Winter is coming, and so is the new season of Game of Thrones. Jon Snow has his ragtag army of Wildlings, Northmen, and Vale Knights. Cersei holds court in the ruins of King’s Landing. Daenerys looks to conquer with her gigantic force of Unsullied, Dothraki and dragons. Euron and his viking Ironmen are ready to raid everything they can. Meanwhile, other players in the game of thrones–including some evil elf-looking guys with an army of frozen zombies–make their own plans.
Fans of HBO’s massive hit are already scrambling to predict how the coming wars will play out, but Westeros isn’t the only world filled with political machinations, warring factions, magic heroines, or giant dragons. Here are nine great books that capture some of the spirit of HBO’s fantasy epic.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
It’s well known that George R. R. Martin–whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels are the source material of Game of Thrones–draws inspiration from history to create his magical worlds. Graves’ historical fiction novel I, Claudius will remind readers of Game of Thrones even though it doesn’t have dragons or direwolves. Telling the story of the rise of the fourth emperor of Rome–the bridge between the hedonistic Caligula and the fiddle-playing Nero–I, Claudius is a fascinating look at the politics of the Roman Empire. It also has one of the greatest Machiavellian schemes in literature: Livia, the wife of Augustus and grandmother of Claudius. Livia is the power behind the scenes, the kind of grand schemer that Cersei Lannister only wishes she could be. (There was also a 1970s miniseries adaptation which Martin himself has called “one of the best series ever done.”)
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is a science fiction novel with spaceships and futuristic weapons, but at its heart it’s an epic fantasy tale. Instead of dragons, you have gigantic sandworms, and instead of kingdoms there are planets. But it’s a novel about epic quests and the power struggles between warring rulers, with the fate of the universe at stake. The book centers on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune) that produces a “spice” that is essential for space travel. House Atreides (the Starks of the book, perhaps) fights with their rivals, the evil House Harkonnen (Lannisters but ugly), while other factions such as the Bene Gesserit “witches” and the oppressed Fremen maneuver. Dune is a feat of worldbuilding, with a universe every bit as complicated and inventive as George R. R. Martin’s Westeros.
Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
If dragons are your bag, then you could do worse than McCaffrey’s sprawling series Dragonriders of Pern. If Dune is an epic fantasy novel in the guise of science fiction, then Dragonriders, which spans over twenty novels and additional stories, is a science fiction series in the guise of fantasy. Taking place in the future on a distant planet where scientists have turned lizards into dragons, the people of Pern face regular disaster from the passing of the Red Star, an event that devastates the land as surely as winter does Westeros.
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Herrera’s Kingdom Cons reimagines the world of contemporary Mexico’s narco kingpins as a medieval court. Told through the eyes of the Artist who is tasked with writing ballads of the King’s greatness, Herrera paints a picture of a drug lord’s house as a place of courtly intrigue and machinations every bit as interesting as the politics of King’s Landing. There’s the Heir itching to take the King’s place, the Witch whose sorcery divides the court, and of course rivals in other kingdoms sharpening their knives. By placing contemporary criminals in the language of folklore and fantasy, Herrera gets at essential truths about the persistence of power and the ways people try to get near it and acquire it.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic and war-torn African nation where magic exists. The main character, a young sorceress named Onyesonwu (which means “Who Fears Death?”) is born to a mother from the Okeke tribe who was raped by a man from the rival Nuru people–a dark sorcerer who now wants to kill her. Okorafor vividly describes her dark world and complex magic system. This week, news broke that HBO is working on an adaptation of Who Fears Death–with George R. R Martin serving as an executive producers–so you should read the novel now before it hits the small screen.
The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist
The titular Dwarf of this classic 1944 Swedish novel is less like the jovial snarky Tyrion and more like a short Littlefinger. He’s a misanthropic schemer working in a court in Renaissance, Italy. Like all bad guys carrying out assassinations for an evil prince, the dwarf is crazy he’s compelling. The novel is told in the form of his diary entries and his dark observations about the politics and players of the court would fit just fine into Game of Thrones.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
Westeros might have the Seven Kingdoms, but Jemisin’s debut novel has a Hundred Thousand. The novel centers on Yeine, a woman from the barbarian land of Darr, who becomes one of three heirs to the throne. Yeine must navigate the politics of the magical city of Sky, secure allies, and outmaneuver her cousins for the crown. Like Game of Thrones, this is a story filled with complex worldbuilding and deep, realistic characters. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in the Inheritance trilogy that includes The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of God.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Epic fantasy often seems like a genre that’s stuck in a universe of quasi-Medieval Europe worlds. Liu’s fantastic The Grace of Kings is an anecdote to this Eurocentrism, using ancient China as inspiration for for a grand story of war, rebellion, and power in the fictional island kingdoms of Dara. Two friends, a bandit named Kuni Garu, and the son of a duke named Mata Zyndu, rebel and overthrow an emperor, only to find themselves now rivals with different armies and different visions for the future.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
If you are looking for a crazy fantasy series to dive into, consider the weird world of Amber. The ten books (and assorted short stories) describe the power struggles over the “true” world of Amber, where Earth is just a mere shadow. The books are pretty insane, and the first one, Nine Princes in Amber, opens like hardboiled detective novel where a man named Corwin wakes up with amnesia in a sketchy hospital. Breaking out at gunpoint, he slowly learns that he is one the princes of a magic realm. The writing is joyful, and filled with bizarre lines like the narrator saying “Crazily, I wished Van Gogh were there to see it” after a plume of blood shoots out of a foe’s neck in an underwater kingdom. The Lannisters and Starks have nothing on Zelazny’s crazy murderous family.