George R.R. Martin’s unfinished epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is probably the second-most famous fantasy book series in history after The Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien’s classic established the modern form of the genre, Martin’s series helped modernize it with a focus on complex characters, anti-heroes, and worldbuilding inspired by history rather than myth. His gritty approach was an explicit rejection of the clean, simplistic fantasy realms that dominated the genre in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, his use of multiple points-of-view allowed a more comprehensive exploration of his universe, and his decision to push the actual fantasy elements—magic, dragons, etc.—into the background gave the story a verisimilitude its antecedents lacked.
One problem, of course, is that the series remains unfinished, leaving fans hanging for almost a decade as they continue to wait for Martin to finish the final two books. While you wait, here are 10 fantasy series that combine realistic worldbuilding, complex characterization, and surprising plot twists that will quench your thirst for more A Song of Ice and Fire.
1. The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
Part of the appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire is the way Martin uses real-world history as the foundation for his fantasy universe. Roger Zelazny’s all-time classic series The Chronicles of Amber, which predates Martin’s work by more than two decades, is inspired by the same historical events: The Wars of the Roses.
Like A Song of Ice and Fire, Zelazny’s story is built on the political maneuverings of the powerful. Instead of a single world, Zelazny’s story takes place in a multiverse with two “true” worlds, Amber and the Courts of Chaos, and multiple “shadow worlds,” including our own reality. The royal family of Amber (nine princes and four princesses possessing varying levels of power and intelligence) can manipulate and to some extent control the shadow worlds, making them godlike figures. When King Oberon of Amber goes missing, it kicks off a power struggle every bit as gritty and complex as the political maneuvering in Martin’s books. Zelazny explores the nature of reality and questions of free will, matching Martin’s complexity without sacrificing the magic, epic battles, and surprising twists that make this a foundational work in the genre.
2. The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie crafts a violent fantasy world locked in almost endless warfare, then populates it with edgy, interesting characters who reliably act in their own self-interest. The combination is explosive and will appeal to anyone who loves how Martin makes his characters behave in ways that, while often shocking, are almost always understandable and in line with their personalities and motives.
Abercrombie’s European-influenced medieval setting will feel familiar at first, but he takes it in a much different direction from Martin, embracing more chaos where Martin’s universe always falls back on certain rules (there might be a War of the Five Kings, for example, but in the end, everyone assumes there will be just one king on the Iron Throne). The secret sauce is Abercrombie’s characters, especially Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian warrior sick and tired of killing and battle, slowly drawn into events far bigger than his own existence. It’s a violent and bleak universe, but Abercrombie reliably finds the humanity in his story.
3. Malazan Book of the Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
If your favorite aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is the realism, especially when it comes to the violence and brutality of war and battle, the Malazan Book of the Fallen series is perfect for you. Set in a world originally devised as part of a role-playing campaign, the story is framed by a war waged by the Malazan empire, seeking to subdue and conquer its neighbor states. Where Martin backgrounded much of the “fantasy” aspects of his universe in the early going, Erikson leans into them. Magic in Malazan is very real and very potent, and mages are part of every battle plan—as are the gods themselves. This can make the opening chapters a bit challenging to newcomers, but the effort is well worth it.
Like Martin, Erikson brings a disparate group of characters from both sides of the conflict to vivid life. These are full-fleshed people with their own desires and loyalties who regularly surprise the reader. Erikson’s depiction of the realities of constant war and ever-present death is compelling and gives the story a sense of real stakes.
4. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
If you’re looking for a series with a similar tone and feel to A Song of Ice and Fire, The Farseer Trilogy is ideal. Martin and Hobb share a similar style and are good friends; Martin has been upfront about being inspired by Hobb’s work.
The story follows FitzChivalry Farseer, a royal bastard who becomes an accomplished assassin in the Six Duchies. Fitz navigates the politics of the court unwillingly, always with an eye on his own advantage and survival—but when raiders from the Outislands begin to transform people into zombie-like Forged Ones, things get complicated. Fitz is one of the great characters of epic fantasy, and Hobb delights in twisting her story so that you can never quite guess where it’s headed. Hobb shares a love for antiheroes and political schemes with Martin, but her world is her own.
5. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
A tightly-plotted epic fantasy that straddles the line between the Tolkien-dominated era and the grittier era that followed, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series had a strong influence on Martin. Williams was one of the first authors to embrace a more character-focused, realistic portrayal of a fantasy universe, presenting the land of Osten Ard as a complicated place where several major races—humans, the near-immortal Sithi, and the trollish Qanuc—live in uneasy peace. The key to this peace is the dragon-slayer king Prester John. As the story opens, John is old and frail, and his sons Elias and Josua are in open conflict over who will succeed him.
When John dies, Elias takes the throne and Josua disappears, and a dark secret sets events in motion that could lead to the doom of all, signaled by the disturbing change in the climate that leaves the summers dry and the winters bitterly cold. It’s a grand story of ancient power and political scheming that matches Martin’s in detail and surprise.
