It’s a nearly impossible task, picking merely two SciFi/Fantasy stories to recommend to fans of the genre, even with ruling out anything written by Tolkien, assuming that as a given. (I mean, c’mon. If you haven’t read Tolkien, you’re not much of a fan, eh?) I’m also going to rule out George R.R. Martin, because he’s just so danged popular right now. Both are fantastic, and with great merit. But I want my recommendations to be a little more off the trodden path.
But not too far off. After lovingly considering so many geniuses of the craft (the strange and compelling worlds of Neil Gaiman? the weird and demanding worlds of China Miéville? the steampunk worlds of Cherie Priest, or the unique worlds of Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Brent Weeks, Marie Brennan, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi…???), I have decided to simply go with two favorites of my deepest heart: one with a male protagonist, and one with a female one: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey.
Both are in the epic fantasy camp, and both are first volumes in larger works. Both draw on a world similar to our own, but in a earlier, simpler time. Both have central players that live by their wits and triumph by the strength of their characters. The Name of the Wind has more inherent magic in it, whereas Kushiel’s Dart leans more on moral philosophy, but both are full of magic and mysticism. Both have very well realized main characters who become so much more than they appear. And both compel you forward, and stay with you a very, very long time.
It doesn’t get much better than that.