We Asked Writers How A Game of Thrones Changed Fantasy Forever

a game of thrones 20th anniversary

There’s no denying the fact that fantasy wouldn’t be where it is today without George R.R. Martin. With the books already a phenomenal success by any standard (or at least, the standard of “number one New York Times bestseller”), their successful transition of A Song of Ice and Fire to longform television triggered a wave of excitement still washing over the genre world,  with everyone from Starz, to MTV, to Syfy trying to find their own blockbuster adaptation. But let’s not forget where it all started: with one book (albeit a hefty one). Just words on a page, and a world within them.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of A Game of Thrones we reached out to some accomplished fantasy authors for their thoughts on how George’s series changed, inspired, or influenced their writing, and the wider field of epic fantasy.

Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians Trilogy
I’m not at all sure that I would have a career writing fantasy if it weren’t for George R.R. Martin. When I read A Game of Thrones, in 1997 or so, it changed everything for me. Like Alan Moore did with superheroes in Watchmen, Martin dared to do things with fantasy that nobody else did. He broke rules. He described things you weren’t supposed to describe in fantasy, and made his characters think and do and say things they’re just not supposed to in fantasy. It was muddy and gory and shocking, but so is reality—Martin had the courage and the will and the genius to give reality the fantasy it deserved. It was the fantasy readers needed and had been waiting for. And he gave writers like me the courage to break some rules too.

Ken Liu, author of The Dandelion Dynasty
George R. R. Martin’s grand, complicated, dense, exhilarating epic fantasy series was a game-changer in so many ways, but it was most inspiring to me in the ways it gave the texture of history to fantasy fiction. As a species, we’re wired to be intensely interested in social hierarchies and the shifting balance of power in groups of humans, and I enjoy examining the ways that A Song of Ice and Fire presented its complicated politics in psychologically realistic and compelling ways, tapping into that deep love of power games in us for much of its narrative tension. It’s definitely influenced the way I construct my own narratives about power as well.

Django Wexler, author of The Shadow Campaigns
Influence is always a tricky thing to measure. It’s easy to say that, together with Joe Abercrombie, A Game of Thrones began a trend towards grittier, more cynical, more realistic fantasy, the sub-genre sometimes called “grimdark”. And I think that’s at least partially true. You can see Martin’s influence pretty clearly in many cases, but it’s also true that there’s plenty of work in that vein that predates the series. Glen Cook, to cite one example, was doing his Black Company books as far back as the mid-eighties, while KJ Parker’s Fencer trilogy came out around the same time as A Song of Ice and Fire began. So it’s possible that Martin was riding the wave of grimdark, rather than being a principle cause.

One thing I can say for certain is that the series was hugely influential on me, personally. I loved what he did for the “standard fantasy world” of knights and castles, taking it back toward its historical roots in medieval England and Scotland. My Shadow Campaigns series, a fantasy with a pseudo-Napoleonic setting, was pretty much a direct result—I wanted to try something similar in terms of infusing a fantasy with historicity, but using a very different time period and location.

In the long run, I actually think that the HBO Game of Thrones may be more influential than A Song of Ice and Fire. As good as Martin’s series is (and it’s one of my absolute favorites) there are other great fantasy series with comparable effect on the genre. Whereas the TV show really stands alone as something new under the sun – no one, in the US at least, had done high fantasy on TV on that scale. (The only thing I can think of that’s comparable is Jackson’s Lord of the Rings in movies, itself pretty revolutionary.) Its massive success changed the TV map completely, and many of the great shows we’ve had since (The Expanse, The Magicians, Daredevil and the other Marvel/Netflix shows) owe their existence to its example.

Martha Wells, author of The Books of Raksura
I think it was the Lord of the Rings movies that first introduced a lot of mainstream viewers, the people who weren’t SF/F fans, to the idea of epic fantasy. But A Song of Ice and Fire has kept that new attention on epic fantasy and continued to show how popular it can be to mainstream audiences. It’s also brought in lots of new readers to the genre looking for epic stories. And it’s exciting to me to wonder what epic fantasy book series will be the next to end up on TV or in movies. Will it be an older series or something recent and innovative, like The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin? I think the possibilities are endless, and I think A Song of Ice and Fire helped open that door for other epic fantasies.

Peter Orullian, author of The Vault of Heaven series
George’s work has both grit and grace. Can’t do much better. Also, he told me a story about Doug Adams on the eve of my first Comicon to ease my nerves—I would be signing next to George the next day. Turns out George has a good deal of grit and grace himself.

