The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 1: In Which Jon Snow Finally Knows Something

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season 8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 1: “Winterfell”

I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern with Game of Thrones’ premieres over the years, which is to say that, unfortunately, not a lot tends to happen in them.

As a fan, I can’t say it’s ever really bothered me that much, as after a long absence—it has been more than 18 months since the last episode aired—just seeing the characters again is usually enough for me. In the past, the first episodes have generally functioned as a way to remind viewers what’s going on in the 68 ongoing storylines. But as the number of storylines has shrunk dramatically by this point (or to put it another way, so many characters have been murdered) and we’re racing toward the climax, there is less justification for an episode to just hang out, sans a sense of urgency.

The writers seemed to understand this, as the first episode of season eight has a bit more going on than your average GoT premiere. That being said, it’s also filled with a lot of scenes that do little more than set the stage for the wars to come.

After a cleverly revamped title sequence (owing to both the, er, revised state of the Wall and the converging storylines, we spend a lot of time touring the interiors of Winterfell and King’s Landing), we begin with a nod to the pilot episode, the last time such a huge group of characters rode into Winterfell to discuss current affairs in the Seven Kingdoms (the little boy racing to get a glimpse of the soldiers—a la young Arya—was perhaps a bit on the nose, if nicely played). Of course the death of Jon Arryn (then) can’t compete with THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT (now). There have been several major signs over the last few seasons that we are arriving at the end game, perhaps none as jarring as seeing dragons soaring over Winterfell.

As you can imagine, not everyone is getting along. Sansa (and many of the North lords) are surprised at how quickly Jon has allied himself with Daenerys (it doesn’t help that Jon is soon seen soaring over the castle on the back of one of her dragons; that sound you heard was years’ worth of fan theories suddenly crystalizing into fact).

Personally, I’m torn: on one hand, it’s pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that he was thinking with his heart more than his head. On the other, I don’t know how many times I can handle watching really intelligent characters fail to grasp that you can’t defeat the army of the dead without some buddies, preferably the fire-breathing kind. We’ve been over this.

Speaking of the Dragon Queen, her presence in this season is going to be very interesting. We have spent years watching her liberate slaves and triumph over injustice, but while Jon Snow seems willing to sacrifice his title for the good of the realm, she still seems hung up on who is kneeling and who is not, and on who likes her and who doesn’t. During the opening moments of the episode she can barely contain how much she enjoys that her dragons are scaring the crap out of the common folk. I’m glad that this tension is in play; another painfully altruistic main character (sorry Jon) might make things a bit boring.

Arya and Sansa are leery of Dany, and suspect Jon is not focused on protecting their family. I can only imagine how much that paranoia will increase when they find out that Jon is not actually part of their family.

The biggest takeaway from the Winterfell plotline is that Jon Snow finally knows something. Sam’s revelation that Jon is not a bastard, but actually Aegon Targaryan, son of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark, and the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, is definitely going to cause a bit of tension. It’s unclear yet what he will do with this information, but we certainly haven’t heard the last of it. The fact that Sam got to drop the bombshell only moments after finding out Daenerys burned his family alive only intensified the moment.

Speaking of family tension, Tyrion is apparently the only one in Westeros who still thinks Cersei is going to keep her word and ride north with her armies. Sansa properly blasts him for it: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” It’s an unfortunate reminder of just how irrelevant Tyrion has become to the major plotlines of the last few seasons.

Speaking of Cersei, things in King’s Landing have gotten a bit weird. I wouldn’t call what her and Euron have going on a romance, exactly, but it’s… something. Faster than you’d think it would take for ships to sail across an ocean and back, the Golden Company has arrived, 20,000 strong. Well, maybe 19,998 strong—Euron had to kill a few for cheating at dice on the boat ride over.

While King’s Landing used to be such a hub of activity and intrigue, it feels very empty now. I imagine Qyburn has a lot of down time to poke and prod dead people. Exciting stuff. One of the characters still there is Bronn, who has now seemingly been hired to kill both Jaime and Tyrion. This is going to end in heartbreak, one way or another.

As the episode ends, Jaime arrives in Winterfell and locks eyes with Bran, who seems to have been lurking in the background of every shot (is Jamie the “old friend” Bran was waiting to meet?). They no doubt have a lot to discuss. Perhaps Jaime can start with explaining the things he did for love.

Quotable Quotes

“I was told the Golden Company had Elephants.” —Cersei. I WAS TOLD THE SAME THING! DAMN YOU HBO! 

“You’ve completely ruined horses for me” —Jon Snow, after taking his first dragon ride

“You should consider yourself lucky, at least your balls won’t freeze off” —Tyrion, welcoming Varys to the North


—The “Cringeworthy Makeout Session of the Week” award goes to Jon and Dany’s heavy smooching after they finished their impromptu dragon ride. Apparently whoever wrote the dialogue for that scene learned everything they know about romance from Attack of the Clones. (The dragons didn’t seem to happy about it either.)

—The prestigious “Nightmare Fuel of the Week” award goes to the penultimate scene, in which a child nailed to a wall in the center of a bunch of human limbs arranged in a creepy spiral, comes back to life to screech terrifying and is then set on fire. Even typing that out is a bit horrific. It was nice to see Ol’ Tormund “Blue Eyes” Giantsbane again though.

—Jon Snow is a two-time winner of the coveted “Aww Shucks Reunion of the Week” award for his reunions with Arya and Bran. It’s weird to think that these characters haven’t been in the same place since very early in season 1.

And now, a haiku by Yara Greyjoy

Nice to be rescued
But this really does feel rushed
Like all my plotlines

What did you think of the premiere? 

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Holy Sister Ends a Science Fantasy Trilogy That Finds Hope in Dark World

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The titles of the three books in Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series emphasize the emotional and physical journeys that the main character, Nona Grey, will make after becoming a novice within an order of assassin nuns. The first, Red Sister, is all about Nona as a warrior, growing into her physical power. Grey Sister, the second, is about Nona as a magician, growing into her mystical abilities.

The final volume, Holy Sister, explores powers of the spirit and of faith—a fitting end for a trilogy built on religious imagery. But if that makes the conclusion to the series sound pew-bound and cerebral, never fear: it’s anything but. The pacing is fast, the intrigue is ever-present, and as the climax spools out in the final third, I counted at least five different action sequences, one after another, with little chance for readers (or Nona) to catch their breath.

