George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, the book series you might know better by its TV adaptation, "Game of Thrones," has achieved something remarkable: It made a fantasy series sexy. It has achieved this in the very obvious way, which is by including lots of sex and violence. As "Game of Thrones" delves into its third season on HBO, getting engrossed in a complicated imaginary world replete with politics and intrigue and dragons is now totally cool. As a nerd who already knew that epic tales are awesome, I look forward to a sparkling future where nobody is snickered at for wearing a cloak to the grocery store or planning a commitment ceremony with her Legolas cardboard stand-up. (Not that I have ever considered these things. Ahem.)
Since carrying around chunky tomes like A Clash of Kings is now fashionable, here are our recommendations for some similarly edgy reading material, from other epic fantasies to attention-span-friendly graphic novels and short stories.
Northlanders, Volume One: Sven the Returned, 2008, by Brian Wood and David Gianfelice
Time-strapped historical fiction lovers can read a volume of this graphic novel series in about as much time as it takes to read a list of "Game of Thrones" characters. Or, take a while to linger over the brilliant watercolor illustrations, full of finely detailed costumes, gnarly faced characters and blood sprays. Sven The Returned begins with a Viking man's battle to avenge the death of his father, and the rest of the volumes portray various times and places in Viking-related history, from a village in Russia in 1020 battling a plague to a ninth-century Norse blacksmith fleeing church persecution.
The Black Company (Chronicles of the Black Company No. 1), 1992, by Glen Cook
This nine-book series follows a few decades in the history of a mercenary unit in an empire where powerful magicians scheme for control. Fantasy newbies be warned, The Black Company's tone can seem a little goofy at first, with an introductory barrage of made-up-sounding names. The opening chapter begins: "There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. ... Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill." Stick with it for the gritty scenes and the mercenaries' ambiguous morals.
The Earthsea Trilogy, 1977, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is a legendary sci-fi writer, but she's written beloved fantasies, too. The Earthsea world is a vast archipelago, populated by civilizations comparable to an Iron Age-level of technology. Earthsea is worth checking out not only for its sharp writing, but its diversity. Le Guin has made it a point to include characters of color, and wrote a 2004 Slate essay slamming the SyFy Channel for casting several white actors in its "Legends of Earthsea" miniseries.
The Blade Itself: The First Law, Book One, 2007, by Joe Abercrombie
You can judge this book by its blood-spattered cover. Billed a "noir fantasy," Abercrombie's sometimes funny, often dark writing portrays a world of anti-heroes. The Blade Itself, Abercrombie's debut novel, follows three men: barbarian Logan Ninefingers, crippled torturer Inquistor Glokta and the dashing nobleman Captain Jezal dan Luthar. It's an atypical fantasy from an atypical fantasy author: Abercrombie is a young British film editor, a far cry from the beardy Martin or pipe-smoking Tolkien you might imagine. Abercrombie seems hopeful that The First Law might come to the silver screen, too. He joked on his blog when an unrelated novel also called The Blade Itself was adapted as a screenplay, writing, "Brilliant news, one would've thought? So am I dancing around all over the house, or rolling about in a bath of 1,000 dollar bills today? Well, not so much."
Legends, 1999, edited by Robert Silverberg
This series compiles short novels from fantasy writers including Orson Scott Card, Elizabeth Haydon and Terry Brooks. The first volume kicks off with "The Little Sisters of Eluria," a story tied in to one of the most excellent fantasy/sci-fi series ever, The Dark Tower (by Stephen King, whom you may have heard of). Legends II: Dragons, Sword and King (2004) includes a George R.R. Martin story, if you haven't yet read any Song of Ice and Fire and want to wet your whistle. "The Sworn Sword: A Tale of Seven Kingdoms" is a nice introduction to Martin's style: Not overwrought, but describing a world so fully imagined, it's no wonder he's so prolific.