I know I am going to type this out and realize tomorrow (I'm writing this Sunday night for publication Monday morning) I've left out someone I absolutely adore. I will also, undoubtedly, leave out some fantastic author with whom I am simply not familiar. I'm not even going to pretend I think these are the best, because this sort of thing is inherently subjective. However, if you're a fan of the genre, there might be someone here with whom you're not immediately familiar, so if you're looking for new authors this might be helpful. Please do leave further suggestions in the comments section; I'm always looking for new reading material.
There's no real order here, just as I think of them. The list will skew pretty heavily toward fairly recent urban fantasy. And the LOtR series isn't here, because it doesn't need my validation.
1) A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin. I'll admit the fuss surrounding these books right now amuses the hell out of me. I read them nearly a decade ago, back when I was picking out my novels by thickness. (It's actually a winning strategy, believe it or not.) He is not afraid to kill off major characters. Apparently, there was a great deal of shock surrounding one of the deaths in Season One of the series (I don't know which death). People who are only now reading the books, or plan to read one per season, are going to be shocked when they get around to Book Four. I am re-reading these right now, by the way, as it has been so long I've forgotten much of what's in them. Mr. Martin is a very prolific editor, and I had just about given up on the fifth book being released; maybe I can stretch the first four out enough for the fifth to be available in paperback by the time I'm done with the others.
2) Tailchaser's Song, Tad Williams. You'll see him again on this list. I adore Tad Williams. This is an epic fantasy centered on a cat. Most of the characters are cats, in fact. The novel has all the elements of epic fantasy--the come-from-behind protagonist, the unlikely gathering of travelers, the epic journey. I've bought this book a few times; every time I loan it out, it mysteriously disappears.
3) the Diana Tregarde novels, Mercedes Lackey. Not the last time you will see her, either. Ms. Lackey is the grande dame of urban fantasy; her Di Tregarde novels really introduced that genre. They were published slightly out of order in the universe itself, I believe; Children of the Night should be read first. There are some superficial resemblances between Di Tregarde & Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake (short, dark-haired women who fall in love with...well, on the off chance you haven't read it I won't spoil it for you). Interestingly, LKH took on the same Aztec myth Lackey dealt with in Burning Water in her own novel Obsidian Butterfly. The former is much better, though LKH's take on it isn't a slouch.
4) Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Laurell K Hamilton. Well, the last one provided a nice lead-in for this one. It's another series I started reading long before it became popular. I read the series very nearly in order, too--I read Circus of the Damned first and then went back and picked up Guilty Pleasures. I remember going stir-crazy when Blue Moon's release kept getting pushed back; when it finally came out I stayed up all night long reading it. I'm about 90% in the disgruntled-fan camp on this series. I hate that it reads like slashfic these days, that Anita is screwing damn near everything with a penis. That said, Hit List actually had a PLOT, people! There was some sex, but not much, and it didn't completely derail the action as has been the case since Narcissus in Chains. Hamilton's AB novels were the first ones I'd read where all the mystical stuff was out in the open; subsequent series with this conceit seem to always feature wussy vampires who drink blood substitutes. WTF?
5) the Sookie Stackhouse series, Charlaine Harris. Yet another series I read before it became huge. I've avoided the TV series, because I hear they've really screwed it up. Ms. Harris was involved only in the first season. Lafayette dies in the second novel, people. And Pam is a lesbian who dresses like a yuppie. I'm a little put off by how Sookie is now rather promiscuous, and didn't like it when a certain important female character was summarily killed off, but the older novels are absolutely charming.
6) the Mercy Thompson series, Patricia Briggs. A skinwalker living among werewolves. Interesting take on things, though I'm not fond of the immortal werewolf thing. I am a huge fan of how the Fae are dealt with, though. Fair warning: bad things happen to the heroine. I'm actually impressed by that; there was no deus ex machina to save her. There is also an Alpha and Omega series (only two or three books so far, I think) set in the same world, but it is written in third person, and this grates on me for some reason. (Probably because the convention in urban fantasy is first person narration).
7) Urban Shaman, C E Murphy. There are more books in this series, but truth be told it's an uneven series. Ah, apparently the series name is The Walker Papers. Look, I like it, but the Celtic gods thing is really really done. There are a lot of cliches in the series. Most of the time it overcomes them, but not all of the time. Still, this is the most enjoyable of the author's series, to me.
