Years ago when my friend Melissa moved away, she was cleaning out her bookshelves and she thrust a trio of paperbacks into my arms one day at work. "Have you read these? You totally should." I looked at the covers skeptically--they seemed a little "high fantasy" for me--and thanked her, because it's always been about quantity with me.
They'd been on my shelf for five years or so, and I can't remember why I finally picked one up. Probably just thumbing through it idly. I remember that the prologue was kind of dry, but when you get to the real story, it starts out with a girl in boarding school--promising! With magic powers--awesome!
And finally, I sat down and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix. (He's not British, he's Australian, but I'm bourgeois and the accent still counts.) As I've said, I'm not much for high fantasy, and you could say this falls into that category--no dragons, but complicated magical systems, everyone's very solemn and ceremonial. But he succeeds in the one place that matters, and the one place that solemn fantasy so often stumbles--he tells the small, personal, human story of Good triumphing over Evil and fighting off the Forces of Darkness.
I read Sabriel quite a while ago, but I've been saving up the two sequels. But when Brenda asked for a recommendation for some good fantasy that she hadn't read, I found it on the tip of my tongue, and that brought me back to reading Lirael--a book that I own, believe it or not!--which I am loving almost as much.
Lirael is a member of the Clayr, a group of people somewhere between a race and a clan, gifted with Sight and part of the fundamental power of the Old Kingdom. But Lirael is different--her father is unknown, her mother long dead, her looks are unusual, and her sight is nonexistent. She's not as instantly likable as Sabriel--adventurous boarding school student and gifted mage. Lirael is anguished, introverted, full of so much longing and shame that she can barely speak to others. But she's also talented and independent.
I'm halfway through the book, and most of the first half has been about Lirael's life on a small, personal scale, as she becomes a librarian (yay!), longs for the Sight, and develops her magical powers. Just now, the story is beginning to blossom in the direction of Destiny and Saving the World, and I'm right there with it.
Good fantasy, like any good story, is about people. Whenever I doubt a novel, it's because I doubt its being about someone I want to spend my time with. But sometimes someone surprises me. Sometimes a guy named Garth is a total rock star.