Game Of Thrones has left the air for another long hiatus. The HBO fantasy series became an even bigger hit in its fourth season, and at times seemed as if it was the only TV show airing, so breathlessly did the show’s fans and pretty much everybody in the media hype every twist and turn. (We at The A.V. Club plead guilty as charged.) But now that it’s over, what next? Sure, fans probably know about things like the Lord Of The Rings books and films, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time saga. But there are several lesser-known entertainments to tide Thrones enthusiasts over until next spring.
Chief among those is Starz’s surprisingly excellent adaptation of Spartacus, which told the story of the Roman slave rebellion over three seasons and a miniseries, even weathering the change of its lead actor. (Original series star Andy Whitfield had to leave the show due to a battle with cancer that later claimed his life.) Spartacus has the plot twists and political intrigue of Game Of Thrones down pat, as well as a love of epic, over-the-top violence. Plus, the series’ treatment of human sexuality is actually better in almost every respect than Game Of Thrones. Spartacus is an equal opportunity provider of nudity and sexual situations, and it has a refreshingly adult attitude about such things, instead of just tossing them in at random. It doesn’t have the sprawling cast of characters that Thrones does, but it does have a complete, very satisfying story—that will play out in bowdlerized reruns on the Syfy channel starting Thursday, should Thrones fans be at all interested in getting a sample. They’ll surely come back for more.
2. The works of N.K. Jemisin
Anyone looking for absorbing stories that turn traditional epic and quest tropes on their heads might already know of N.K. Jemisin. Her first series, The Inheritance Trilogy, began with a fight to inherit the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and expanded to tackle ideas of empire and class—on top of having gods for characters. The Dreamblood duology takes place in Gujaareh, a world built in rich detail where a vicious prince rules, dreams have real-world power, and priests act as assassins. The novels’ obsession with power structures and their abuse will appeal to Thrones viewers who have questioned the value of the Iron Throne in the face of Westerosi politics, and the power of dreams carries more suspense than some of Bran’s shenanigans. The first novel, The Killing Moon, is an espionage book exceptionally dressed in fantasy trappings, while The Shadowed Sun follows the first woman in the priesthood as she rises to power amid a plague that threatens the kingdom. For those looking for absorbing reading until Westeros returns, Jemisin offers smart, engrossing fantasy for readers to get lost in.
3. Marvel Unlimited
One of the chief attractions of Game Of Thrones is its heavily serialized nature, with gaps between books or episodes or seasons allowing viewers to flesh out its world and its past, imagining exciting alternate histories or crazy theories about what might happen next. Where better to get a serialized storytelling fix than the massive serialized interlocking storytelling project that is the Marvel comic universe? Marvel Unlimited, a service that provides a huge amount of the Marvel comic database for a flat fee ($10/month), provides a tremendous array of serialized storytelling about larger-than-life heroes, antiheroes, and villains as they get in fights, change sides, talk it out, and get in fights again. Sure, the quality can vary wildly, and it doesn’t even pretend that it’s moving toward an endpoint like Game Of Thrones does. But for just letting go and allowing immersion in a never-ending fictional world, Marvel Unlimited is a wonderful resource.
4. Blind Guardian
Untold thousands of bands have written songs with fantasy-centric themes. But few have done so as consistently, spiritedly, and in such an approachable way as Blind Guardian. The German metal band not only puts huge hooks and soaring melodies amid its galloping riffs, but it also stocks its songs with copious lyrics about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and many other canonical fantasy authors. That list includes George R.R. Martin; A Song Of Ice And Fire has directly inspired two Blind Guardian songs, “War Of The Thrones” and “A Voice In The Dark,” from its 2010 album At The Edge Of Time. Metal isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that shouldn’t stop any Game Of Thrones devotees from appreciating Blind Guardian’s fandom in song form.
