Top 20 Best Fantasy Books of 2011

This past year has been a great and intense year for fans of the fantasy genre. We have been treated to many highly anticipated releases like George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance. These big releases were mixed with great surprises, making 2011 a truly meorable year.

Our reviewers at The Ranting Dragon have been working all year to report on the best releases, along with the disappointing ones. Having reviewed over a hundred of 2011’s fantasy releases, it is time to look back and tell you which books we liked most. Unfortunately, we still missed a couple of acclaimed titles, like Jay Lake’s Endurance, and David Anthony Durham’s epic finale, The Sacred Band. We hope to tell you all about those books and more in the first months of 2012.

For now, though, we present you with our favorite twenty fantasy releases of the year 2011. Keep in mind that this list does not include debuts. Those can be found in our Top 10 Best Fantasy Debuts of 2011.

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1. The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
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With The Crippled God, the Malazan Book of the Fallen series comes to an end in iron and blood, fire and triumph, magic and heartbreak. Steven Erikson manages to not only craft one of the best books I have read this year, but to finish one of the finest fantasy series ever. In this ending, set in motion long before and foreshadowed all through the series, Erikson pulls out all the stops. The Crippled God brings to life every aspect of the immense world of Malazan. Always an exercise in imagination and pure reasoning, Erikson does not disappoint as he uses the final book to delve even deeper into the wonderful world he has built. Breathtakingly complex, overwhelmingly heartbreaking, fantastically humorous, and epic on every scale imaginable, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and particularly The Crippled God, are the work of a true master writer.
Want to know more? Read Marty’s review of The Crippled God.
2. The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin
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N. K. Jemisin’s The Kingdom of Gods is the intriguing and spectacular ending to The Inheritance Trilogy. Set some hundred years after the events in The Broken Kingdoms, it is narrated from the first person viewpoint of the trickster child god Sieh, as his interactions with human children threaten his immortality. Artistically written, The Kingdom of Gods is a reflective, almost philosophical journey into the many elements of the immortal and mortal realms. The easygoing focus on characters combined with the marvelous, almost poetic prose turns this novel into an engrossing page-turner. The Kingdom of Gods corroborates what those who have read its predecessors already surmised: N. K. Jemisin is a true superstar of fantasy literature. The Inheritance Trilogy may well be the single most intriguing fantasy series you ever come across.
Want to know more? Read Stephan’s review of The Kingdom of Gods.
3. The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan
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The Cold Commands is the much anticipated sequel to The Steel Remains, the 2008 fantasy debut of acclaimed science fiction author Richard Morgan. Arriving after a three year hiatus, the second installment of A Land Fit for Heroes does not disappoint. Set approximately one year after the events of The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands reunites us with forgotten war heroes Ringil, Archeth, and Egar, albeit in somewhat altered circumstances. No holds are barred in this fast-paced genre shake-up, its pages veritably bursting with passion, action, intelligence, and pathos. All in all, The Cold Commands takes everything that made The Steel Remains great and ramps it up to the next level. It’s darker, faster, grittier, and more violent than its predecessor while providing the same generous servings of black humor, snappy dialogue, tight characterization, and cynical, razor-sharp wit.
Want to know more? Read Michelle’s review of The Cold Commands.
4. The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel by Brandon Sanderson
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After writing and publishing two huge bestselling epic novels in 2010, Brandon Sanderson needed a break. You’d think he would spend his break drinking cocktails on some exotic beach, but instead, he wrote a short novel, The Alloy of Law. Set in an almost steampunk-esque era in the world of Sanderson’s acclaimed Mistborn Trilogy, this urban epic tells the tale of Waxilium Ladrian, who leaves his old life as lawkeeper behind to take over his deceased uncle’s position as head of his house, but soon finds himself at the center of a mysterious series of robberies. Combining inventive magic with blazing gunfire, The Alloy of Law is a riveting, action-packed story that reinvents the world of Mistborn with a bold new set of characters, witty dialogue, and a revolutionized setting.
Want to know more? Read Ashik and Stephan’s review of The Alloy of Law.
5. Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
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The thirteenth installment in the New York Times bestselling series The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Ghost Story picks up on the heels of book 12, Changes, pretty much immediately—and much later. Simultaneously. The least standalone-ish of The Dresden Files to date, Ghost Story is the true game-changer of the series. Unable to interact with the physical world, or any of his friends, Harry must solve a gruesome murder—without magic. It’s a wild roller coaster of a ride that will have a fan in equal parts tears, laughter, and rage.
Want to know more? Read Garrett’s review of Ghost Story.
6. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss was one of the most critically acclaimed fantasy debuts of our time. Like its predecessor, The Wise Man’s Fear is a character study that focuses deeply on the dilemmas the young and gifted orphan Kvothe meets while on his life’s journey. The Wise Man’s Fear has new flaws as well as new greatness, and those that loved The Name of the Wind will love The Wise Man’s Fear. While this sequel doesn’t entirely live up—there’s a significant decrease in action, and some of Rothfuss’s plot decisions are sketchy at best—it is still a great book and a very worthy sequel. If you are a fan of the epic fantasy genre, you owe it to yourself to read both this book and its predecessor.
