Popular 1980s Fantasy Novels

After the boom of the 60s and 70s the fantasy genre continued to enjoy mainstream popularity, with many 80s authors branching into new sub-genres and styles.  Fantasy tropes were so established that works of comic fantasy, which poked fun at them and were humorous in tone, became increasingly popular. Urban fantasy as we now know it also had its early roots in this decade.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1980 and 1990. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

 

While there are scattered examples from earlier decades, it was in the 80s that Comic Fantasy truly took off. The first eight novels in Terry Pratchett’s much loved Discworld series were published, and Piers Anthony continued to release books in his Xanth series. Both regularly hit best-seller lists. Other series, such as Terry Brooks’s Magic Kingdom of Landover and various works by Dianna Wynne Jones, also had a humorous tone. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, while Comic Science Fiction, likely also helped boost the popularity of humorous fantasy in the 80s.

This decade also saw the beginnings of Urban Fantasy, sometimes also referred to as Contemporary or Paranormal Fantasy. Terri Windling’s Borderland series – a collection of young adult stories set in the Borderland universe – is one of the earliest examples. It provided a platform for contributors like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull.  Bull’s War for the Oaks, set in real-world Minneapolis with supernatural characters, is one of the first novels in the sub-genre.

Several works of Dark Fantasy also came out in the 80s, often as the result of horror authors such as Stephen King writing fantasy-horror blends. Glen Cook’s The Black Company could be said to be one of the earliest works of Grimdark Fantasy (high fantasy with bleak, amoral, often criminal worlds and characters).

Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, which started in the 70s, provided fantasy worlds that were expanded on in novel format in the 80s, for example the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and Raymond Feist’s Magician.

A Few Interesting Facts

  • Two of the above covers were created by sci-fi and fantasy artist Michael Whelan (The Gunslinger and The Dragonbone Chair). Whelan’s work has appeared on the covers of many books since the mid 70s. Other series he’s created covers for include Incarnations of Immortality, the Del Rey editions of Dragonriders of Pern, the DAW editions of Elric of Melniboné and The Stormlight Archive.
  • The Mists of Avalon spent 4 months on the NYT best seller list. Isaac Asimov said it was the best retelling of the Arthurian Saga he had ever read.
  • Magician is based on a role-playing game. Raymond E. Feist and his friends created the world of Midkemia as an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons and founded Midkemia Press. Feist eventually wrote a story set 500 years earlier than the RPG, which became the Riftwar Saga.
  • Terry Pratchett published books in the 70s, but it was his Discworld novels, starting with The Colour of Magic in 1983, that brought him his greatest success. In the 90s he was the UK’s best-selling author.
  • The Colour of Magic parodies the works of other 80s fantasy authors: the characters Bravd and The Weasel are inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from Fritz Leibers’s long-running series and Liessa Wyrmbidder is a parody of Lessa from McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Pratchett was a prolific reader as a child and lists his earliest inspiration as The Wind in the Willows.
  • Brian Jacques wrote Redwall for the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind, who he met while working as a milkman. He began to read books to them, and eventually wrote his own stories. Jacques’s friend and former English teacher sent the book to his publisher and they offered Jacques a contract.
  • Diana Wynne Jones  has been cited as an inspiration by many other fantasy authors, including Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Megan Whalen Turner and J K Rowling.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle is littered with references to other works, from fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the poetry of John Donne and plays of Shakespeare.
  • As a ploy to get editors to read the manuscript of his first novel, Tad Williams pretended his originals had been destroyed in a flood and asked if they could send theirs back to him. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series became a bestseller, and George R. R. Martin named it as a key influence on his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
  • Many characters in The Black Company are based on people Glen Cook served with in the navy. When asked in an interview why he thought his series was popular with soldiers, he said: “It doesn’t glorify war; it’s just people getting on with the job. The characters are real soldiers. They’re not soldiers as imagined by people who’ve never been in the service.”
  • David Eddings originally wrote The Belgariad as three very long books, believing fantasy was meant to come in trilogies. His publisher Del Rey proposed he publish it in 5 volumes, saying booksellers wouldn’t accept 600-page books. While initially reluctant, Eddings eventually agreed.