This is an ambitious and fascinating series, and it demands that you pay attention on every page.

For those not familiar with the series—though certainly, starting at the beginning is the way to go—the trappings are fantasy but the premise is science fiction, following the waning days of a civilization on a planet whose star is slowly dying. The “moon” (probably an artificial space station) warms a strip of the equator each night, staving off a complete freeze, but with the sun fading out, the volume of ice is growing, leading the peoples who populate the planet to go to war over its limited resources.

As to the fantasy elements: the civilization contains at least four different types of humanoids, and some of those have magical powers. The ultimate power source on the planet is a blend of science fiction and magic: the shiphearts that can control the Ark (one of the ancient vessels that brought civilization to the planet in the first place) can perhaps also control the moon’s rays and enhance mystical abilities. But the shiphearts can corrupt the user.  (Think of them as crystal versions of the One Ring.)

Nona is a novice at an abbey that trains girls with magical gifts to serve their empire as fighters and assassins. (Aside: I love that assassin nuns seem to be a thing in SFF right now, from Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books to Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight trilogy.)

Nona is a rare three-blood who can access three different magical powers—hence, her journey through “Red” and “Gray” sister training. Zola, her fellow novice, is an even-rarer four-blood from the remote and dangerous ice tribes, and she supposedly can save everyone—though it’s never clear if that prophecy is made-up or has, over time, been garbled beyond measure. The characters in these books tend to be skeptical of prophecies and cynical about people, none more so than Nona—even if (or especially if) the same prophecy says she’s supposed to serve as Zola’s “shield.”

Lawrence’s storytelling is complex and fascinating, blending the character-driven narrative of Nona and her fellow novices training with an overarching story with the highest stakes imaginable. The worldbuilding maintains a mystical bent, and yet the story is reliant on the science as well.

While Grey Sister ended on a cliffhanger (almost literally), Holy Sister begins with a jump three years into the future with the appearance of Nona once again a lowly fighter in the Caltess—a sort of analogue to a fight club where unfortunates are forced to draw blood for the entertainment of spectators. But all is not as it seems, as Nona is still a novice in good standing, and is on a mission from her mentor, Abbess Glass. It’s this mission that drives the trilogy toward its end.

The narrative is split into two parts. The first concerns what happened immediately after events of that cliffhanger climax, three years previously, as Nona and Zola escape across the ice, and event teased throughout the first two books of the trilogy. It’s a perilous journey as chilling and dangerous as expected, but it also includes moments of remarkable beauty. Not that the pair can stop to take them in, pursued as they are by the mystical assassins after the shipheart they’re carrying.

The other narrative is the present day, as Nona faces invasion and the schemes of an old foe and seems to stumble into one fight after another.  It’s this narrative that features the familiar cast of Nona’s fellow novices, including her best friend Ara and the lovers, Kettle the assassin and Apple the poisoner.

The two narratives are not presented in linear fashion, but intertwine until they come full circle in the final confrontation. If I have one complaint, it’s that Lawrence has packed almost too much incident into this volume, which could easily have been split into two separate books.

None of the plotting or superb worldbuilding would matter half as much if they didn’t accompany complex characterization for Nona, the supporting characters, and even the villains, but that is in ample supply as well. After all, the leader of the invading Empire only wants for her people to survive. If others have to die for her to achieve that, so be it.

But Nona is the character to root for, having evolved over the course of the series into someone who truly values loyalty and love. Some readers have placed this series in the “grimdark” genre. Certainly it is filled with terrible things happening to people who are both good and bad. It’s built on the black bones of a premise that seems to doom everyone before the first page is turned—no one will ever be able to relight a dead star. There are heart-wrenching deaths, and beloved characters undergo torture.

But if grimdark is defined as fantasy without hope, then the label doesn’t apply. In the end, Nona finally discovers what she truly believes in, becoming not Nona Grey but Nona the White, the true Holy Sister.

Holy Sister is available now.

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25 Epic Fantasies for Fans of Game of Thrones

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Game of Thrones is coming to an end. In a sense. The TV series is entering its final season, promising a resolution to its own version of George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire. Given that we’ve still got no definitive word on when the next book in the series will arrive (though we’ve got our fingers crossed that it, like winter itself, is still coming), we’ll soon be bereft of the bloody tales of the queens, kings, dragons, and bastards of Westeros.

As we ramp toward the end of the show and continue our watch for the next book, there are many more fantasy worlds to explore. Below, we’ve assembled a list of books and series that might help to fill the void. Each of these epic fantasy sagas is a unique creation—none are facsimiles of Game of Thrones, but each includes elements that will appeal to fans of GRRM’s gritty fantasy world.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
The bloody power struggles that defined seven seasons of Game of Thrones are overshadowed, in these final episodes, by the larger, no-longer-existential threat coming from the north: a horde of zombies, heralded by the changing of seasons. Frankly, the Stillness, the setting of N.K. Jemisin’s three-time Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, makes Westeros look like a Sandals resort. Catastrophic quirks of ecology mean the continent experiences an extinction-level event every few centuries or so; the only way humanity has survived is through institutional knowledge; life in the Stillness is defined by preparing for the next “Fifth Season.” Unfortunately, preperation by the powerful also looks a like like exploitation of the weak. Over the course of the series that begins with The Fifth Season, the downtrodden “orogenes,” who are able to move stone with their minds and have long been feared, controlled, and murdered for it, seek justice at the end of the world—maybe the last time it will ever end.

Status: Completed trilogy

Chronicles of the Black Company, by Glen Cook
Like the venerable Golden Company in GoT, Cook’s dark fantasy series stars the Black Company; both are groups of peerless fighters whose members each represent the best of the best among mercenary bands of their respective worlds. While GRRM’s mercs mostly stay in the background, following orders on behalf of whoever holds the purse strings, this long-running series brings the hardbitten sellswords to the forefront of the action. In a story that ultimately spans centuries, Glen Cook explores the storied history of the company—and, after a pause of more than a decade, he returned with a new installment in 2018.

Status: Ongoing series

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
The world of Westeros is one of often shocking violence (insert dramatic character death here), as is that of Abercrombie’s Circle of the World, setting of the First Law series. This first book introduces an array of morally murky characters and places them amidst murderous conspiracies during a wide-ranging conflict in a medieval quasi-European setting that none of them is particularly well-equipped to handle. Chief protagonist Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian who operates according to his own sort of moral code, would be a worthy contender for the Iron Throne.

