Like every ‘best’ list ever this is particular to the specific conjunction of me and the books in question – the time in my life at which we collided. In all these cases I read the book before I reached 20, and in some of these cases I was much closer to 10.
These however are second books in a series, or mid-books in a trilogy, or sequels to a début, that rocked my world back in the day and, in my opinion, occlude the book that came before by being better in almost every dimension. Moreover, these are books that have weathered the passage of many decades and still have the power to enthrall and amaze.
If anything I write is still being read by the time I’m an old man I’ll be astonished, and very pleased.
I've used the covers the books had when I read them. There are some pretty bad ones in the mix. You'll find these titles under much cooler covers today.
Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast – 1950
The Gormenghast trilogy is an exceptional piece of work. Many books can be likened to something that came before – their lineage can be traced. Gormenghast seems to me to be a singular vision whose power lies in the strength of its prose, the weight of the insular world it builds, and the marvellous eccentricity of its characters. The first book Titus Groan is an excellent read, but for me book two, Gormenghast, is where Peake really ... peaks, in marvellous, unrepeatable style.
Alan Garner – The Moon of Gomrath – 1963
Alan Garner seems to be a writer that writers revere. Many authors of my generation, particularly British authors, cite his work as an influence. The Weirdstone of Brisengamen precedes this book and is an great story, but it’s in The Moon of Gomrath that Garner really evokes something epic and powerful that sounded an echo in me. The description of the wild hunt taking to horse is a passage that stays with me through the years. These books are described as children’s literature, and they can certainly be enjoyed by young readers, but to my mind it’s a certain type of person they speak to, rather than a certain age. Garner’s intent is serious, his prose clean and powerful, his story linked to the landscape he lived in, and rooted in something deep.
Ursula Le Guin – The Tombs of Atuan – 1970
The Wizard of Earthsea had a lot to offer. The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the Earthsea cycle and it offers more. There’s a step-change in the maturity and depth of the story. The view of our main protagonist is reset and rescaled by the addition of a second point of view. I read these books at an early age, but even then I noticed that we moved from a book that wanted to entertain me to a book that had something to say – not something to lecture me about, but something more going on while it continued to entertain me.
Julian May – The Golden Torc – 1982
In her sequel to The Many-Coloured Land Julian May outdoes her own excellent start, expanding and deepening the setting while really breathing life into her varied cast of characters. These books in the Saga of Pliocene Exile are a brilliant fusion of science fiction with a mythic/fantasy background. The quality starts high and sustains through a surprising number of books, but for me The Golden Torc represents the loftiest peak.
C.S Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – 1950
Now this certainly is a children’s book, and I read it as a child and it sparked or kept burning an early flame in me. My young imagination was populated by fantasy, from hobbits, to the dark of Mordor, but this vision promised me the chance of access – find the right mad professor, the right old wardrobe, and I too might stumble into Narnia. And Aslan! Damned if I knew it was an attempt to sell me religion – I just loved that lion!
John Masefield - The Box of Delights – 1935