Other 80s Works and Authors

This was a difficult decade to pick a top 12 for, as there were many books I felt were influential, popular or noteworthy – but I couldn’t choose them all, so the ones that didn’t quite make it are mentioned here:

  • The Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun), by Gene Wolfe (1980)
  • The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (1980)
  • Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
  • The Blue Sword (Damar) by Robin McKinley (1982)
  • Trollbundet / Spellbound (Sagaen om Isfolket / Legend of the Ice People) by Margit Sandemo (1982)
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
  • On a Pale Horse (Incarnations of Immortality) by Piers Anthony (1983)
  • Jhereg (Vlad Taltos) by Steven Brust (1983)
  • So You Want to be a Wizard (Young Wizards) by Diane Duane (1983)
  • Vampire Hunter D (Vampire Hunter D) by Hideyuki Kikuchi (1983)
  • Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984)
  • Moonheart by Charles de Lindt (1984)
  • Legend (The Drenai Saga) by David Gemmell (1984)
  • Bridge of Birds (The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox) by Barry Hughart (1984)
  • Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (1984)
  • The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984)
  • The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)
  • Borderland (Borderlands) story collection edited by Terri Windling (1986)
  • Daggerspell (Deverry Series) by Katherine Kerr (1986)
  • Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold! (Magic Kingdom of Landover) by Terry Brooks (1986)
  • Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar) by Mercedes Lackey (1987)
  • Seventh Son (The Tales of Alvin Maker) by Orson Scott Card (1987)
  • Weaveworld, by Clive Barker (1987)
  • Conan novels (featuring the character created by Robert E. Howard) by various authors inc. Robert Jordan, L. Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson (1980-1989)

A lot of popular series that started in the 70s (mentioned in my previous post) were continued in the 80s, but I haven’t included sequels in any of my lists to avoid things getting too long. I also haven’t always mentioned a book if I’ve already included a more popular book by the same author in a previous decade or will include one in a future decade, for the same reason.

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Are any of these books a favourite? Or would you add another important novel to the list? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.

Popular 1990s Fantasy Novels >

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38 thoughts on “Popular 1980s Fantasy Novels

  1. Read most of those! The most inspiring, into modern times, for me is Holdstock’s MYTHAGO WOOD. Probably enjoyed it more as a recent re-read than when I first read it in my 20’s. MISTS OF AVALON was hugely influential for its pagan angle; I still remember poring over it i n the summer of ’84. Sadly, IMO, it hasn’t stood the test of time that well, and what we thought was the dramatic revealing of the hidden ‘Old Ways’ as shown by MZB was actually pretty bogus…

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    • Mythago Wood is great – the book has such a haunting, mythical, unique quality to it. I’d have included it in the top list if I’d chosen more than 12. And I loved Mists of Avalon – the pagan elements certainly felt real and drawn from history when I read them (which is I suppose part of why the book is so appealing), so I’m surprised to hear that – but then I never looked into that aspect and I’m no expert on the topic, so they really all could be bogus for all I know.

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  2. I was always very intimidated by these! Being a 90’s kid, I missed a lot of them growing up so I don’t feel as connected to them as many people seem to. Thus, talking to hardcore fantasy and sci-fi fans is always a trial xD
    So thank you for this guide, Nicola, It will certainly help ease myself into these novels and genres 🙂 Literary knowledge is power!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yes it is power! I’m also a 90s kid, so I only read many of these later on and also don’t have the nostalgic connection those who grew up with them might. But I’m glad I’ve managed to read quite a few of them – in some cases because I really enjoyed them, in others just so I would know what those hardcore 80s fantasy fans were talking about 🙂 (btw I’m putting together the 90s list at the moment and there are few big nostalgia items in there!)

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  3. Wow what a great decade!! Pratchett and Wynne Jones?! And the beginnings of grimdark and paranormal- how cool! and dungeons and dragons and Feist!! Love seeing the progression of fantasy through these posts (especially good for me, cos I’m rubbish with knowing history of genres). Wynne Jones is definitely an inspirational author- I love her books!!

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    • I know!! I was impressed by the sheer number of important authors and emerging sub-genres when I started looking into this decade (it’s been one of the hardest to narrow down the top 12, and to stop my ‘others’ list from going on forever!!).

      I’m glad you like seeing the progression! Actually one of the main reasons I embarked on these posts was because I felt like my genre history knowledge was too vague, and I’d get confused about which books were published when… tackling it decade by decade seemed like the best way to fix that!

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