Status: Completed trilogy (with standalones and a planned followup series in the same world.)

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan
The Eye of the World begins The Wheel of Time, one of the truly great modern fantasy series, and one that certainly more than gives GRRM a run for his money in terms of epic scope (and page count). Knowing that the Dark One is hunting for one of three young men in the village of Emond’s Field, the Aes Sedai Moraine leads them away in the hope that one will be the long-foretold Dragon Reborn. Though Jordan’s series runs more toward Tolkien then the revisionary nihilism of Martin/GoT, both stories range widely in both geography and character, and there are twisted parallels between Martin’s morally ambiguous priestess Melisandre and the The Wheel of Time’s Moraine, a representative of a cult in which female power is essential.

Status: Completed 15-book series

Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind
Adopted son Richard Cypher grew up as a gentle guide through the woods of Westland, leading traveller safely through the forest and coming to know each plant and blade of grass. As Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series begins, the woodsman comes to learn that his real father is a man named Darken Rahl and that his legacy rests in D’Hara, a kingdom of wizards. When Daenerys and company visit the Qartheen warlocks at House of the Undying, they see what remains (and what may be again) of Westeros’ own kingdom of magic.

Status: Ongoing series (currently 22 books!)

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson
There’s tremendous discontent in the great Malazan Empire: endless warfare has sapped the will of its people, exhausted the imperial legions, and lead to infighting. In spite of all that, the rule of the Empress Laseen remains absolute as the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series begins. That’s about the last time anything—including the reader—will be on sure footing throughout this enormously complex 10-book epic, which features so many winding plots and myriad players (both mortal and god), devotees often say you won’t really understand it until your second time through. In Laseen, Erikson creates a ruler to rival Cersei Lannister herself: fierce, born to rule, but utterly ruthless in keeping control.

Status: Completed series (with ongoing spin-offs)

The Night Angel Trilogy, by Brent Weeks
Azoth, unlike Arya Stark, was raised on the streets, scrounging to survive—but the two have much else in common. Weeks’ trilogy (now collected together in a single volume) follows the assassin anti-hero who knows an opportunity when he sees one. Under Durzo Blint, he seeks to become the perfect “wetboy”—an assassin navigating the dangerous politics of his world as well as its magic. The name he chooses: Kylar Stern means “one who kills and who is killed,” mirroring Arya’s role with the Faceless Men as a bringer of death, but also its servant.

Status: Completed trilogy

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab
Kell, one of the last of the magic-wielding Antari, can travel between worlds: specifically, between three different Londons. Red London is full of magic, White is torn between magic and mundanity, and Regency-era Grey London is almost bereft of magic. There was once a fourth London, but it has been consumed by darkness—it is Black London. But the darkness appears to be spreading. Schwab’s wide-ranging world of magic welcomes people of color and an array of queer characters.

Status: Completed trilogy

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
Game of Thrones is at its best when it’s playing off the consequences of tortured bloodlines and family relationships that aren’t quite what they seem. Genly Baratheon, the illegitimate son of King Robert, discovers, for instance, that being related to royalty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the debut novel to Lyons’ five-book A Chorus of Dragons series, a slum-dweller named Kihrin is claimed as a long-lost member of the royal family. But, instead of a fairytale, it becomes a nightmare, as he’s believed to be the son of a treasonous prince. The books are planned for release at nine-month intervals, which means there’s a very good chance you’ll get to read them all before the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire arrives in print.

Status: Ongoing series (With a sequel coming in October.)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
The fantasy debut from an award-winning literary author, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transplants some of the grittiness and earthiness of GoT to a vivid and luxuriantly depicted pre-colonial Africa of folklore, history, and legend. Tracker and his mercenary band of misfits and outcasts is tasked with hunting a missing boy–it sounds simple, but everyone has a different reason for finding the boy, or for making sure that he’s never found. In GoT, characters are frequently on the hunt for lost children (particularly if they’re Starks) to use as wedges or political pawns, and it’s no different here. There are also parallels with Essos, home to the Dothraki and a region of Martin’s world that’s more prone to contrasts of glorious cities and turbulent, unsettled wilderness.

Status: Ongoing series

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
There’s dark magic in Westeros, with the red priestess Melisandre representing the god somewhat deceptively referred to as the Lord of Light. Leckie’s novel introduces the kingdom of Iraden and the god known as Raven, who sits in his tower and guards Iraden in exchange for blood sacrifice. Like R’hllor, Raven offers gifts to the faithful… but at a price.

Status: Standalone

Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay’s fantasy novels dive deeply into real-life history—here, it’s the Mediterranean of the Renaissance that sets the scene for his story. Much like GRRM, who used the English Wars of the Roses as the inspiration for elements of his saga, Kay also reshapes real events into fantasy while also structuring the story in a way that will be familiar to ASoIaF readers: this is the story of a variety of diverse individuals (warriors, spies, artists, merchants, etc.) caught up, to varying degrees, in the larger events of their time.

Status: Standalone (though set in the world of The Lions of al-Rassan and other works)

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
The strain is showing as the long rule of Emperor Mapidéré is coming to a close. The first to unite the island kingdoms under one rule, he’s on his deathbed and rebellion is in the air. Two unlikely friends—drunkard Kuni Garu and noble Mata Zyndu—ultimately stand to play decisive roles in what’s to come. The dark political skullduggery is reminiscent of GoT, but Liu creates a unique world with wuxia-inspired action and settings and a decidedly Eastern narrative style.

Status: Ongoing series

A Crown for Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall
Among GRRM’s most beloved and compelling creations is Brienne of Tarth, one of the few genuinely noble characters in the story as well as an incredibly powerful female presence in a world in which physical power is presumed to be the sole domain of men. Marshall does one better here, in at least one regard: his chief protagonist, Cobalt Zosia, was a legendary general, but she’s now long-retired. Forced back into service, she’s no longer just a forceful leader but also an old woman. The wrinkles that run alongside her scars make her an impressive and welcome presence in fantasy, and her wry humor is a welcome companion on a bloody journey of vengeance.

Status: Completed trilogy

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett
The power of the magical wards that protect humanity is waning, and the powerful corelings are on the hunt. Each night for centuries, these demons—of wood, wind, sand, flame, and rock—have risen from the ground with a powerful hatred of humanity. Once humans were their equals in power, but now their fight is entirely defensive. Just as the people of Westeros shelter behind a crumbling wall protected by a dwindling Night’s Watch as the deadly White Walkers only grew in power, those unfortunate enough to live in the world of Brett’s recently completed five-book series are abut to discover that even their meager hold on safety is coming to an end.

