On reconsideration, if GRRM’s series is seen as the possible enthusiasm-generator, then the subtype of fantasy in question isn’t necessarily “high” but “neomedieval” or “neofeudal” or some such. Swords, aristocrats, intrigues, some magic, but maybe not the elfiness of much that came from the sub-Tolkien crowd. I haven’t read the GRRM books, but the two HBO episodes I viewed combine a Tolkienian secondary universe, a codpiece version of military SF, and the court-intrigue/dynastic- or family-rivalry end of actual-historical fiction, with a big fistful of grittiness or noir sensibility. The commercial impulse will be to locate or manufacture products as close as possible to that formula, with the more adventurous (or less clueful) suppliers subsituting neighboring feature-clusters (more magic; more dragons; elves & dwarves & fairies, oh my; rogues/thieves/assassins as protagonists; et extensively-already-devised cetera).
In a development/marketing environment of that kind, Leiber, Russ, Vance, Moorcock, or even Anderson might be seen as too ironic or complex or even insufficiently sword-y–too far from the center of the target. The audience, however, might be large and various enough to branch off in any number of directions, once it became apparent that the fantastic, even the neofeudal fantastic, offers a wide range of flavors of entertainment.
Oddly enough, Richard Morgan’s new fantasy series might be the closest thing I’ve seen to the HBO rendering of GRRM. But then, I’m far from the center of this audience, so what do I know.
I suppose it’s outside the purview to mention non-modern epic fantasies, like the Secret History of the Mongols or the Nibelungenleid or Gilgamesh.
Slightly foxed (the British literary thing) is doing something this month about Mervyn Peake. What about him?
Peake is good, though a bit older than any of the other writers we’re talking about here. He’s due for some notice soon because the fourth Gormenghast novel written by his wife from his notes, is due to be published soon.
This may sound silly, but would anyone consider Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy to be epic fantasy rather than science fiction? It’s set on a distant planet, yes, but so much of it seems medieval costume drama.
I think that argument could definitely be made… although I wouldn’t buy into it myself. I think Dune’s explicit ecological focus, among other things, makes it SF. But it does certainly have trappings of epic fantasy.
N. K. Jemisin
It fits the forms of epic fantasy, certainly, with things like the spice substituting for the usual epic fantasy MacGuffin of Power. But I think that substitution doesn’t work down the line; epic fantasy doesn’t usually concern itself with ecosystems/terraforming, for example. (Though occasionally it does — Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy turned out to be that.) And at its core, Dune is basically The Godfather written a bit larger and with more Muslim than Catholic window dressing. It’s about a bunch of drug cartels fighting over turf, not really a homage to the epics of old.
To reinforce Nora’s point: GRRM himself has offered a useful way of thinking about genre membership: It’s all about the furniture. Squinting from a Jungian distance, Dune might be indistinguishable from a Tolkienian fantasy or even The Godfather, but its fixtures and wallpaper and tschotskes are unmistakably science-fictional: starships, alien critters, ornithopters, energy fields, all placed in a setting that is a future state of our Now. SF furniture = SF; fantasy furniture = fantasy.
On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, recalling his attachment to adventure stories involving American Indians, writes that he sought a particular rather than a generic kind of fictional experience–“I wanted not the momentary suspense but the whole world to which it belonged” (“On Stories”). That’s arguably more than furniture, which suggests that at some point the furniture is signalling “the whole world” and all the significance a world can hold.
If we’re searching for “something like GoT” then Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy is also worth mentioning. As others have noted, Abercrombie does gritty well, and he’s willing to deconstruct epic fantasy tropes in some rather bleak ways.
I’ll also second the Daniel Abraham recommendation. Again, Abraham’s plots are character-driven, with years of intrigue and bad decisions informing character actions. The Abraham books I’ve read seem more “high concept” than Abercrombie’s work — that is, Abraham is more interested in playing with new concepts than in reinvigorating epic fantasy conventions — but they’re both very strong writers.
One author I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Robin Hobb. Bleakness and epicness galore, combined with a tight focus on character motivation. Unlike Martin, though, I always feel that Hobb is wincing along with the reader as her characters do terrible, stupid things. It’s the same sense I get from Karen Joy Fowler’s writing, for whatever that’s worth.
Lastly, I can’t resist a plug for Watership Down. I wouldn’t call it Games-of-Thrones-ish: if you want to read about animal incest/necrophilia/political intrigue then Horwood’s Duncton Wood series is your best bet. (You’ll never look at moles the same way again.) But if you’re looking for a gritty quest fantasy in which characters make good decisions and keep their moral centers (their bunnynamity?), then Watership Down is a must-read.
I read very little epic fantasy but in the past couple of years decided to try a few. Of these:
I loved K. J. Parker’s Devices and Desires, first of the Engineer Trilogy, knowing and cynical and at time quite moving, at times darkly funny. Not really fantasy, though. (Not that that matter, except it might, possibly, to GRRM’s readers.)
I also loved Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Rather funny, not original at all but quite involving.
I quite liked David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein. Humorless, though. Which might not appeal to GRRM readers.
I did read a book by Brent Weekes, partly on the recommendation of my mother — not because she read it! — rather, apparently Weekes is cousin of a longtime friend of our family. I found it breezy, easy to read, entertaining, but also preposterous and cliched.
I’d also second recommendations for Daniel Abraham. And I might add mention of a magazine I contribute to — Black Gate, which perhaps doesn’t do “Epic” precisely, as it’s at shorter lengths, but which does definitely publish good adventure fantasy of the sort that might appeal to readers of Martin.
Two series that just occurred to me as worth a look from any GRRM fans:
Joel Shepherd’s Sasha series — it’s Martin in a minor key. Very well done, if more modest in scope and ambition.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt books — should also appeal to fans of KJ Parker, though much less bleak, if also less finely crafted. But it strikes some unusual notes for an epic fantasy.
I can’t see GRRM fans going for Gormanghast, at least immediately, although, of course, they might come to appreciate it later on. Very different tone. They might go for Vance or Leiber, since GRRM was influenced by them himself, particularly Vance, so perhaps Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld or Leiber’s Gray Mouser stories? Strahan and Anders’s The New Swords & Sorcery, perhaps, which could act as a sampler for some of the authors we’ve been discussing?