You. Yes you, you television-watching-lazy-bones. Have you read A Song of Ice and Fire? If not, rectify this immediately. It’s basically, right, Game of Thrones, but a book. Quite a few books actually. If you have read A Song of Ice and Fire; wasn’t it good? Would you like to know a few more books that we think you might like? If not, you should probably stop reading this article now. That’s basically all it is.
Now, there is a lot of good High Fantasy out there, but we’re not looking at that here. No Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan in this list, or even Patrick Rothfuss with his post-Whedon dialogue and unfolding anti-hero yarns. Instead, we’re looking at the authors who take a step back from the fantastic and enter murky, violent worlds of politics, misery and everything going a bit wrong.
Welcome to the ‘Everyone is an Incredible Bastard’ Fantasy subgenre.
1. Joe Abercrombie – The First Law trilogy
Abercrombie’s publishers have put a quote from George R. R. Martin in prominent places on his recent novels, primarily because they’re not stupid. Starting with his initial The First Law trilogy, Abercrombie’s six novels (with at least three more due) continue to expand the un-named fantasy world.
No-one is a hero. The reader is invited to root for torturers, cowards, and the psychotically violent. Magic is a primal, aggressive force. If something starts looking up for someone, odds are something horrible is imminently about to happen to them.
Brutal, violent, and cynical, you might note that the mortality rate is considerably lower than in Martin’s books. This is because Abercrombie has noted that, once you’re dead, your problems are basically over. There are so many more horrible things you can do to the living.
2. Steven Erikson – Malazan, Book of the Fallen
Look, George R. R. Martin fans! See! A complex, epic fantasy with a vast array of characters comprising ten volumes! And it’s finished!
Starting off as a table-top role playing game universe devised with Ian C. Esslemont (who has written five books set in the same universe), it’s another thing we have to thank Dungeons & Dragons for (the other thing, mainly, is shit observational comedy). It was originally written as a film script, and after writing some general fiction novels, Erikson managed to get Gardens of the Moon published.
If you want to read another dark, murky epic with no guarantee of your favourite character’s safety this is your next investment. And you don’t have to worry about the author snuffing it before he reaches the end of the series either.
3. Robin Hobb – The Farseer Trilogy
Do you like that oh-so-many characters in A Song Of Ice and Fire basically have a terrible time of it? Do you like your protagonists to go through hell with only the slim possibility that they may end up in improved circumstances? Then look no further than Robin Hobb’s excellent Farseer Trilogy. According to last Friday’s Metro, she and Martin are the only two Fantasy novels to feature in a list of the 100 most popular titles compiled by the Bookmark Your Library website.
Published almost twenty years ago (“No,” I hear you cry, “No-one was alive then.”), the first book – Assassin’s Apprentice – introduces us to FitzChivalry, the bastard son of a Prince, who is taken to his father’s castle as a young boy and then… well…. he has a pretty rough time of it. There’s political intrigue to rival King’s Landing, a villain as boo-hissworthy as Joffrey and characters as noble as Ned Stark. Also there is a talking dog.
It’s a flippin’ masterpiece, basically.
4. Tad Williams – Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
Simon is a lowly kitchen boy who dreams of greater things. Wait! Come back! Yes, the series starts with the most popular of fantasy clichés but continue reading and you’ll be rewarded with a story that is smart, thrilling, epic and sad. And it’s something to pass the time with if you ever get stuck in a pot washing job.
Basically the world is going to end. Our heroes have to save it. Things do not go smoothly. Given the task that is set before them you genuinely get the feeling from the off that our heroes actually have very little chance of saving themselves, let alone the world.
Death, despair, broken hearts, amnesia.
These books have got it all.
5. Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill – Marshal Law
Yes, it’s a comic. Deal with it.
Pat Mills pouring his anger into a strip – especially one with the jagged, gleeful artwork of Kevin O’Neill, a man whose entire style was deemed objectionable by the Comic Code Authority – is a thing to savour. Its questioning of popular notions of heroism is reminiscent of Martin’s approach to the life and death of his characters – no-one is safe just because they fit the traditional hero role. If anything, Mills is aiming his vitriol specifically at people who fit that ideal. Read Marshal Law and then revisit the Nolan Batman films. You may find yourself questioning how heroic the Dark Knight really is.
Marshal Law is a hero hunter. Pat Mills does not like superheroes. Here is his polemic against them, as they are taken to task via thinly veiled guises. It’s funny, twisted, violent and as finely honed a-spleen-venting as one could hope to see.
Well, that’s our list. Now would be as good a time as any to tell us yours, then let’s all head down the nearest library and tear their Fantasy section a new one.
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