Terry Goodkind’s books are like the unholy love children of Ayn Rand, LKH and Robert Jordan – generic fantasy with an S&M twist, a truly repulsive main character, and the most insane and rightest of insane right-wing philosophies in which pacifists are mowed down BY THE GOOD GUYS, and the only threat to freedom that has EVER existed or ever WILL exist is communism.
This guy wrote THE greatest fantasy novels in history, and set the standard for everything that is now a fantasy cliche. Elves? He wrote ’em. Magical artifacts? Duh. Dark Lords? Uh huh. Dragons, orcs, trolls, wizard mentors, halflings, medieval societies, deposed kings, unclear creatures of generic evil who serve the Dark Lord, epic battles, degenerate little creepy things, and quests across fantasy lands. HE DID ALL THAT, and he did it before anybody else did. Most of fantasy, including the non-derivative stuff, is in SOME way indebted to either this author or C.S. Lewis. People copy him, copy his copies, include creatures (tall noble fair elves) in their books, make a point of trying NOT to be him (Michael Moorcock), and so on. Even urban fantasy is not immune to his influence – Laurell K. Hamilton once ranted (on her blog and in a book) about how her fairies are better than Tolkien’s elves because they… have sex in public, and Jim Butcher has homaged Tolkien about a thousand times.
But I digress. Read these books. Read The Hobbit and then the trilogy. Yeah,Fellowship of the Ring starts off slow, but once Aragorn enters the story things really speed up and never stop being awesome.
Ursula Le Guin
Ursula le Guin’s first Earthsea book was published back in the 60s, and it’s considered a classic staple of fantasy ever since. She wrote the series on and off in years that followed, before finishing in 2001 with The Other Wind. Her books follow the wizard Ged Sparrowhawk, who travels across the many islands of Earthsea over a span of many decades.
This series is about balance – male and female, dead and living, human and dragon, good and evil, and about finding balance in yourself as well as in the world around you. Also, there’s a living shadow, and talking/shapeshifting dragons, so… that works.
I will warn you, though: the fourth book Tehanu is kind of hard to read. It was written almost two decades after the first three books, and… it’s very eighties, very second-wave feminism, very “menz are evil thugs who rape and keep the woman DOWN, and women are stronger and deeper and better! Girl power!” It’s also very bleak and bitter compared to the books that came before, or the ones that came after. But it’s necessary to read it, since The Other Wind will make no sense if you don’t.
Tad Williams is one of the few authors who can write big heavy thick wristbreaker books, but without Robert Jordan levels of filler and pointlessness.
The Memory Sorrow and Thorn series starts off pretty slow, since the first half of the first book spends a lot of time establishing shit without doing much. But what it establishes – and what follows – is magnificent, with giant castles, mysterious elflike races, an evil priest controlling the new king, a princess who makes her own mistakes instead of needing a man to do it for her, a tormented older prince, broken legendary heroes, a castle riddled with history, a religion very similar to Christianity, and a humble hero who ends up in the middle of it all.
This is one of those series that would be pedestrian in someone else’s hands, because it takes a lot of fantasy tropes and either inverts or makes them new and fresh.
And then there’s the Shadowmarch books.
These are similar in that they focus on an ancient castle, the royal family ruling from it, and faerie creatures who are both dangerous and beautiful. There’s a lot of political drama, seeking of gods, hostages in faraway lands, and a mysterious boy who is found near the castle by Funderlings (sort of like dwarves, except they indignantly point out that they are not just short, they are a different species).
Patricia A. McKillip
One of the few authors today who actually comes up with her own unusual ideas. It’s not the usual sword and sorcery, high fantasy stuff, but her Riddlemaster trilogy is amazing. It’s basically about the young prince of a poor country who answers an unanswerable riddle, and ends up with a crown and engaged to the second most beautiful woman in the world. But of course, the place is being invaded by strange shapechanging creatures, and the story is full of riddles, lies and magic.
There’s also the Cygnet duology, which is about the Ro family, a sorceress living in a swamp, a prince magicked into a firebird, and strange legendary creatures haunting an ancient castle.
I mentioned Jim Butcher elsewhere as writing really awesome urban fantasy… but apparently his first love was high fantasy in the Tolkien vein. Also, someone dared him to base an epic fantasy on Pokemon. I am not kidding. Someone really did that, and he took the dare.
So what do we have here? Uhhhh… imagine the love child of Spartacus and Avatar: The Last Airbender, but with Wookiees and insectile Borg. And it is FUCKING AWESOME.
These books take place on another world, where the Lost Legion of Rome somehow got sucked through a dimensional nexus. This world instead has caveman elves, the giant blood-magic dog-people called the Canim, and elemental creatures called “furies” that the humans can control so that they can use magic. The main character is a guy who is the only one in the world who can’t use Furies… so of course, he ends up having to use his brains and wits to deal with a political coup, warring species, and a giant invasion by really gross bugs.