Physiologist and author Laurie Helgoe once said “reading is like travel, allowing you to exit your own life for a bit, and to come back with a renewed, even inspired, perspective.” It’s certainly true that the chance to see new places, perhaps especially impossible places, is one of the main appeals of fantasy fiction. But with so many different fantasy stories out there, it can be hard to decide which to visit first — so we’ve assembled a handy travel guide for you.
As we mentioned, there are a ton of fantasy stories out there, and one of the ways we created this list was by excluding stories that are set within our modern world but feature fantastical elements. So that means, as much as we love them, the worlds of Harry Potter or the Dresden Files will not be making the cut this time.
Here’s Screen Rant’s take on the 12 Best Fantasy Worlds Ever Created.
When Warcraft: Orcs and Humans hit the PC scene in 1994, the world of Azeroth was hardly the most complex of fantasy creations. The world and its story were little more than an excuse to lead armies in an epic clash for dominance. By the time of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Blizzard had constructed an elaborate mythology for the world and its many inhabitants. World of Warcraft would see the world’s lore expand even more as Blizzard constantly added new lands to explore, new characters to meet, and new mysteries to uncover.
All in all, the world of Azeroth might seem a bit generic compared to some of the entries on this list, but Blizzard has given the world just enough unique flavor to make it stand out from the countless other video games in the fantasy genre. Whether the world of Azeroth is popular enough to sustain a big-budget film franchise remains to be seen, but we’ll know soon enough.
11. The 41st Millennium
We could have gone with either of the two main Warhammer settings, but we felt that the universe of 40K was a bit more unique simply due to the mashup of fantasy and science fiction. There are no shortage of works that mix the genres of fantasy and science fiction, but few take it to the extreme that 40K does. It’s as if Games Workshop took everything cook about fantasy and sci-fi and threw it into a blender.
This is a universe where space marines battle orcs and elves while fending off an attack from sorcerers trying to summon demons from the realm of chaos. Between the genre mashup and the ultra dark themes, the whole setting is more than a bit of absurd, but it’s a wonderful kind of absurdity.
10. The Worlds of Dungeons and Dragons
Since creating the tabletop RPG genre, Dungeons and Dragons has been host to countless adventures and stories, from player-made campaigns to official source books and novels. The various worlds of the D&D multiverse are many, and picking out a single setting as the “definitive” D&D experience would be a disservice to the game’s passionate fanbase. Some might prefer the Forgotten Realms and reading about the adventures of Drizzt Du’urden, whereas have fond memories of the Dragonlance series set in the world of Kyrn.
D&D,and RPGs in general, have always had a strong narrative component and each of D&D’s settings were designed to help flesh out a particular style of storytelling. The Forgotten Realms has a very familiar classic fantasy feel to it, whereas something like Eberron, with it’s magically powered robots and the looming threat of war, allows for completely different stories. If variety is the spice of life, then D&D is certainly a savory dish.
9. The Star Wars Galaxy
This one might seem like cheating since, on the surface, Star Wars appears to be a work of science-fiction, but, thanks to the Force, Star Wars has always been closer to space-fantasy than something based in real science, such as Star Trek. The merger of science-fiction trappings such as spaceships, blasters, and droids with the mysticism and magic of the Force makes Star Wars one of the most versatile stories on this list.
Some of the stories, such as those in the X-Wing series, read like science-fiction military stories. On the other end of the spectrum, there are stories such as the Darth Bane trilogy, which delves deep into the mysticism of the Dark Side of the Force. Perhaps the best example of this merger is in Empire Strikes Back, where we witness Luke Skywalker’s training with Yoda, which has a very spiritual quality to it, juxtaposed against Han and Leia’s flight from the Empire.
Fairy tales are a rare breed today, mostly confined to Disney movies or children’s story books, and that’s what makes reading the Lyman Frank Baum’s Oz stories so refreshing. Baum’s world of Oz is best known as the setting for the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, but Baum actually wrote more than a dozen books set in the magical kingdom. Taken together, his stories — and those of authors who came after him — paint a vivid picture of an enchanting, but alien, land.
A lot of modern fantasy is very dark, so reading Baum’s stories are a bit like stepping into another world, both in terms of the tone of the Oz stories and the world they’re set in. The land of Oz has more in common with magical lands of European folklore than it does with Westeros. Everything has a surreal magical quality to it that is a bit old fashioned, but incredibly charming nonetheless.
C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are based in one of the most well-known fantasy universes. Probably the most famous of the stories set in this world is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — which was the first in the series — and helped to establish that Narnia is a world of magic, talking animals, and evil witches.
One of the common complaints about the Chronicles of Narnia is its obviously Christian message. Lewis was a devout follower of Christ, and the parallels to Christianity are clear throughout his stories, especially in the form of Aslan. While we understand why some people wouldn’t necessarily connect with that, in terms of world building, we think it definitely helped the series in the long run, even if it limited its audience a bit. Drawing from his faith, Lewis had a wealth of ideas and stories to take inspiration from that really helped bring Narnia to life and gave it a common touchstone.