Status: Completed five-book series

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
The dragon known only as the Nameless One—and the army of dragons that attended him—was defeated long ago, during the age of legend. The West has come to believe that only the continuation of the ruling Berethnet family keeps the dragons at bay, while the people of the East worship the water-dragons that they believe keep them safe. Much of this epic story turns on the conflicting views of two women: potential dragonrider Tané, and Ead, tasked with protecting the Berethnet queen. The narrative is steered by several powerful women who, like Daenerys Targaryen, each has a powerful connection to dragons—even if Shannon’s take on fire-breathing dragons casts them in a more evil light.

Status: Standalone

The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang sets the acclaimed first novel in her trilogy in a world that’s reminiscent of the China’s economically and militarily advanced Song Dynasty, with a conflict that’s largely based on the Second Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s and early 1940s, as well as on the earlier Opium Wars. It’s very much in the tradition of fantasy that lifts elements from history and illuminates them in new, fantastical light—just a bit further East than most. The series also matches Martin for sheer brutality; in telling the story of a poor orphan named Rin, who earns a slot at an elite military academy, discovers a talent for shamanism just as war is in the offing, and is forced to make a terrible choice to end the conflict, Kuang pulls zero punches.

Status: Ongoing trilogy

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Though the tone is very different, Clarke’s novel of alternate Napoleonic War-era England mirrors GoT in one significant regard: the return of magic brings with it prizes for some, and chaos for others. GRRM’s warlocks of Qarth acknowledge that the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons has ushered in a return of more potent magic to Westeros, just as the fiddly, reclusive Mr. Norrell becomes a celebrity by revealing powers long thought extinguished—before being challenged by his own apprentice for control of the future of England’s magic.

Status: Standalone

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
As Westeros has been shaped by incredible and dramatic shifts in climate, so too has Sanderson’s Roshar: the rocky supercontinent is regularly subject to storms of incredible ferocity. As a result, civilization has shaped itself around these storms. In this world, wars are won and lost over control of ancient swords and suits of armor with the power to transform individuals into nearly invincible warriors. Fans of Martin’s expansive worldbuilding will find much to admire here—each volume of the planned 10-book Stormlight Archive includes the sort of sidebars and illustrated appendices that Martin fans went without until the release of The World of Ice & Fire

Status: Ongoing series

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
The death of King Robert Baratheon is the inciting event for much of the pain and upheaval that defines Game of Thrones. Though his series is titled the Kingkiller Chronicle, and thus certanly must deal with the death of a ruler, Patrick Rothfuss’s wildly popular epic is far more personal in scope. Here, told in a single incredible day, is the self-told story of Kvothe: magician, fighter, and musician who is rumored to be responsible for great feats, and terrible ones, and who has his own story of survival to tell. The books match Martin’s in another way—the wait between installments has been excruciating—but the journey is well worth starting, if only because you’ll undoubtedly want to read them more than once before the concluding volume is released.

Status: Ongoing series

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb
After faking his own death, former assassin Fitz Farseer has lived ten peaceful years before a crisis threatens the life of his daughter, evokes the haunting disappearance of a childhood friend, and calls him to use his magical skills. Fitz inherited those powers as the bastard son of a royal house and, if there’s anything we GoT fans love, it’s bastards and assassins. Like Martin, Hobb is an expert at diving into the minds of her protagnists and forcing you to really question the moral weight of their decisions.

Status: Completed trilogy, part of a larger overall series of linked trilogies

Magician: Apprentice, by Raymond E. Feist
In Feist’s Riftwar universe, magic creates rifts that connect planets in different solar systems. The first novel introduces orphan Pug, apprenticed to master magician Kulgan just in time for an invasion of alien creatures through a rift that draws in the budding magician. It’s just the start of a long-running overarching series that blends a touch of sci-fi into its fantasy, and it on the power of a young orphan to upset the plans and schemes of the great and powerful in a very GoT fashion.

Status: Completed trilogy, part of a larger cycle of more than 20 books

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter
Among the Omehi people, you’re one of three things: one of the incredibly rare woman with the power to call down dragons; one of the men who can transform himself into a killing machine, or fodder in an endless and unwindable war. Powerless Tau plans to get injured and sit out the war, but chooses to change his fate when tragedy strikes. As in GoT—and with raged to the Targaryens who can (sometimes) command them—dragons are waiting on the sidelines to change the game entirely.

Status: Ongoing series

King’s Dragon, by Kate Elliott
King Henry ostensibly controls Wendar, but his sister Sabella has contested his reign for years and has drawn significant support to her banner in ways both fair and politically clever—reminiscent of the battles for the throne of Westeros that have shaped the entire GoT saga—and, as in GRRM’s series, an inhuman race from the north is massing and preparing to take advantage of the ensuing civil war. Elliott’s epic Crown of Stars series, which began publishing right around the same time but has been finished for more than a decade, follows young people drawn into the conflict, which only grows more complex as it builds.

Status: Completed seven-book series

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland
One of the chief villains of A Song of Ice and Fire has rarely been known to pick up a sword; Petyr Balish prefers to sow discord with words. If you prefer his sharp-tongued political strategems, you’ll probably fall for Chant, the sly protagonist of Alexandra Rowland’s debut novel. As the book opens, Chant sits behind bars, arrested on charges of witchcraft. Doomed to be executed, he uses the only weapon that remains to him—a tongue sharpened by decades of storytelling—to sow discord among the varying factions in the kingdom’s ongoing power struggle. If his words can turn the right people against one another, he just make walk out of prison, instead of being carried out a corpse. If you always wished Game of Thrones was funnier but no less cutting, it’s the book for you. A sequel arrives this fall.

Status: Ongoing series

What books will you turn to once Game of Thrones is over?

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Sam Sykes’ Seven Blades in Black: Magical, Memorable, and Soaked in Blood

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

I was left with several distinct impressions upon turning the final page of Sam Sykes’s latest series starter, the 700-page Seven Blades in Black.

The first was sheer delight at Sykes’s ability to come up with good character names. This story is filled with them: names that dance on your tongue and light the fire of your imagination, which only burns brighter as you begin to explore the world they inhabit (which actually also happens to be on fire for most of the novel).