Vaguely ancient setting? Horrific acts of violence? Strong female characters with nasty streaks? Vengeance? Lots and lots of vengeance? Look no further than Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, brought to the screen in 1999. There are no dragons, but Taymor gives her take a surrealistic sheen. Anthony Hopkins plays the spiraling nominal character, who goes on a killing spree after his sons are executed and his daughter is raped and rendered silent by having her tongue and hands cut off so she cannot accuse her attackers. (There’s a reason this play is not performed very often.) Jessica Lange takes on the Cersei-esque goth-turned-queen of Rome, who (terrible pun alert) eats humble pie in the end.
Long, long ago, back in 2005, HBO tried to launch an epic drama packed with sex, intrigue, ridiculously expensive sets, and revealing costumes. That show was Rome, and, after two seasons on the network, it was sent to television heaven (or hell, depending on personal interpretation of that whole thing). But Rome’s not actually that bad. It’s not great, either, but fans of Game Of Thrones will find much to love in the joint HBO/BBC production, which is set in first century B.C. around the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination. Politicians and emperors are killed, much sex is had, and lives and loves are won and lost. It’s also a ridiculously opulent show—not unlike Thrones—and all the characters have hard-to-remember and hard-to-spell names, like Atia Of The Julii and Pompey Magnus. The show also stars semi-recognizable actors, with Grey’s Anatomy’s Kevin McKidd and Thor’s Ray Stevenson playing the show’s two main soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Best of all, every one of the show’s 22 episodes are streaming now on HBO Go, ready and waiting to fill 22 of the 7,304 hours before Thrones returns.
7. The works of Joe Abercrombie
If it’s the gritty, darker world of George R.R. Martin’s books that appeals, then Joe Abercrombie’s terrific novels may be just the thing. Like Martin, Abercrombie’s work is filled with vividly realized characters who’ve been beaten down and defeated by life so many times that they seem on the verge of giving up—which is precisely when they decide to double down and pursue their revenge or enter battle or just fuck shit up. Abercrombie can occasionally be a little too grim just for the sake of being grim, and for readers who are really into magic, his books (which contain very little of it) might not appeal. But it’s not like those qualities don’t apply to Martin as well. With six novels set in the same universe already published, he offers plenty of opportunities to get lost in a far-off fantasy kingdom. What’s more, three of those novels are stand-alone and can be enjoyed without having read the other books. In fact, consider beginning with one of these stand-alones, Best Served Cold, a delicious revenge tale that might as well be Kill Bill set in Westeros.
8. Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World
There’s plenty of fiction that can match George R.R. Martin’s epic sweep, shocking violence, and complicated characters. But for nonfiction, fans would be hard-pressed to beat the story of a child kidnapped into slavery who grew up to build the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Jack Weatherford’s dramatic, well-researched Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World is full of murder, betrayal, shaky alliances, bold military tactics, and women taking tenuous steps toward wielding political influence. The main difference is that plays out like Thrones in reverse, as Khan starts with a Mongolian people in chaos, builds them into the most formidable fighting force in history, then uses that force to bring order to an empire that stretched from Korea to Hungary. Plus, fans can see the very direct inspiration for the Dothraki, as Martin lifted the Mongols’ horse-riding and horse-eating culture more or less verbatim. He only changed one letter for Khal Drogo’s title!
When the swordplay and the dragons and the scenery-chewing all fall away, Game Of Thrones is most compelling as the story of how power is wielded, and how even those most capable of commanding influence and authority will inevitably topple. Capturing that notion in 500 lovingly illustrated, medieval-themed playing cards, Donald X. Vaccarino’s compulsively playable Dominion gives wannabe Tywin Lannisters and Daenerys Targaryens their shot at running an imaginary kingdom—with the fate of that kingdom ever bowing to the luck of the draw. Management of the cards is key to victory, because in the game of Dominion, players win (by assembling the deck that contains the cards with the highest total Victory Points) or die (after hanging on to a bunch of point-sapping Curse cards, or sabotaging a deck by hoarding Victory Points at the start of play). A further Game Of Thrones parallel: The mechanics of Dominion require a lot of explanation up top, though they lack the type of premium-cable nudity that so elegantly spices up Westerosi exposition.
