A Song of Ice and Fire

By George R. R. Martin. Series includes A Game of Thrones, published in 1996; A Clash of Kings, published in 1998; A Storm of Swords, published in 2000; and A Feast for Crows, published in 2005.

The studio exec overseeing HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic-in-progress into a serial TV drama is fond of claiming that the series isn’t really high fantasy. His motive is obvious—HBO doesn’t want A Game of Thrones (the TV show’s title) to be consigned to the genre ghetto, seen only by fanboys—but there’s still something to what he’s saying. Despite the presence of dragons and wights and other mythical beasts, Martin’s world rarely feels alien to our own. In part, that’s because the creatures and magic are on the periphery, but more significantly, it’s because, fair or not (probably not), fantasy has a reputation for drawing bright white lines between Good and Evil, and Martin refuses to do so. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, sympathetic characters feel compelled to do terrible things, and unsympathetic characters have admirable qualities. No one has a clear Hero’s Quest to follow, and everyone encounters awful questions for which there are no easy answers. The world is complicated, muddy, and deeply unfair. Even dragons can’t make such a familiar world feel entirely like fantasy.