What To Keep In Mind:
Fantasy and science fiction are far more varied than an outside impression might suggest. Pop culture leaves fantasy as Lord of the Rings, and SF as Star Trek. Is that accurate? Not a bit of it. Lord of the Rings is a classic fantasy, yes, and some still follow its mould. But the genre has grown and developed massively since then. You can get fantasy set in the modern day (urban fantasy); fantasy crime, fantasies of Victorian-style brass and steam (steampunk), even low magic fantasy (the aptly named 'low fantasy'). And, of course, far more... If you're interested in any of these, there's more information in my Five Minute Guide to Subgenre.
So, why is this important? Simply this: if you're going to try out fantasy, try more than one type to find your tastes.
Classics or Modern?
Some fantasy readers would recommend starting with the classics - and of course with the famous Tolkien. I would actually advocate the opposite. The older books down really reflect the genre 'as is', so more modern titles will give you a better feel. One method of choosing where to start is to think of what you already like to read. Enjoy crime? You'll probably love the Dresden Files - or China Mieville's The City and the City. You can read more about possible introductions in that way at my article, here.
Alternatively, you can...
Start With The Best?
Maybe. Some fantasy works are better to approach with some context - just like you wouldn't jump straight into any sort of referencial work without any familiarity! However, most are fine to start with, although I'd recommend standalones rather than series for your first reads. In that case, why not try some of these:
- A Madness of Angels is fantasy in the city - to wit, London. Where mudane acts acquire mystical significance, the hours spent on the telephony system have given birth to the blue electric angels, for example! But urban sorcerer Matthew Swift has a problem: he's woken up in an unfamiliar London... with eyes of the wrong colour. This is a great place to start if you're into urban fantasy - A Madness of Angels is atmospheric and has one of the best hooks I've read. It also introduces itself very well, and is great for newcomers.
- Warbreaker. This will give you the feel of one of the newer kinds of epic fantasy. Sanderson, the author, is known for his detailed constructed worlds, and this is one of his few standalones. If you want magic to be logical; the world to be dailed and different, try Sanderson. The story's pretty good too.
- Tigana. If you want your books to be not fun, but beautiful, Tigana is likely your kind of read. A historical fantasy based on Italy, Tigana is the tale of a nation stripped of its identity, and the endeavour to regain it by a band of protagonist. Let's not call them heroes: because this novel is known for its grey and grey morality.
Read those, or want others? Well, just take a look back through my review archive, or my 'Best Of' series. There's plenty out there!