This is guide to mainly fantasy fiction, peppered with what I consider mandatory science fiction. It takes you through most good "SFF" I have read in my life. Newcomers to the genre can use it as a 'reading program', while veterans could use it to find a worthwhile re-read or fill a few holes in their bibliographies. Anyone interested in reading through the "SFF" genre would be well advised to follow the reading order I've prescribed; as you go along, the maturity/ contemporary-ness of what you read increases. The pay-off for well read folks would be near the end of the list.
As you probably know, SFF is given to a lot of serialization. This guide will therefore start you off on the first books in some recommended SFF series, and trust you, Amazon, and Google to come together and lead you on to later books in the series.
Now read up on Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov - the daddies of all things sci-fi (the grand-daddies being Jules Verne and H G Wells, who we will assume most if not all those reading this have already read or are sufficiently acquainted with via movies and other media). Some of their most mind-blowing titles (in order of essential reading) are:
My cross-genre must reads include anything by H G Wells/ Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' excellent Barsoom (Martian) saga starting with A Princess of Mars (Modern Library Classics) for a good dose of testosterone. (you can probably pick up the e-books for the Barsoom tales on Project Gutenberg for free, if you don't mind e-books).
Besides these guys, you should read Frank Herbert's Dune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles, Book 1). I usually avoid mentioning all the other entries in the Dune series (especially the later ones written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, which are just criminally bad), but if you want to give it a shot, go ahead.
Aaand... You're just attained the rank of SFF Novice! Congratulations.
Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series is a reasonable Tolkein derivative that many swear by, starting with The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Book 1). Be warned though, I consider the trilogy mediocre, and the third book (To Green Angel Tower) is way overlong and under-edited (it had to be split in two for publication). In an SFF world populated with brick-sized books, that is saying something.
Speaking of derivatives, I cannot bring myself to recommend to you the recently over-hyped Inheritance Trilogy from Christopher Paolini, starting with "Eragon", having read it up to "Brisingr". I didn't bother with the finale. There's derivative, and then there is poor rehash, and the certainly precocious and allegedly prodigious Paolini falls in the latter category.
A lot - LOT - of people will recommend the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis (a peer and friend to Tolkein); I personally won't - and don't; he just isn't my thing. If still want to check out The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia)... or if you liked the movies, your call! I prefer the movies in this instance!
I'm told Peter Beagles' The Last Unicorn makes a good read as well - I personally don't like it much. (I'm going to get beat up for saying that!)
I'll tell you what I do like though: the Fionavar Tapestry (starting with Summer Tree, The: Book One of the Fionavar Tapestry) by Guy Gavriel Kay. It is still firmly middling good in my view, but it does beat Paolini hands down. I have yet to read any other stuff by Kay, but people do say Tigana is his best work.
You should also catch up on Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy (the first of three trilogies) starting with Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy, Book 1). I don't like the end of this trilogy, and her books are overall too... young adult almost... for me, but am giving her the benefit of the doubt as I haven't read the other two trilogies(see below).
On the SF front, you've already got enough to read on your hands, and Asimov and Clarke really sum up quintessential SF for me. But there are other classics to be read. The biggest gap (they tell me) in my science fiction reading is Robert Heinlein. Ah well.
Congratulations - once you read all of the above, you will have managed to acquaint yourself with some classics in the genre, and read some entry level stuff, more likely to be discussed at an average water cooler/ internet forum. You have attained the rank of SFF Initiate. Onwards and upwards!
A note of caution - all SFF beyond this is not for 'young adults' or emo categories of people. If you are the kind that laughs gleefully, (or maniacally) when an author writes something gritty/ gory, or does the unexpected - read on. If you cried when Gandalf died in the Fellowship of the Ring, stop now. Seriously. Stop.
Read Stephen R Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 1), the first in a projected ten book series (two trilogies and a quartet) collectively called the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Although he starts off as a Tolkein derivative (on purpose, he says, same as Robert Jordan), he shoots wide pretty soon. But beware - his books are a one shot (and often error-filled) education in vocabulary!
Next, in a genre-bender, read Stephen King's excellent Dark Tower septet (or is it an octet now that King has written one more book?), starting with The Gunslinger: (The Dark Tower #1)(Revised Edition). Once you finish the 7th book (The Dark Tower) don't waste time in catching your breath, and start on Dan Simmons' Hyperion quartet, starting with Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos). Buy Simmons' books two at a time - you wont tolerate any reading gaps in between books, as #1 and 3 end with massive cliffhangers. If you like Simmons' style, read his other two part series based on the Trojan myth, starting with Ilium. That said, I did not much care for it.
This would be a good time to catch up on one of the most popular series out there - A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. It kicks off with A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1). A word of caution here - the first three books are excellent, and the fourth is good but somewhat frustrating, the fifth one I honestly couldn't bring myself to finish because the plot was plodding along. The 6th of a projected 7 is years away, and I've resigned myself to (re)reading all seven at a go once they are all done! There's an HBO TV series airing as well of course, soon entering its third season. Might be better to watch than read, to be honest!