There’s Cavric Proud, a soldier with the tender heart; and Stark’s Mutter, a town destroyed. There are villains of the highest order: Galta the Thorn, Riccu the Knock, Jindu the Blade, Vraki the Gate. There is Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Porcelain Vase, a nom de guerre to rule them all; and Congeniality, the bird of war.

And then, of course, there’s Sal the Cacophony.

Sal, you see, is the the other element of the book you won’t be able to forget upon closing it, even after you move on to other books, other characters, and other worlds. Because Sal is one of the most full-bodied and delicious fantasy anti-heroes in recent memory.

A battle-scarred outlaw magician, Sal is one-half of the reputation that precedes her in every town she haunts, ceaselessly hunting the names on her own personal hit list. The other half is the Cacophony, the fiery-tempered magical gun forever ready and willing to unleash mayhem upon the world.

Sal is foul-mouthed and constantly running afoul of both the imperial empire and its revolutionary foes. She is troubled by her own violent past. She is also troubling; she can’t leave a place without leaving a massive pile of bodies behind. She is flawed and flawlessly rendered. And she is funny, favoring a gallows humor you’ll get to know up close and personally through her point-of-view narration.

Sal’s presence is magnetic, which explains why she’s able to draw so many fascinating characters into her orbit as she trails a bloody path for vengeance. When we first meet her, she’s being interrogated by the hard-nosed general Tretta, to whom she recounts her life story. (Between this and Jenn Lyons’ buzzy debut, The Ruin of Kings, it’s been a good year for jailers with a lot of time on their hands.)

Tretta’s mission is to extract information and execute the prisoner. But even as Sal takes the long way around in delivering the information Tretta seeks, he finds it hard to cut off the conversation.

Who can blame her? It’s a helluva life story.

For that matter, who could blame Cavric Proud, a revolutionary soldier first abducted by Sal, then pulled into her intoxicating web of revenge? When it concerns our roguish magician with a cause, who could blame Liette, expert alchemist, for silencing her logical mind and lapping at the rage spilling over from her lover’s heart?

Sal’s orbit is littered with characters who are simultaneously repulsed and spellbound by her, a tension that may mimic your own feelings as the death toll mounts and Seven Blades in Black races toward a satisfying conclusion (though it is but the first novel in The Grave of Empires series).

Of course, you may be wondering: what exactly happens in this book? Fair question, but it’s fitting that we’ve gone this far without divulging any of the plot’s secrets—because secrets are mostly incidental to Sal, who cares only for her bloody-minded. That’s kind of the point.

Sal’s focus is on her own vengeance for past wrongs and horrific trauma. That her prey also intend to inflict unimaginable suffering on the Scar (Scar being the name of the wild and well-imagined wasteland Sal calls home) is of interest to her, but mostly as justification—a shield of righteousness for her singular pursuit.

All told, the seeds of Sykes’s previous series (Aeon’s Gate, Bring Down Heaven) are in full flower here: militarized magic, smart-mouth sorcery, complex worldbuilding, and lots and lots of gore. They are all entwined around the shoulders of a woman well-equipped to carry an entire world.

While many in the Scar regret wandering along the paths trod by Sal the Cacophony, you most certainly won’t.

Seven Blades in Black is available April 9.

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The Power of Choice Changes the World in The Women’s War

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The women of The Women’s War, a new epic fantasy by Jenna Glass, are filled with quiet rage.

Their fury is that of the dispossessed, the abandoned, the second-class citizens whose lives and autonomy are at the disposal of a patriarchal society. Three of them—a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter—are so filled with righteous anger that they unleash a long-gestating spell that gives every woman in the world control over her body. No women will ever be forced or able to bear a child she does not want.

One by one, the women’s grips faltered, dizziness overtaking them as the strength drained from their bodies with their blood. And the spell they had completed rose up from the pool of molten metal and cracked gems and sank into the earth, making its way down to the Wellspring, the source of all magic. And changing everything.

That’s the novel’s opening salvo, but it’s by no means the last one. The magical change has numerous unexpected consequences—some good, some horrific—beginning with a tsunami that destroys the lower levels of the city, and ending with the family of the main character, Alysoon, in peril.

Many fantasy novels begin years, if not centuries, after the world has experienced a seismic change. In this story, we are present at the very moment of change, which allows Glass to explore how a society begins to adjust, slowly yet inexorably, to an unstoppable shift. The side effects of the fertility spell unleash other magic, powers Alysoon and others seize as their own in order to survive the social upheaval that results.

Early in my reading, I wondered if Glass was overstating the impact this magically wrought change would have on the women in her society. And then I recalled the lyrics of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” written a decade and a half after the invention of oral contraceptives:

There’s a gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill
This old maternity dress I’ve got
Is goin’ in the garbage
The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on
Won’t take up so much yardage
Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years
Since I’ve got the pill

Alysoon, a princess who was retroactively bastardized when her father needed a politically advantageous divorce, isn’t after hot pants and frills. As a widow, she desperately needs to control her own destiny if she hopes to survive, and to provide for her daughter. That’s not something that will happen easily, not faced with the opposition of her vindictive half-brother, the heir to the throne.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, a princess named Ellin is handed a crown she never anticipated wearing. It only comes to rest on her head after her family is killed in the quake caused by the wide-ranging spell. She’s the compromise candidate in a conflict between two warring factions led by men.

While Alysoon struggles to protect her family, Ellin must bear the burden of keeping a kingdom safe from civil war, jockeying with disloyal counselors and rivals and juggling the attention of two competing suitors—one of who she loves, one of whom seems intriguing, and could seal a political alliance her country desperately needs. But Ellin knows this: though female rulers typically step aside for their sons in her kingdom, she likely won’t.

The stories of Alysoon and Ellin interweave throughout the book. Both of them are given point-of-view chapters, as are Shelvon, Alysoon’s unhappy sister-in-law; Alysoon’s daughter, Jinnell; and various other women around them. Perhaps to showcase Ellin’s isolation, she’s the only point-of-view character in her kingdom.

The prominent male points of view are that of the odious crown prince, Alysoon’s half-brother; and Alysoon’s full brother, a decent man and the former crown prince, before he too was bastardized.

