“Winter is Coming,” say the Starks of Winterfell. Yet, if it’s The Winds of Winter we’re talking about, we have no goddamn clue when it’s actually going to get here. Yes, the long-awaited sixth entry in the beloved A Song of Ice and Fire series by the notorious George R. R. Martin is still off in a horizon that seems to grow farther away the closer we look at it. What can fans of the epic fantasy saga do? Cry? Complain about the changes “Game of Thrones” makes? No, my friends, keep reading! While I’m thrilled that GRRM has proved quality fantasy writing can be taken as seriously as any other fiction, it saddens me that a lot of other great fantasy writers are overlooked. So, in order to give us something to chew on while we wait for the next great addition to the the Game of Thrones universe, and to spread some love for the genre, I’ve compiled a list of 10 fantasy authors you should read after A Song of Ice and Fire.
10. J. R. R. Tolkien
Let’s just get the obvious one out of the way first. Yes, by now, we’ve pretty much seen all “The Lord of the Rings” movies a million times and “The Hobbit” movies about once. Yes, Tolkien’s prose is long winded and dryer than stale biscotti. And yes, including Tolkien on a list of fantasy authors is uninspired as hell. Still, there are plenty of reasons to actually read his books. There’s a ton of info and nuance only to be found in The Lord of the Rings, like who the hell Tom Bombadil is, and why Gandalf couldn’t just call up the Eagles whenever he pleased. Not to mention the lesser-known Silmarillion: a giant tome of extended Middle Earth mythos so intricate and dense that it would make many religious texts read like the first draft of a Syfy movie by comparison. If you loved the epic scale and incredibly rich world-building of ASOIAF, and if you want to delve into the realm of fantasy, it’s worth it to pay homage to the man who’s behind it all.
9. Joe Abercrombie
One of the questions GRRM is constantly asked in his many interviews is “Who is your favorite contemporary fantasy writer?” GRRM’s answer is always the same: Joe Abercrombie. With good reason too, Abercrombie’s characters (while often lacking some nuance in my opinion) are all people who are damaged in a variety of ways, making for compelling and personal stories as we watch them not only survive dangerous worlds, but strive to figure out their place in them. Also, his fight scenes are some of the most exciting I’ve read – descriptive yet rapid, painting a visceral picture yet never dragging the scene out. One of Abercrombie’s recent novels, Half a King, won the 2015 Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book, although the novelist/documentary editor is most famous for his superb First Law trilogy. If you appreciate GRRM’s gritty, character-driven take on fantasy, Joe Abercrombie is right up your alley.
8. Robert Jordan
If you ever uncover original printings of A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings, you will note that the top reviewer’s quote comes from Robert Jordan. At the time, Robert Jordan (real name James Oliver Rigney, Jr.) was so much the head honcho of the fantasy genre, that it was his endorsement that meant the seal of quality. It makes sense why, in many ways Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is the quintessential fantasy saga. The massive 13-book series has a wide array of characters caught in an eternal struggle of Light versus Dark. The magic system is lauded as one of the most well thought-out and expansive. It’s also interesting to note that the books as a whole deal with themes of duality and Buddhist-inspired notions of the cyclical nature of time. There’s plenty to soak in with these books, and there’s just so many of them, that maybe – just maybe – they’ll eat up enough time until Winds of Winter comes out.
7. Andrzej Sapkowski
Did you enjoy The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt this past May? Well, what you might not have known is that the popular Witcher series of video games are actually a continuation of fantasy stories written by Andrzej Sapkowski. The books are just as exciting as the games, chronicling the feats and misadventures of the mutated, magic-using, dual-sword-wielding monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia. But like GRRM, Spakowski chooses to tell a grimmer, more human story. While Geralt hacks and slashes his way through a multitude of monsters, it’s his interactions with the people who put him on such journeys that really set the stories apart, often giving the message that people are really the most monstrous of all. For the longest time, these books were only in their native language of Polish, but with the international success of the games, English translations of almost the entire series (the last two are slated for 2016 and 2017 releases) are easy to find right on Amazon.
6. Anne McCaffrey
Is your favorite part of ASOIAF the dragons? Because if you can’t get enough of the winged beasts of awesome, then you need to get yourself a fix of Anne McCaffrey’s classic Dragonriders of Pern series. They tell the story of a colony from Earth that has settled on the planet of Pern, but have lost their technology ages ago and thus reverted back to a medieval society. However, before it was lost, they used said technology to breed dragons, whom elite dragonriders bond with in order to protect their planet from a perilous natural hazard that eats away at their planet. It borders on the realms of sci-fi, but like with the Night’s Watch facing against The Others in ASOIAF, the Pern books deal with humanity banding together to face impending forces beyond their control. If you want to get your inner Khaleesi on, McCaffrey is who you want to turn to.
