Recommended fantasy audiobooks – Fantasy Book Review
Ryan, Dark and I all love to read fantasy books. We also love to listen to fantasy audiobooks read beautifully. So we’ve sat down and put together a list of the fantasy audiobooks we would recommend without hesitation to others, writing a little bit on each selection to help explain why we hold them so dear.
Our recommended fantasy audiobooks
I’ll start things off with the audiobooks that I listen to every year (and am listening to at the moment).
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, read by George Guidall and Frank Muller
Lee: This is a series that just keeps giving. Every time I listen to it I enjoy the moments I remember best and enjoy – as if for the first time – moments I had forgotten. Spanning seven books (not including The Wind Through The Keyhole), Stephen King pours his heart and soul into the story of the last gunslinger’s obsession and journey to the dark tower. The two narrators are perfect, each are different but still manage to stay true to the book. I wrote a longer post on why I enjoyed this series so much, and that can be read here.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, read by Stephen Fry
Dark: Some readers read books, some perform them. Stephen Fry definitely falls into the latter category, not only reading his narration with the same energy and pathos known from his acting career, but also giving each character something unique. In an interview with J. K. Rowling, Fry noted that his approach was much more based on exemplifying characters than showing off accents or vocal range. Hermione, therefore, is much more a difference in tone and rhythm than trying to reproduce a high female voice, and even where he does employ more out of the way voices for specific characters (usually the stranger ones), Fry is able to let his vocal range give each voice a personality and character and express many emotions, not just a display of weird vocal tone for it’s own sake. Thus Hagrid, despite the West Country growl Fry gives him is as gentle when he assures the young Harry that he will fit in at Hogwarts, as he is as furious at the depredations of Dolores Umbridge. While Fry’s isn’t the only reading of the Harry Potter books available, and certainly not the only one I’ve heard, I’d have to say it is definitely my favourite.
Ryan: This is a story that should not work as an audiobook. It has a steep learning curve and so many unfamiliar words and terms, but Jot Davies is magnificent in his narration and brings this world to life in ways that defy standard convention.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble
Lee: This was a book I really struggled with but the audio version, even though over 20 hours in length, I devoured in only days. It is a wonderful story about two magicians that set about bringing magic back to England. The vast and colourful cast is brought to life brilliantly by Simon Prebble, who is just perfect for the lower, middle and upper class English accents that populate the book.
The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading
Dark: The Wheel of Time presents massive problems to an audiobook reader. Not only a bewildering number of names and switches in viewpoint, but also a style which emphasises often small details or nuances of alien cultures. How, for example, would most readers be able to perform the Aiel battle song or be able to adequately adopt the catty tones of a seanchan noble. Likewise, with Jordan’s frequent misdirection, alterations in viewpoint and perspective and unreliable narration, only an absolute professional would be able to get through the hole thing flawlessly and make it work. Kramer not only possesses one of the most pleasant speaking voices imaginable, (my Lady has quite a thing for him), but his ability to blend dialogue, perspective, and coordinate flawlessly with Kate Reading is absolutely astounding, indeed I suspect many people who gave up on the Wheel of Time might have been better off had they been listening to Kramer’s careful delivery. He has recently moved on from Jordan to reading many of Sanderson’s works, and I’ll say that thus far the Stormlight Archive has been a distinct pleasure thanks to Kramer and Reading’s contributions.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton
Ryan: This story about 80’s and 90’s pop culture is targeted at a specific audience (which I happen to be a part of) but it hits that sweet spot between original plot and referential material. Then bring on Star Trek alum Wil Wheaton, who loves this type of geeky storytelling more than anyone else on the planet and who is a stellar narrator in his own right, and you have the perfect match.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, read by Rob Inglis and the BBC adaptation
Dark: 25 years old this year, The BBC LotR radio play is still to my mind the definitive adaptation of Tolkien’s work.