10. Dungeon World
If it’s Game Of Thrones-style gaming fans want, there are few better options than Sage LaTorra’s and Adam Koebel’s Dungeon World, a fantasy-themed riff on the popular tabletop roleplaying Apocalypse World system. Newbies shouldn’t worry: The above sentence was more complicated than the game. Based on rough fantasy archetypes, Dungeon World offers a tabletop experience that’s light on rules and heavy on the players helping the dungeon masters make up the story as they go. It requires no calculations, and the only required equipment is a pencil and two six-sided dice. Telling a story set in the world of Game Of Thrones is even possible, for those so inclined. The system is more than malleable enough.
11. The Gormenghast books (and series)
For those more concerned with the creepy families of Game Of Thrones than the battles, head for Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a family saga that turns a sharp eye on the internal decay of the ruling class. The middle volume puts its young heir at the center of family politics and features the iconic Steerpike, whose ruthless machinations would impress both Sansa Stark and Ramsay Snow, and who racks up a sizable body count all by himself. The series draws liberally and deliciously on gothic tropes, with a healthy dose of the surreal as, say, the metaphorical family decline is enhanced with some literal flooding. And for those not in the mood for a book or four, the BBC miniseries adaptation could suffice—there may be a bit too much softening at the edges, but arguing about the differences is as good a way as any to pass the time before next season. (Bonus: In true Song Of Ice And Fire fashion, this series took more than 60 years to be completed; Titus Awakes, the “lost” book of the series, was completed by Peake’s widow and published in 2011.)
12. Daniel Abraham, The Dagger And The Coin
New Mexico-based author Daniel Abraham shares an area code with George R.R. Martin, but that’s not all. Abraham writes the comic-book adaptation of Game Of Thrones, and he’s also finishing up a four-volume series of prose novels, The Dagger And The Coin, that will feel satisfyingly familiar to Martin fans. Far from being a clone of A Song Of Ice And Fire, though, The Dagger And The Coin takes a similar setting and injects it with its own complexity and dimensionality, including a stunning take on medieval economics—hence “The Coin” in the series’ title—that renders its scenes in the counting room of banks as nail-biting as the bloody military battles.
13. Valhalla Rising
In A Song Of Ice And Fire, prisoners and hostages are simply an extension of that world’s brutal politics. Theon Greyjoy, for instance, enjoys just a brief period of freedom between his servitude to the Starks and his time as Ramsay Snow’s plaything. With a few exceptions, most prisoners in Westeros reluctantly accept their situation and wait to be bartered, rather than plot escape. There are no such luxuries in Valhalla Rising, the atmospheric 2009 film of Vikings, colonialism, and bloody, bloody revenge. One Eye (that is, in fact, his name) is kind of an indentured pit fighter, whose master forces him to fight other enslaved warriors. Soon enough, he relieves some dudes of their arms and heads and such, and escapes. Joining One Eye is a young boy he has befriended, recalling The Hound’s and Arya Stark’s buddy-comedy relationship. After joining up with some Christian warriors looking to convert some heathens, One Eye and the boy find themselves in what we can only assume is the New World. Or, as some of the crew quickly speculate, hell itself. Plus the film features TV’s Hannibal Lecter himself, Mads Mikkelsen.
The world of the Vikings makes for several great, Thrones-like entertainments. History Channel’s first scripted series, which just concluded its second season, seems to be designed to be Game Of Thrones Lite: It has the HBO series’ moody gray landscapes and sword fights, its long-haired heroes and able warrior-women. It even has a lot black birds flapping around portentously, which is 90 percent of Game Of Thrones anyway. Ragnar Lothbrok is kind of like Rhaegar Targaryen, if Rhaegar hadn’t died years before Thrones even starts: He’s sensitive, heroic, and eerily multi-talented. Oh, and he cheats on his wife, too. Vikings isn’t quite as tightly written or narratively surprising as Thrones, but it’s a lovely period piece on its own.
