If you’re like most of the Internet, you’ve probably spent the last week shaking off some serious Westeros withdrawal as Game of Thrones aired its shocking sixth season finale. But don’t lose hope, you don’t have to get written up for continuously referring to your boss as Khaleesi because there are plenty of sources to get your fantasy fix from in the meantime.
Books! Comics! TV Shows! Books that have been adapted into comics which will soon be a TV show (the network execs are banking on you having Westeros withdrawal as well). Read on, and we’ll find something that suits your needs.
Here are 15 Fantasy Worlds To Visit While You Wait For More Game Of Thrones.
15. The First Law Universe, by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie is a bit like the Kmart George R.R. Martin. He almost seems designed as literary methadone for those who still hunger for the sixth novel in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Both authors write quasi-medieval, brutally violent books featuring morally ambiguous characters. All of Abercrombie’s characters have an agenda, magic is something weird and frightening and best left alone, the good die young, the bad prosper and everything is just oh so cynical. The main difference between the two is that Abercrombie hits his deadlines.
That being said, Abercrombie’s novels are fun reads, if you’re in a certain temperament. The books in this universe are centered around Abercrombie’s debut, The First Law Trilogy, but we would recommend starting with one of his standalone novels, like Best Served Cold, which reads a bit like Kill Bill if it were set in Westeros, or Red Country, which reads like Unforgiven set in Westeros, or The Heroes, which surprisingly does not read like a popular movie set in Westeros but instead documents a epic-but-pointless three day battle over a mound of dirt from every perspective it can, creating a collage of futility, gallows humor, propulsive action and genuine heartbreak, written in incisive prose that just may be Abercrombie’s masterwork.
14. The Wheel Of Time, by Robert Jordan
If Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films brought fantasy to the mainstream in a way that it never had before, and Game of Thrones made it so the cool kids liked it too, The Wheel of Time arguably laid a lot of the foundation for their ascension.
The series, about a messianic figure who is meant to both save the world from a Satanic overlord and possibly destroy it in the process, is easy to take for granted. Jordan’s voice, with its love of superfluous detail, subplots that drag the novels out to interminable lengths, is easy to parody. Fans complained about the gaps between books, the conclusion that was pushed further and further back and the lengthy descriptions of every meal (sound familiar?) But if Jordan’s series has its flaws, then its strengths are too often overlooked or discounted.
Jordan held this whole universe in his head, and he created a story about it that was equal parts traditional and revisionist. A story that gripped countless loyal reader’s imaginations and made some of them start their own worlds. He was capable of sentences that could catch you off guard with their power. In short, while much of modern fantasy can be read as a reaction against what Jordan is doing, you have to know where you’ve been to understand where you’re going.
13. Rat Queens, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Various Artists
Or if you just want something a bit lighter you could go with Rat Queens. Highly energetic, irreverent and decidedly profane, Rat Queens was pitched as “Bridemaids meets Lord of the Rings” and has so far made good on that promise. Walking the fine line between comedy and parody, Rat Queens follows a group of female adventurers who run riot through a series of fantasy stories. Filled with pop energy, expressive art and an anarchic narrative spirit, Rat Queens is never anything less than addictive and fun, and has proven able to shift into a more serious tone for some stories. It can have its high fantasy tropes and goose them too.
12. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Magicians is not a book that will reward you upfront. Or rather, it is a book that will seem to reward you and then withhold its pleasures. At first, The Magicians appears to be a cheeky piece of genre deconstruction: what if the kids from Less Than Zero lived at Hogwarts? It’s a book where every character is an awful person, all the magic in the universe is received with all the wonder of a bored teen on a smart phone picking his nose and going out the door with a bizarre and mean-spirited jibe at Chronicles of Narnia-scribe C.S. Lewis, whom the story wouldn’t exist without, and whose thinly veiled narrative stand-in is portrayed as a child molester. The Magicians is clever and well-written, and it’s hard not to not respect a book about depression that’s honest enough to admit that getting everything you want, up to and including access to the literal fantasy world of your dreams, won’t make a depressed person happy.