Cat Rambo, author of The Beasts of Tabat
Martin helped move epic fantasy away from the narrative of the chosen one and their quest, expanding its inventive landscape in that he’s played a major factor in creating the multi-character novel. It’s almost as though he took the collaborative aspect of his Wild Cards series and internalized it, moving to a many-faceted approach where we have much more than the usual one to a handful of main characters. At the same time, he’s stressed the economic rigors and physical necessities of a fantasy landscape, making things gritty and real in a way that’s paved the coming of grimdark fantasy and its adherents.

Stina Leicht, author of Cold Iron
When I read A Game of Thrones in 1997, I’d only just returned to reading Epic Fantasy. I’d taken a decade long break from the sub-genre because I’d grown frustrated with its tropes. As it turned out, A Game of Thrones was everything those tired old tropes weren’t. Thus, I can’t help feeling that Martin jump-started a dying genre. (He also influenced me as a writer.) He made it fashionable to use elements of history in Epic Fantasy—not merely the pseudo-medieval Tolkien world most were re-hashing at that time.

Instead, he borrowed elements from the history of the Plantagenets, a royal family that not only controlled England but Normandy, Anjou, Touraine, Aquitaine, Brittany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Castile, Sicily and France. I’m no expert. However, I’d already read a fair bit about them by the time I’d picked up A Game of Thrones. The Plantagenets were not only powerful, but with a few exceptions…they weren’t exactly the most family-oriented dynasty. (The term “nest of spiders” springs to mind.) And while the nigh-constant brutalization of women ultimately caused me to stop reading, it was nice seeing the corrupting force of absolute political power reflected in a genre where feudalism is too-often glorified.

The other over-used trope overturned by A Song of Fire and Ice is the myth that the fate of a world (and history) hinges upon the actions of a single person. (I blame Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and its roots in colonialism—which has far too much influence in Western SF and Fantasy.) In truth, history is far more complex than that. History is comprised of a mosaic of interconnected lives and perspectives. In fact, when humanity is in the middle of an event (such as a war) there is no mono-story. History is edited over time. Before that happens, it is chaotic and confusing. (Consider current events in the Middle East.) And that is why Martin’s mosaic plot-structure with its multitude of point of view characters appeals so much to me and (I assume) other readers. This, in spite of its problems. The mosaic plot structure presents a more realistic perspective on humanity. I’m happy to see more of it in use by other Epic Fantasy writers.

KV Johansen, author of Gods of Nabban
Thinking back, I guess one thing in A Song of Ice and Fire that has likely had something to do with changing what people expect, or accept, in epic fantasy over the past twenty years, is the large number of limited third-person narrators. In A Game of Thrones there were quite a few, but as the series went on the number increased dramatically. (Malazan, which started a few years later, also has many point of view characters and was also very influential on the genre.)

The complex history, politics, and personal lives underlying and weaving through such a story seem to go along with that multiplicity of points of view; each creates and also demands the other. That kind of book would otherwise be hard to do without an omniscient authorial narrator to pull it together for the reader, or a frame of a (probably first-person) ‘historian’ narrator looking back and imagining and extrapolating—or making up bits and pretending they weren’t. If you only had a few third-person limited narrators, you’d have a hard time having them see or even learn of everything the reader needed to know. I suspect that the success of A Song of Ice and Fire has contributed to a climate where more readers are willing to read and track that multiplicity of narrative threads (popularity breeding wider popularity as people talk about a book and others become willing to try it); that narrative complexity makes it possible to tell a story with a far more convoluted political situation or unfolding history.

It’s not that this was a new thing as such, but to have so many narrative threads was certainly uncommon and because of the popularity, the series drew attention to the fact that, yes, fantasy readers were happy to read such things; it wasn’t a small, obscure taste. And so a climate was created where that became more possible for other authors to be able to do: more to more readers’ tastes and less likely to be editorially quashed as not fitting what people expect of their fantasy.

Steve Drew, Lead Moderator of the reddit.com r/fantasy Community
Mainstream epic fantasy was in a rut. Plot patterns established by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis echoed in what crossover readers expected from epic fantasy novels. A hero’s journey, growth, challenges, and good triumphing over evil. Then George R.R. Martin brutally blindsided that comfortable pattern with A Song of Ice and Fire. And made us love it.

 Celebrate the 20th anniversary with A Game of Thrones: The Illustrated Edition, available now.

Shop the Game of Thrones Collection >

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy