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3 fantasy writers to read while you wait for George R.R. Martin to finish Game of Thrones

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Last year, George R.R. Martin released the latest new chapter from the next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come in the world of Game of Thrones as it exists on the page, but it’s really just a glimpse: As of this writing, The Winds of Winter is still in progress, and no release date has been announced.

Look, we all know the man’s working as hard as he can. The Game of Thrones books are giant doorstoppers, hundreds of thousands of words long, and they’re not going to write themselves. But at a certain point the TV show stops working as your ASOIAF methadone — especially now that its narrative is far past the point of what's happened in the books and is departing from (or spoiling) them in many ways. So in the meantime, here are three other authors who just might become your alternative drug of choice.

I selected the following three authors using very strict criteria:

  1. They had to be authors of high fantasy whose work features a heavy emphasis on politics and doesn't shy away from gore.
  2. They had to know how to write plots that are actually interesting.
  3. They had to be able to string together an aesthetically pleasing sentence.
  4. Finally, they had to treat their female characters like actual people.

Give them a try as you wait — and wait … and wait … and wait — for Martin to finish up The Winds of Winter. (And then be prepared to wait some more.)

1) Robin McKinley

The Hero and the Crown Puffin Books

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

Most of Robin McKinley’s books are shelved in the kid’s section, so if you tend to avoid young adult lit, you might have missed her. That’s a shame.

McKinley writes thoughtful, beautiful fantasy about, as fellow fantasy writer Jo Walton aptly summarizes, "fairytales as if they happened to specific real people in real places and with emotional consequences." (Incidentally, if you are already a McKinley fan, you should absolutely check out all of Walton’s essays on her work over at Tor — they’re lovely and thorough and smart.)

What makes McKinley perfect for a Martin fan is the physicality of her work. Her books are deeply rooted in the profound, often overlooked, physical consequences of the high fantasy tropes she trades in. If you're a character in a McKinley book and you're raising a baby dragon, you’re sleep-deprived to the point of exhaustion because raising a baby anything is harrowing, and you get so tired you start hallucinating cobwebs at the edges of your vision, and then the baby dragon gets sick and vomits all over you and you have to clean it up.

Or if you’re fighting a dragon, the dragon is an annoying little pest, vermin really, and there’s no glory in killing it; it’s just hard, grisly work that leaves you aching and covered in burns. Or the dragon is actually a great, glorious, monstrous beast, and killing it leaves you with permanent lung damage from smoke inhalation and profound PTSD and depression, all of which is described in loving detail.

But she’s not all doom and gloom. The arc of a McKinley novel is almost always built around the main character learning to deal with whatever traumatic event has happened to him or her and developing coping mechanisms accordingly. While the protagonist finds way to heal, the reader can luxuriate in McKinley’s rich, textured world-building.

She piles detail on top of detail in her long, elaborate, multi-clause sentences. One book opens with a description of a magical kingdom; it features several, page-long parentheticals on such topics as how to keep your bread from turning into something else as you slice it, and philosophical theories on balancing the four elements. This passion for esoteric minutia will delight a certain kind of reader — and if you enjoy keeping track of the distinctions between the Houses of Westeros, you might be that kind of reader.

2) Megan Whalen Turner

Thief Greenwillow Books

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner.

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series sneaks up at you. When you read The Thief, the Newberry Award-winning first volume, you'll first think you’re reading a light-hearted, middle-grade caper about a brilliant thief trying to pull off a heist in a fantasy version of ancient Greece. Even the beautifully executed final plot twist might not register as more than the conclusion to a classic heist formula.

Then the second volume, The Queen of Attolia, opens with a graphic description of a major, beloved character having his hand cut off, and you are not in Kansas anymore.

By the time you finish the series, it’s become clear that this shit is Sun Tzu in kid lit drag. It’s a measured, step-by-step account of the fight to consolidate power on a particular peninsula in the face of a threat from an encroaching imperial power, and how one person in particular is able to come out on top, through trickery and judicious alliance-building and occasionally outright cruelty. It’s "Who shall sit on the Iron Throne?" but with more capers. And Gen, the brilliant thief who is our hero, is one of the more likable protagonists you’ll ever come across.

There’s also a darkly romantic love story, a thoughtful discussion of the uses of soft power, and a downright Greek exploration of the existential ramifications of predestination. Give it a try. You won’t regret it.

3) Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint Riverside

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner.

I’ll let George R.R. Martin himself introduce Ellen Kushner’s masterpiece, Swordspoint:

Swordspoint begins with a single drop of blood on a field of new-fallen snow, an image that burned itself forever into my mind the first time I encountered it. I can close my eyes and see it still. It’s a terrific opening, an unforgettable opening … and the book just gets better from there.

Swordspoint takes place in a society in which the nobility has a habit of settling disputes by hiring professional swordsmen to fight proxy duels. Which means that it’s all about subtext-ridden political maneuverings, interspersed with blood-soaked sword fights to the death. (Yes, a dude has his hand chopped off.) Plus, the main character is a casually bisexual swordsman — in a book written in 1987.

What’s really startling about the book is how rich, immersive, and even tactile its elaborately rococo setting is. The wealthy characters are forever clutching their silk robes and drinking chocolate out of immaculate porcelain cups as they plot how to destroy one another in their swan-shaped barges; the poor swordsman and his lover live above a brothel in a suite of rooms so lovingly described you can see the how the wall is scratched and dented where the swordsman has practiced his fencing. It’s a fully imagined world that you can get lost in.

Kushner's written a number of other books, including some set in the same universe as Swordspoint. I've only read Swordspoint so far, but all her other works have earned similar raves ("A shining jewel of a book that gets everything right!" "What Dickens or Eliot might have written, if they had written fantasy!"). I'll be looking them up in the near future, if you care to join me.