The hype is done, the premiere of HBO’s A Game of Thrones has come and gone, and now the fires of curiosity are stoked. What’s this all about? Why all the raves? Why does it prompt sci-fi and fantasy luminaries like Anne McCaffrey to proclaim, “Such a splendid tale and such a fantasticorical!”
The biggest draws of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series are the frank brutality, morally grey characters, and cutthroat political maneuvering in the centuries-old Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. They ain’t kidding about the cutthroat part either. The violence and themes in these books would make gangster movies blush like pretty maidens.
If the show or the books have piqued your interest in gritty, realistic fantasy featuring flawed characters, here are a few titles to check out. A word of warning. This is not fantasy full of lily-livered elves, broodingly sexy vampires, or kings proclaiming grand devotions to the good of the people. Well, the kings do proclaim, but in the next chapters, people are dying by the thousands as noble lords and princely men grind out their power struggles. Read on to find more gritty fiction and perhaps see where Martin drew inspiration from.
Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was published in the wake of The Lord of the Rings' massive popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with Lord Foul's Bane, the series draws on similar themes of good and evil and shares the use of a mighty ring as the protagonist's magical talisman. It turns the genre on its head by introducing a brooding and supremely crankly anti-hero in Thomas Covenant, a leper who finds himself transported from our world into the Land, a place of wonders where even his leprosy is cured. One horrific act early in the novel has dire repercussions for all who inhabit the Land as Covenant battles Lord Foul over the course of six novels. Donaldson's cycle is built on the fascinating paradox of a man hailed as the Land's savior, yet his condition will not permit belief in that world.
What if you angered a sorcerer puissant enough to wipe the very memory of your nation from the world? What if none could even hear the name of your country? And what if, in plotting your revenge, you fell in love with that sorcerer? Guy Gavriel Kay weaves fascinating insights on human psychology into this tale of conspirators seeking vengeance and the reclamation of their nation, the titular Tigana, from a powerful curse. The plotters demonstrate deep devotion to their cause as well as Machiavellian ruthlessness to achieve their aims. Set in a world that resembles Renaissance Italy's multiple city states, Tigana delves into the deepest meanings of national pride while exploring its driving emotions and their effects on the human psyche.
Mercenaries tend to have a bad reputation in fantasty fiction. They are usually depicted as dirty, rotten scum in comparison to shining paragons of knighthood. Glen Cook's Chronicles of the Black Company are not going to do their rep any favors. The men of the Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, are some of the grimiest, morally questionable characters one is likely to encounter. The mercenary unit willingly puts itself in the service of the Lady, the world's reigning evil despot, by slaughtering their current employer and taking orders from an evil wizard named Soulcatcher. However, its members are also a band in search of their forgotten origins, following clues left in the company Chronicle, which is kept by Croaker, the unit's physician and sometime conscience. Memorable characters, including a pair of hedge wizards engaged in hilarious contests of one-upmanship, make this novel a grimy, gritty, and entertaining read about human beings making the best of bad situations often of their own making.
An empire built on treachery and assassination; a city of fabulous wealth about to be besieged; sorcerers employing the magic of warrens; memorable characters like Sergeant Whiskeyjack; and a grand backstory of ancient, forgotten history that informs the Malazan Book of the Fallen, written by Steven Erikson, a former archaeologist. Imagine if human lives were merely cards in a cosmic poker game played by a pantheon of ruthless, uncaring gods. Gardens of the Moon begins with a decimation of the Empire's nobility, and spins into a saga that encompasses a far-flung world of risen and fallen gods, mortals ascending to godhood, brutal religious warfare, tricksters, generals, fallen civilizations, and regular people striving for survival amidst the political and theological machinations of the world's rulers. It's a series that manages to be grand and human simultaneously. The second novel of the series, Deadhouse Gates, will have you cheering the military exploits of Fist Coltaine's Malazan 7th Army as they fight a harrowing rearguard action against religious fanatics in the Chain of Dogs. The writing puts you directly in the bloody trenches or the muddy city alleys as the plot pulls you into the lives of its inhabitants.
Sometimes a reader needs something different. As if gritty, realistic fantasy fiction were not enough, Paul Kearney brings readers a gritty, realistic, maritime work to devour. Kearney, an author with sailing experience, docks his tale of Richard Hawkwood firmly in the human experience. Political and sexual intrigue are the order of life in the omnibus Hawkwood and the Kings, a collection of the first volumes in The Monarchies of God, sends Hawkwood on a journey to the undiscovered West as the Ramusian holy city of Aekir is falling to the Merduk hosts in the East. Populated by deserters, sailors, and honorable enemies, Kearney's book is a work of military fantasy that marries human vice with noble streaks and brings to life a fantasy re-telling of the Crusades, Salem witch hunts, and the Reformation. Painful military choices, seedy bedroom dealings, and religious politicking have far-reaching consequences in this series.
All too frequently it seems some great prophecy governs the destiny of the hero. Hero is born under the right stars, grows up from humble origins to become the grand high poobah slayer/nemesis of the ruling dark lord/despot/evil god. He lost this time. Instead, a being who became known as the Lord Ruler reshaped the world into a drab, mist-shrouded world, enforcing his will through formidable Steel Inquisitors. How formidable? Becoming one requires driving metal spikes through the eyes, out the back of the skull ... and surviving. Brandon Sanderson's world of Mistborn: The Final Empire is filled with the oppressed, the ruling nobles, and no one else. Magic is the province of the Lord Ruler, the Inquisitors, Allomancers, and Feruchemists. Normal allomancers can utilize only one type of metal to power their magic. Mistborn allomancers can use all the allomantic metals. Rarest of all are skaa (peasant) Mistborn, and two of these plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler's regime and to answer the question: what happens when the prophecies fail?
And now we come to a personal favorite of mine: the story of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Ill Met in Lankhmar collects the first tales of Fritz Leiber's most famous creations. Fafhrd is a giant barbarian from the frozen wastes of the North and Mouser is a short, slim thief. Both are expert swordsmen who are not choosy about their employers, and both spend their lives drinking and wenching (no dainty princesses for these guys) their way through the great city of Lankhmar. Lankhmar, built between the Great Salt Marsh and the River Hlal, is dank, dirty, and teeming with a huge variety of humans and vermin. In short, it's perfect for a pair scoundrels to make a lusty living in pursuit of adventure. The thrill of adventure is what motivates them in all their dirty and noble deeds and they find themselves working for such strange wizards as Ningauble of the Seven Eyes or Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Above all, they are utterly loyal to each other, and maintain a mordant sense of humor coupled with a zest for life in all its filthy glory. In the end, despite their statures, they are two regular guys who love a good time and relish telling the tales of their exploits.
As for the correct pronunciation of Fafhrd's name, well, you will just have to check out a copy and read the tale of how these two met. There's also something about juggling with the seven eyes in there somewhere... or maybe that's a different tale.
Now that your interest has hopefully been piqued, I welcome any suggestions for adding to this list. I welcome disagreement too, because nothing's better than a good, rousing debate about favorite tales of legend and adventure.