8) Working for the Devil, Lilith Saintcrow. This is the first novel in the Dante Valentine series. I haven't yet read the others, so I'm not recommending the entire series. I've got a love-hate relationship with this book. It's heavily influenced by cyberpunk, which is a subgenre of which I've never been overly-fond, and it's a bit too over-the-top anti-Christian, but it's a compelling book nonetheless. I'll work on reading the rest of the series soon enough.
9) Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams. Epic high fantasy trilogy (four books in paperback; the last one was so massive it had to be split into two volumes). Nothing Earth-shattering, just good high fantasy. Elves, a stable-boy who makes good, an an ass-ton of onions eaten as though they were apples. Seriously. I love onions, but I'm not going to grab one and take a huge bite, y'know? It's really immaterial, but it's always stuck with me. This trilogy compares very favorably to Martin's series.
10) the Mithgar Series, Denis L McKiernan. This is the first of two large bodies of work I'll put on this list. (You probably already know the other one, if you've read high fantasy any time in the last 30 years.) There are sixteen total books here. The Iron Tower trilogy is very, very derivative. It's a much lighter take on LOtR. The Hel's Crucible duology is much better; it's probably my favorite.
11) Valdemar, Mercedes Lackey. Yes, this is the other large body of work. She covers some interesting, important topics in this series. And some are just purely enjoyable sword-and-sorcery novels. I think the first of these I ever read was By the Sword, which my uncle owned. I didn't read the Vows & Honor trilogy until I was an adult; one of those books has a line I still quote "Strong like ox. Dumb like ox. Hitch to plow when ox dies." Still, not the last of this author you'll see on this list.
12) Keeper's Chronicles, Tanya Huff. Of course, not the only time you'll see her. This isn't the series for which she is best-known, but it's my favorite. I am a sucker for good comic fantasy. This is pretty fantastic stuff. I think it is The Long, Hot Summoning which has the mall elves; it's my favorite.
13) Tiger & Del novels, Jennifer Roberson. One of the authors whose work I have plans to read much more of. This is the only series of hers I've read so far. High fantasy, again. Feminist. A little weird in places. One of two places in fantasy literature I've encountered my given name; Sabra is a villain in one of them. (Sabra is also a city in the southern continent in Denis L McKiernan's series mentioned above.)
14) Dresden Files, Jim Butcher. Urban fantasy for men, I guess. Very good. The TV series is available on Hulu, or at least was fairly recently. They screwed up enough minor details to annoy me away from watching it. I have yet to read Ghost Story, but I'm up to date other than that. Again, nothing Earth-shattering here. Or, well, maybe there is; in the (heretofore) penultimate novel I think there was a gigantic earthquake at the end. I think this is probably one series everyone has read.
15) Monster Hunter International, Larry Correia. I reviewed this a while ago. I've read Monster Hunter: Alpha, but not Monster Hunter: Vendetta. I liked the second book but given that I loved the first, it was kind of a let-down. I kept getting distracted by other books, to be honest. Don't get me wrong; I think Correia is a fantastic author. It's just that MHI made me leave book stores depressed because there was nothing else anywhere near as good on the shelves. I want to be Larry Correia when I grow up, only without having to depend upon math for my livelihood.
16) Happy Hour at Casa Dracula/Midnight Brunch, Marta Acosta. There are two more books in this series, but I haven't read them. This isn't comic fantasy per se, but it is very biting and amusing. Kind of a comedy-of-manners featuring vampires. It's almost paranormal romance, but that phrase implies a certain amount of overwrought melodrama that these books simply don't have.
17) Green Rider series, Kristen Britain. This is another series which compares favorably to Martin's. There's even a wall to keep back the Big Bad. Apparently, I need to get back to buying them, 'cause I'm short two books. (I think I started the third one but had to return it to the library. Also, it came out in 2007, which wasn't exactly a calm year for me...)
18) the Blood Books, Tanya Huff. This is one of the two series Ms Huff is best known for; I have not read the other. Nice urban fantasy: a PI, a detective, and a vampire. I think this was made into a cable TV series as well, but I'm not 100% sure. These novels are all very good. I read them at the same time I was reading LKH's novels, and was impressed by the seriousness of these novels in comparison. There is a spin-off trilogy, starting with Smoke and Shadows, but I haven't read any of them. (Well, actually I think I have read that one, but I'm not positive.)
