A Wizard of Earthsea
(Earthsea, Book 1)
This book really takes you to that wonderful place of Legend that so many attempt but few (e.g. Stewart, Wolfe, Gemmell, and, of course, Tolkien) sometimes manage. Doubtless this comparison has been made so many times that it must be hackneyed by now, but while Harry Potter can be fun, it really is playing with the trappings of magic while these guys give you the real thing. An absurd thing for me to say when talking about fiction, but I suspect many readers know just what I’m talking about.
Part of way Le Guin gets us there is in the simple dignity of her narration (cf. The Left Hand of Darkness). But there’s also the skill in spoiling us with a powerful wizard (something everybody does) but tempering this with an awareness of the cost. Ged is set up for a fall, sure, but this makes it no less tragic and potent, and informs the rest of the story. It doesn’t just have him as an enigmatic brooding figure – we know why he now deals with people the way he does.
Oh, by the way, Le Guin capably creates a world, throwing in original ideas among some of the familiar ones. Not a bad trick that – she’s deservedly a professional writer – but this isn’t what sets her apart.