When Lewis sent Lucy Pevensie through that wardrobe and into Narnia, it was an event akin to the breaking of an imaginative sound barrier, and the sonic boom it created is still echoing through our entire culture. Read those pages again: Lewis strips the moment of any foofy rhetoric of sentimental wonderment and builds it up purely out of concrete sensory impressions — the softness of the fur coats, the prickle of the pine trees, the cold crunch of the snow. Forget all the guff about Aslan and Jesus, and all the Freudian overtones, and remember this: he made the fantastic real in a way it had never been before.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I esteem and respect Tolkien’s doomy orcscapes, but I never fell in love with them the way I did with the sun-drenched fields and dappled forest paths of White’s England. His miraculous reimagining of the great English epic, the tragedy of King Arthur, is so vivid and fresh and entertaining and heartbreaking, it’s practically an act of literary resurrection. (Tennyson took a shot at it with Idylls of the King, but White utterly trumped him). The first part alone, The Sword in the Stone, which gives us Arthur’s education under the direction of the wizard Merlin, may be the best account of a childhood ever committed to paper.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
There’s a reason why I started writing The Magicians in 2004. That was the year Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was published, and when I read it my understanding of what it is possible to do in a fantasy novel exploded in all directions. Its the story of two magicians — one old and fussy, one young and foppish — in early 19th-Century England, who come into their power at a time when magic was thought to be long dead. Their prolonged frenemy-ship is a rich and complex thing, and the magic — good God, Clarke’s magic. She describes it as crisply and clearly as if shed seen it done herself, right before her eyes, five minutes ago.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Ever since the HBO show got on the air, it seems like we hear nothing but praise for Martin. I think he’s still underrated. I don’t think we’ve fully taken in the radicalism of his take on epic fantasy: the way he fractured Tolkien’s Manichean world of black and white into seven kingdoms and innumerable shades of grey. There’s nothing like his dense carpet of plotting anywhere else in the fantasy canon. Martin’s is a raw, gritty, physical world, where the only joys are fighting and drinking and fucking, and the wicked and capricious gods are no better than the men and women they watch over.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Talk to novelists about Pullman, especially the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and apart from everything else (everything else being the brilliance of his daemons conceit, the sparkly gloom of his alternate Oxford, and the tartness of Lyra’s unripe genius), they will talk about the awesome crystalline perfection of his plotting. The Golden Compass is a clockwork masterpiece, all its gears and catchments meshed and fitted with near-divine perfection, each image and chapter and character leading inevitably to the next. Also, it has polar bears wearing armor. Come on!
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Just look at the map: Earthsea is a sprawling archipelago of tiny islands, as if someone took Middle Earth and smashed it like a plate on a hard tile floor. A Wizard of Earthsea is a primally moving fairy tale, the great original story of a sorcerer’s education, but it’s also joyfully subversive: in 1968 Le Guin took fantasy — still a very male, very English, rather Christian tradition — re-engineered and re-plumbed it utterly, and bent it to her own marvelous purposes. Her magic system alone, rooted in a true and ancient language of things, is one of the monuments of modern fantasy.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by J. K. Rowling
Rowling is not a great crafter of the sentence. Her excessive fondness for adverbs, for example, must ultimately be weighed against her in the critical scales. But what she created was an utterly modern fantasy, up to date and state of the art, precise down to the atomic scale, both epic in scope and gleaming in every detail. It’s a triumph of world-building, stripped of any early-20th-Century mossy earnestness, a magical setting so rich that an entire generation, on a species-wide scale, has more or less moved into it. What writer before her ever delved within the wizard’s wand itself, to tell us what lay at its core (phoenix feather, dragon heartstring, unicorn hair)?
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
This is a cheat, because Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories aren’t a novel, and if we’re letting in stories, well, the floodgates are flung wide open. But Leiber’s work was so basic and formative for me, I can’t leave it out. Fafhrd, the hulking northern barbarian with a philosopher’s mind, and the Grey Mouser, the louche, lithe, haunted schemer, came earlier than most people think: the first novella, Adepts Gambit, was published in 1936, a year before The Hobbit. But they read like a brilliant riposte to Tolkien: a supremely intelligent, hard-boiled retake of the epic tradition, featuring a pair of hyper-verbal rogues, flawed but indefatigable, wandering the rich and decidedly fallen world of Newhon (which is itself just a bubble afloat in the eternal).
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
True confessions: I’ve always felt more at home in The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings. I always get lost somewhere in The Two Towers, usually somewhere in the Dead Marshes. It was always in The Hobbit that I felt the full force of Tolkien’s triumphant world-building energy, which has never been equalled by anyone anywhere. (Who knew what volcanic fires lurked in the hearts of Oxford philologists? Now we all do.) To me, the Shire never felt cozier, Mirkwood murkier, Smaug smoggier, or Gollum more poisonous and fallen than in The Hobbit.
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
Somebody needs to make a movie out of this book, ASAP, before it slips from the fantasy canon altogether. You can’t top the setup: it begins like Harry Potter crossed with The Bourne Identity, and it only accelerates from there. Our hero wakes up in a hospital with no memory of who he is. He gradually discovers that he’s part of a noble family, a (literal) Tarot deck of superpowered princes and princesses of Amber, a world of which our own is merely a shadow. The series runs to ten novels, which was a few too many, but you could tell Zelazny didn’t want to leave Amber, and really, who could blame him?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My mother is English, and I always felt that my own sensibility was wandering, rootless and confused, somewhere between Europe and America, lost in the mid-Atlantic, until I read American Gods. The work of coordinating between those two worlds was done, definitively, by Gaiman in this book. It’s a tour de force from the first page, across which our hero, the gentle giant Shadow, falls — as big as he is, he’s more than he seems. Only an imagination as powerful as Gaiman’s could have wrangled all the mythologies represented in American Gods, brought them to heel, repotted them in thin New World soil, and watched them grow there, fascinatingly twisted. Never has the Norse pantheon been as believable as it is here, when we watch the gods themselves struggle to find believers.