15. The Greenlanders
Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders situates a story of Vikings as a story of apocalypse, depicting 80 years of a Viking colony as it slowly confronts an inhospitable world that will eventually swallow it whole. It’s a great small-town novel, in that it depicts a wide variety of characters in the colony with exactitude and empathy, but it’s also a great novel about a culture that will be alien to most readers. Smiley has done her research, but it’s all there to bolster vivid characters and a genuine sense of doom. Thrones fans might find in it the same sense of eerie, snow-swept desolation and destruction that greets those who venture north of the Wall.
16. The Borgias
One of the unfortunate side effects of Game Of Thrones is that it tends to suck up most of the TV-conversation oxygen when it’s on. A sad casualty of that trend was Showtime’s The Borgias, which was canceled last year after failing to pull in the ratings to justify its lavish production budget. All three seasons have since become available on Netflix, and taken as a whole, they make for an engrossing tale of Renaissance Italy politics, featuring a family every bit as ambitious as House Lannister. As with Game Of Thrones, there’s a ruthlessly intelligent patriarch—Pope Alexander VI, played by the incomparably steely Jeremy Irons—determined to hold onto his kingdom by any means. He places a vast amount of trust in his children, without truly realizing how much agency they demand in their lives. It’s a show packed with sex, violence, intrigue, and several fun performances, particularly Sean Harris as “stray dog” assassin Micheletto and Julian Bleach as the unflappable Niccolo Machiavelli. Some stories drag at times, but the character-focused writing by showrunner Neil Jordan and a wonderfully atmospheric score by Trevor Morris go a long way toward overcoming those moments. (As do moments of macabre weirdness, including a Last Supper recreation with mummified corpses or a man devoured by giant eels.)
17. Throne Of The Crescent Moon
There’s a wide range of cultures depicted on Game Of Thrones, but the series’ ethnicities that lean more toward the Eurocentric get the lion’s share of the action. Not so with Saladin Ahmed’s debut fantasy novel, 2012’s Throne Of The Crescent Moon. The book is packed with all the swordplay, rich character development, and mythic grandeur of Game Of Thrones, only the backdrop is a fictional world that resembles the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Ages, rather than Europe during the Middle Ages. Martin himself has praised Ahmed, calling Throne Of The Crescent Moon “old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery with an Arabian Nights flavor.” It’s also the first installment of a trilogy, so it’s not too late to get in on the epic ground floor.
18. The works of Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels share a huge number of characteristics with those of George R.R. Martin’s. Both are “fantistoricals,” a subgenre of fantasy that takes direct influence from real-world history. Game Of Thrones is clearly built around the Wars Of The Roses—with England-shaped Westeros and northern Starks/Yorks fighting southern Lannisters/Lancasters—while Kay travels all over, from Reconquista Spain to Tang China. Both authors tend to downplay magic, making it wild and rare, choosing instead to focus on the travails of extraordinary humans in morally ambiguous political crises. Both are also thematically similar in that they examine and critique the appeal and destructiveness of patriarchal power structures. But the differences between the two often end up favoring Kay’s books. His prose is some of the best in fantasy, beautifully lyrical in quieter scenes, a driving force during action scenes. His books are brimming with empathy, overtly feminist and humanist in ways that Martin’s can only manage. And most importantly, Kay’s books fucking end. They’re primarily stand-alones, with one duology and one trilogy, which not only makes them more satisfying, but lets the shocking deaths work as tragedy, instead of merely twists. The best intro to Kay’s work is probably The Lions Of Al-Rassan, but almost all of his stuff is good, and his 1990s output is uniformly excellent.
