Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is one such book.
The Sum-up: The timeless tale of a unicorn who discovers she is the last of her kind on the earth. Yearning for answers, she leaves her lilac wood in search of her people and discovers they have vanished suddenly and without a trace. The world is now a harsh place, for without unicorns there is no magic, no wonder. The last unicorn must endure disbelief, despair, and imprisonment on her journey--events that cause her to question her place in the universe. She is joined on her quest by the bumbling magician Schmendrick who transforms her into a human girl, and Molly Grue, a shrewish woman who once dreamed of magic and wonder. Together, they must defeat the despair that has taken over the lands, and return the unicorns to their rightful place in the world.
The Review: Without hesitation, I rate this one of the best fantasy novels of all time. The Last Unicorn exemplifies all that is best in fantasy--archetypical yet unique characters, morality and ethics, and a quest against impossible odds--and overlays it with a beautiful lyrical narrative.
Beagle's charas, from Schmendrick to Molly Grue to King Haggard to the unicorn herself are all archetypes one might find in any fantasy story. However, while Beagle starts with the archetype, he slowly transforms each chara into something more. Schmendrick labors under a curse of immortality, Molly is truly soft at heart, Haggard yearns for the day when his reign will end, and the unicorn learns the beautiful frailty of a mortal life. IMHO, what makes the true magic here is that the reader is a party to these revelations. As the charas realize they have untapped potential, hidden emotions, so too does the reader. We are truly invested because we are right there with them.
Morality and ethics also play a huge role in The Last Unicorn. Loyalty and faith are rewarded. In helping the unicorn, both Schmendrick and Molly become greater than they once were. Schmendrick is freed of his curse, and Molly's faith in the world is restored. Love is everlasting, more powerful than even death. Prince Lir, who dies defending the unicorn from the Red Bull, is brought back to life by a mere touch of her horn. Through sacrifice, evil is banished forever--let it not be said that these accomplishments come without a price. The unicorn undergoes trial after trial in the harsh world. In the end, she must make the ultimate sacrifice, and give up her mortal life and love. For only by returning to her immortal form can she defeat the Red Bull, free her people, and set the world to rights.
In the end, the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but there is a price.
In keeping with the theme of sacrifice and trial comes my favorite fantasy convention: the quest against impossible oddsFor one unicorn to succeed where all have failed--not only does that immediately raise the stakes, but it immediately invests the reader. It doesn't matter if this exact same story was told a hundred times until we come to the last unicorn, because if the last one fails, then it's all over--in the same way that the destruction of the One Ring was the ultimate defining moment in Middle Earth. If there were ten rings, we'd hardly care. Moreover, Beagle's unicorn is so gentle, so skittish and innocent, that the reader cannot help but feel for her as she tries to make her way in a world that has no use for unicorns.
As for the language, Beagle is a true wordsmith. His descriptions are simple yet vivid. His description of the Red Bull is riveting, engaging; his narration of the unicorn in her splendorous wood nothing short of breathtaking, the final battle--well, I won't spoil it all for you...
This is lyrical writing at its best.
The Skinny: This book is made of awesome. I had to dog-ear the pages I wasn't in love with--all 5 of them.