I discovered this book at the library as a kid, and have reread it multiple times over the years. Unlike the movie version that shares the same name (the movie was sorta cute in its own way, but the book is about ten thousand times better and completely different), Ella Enchanted is a quirky, imaginative, and touching re-telling of the Cinderella story. Complete with fairies, curses, masked balls, adventure, and ridiculously-adorable-romance-by-letter.
An old favorite—pretty sure I could quote the entire thing from beginning to end. Originally published in two separate volumes (Crown Duel and Court Duel), this book chronicles the history of the spunky Meliara, Countess of Tlanth, from her role in a misguided war to her noble (but equally misguided) attempts at unraveling the multi-layred intrigue at the royal court. Complete with battles, dashing and mysterious members of the aristocracy (swoon), secret admirers, squee-worthy-Jane-Austen-esque-romance, and a fabulously satisfying ending.
BEAUTY: a Retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast,
by Robin McKinley
This gorgeous retelling of my favorite fairy tale is as touching as it is beautiful. Been reading and re-reading for years.
Yet another old favorite, Jackaroo is not quite fantasy in the traditional sense, as it contains no magical elements. It's a medieval-esque adventure-romance set in an invented land called simply "the kingdom," and tells the story of Gwen, an innkeeper's daughter, who happens upon the clothes of an infamous folk hero crammed in the back of a cupboard... Full of gritty details and touching realism, this story has a wonderful ending that you don't quite expect.
EAST, by Edith Pattou
A retelling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, this is a gorgeous book, told in alternating first person POV. It's about a girl named Rose, and a White Bear under an enchantment, and an evil Troll Queen, and an epic journey North... Beautiful and gripping.
THE QUEEN'S THIEF SERIES, by Megan Whalen Turner
Book #1: THE THIEF
After bragging that he can steal anything—and flaunting the pilfered king's seal in a tavern to prove it—Gen winds up in prison. Fortunately, the king's adviser, the magus, needs him, and Gen finds himself bundled along on a cross-country trek in pursuit of the mythical Hamiathes' Gift, an object which can only be retrieved by a thief. Set in the three countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia, MWT gives us a wonderfully-drawn world inspired by the landscape and culture of ancient Greece, complete with her own pantheon of gods. She's so exact in her story-telling, so deft with her characterization and so careful with every single word, that you don't notice the subtleties of her impossibly tight plot until it whacks you up top the head at the end and you find your jaw sitting involuntarily on the floor.
Book #2: THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA
In many respects, The Queen of Attolia feels completely different from The Thief. It reads more like a YA novel, and is told in third person instead of first. Gen—or Eugenides as he's referred to in this book—is still the main character, but the third person POV changes things a bit.
In Queen, Eugenides is forced to deal with a terrible loss, and the third person POV gives a certain amount of needed distance from this loss. We learn as much or more about Eugenides's character than we did in The Thief, but the focus is slightly different. He's vulnerable in a way he wasn't in the first book, and as we mourn for him we wonder if he can go back to the way he was, we wonder if that's even possible.
And while we're worrying about Eugenides, MWT is busy with her careful descriptions and meticulous character studies and oh-so-subtle-and-understated plot threads. There's war, political machinations, a new threat to our trio of countries in the form of Nahusersh, the oily ambassador from the Mede empire, and last—but certainly not least—one of the most intriguing romances ever to grace the boundaries of fiction.
Book #3: THE KING OF ATTOLIA
This is the book I can say the least about without completely giving everything away. It's narrated in third person by a young soldier named Costis, but is still very much about Eugenides—we get an even further wide-angled view of him than we did in Queen. It's a great, great book, filled with all the MWT surprises and subtleties and complexities and heart we've come to expect.
Narrated largely in first person by Sophos, a character from The Thief, this, again, is a different book entirely from the other three in the series. Eugenides is important but even more distant than before, and for once this isn't his story—it's Sophos's. We find out what he's been up to since the first book, and follow his journey from timid, insecure boy, to mature, hardened-yet-vulnerable king.
Sophos is a great character, albeit very different from Eugenides (whom he sort of hero-worships, which is adorable), and I really enjoyed getting to know him.
You really almost have to read these books multiple times to understand/appreciate all the subtleties and motivations; MWT is a careful, meticulous writer, which is why rereading her books is so rewarding—you inevitably find things you missed the first (or second, or third) time around.
Basically, barring Lord of the Rings, these are my favorite books of all time.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, by Diana Wynne Jones
Sophie works in a hat shop, gets turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste, and becomes a cleaning lady for the heartless Wizard Howl. Filled with delightfully quirky characters, a rollicking (and complicated) plot, and deliciously amusing chapter titles (like "In Which Sophie Talks to Hats" and "In Which Howl Expresses His Feelings With Green Slime"). This is the kind of book that, once you get to the end, you want to turn back to page one and read all over again.
FIRE AND HEMLOCK, by Diana Wynne Jones
It all starts when nine-year-old Polly accidentally gate-crashes a funeral. She meets a man named Thomas Lynn, and they do a bit of silly play-acting together. Except it all seems to come true, right down to the giant in the supermarket. Ten years later Polly isn't sure it happened at all. But she still has the picture she stole the day of the funeral, the picture of fire and hemlock hanging over her bed. And she has the memories that she can't quite seem to reconcile with real life. This book is gorgeous and gripping. Vivid. Intriguing. Based loosely on the Irish folk tale "Tam Lin."
Ten years ago, the Valorians conquered the Herrani peninsula, seized their houses and property, and enslaved the Herrani people. Kestrel is the Valorian general's daughter, used to a life of luxury, and expected to either enlist in the army or marry by her 18th birthday. Then one day Kestrel finds herself at a slave auction and purchases a young Herrani man on a whim. And they slowly build this tension-filled reluctant friendship, and I'm not saying any more than that because SPOILERS. (ha. You thought you were getting a proper review and I fooled you!!) Anyways, it's filled with intrigue and a slow burning romance and music and duels and rebellion and I JUST LOVE IT SO MUCH I CAN'T WRITE A PROPER REVIEW. Like, I've reached Queen's Thief series-level adoration with this book, which is awesome because it has sort of a similar Greco-Roman setting and feel.
Classics/Adult/Other Books I Adore:
MIDDLEMARCH, by George Eliot
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
THE TWO TOWERS
THE RETURN OF THE KING,
by J.R.R. Tolkien
JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL,
by Susanna Clarke
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
by Jane Austen