5. Naomi Novik
If you STILL need more dragons in your life (and I mean, we all could use more dragons in our lives) then you should also check out Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I always thought it a shame how Novik is slightly overlooked in the public eye; of all the hundreds if not thousands of writers to incorporate dragons in their stories, Novik is the only one to successfully integrate them into historical fiction. The Temeraire series, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon, takes place in the Napoleonic wars… with dragons. Yes, it is very much our own world with the same complexities, intrigue and drama of 18th century history, but with the great twist of having dragons in the mix. How would such majestic, yet powerful creatures be integrated into war? How would they bond with their human counterparts? Novik answers all of these questions wonderfully in her dramatic series that serve as a breath of fresh air in the tired set-up of dragons vs. knights and wizards.
4. Diana Gabaldon
Speaking of historical-fantasy, let’s give a shout out to the other author with a hit-TV series based on their work and a fanbase that worships them with cultic devotion. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is overlooked by many as being nothing more than any other kilt-chasing romance story you can find on a discount rack, but there is real substance to her story of a time-traveler lost in 18th century Scotland. The biggest strength in her work is that, like GRRM’s, while her story involves fantastic elements, it’s very much grounded in reality. Her attention to detail regarding Scottish culture could make you believe you are reading an exciting autobiography of a real person, the scenes of fighting and violence pull no punches, and even the sex scenes are portrayed with a sense of genuine sensuality as opposed to overblown pornography. Plus on top of all that, the story is riddled with political intrigue as well as moral dilemmas between a large cast of strong characters – something any ASOIAF fan can enjoy.
3. Neil Gaiman
While he might be the biggest rockstar of the writing world right now, Neil Gaiman is also probably the biggest stretch on this list in terms of content. You won’t really find any knights and swords or castles and dragons between his pages. No, Gaiman is king over the domain of urban fantasy, where magic, folklore, and mythology are infused in our own modern reality. It seems as though all of Gaiman’s fiction involves the fantastic and romantic elements of classic storytelling clashing with the values and motivations of real people in the real world. This inversion of classic elements of fantastic storytelling is something that GRRM strives for as well, with ASOIAF doing away with the notion of impervious heroes defeating vile villains as many expect from the fantasy genre. If that inversion is something you appreciated in ASOIAF, then I recommend picking up Gaiman’s American Gods, where classic deities from a variety of religions find themselves in a struggle against the new sources of modern worship, like Media and Information Technology.
2. Patrick Rothfuss
Imagine if the wit, snark, and intrigue of Tyrion Lannister’s chapters in ASOIAF spanned the entire books. Now imagine Tyrion himself was crossed with Harry Potter, learning magic at a university and trying to fight against a dark force that killed his parents. You would end up with Kvothe, the protagonist and narrator of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle series. What really sets these books apart is the fact that it is narrated by its own hero – bringing into play wonderings of unreliable narration and questions of hero-depiction that most fantasy stories never delve into. Plus the hero himself is just fun to listen to. Kvothe is such a lovable jerk, slinging spells and quips and building himself a stack of enemies and endless problems as a result. Furthermore, through Kvothe’s love for song and flair, Rothfuss is able to deliver some truly lyrical and engaging prose. With its interesting protagonist, new spins on standard fantasy fanfare, and excellent writing craft, The Name of the Wind hooked me in just as deeply as ASOIAF did. If you have to choose only one book from this lengthy list, make sure it’s that one.
1. George R. R. Martin
Wait, what? No, I’m not messing with you. While ASOIAF is George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, the man has done a ton of other stuff as well. For starters, he’s released a few short stories set in the same world of ASOIAF centuries before the events of the main books take place (known as the “Dunk and Egg” novellas), giving insight into what life was like during the prime of the Targaryen dynasty. They are of the same quality, though with a slightly lighter tone than the ASOIAF novels. Plus they’re filled with a fair amount of easter eggs, nods to the fans, and bits of info that more hardcore fans have used in various fan theories. But beside all that, there are the entirely different novels that GRRM wrote before ASOIAF. The two I think are worth checking out are Fevre Dream and The Armageddon Rag, the former a vampire story set in the antebellum South, and the later a fantasy-laden mystery that examines the world of rock and roll in the 60s. They serve as interesting examinations of GRRM’s growth as a writer and let us see how he faces other facets of fantasy. So read up my friends! What better way to perform a literary rain dance than to read every single word written by our bearded lord of the Seven Kingdoms?