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it bears repeating: if J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of modern fantasy, then Robert E. Howard is the grandfather. The tales of Conan, set in the world of Hyboria, defined the sword and sorcery subgenre. The world of Hyboria is supposedly our world, but set in the distant past, long before the rise of mankind’s first civilizations.
It might technically be the same planet as ours, but Conan’s world is of course a wildly different one. His is a world full of lost treasures, fearsome monsters and sorcerers wielding powers they can barely comprehend or control. There’s something instinctively primal about the world of Hyboria that really sets it apart from modern fantasy. It doesn’t hold the civilized dangers of Westeros, but rather a simpler kind of danger, one that can come in the form of a raider’s sword or the claws of some nightmarish monster.
5. The Broken Empire
Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire is a world that is both undeniably our own and incredibly different. Set in the ruins of our world, centuries after a nuclear war wiped out most of civilization, humanity has been reduced to the technological dark ages while squatting amongst the ruins of our past glories. One of the most interesting things about the series is the fact that not all knowledge of the old world is gone. The works of the Builders, those who started the nuclear war, are often misunderstood because most of their knowledge has been lost.
Oddly enough, knowledge pre-dating the Builders seems to be fairly common. Works of philosophers such as Plato are discussed alongside the Bible and Quran, but knowledge of works past a certain point are lost. The truly ancient works remain, but anything created around the advent of firearms appears to have been lost along the way, and the novels never really explain why, which serves to add an interesting layer of mystery.
The world in which Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time takes place has never been formally named, so we’ll use the fan given nickname of Randland, inspired by one of the book’s main characters, Rand Al’thor. This world is full of various nations, each with their own distinct culture and history. Each one is loosely inspired by a real-world culture, but Jordan gives each one enough flavor to make them feel unique. One of our favorite groups are the Aiel, a desert-dwelling band of warriors that are based on a combination of traits associated with the Zulu and Japanese.
Another unique thing about Randland is the way the world’s history and mythology is constructed. As the series’ title implies, time is a cycle in this world, and there are seven ages repeating with different variations each time. The past is remembered as myths and stories, and as you read the series you begin to realize that a lot of the myths are real-world stories that have been altered due to time — meaning that Randland is actually some bizarre version of the Earth we know.
3. The Malazan Empire
Creating a memorable fictional world takes a lot of work in order to make it believable, and one of the most important aspects of that creation is research. Nearly every author draws at least some inspiration from real cultures and history when it comes to creating the history of their own world, but few authors have Steven Erikson’s background in anthropology and archaeology — and it shows in the sheer amount of detail that exists within the Malazan Empire.
Aside from the obvious amount of research that was put into this world, another thing that makes it truly unique is that it wasn’t created for a novel, but as a setting for Erikson’s pen and paper RPG campaigns. Since RPGs are meant to be played as a living evolving story, this mean that the world itself had to evolve as well. It’s very possible that a lot of the ideas that made it into the novels were created as a response to the actions of Erikson’s RPG group, which is certainly an interesting way to create a world — via the world’s nerdiest focus group.
The world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire needs little in the way of introduction thanks to its popular HBO adaption. In fact, aside from maybe Middle-Earth or the Star Wars galaxy, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire — of which Westeros is merely one part — is probably the most well-known entry on this list. So what makes this world so compelling for fans of fantasy and non-fantasy alike? One of the big things is how grounded the world feels. Martin based the struggle for the Iron Throne off the War of the Roses, and had at one point considered writing a piece of historical fiction as opposed to fantasy.
In the end, Martin felt that historical fiction was too limiting for what he wanted to do, so he set the story in his own world, but kept the magic and other fantasy tropes fairly low-key. This has worked to the series’ benefit, as it is able to appeal to both fantasy fans and non-fans alike, widening its appeal and helping it become one of the most successful series in television history.
We couldn’t write a list about best fantasy worlds and not include Middle-Earth. It might not have been the first fantasy world, but it’s without a doubt the most famous, and it originated many of the tropes readers have come to expect from the genre. Elves being an immortal wise race, orcs being barbaric savages, and a dark lord seeking to conquer the world — it can all be found in Middle-Earth.
However, even if Middle-Earth weren’t the father of fantasy worlds, it would still be number one on this list simply because of the sheer amount of depth Tolkien injected into his vision. His goal was to create a mythology that would be distinctly British but separate from Arthurian lore. To that end, he created an entire history and lore for Middle-Earth that is only hinted at in the Lord of the Rings. From the story of Middle-Earth’s creation, to the forging of the Similaris and so much more, Middle-Earth is arguably the most well-detailed and fleshed out fantasy world ever conceived.
Did we forget any of your personal favorite fantasy realms. Will Martin’s world one day rank above Tolkien’s? Sound off in the comments.
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