What to Read Now That “Game of Thrones” Is Over
If you've plowed through the show and the books it's based on, here are some other authors exploring similar themes
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HBO’s Game of Thrones has come to an end, but if you’re not ready to leave Westeros, at least you can read the book series it’s based on, right? Lol nope: fans have been waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete the A Song of Ice and Fire series since 2011, when he released book five (A Dance with Dragons). Even getting those five books done took 15 years. To be fair, the books are hefty, so you have nearly 1.8 million words to sate your Game of Thrones thirst—but then what?
Fortunately, Martin isn’t the only writer working with the themes Thrones viewers love, so the end of the show (and the delayed completion of the series) gives readers and viewers an opportunity to look to new authors and new stories. At its best, ASOIAF is both a page-turning adventure and a revisionist fantasy, surfacing some of the hard questions underneath the tropes of the genre. Who has a legitimate claim on power, and what can they do with it? How does the past determine and constrain today? How can women exert power in a cruel and oppressive world? How do personal relationships shape politics, and vice-versa? These are vital questions about our own world, but works of speculative fiction like Martin’s give us the chance to approach them from a new angle. The following works span genres, but all take a deeper dive into the themes that animate Game of Thrones.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
In many ways, Okorafor’s Who Fears Death follows a classic fantasy structure: a young woman with mysterious origins discovers her special powers and embarks on a high-stakes mission to set the past right. Okorafor sets her story in a surreal desert in a bleak future Africa, where protagonist Onyesonwu lives among a community beset by genocidal enemies. A recurrent theme of ASOIAF is the way the violence of the past hangs as a shadow over the present; that’s explored in Who Fears Death, as Onyesonwu gets deeper into her magical training, and uncovers more of the truth about herself. It’s both dreamlike and brutal, a richly-defined world drawn from Okorafor’s fascination with African history and legend. Who Fears Death is under development for a series at HBO.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
One of the joys of ASOIAF is getting to explore a sprawling world through multiple perspectives. Chambers takes this to a galactic dimension in this fast-reading, vivid novel. Along the way to the small angry planet in question, the crew of a spaceship called the Wayfarer travels through an incredibly detailed universe, an interstellar society in which humans are a junior partner. We get to learn how people in this universe—human, nonhuman, and even robotic—live, love, and fight. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is absorbing and fun—easy to get into and hard to put down.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Martin uses the world of Westeros to unpack the ugly and unjust implications of heroic fantasy tropes. Madeline Miller uses her remarkable Circe to do the same for Greek mythology. As in ASOIAF, the stakes of the events are both world-historical and deeply personal; that’s just as true in Circe, where disputes and relationships among immortal gods and demigods are as vicious and petty and capricious as the internal politics of a small town. Through the eyes of the title character, a witch exiled by her divine family, we see the horror hiding behind the stories of the legendary heroes, especially Odysseus. In Circe’s world, men win glory by abuses of power, and gods are distinguished from men primarily by the extraordinary levels of power they can abuse. It’s a work of vivid detail, deep emotion and sharp sociological insight, a stunning new take on familiar stories.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
In Westeros, the seasons vary erratically, bringing dangerous and magically-charged winters at unpredictable intervals. In Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, the world is beset by even more catastrophic risk, with the constant threat of earthquakes and volcanic activity rising at times to threaten all of life and shape societies around the effort to survive. Those who can control the earth’s devastating seismic activity are vital to civilization, yet hated and feared. The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, is a feat of high difficulty, astonishingly well executed. It’s a grim but addictively readable saga, built of interlocking storylines that reveal a complex, incredibly well-defined world. (To get a sense of how deeply Jemisin thinks about the worlds she creates, check out her interview with Ezra Klein.) Jemisin pulled off a never-before-seen feat of a Hugo three-peat, with every book in the series taking home the prize for best novel, and with good reason: it’s a fully realized, emotionally gripping work with a lot to say about oppression and power in our own world.
Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Cersei Lannister wasn’t the first monarch to blow up a religious establishment to settle a personal matter. Mantel’s award-winning series looks into the court of Henry VIII through the eyes of Henry’s consigliere, Thomas Cromwell, a very modern man in a very medieval world. In the first two books of a planned trilogy, Cromwell helps engineer the end of the king’s first marriage and his second, upending the kingdom’s religious life in the process. The lines between divine command, statecraft, and interpersonal drama are blurred as Cromwell attempts to manage Henry’s capricious demands and settle his own scores. (The BBC miniseries, which covers the events of both books, is also terrific.)
Isabella, the Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey
Martin drew the inspiration for his books on medieval European history, with its clashes of armies, faiths and families. In her readable, in-depth biography, Downey makes the case that Isabella is one of the most significant figures of the past millennium. Like many members of Martin’s sprawling cast, Isabella lived in a male-dominated world but rose to the heights of power. Her ambition, fanatical devotion to the Catholic Church, and canny understanding of the ways of power make her a fascinating character. On her watch, Spain went from a fractured set of squabbling kingdoms to Europe’s dominant power and a truly global empire, with long-lasting and bloody consequences.