Let's assume you're someone who has never read epic fantasy before and is interested in picking up a book. What book should you read first?
First, hopefully you understand that Epic Fantasy is going to generally mean bigger books, bigger storylines that span several books, lots of magic, is usually set in a midieval time period of some sort, and usually has lots of Dungeons & Dragons style critters in it: elves, dwarves, monsters, etc. And if you don't know what those are, I guarantee you'll find out in a hurry.
Now, most folks would say, "Start out with Tolkien! He's the father of Epic Fantasy!" And, sure, that's true. He is. But... unless you're used to his style of writing - and you've read a lot of, oh, let's say Dickens or Bram Stoker, I'm going to hand you "The Hobbit" instead of "Lord of the Rings." Trust me, it's just better for us all that way.
1 - "The Hobbit"
* Introduction to elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, trolls, and dragons
* It's lighthearted and funny whilst still having an epic story to tell
* If you like it, the stage is now set for you to read "Lord of the Rings" as well as any number of other fantasy novels involving dwarves, elves, etc. (David Eddings, Terry Brooks, David L. McKiernan, Tracy Hickman, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond E. Feist)
There will be Tolkien fanatics who tell you to read the Silmarillion first or insist you add it to your reading list. Don't. Just trust me. Unless you read the bible often and think about how it influences your life and the culture around you, I think LOTR stands on its own just fine without having to read its bible (which Tolkien never intended to publish.)
2 - "Dragon Riders of Pern" by Anne McCaffrey.
* Completely different dragons
* Completely different world/monsters/politics/magic
* If you love these books, you'll love books by Christopher Rowley
3 - "The Swans War" series by Sean Russel - because it's a twist between the first two recommendations. And if you like those three books, then you should read his "Initiate Brother" duology, as well.
5 - "Codex Alera" by Jim Butcher
* This is getting your feet wet in epic fantasy. Six books, not small, each with awesome stories yet working together to tell a bigger story overall. Some fantastic magic here.
6 - "Scent of Magic" by Andre Norton
* this is a one book standalone novel to give you a break from the stack of books you just read and the wall of books I'm about to suggest after this. However, if you like this, you should definitely check out all of her other novels, as well as those by Ursula K. LeGuin and C.J. Cherryh. These women are the Goddesses of Sci-fi/Fantasy
7 - "Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan, finished by Brandon Sanderson
* Ok, yes. This is a boatload of fifteen humungous books and looks daunting right off. Take it one book at a time, one word at a time. And if you love it, it's the stuff dreams and many a conversation are made of.
* Note: If you like the first few books and get bored, say in book five, I won't be sad if you put them down and go read something else. If you can't make it through book one, that's ok, too. Try "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson :) No, that series isn't anything like Wheel of Time, but they are epic fantasy and are awesome. In fact, if you end up liking WoT, definitely read Sanderson's books, and I would add Tanya Huff and Holly Lisle to the list as well.
8 - "Servant of a Dark God" by John Green
* I've just added this to my top ten list after reading it this week. Amazing story, amazing world, it's just that good. I think anyone who loves epic fantasy needs to read this book. And anyone new to the genre should maybe start here.
9 - Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett
* doesn't matter which book you pick up first. There are over 20 novels plus short stories, most stand alone. The ones that don't are labeled accordingly. Read them, laugh, read some more, laugh some more, and learn to laugh at the genre itself and society while you're at it. This is satire at its best.
*if you like these, I'd recommend books by Robert Aspirin, Piers Anthony, Harry Turtledove
10 - Oh, I don't know how to pick what goes here. "Time of the Dark" by Barbara Hambly? Anything by Barbara Hambly? Go read her books. Read them all, right now. The woman can write.
This post inspired by Chuck Wendig's crowdsourcing of favorite epic fantasy reads. LOTS of awesome books suggested there.