The preceding paragraphs likely make The Women’s War sound like a solely political novel. Of course, the base concept is political, but the result is hardly a screed. It’s a story filled with richly built characters struggling with the aftermath of a decision made by others. It’s ironic that in changing magic to allow women to only give birth to children they want, the makers of the spell also took away from society the mere decision to choose change on its own.

Not that forced change is necessarily a bad. Something certainly needed to change. The Abbess who is driven to unleash the spell oversees a place quite unlike a nunnery. Rather, it is a place where disgraced women are sent, forced to use their talents to create minor spells thought of as “women’s magic,” or to be put up for auction, with their sexual intimacy sold to the highest bidder. All of the revenue goes to the crown, perpetuating a system of servitude and control.

You can see where the rage comes from.

And yet the men in the book are not universally evil villains. The crown prince’s horrific actions are even justified to an extent, though in the end, it is clear he’s likely to double down on tyranny even with those extenuating circumstances removed.

This is an engaging, fast-paced epic fantasy with a fantastic, timely concept and characters to root for (and against). The one fault, perhaps, is that the story ends on a cliffhanger, with the fates of our main characters not firmly settled. I cannot wait for the sequel.

The Women’s War is available March 5.

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Guns and Magic in Tropical Straits: Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

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Historical fiction author Angus Donald turns his skills to historical fantasy under the pen name Angus Macallan in Gates of Stone, a “debut” novel with a central setting evocative of 18th century Indonesia. Drawing on his studies of the region while living and working there, MacAllan uses the historical and geographical reality of the islands of Indonesia to inform the archipelago of his fictional world, Laut Besar.

The novel begins with the plight of Princess Katerina of the Ice-Bear Empire, who, on her 16th birthday, is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Her journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of Prince Arjun whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. The sword is a relic of mystical import that could unleash hell on earth, as the destinies of the princes and princess from different worlds will proved to be more intertwined—and far reaching—than either could’ve imagined.

Using Indonesia as a basis for a fantasy kingdom lends the novel an immediate sense of unique geography not found in the familiar, Western European-derived fantasy model, and the author’s experience of the real place and its history permeates the culture, societies, religion, and magic of Laut Besar. From rich courts, to deadly jungles, to inhospitable mountains, Macallan paints a fascinating world for readers to immerse themselves in. Some of the islands of the archipelago match Indonesian geography (Yawa being similar to Java, for example), but there is much invention here as well: the titular Gates of Stone certainly do not exist in Indonesia, although in reality and in fiction, control of the various straits has been contested for centuries.

There is a note of colonialism and colonial politics in the narrative. Its competing Great Powers —the moving forces that push and pull the characters—are inspired by, but not necessarily directly mapped on, the invading powers that shaped 18th and 19th century Indonesia. In this world, the Ice-bear Empire (clearly modeled on Russia) has a warm weather port that it lacked in our world, and it is from here that Princess Katerina launches her path into the Laut Besar. There also appears to be a resurgent version of a Chinese Empire far less insular than the one in our timeline, as well as a powerful Federation inspired by India. There are mentions of Niho and their knights, a possible analogue to Japan and its samurai. The Laut Besar is indeed a playground of Great Powers, with the smaller local ones pushed around by all and sundry.

The occasional “Extract from Ethnographic Travels” that preface many chapters do some of the heavy lifting in terms of worldbuilding. These short pieces clearly and cleverly point events that took place in this world prior to the start of the narrative, providing a guide to the places and cultures of the Laut Besar that the characters might well have consulted, had they a copy. It’s a handy way to sketch out the factors that helped contribute to the catastrophic events of the novel, filling in spots in the worldbuilding that might not otherwise be immediately discernible from the plot. It’s a useful arrow in the fantasy writer’s quiver, and Macallan wields it skillfully.

Though there is much to savor about the worldbuilding, the novel truly begins to shine as the characters come into their own. The book luxuriates in its page count a bit, and takes its time allowing the cast to develop the sort of depth that makes us truly appreciate the choices they are faced with and grasp the enormity of the decisions they make. Take Katerina, the princess of the Ice-Bear Empire, who kills her new husband in chapter one. It’s a bold choice, providing the early misimpression that she is going to be a primary antagonist of the series, rather than its primary point-of-view character. It is only as we follow her journey that we are able to put her act in the proper context. Indeed, all of the major characters encountered mid-conflict, enmeshed in their own struggles, and the novel works backward to flesh out who they are and provide strong reasons to care about their plights. The minor characters are similarly well drawn, with arcs and motivations of their own. The book rewards patience with getting to know its robust cast.

Of particular note is the very human face put on the antagonist, the sorcerer Mangku. In contrast to many fantasy antagonists, his plans and schemes are flawed, and we see him have to adapt on the fly as his plots don’t always turn out as he’d hoped. This fallibility grounds him in the world and as another character struggling to achieve his aims, rather than painting him as a nameless, seemingly implacable force that we all expect will eventually be defeated come the end of the series. His powers may be alien and strange, but he remains relatable, for all that his plans are reprehensible.

All of that said, the novel’s action beats are likely to draw the most accolades from readers. Setting the novel in a quasi-18th century setting means Gates of Stone fits nicely alongside the work of “flintlock fantasy” authors like Django Wexler, Brian McClellan, and Stina Leicht. While there are stunningly rendered feats of swordsmanship and hand-to-hand fighting to savor, it is the soldiers with cannons and muskets who provide the lever for the ambitions of those who control them, particularly Princess Katerina. The action-laden finale, which takes us to the titular Gates of Stone, is an stunningly well-conceived conflict, packed with successes, reverses, surprises, and pulse-pounding incident. I was reminded favorably of real-world depictions of the siege of Malta, and it is clear that the author has drawn deeply from historical accounts of battles to lend his own invented ones authenticity.

Gates of Stone is a strong, focused turn into fantasy by an experienced novelist seeking to ply the waters of a new genre. The strong foundations he lays in this series-starter hold much promise for additional stories in a fully realized world.

Gates of Stone is available now.

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The Ruin of Kings Is a Fantasy Debut for the Ages

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Buzz has been building for months behind Jenn Lyons’ debut The Ruin of Kings, and along the way, the epic fantasy series-starter has drawn comparisons to just about every one of your favorite authors.

Yes, you will find here the complex political machinations of George R.R. Martin, as well as the staggering scope of one of Brandon Sanderson’s works. Yes, the novel follows the sort of compellingly flawed characters V.E. Schwab is so good at making us fall for, and its unique mode of storytelling will delight fans of Patrick Rothfuss. Maybe you’re looking for a readalike for Brent Weeks or Peter V. Brett? This is the book for you, too.

