As Raymond E. Feist graduated from college in 1977 and had his first book, the best seller Magician, published in 1982, his career has pretty much always read 'best selling fantasy author'. In between graduating and publishing Magician he did dabble a bit in role playing games, but I don't think it was ever a serious career path for him. The setting of Midkemia (where most of Feist's Riftwar books are set) was originally worked on as part of a role playing game that he and friends played during college.
Originally I don't think Feist wanted to get locked into writing endless Riftwar entries. After completing the first trilogy (Magician, which can quite easily be read as a standalone, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon) he moved away from it with Faerie Tale, a rather Stephen Kingish horror that also dealt with congress with the world of the fae in a similar way to Tom Deitz's YA Tales of David Sullivan. Readers wanted more Riftwar, though, and while Faerie Tale is now regarded quite fondly, Raymond Feist was steered back to the Riftwar. With Janny Wurtz he wrote the Empire trilogy, which is set on the Asian influenced world of Kelewan and only deals peripherally with Midkemia. That too was rather ground breaking for the time as Kelewan is clearly medieval Japan and not many fantasies at the time used that sort of setting.
Over the years he continued to churn out Riftwar books (at one point he did admit that he was writing them purely and simply to finance an expensive divorce). He did write some other non Riftwar work, but continued to be mostly known for that. His most recent book Magician's End (2013) was the 30th Riftwar book, published 31 years after Magician and as the title suggests it brought the saga to an end.
He doesn't have anything upcoming, but as far as I know is still an active writer and keeps a presence online at Crydee.com.
While Magician definitely has flaws (the storyline is rather cliched, the elves, dwarves and dragons are rather derivative of Tolkien, there are almost no important female characters and it could have been edited more ruthlessly) it's still a cut above what was passing for epic fantasy at the time.
While the storyline follows the orphan boy Pug growing up on the frontiers of the Midkemian empire, and there are strong hints that he has a great destiny, and the elves and dwarves stepped straight out of the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Magician still has some brilliant originality in it. That originality is the concept of the 'Rift'.
The Lord of the Rings, The Sword of Shannara, The Thomas Covenant Chronicles and The Belgariad all concerned themselves with magical artefacts and a struggle against a dark lord. That's not the case in Magician. A mad wizard opens a rift between the world of Midkemia and the world of Kelewan, and the Midkemians are fighting to keep their world free of the warlike Kelewanians. The dark lord stuff creeps into it in later volumes, but the idea of the rift really set Magician apart at the time.
While it is referred to as the first book of the Riftwar Cycle, and is called a trilogy along with Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, it can be read as a standalone book, without needing to read the other two, which largely deal with different characters and tie up a few loose ends from the first book.
The characters had more depth than other fantasy epics and they were different in that they didn't follow the standard tropes. Pug's journey both on Midkemia and in Kelewan is different as he learns two types of magic and goes from unremarkable anonymity and slavery to unimaginable power on two worlds. There's the honourable Prince Arutha, the pirate Amos Trask and the cheeky young thief Jimmy the Hand. There are very few female characters of note, but Feist rectified that with Janny Wurtz in the Empire trilogy which is entirely about a young woman fighting to keep her house afloat in the dangerous and deadly games of houses on Kelewan.
It's an excellent entry into the world of epic fantasy and has more meat on it's bones than The Belgariad, and is less derivative than The Sword of Shannara.
Further and related reading: Raymond Feist wrote 30 Riftwar books of varying quality (some of the smaller standalones when he was doing it purely for the money are to be avoided I've been lead to believe. I did read one of them, Murder in La Mut, and that wasn't an experience I'd be eager to repeat) over the years. He managed to get some variation in them too, despite the familiar setting. The Empire trilogy in particular sets itself apart by being set entirely on Kelewan and being based on medieval Japanese culture and politics. Rise of a Merchant Prince is, as the title suggests, largely concerned with the trade and banking in Midkemia which appears to be based more on the mercantile Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries rather than the faux medieval Europe which most other epic fantasies of the time dealt with. Faerie Tale is a contemporary fantasy/horror, which is totally different from anything else by the same author.
As a result there are plenty of places readers can look to find similar works or those inspired by his writings. Even now the concept of the rift is uncommon, but a recent example that uses a similar concept is Kameron Hurley's ground breaking and gender fluid The Mirror Empire. Writers are starting to break away from the medieval European influenced settings, but there aren't many Asian ones like the Empire trilogy around, one that does use medieval Japan as it's setting is Lian Hearn's five book series Tales of the Otori. That one's partly about ninjas, so you know it must be good. The author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch, has admitted to being influenced by parts of Rise of a Merchant Prince when writing the book and creating his setting of Camorr. Faerie Tale always reminds me of Stephen King, but I think that's got a lot to do with the setting of contemporary East Coast USA. The closest thing to those is Tom Deitz's David Sullivan series which was coming out at about the same time. Both Feist's book and Deitz's series dealt with incursions of the fae into our world. That's also a theme of Seanan McGuire's October Daye urban fantasy series.
