The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins, $7). A shoo-in. Whether you’re young or old, Christian or whatever, Lewis’ tale of children crossing from one world to another—and discovering their power there—is pure Turkish Delight: The more you read, the more you want.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White (Ace, $8). Underrated to this day. White brought the story of King Arthur—the ultimate English epic—out of its medieval crypt and breathed life and power back into it in a modern idiom. Even his second lead, Lancelot, is a tragic masterpiece: a passionate lover of God whose very passion makes God cast him down.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (Dark Horse, seven volumes, $13 each). Two men. One big, one small. One brutal, one subtle. Both haunted and hardened by their tragic pasts. Leiber writes high fantasy with a touch of the Shakespearean, but his heroes are pure hard-boiled noir. A founding work in American fantasy.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner, $20). I was never a Tolkien fanatic, but he is indisputably the first and greatest of the great modern fantasy-world builders. The mines of Moria alone would put him on this list: “The Dwarves delved too greedily and too deep ...”
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, $16). Two 19th-century English sorcerers and their troubled frenemy-ship, rendered in gorgeous, bittersweet Regency prose. Clarke’s novel reads like the work of one who has seen magic done, for real, in front of her, and has come to tell you about it. This is one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century in any medium.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (Harvest, $14). If I had to pick the most powerfully original voice in fantasy today, it would be Kelly Link. Her stories begin in a world very much like our own, but then, following some mysterious alien geometry, they twist themselves into something fantastic and, frequently, horrific. You won’t come out the same person you went in.