Here goes, my round-up of the best fantasy fiction. Ever. It might piss off a lot of people that The Lord of the Rings isn't on here. I apologise in advance, but I figure that Tolkien won't mind being benched just this once in order to put the spotlight on a few other deserving authors.
5. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
When I first read this book in primary school, the cover proclaimed it was the first instalment of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. It was only later that I realised it was written much, much later than its supposed sequel The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. What I love about this book is that it can be read as a part of the larger saga, as it explains such anomalies as the presence of a Victorian lamp-post in another world, or it can be read in total isolation. Like any other Narnia book, The Magician's Nephew is a children's story first and foremost, and as such is a rollicking adventure, but it provides endless enjoyment into adulthood too.
For other youngsters discovering new worlds, you may also enjoy: Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
4. The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice
The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice are often shelved as Horror or Romance, but I feel that they fit more into the genre of Fantasy, never more so than in the case of The Queen of the Damned. While the central characters consist of vampires, witches, ghosts and paranormal experts, the novel's aim is not to deliver chills like a conventional horror novel. Instead, Anne Rice uses these horror staple figures to spin an epic tale that begins with a curse in Ancient Egypt and climaxes at a rock concert in California. The titular vampire, Queen Akasha, is awoken from her eternal slumber by the music of Lestat, the anti-hero of Rice's previous novels. But this is only a small part of the plot. An antiquated organisation, the Talamasca, have taken it upon themselves to record the activities of supernatural beings such as vampires, and their interference in events ends up being life-changing. One of these investigators, a woman named Jesse, discovers just how closely she is connected to the vampire world. Ancients begin to gather from around the globe, some to aid Akasha in her newest quest, others to stop her. Told from multiple viewpoints (a rarity in this series), The Queen of the Damned is one of Rice's strongest, richest novels, with an engaging cast of supporting characters and fascinating historical detail.
You may also enjoy: Dracula by Bram Stoker, another rendition of the original vampire.
3. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
Fairy tales are big business in Hollywood right now. Hansel and Gretel are being reincarnated as witch hunters, Red Riding Hood is getting a sultry reimagining and there are two "dark, gritty" remakes of Snow White in the works. Movie producers are obsessed with upping the sex and violence of old Grimm favourites and serving them up to teenagers on a platter. And it's easy to see why. Fairy tales are often about, at their core, the loss of innocence, the journey from a world of children to a world of adults. John Connolly takes this as his cue in The Book of Lost Things. The young hero, David, has recently lost his mother. His father remarries, and soon David's stepmother gives birth to a baby boy. Feeling pushed out, David takes refuge in his books. One night, a series of bizarre events lead David into another world entirely, one which may or may not be of his own making. He encounters knights, wolves, hunters and the sinister, ever-present Crooked Man. At its heart, The Book of Lost Things is a coming of age tale, but it is also a reminder of the immense power of stories.
You may also enjoy: Pan's Labyrinth, a film by Guillermo del Toro, in which a young girl escapes her own brutal wartime life and goes on a magical quest.
2. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Published outside of the UK as The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman's vision of an alternative, steampunk Britain, populated by humans and their animal "daemon" counterparts, captured readers' imaginations the world over. Young, feral, and relentlessly questioning of authority, Lyra finds herself at the centre of a plot involving missing children, a witch's prophecy, a journey to the North and a mysterious device that seems able to tell the truth and predict the future. This is the first novel in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which evolves into an ambitious, controversial, Blakean masterpiece over the next two books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I first read this trilogy when I was thirteen or fourteen, but like every other entry on this list, it is a hugely rewarding read at any age.
For other remarkable children growing up, you may also enjoy: The Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling.
1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Shadow is released from prison, just in time to learn that his wife Laura has died. Adrift in a world that he no longer understands, Shadow is employed by the mysterious Mr Wednesday to accompany him on a road trip across America. Gaiman adeptly merges genres and creates a unique mythos here, by asserting that a country as new as America is built on the traditions and faiths of other lands - and as such, is inhabited by all of the gods, spirits and demons that true believers brought with them when they came to start a new life in the New World. Mr Wednesday is an old soul, and he sees a war coming between the new wave of technology, media and science, and the gods who fear that without worship they will simply cease to exist. The over-arching narrative is interspersed with tales of immigrant deities doing their best to make their way in the modern age (my personal favourite is the New York taxi driver who is also a Djinn). American Gods is a hugely imaginative piece of fantasy, but it may also be the Great American Novel.
You may also enjoy: Neil Gaiman's loose sequel, Anansi Boys.
Some other fantasy titles that deserve an honourable mention: Wicked by Gregory Maguire, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton (a well-executed piece of modern fairy folklore, sadly let down by its sexed up sequels).