But seen in the context of its series, The Magicians becomes something deeper, richer. Not just a put on of fantasy novels that had the temerity to make people happy, but a meditation on our relationship to all of fiction. Both sequels are better as books, with The Magician Kings splitting its time between a more high stakes narrative and a Darren Aronofsky-esque story of paranoia and disintegration, and The Magician’s Land upping the stakes and closing the door in fine fashion. But what really makes The Magicians remarkable is the way they reflect Grossman’s journey. The Magicians is the story of a reader dissatisfied and disaffected, who in The Magician King becomes a critic, dictating how things should be, who finally, perfectly, grows into an author in The Magician’s Land, creating his own world and hoping it stands on its own. If The Magicians started by representing how glib and shallow metafiction could be, it ended demonstrating how rich it could be as well.
11. Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Every once in a while you come across a book that you know in your bones the author had to write. There’s a sort of sweaty fervency to these works, one that wafts off of every page of Paper Girls. Paper Girls feels like Brian K. Vaughn pouring every inspiration that has fueled his career into a single comic. Cleveland, Halloween, adolescence, people riding pterodactyls wielding lasers, agnosticism, rock ‘n roll; every image, idea and institution that has haunted or sustained Vaughn comes pouring out in a fever dream rush.
Paper Girls follows a group of 12-year-old girls who find reality starting to unravel around them the night after Halloween. It’s hard to get more specific than that, as Paper Girls doesn’t so much tell its story as run headlong through it in a screeching. Some may argue that Paper Girls isn’t fantasy, to which we would retort “Well what the heck is it?” One thing is for sure: it’s a dizzying dash down one artist’s rabbit hole, exhilarating as it is inexplicable.
10. The Stormlight Archives, by Brandon Sanderson
All fantasies invite immersion, then there are some that angrily demand it, like a grimacing kidnapper motioning you into an idling car with a pistol. The Stormlight Archives is a book filled with so much detail, so much implied history, competing cultures and stratification within those cultures that the story can sometimes seem like a secondary attraction, compelling as it is. The Stormlight Archives is the literary equivalent of the most gothic, outlandish work of a paper architect somehow inexplicably erupting into existence.
Brandon Sanderson’s passion project, which he’d been nursing along in secret for decades before publication, follows a civilization in a world riven by frequent, hurricane level storms. It’s a world on the brink of a cataclysm. A decadent ruling class engages in a profitable but ultimately pointless war, using ancient tools of war they barely understand, while social unrest grows, and an encroaching metaphysical threat looms to sweep everything away. Sound familiar? The Stormlight books split their time between four characters: a slave, a scholar, an assassin and a thief, and sets them on a collision course.
Sanderson’s painstaking detail and skill with characters make for a compelling read and at its best there’s something wonderfully pulpy about Stormlight, something that owes as much to Robert E. Howard as it does to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Stormlight Archives ask for your commitment, but they reward it as well.
9. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book that is somehow equally compelling as a story and an artifact. It’s a book about a decades long feud between two magicians in Regency-era England. But what gives Jonathan Strange its eerie power is that it does not merely seem to be a story about this place and time, but a book from this place and time. Mimicking the conventions, winding narratives and the voice of its era so well that by the end of the book it feels like a wonder, an inexplicable thing that has somehow made its way into our universe. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell isn’t merely about acts of magic, it feels like an act of magic itself. As does it’s follow-up, the collection of short stories The Ladies Of Grace Adieu.
A BBC adaptation was released this year, by all accounts it’s perfectly fine.
8. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn begins with an irresistible premise. What if The Dark One, that dependable, all powerful figure lurking in the background of most post-Tolkien fantasy, actually won? Not a stalemate, not a controlled retreat to a sinister realm where he could bide his time and marshal his forces, tenting his gnarled fingers beneath his cloak, but instead delivered a curb-stomping, total, undisputed, crushing victory for evil that went unopposed for thousands of years.
That’s the sort of thing that just makes a genre fan’s ears prick up. To his credit, Brandon Sanderson, the creator of Mistborn and about half of all current fantasy fiction by volume, doesn’t stop there. Creating a thrilling page-turner set in the aftermath and then the aftermath’s aftermath. Reading Mistborn is like watching the world’s greatest match of wall tennis, every development leads to its own natural counteraction. Every “what if?” leads to further richer “what ifs” all anchored by a solid bedrock narrative and characters brought to life with affection and respect.
