October 15, 2020 7:53 AM EDT

In a year defined by grim reality, we look to artists to help us understand—and escape. TIME celebrates the best, most captivating and essential fantasy books of all time, dating back to the 9th century.

See the full list of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time

To develop our list, we began in 2019 by recruiting a panel of leading fantasy authors—Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir—to join TIME staff in nominating the top books of the genre (panelists did not nominate their own works). The group then rated 250 nominees on a scale, and using their responses, TIME created a ranking. Finally, TIME editors considered each finalist based on key factors, including originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.

The result is a list that underscores the imaginative breadth of fantasy fiction—from early roots in the oral storytelling tradition that brought about works like The Arabian Nights, to modern classics like A Wrinkle in Time and groundbreaking recent novels like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, The Poppy War and Elatsoe. Together, these titles help us trace our history and understand our reality.

“These are fraught times—but there have always been fraught times for someone in the world, somewhere,” Jemisin writes in her introduction to the list. “And there have always been those whose mastery of the art of storytelling has helped us understand how powerfully stories shape the world.”

This project is led by TIME staffers Lucy Feldman, Annabel Gutterman and Megan McCluskey, with writing, reporting and additional editing by Aryn Baker, Emily Barone, Eliza Berman, Judy Berman, Raisa Bruner, Andrew R. Chow, Peter Allen Clark, Kelly Conniff, Samantha Cooney, Eliana Dockterman, Kathy Ehrich Dowd, Mariah Espada, Mahita Gajanan, Sam Lansky, Belinda Luscombe, Cate Matthews, Lily Rothman, Simmone Shah, Elijah Wolfson and Stephanie Zacharek; art and photography by Kim Bubello, Katie Kalupson and Sangsuk Sylvia Kang; and production by Nadia Suleman and Paulina Cachero. Illustrations by Corinne Reid.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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