As mandatory reading before becoming an Acolyte, you have to read a LOT of Neil Gaiman now, both graphic novels and novels. So start with his EXCELLENT Sandman collections, beginning with The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes. I have read ten of these (the main sequence), but I understand there are a few standalones out there too. Get 'em all! Now move to Stardust, followed by American Gods and Anansi Boys.
Congratulations - you just made SFF Acolyte, and can now be brought to the real payoff - the mysteries and joys of Priesthood.
Now the real payoff. A series that has simply blown me away with its sheer awesomeness... I truly cannot rave enough about Steven Erikson's 10 part Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It starts with Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1). This is easily the BEST high fantasy literature out there.
And wait, there's more! The Malazan universe was co-created by Ian Cameron Esselmont and he will be writing 5 - 6 novels of his own, sort of weaving in and out of Erikson's. Starting with Night of Knives: A Novel of the Melazan Empire and continuing another 5 books (of which 4 are out already). Esselmont isn't as good a writer as Erikson, but the world is compelling enough that you should read him; also his novels feature some major events that no fan of the main series would want to miss. I very much recommend reading both authors' books in publication order.
I liked R Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" trilogy that starts with The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, Book 1) because it seems to be contemplative on a level matching/ exceeding Erikson. However, his plotting isn't exemplary (I think). He gets benefit of the doubt because I am excited by how his "Aspect Emperor" trilogy, starting with The Judging Eye (The Aspect-Emperor) is continuing the story of Anasurimbor Kellhus and his teacher/ friend/ rival Achamian. The second book in this latter trilogy I read very recently and would heartily recommend; can't wait for the third!
To catch up with the reading scene a-la 2011 you need to read what was easily the hottest SFF debut of recent times - The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss. I read it, liked it, but am not quite completely sold on where the story is headed. Beautifully crafted novel though. I read the sequel, The Name of the Wind, as well, and while I have a few complaints with the pace of the story, or that the story hasn't quite moved as far as I'd thought it would, it was a worthwhile, well-crafted read.
Also check out The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards) by Scott Lynch. This roguish tale set in a well imagined universe is the first of the 'Gentlemen Bastards' series, and can best be described as Oliver Twist meets Ocean's Eleven meets Fantasy! The third book in this series has been due for over six years though, as the author deals with some personal health issues. Worth reading still!
The last major exciting voice on the scene is that of the previously mentioned Brandon Sanderson. I've read his 'Mistborn' trilogy starting with The Final Empire (Mistborn, Book 1), and was very very impressed with the quality of the language and characterization. I was also surprised how original his ideas and plot twists were. Now, I've read a reasonable amount of SFF, so that's saying something!
These ideas also show up in his debut Elantris (published before Mistborn), but I wouldn't recommend that book because - well - you can tell it was a debut; the writing is much better in Mistborn. He is also writing a new series called The Stormlight Archives, which has the SFF community very excited. I haven't yet read the first volume, The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive, The), but would recommend it anyway! This is one prolific writer, and one I would blindly spend money on for forthcoming books.
Glen Cook's Black Company books starting with Chronicles of the Black Company, which collects the first three (of 10) books. Steven Erikson himself recommends and was inspired by this series, and you can straightaway see why. This is epic fantasy, but not in door-stopper size, and completely defies most Tolkein-esque conventions. Brilliant writing here!
Now, having come thus far, you can call yourself a Priest of High Fantasy. (Only if you generally liked what you read so far - if you didn't, you're a shmuck for not stopping long ago! :P )
And of course, you have now caught up with (or gone past) my reading curve as well... so let me tell you some things about where my reading is headed.
First - I have thus far avoided two popular series ("The Two Terry's" I call em). Terry Brooks' Shannara series, and the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, which I abandoned about 20 pages into, "Wizard's First Rule" for being rather bland. I have also somehow ended up not reading any David Eddings, who was perhaps the Robert Jordan of the 80s in some ways. All three are incredibly long and popular... but I've never felt interested enough to read them.
I am curious however about 'The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone' by Greg Keyes, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay (besides Fionavar), Richard Morgan, and Patricia McKillip. (You can probably tell I keep a LONG list of "to reads")
Finally, fellow Priest of High Fantasy, here's the bottomline - There's only two ways to move to the next level:
1. Write a high fantasy epic of your own that is worthwhile OR 2. Keep reading books (and visiting internet message boards, fan-sites and suchlike), write "So you'd like to" guides, and send me some recommendations for a few decades to come...
Ah well... thats 'nuff for now I suppose!
PS: Uh... the name of the guide was a misnomer. I didn't help you become a High Priest of anything. Just so you know :D