George R.R. Martin is a rare creature indeed: A genre author who has become a household name, largely thanks to the worldwide success of the television series based on his sprawling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. In the wait between season (not to mention between books—still no word on when, exactly, The Winds of Winter might blow in), fans might think that if they’ve already read the five ASoIaF novels, the prequel novellas, and the in-world works of history (including the forthcoming Fire & Blood), they’ve exhausted all the GRRM available for their consumption.
But Martin was also a celebrated and prolific author long before an HBO executive took a shine to A Game of Thrones. Since the 1970s, he’s been beloved by science fiction and fantasy readers for his imaginative and atmospheric short stories and inventive novels—many of which have nothing to do with the battle for the throne of Westeros.
Here are five essential George R.R. Martin books with nary a Stark in sight.
Dying of the Light (1977)
Martin’s first novel puts a harrowing, nihilistic spin on space opera tropes. Its setting is a nearly abandoned planet whose erratic orbit has sent it spinning inexorably further into deep space. A cast of broken, angry characters inhabit its decaying cities, seeking to atone for past mistakes as they try to find a way to endure world-ending change. It’s bleak, philosophical, arresting stuff.
Fevre Dream (1982)
Not long after Anne Rice reinvented the bloodsucker for the 20th century (and long before Edward Cullen sparkled onto the scene), Martin put his own spin on old legends with this steamy story of murder set on a barge cruising down the Mississippi River in 1857. Funded by a mysterious investor, the opulent steamship Fevre Dream is impressively luxurious—and will play host to unspeakable horrors before it reaches its final port of call.
The Armageddon Rag (1983)
Mystery, magic, and that old time rock ‘n’ roll come together in this story of a struggling novelist who becomes immersed in the investigation of the ritualistic murder of Jamie Lynch, a much-despised rock promoter whose body is discovered with his heart torn from his chest. Clues indicate his death is tied to a concert 10 years earlier, during which the lead singer of one of Lynch’s clients, the rock group Nazgûl, was murdered. The mystery comes to a head during the group’s reunion tour, as Martin unspools a tale of bloody revenge and ‘60s idealism gone sour.
Tuf Voyaging (1986)
This “fix-up novel” brings together a series of darkly comic short stories originally published in monthly science fiction magazines in the mid-1980s. It chronicles the adventures and misadventures of Haviland Tuf, a space trader who is the opposite of suave scoundrels like Han Solo. Imposingly tall, balding, overweight, and unsociable, he much prefers the company of cats to people. Nevertheless, when a series of strange coincidences puts the solitary spacer in command of the Ark, an ancient warship bristling with advanced environmental technology, he grudgingly sets off to save the universe, one planetary disaster at a time.
Dreamsongs, Vols. I and II (2007)
Martin is a skilled novelist, but he is a master of the short story. This hefty two-volume collection brings together decades’ worth of his award-winning, genre-spanning tales. In the horrific Sandkings, a wealthy playboy obsessed with collecting rare animals runs afoul of his latest acquisition: a rapidly evolving species of insect-like creatures. The Ice Dragon is the gentle (for Martin, anyway) story of a girl who befriends a massive white dragon after the death of her mother. Nightflyers (currently being adapted for television by Syfy, and also available in a new illustrated edition) is a haunted spaceship story set onboard the titular vessel, whose crew of misfit scientists has been tasked with studying a strange alien race; the true weirdness takes place onboard the ship, where the enigmatic captain has cut himself off from the rest of the crew and the scientists begin falling victim to a malevolent, murderous entity. All told, Dreamsongs collects more than 30 stories and novellas—including one set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
What’s your favorite non-ASoIaF GRRM?