For many years I explained my preference for science fiction over fantasy like this: science fiction is an expansive and diverse genre in terms of ideas, setting, scale, and so forth, while a lot of contemporary fantasy consists of rehashing Tolkien without any of Tolkien's genius.
While I still lean heavily to the science fiction side of fandom, I've changed my assessment of fantasy largely as a result of books such as those listed below. Other fantasy-averse science fiction fans might find these books interesting as well. (You should, of course, read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, but since everybody's either reading those books or watching Game of Thrones, I don't need to say more.)
You might be wondering: What’s the distinction between science fiction and fantasy? See the first post on this blog for my answer, which draws on Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the “literature of cognitive estrangement.” Of course, like most distinctions, this one can be blurred.
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein
The Steerswoman is an excellent example of blurring the line between genres. This is basically a science fiction story in the guise of fantasy. The main characters (who are awesomely likable) use critical thinking in their search for knowledge whereas a lot of fantasy delves into superstition and unexplainable magic. The so-called "magic" has some natural, scientific explanation (it's fun figuring out what's really going on). As a bonus, you get the typical fantasy setting vaguely based on medieval Europe without the medieval European misogyny. The Steerswomen are a well-respected order dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and it's totally normal in this world that most of them are women. I personally would love to be one of the few Steersmen! (See my Goodreads review.)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss isn't a mega-star like George R. R. Martin, but he has been developing quite a following among fantasy fans. I saw him at the Tucson Festival of Books a few years ago, where he was one of the most popular guests (he also knows how to work a crowd).
Anyway, I loved this book. I think it's because the main character is basically a bard, and I always love playing bards in Dungeons & Dragons. The story is told as a series of flashbacks, which works surprisingly well and encourages readers to reflect on the power (and reliability) of narrative. This is definitely fantasy, but it's fresh and Tolkien-rehash-free. I didn't like the sequel as much, but there's no denying that Rothfuss possesses a bardly knowledge of how to spin a narrative.
Children of a Broken Sky by Adam J. Nicolai
Adam J. Nicolai is an independent author and -- full disclosure -- a good friend of mine. Would I like this book even if I didn't know the author? Definitely!
Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is free from religion, but Children of a Broken Sky is vaguely based on the Protestant Reformation (I emphasize vaguely). While the Church is mainly filled with bad people, there are exceptions, which reveals some of the author's nuance. One of the protagonists realizes the true power of her deity as she struggles with her faith. Instead of the typical young-boy-finds-a-mysterious-artifact-and-goes-on-a-journey-as-directed-by-a-wise-man motif, the plot of Children revolves around a half dozen main characters (both male and female) who have to figure things out for themselves. The novel’s structure, which involves frequently going back and forth between the characters as young children and as young adults, helps us get to know the somewhat large cast of characters. It also makes for some fantastic world building. (See my Goodreads review).
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin is a fantasy author on the rise (at least among the several friends who recommended this to me).
I love the world, especially the background mythology and the idea that the gods are incarnated and live among humans. It's also one of the more diverse fantasy stories out there. I loved the way Jemisin played with the social positions of humans and gods in terms of identity, relationships, and how fluid (and confusing) power dynamics can be. I didn't like that so much of the drama relies on very specific background knowledge that's often unclear to the reader. Too many fantasy stories focus on nobles and elites, which is also the case here. I'd love to read a fantasy story about a peasant revolt! I guess the sequel deals with common folk, so I'll have to check it out. (See my Goodreads review).
Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein
Steve Bein is another author I know (we were in grad school together many years ago, which goes to show that the best way to get me to read your novel is to know me in real life!).
I've never gotten into urban fantasy, since it's hard to see the point of fantasy without the fun of a new fantasy world. I've also never been a huge fan of samurai stories, martial arts, or detective stories. Still, I really enjoyed this book, which brings some nice cultural diversity to the genre. Moving back and forth between the historical chapters (ranging from medieval times to WWII) worked really well. This is as much a historical novel set in Japan as it is a detective story or urban fantasy. Mariko, who is the only woman detective in 2010 Tokyo, is hard not to like once you get to know her, as are her teacher and a lot of the other characters. (See my Goodreads review).