As a child of the 90s I confess to having a particular soft spot for this decade… but personal biases aside, this was an important one for fantasy. Best-sellers boosted the genre to further heights (the phenomenon that was Harry Potter started in 1997), and many popular series that began in the 90s are still being written today, not to mention adapted into to film and television hits.
Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1990 and 2000. 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)
Released late in the 90s, the first three of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books began a series that would go on to become the best-selling of all time. Historic queues of fans waited for the release of each instalment, creating a hype unlike any known before it. Another star of the decade was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a steampunk trilogy often described as an atheist’s answer to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Indeed, both of these series had more in common with Lewis than Tolkien, being tied to the real world (i.e. low fantasy / portal fantasy) and aimed at children or young adults.
However, the decade was not without its more traditional high fantasy hits: Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (the first 8 of which were released in the 90s) developed large bases of loyal fans. George R.R. Martin’s notably darker A Game of Thrones also hit shelves in 1996.
Additionally, the wave of paranormal romances and urban fantasies that dominated best-seller lists after the turn of the Century had its beginnings in the 90s, with Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series an influential and popular forerunner. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere was also a significant early work of urban fantasy.
Many of the fantasy books of this decade were later adapted into films, TV series, stage plays, musicals and games, which helped boost their popularity further.
A Few Interesting Facts
- Robert Jordan is the pen name of James Oliver Rigney Jr. He died while writing the 12th book of The Wheel of Time, but left extensive notes so another author could finish the series. Brandon Sanderson wrote the final 3 books.
- When Gaiman and Pratchett collaborated on writing Good Omens they posted floppy disks back and forth to each other.
- Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth was bought for a record advance ($275K) in a bidding war between 3 publishers – at the time the most money ever for a fantasy novel by a first time author. In 2008 his series was adapted into the TV series Legend of the Seeker.
- Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden began to write in the 70s, publishing short stories in fanzines and anthologies, as well as several novels, under the name Megan Lindholm. She adopted the pen name Robin Hobb in 1995 when she released Assassin’s Apprentice.
- Gregory Maguire wrote his PhD thesis on English-language children’s fantasy written between 1938 and 1988. His first adult novel, Wicked, inspired the blockbuster Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire married his husband, Andy Newman, shortly after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
- Garth Nix worked many different jobs before becoming a full-time author: he was a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve; a bookseller at a bookshop; a sales representative, publicist and then senior editor at HarperCollins; a marketing consultant and a literary agent.
- One of Philip Pullman’s greatest inspirations was Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he was encouraged to read in class by his English teacher Enid Jones.
- Pullman led a campaign against the introduction of age bands on children’s books, saying: “It’s based on a one-dimensional view of growth, which regards growing older as moving along a line like a monkey climbing a stick: now you’re seven, so you read these books; and now you’re nine so you read these”.
- Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry wrote the BBC TV series Neverwhere, and the book was actually Gaiman’s companion novelisation to the series. The TV series didn’t receive much international attention, but the novel did.
- George R. R. Martin has suggested Stan Lee might be his greatest literary influence, because he became an avid fan of Marvel comic books in high school. His early letters were printed in issues of the Fantastic Four and helped him meet other fans. He later wrote fiction for various fanzines and attended early comic book conventions.
Other 90s Works and Authors
There were other popular and noteworthy fantasy books in the 90s but I couldn’t choose them all, so the ones that didn’t quite make it into the above top 12, (either because I felt they were too light on fantasy elements, or weren’t quite as popular or significant to the genre as others), are mentioned here:
- Dealing with Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) by Patricia C. Wrede (1990) [Talking with Dragons was published earlier in 1985 but is actually the fourth and final book in the series]
- Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
- Homeland (The Dark Elf Trilogy / The Legend of Drizzt) by R.A. Salvatore (1990)
- Outlander / Cross-stitch (Outlander), by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
- The Awakening (The Vampire Diaries) by L.J. Smith (1991)
- Wild Magic (Immortals) by Tamora Pierce (1992)
- Welcome to Dead House (Goosebumps) by R.L Stine (1992)
- The Last Wish / Ostatnie życzenie (The Witcher / Wiedźmin), by Andrzej Sapkowski (1993)
- Bloodsucking Friends (A Love Story) by Christopher Moore (1995)
- Practical Magic (Practical Magic) by Alice Hoffman (1995)
- The Thief (The Queen’s Thief) by Meghan Whalen Turner (1996)
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1997/1998)
- Daughter of the Blood (The Black Jewels) by Anne Bishop (1998)
- The Nightwatch / Ночной Дозор (Watch Saga / Дозоры) by Sergei Lukyanenko (1998)
- Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters) by Juliet Marillier (1999)
- Rhapsody: Child of Blood (Symphony of Ages) by Elizabeth Haydon (1999)
- Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen) by Steven Erikson (1999)
A lot of popular series that started in the 70s and 80s were continued in the 90s, but I haven’t included sequels in 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 this or a previous decade (or plan to include one in a future decade).
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.