Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. (I've been told to read it by many people, but I believe first by shaktiqueen - my undying thanks to her!)
Like, wow. I have very picky tastes when it comes to literature, I will admit - if a book hasn't caught my interest in the first few pages, I won't bother with it. And I'm a fair snob about things like psychologically accurate characterization, a detailed universe, and vivid description. This book has all of that and then some - it's just plain fucking amazing. It manages to hold several nations in its scope, and yet still just be the story of a young woman finding her place in the universe.
And there are two more! Squee!
And now, some rambling on fantasy, psychology, and why I haven't been as much of a reader in recent years.
All through my childhood and up through college, I was a voracious reader. I still read faster than almost anyone I know, and even having ditched half my personal library to cross the continent I like to think my collection is impressive. But sometime in the last few years, I stopped reading as much. I would pick up an old favorite now and again, but it got to the point where I knew all my old favorites well enough that I could recall them simply by looking at the cover, and the draw of the words was not enough to get me to take it off the shelf again. Many of my favorite authors devolved into recycling their one or two good ideas, or I realized they weren't that good to begin with. Good new authors became harder to find among the melange of pablum on the shelves, or perhaps I lost the patience to search for them. And I missed the time spent with my body lounging on the couch, and my mind far away in another world, greedily drinking up the stories and vivid lives fashioned from another's imagination.
I'm still not entirely sure of the full mix of reasons why I stopped reading so much. But it did get me pondering that which (to me) makes a truly compelling read, and one that I want to return to over and over.
I admit that I'm a genre reader, for the most part. My father is a science fiction writer, and so I grew up reading Heinlein and Smith, Niven, Pournelle, Hogan, Brin, Lovecraft. Though not science fiction, Tolkein added itself to the mix early on and has remained one of my most beloved. As I branched out from my parents' libraries, I discovered Stephenson, Gibson, Egan, Barnes, May, Simmons; and Lindholm, Hodgell, Beagle, Rawn, Attanasio, Feist and Wurts (who oddly enough I only like in collaboration, not on their own). I even succumbed to temporary obsessions with Lackey and Jordan.
Outside of sf&f my tastes tend towards the epic and the classic: Steinbeck, Dickens, Austen. Tom Robbins is probably the only contemporary mainstream writer for whose next work I haunt the shelves.
I think genre work is frequently disregarded by mainstream reviewers because much more about the setting must be described explicitly; and all too often the story and the characters suffer for the lack of equal time. It can devolve into pure gimmickry, deus ex machina, the right electronic gadget or magic spell to save the day, no human heroicism involved. But when done well, the fantasy or future world comes alive as a character in its own right, and serves to make those who inhabit it all the more real.
In Feist and Wurts' Empire trilogy, for example, pages and pages are devoted to the description of Tsurani culture and customs. This could very well overshadow the people of the story, save that these people are so bound to their culture that you must know it to know them. The authors get so deeply into the heads of their heroes that you *know* them, and empathize with them, and then when they meet a stranger from a world more similar to our own, he is the one that seems alien. And in the end, the entire trilogy is about changing the culture, changing how these people think.
In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the space station where children undergo military training is brought to harsh, vivid light, all to bring you into the story and feel yourself in the shoes of a lonely yet brilliant six-year-old boy, pushed to the edge of madness so that he can save humanity without realizing that he's doing it.
That is the wonder of speculative fiction (the best blanket term I've found for 'science fiction and fantasy'). In our own world, we don't often stop to consider how it has shaped the way we think, or even realize that it has. In another, the cultural differences are thrown into sharp relief, and their effect on humanity made all the more evident. There is mainstream fiction that accomplishes this level of introspection, but it is rare, and frequently depends on the bizarre and the alien within our own world. Tom Robbins is an absurd, surreal writer, for all his stories nominally lie in the Real World. Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club plays American and Chinese cultures against each other to show the strength and weakness in each.
In the end, it's all about people - how they think, how they feel, and why.