Prior to working out that what he really wanted to do with his life was write silly books for smart people Jasper Fforde worked in the film industry, mostly as a focus puller (I had to look it up, too, they maintain image sharpness on what's being filmed). One of the films he worked on was the first Pierce Brosnan Bond Goldeneye (if anyone's read my James Bond series of posts they'll know that I find that one of the series' superior entries). However I digress. Jasper Fforde is also the cousin (by marriage) of popular 'chick lit' author Katie Fforde.
In 2001 The Eyre Affair came out. People loved it, and it was followed by 6 novels starring the literary detective Thursday Next. Along the way Fforde also managed the Nursery Crimes duology set in the same alternate universe as the Thursday Next books. The first of those, The Big Over Easy, was actually a reworking of his original novel that failed find a publisher. There was also the rather dystopian Shades of Grey: The Road to Saffron. That was the first of a planned series, but it came out in 2009 and while sequels have been mentioned the release dates seem to keep getting pushed out with no sign of them. He also completed a YA trilogy: The Dragonslayer.
The last Thursday Next novel (The Woman Who Died A Lot) was published in 2012, and the third book in The Dragonslayer series (The Eye of Zoltar) came out in 2014. In rather Piers Anthony or Douglas Adams fashion, there's a 4th book in the 'trilogy' planned for 2016. Followups to Shades of Grey keep being mentioned for 2016 and 2017, but I wouldn't hold my breath. A standalone called Early Riser is planned for 2015.
Jasper Fforde maintains an active presence online at jasperfforde.com, and the Fforde Fiesta is held in Swindon every year where fans celebrate the chaotic mess that is the alternate 1985 Thursday Next inhabits complete with reenactments of the game show Name That Fruit, Hamlet speed reading competitions and interactive performances of Richard III.
I probably could have put the entire Thursday Next series here, and while they were all highly entertaining (a sequence towards the end of the second volume Lost In A Good Book still brings tears of laughter to my eyes) the others didn't quite have the same spark of originality and unbridled lunacy that the opener did. It's hard to classify The Eyre Affair, it defies categorisation in that way. It reminds me of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but at the same time it's totally different. It's set in England in an alternate 1985 where the Crimean War is still being fought, Wales has seceded from the UK and runs a thriving black market in cheese. The Beatles still broke up, but we never discovered bananas. DNA sequencing has been perfected to the extent that people keep extinct animals as pets (Thursday herself has a pet dodo called Pickwick) and neanderthals walk the streets. Croquet is a full contact sport and people worship books. That's just a sampling. The fun really kicks of when the arch villain Acheron Hades finds a way of actually getting into books and threatens to alter much loved classics, and Thursday has to go after him. A lot of the action takes place in the pages of Jane Eyre and forever alters the ending. You don't have to have read all the works of fiction that Fforde mentions in this and the other Thursday Next books to enjoy them, but it does help. Especially Jane Eyre, without that knowledge it's kind of like reading a joke that you're not quite into. However the book is worth it just for the performance of Richard III that Thursday and her boyfriend Landen Parke-Laine attend, which is a Shakespearean version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show audience participation screenings.
Further and related reading: Fforde has a bit to choose from. Lovers of literature and fiction in general will get a kick out of the Thursday Nexts. Nursery Crimes is set in that universe, but is totally different. It's a police procedural with nursery rhyme characters as the principals, to give an idea, Jack Spratt is a jaded detective. Shades of Grey was rather dystopian, and set in a world where colour means everything. The Dragonslayer series is aimed at a YA audience, but can also be read by adults. The series' main character Jennifer Strange, is rather like a young Thursday and the setting feels like his alternate 1985 from the Thursday Next series, but without the ability to enter works of fiction.
Because of the way he moves around it makes recommending similar works fun. He writes on totally different subjects than Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but has a rather similar style. Pratchett was also fond of co opting other fictional concepts and lampooning them in his Discworld series, and people should read him just because anyway. The idea of taking well known works of literature and having fun with them isn't new and Quirk Classics have had fun with it in recent years, rewriting such classics as Pride and Prejudice (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Anna Karenina (Android Karenina). Lev Grossman looks at his characters entering works of fiction in The Magicians, and there's a similar concept at work in Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs. The concept is also used in Jim Hines' Magic Ex Libris series, where certain magically powered librarians, known as Libriomancers can pull items from books for use in whatever adventure they're involved in at the time. The idea of stories being real is also behind Bill Willingham's Fables and the TV shows Once Upon A Time and Grimm.
