I used to love book series. I used to like collecting every book in the series and lining them up on my shelf – I still hate when they change the cover designs midway through so it doesn’t match any more.
I think I started buying books that are part of series less because I love them too much. I tended to get slightly obsessive about completing them. The only two adult series I really love enough to put on this list are Discworld and Temeraire by Naomi Novik – so consider those a couple of honourable mentions!
I tried to rank these based on a combination of how much I enjoyed them as a child (or a teenager) and how much I enjoy them now – which means that, as with many favourites lists, a lot of the objectively better books rank lower. Make of that what you will!
10. Curse Workers by Holly Black
I came across White Cat in a charity book-shop and bought it because it was so cheap. I’ve since bought the two subsequent books in the series, Red Glove and Black Heart at full price, even though in many respects they aren’t really my genre – Curse Workers is very much a crime/thriller series with fantastic elements rather than a fantasy series. But its fantasy elements are really well-executed. Curse Workers has some of the best world-building I’ve ever read. The series is set in an alternate world where a small – but significant – portion of the population are ‘workers’: people with the ability to curse others.
The history of curse workers is woven seamlessly into real-world history – and their marginalisation from mainstream society is very much justified. Though it’s not completely impossible for workers to use their powers for good – luck workers can bless people with good luck as well as curse them with bad luck – for the most part, the things magic can do in this series are nasty (two workers: ‘death worker’). The ethical debates get complicated: nobody chooses to be a curse worker, but ordinary people are right to be afraid of them. Most curse workers are criminals – but often because they don’t have any other choice. By the end of the first book, the protagonist is stuck between a rock and a hard place: a life of crime or the legal but only marginally less moral secret services?
9. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate
Probably the only children’s (as opposed to YA) series on this list, Animorphs was some of the first proper science fiction I ever read. These books are far less gimmicky than outward appearance suggest; though extremely patchy in quality (there’s fifty-four Animorphs books, it’s only to be expected), when this series gets good, it can get very good.
The first book opens with five teenagers witnessing an alien space craft crashing on a construction site in the town where they live. The dying pilot has come to warn earth about an alien invasion. The kids think he means that more aliens are coming, but no: they’re already here. Earth is being invaded by the Yeerks (a word, I learned today, derived from ‘Yrch’, the Elvish word for Orcs. The more you know!), alien parasites capable of entering and taking over the brains of other animals. A significant portion of the world’s population has been infested. They already have several major world leaders. The alien pilot is part of the Andalite army, and he breaks his people’s laws to share morphing technology with the five leads, allowing them to take the form of any animal they touch. They are now earth’s last line of defence.
That’s the set-up, but things get more complicated very quickly. The Andalites are not the kind benefactors they seem to be; due to the long war with the Yeerks, they’re now ruled by military government. They are very willing to resort to biological warfare to prevent the spread of the Yeerks by wiping out potential host bodies. They’re the good guys, but they’re not nice. And the Yeerks themselves are ultimately just people – people who are increasingly characterised, as the series goes on, as victims of their own biology. There’s a Yeerk Peace Movement pushing to end the war. This is not a straightforward series: the ethical dilemmas come thick and fast, the sci-fi is often genuinely clever, and when I was a kid I loved it.
9. The Circle of Magic by Tamora Pierce
Pretty much all female fantasy fans of the right age seem to love Tamora Pierce – but I seem to be unusual in preferring Circle of Magic to the more popular Tortall Sequence.
I sort of understand why. The Tortall books are more exciting, more conventional high fantasy, and more overtly feminist next to the more subdued and gender-neutral Circle series – not to mention Tortall might well just be the better series. But the Circle of Magic books have a balmy, Mediterranean sort of atmosphere that always make them nice to read here in wet Britain; they have an ensemble cast; and as the title suggests, they’re really all about magic.
Pierce goes into a whole lot of detail about magic in these books – how it works, how it feels to work it, how it feels to have it as a part of your identity. It’s fascinating to read and it was a huge influence on my own fantasy.
7. Stravaganza by Mary Hoffman
I love reading about magic; I also like a well-executed portal fantasy.
The Stravaganza books have always struck me as self-indulgent and a little gimmicky, but I loved them anyway. Each book centres on a different teenager who finds a ‘token’ that allows them to travel out of our world and into another – specifically an alternate universe version of sixteenth century Italy.
What I like about Stravaganza is not so much the world-building as its mundaneness. These books are portal fantasies, but they’re not portal-quest fantasies. The main characters are not expressly chosen – though the people who leave the tokens are quite adamant that there is some kind of guiding force or providence to the process – nor do they have any real purpose in the other world.
Being one of the Stravaganza strikes me as a bit like being part of an interdimensional exchange program: you have a buddy or mentor in the other world who you stay with and learn from, and in turn they learn about our world from you. Try and tell me that doesn’t sound cool. Unfortunately, I always found this series to be slightly overshadowed by the first book. which has more conflict, more depth, and an honestly tragic ending; but the rest of the series is a whole lot of fun too.
6. The Cup of the World Trilogy by John Dickinson
I picked up The Cup of the World based solely on its cover. I think it’s still one of my all-time favourite book covers – just look at it! The book did not disappoint.
This is not an easy-going trilogy – I re-read it recently and it took me a while to get through. It’s high fantasy, but generally told from the perspective of characters who are outside the main action; the first book is from the point of view of a Lord’s wife while he’s away at war. It’s surreal. It’s disturbing – the scenes at the beginning of the second book where the main character loses the stones that are his only protection against the spectre that’s hunting him down stuck in my head for years. It’s also ultimately very depressing. The first two books are pretty grim; the third one makes them look like a walk in the park. It’s more or less all misery all the time.Not something I have plans to re-read any time soon – but wonderfully executed.
