You might think the master of this kind of writing is Neil Gaiman - and he is my second favourite writer in the genre. But there's one man who is Obi Wan to Gaiman's Skywalker. That's Gene Wolfe.
If I'm honest, I'm not a fan of all his books. He writes books set on other worlds, like the hugely popular Book of the New Sun series, which really don't interest me. But his short stories are great - and when he does a real world fantasy, it is absolutely stunning. Although Wolfe is almost 80, he's still producing his best work, as I've discovered in his newly released The Sorcerer's House. This book is brilliant, there's no other word for it.
Wolfe does himself no favour by framing the book as a series of letters. It's difficult to get real involvement this way. (Having said that, one of the most famous fantasy books ever, Dracula, is a series of letters.) But it works so well here, admittedly by having the vast bulk of the letters from the main protagonist, and so acting as a first person narrative.
What Wolfe does best is to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a situation where you think 'What the hell is going on?' Sometimes, as in his masterpiece There are Doors, he can sustain this uncertainty through most of the book. In The Sorcerer's House things become a little more obvious earlier on - but even so, Wolfe keeps throwing in new characters, new situations that continue to combine mystery and delight. If you don't know this kind of writing but are familiar with cult TV, he does in stories what Buffy creator Joss Whedon does on the screen - but ten times better.
There are some flaws. Although a reasonable sized book, it's just too short. It could be twice the length to really allow some of the characters who only currently get a bit part to develop. And then there's the ending. Wolfe fans will know that endings are his weakness. Here he does manage to end the book satisfactorily, but it still is a slight let-down compared with the brilliance of the rest.
Run, don't walk, to your nearest book store and get The Sorcerer's House. It's here at Amazon.co.uk and here at Amazon.com.