Magic is key element in the story. Usually the protagonist must learn how to use magic. Books with a more humorous slant may be found under the Fantasy With A Wink subgenre.
Kate Constable – The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy : The Singer of All Songs , The Waterless Sea, The Tenth Power
Bruce Coville – The Unicorn Chronicles: Into the Land of the Unicorn, Song of the Wanderer, Dark Whispers, The Last Hunt
Jeepers! The first book was published in 1994 and the last book in 2010. Yes, I have been reading this series for 16 years. This is unicorn folklore with a brave heroine, dragons and well, a bit of everything that makes fantasy fun.
Grace Chetwin – Tales of Gom: Gom on Windy Mountain, The Riddle and the Rune, The Crystal Stair, The Starstone and more.
In the early 1990s, I read everything that Grace Chetwin wrote. Her Tales of Gom series is wonderfully written. I gobbled them up, then read several more. The Chimes of Alyafaleyn is unique. It was years ago when I read her books, yet I still remember each. I never had time to finish the Gom series after The Starstone. Gom is the son of a poor woodcutter and surprise – he has power! Through the course of the books, he learns to use his magic, meets friends along the way and fights Katak, the evil one. Look for the books, available in ebook format and hopefully still in many public libraries.
Peter Dickinson – The Ropemaker (2001) and Angel Isle (2006)
These two books could also be in the epic or quest fantasy category. The author had a hugely successful career. The first book of his that I read is Eva, published in 1988. A girl is dying so her scientist parents, who work with chimpanzees, put her brain into the body of a chimp. The story has lingered with me for 20 years. I wish the book was back in print or perhaps just download the ebook (best for older teens). I digress. The Ropemaker is a lengthy fantasy that could also be in the adventure/quest category and reminds me of Lloyd Alexander’s writing. Magic must be restored to the ancient valley and the young protagonists seek the help of the Ropemaker.
Monica Furlong – Wise Child, Juniper (prequel), Colman
I haven’t read anything quite like Furlong’s books. Beautiful cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon Juniper is a wise, gentle soul who is also a witch or sorceress. Juniper is the prequel to Wise Child and explains how she was sent to live with her godmother in a rather harsh environment. Juniper must save her father’s kingdom from an evil sorceress. In Wise Child, published first, a young girl comes to live with Juniper and learn to utilize her magic. That is a good thing, because her mother turns out to be the evil sorceress, Maeve. There are plenty of spell-casting, herb-gathering and mystic rituals filling the pages. The setting is Britain during the dark ages. Very special books.
Diana Wynne Jones – The Chrestomanci Books
The first book in this series, Charmed Life, was published in 1977. Yep, a good 20 years before Harry Potter was born. The final book in the series, The Pinhoe Egg, was published in 2006. In a parallel universe, magic is normal and Italy is still divided into a number of small states. The stories are clever, witty, humorous . . . everything that fantasy should be. Over the years, I have read almost everything Diana Wynne Jones has written. She is the master of fantasy.
Diana Wynne Jones – Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air.
WOW! Read these! Witty and complex with a world that opens into four different dimensions. I’m not enamored with the animated movie version of Howl’s Moving Castle. It just didn’t match the story/characters as I envisioned it at all.
Ursula Le Guin – The Earthsea Cycle: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and three more.
Sparrowhawk/Ged (childhood name/wizard name) is the ultimate wizard – a wizard’s wizard. He has a dark past, a quiet resolve, is kind yet fierce, and is battle weary. A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968. It was quite unique when it was published. Now, wizards and worlds like Earthsea are a dime a dozen. In the first book we learn of Sparrowhawk’s childhood and early magical learning including mistakes with the dark. Hmmm. This book could go in the “Dark Magic” subgenre. In The Tombs of Atuan, we meet young Tenar who is to be a High Priestess. She is trapped in a maze as part of a ritual and Ged comes to her rescue. Oops gave that away. Ged has advanced to Archemage and the world is being drained of magic in The Farthest Shore. This time he takes young prince Arren under his wing and has to travel beyond the realm of death to confront the evil. This is classically good fantasy. There are more in the series but these first three were published a few years apart. Tehanu, the 4th book of Earthsea was published many years later, in 1990. I have seen the animated version, eh, not so good and the made for cable version that was also not to my liking. These books should be must reads for fantasy readers.
Meredith Ann Pierce – TheFirebringer Trilogy: Birth of the Firebringer, Dark Moon, The Son of Summer Stars.
This is unicorn fantasy. Good stuff. Published in the early 1990s and rather hard to find. A little side note here in case anyone is reading – find her other series, The Darkangel Trilogy: Darkangel, Gathering of Gargoyles, Pearl of the Soul of the World, published in the late 1990s and available in paperback. This is an excellent paranormal romance series published 10 years before the current slew of vampire, fallen angel, werewolf romance. I’ve got the series at my school in recovered paperback.
Tamora Pierce – The Immortals: Wild Magic, Wolf-speaker, Emperor Mage, The Realms of the Gods.
I give a yahoo of recognition to Tamora Pierce and her Tortall books in the “Other Lands” subgenre. Her books encompass so many subgenres of fantasy. I’ll mention The Immortals quartet here. This is the second quartet of the Tortall series. Each of the quartets can be read independently of the others, but reading them in order is always best. This quartet is one of my favorites because Daine (female protagonist) can shapeshift into animals along with her mentor, Numair. They shapeshift, talk to animals, and use their many other powers to save the kingdom. That’s always nice.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter series
Back in 1998 when I was an elementary librarian, I knew that HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone (aka HP and the Philosopher’s Stone) won the Smarties Book Prize in Great Britain in 1997, so I was on the lookout for it. The first title was not published simultaneously in the US. We happened to have a book fair the month the book came out, and there it was. I read it in a few days and promoted it to all of the students who gobbled it up. This was before all of the publicity. The audiobooks of the titles, read by the Grammy award winning Jim Dale, are mesmerizing. Great series, deserves all of the accolades.
Sherwood Smith – Wren to the Rescue, Wren’s Quest, Wren’s War
Published in the early 1990s, this trilogy is one I truly enjoyed reading. I like books where humans shapeshift into animals. The series has that element going for it, plus heroic teens determined save a country and experiment with their magic along the way. This is a lovely romp through fantasy. The series could also be considered a political fantasy, but magic is more important to the story than the politics of the day.
Jonathan Stroud – Bartimaeus Novels: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon
Unique series. In the first book, Nathaniel is a young magician’s apprentice determined to fight his nemesis, the ruthless magician, Simon Lovelace. He conjures up a 5000 year old djinni, Bartimaeus, to do his bidding but controlling a djinni is quite difficult. The first three books focus on Nathaniel. The fourth book is all about Bartimaeus and his past as an unruly djinni. These books move quickly and a rather complex. For the avid reader.