The other thing I like about these books is that they are told almost entirely from a female perspective. There’s a lot of female points of view and a lot of positive relationships between women. These seems to throw some readers as it means that much of the time we’re left behind the lines or away from the action – but it’s one of my favourite aspects of the series.
5. The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones
Let’s be completely honest: The Chronicles of Chrestomanci is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones series. It’s unique, it’s quirky, it’s full of that detail about magic-working I love so much – but I put Charmed Life, the first book in the series, on my favourite books list, so putting it here as well would be cheating.
Besides, I want to showcase the Dalemark books. This quartet is the only concrete series Jones ever wrote – her others are more loosely-connected clusters of standalones than true series – and unlike the rest of her work, it’s pure high fantasy.
I don’t normally like high fantasy – or, rather, I don’t like conventional high fantasy. Stranger high fantasy series, like The Cup of the World, like the two high fantasy series below, like Dalemark, are something I tend to love.
So what makes Dalemark different? For me it’s the worldbuilding. The characters and story don’t tend to grab me, but the world of Dalemark is truly alive. There’s no medieval stasis here – you’re shown Dalemark at three different stages of its development: pre-historic, pre-revolutionary, and modern. Each informs the other two; events at each point in time reverberate back and forth. If you’re interested in history, it’s a fascinating read. If not, it’s still a brilliant bit of high fantasy – with bonus explosions!
4. The Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix
Here’s another fantasy series that women of a certain age seem to gravitate to – and for good reason. It’s more of a standalone followed by a duology than a true trilogy, and both are female coming-of-age stories about two very different young women.
Lirael and Sabriel deal with fairly normal teenager problems – not fitting in, depression, romance – and fight undead zombies.
That’s how I always describe The Old Kingdom – it’s high fantasy! With zombies! Both protagonists are from the line of the Abhorsen, an inherited position whose job it is to keep the world of the dead from flowing into the world of the living.
The Old Kingdom, like Dalemark, is a world of flux rather than stasis; the books deal, broadly speaking, with the rebuilding of the kingdom after a period of decline.The decline being due to the zombies, naturally.
Factor in a unique, detailed and beautifully realised magic-system and these books were never not going to be a favourite of mine.
3. Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn
The third and final high fantasy series on this list – though Tales of the Otori might actually be alternate history science fiction, depending on your reading.
Unlike most high fantasy series, Tales of the Otori takes as its model not medieval Europe but feudal Japan. It’s one of the least western high fantasies I’ve read. It has a very tangible, realist approach to magic (are you sensing a pattern here?) and a tone that is fantastic while still reading like historical fiction.
And – this is the deciding factor for me – it has one of my all-time favourite love stories. I’m not even quite sure why I found Across the Nightingale Floor so romantic. There’s little explanation as to why the two leads fall in love – they just do, and their relationship informs the rest of the series.
Tales of the Otori beautiful, intricate series of books, and needs more love.
2. The Johnny Maxwell Series by Terry Pratchett
I will forever hold that Terry Pratchett’s non-Discworld stuff is severely underrated.
The Johnny Maxwell books are deceptive simple. Each deals with an SF archetype: aliens, ghosts, and time travel. The characters are all fairly tokenistic. In a sense they’re Issue books about a boy acting out due to his parents’ divorce.
But they’re also metatextual, subversive, and downright weird. Johnny Maxwell, the protagonist, is something of an involuntary weirdness magnet – he once found a lost city behind a supermarket and a tiny Loch Ness Monster in a pond – and his friends keep getting dragged into the shenanigans that make up his life.
I read Johnny and the Bomb – technically the last of the series – first, and I hold out that it’s the best. Johnny and his friends find a time-travelling shopping trolley that takes them back to the 1940s, where they grapple with whether or not to save the lives of the people killed in their town’s one and only bombing.
Ultimately, all three books in the series have the same themes and message; they’re all about free will and autonomy. It’s pretty deep stuff for a children’s series – and, I think, some of Terry Pratchett’s best work.
1. Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb by Phillip Reeve
These books followed me around for a while before I read them. Young Writer magazine offered them in a competition I thought about entering. Philip Reeve came to my town’s book festival to talk about them. But for some reason it took me a while to actually read them!
Mortal Engines and its sequels might be the ultimate in the ‘used future’. I’ve seen the world described as post-post-post-apocalyptic – but it’s still, if only faintly, recognisable as our own. That’s what makes it so disturbing.
In Mortal Engines, whole cities are mounted on wheels, driving around a massive ‘hunting ground’ where larger cities eat smaller cities, and cities eat towns. These ‘Traction Cities’ are in a state of war with the Anti-Traction League, who want a return to the old ways. The prequel series, Fever Crumb, is about the conversion of London into the first Traction City.
How do I love these books? Let me count the ways. I love the inversion of narrative gender roles: the female lead is a battle-scarred scavenger seeking vengeance for the death of her parents, the male lead a sensitive, romantic historian. I love that the protagonist of Fever Crumb is happily bisexual and the relationship she builds with another woman. I love the sci-fi, particularly the ever-present ‘Old Tech’ left over from the ancient wars.
The post-apocalyptic setting is beautifully realised; the destruction of our world feels brutally real. The comedy is about as dark as it comes. Mortal Engines is an all-round wonderful bit of YA sci-fi – and, evidently, my favourite series.