19. I, Claudius
For a certain section of Game Of Thrones’ audience, the show’s appeal lies in the backstabbing machinations, as various political factions vie for the Iron Throne and control of Westeros. Fans among that group should consider filling the void the show leaves in its wake with Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. The novel, first published in 1934, details the history of the Roman empire from 44 B.C. to 41 A.D., picking up at Julius Caesar’s death and ending with Emperor Caligula’s. Told from the perspective of Claudius, a stuttering cripple who (at least in Graves’ version) used his infirmities to keep himself hidden in plain sight as his various relations schemed, plotted, and poisoned one another in a mad rush for power. As a bonus, I, Claudius was adapted for television by the BBC in 1976. While the 12-episode series may lack the scope of a season of Game Of Thrones, the show is packed full of talented British actors (led by Derek Jacobi as Claudius) sputtering, threatening, seducing, and stabbing one another in the back. George R.R. Martin himself couldn’t have done it better.
20. Dragonlance Chronicles
The series-within-a-series that comprise Dragonlance Chronicles—the Dungeons & Dragons novels co-written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman—are sprawling. But followers of George R.R. Martin have come to expect that kind of saga-length scope, and Chronicles delivers that in spades. Not only is it an intricate tangle of characters, politics, armies, and gods, all set in a fictional, pseudo-medieval world, it shares many specific story elements with Game Of Thrones. Dragons once disappeared but have now returned. The frigid North holds a terrifying enemy. Skeletons with swords hack at the heroes. And a healthy streak of moral ambiguity runs through it, as livid as the scar across Tyrion Lannister’s face.
21. Myth Adventures
There’s nothing wrong with admitting to being left emotionally drained by the developments in the Game Of Thrones season finale. But if fans still have a jones for more swords, sorcery, and general fantasy, they can find that and more in the lighthearted Myth Adventures series, created by the late Robert Asprin. The saga begins with Another Fine Myth, which introduces Skeeve, a young magician-in-training who suddenly finds himself under the tutelage of a “demon” (a term used for any individual capable of traveling from one dimension to another) named Aahz after his original instructor is assassinated. Although there are elements of science fiction found within the series, there’s far more fantasy, including dragons, devils, imps, trolls, and plenty of swords and sorcery. More importantly, though, there are enough books to keep fans occupied until next season: Asprin wrote the first dozen Myth books on his own before joining forces with co-writer Jody Lynn Nye in 2003 for an additional half-dozen novels, as well as a collection of short stories. Although Aspirin died in 2008, Nye revived the Myth series in 2013 with Myth-Quoted, with promises of more to come.
22. Penny Dreadful
Showtime’s freshman drama Penny Dreadful is different from other stuff on television, which makes it more like Game Of Thrones than anything else from the network. It’s a rich period piece that attacks the genre of the Victorian supernatural thriller from a totally new perspective; it’s sort of like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but not nearly as lighthearted or heroic. There are impressive visuals, religious mysticism, and unexplained phenomena in the deep underground of London, and yet like Thrones, Penny Dreadful cares most about its weird, fascinating characters.
23. Korean dramas
People hoping to fill that television desert with other sweeping epics featuring a cast of thousands and a healthy dose of camp strung out over binge-worthy seasons should commit to some subtitles and dive into Korean dramas. The best candidate for a newcomer might be Chuno (The Slave Hunters), which has historical sprawl and some great acting in a plot that features mistaken identity, poisoned royals, and comparatively cinematic aesthetics. For those looking for a more overtly fantastical story, check out Ja Myung Go, a fairy-tale retelling, which follows two princesses fated to tear a kingdom apart and features a mystical war drum that holds the key to the kingdom. And any fans looking for a story about a young woman trying to gain herself a throne should try Queen Seondeok, which centers on the first female ruler of the Korean kingdom of Silla. On TV, her ascension includes barrels of royal intrigue, prophecy, hiding out in plain sight as a boy, and sneaking her way onto the throne, should Game Of Thrones fans be into all that.