6. The Black Company Series, by Glenn Cook
One of the most satisfying aspects of Martin’s work is the way he infuses realistic rules into his fantasy world, finding political and economic motivations for the wars, betrayals, and assassinations in the story. One aspect of this realistic plotting is the presence of mercenaries like the legendary Golden Company. Just the possibility of hiring elite fighters can alter the trajectory of events—but paying their steep price is often just as challenging as any other political maneuvering on the menu.
Cook’s brilliant series puts the mercenaries front and center. Constructed as a history of the Black Company, a legendary ban of mercs, this series is credited with launching the grimdark subgenre with its focus on violence, black humor, and intricate worldbuilding. Over the course of 10 novels, Cook explores about four decades of the Company’s history in this blood and magic-soaked universe, as told by their doctor and historian, Croaker. If you love Martin’s bleak view of human nature and firm grasp on medieval warfare, this is the series for you.
7. The Gentleman Bastards Series, by Scott Bakker
Part of the secret to George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding is his willingness to depict his world, warts and all. Older fantasy epics wanted to show us gorgeous elven kingdoms and sprawling palaces, ancient ruins and spectacular monuments. Martin was part of a revolution in the genre that decided Fleabottom would be just as interesting as the Red Keep.
Bakker goes even further: The anti-hero of his epic fantasy isn’t a knight or a magician or anything so noble—he’s a pickpocket, a liar, and a thief, albeit an exceptional one. Locke Lamora leads the Gentleman Bastards, a criminal gang that relies on deception and guile to rob the rich in the city of Camorr. Bakker has a way of making the criminal underground as fascinating as the magical world it exists within—a world that becomes explicitly threatening when Lamora encounters the Gray King, a mysterious figure killing off the gang leaders in Camorr. Lamora is a wonderful character, complex and self-interested, but with a streak of loyalty that redeems him and makes his life more complicated than necessary.
8. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
Black Leopard, Red Wolf made a huge splash when it hit bookshelves in 2019. It was explicitly marketed as an “African Game of Thrones,” but that’s a little misleading. On the one hand, if you’re seeking epic fantasy that’s complex and dark and fueled by a tricky web of cultural and political interests, you’ll love the universe James has created. On the other hand, this isn’t quite like any epic fantasy you’ve ever read. The story of Tracker, a supernaturally gifted hunter who is tasked with locating a boy who vanished three years before, spans years and moves through a tribal world of conflicting interests and terrifying supernatural threats.
James, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, takes a self-consciously literary approach to his story. His style is challenging, leaving details buried and often obscuring his characters’ motivations, leaving them as a puzzle for the reader to work out. Drenched in African mythology and imagery, the book is ideal for fantasy fans who adore Martin’s work but want a change from the Western-European setting of most epic fantasy stories. But even if you’re used to Martin’s multiple points of view and complex plotting, be ready to work a little harder with this one.
9. The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin won three Hugo Awards for Best Novel with The Broken Earth series, cementing its reputation as the best fantasy of the 21st century—and possibly of all time. The story is set in a world where a single enormous supercontinent (called The Stillness) is subjected to terrifying “seasons” of violent geological events. The sky over The Stillness is filled with Obelisks, the remnants of a fallen civilization. Jemisin follows three main narratives in different time periods, using different points of view and varying approaches, spinning a story of personal loss and tragedy that changes her fictional universe forever.
Jemisin crafts a wholly original world. Where some authors (even Martin) take an existing history or culture and mold it into their fantasy universe, Jemisin’s feels like nothing else you’ve read. Even the magic of this world is unique, centered on orogenes who can control seismic activity—a power that invites as much fear and violence as reverence. The way the threads come together—especially the reveal concerning the three characters telling the story—are uniformly brilliant, surprising but earned. Though this is probably best described as science fantasy instead of pure epic fantasy, if you’re looking for more complex storytelling that consistently surprises, this is the ideal choice.
10. The Sundering Duology, by Jacqueline Carey
One of the best aspects of Martin’s series is his willingness to have flawed heroes who are capable of selfishness and pettiness, and to have thoughtful villains who are capable of growth and change. It’s a universe where the heroic northern prince can doom his own fate by marrying foolishly, and the damaged, cynical knight can slowly find his humanity through epic suffering. If it’s this morally gray aspect that drew you to A Song of Ice and Fire, you’ll love Carey’s The Sundering duology.
On one level, it’s less complex than Martin’s series. In two lean, focused novels there are fewer than a dozen major characters. Set in a world broken into two parts and dominated by the godlike Shapers, the story most closely follows the servants of the fallen Shaper Satoris, exploring their reasons and motivations for choosing the dark side and fighting the “good” forces. One benefit of the relatively small cast of characters is that each of them is a fully realized person. Their motivations vary, but they are all led into the darkness via recognizable paths, which is both frightening and illuminating. Carey’s intention here is to examine good and evil and how the two often overlap to the point of meaninglessness, and it’s a powerful twist on the typical epic fantasy experience.