While not able in 13 hours to reproduce every scene and event from the book, what we get from dialogue, to action to beautifully written and performed adaptations of Tolkien’s songs is absolutely the finest translation of Tolkien’s work you could imagine. Even plundering the Silmarillion, Tolkien’s poetry and Unfinished Tales for material, it’s obvious to me that this was an adaptation made as much to honour the creator of Middle Earth as to bring the story of Lord of the Rings to a new audience. Far from extending action scenes or over emphasising every bit of dialogue, the masterful direction gives each scene, each episode, each performance a nuance and style that contributes to the whole. If you’re a Tolkien fan and have not experienced Ian Holm’s quietly heroic Frodo, or Peter Howell’s silky, menacing Saruman, you are definitely missing something, an audio adaptation that adds to, rather than takes away from its source material.
I’ll confess Rob Inglis, with his plummy, quite precise oxford English took me a little time to get used to at first. It was only after I’d got used to the rhythms and cadence of his vocal performance that I found myself being drawn in, noticing his enthusiasm, his gift for voices (especially unpleasant ones, he does an extremely good Gollum), and his sheer love of the book he’s reading. He even sings all of Tolkien’s songs in a rich, classical baritone to tunes (presumably composed by Inglis himself), that I find extremely appropriate and at times down right catchy (his Tom Bombadil is amazing).
When I heard a recording of parts of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit read by Tolkien himself recorded in the sixties, and it was only then that I realized how close to Tolkien’s mode of speech and accent Inglis is. If you want to hear faithful readings of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with great characterisation, likely probably somewhere close to the way Tolkien intended them to be read, look no further than Inglis performance.
Lee: Fans of Tolkien’s masterpiece are able to digest it in audio format thanks to two very different adaptations. The first is the straight read by Rob Inglis, a narrator with a very jolly voice who does a sterling job of bringing Middle Earth to life. The second, and probably best known adaptation, is the BBC dramatisation from 1988 where an all-star cast (featuring Sir Ian Holm and Sir Michael Horden to name but two) used their acting talents and the BBC’s special audio effects team to full effect in thirteen, hour-long episodes featuring very high production value. Both are recommended.
Red Dwarf novels by Grant Naylor, read by Chris Barrie
Dark: I have no idea how much impact Barrie had on the writing of the first two Red Dwarf books, however having both read and listened to them, I rather suspect it was a lot. There is always something distinct when an actor, (especially a comedian), is recreating a character they played and their supporting cast on audio (definitely something I’ve heard as a Doctor Who fan), and there is something even more specific when a book is written in such a way as to be meant to be read allowed. In the first two Red Dwarf books, everything comes together seamlessly. The book’s voices and weirdly written sound effects, Barrie’s recreation of not just Rimmer but the whole crew, and some of the absolutely insane things he puts his voice through. Were he reading anything else I’d have called his performance over the top, yet were anyone else reading the Red Dwarf books without Barrie’s vocal pyrotechnics, they’d feel flat. Definitely a case of the right man for the job, I’m just sad Barry was never employed to read the last two books, though as both are unfortunately only available in commercial audio abridged (a crime which should be punishable by dismemberment), it is understandable.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, narrated by Neil Gaiman
Ryan: Gaiman reads this story the way he intended it, and it’s fantastic. I’m not a huge fan of the story of Neverwhere, it always seemed like a collection of quotable lines to me, but with Gaiman telling the story I got so much more out of it than when I read it. Definitely recommend the audio version over the paper version for this story.
Dark: In a recent BBC 7 audio drama of Neverwhere, Gaiman said he was never happy with the 1996 miniseries. I find this surprising though, since when I read the book, read by Gaiman himself, what I found was an extremely accurate portrait of all the characters as written, in particular Gaiman’s Scottish Mr. Vandamar and oily Mr. Croupe have to be heard to be believed. There is always something about hearing an author read their own work, however where some authors are good actors and performers some are less so. Gaiman however here shows that he can not just reproduce his own words with style and grace, but also give vivid depictions of characters with their own distinctive voice and style, indeed I’ll admit that while I enjoyed the radio drama, the book, and the original miniseries will always be the definitive Neverwhere for me, a judgement that Gaiman himself only enforces.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, read by Stephen Pacey
Lee: Jonathan Stroud is a genius and in the Bartimaeus books he wrote a series that was by turns funny, moving, exciting and enchanting. Pacey is brilliant as Bartimaeus, the irascible, wise-cracking djinni and he effortlessly narrates the strong supporting cast. Highly recommended fantasy for ages nine and up.