19) the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett. The king of comic fantasy, bar none. I have yet to read all of these. I got Erik started on them because of how much I was laughing as I read them. Good send-up of high fantasy; better send-up of bureaucracy. Making Money is a must-read, even if you never get around to the others.
20) The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. I'm not quite done with this. It's about the only YA novel I'll admit to reading. I am embarrassed to say it's the only solo Gaiman novel I've actually read. American Gods is next on my to-read list. By the by, I have read Good Omens, the novel he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, and don't really understand the fuss. He is a fantastic essayist.
21) The Glasswrights Series, Mindy Klasky. More high fantasy. I must say I liked the earlier novels better, but they were all worth reading. Here's another author not afraid to kill people off. I did find the end a bit trite, though. The naming system in the series is pretty original--you get one syllable per caste, basically.
22) Born to Run, Mercedes Lackey. Total guilty pleasure here. Elves with mullets, yo. Need I say more?
23) World Gates series, Holly Lisle. This trilogy has the best characters I've yet come across. It is one of those parallel universe novels. The main character is a widow with a young son; the way Ms Lisle deals with her guilt at moving on with her life is moving. Also, though the son is a fairly major character, he is not annoyingly precocious.
24) On the Edge, Ilona Andrews. This is the first of a new series (there's one more, but I haven't read it yet). It's another parallel universe novel. It goes like this: you have the mundane world, which we all live in and know. Then you have a high fantasy world where magic is real and there are swords and sorcerers and such. In between the two, you have The Edge, a place where magic works to a much lesser extent but the rest of the world is modern.
25) the Allie Beckstrom books, Devon Monk. This is projected to be a nine-book series. I'm currently reading book six, Magic on the Hunt. I keep losing it. Which doesn't mean it isn't as good as the others, just that I'm easily distracted. Interesting concept--anyone can use magic, but they must pay a price (some sort of physical malady) to do so. Of course, there is a shadowy cabal of magic users with their own goals, and Ms Beckstrom gets sucked into it.
26) the Otherworld series, Kelley Armstrong. I haven't read all of these. I think I'm short two. It's a mainly female-focused series. All novels are in the same world, and they generally center around a few core characters. These include the world's only female werewolf, a medium who plays a fake one on TV, an a half-witch/half-demon. Oh, and one novel even has a dead protagonist. Very interesting stuff, though nothing really innovative. I haven't figured out what it is with vampires in this series yet.
27) Kitty the Werewolf books, Carrie Vaughn. Yes, a werewolf named Kitty. Someone comments on it in every book. The protagonist is likable. She "comes out" on the air of her radio program, the eponymous Kitty and the Midnight Hour. You'll see the vampire/werewolf politics that have become a common theme in urban fantasy, but it's not belabored. The author also tackles some pretty heavy stuff in these books, including the weaponization of werewolves. I'm about halfway through Kitty's Big Trouble right now; she finally got over her fear of guns. (Seriously, why would a werewolf be jumpy around guns?)
28) the Hollows novels, Kim Harrison. I started reading Harrison & Armstrong around the same time. I am horrible with names, especially when the names are even vaguely similar, so I have a bad habit of not remembering who writes what correctly. I love the puns used as titles here--Dead Witch Walking, The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, For a Few Demons More. Even more, I love the way a genetically-altered tomato led to TEOTWAWKI of sorts.
29) the Kate Daniels series, Ilona Andrews. I have read all but the last one of these, and yes it makes me sad that there is an end. The world is an innovative one--in a postapocalyptic Atlanta, magic and technology trade places unreliably. Vampires are very different from the way they're commonly depicted in fantasy literature these days. The story is good, and there's at least one spin-off series in the works for me to look forward to.
That's enough for now. I've left out Diana Pharaoh Francis's books, some of which are well worth reading, and also Mario Acevedo's novels, and certainly others.
OH! Internet, I need your collective brain: there was a novel or duology written some years back. I don't remember the title or the author, naturally, but the main character was a veterinary student looking forward to contracting Huntington's Chorea (I think she got it in the second book or so), and traveling to a fantasy world put it in remission. She wound up becoming a sort of physician to magical species and decided to live in the other world full time, since the other option was prolonged death. Anyone remember the novel(s)?