7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
American Gods is one of the great achievements of fantasy so far this century and, in a refreshing change of pace from fantasy stories that come out the gate and automatically expect you to commit to multi-volume opuses (like say, everything else on this list), American Gods stands on its own, telling a complete story in a single volume.
Yes, there’s a sequel (of sorts), and two novellas (and author Neil Gaiman has been teasing a proper sequel for a decade now) but these are to a certain extent ephemera and certainly aren’t necessary to appreciate the story that American Gods lays out. That of Shadow, newly released from prison, who falls under the wing of the sinister Mr. Wednesday, who hires Shadow as his bodyguard and chauffeur. The two drive around the country on mysterious errands, running through a countryside that’s extremely recognizable, one in which the things we used to worship brush up against the things we worship now, and occasionally engage in vicious conflict with one another. American Gods is a singular journey: gothic, gorgeous, funny and haunting.
A TV series adaption is due to come out next year with Ian McShane starring as Wednesday, because occasionally we do live in a just universe.
6. Bone, by Jeff Smith
The story of Bone follows three cartoonish cousins who wind up chased out of their comfortable home and into a “wild valley” where the plot of a high fantasy story is ongoing. Simple enough right?
Bone is something of a wonder. It’s is a story that starts in childlike simplicity and ends with a genuine adult complexity, all the while never betraying, or even appearing to change, its voice. It’s a story of innocence surviving experience, an epic of over a thousand pages that nonetheless feels like only the tip of an iceberg. It’s a story that makes great use of deceptive simplicity both in its narrative and in its art. It’s a story that stacks stories on top of stories, and its narrative density is only rivaled by its narrative clarity. The kind of book that you can give to a child and to an adult and have them both find it equally thrilling for completely different reasons. And Smith makes it all look so easy.
5. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin
The first entry in The Passage series still stands as one of the most purely enjoyable and unpredictable reads this side of The Stand. A heady mixture of horror, sci-fi and fantasy (and even a bit of western influence at the end) that manages to honor all of its influences, The Passage is the kind of novel that so thoroughly and skillfully wrong foots you that you can’t help but love it (if this entry seems light on plot detail it’s because telling where the book goes would be spoiling the fun of getting there). Cronin writes with a humanist heart and manages to look for the best in people even when things are at their worst. He has keen skill as a writer, an eye for detail and a sly sense of humor. There are things of lyrical beauty here, there are things that will make your heart ache.
The series didn’t quite make it to the finish line unscathed, both sequels The Twelve and City Of Mirrors, eschew the narrative jumping off points that their respective predecessors offered to varying effect. The trick works quite well the first time, and The Twelve eventually rights itself in a book that combines ballsy political allegory with a heartbreaking fable about parenthood, and a most unexpected use of Emily Dickinson. And lest you get too worried, it also includes a bunch of intense sword fighting against things with pointy teeth.
City Of Mirrors, though sturdy enough in the important places, unfortunately offers its own set of disappointments as it takes humanity to the brink one final time. Especially in the fate of a character who Cronin clearly no longer has any idea of what to do with, and whose unceremonious benching and then exit during the climax takes a fair amount of the shine off the conclusion. Still, even at its most disappointing, City Of Mirrors remained delightfully idiosyncratic for the final chapter of a mega-selling franchise. How can one not love a book that pauses before its final turn into the apocalypse for a hundred page novella about thwarted young love at Harvard?
4. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
It’s one of those ideas that is so headslappingly, brilliantly obvious that you can’t quite believe that no one came up with it before (Brian K. Vaughn has a knack for uncovering those). What if there was a world where fantasy and sci-fi tropes were literally at war with each other, a conflict where swords and magic go up against robots, lasers and genetic engineering. Of course, it wouldn’t be Vaughn if it just stopped at the high concept. He uses this world as a backdrop to tell a beautiful, moving story about parenting and relationships. The hubris it takes to bring a child into a hostile world that always seems primed to tear itself apart. The absolute faith you have to have in another and yourself to believe you can pull it off.
