By now, the dust has settled and the final occupant of the Iron Throne has ascended to their royal station. (Or, more likely, the throne itself has been symbolically melted down by a dragon’s sneeze and the new ruler settled for a nice futon.) However you feel about the endless plotting and backstabbing of George RR Martin’s blackhearted opus A Song of Ice and Fire – or Weiss and Benioff’s arguably mangled interpretation of his themes in Game of Thrones – there’s no denying that the series’ phenomenal popularity has widened the audience for fantasy in a way not seen since Peter Jackson’s films of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
But as the final TV curtain falls on Jon Snow’s moppy head, it’s worth dwelling on the fact that for many devotees of the show – apart from what Michael Moorcock termed the “merry Englishness” of Harry Potter – Game of Thrones was their first real brush with fantasy literature. And though huge numbers will turn away from the genre forever following the finale – perhaps returning for the obligatory prequels that will follow in its wake – there are still those who hunger for further skulduggery and sorcery.
To that end, streaming giants are lining up to adapt some big-ticket books, with Amazon set to bring both Robert Jordan’s 14-volume Wheel of Time series and yet another take on Tolkien’s Middle-earth to screens. But while the genre owes a lot to these titans, a barrage of newer writers have demolished and reconstructed our conception of what “fantasy” is. Considering the opportunity that we now have to follow the cultural phenomenon of Game of Thrones with entertainment that could expand our imaginations, we should turn to more challenging works – many of which happen to be written by non-white, non-male authors – and not settle for the Middle-earth road again. Here are a few fantasy novels that should be on the list:
1. Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin HobbSince 1995, the pseudonymous Hobb has cranked out three trilogies all focusing on the same character, FitzChivalry Farseer. As the bastard son of a high prince, “Fitz” quickly rises from stable-boy to an apprentice assassin, buffeted by his nascent magic skills, all the while stalked by those who resent his royal origins. It’s standard fantasy fare, but Hobb elevates it with true-to-life characters that transcend their somewhat stock origins. As well as the preposterous names, there’s plenty of darkness and humour lurking underneath the cobblestone streets and bannered castles, and you get to follow Fitz for much of his adult life.
2. Gormenghast by Mervyn PeakePeake’s nightmare vision of a deflating kingdom staffed by eccentrics, madmen and incompetents – and how one daring kitchen boy, Steerpike, tries to clamour his way to the top of a broken system – has defied description since the 1946 publication of Titus Groan. In 2019, amid the crumbling of institutions all across the globe, the byzantine corridors and arcane rituals that constitute the whole of Gormenghast take on a more sinister aspect.
3. The Broken Earth series by NK JemisinOver the past few years, Jemisin has become the spearhead of a generation of fantasy writers focusing on issues that the genre has often eschewed or exacerbated, such as the racist undertones of Tolkien’s “inherently evil” orcs. Broken Earth depicts ruthless oppression and violence with meaning and grace burned into every word. On a Pangaea-like supercontinent, people with elemental powers known as “orogenes” are hunted and feared, trained in a secluded academy far away from their homes. As these people continue to suffer, one powerful orogene decides to tear the continent asunder, triggering a climate collapse that threatens to destroy the world. Jemisin’s story asks: is a world built on hate even worth saving? A TV series is in early development.
4. The Discworld City Watch novels by Terry Pratchett considering the BBC has been working on a loose adaptation to arguably the best thread in Pratchett’s voluminous quilt of fantasy satire since at least 2011, but they’re definitely on to something there. The idea of a fantasy police procedural remains one of the most obvious, but nobody’s managed to do it quite right. (The less said about Bright, the better.) Pratchett’s lovable cast of oafs and freaks – hulking Carrot, grizzled Vimes, the usually furry Angua – makes this a slam dunk; let’s hope the BBC don’t fumble it.
5. The Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott LynchFar from the noble heroes depicted in Tolkienist high fantasy, Lynch’s steampunk Venice is populated by cutpurses, reavers and ne’er-do-wells of all stripes. And the best of those thieves is Locke Lamora, who leads his Gentleman Bastards gang to profit and plunder through intimidation, fraud and nimble pickpocketing. Lamora’s tale of high heists and low living makes him a somewhat unconventional hero for a fantasy (or simply conventional in a more picaresque sense). But the consequences to his gang’s freewheeling lifestyle make for a seedy page-turner, and one that would translate to screen with smoothly.
6. Uprooted by Naomi NovikThis novel disposes with the palace intrigue and warring kingdoms of many of its competitors to focus on a slower, folklore-inspired story. Agnieszka is a simple village girl who is gifted to her local wizard, The Dragon, as payment for thwarting the advance of the ominous Wood, which kills or maims any who enter it. As she tries to escape the bonds of her life as a maid, she discovers that The Dragon has other plans for her – he wants to teach her magic, to help him fight the Wood. Warner Brothers is currently working on a film adaptation – let’s hope it happens.
• Is there a fantasy series that you feel deserves a wider audience? Leave your picks in the comments below.
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