There are a number of people making suggestions for what you might read to fill the void while George R.R. Martin continues to turn out his Game of Thrones series of books. For the suggestions below, anyone who reads fantasy has probably already encountered these. I did try to go back a few years (to keep with the theme of this blog), to find some possibly forgotten gems. However, if GOT is your first foray into fantasy, then the books below are of a similar genre. I am not going to recommend that you read The Lord of The Rings. That recommendation would be from people who think all fantasy is the same thing. Certainly, LOTR is the master of its genre and I’d encourage you to read it whether or not you are a fan of GOT. Although the movie version has definite parallels to GOT, the books are really of a different mindset and more focused on the development of smaller characters than a larger dynastic succession.
Fantasy is often broken up into several separate genres, such as Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, etc. Often these distinctions center on the location of the story. High Fantasy is in an imaginary, magical place like the Lord of the Rings, while Low Fantasy, such as the Chronicles of Narnia have at least some of their basis in the real world. I’m not sure these are good descriptors when trying to find books similar to GOT. It seems to me that we should be searching for stories with a specific intent, not locale. That is, looking for stories about dynastic or governmental succession vs. ones about a quest for a particular item or ones that are coming of age story for a young magician, like the David Eddings Belgariad series. Maybe someday, we’ll all begin calling anything in these genres “Speculative Fiction” and call it a day, instead of trying to pigeonhole them.
I would also suggest that while there has to be an element of the fantastic or magical, that the story truly focuses on the personalities if it’s to be compared to GOT. Although there may be magic, god-like and/or mysterious creatures, problems should be solved by methods other than magical ones and the action shouldn’t center on a wizard, master mentor figure or the search for some magical object. The magic belongs to the place, and while key to the plot, it is incidental to the character development in the novel or series.
I would also like to avoid suggesting books that seem to be more rooted in historical fiction. Although I love The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon and books like this include some of the elements I’m discussing here, they really take place in a world with all of our own physical rules, so they don’t fit into the fantasy mold of GOT.
The scale of George R.R. Martin’s work is not often found in fantasy. Most of the books I suggest focus on a small group of protagonists who (mostly) live through their trials unscathed, if not unchanged. His immense cast of characters are part of what make GOT unique and fascinating reading in the overall fantasy landscape. In addition, as I hate to leave any reader hanging, all of the books I suggest are complete series. So books such as The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss or The Warded Man Series by Peter Brett won’t make the list…yet.
All that being said, the books below may or may not feature all the plot points I’ve outlined above and some may be classified as something else than pure fantasy. However, to me at least, they seem to be good suggestions for those who like the Game of Thrones books. In no particular order:
The Crown of Stars Series by Kate Elliott: Easily the most comparable to GOT on this list. Her setting is not unrecognizable as it seems to be some form of medieval Europe, there is significant intrigue amongst the King’s court and ruling family and there’s a mysterious set of non-humans beginning to invade. She keeps her focus a bit narrower than GOT by mostly following the fortunes of Alain and Liath and their close friends and relatives as they fight to learn their role in the world.
The Deverry Cycle by Katherine Kerr: Start reading these and be prepared to spend a month or two in Deverry and the Westlands as there are 15 books in the series. I am fascinated by how Kerr continually weaves together the lives of a small number of characters in different places and times. You actually get to see the dynastic struggle here because the action covers centuries. Her tactic of bringing back the ‘same’ characters in different bodies, genders and times lets you get to know them, but then see them develop in subtly different ways as their spirits get older.
Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (2 separate books): Although both stories may have you reaching for your history books in an attempt to figure out which times and places Kay is using as his templates, these really don’t resemble real history at all. Maybe Kay’s hopes for history. In any case, both books feature battles, dynastic succession and characters who will remain with you long after you are finished reading. He is a master of foreshadowing and I dare you to be able to put down the book at any point in the last 50 pages of The Lions of Al-Rassan. The tension is amazing.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Stephen Erikson: You think George R.R. Martin is complicated? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Erikson, an archeologist and anthropologist, brings both disciplines to bear on what is easily one of the most complex and layered fantasy series ever. Definitely filled with more magic, mysticism, and gods than GOT, this series is full of compelling characters, none of whom can clearly be called heroes or villains, something it has in common with Game of Thrones. Erikson is a master at writing battle scenes, so you can get your war jones filled here.
The Shadowmarch Series by Tad Williams: Although heavy on elves and fairies, Williams has created a nice array of characters for us to follow in the battle for the heart of Southmarch. When the king is taken captive in a land far away, it’s the remaining family members who must fight off a magical shadowland of mysterious beings who threaten to overcome their country. There is a wide array of storylines and complex characters who are very human in their successes and failures. Although I enjoyed this series, it was mostly because it fit the traditional model of fantasy with a relatively neat ending. I like that, but there may be those out there who don’t. There weren’t a lot of surprise deaths or anything here.
The Merlin Series by Mary Stewart: This set of books follows the life of Merlin, told in first person, as he goes from poor boy to the wizard who oversees the reign of Arthur Pendragon. Both Merlin and Arthur are more than the caricatures you may imagine from years of being pelted by Arthurian fiction, and are instead multi-layered, faceted men who make mistakes for which they must later pay. There aren’t many complex women characters in this series and the pacing can be a little slow, but I think those are products of the time in which the books were written and easily overlooked once you get into the series.
The Majipoor Series by Robert Silverberg: The comparison to GOT lies in the complexity of the world and the government of Majipoor. Although the stories mostly follow one main protagonist, Valentine, (and breaking my rule above as the first book is what I would term a quest novel), he is joined by characters from non-human races who have very human motivations and feelings. This set of books shines because of the complexity of the world they live in and their reactions to it.
The Chronicles of Amber-The Corwin Cycle by Roger Zelazny: Dynastic struggle, inventive world, compelling characters, what’s not to love about these 5 books? This set tells the tale of Corwin and his trials as he comes to grips with his family and their daddy issues after several hundred years of where Corwin’s been absent from the scene. His narration is somewhere between High Fantasy and detective noir and you can almost feel the 1970’s cool factor dripping from the pages. Probably number one on my list of fantasy novels I’d like to see made into a movie or tv series. Technology has finally caught up with Zelazny’s imagination.
The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson: While following many of the traditional fantasy tropes, Sanderson takes a bunch and turns them on their heads. I can’t even explain which ones as I don’t want to spoil any of the books for you. I can tell you these books demonstrate a master world builder at work and the creation of a well thought out and convincing system of magic. While the ending to the trilogy is entirely logical, it’s also entirely unforeseen and unique amongst any fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Not a spoiler!
The Dragonriders Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey: Hierarchical challenges, dragons and battles against the pernicious thread, which although insensate, plays the role of the main villain in the struggle for survival portrayed in these books. Sometimes the characters may seem a little less than full dimensional, but again, it’s the place that truly defines the people. Not truly in the sword and sorcery vein of GOT as there is no medieval warfare, but a compelling and wide array of characters fill that gap nicely.
Others who are even farther from the mold of GOT, but you may wish to check out as they are excellent examples of the fantasy (or speculative fiction) genre:
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
The Incarnations of Immortality Series by Piers Anthony
The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
The Chronicles of the Deryni by Katherine Kurtz
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Riddle Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
The Twelve Houses Series by Sharon Shinn
Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin
This last book will probably deserve its own review someday. The number of characters that die and its ambiguous ending may even lead you to make some guesses about the end of GOT! This one would be pigeonholed as science fantasy, but again, I think I prefer speculative fiction.