Charles G. Finney December 1, 1905 - April 16, 1984. Because Charles Finney was named after the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney (sources differ on whether or not he was the evangelist's great grandson or not), it was really hard to find a picture of him, and I'm not even sure that the one above is really him or not. He spent time in the US Army stationed in Tientsin, China in 1929, before returning to the US and becoming the editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, a position he held for the next 40 years. It was in Tientsin that he developed the ideas that later made it into his best known work The Circus of Dr. Lao. While he's best known for that book, it wasn't his only novel. He wrote 6 all up, two were collections and one was a memoir. His final book was The Magician out of Manchuria, his time in China seemed to have made a profound impact on him.
Even by the standards of the 1930's, when The Circus of Dr. Lao was published, at under 150 pages, it's a short book, and only takes a few hours to read. It's the story of a travelling show of oddities, and their visit to a small town in Arizona and the effect it's curiosities have on the local populace. Despite it's brevity it manages to pack a lot into it. The themes move effortlessly from dark humour to speculative philosophy, and it's the kind of book that stays with you for a long time after having read it. It won the Most Original book of 1935. It was filmed as the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao in 1964. The film starred Tony Randall as the 7 'faces' which formed the show's attractions. The book has affected and inspired a number of writers, especially Ray Bradbury.
Further and related reading: Finney's other books and short stories also contained fantasy amongst them, but The Circus of Dr. Lao is the only one that's really lived on to the current day. Ray Bradbury used it as inspiration for Something Wicked This Way Comes, also about a travelling circus, although rather more sinister than Dr. Lao's. Peter S. Beagle's classic The Last Unicorn also features a travelling show of oddities, and it too was influenced by Finney's book. It's actually rather surprising that circuses don't feature more in fantasy, given that they're often referred to as places of magic and mystery. Robert Jordan even included a type of circus in his Wheel of Time series, and had some of the characters travel with one as performers for a time. One of the more recent circus fantasies, which did at times remind me of The Circus of Dr. Lao was Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.
With over 100 novels covering original material, series, standalones, collections and especially film tie ins, Alan Dean Foster would have to be one of the most prolific science fiction and fantasy authors of the past 40 years. He's better known as a science fiction author and will probably be best remembered for being the guy who novelised George Lucas' script for Star Wars. While the idea was Lucas', Foster added a lot of depth to the concept that later became accepted canon for the universe. He was also the first person to write a related Star Wars novel with Splinter of the Mind's Eye. He later returned to the franchise in the early part of the 21st century, but only remained long enough to complete one more novel (The Approaching Storm). He's also well known for his work on film related novelisations and tie ins, being awarded the title of Grand Master from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers in 2008. Most of his work is science fiction, but I include him here for a fantasy series called Spellsinger. Alan Dean Foster is in his late 60's now, and his work has decreased over the last decade, although he had the final two parts of his Tipping Point trilogy came out in 2012.
After mentioning Spellsinger above, of course that one was always going to find itself here as my recommendation of Alan Dean Foster's work. I'm going to get very specific here and only include the first 6 books of the series, and try to forget that he didn't try to revisit the concept 7 years after the 6th Spellsinger book (The Time of the Transference) with two fairly substandard entries covering the next generation. The idea behind Spellsinger is a fun one and it's sort of portal fantasy. The hero of the books is music loving college student Jonathan Thomas Meriweather, who works as a janitor or sanitation engineer part time. A world largely composed of sentient anthropomorphic animals are under threat from the Plated Folk (insects) and a tortoise wizard by the name of Clothahump searches the dimensions for a saviour, what he finds is Jon-Tom, largely zeroing in on the college student, because his search reads the term of engineer as wizard. Fortunately Jon-Tom's skill with a magical instrument called a duar actually helps him turn the lyrics of rock music into magic. After saving his new world along with his companion the rascally otter Mudge, he has other adventures which require his unique skill. Of course Spellsinger isn't the only fantasy series to use anthropomorphic animals. but it is one of the most fun and creative, as well as exhaustive in terms of how many species it finds to populate the world with. Jon-Tom even finds love with Talia, one of the few human inhabitants. I don't think the series gets the recognition it deserves and would have made a wonderful animated series.
Further and related reading: with over 100 books to choose from it would be hard not to find something of Foster's that someone liked. They are mostly science fiction, although Into The Out Of was rather dark fantasy from memory. It was science fiction, but I saw elements of Spellsinger in some of the alien inhabitants of the ice world in the Icerigger trilogy, which was part of the author's Humanx Commonwealth series of novels, and the stranded aliens in Quozl were really large humanoid rabbits. Spellsinger shares a lot with works like The Wind in the Willows and C.S Lewis also had anthropomorphic animals featured heavily in his Narnia books, as well as Brian Jacques' Redwall novels. Talking animals are also a staple of comic books, especially things like Howard the Duck, who comes from a dimension where ducks are the dominant life form and Dave Sim's groundbreaking graphic novel Cerebus the Aardvark which centres on a barbarian aardvark.
Next up is the G's and I can already see a few authors firming for that.