I’ve decided what a fan of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire would like in their fantasy fare:
- Dark, gritty characters
- Political conspiracies
- Large-scale battles
- Epic length
- Large cast of characters
- Modern writing style
The following works don’t necessarily meet all of these attributes; however, they fulfill enough of them to qualify, and are good enough to recommend:
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Trilogy
Tad William’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series was an inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, and as you read through the books, it’s easy to understand why. There’s a pair of princes feuding over a pointy throne, there’s the gloomy specter of a long winter over everyone’s heads, there’s ice giants from the North, there’s Hands of the King and a prominent character close to the king who loses a hand, and there’s beginning of the epic story, which starts off with the death of the kingdom’s beloved king. Now, granted, Tad Williams doesn’t write anything nearly as dark and gritty — though there are some dark moments — as A Song of Ice and Fire, but if you want an epic fantasy tale with a huge cast of characters and far-reaching webs of political intrigue, there’s few series better than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.
The Accursed Kings Series
George R. R. Martin famously called Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series “the original game of thrones”, and for good reason — the seven-book historical fiction series covers much of the timeline leading up to the 100 Years War, including a great deal of political turmoil. There’s regicide, vast conspiracies, traitorous relatives, feuding nobility, secret organizations, countries at war, rumors of incest in the royal family; basically, The Accursed Kings has everything but direwolves and a giant ice wall. It’s slow reading at times which might put off A Song of Ice and Fire readers who are used to a quicker pace and more action beats, but if you’re looking for a Game of Thrones fix, The Accursed Kings series is a good bet.
The Wars of the Roses
Much of the bloody political turmoil from A Song of Ice and Fire is influenced by real history, notably the 100 Years War and the Wars of the Roses, a grand-scale feud for the English throne that resulted in bloody battles and murdered nobility. Several of Alison Weir’s series of non-fiction history books — especially The Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, and The Princes in the Tower — go into great detail on the events of the wars. Weir’s writing flows like a fiction storytelling, making her books read like high fantasy; the fact that the characters and events in the books were real makes it even more exciting to read.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen Series
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is possibly the best alternative to A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s dark, full of lore, beautifully written, with a gigantic cast of characters. At 10 books and over 10,000 pages of story, author Steven Erikson has produced enough content to keep any fantasy fan busy for months. However, the series isn’t the easiest to get into: Erikson forgoes exposition and drops the reader directly into the midst of a war, with spies, conspiracies, cities under siege, and a complex system of magic all being thrown into the fray almost immediately with no explanation. There are no clear-cut lines drawn — the reader has no idea which of the characters are the bad guys, but throughout the confusion, some of the best fantasy writing ever made shines through. The first book took me three tries before I was able to power through and finish it, but boy, was it worth it! For readers with and open mind and tons of patience,The Malazan Book of the Fallen series is a perfect match.
The Serpentwar Saga
Raymond E. Feist
Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series is a fantasy classic, and The Serpentwar Saga is a trilogy set in the same universe — however, the series works wonderfully as a standalone trilogy. The Serpentwar Saga is much darker than Feist’s other books. Without spoiling too much, the trilogy tells the story of pair of childhood friends who find themselves sentenced to death for an unfortunate incident in their home village; the series of events that follow send them to faraway places to be involved in adventures beyond the imagination of their humble village upbringing. It has it all — war, royal conspiracies, magic, even its own versions of Jon Snow and Arya Stark — everything a Game of Thrones fan could hope for. The Serpentwar Saga is a great diversion for those waiting for the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire.