.
My Recommendations: He’s only written two series, and I love both of them. The Night Angel Trilogy is about an assassin in a corrupt and decaying society who becomes the new bearer of an ancient and powerful magical artifact. But it’s also about decent people trying to do the right thing when there is no right course of action. And sometimes, it’s about good people fighting other good people.
He’s currently writing the last installment of The Lightbringer Series, about a civil war between wizards, old gods and other things I won’t spoil for you, in a world ruled by wizards who use color-based magic. The protagonist, Gavin Guile, is the current wizard-priest-king, yet he demonstrates that words and social manipulation can be more powerful than magic. He’s a great man who tries to do good for people, but he has huge blind spots- for instance, he sees no problem with slavery. Like I said, morally ambiguous heroes.
Some of Thomas Ligotti’s works take place in fictional worlds, so they could be called fantasy, but really he’s a horror writer. I had to put him in here because he’s the best horror writer ever. Yes, better than Lovecraft.
He draws a lot of influence from H. P. Lovecraft, and like Lovecraft, he mainly writes short stories. As mentioned, some of his stories take place in fictional worlds, but others seem to take place in a sort of surreal, parallel universe that’s almost like our own, but different enough to fall into a sort of uncanny valley for settings.
Some of his monsters are Lovecraftian, while in other stories, the world itself is the monster. Also, puppets- either the monster is a puppet, or the character feels like he’s a puppet, or there are creepy puppets lying around. He has a thing for puppets.
Here’s what one Amazon reviewer says about his work: His writings are psychologically disturbing at an existential level because the experiences of the characters in his stories challenge conventional conceptions of reality…. As a result, the stories are truly horrific because, in the final analysis, they leave his characters, and so too the reader, with the ultimate nightmarish vision of life as a series of experiences that we call people, places, and things that cannot be trusted to actually represent anyone, anywhere, or anything.
My Recommendations: Start with Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, his best-known collection of short stories. Then move on to Teatro Grotesco– that’s the short story collection that got me hooked.
If you want to read something truly disturbing, read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his collection of nonfiction essays explaining his pessimistic and anti-humanist philosophy. He argues that humans- indeed all life forms- are nothing more than biological puppets to our genes, and that reality is so horrifying, only self-delusion can keep us sane.
Best quote: Life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would have us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, starring void.
The rookie author on this list, Max Gladstone burst onto the scene a few years ago with The Craft Sequence, a fantasy series inspired by the 2008 recession.
In the world he created, magical energy is produced by living beings, precisely measured in units called thaums, and used as a form of money. Magic is also contract-based, with magicians writing up carefully-worded contracts exchanging thaums for services. Some of these contracts resemble real-life bonds, options and business agreements.
In others words, his world features wizard lawyers, magical hedge funds, forensic accounting, and mage duels as a form of lawsuit. There’s also a cool backstory about how human mages rebelled against the gods, and on one of the two main continents, wizards and magical partnerships fill the social role that the gods used to fill.
My Recommendations: Start with Three Parts Dead, the first book of the craft cycle. The plot: a god has died under mysterious circumstances, and his creditors are suing his estate. A necromancer-lawyers teams up with one of the dead god’s priests to investigate his death and defend his church against the lawsuits so that the city the god ruled over doesn’t go magically bankrupt.
After that, read Two Serpents Rise, the second Craft Cycle novel. It takes place in an Aztec-inspired city where a god fed by human sacrifice has been replaced with a magical corporation fed by environmental destruction. Max Gladstone does have a few other novels outside the Craft Cycle, but I haven’t read them yet.
Canadian author Steven Erikson is primarily known for his dark fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which in my opinion is the second most epic fantasy series of all time (after Sanderson’s Cosmere books).
This series of sprawling and frankly difficult to follow at times. It starts in the middle of the story, there are hundreds of characters to keep track of, and basic facts about the setting get referenced early on, but only explained later. But if you can make it through all that, you’re in for a treat, because this is is the most richly detailed and fully-realized fantasy world I’ve ever seen.
Erikson is trained as an archeologist and anthropologist, and it shows in his writing. The stories take place in several historical eras and dozens of fully fleshed-out cultures. Every race is as complex and varied as humanity- no dwarf/elf/orc stereotypes here. There are alternate dimensions, and a huge pantheon of gods who are characters in their own right.
Speaking of which, the characters are amazing. They include a mix of soldiers, politicians, merchants, spies, gods, refugees and street-level criminals. The variety sometimes makes this feel like a fantasy version of The Wire. Also, characters die, a lot. Main characters will be killed and maimed on a regular basis, and “good” characters will sometimes behave in ways that seem shocking. This is definitely a series for adults, and a very dark one at that.
The books are also packed full of weird and wondrous stuff, like floating mountains, a sword that traps its victims in a pocket hell-dimension, zombie lizards, dragons, sorcerers, a creepy puppet sorcerer, an amnesiac immortal, and sentient plants that grow into houses with portals into other worlds.
All that, and I’m only three books into the ten-book main series. There are also several trilogies and over a dozen companion novels and novellas set in the same universe, some of them written by Erikson’s friend Ian Esslemont, who co-created the setting with him.
My Recommendations: Every book in this series is its own self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, so you can read them in any order. Plus, they’re not written in chronological order. That said, they’re meant to be read in the order in which they’re published.
Start with Gardens of the Moon, the first book in the series. It follows a group of elite special ops/combat engineers besieging a city, a cadre of sorcerers in that same besieging army, and a group of spies and criminals inside that city. Then move on to Deadhouse Gates, which continues the story on another continent and adds in a brilliant barbarian general fighting an army of rebellious religious zealots, along with the aforementioned immortal amnesiac.
Last but not least we have someone whose work is rather hard to classify. Liz Williams combines elements of fantasy, sci-fi, surrealism, impressionism, and Chinese and Central Asian mythology to create worlds that stick in your mind long after you’ve started to forget some of the plot details.
I first stumbled across her work by accident, when I was browsing at a Borders bookstore (remember those?) and bought Banner of Souls on a whim. I don’t know what I expected, but what I got was a gothic posthuman science-fantasy world where nanotech is animated by ghosts, Martian warrior women hunt down the last few men on mars like animals, and sorcerer-scientists from Pluto plot to destroy what remains of humanity.
My Recommendations: Start with Banner of Souls, which I just described. This book blew my mind. Her Winterstrike novels continue the story begun in Banner of Souls– I haven’t read them yet.
The other book of hers that I absolutely loved was The Poison Master. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s about an apprentice poisoner in the universe as imagined by 16th-century alchemists. People use ornithopters to fly between worlds- worlds which are linked in a sequence corresponding to the sephirot of the Kabbalah. It’s weird, and once again blew my mind.
Finally, Snake Agent is the first book in her Detective Inspector Chen series. It’s a fantasy post-cyberpunk story about a Buddhist sorcerer-detective in the futuristic (mid to late 21st century, I think) city of Singapore Three- a franchise of Singapore within the People’s Republic of China. Chen investigates murders in the most direct way possible- by going to heaven or hell and questioning the dead.
And with that, I’m off to do some reading. For more articles like this, join my free newsletter using one of the forms on this page.