Yet while all of the comparisons are well-earned, it’s unfair to reduce The Ruin of Kings to a litany of “a la” descriptors. This complicated, bombs-away doorstopper—and the enormous world it introduces—more than deserves lauding on its own unique merits.

Truly, fantasy faithful, it will knock your socks off.

For starters, let’s talk form and format: largely, Lyons tells her story in retrospect, via a conversation between a thief, Kihrin, and his not-altogether-human jailer, Talon. We’re given little opportunity to orient ourselves at first, as in alternating chapters, Kihrin and Talon unfold the story of a life as glimpsed from different points in time.

Framing their respective retellings are correspondences and footnotes from a third source, one whose involvement in these events only becomes clear toward the end of the novel. The footnotes in particular serve as an invaluable element of the worldbuilding, expanding our understanding of the setting well beyond the concerns of the primary plot and revealing intricate facets of multilayered world rich in dragons and demons, gods and great destinies.

Crucially, Kihrin remains the star of this show. A burglary job turns his world upside down after he witnesses a gruesome, otherworldly murder. After fleeing the powerful sorcerers and the demon they unleashed, he learns he may be a long-lost princeling of a powerful (and shadowy) noble house. You’d think such news might herald a new, more fortunate future. Instead, Kihrin’s situation starts a steep decline, as he is buffeted on all sides by mysteries of the past and the competing occult plots of the present. At the heart of all these troubles is a necklace Kihrin has worn since birth—or at least that’s what the various sorcerers, dragons, devil, and deities he encounters seem to believe.

There is a considerable amount of plot to keep track of in this book, the first of a planned quintet, but the detail only serves to make the world, and the characters that people it, feel real. Seemingly every bit player is working from their own aims and twisted backstories, and the action zigzags from this plane to the next. Coupled with the unique story structure, the effect can be dizzying—but a frenetic vibe suits a story in which the protagonist’s troubles snowball with such rapid velocity.

The energy with which Lyons infuses the novel feels both tightly controlled and in danger of sending it careening toward the edge of a cliff. In less sure hands, and with weaker characters to guide the way, the resulting story might be a confusing morass. Instead, it’s exhilarating: a mile-a-minute charge toward a satisfying conclusion that leaves the door open to yet more exploration of a wide, wild, and fascinating world.

There’s no telling where future installments in the series—A Chorus of Dragons—will go. There is certainly no shortage of paths for the narrative to wander (or gallop) down. That should be endlessly exciting for fantasy fans in search of their next favorite saga—and terrifying for the likes of Kihrin.

The Ruin of Kings is available now.

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The Gods Are Awake and at War in The Gutter Prayer

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Cover art by Richard Anderson

The gods, man: you’re almost certain to die with them and you’re almost certain to die without them. At least, that’s usually the case if you’re a character in a fantasy novel in which deities have made their presence tangibly known. It’s certainly more or less the hard shape of things in Gareth Hanrahan’s fantasy debut The Gutter Prayer.

Tumult and chaos fuel the plot of this series starter, as the city of Guerdon braces for a magical war that no two of the parties involved understand in totality. Gods old and new vie for souls and power. Sorcerers and alchemists create their own fresh horrors to guard the city. Everyone else—including the members of the thieves’ guild—tries to figure out how to come out unscathed.

It is three thieves, in fact, who are at the heart of this story. Carillon Thay, Rat, and Spar: the orphan with a dark past, the ghoul, and the Stone Man, respectively. The opening chapter finds this unlikely trio reeling from a failed heist, though it’s not just a simple matter of a botched job—the three soon find themselves entangled in a complex conspiracy that threatens to quite literally destroy Guerdon.

The moving parts are many, but Hanrahan does a masterful job juggling them—shifting perspectives between characters in and out of the city and keeping the story moving ever forward and ever faster. The world and mythos he’s constructed is impressive, promising no shortage of back alleys to explore or sordid underbellies to expose.

And yet is on the strength of its characters that The Gutter Prayer excels as a debut, and threatens to take its place as one of the year’s most satisfying new dark fantasy novels. Perhaps that seems a bold statement to make in January, but this one is definitely a cut above: within the central trio, you have a diverse set of full and lifelike personalities. Carillon, suddenly plagued by dark and dreadful visions, can be impulsive and self-interested, his natural flaws exacerbated by a childhood filled with trauma and a life spent largely on the run. By accident, she falls in with Guerdon’s ring of theives and meets Spar, son of the Brotherhood’s revered fallen leader, who suffers from both a disease slowly turning his flesh to stone and an inflated sense of duty that may sooner lead to his downfall. Rounding out the group is Rat, an ever-suspicious ghoul torn between life on the surface and his inevitable descent to the feral underground realm of his kind.

In turns, these distinct voices narrate a race to an armageddon none of them saw coming. In probing the reasons that led to their own their own ill-fated failed heist, they uncover the shared secrets and competing machinations of the most powerful factions in Guerdon.

They also encounter a colorful cast of side characters—including a delightfully foul-mouthed saint and a jaded thief-taker—and villains, among them the nightmarish shape-shifters threatening to overrun the city and the alchemical candle-wax security guards standing in their way. (If you’re looking for an imaginative creature feature, you’re in luck!)

The basic architecture of the novel will feel familiar to fantasy fans, but Hanrahan embellishes his creation with his own stylistic flourishes. For starters, without revealing too much of the plot, the story employs an intriguing network of gods and mages that should appeal to fans of Max Gladstone’s intricate Craft Sequence novels, even if the series’ respective brands of fantasy are far removed. The well-wielded magic system mixes and enlivens an imaginative world; that, not to mention the breathless action and a cast of characters worth rooting for, make The Gutter Prayer the nearly irresistible start to a new series.

The Gutter Prayer is available now.

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George R. R. Martin Might Never Finish A Song of Ice and Fire, and That’s OK

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We put a tremendous amount of stock in endings. The concluding paragraph or a novel, or the final novel in a sequence of a dozen books, can secure an experience in our minds, or taint the hundreds or thousands of pages that came before. The logic is perverse: the longer the series—the more words preceding the last one—the more weight we give to that wrap-up. When Robert Jordan passed just prior to the completion of his then 11-book saga The Wheel of Time, the discussion was overwhelmingly about what would happen next: who would end his story, and how? Terry Brooks is nearing on the chronological conclusion of his decades-long Shannara series, a last volume that will have to support the 30 or so that preceded it.

