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Of Unicorns and Straight White Men: Outleveling Game of Thrones

Recently, Adina of Fair Escape was telling me something about the latest episode of Game of Thrones — I don’t recall what — and she prefaced it with, “I know you don’t really like the series…”

Before I knew it, my complex feelings on GoT/A Song of Ice and Fire resolved into this post…

(For reference, I’ve read the first book and seen the first couple of episodes of the TV show. I also have a front-row audience for all my friends and coworkers discussing the show. There’s a lot I’ve picked up from geek osmosis, and I pretty much can’t be spoiled at this point).

As a general rule, Adina is right: I don’t much care for the series. It’s a bit too grimdark for my tastes, and not in particularly interesting ways. It is consistently awful shit happening just because awful shit can happen — and disproportionately to women and the disadvantaged. The TV series in particular relishes this sort of misery porn; in the books, it’s more glossed over.

On the other hand, I also recognize the strengths of the series. I love fantasy politics, for example, and those are superb. I also generally liked the female characters, and felt they had agency — although sometimes they are punished for that same agency.

Furthermore, I respect that the books are in conversation with their contemporaries. Let us not forget that the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, came out in 1996. It truly was ground-breaking at the time to have viewpoint characters in fantasy who weren’t “safe” from being killed.

I also have a great deal of respect for George R.R. Martin, as someone who has been a fixture in SFF for many many years, and has cogent things to say about the fandom. (His commentaries on last year’s Hugo debacle are particularly enlightening).

But those points don’t add up to the popular obsession with this show, do they? I don’t think the series would have gained such a following without the sex and gore — which the HBO series only enhances. And I’ve definitely heard more than one person say they love the show because “it’s so gritty and realistic.”

That phrase — “gritty and realistic” — tends to frustrate me, as someone who’s been a fantasy fan since I learned how to read.

Why?

One: gritty is not necessarily realistic. Let’s take the role of women in lots of genre fantasy, for example. Lots of terrible misogyny is depicted in fantasy, in the name of “realism” to a medieval era that never actually existed. GoT is no different.

And yes, terrible shit did sometimes happen to women in, say, the Middle Ages. But to tell that story, and only that story, erases the huge contribution of women to history.

Furthermore… dude, this is fantasy, not history. When an author decides that terrible stuff will happen disproportionately to female characters, that is a choice. It is not a neutral choice. It is a choice that says stuff about the author — ranging from the relatively mild “they haven’t thought through their assumptions” to the more dangerous “they are a raging misogynist.”

How am I supposed to know which is which? How much thinly-veiled fantasy rape porn do I have to read to find out?

GoT isn’t this, at its best. Probably not even at its worst.

But I have read a LOT of fantasy, and shit like that is out there. And it’s popular.

Which brings me to point TWO — how deeply have you read in the fantasy genre? I would guess that most people who aren’t fannish have probably read Lord of the Rings, and maybe a few other popular titles.

It’s a stark contrast from Tolkien to GoT/aSoIaF, isn’t it?

If those are your guideposts, maybe you see the genre as offering only two options: asexual virtuous elves who are never in any real danger (until it’s dramatically appropriate), or sexposition and political maneuvering and violence that might just end in death at any moment.

Maybe you veer towards the latter, because hey, at least GoT has female characters with agency, LGBT characters (minor though they are), and shades of morality.

But let me tell you a secret: you don’t have to choose.

Fantasy is a wide and deep genre, and hundreds of new books are added to the mix each year — and that’s only through traditional publishing. Maybe no one has introduced you to the genre yet, so please: Dear Reader, meet some of my best friends in the genre.

… that is, here are my top five recommendations for “outleveling” GoT/aSoIaF. They are all awesome, intelligent political fantasy.

(If you’re already as fantasy fannish as me, you’ve probably read many of these — but I suspect you are also not my target audience).

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. (I’ve only read the first one — The Blade Itself — but I will eventually remedy that). Abercrombie is @LordGrimdark on Twitter, and he’s arguably the dude for whom the term was coined. And sure, there’s grit and gore here — one of the viewpoint characters is a torturer, with all that entails.

But I think the real genius in this series is in how Abercrombie takes fantasy tropes and twists them. “Good men” aren’t. Heroes cheat to win contests. Wizards don’t look like wizards. Berserker barbarians are actually pretty thoughtful guys who talk to spirits.

Right now I’m reading Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, and again and again it strikes me that this is what GoT would be if were more sex-positive. The main character is a schemer in a fantasy France where sex work is seen as godly, and where BDSM is seen as just one aspect of being god-touched. There are several trilogies in this series which I am looking forward to exploring, and I can guarantee they all couple tremendous voice with deep political intrigue.

Speaking of fantasy France, have I mentioned my pal Django writes this awesome series called The Shadow Campaigns, which is basically “fantasy French Revolution with lesbians kicking ass?” Because he does. So if you like both girls kissing and lovingly-described late 18th-century field battles, The Thousand Names is the place to start.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ellen Kushner’s Riverside stuff (both the trad-published stuff like Swordspoint, as well as the currently-being-serialized Tremontaine, which also employs the talents of Joel Derfner and Malinda Lo, among many many others). Since she went on Writing Excuses and described Swordspoint as “bisexuals stabbing each other,” I totally feel justified in calling it that! It’s city-state politics plus dueling plus boys kissing; what’s not to love?

Or if you’d rather read about court politics without all the shivving, I recommend Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)’s The Goblin Emperor, which I reviewed more fully here. In which no problems are so intractable that they can’t be solved by being nice to other people.

(Of course, none of this stuff is on TV, and I suspect that makes a difference — for most people, it’s just a lot less time-consuming to watch a TV show than to read a book, and that goes for me, too. Unfortunately I don’t have any good suggestions to remedy that, except to say that I do a lot of reading via audiobooks on my long commute).

I’m not saying don’t read/watch GoT. By all means, if it is a thing you love, love it with all your nerdy heart.

But if the violence and misery is making you queasy, there are so, so many other fantasy works that aren’t all unicorns and straight white men.