The New Yorker published a list of seven essential fantasy reads, which were pretty much the usual genre heartland suspects. Mark Charan Newton provided his alternatives here, and Larry has done likewise on the OF Blof of the Fallen here. Both Mark and Larry are bigger fans of fantasy than I am - Mark, of course, writes it: his novel Nights of Villjamur has received much good press recently.
However, I have on occasion read the odd fantasy book. Some of them I liked a great deal more than others (yes, I've tried most of the big series). So here is my seven damn fine fantasy reads:
The Ægypt Cycle, John Crowley, comprising The Solitudes (originally published as Ægypt), Love & Sleep, Dæmonomania and Endless Things. This is one of the great works of fantastical literature, if not one of the great works of late twentieth century American literature. It is required reading.
A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park. Given Park's previous works, that he then chose to write a secondary world fantasy with a female teenager as the protagonist was a surprise. But as this series progressed - through The Tourmaline, The White Tyger and The Hidden World - then what he was doing became far more typical of his oeuvre. This is a complex, beautifully written fantasy series, with, in Baroness Ceaucescu, one of the genre's great villains.
The Lens of the World series, RA MacAvoy, is a trilogy - Lens of the World, King of the Dead and Winter of the Wolf - and they're uncharacteristically thin books for fantasy. In other respects, it more closely resembles the typical secondary world / high fantasy... although not really. I'm surprised these books aren't better known, they're one of the best fantasy trilogies I've read. They're out of print but definitely worth seeking out.
The Dragon Griaule, Lucius Shepard, is a series of novellas and short fiction, begun with 'The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule' published in F&SF in 1984. This was followed by The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, and Liar's House... and The Taborin Scale is due from Subterranean Press later this year.
Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke, is not a well-known novel but it deserves to be. It's a secondary world fantasy, but it's not set in a cod mediaeval world. If anything, the setting is closest to Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War. But with magic. Except the magic is dying out.
Viriconium, M John Harrison, is a series of stories and novels set in and around the eponymous city. The stories have been variously collected in Viriconium Nights and at least two books titled Viriconium; the novels are The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium. These stories are an antidote to secondary world fantasies which, naturally, begin by appearing to be secondary world fantasies themselves.
The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, Ricardo Pinto, is the series title of three huge volumes - The Chosen, The Standing Dead and The Third God. This is world-building as an artform, with one of the most original secondary worlds I've ever come across - this again is no cod mediaeval England. The story which takes place there is equally ambitious and equally well put together.
The Dragon Waiting, John M Ford, was in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series. Unlike the other novels mentioned in this list, The Dragon Waiting is more of an alternate history set in fifteenth century England. But with vampires.
Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley, is one of those books which reads entirely as secondary world fantasy, but has an appendix which makes you question its genre credentials. It was followed by The Ordinary and The Last Green Tree which are overtly science-fictional.
Shadowkings, Michael Cobley, is the first in a trilogy followed by Shadowgod and Shadowmasque. This is grim dark stuff, possibly because Cobley is Scottish.
The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Michael Swanwick, like the Ford above was in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series. Swanwick has recently had a new novel in the same world published, The Dragons of Babel.