Vaughn’s world is rich. His characters make up one of the richest ensemble casts in modern comics. Both are brought to life with incredibly rich detail by the great Fiona Staples. Saga is simply one of the best comics out there.
3. The Dark Tower, Stephen King
Stephen King’s opus, eight volumes, thirty five years in the writing (the first four at a crawl and the last four in a great, galloping, panicked rush), is as immersive as it gets. The series has morphed over time from a fairly standard Weird Western to a metaphysical act of brinkmanship that attempted to tie all of King’s fiction into one giant narrative. Ambitious, right?
The Dark Tower follows Roland, the last gunslinger, and it basically tells what might have happened if the Arthurian knights had been cowboys and really, truly excellent killers, as he attempts to track down his longtime nemesis and find the lynchpin of the universe. That might seem like a fairly heady description, but it really only scratches the surface. At times, The Dark Tower reads like a Sergio Leone film on mescaline, at others, like a version of The Lord of the Rings that JRR Tolkien might have written at the end of a John Ford festival and a seriously mean drunk.
It strains and tears at itself, sometimes embracing mysticism, sometimes recreating the sweaty vividness of the worst most nonsensical nightmares, sometimes it pays off with serious genre goods, and sometimes it punishes you with the same. It’s both meta-fictional and deeply felt, goofy as all hell and stone cold serious, A mess and a masterpiece. There’s only one of them. Get reading.
A film adaptation, directed by Nikolaj Arstel and starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConnaughey, is currently set to be released next February.
2. The Gentlemen Bastard Cycle, Scott Lynch
Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a world that’s a bit like a fantasy version of Gangs of New York, with a bit of Mediterranean air for flavor; brutal Dickensian squalor on one side, enraging Dickensian opulence on the other, and both sides are equally brutal. Now, take as your hero the lead from Miyazaki’s Castle Of Cagliostro, back him up with an endearing supporting cast, and create a plot for him to run through that escalates with such dizzying speed and nimbleness that its trajectory alone is a thing of beauty. Does that sound like something you might be interested in? We thought it might. Do yourself a favor and procure a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora as quickly as possible.
Scott Lynch is widely considered one of the best writers working in fantasy today. Just look at the prose itself, which is fleet as an illusionist’s hands and contains near farcical levels of humor, yet never once deflates the stakes of his story. The stories themselves eschew typical fantasy tropes, nary a dark lord or all powerful bauble to be found, and instead unfold in what can only be described as a kind of fantasy version of Mission: Impossible. Each book introduces a horrible situation, quickly complicates it and then escalates the personal stakes to nigh unbearable levels. Lynch does this again and again and again, never repeating himself, never pulling the same trick twice. He is a born storyteller and the genre is lucky to have him.
1. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss
There’s probably no single fantasy series more controversial than The Kingkiller Chronicles. The books are about Kvothe, a man who is now something of a husk of himself, narrating the story of his own youth as a precious prodigy, Depending on who you ask, they’re either the single most poetic, beautiful and truthful things the genre has produced. Or they’re an unbearably pretentious series with a myopic turd for a hero.
Put us in the former camp. Yes, they have their flaws, yes Rothfuss thought the line “Bless the Moon for sending me this lusty young manling,” was good and no one had the courage to stop him. Yes, waiting for the third book is irksome and being made to feel bad for feeling irked is in itself irksome given that the author himself once wrote “when you wait a few span or month to hear a finished song, the anticipation adds savor. But after a year excitement begins to sour. By now, a year and a half had passed and folk were almost mad with curiosity,” what can you say?
But it is worth all of that. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are that rarest of thing, a story equally excited about the pleasures they provide in and of themselves and what it might reveal about the messy business of being human. It is poetic and, at times, it will catch you off guard with how lovely it is. The world is rich but lacks the fussiness of so much of modern fantasy world building. It’s also, and this is all too often over looked, fun. Fun to read, unpredictable in plot, and laugh out loud funny at some parts.
Can you think of any other fantasy world we should desire to live in? Let us know in the comments!
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