The Codex Alera was a huge point in my life because it was the series that actually got me interested in reading, and eventually my interest in it turned into writing, as well. It is a great epic fantasy series, and is definitely the series I would point to when recommending epic fantasy to a young reader.
These books, written by Jim Butcher, is a series six novels long, and every book naturally broadens the scope of the playing field. But my favorite thing about these books is how well the magic is executed, and the issues that are raised from it.
Essentially, everyone uses magic using inherent spirits within themselves and the world around them. These spirits are divided into six different elements (the conventional plus wood and metal). Every person has varying degrees of skill in ‘furycrafting’ each of these elements, and each element does different things. Water can heal, fire can spark emotions, etc. The main character, though, is a shepherd named Tavi, and he has none of these abilities. He is the only person anyone has ever known to not possess any sort of furies whatsoever, and thus in order to survive with such a ‘disability’, he has to rely on other means. I’m sure my inexperience becomes fairly evident here, but I can’t think of many stories in which the main character is at such a prominent disadvantage from the rest of the world. Imagine a society that judges its inhabitants based on their skill and prowess, and think of how condescending they would be towards a person that was so ill-equipped, he could be nothing other than a freak. Remember, in this world ‘normal’ people are expected to grow into these powers by the time they hit puberty. Tavi isn’t normal, and this world likes to remind him of that.
The Codex Alera, as I have previously mentioned, was written based on a bet. I’ll link the Q&A in which he talked about it so I won’t have to explain it, but basically Jim Butcher tried to prove that any good author can take old ideas and twist them into something good. With that bet, he made a society heavily inspired by the Roman era, and fleshed out a world that combines quite well with all of the things he pulled out of thin air to make it work. Even having the knowledge I have now, the Codex Alera would still be the first epic fantasy series I would recommend to anyone that wants to get into the genre. It’s relatively short (for epic fantasy), it achieves the scope of the genre that usually requires several books just to establish, and is still a fresh and easy read. Sanderson writes stuff that is not only thick, but long. George R. R. Martin is incredibly descriptive and verbose. Paolini is too simple and Tolkien is too old. As for other, more culturally relevant examples, I’m not versed enough to say. They may all be good stories in their own right, but as a first epic fantasy, this will set the bar pretty high to begin with.
It could also be nostalgia talking, but many of the huge scenes in this book hit me a lot harder than most of the ‘big’ scenes in other series. Not just regarding plot twists, but large, emotional quotes or events, too. So if you haven’t read the series yet, go give it a shot!