Want to know more? Read Stephan’s review of The Wise Man’s Fear.
7. Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan
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Fenrir is the sequel to M. D. Lachlan’s brilliant fantasy debut, Wolfsangel, and the second installment in his unnamed Norse werewolf series. Not only does it live up to the previous volume, in many ways it far surpasses it. Set approximately one hundred years after the events of its predecessor, it centers around the fates of reincarnations of the original protagonists, still locked into a tragic cycle of death and rebirth involving the god Odin and the monstrous Fenris wolf destined to kill him at Ragnarok. Once again, Lachlan delivers a dark and thrilling tale incorporating Norse gods and monsters, historical detail, sinister magic, and a tragic human struggle against fate. While Fenrir is an engrossing and well-written story in its own right, it is an also excellent second book in what is shaping up to be a truly memorable series.
Want to know more? Read Michelle’s review of Fenrir.
8. Hexed by Kevin Hearne
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Kevin Hearne’s Hexed follows hot on the heels of Hounded, the first book in Hearne’s urban fantasy series, The Iron Druid Chronicles. Only a few weeks after Atticus’s showdown with Aenghus Og, Atticus is already mired in the affairs of warring Polish and German witches, rogue demons, Bacchants from Las Vegas, and the first Druid initiate in centuries. He has also developed a sudden (and unfortunate) reputation among all world mythologies as a badass god-killing machine. Once again, Hearne knocks it out of the park with a wicked sense of humor, believable characterization, hyper action, and a grittier edge than is seen in Hounded.
Want to know more? Read Caleigh’s review of Hexed.
9. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
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In Moon Over Soho, the second adventure of Peter Grant, the magic-wielding constable takes on jazz. When a part-time jazz musician drops dead from what seems like a heart attack, the jazz notes lingering on his corpse indicate a supernatural cause of death, requiring the investigative work of our charming Mr. Grant. While Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch’s debut novel, was a very strong start to the Peter Grant series, Moon Over Soho cements the series as one of the better urban fantasy series. The humor, the world-building, the action, the magic, the mystery, the procedural—they all are top-notch.
Want to know more? Read Benni’s review of Moon Over Soho.
10. Among Others by Jo Walton
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While some of you may not have heard of Jo Walton, Among Others certainly brought her to the forefront of fantasy literature. This standalone novel follows Mori, a twin who has recently lost her sister, as she struggles in her day-to-day life at a boarding school, eventually finding solace in a magic that can have devastating consequences—not only for herself, but for everyone around her. Written with a unique voice, Among Others will leave you thinking long after you set it down.
Want to know more? Read James’s review of Among Others.
11. The Order of the Scales by Stephen Deas
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With The Order of the Scales, Stephen Deas concludes his A Memory of Flames trilogy. Where The Adamantine Palace was pretty decent and The King of the Crags was pretty good, The Order of the Scales is pretty brilliant. This final volume—which is definitely not the last we’ve seen of Deas’ epic world of dragons—is like a roller coaster ride with turns and twists and new thrilling discoveries behind every curve. This is how epic fantasy should be: with savage and horrifying dragons, political intrigue, mystery, great worldbuilding, neck-breaking pacing, interesting magic, and breathtaking battle sequences. There is no wrong or right; there are no heroes—there is only blind ambition, blind devotion, and a struggle to survive.
Want to know more? Read Stephan’s review of Order of the Scales.
12. Dancing with Bears by Michael Swanwick
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Darger and Surplus are two conmen embroiled in a web of political intrigue and crime that begins with them conning their way onto a caravan carrying a gift of immense value from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Muscovy. The setting of Dancing with Bears is so detailed and unique that it is almost unrecognizable as our Earth. With a rich history and a layered story, Dancing with Bears is a must read for those fond of original speculative fiction.
Want to know more? Read Ashik’s review of Dancing with Bears.
13. Infidel by Kameron Hurley
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The sequel to Kameron Hurley’s stellar debut God’s War, Infidel, picks up years later as Nyxnissa works with a new crew. This time, the drama and suspense are more intimate and the personal stakes even higher. Unwittingly, old associates are pulled back in as Nyx tracks down rogue Bel Dames to protect her homeland. Hurley is at her best with characters—and this is where most of the conflict lies, as loyalties are tested and old wounds, both physical and mental, come to bear. Violent, bloody, and an intense ride set in a superbly-crafted science fiction universe, Infidel is a book you don’t want to miss! If you haven’t, be sure to read God’s War first!
Want to know more? Read Caitrin’s review of Infidel.
14. Downpour by Kat Richardson
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Book six of the Greywalker novels, Downpour picks up Harper Blaine’s tracks shortly after the conclusion to Labyrinth. While not as action-oriented as some of her past novels, Richardson hits her stride with the two main characters as they are taken out of their comfort zones. Not only that, but some of the troubles they have are so real, so organic, that you can’t help but believe these characters are real people. Again featuring the fascinating and unique magic system of the Grey, Downpour is not a novel to miss for any urban fantasy enthusiast.