Rough Magick by Kenny Soward, read by Scott Aiello
Ryan: A story about gnomes, golems, and magic beyond understanding, this is a story that harkens back to the good old days of fantasy, while giving it a few modern twists. Scott Aiello brings so much energy to his narration, which is fantastic given how energetic all the gnomes are in this story.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, read by George Guidall and Neil Gaiman
Lee: Narrated by a favourite narrator of mine, George Guidall of Dark Tower fame, and ably abetted by the author himself (who is no mean narrator himself), American Gods was an audiobook that really captivated me… eventually. I cannot quite remember why now but after the first hour I was not hooked but I continued listening and then fell completely in love with Gaiman stories of America and its many gods. This was a book that made me realise that America is every bit as diverse as Europe, and that while the spoken language may not change quite as much everything else does. A lot. A great reading and a book with a great second half and ending.
A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, read by Oliver Wyman
Ryan: A Crucible of Souls is not a particularly special book (it won the Aurelius Award for Best Australian Fantasy of 2013), it’s a coming of age story about an orphan who is brilliant at everything despite not having much common sense. But with Oliver Wyman at the reins I couldn’t help but listen for hours on end.
Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb, read by Nick Taylor
Lee: Robin Hobb’s books have been read by many different readers (the first three Rainwild novels had a different one for each – not recommended in my opinion). I really struggle with Anne Flosnik I’m afraid but all the rest I found very good. But the one I would recommend most highly if all is Nick Taylor’s reading of the Tawny Man trilogy, the books that continue the story of Fitz and the Fool, picking up after the Farseer Trilogy ended. I though Taylor got Fitz and the Fool spot on and I thought of all the readers he was able to capture the magic of a Hobb book in all its glory. It was over 60+ hours of audio heaven.
Touch by Claire North, read by Peter Kenny
Ryan: Claire North is a brilliant author, Touch is a brilliant story, and Peter Kenny is a brilliant narrator. The way Kenny perfects those accents is above many other narrators I’ve listened to, and it adds so much authenticity to the story.
Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear) by Patrick Rothfuss, read by Rupert Degas
Lee: Wow, Rupert Degas is a seriously talented narrator. And when given source material as beautifully written as that produced by Rothfuss the result is harmonious. The wonderful characters are brought to life by Degas and a quite awe-inspiring variety of accents and nuances. And what’s more, the general, narrator voice is reminiscent of Richard Burton. These are two BIG books but I flew through them, often at the rate of about 6 hours listening a day. If you find yourself listening – or reading – more than average per day then this is indicative that you’ve found a gem.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, read by Jay Snyder, Brandon Rubin, Fred Berman, Lauren Fortgang, Roger Clark, Elizabeth Evans, Tristan Morris
Ryan: Leigh Bardugo has made a name for herself, and as a result she gets to have a different narrator for every single viewpoint character. Being used to having a single narrator for a whole story it was weird at first, but with there being so many viewpoint characters in this story, I really warmed to the multiple narrator solution in the end. Great performance all round.
Left Hand of God Trilogy by Paul Hofmann, read by Sean Barrett
Lee: As with Ryan and A Crucible of Souls I do not think these three books are as good as others mentioned on this page. They are in parts but at times I found them wanting. But what it not lacking is the narration. Sean Barrett was so good that I’ve since chosen audiobooks simply because he was reading them – Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami and the Jo Nesbo Harry Hole series being fantastic finds.