It takes great courage to bring a series to an end… which brings us to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Out this week is Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones, the first of two volumes in George R. R. Martin’s faux-history of the dragonlords of House Targaryen, ancestors to its last survivor, young Queen Daenerys. It begins with Aegon the Conqueror and the forging of the Iron Throne, and carries through subsequent generations, and the family’s battles to keep it. It’s backstory that’s only been glimpsed before, and some of the most intriguing Westeros has to offer, set in the days when dragons ruled the skies.

It’s also a reminder that Martin’s world is a whole lot larger than the events of the book series proper, and that we may be putting too much weight on our desire to see it brought to conclusion. Yes, we’ve all been waiting seven years for book six, let alone the concluding seventh volume.Certainly, we want to know what happens. But does the ending define this particular saga? Does it matter at all who sits the Iron Throne, or whether a Stark rules in Winterfell?

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ended with a definitive, world-changing battle, one that drew a clear line between what came before and what would come after for the world, but it’s impossible to imagine a similarly conclusive ending for Westeros and Essos. Martin’s world, not unlike our own, just doesn’t seem to work that way: there’s no grand villain to defeat in order that virtue may reign—the so-called heroes of the series may have better hearts, but each has been tainted by violence and compromise. It’s a world that seems to defy conclusions (certainly the Targaryens thought that their reign was an end to history), but admits only of cycles of war interspersed with intervals of peace. Like seasons.

It’s impossible to know what Martin has in mind for the end of his series, though it’s fun to guess (even if you’ve seen some of it already played out on television). The books take some of their inspiration from the real-life Wars of the Roses, so that conflict might offer clues. The winners there (spoilers for English history), the Tudors, lasted for just over a century before handing power over to the Scottish House of Stuart. A hundred years (and change) isn’t a bad run by any means, and those years were consequential for England, Ireland, and much of the rest of the world, but it’s a mere breathe in the grand scope of human history. The point being: Martin may ultimately craft a brilliant, revelatory ending, but the history of Westeros isn’t much less complex than our own, and we’re seeing more of it all the time—and it’s not hard to imagine more beyond that.

With Fire & Blood, we’re finally getting a full accounting of the deeds of the Targaryen dynasty, all of which has only been alluded to before. And it’s every bit as cool as what we’re reading about in the present-day of the series proper. Martin’s earlier prequel better makes the point, though: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects Martin’s three novellas of Dunk and Egg, Dunk being future Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Duncan the Tall, and Egg being future king Aegon V of House Targaryen. The characters have a tangential impact on the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, but their stories make for good reads even without the connection. Martin’s world-class worldbuilding means that there are stories even in the nooks and crannies of Westeros. Who needs an ending when there are so many other tales to be told?

This is all complicated by the existence of the Game of Thrones TV series. Though a relatively straight adaption of the novels initially, the show has increasingly become something of a parallel universe following the bassline of Martin’s novels, but increasingly charting its own course. We’ll be getting an ending there, though only Marin knows how it will track with whatever climactic conclusion he has in mind. And even then, the ending isn’t the end: come summer 2019, HBO will immediately pivot to a still-mysterious prequel series, another grand tale of Westeros.

Martin has also brought epic fantasy to the forefront of pop culture like never before. Much of fantasy over the past decades has been chasing Tolkien, but the popularity of Martin’s series has created a market for new types of fantasy, rife with ambiguity. It has helped pave the way or boost the popularity of fantasy authors present and future, who all seem to be in conversation with Martin in one way or another: the squabbling gods of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, the bird’s eye epic of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty, the dense politics of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky, the myth-making of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle (similarly plagued by demands for a conclusion); these are just a few examples of the variety of fantasy worlds that have flourished in recent years. Those books don’t owe their existences to A Game of Thrones, of course, but just as the Lord of the Rings films reminded the mainstream that Elves and Orcs are cool, drawing them back to bookstores for more, so too has the popularity of Martin (on the page and onscreen) encouraged readers to look around for more worlds to explore.

We hunger for endings, but maybe it’s time to rethink our reliance on conclusions. Though we have confidence The Winds of Winter will eventually arrive, in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin may still ultimately leave us without a choice in that regard. That would be a little heartbreaking, I’ll admit, but will the lands of Westeros and Essos be any less rich if we don’t find out who wins this particular round of jockeying for the throne? That world is getting bigger all the time, and maybe it’s for us to stop demanding to see the ends of it, and see what we can see.

Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones is available now.

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Revealing Never Die, an Epic Fantasy of Death Gods and Resurrected Heroes

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Some of the most striking science fiction and fantasy novels of the past decade—we’re thinking of books like Andy Weir’s The Martian, Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series, and 2018 standout debut Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft—began life as self-published works, garnering praise from readers and eventually attracting the attention of major publishers.

And since 2015, a few of those self-publishing Cinderella stories—Josiah Bancroft’s among them—have come out of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, an annual contest organized by bestselling fantasy author Mark Lawrence. Books vying for the top prize are sent to prominent fantasy bloggers for review, and the winner is the book with the highest average review score.

Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel, wasn’t an SFBO finalist in 2016, but all the attention (as well as the book’s excellence and originality) nevertheless garnered Bancroft a publishing deal for his entire series with Orbit. That year’s winning book, Jonathan French’s The Gray Bastards, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and likewise rereleased earlier this year, to no shortage of acclaim.

Rob J. Hayes won the 2017 SFBO for his book Where Loyalties Lie, a grimdark pirate fantasy that earned the second-highest composite review score in the contest’s history, which encompasses more than 1,000 books. Lawrence has called him “one of self-publishing’s rising stars,” and we wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the next SFBO author to sign with a major publisher.

That’s all to explain why today, we’re pleased to debut the cover of Hayes’ next book, the standalone epic fantasy Never Die, set in a world of vengeful gods and resurrected heroes.

Featuring art by video game artist Felix Ortiz and design by Shawn T. King (who has previously worked with authors like Bradley P. Beaulieu and Michael Fletcher), the cover was created with the idea that the once-again self-published work would stand proudly beside titles from major publishers. We tend to think it will. How about you?

Check out the cover below the summary. Never Die releases in January 2019.

Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can’t do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper’s war.

Preorder Never Die, available January 29, 2019.

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