The night is dark and full of terrors with no more Game of Thrones to watch and, like a pack of starving dire-wolves, bereft fans are hunting around for similar morsels to devour. But don't be downhearted for, even if you have gorged on all of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, there are still plenty of worthy volumes out there which contain more than a hint of the Westeros wow-factor. In honour of the seven kingdoms we recommend seven titles as compelling as a Tyrion Lannister battle plan.
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has brought fantasy writing into the mainstream of popular literature like no other title since The Lord of the Rings. HBO’s grandstanding television adaptation - entitled A Game of Thrones after the first book in the series - has fundamentally changed the rules and standards for onscreen continuing dramas. Taken together, these twin achievements have definitively altered the way that we consume popular culture.
The five (thus far) installments of George RR Martin’s medieval/ fantasy mash-up saga are an even more complex brew than the HBO series, with myriad subplots and sidebars that even eight seasons of Game of Thrones had no time to tackle. Characters are allowed even more room to breathe thanks to Martin’s technique of allotting an individual protagonist a tight, third person point of view per chapter, whilst character arcs and development can be stretched even further, providing more psychological depth.
But let’s assume you’ve read the books. What now?
The sixth volume, The Winds of Winter, is perennially delayed, whilst not even Bran Stark could give you an accurate date for the final installment, provisionally titled A Dream of Spring. Whilst it may be true that there is nothing else quite like A Song of Ice and Fire in the literary landscape, there are at least some other volumes that share some of the same landmarks.
Robert Jordan’s monumental Wheel of Time series is as good a place to start as any. Volume One, The Eye of the World, predates the book A Game of Thrones by a few years and, indeed, sales of the latter were considerably enhanced by a favourable comment from Jordan on the cover of the first edition. Whilst the characterisation might not be as nuanced as that in A Song of Ice and Fire, the sheer scale and meticulous attention to world-building detail are certainly comparable.
Another Martin-approved fantasy author is Robin Hobb (the pseudonym of Margaret Lindholm Ogden), creator of The Farseer Trilogy, which comingles tropes from the Middle Ages and sword-and-sorcery fiction. Much like George RR, Hobb manipulates her readers in the best possible way, marshalling a huge cast of characters in a vast array of locales and forcing you to care about each and every one. Oh, and there is also a zombie-esque subplot in the trilogy that has definite overtones of Martin’s White Walkers.
Of course, A Song of Ice and Fire is not just a straight fantasy franchise. Martin is a self-proclaimed history nut and his obsession with European (particularly British) medieval history bleeds into every sword and sigil in Westeros. Fans of this element of the novels could do a lot worse than embarking upon Sharon Penman’s classic revisionist account of the life of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour. Boasting the kind of multi-layered characterisation and developmental arcs that A Song of Ice and Fire has become renowned for, Penman’s masterpiece is a thoroughly convincing treatise on power and hubris, drenched in precisely the Wars of the Roses-chic that Martin cannibalised for his Seven Kingdoms.
Yet despite the abiding fascination with Plantagenet Britain, Martin has stated that one of the key inspirations for his magnum opus was The Accursed Kings series of books written in the late 1950s by Maurice Druon. Blood and thunder re-imaginings of the dynastic squabbles of the Capet and Valois Houses in 14th century France, the intrigues and machinations of these royal households and courts feels very Kings Landing indeed.
Another key strength of A Song of Ice and Fire lies in its rounded and credible characterisations of female protagonists, something not traditionally associated with the male dominated world of fantasy authorship. Martin’s women are every bit as powerful, ambitious, vulnerable and paranoid as his male characters and the emotional and psychological journeys that they undergo just as convincingly realised. In this sense Martin is the heir to Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose trailblazing The Mists of Avalon, repositioned the Arthurian legend of Camelot as a feminist narrative and imbued the likes of Guinevere and Morgan le Fay with inner lives and distinct, complex personalities.
But, ultimately and despite the epic narrative, historical atmosphere and depth of characterisation, there is another very important reason that millions of people around the globe adore A Song of Ice and Fire (and by extension A Games of Thrones), and that is dragons. From Tolkien’s Smaug to Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, fantasy fiction does love a dragon. Anne McCaffrey made the genre her own from the late 1960s onwards with the colossal Dragonriders of Pern series and there are certain parallels between Daenerys Targaryen’s bond with her fiery friends and that of Lessa’s intense relationship to the telepathic dragons in McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.
Dragons are also an integral part of Marie Brennan’s Isabella Trent sequence, a playful, action-packed collection of novels with a postmodern twist. Set in an alternate Georgian Britain, Trent’s ‘memoirs’ detail her adventures as a pre-eminent dragon expert with wit and vigour, managing to combine three of George RR Martin’s literary preoccupations – a fantastical twist on British history, strong female characters and, obviously, dragons – in one rollicking adventure series.
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