Plasmodium falciparum is the most important parasitic pathogen in humans, causing hundreds of millions of malaria infections and millions of deaths each year. At present there is no effective malaria vaccine and malaria therapy is totally reliant on the use of drugs. New drugs are urgently needed because of the rapid evolution and spread of parasite resistance to the current therapies. Drug resistance is one of the major factors contributing to the resurgence of malaria, especially resistance to the most affordable drugs such as chloroquine. We need to fully understand the antimalarial mode of action of the existing drugs and the way that the parasite becomes resistant to them in order to design and develop the new therapies that are so urgently needed. In respect of the quinolines and artemisinins, great progress has been made recently in studying the mechanisms of drug action and drug resistance in malaria parasites. Here we summarize from a historical, biological and chemical, perspective the exciting new advances that have been made in the study of these important antimalarial drugs.