Want to know more? Read Garrett’s review of Downpour.
15. Spellbound by Blake Charlton Buy on Amazon.com Buy at The Book Depository Buy at Barnes and Noble Find this book on Goodreads
Set ten years after the conclusion to Spellwright, Spellbound follows Francesca, a Cleric devout in her ability to heal her patients. However, when one of her patients dies on her table only to come back to life before her eyes, she’s thrown into a magical conspiracy involving gods, demons, and rogue magicians. With characters who have truly grown up in the world Charlton created, writing that leaves you immersed in the story to the point where you can believe you’re there battling demons with Nicodemus and Francesca, and one of the most unique magic systems in fantasy, Spellbound has all of the ingredients that make up an amazing sequel to an amazing debut.
Want to know more? Read James’s review of Spellbound.
16. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
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Sick of pseudo-medieval Western European fantasies? Try Akata Witch for a change. Award-winning Nnedi Okorafor delivers a charming, immersive, exciting, and unique novel for young adults. Sunny is an albino American new to Nigeria, and not only does she find it tough to make new friends, she finds she just might be magical, too. Sunny, along with fellow magic students Chichi, Sasha, and Orlu, must form her own magical Oha Coven to defeat the serial killer preying on children in the area. Akata Witch is a fantastic and original novel that promises great things for the series.
Want to know more? Read Caleigh’s review of Akata Witch.
17. Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly
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Circle of Enemies is the third and—currently—final installment in the Twenty Palaces series by Harry Connolly. Enter Ray Lilly, an ex-convict who has survived more during his time with the Twenty Palace Society than any “wooden man” should probably have any reason to. However, when a problem arises this time, it’s a bit different. More than different—it’s personal. For when a magical attack begins targeting members of his old gang, Ray must make the decision between ties to his past and responsibilities in the present as he comes head to head with the sorcerer who thrust him into this mess in the first place. A novel full of dark realism and gritty violence, Circle of Enemies is a read that leaves you wanting more, and wanting it now.
Want to know more? Read Garrett’s review of Circle of Enemies.
18. The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee
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Emily Gee’s The Sentinel Mage is the first volume in a new sword and sorcery trilogy titled The Cursed Kingdoms. From a slowly festering curse to a distant prospect of war, from a trying journey through a deadly desert to a dangerous assassin chasing a prince and a group of shape shifting mages, a substantial part of this story rehashes old fantasy tropes. Gee, however, manages to breathe new life into these elements in an original and enjoyable story. The Sentinel Mage is by no means perfect, but the endearing characters and Gee’s exceptionally engrossing prose make it a touching and epic story that is both engaging and unpredictable, and that will give you quite a few hours of entertainment.
Want to know more? Read Stephan’s review of The Sentinel Mage.
19. Deadline by Mira Grant
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Roughly a year after the events of Feed, Deadline, the second installment in the acclaimed Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant (pseudonym for Seanan McGuire) finds Shaun Mason adrift without any real purpose or drive. Poking zombies just isn’t as fun after losing as much as he has. However, things change when a medical researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with news about the conspiracy behind the attack on his family, and Shaun hits the road to find the truth, no matter the cost. A fantastic continuation to one of the freshest takes on zombies in recent years, Deadline is a brain-twisting and page-burning read.
Want to know more? Read Garrett’s review of Deadline.
20. Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott
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J. M. McDermott’s Never Knew Another, the first book in the Dogsland Trilogy, is a weird work of literary fantasy that can be best typified as a “fourteenth century urban fantasy.” This dark, strange, and poetic tale explores both demons and demon hunters, as well as erasing all boundaries of right and wrong, taking readers on a dark journey filled with shades of gray. Never Knew Another is not an adventurous story of hunter and prey, but a tragic love story of two lonely and frightened people who know that when their true heritage is discovered, they will be burned alive for it. Never Knew Another is a wonderful story of emotions and conflicts set in an atmosphere that will blow you away, but though it is good, the story is significantly lacking forward momentum.
Want to know more? Read Stephan’s review of Never Knew Another.

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Do you agree with our list? What were your favorite fantasy books of 2011? Let us know in the comments below, or discuss 2011’s fantasy with us on our forums.

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 31 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he can be found in a comfy chair reading a fantasy book. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing to boot. Stephan lives in a small town in The Netherlands with his wife Rebecca, an editor for The Ranting Dragon, and their two cats.

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6 comments

  1. Inheritance should be in there surely, Dances with Dragons? Magicians apprentice? The prodical Mage/ reluctant mage 

  2. I would have put A Dance with Dragons (or The Samaritan, or any number of things, I expect) above Never Knew Another. While NKA did explore some interesting territory, I found the writing to be unimpressive, on the whole.

  3. Hexed and hammered were published with in months of each other? I liked Hammered better.

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