When George R.R. Martin released A Game of Thrones in 1996, he helped to change the game with his grounded approach to fantasy tropes. At the same time, people sometimes talk as though Martin was the first to bring realism to epic fantasy. So here are 10 other authors who were doing “gritty” fantasy before Martin.
To be fair, Martin himself was also writing for a long time before A Game of Thrones came out — but Thrones, in particular, is usually referred to as a game-changer for epic fantasy. So these are works that don’t necesarily predate Martin’s entire ouevre, but do predate the release of the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
1) Stephen Donaldson
When you talk about works that brought a new darkness to fantasy, it’s hard to overlook Lord Foul’s Bane, the 1977 bestseller that launched Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. Donaldson took all of the tropes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and peered at them through an ugly light. And he gave us a protagonist that it’s almost impossible to sympathize with, especially in the first book. Thomas Covenant is a self-loathing writer who’s become a pariah after he’s infected with leprosy — so when he goes to a fantasy world where he’s hailed as the mythical saviour, the first thing he does is to rape someone. And then he carries on being the hero of the series, slowly coming to invest in the reality of this strange fantasy world. Not surprisingly, this series has fallen out of favour somewhat — but it still deserves a place in the history of fantasy that challenged our heroic ideals.
2) Celia Friedman
Friedman’s Black Sun Rising came out just five years before A Game of Thrones, in 1991, and it made a splash at the time. As Adam Whitehead writes in The Wertzone, it’s “unrelentingly grim,” and filled with unlikable characters. Friedman “isn’t afraid to kill off major characters, and paints them in convincing detail.” This series, like the Pern series and a few others, is a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy — the human race has colonised a new planet, Erna, which is full of perils. Over time, humans have fallen back to a roughly Renaissance level of technology, and meanwhile we’ve encountered beings called the Fae, which can pose a huge danger but also can be used by certain powerful humans for their own ends.
3) Robin Hobb
Hobb's novel The Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995, a year before A Game of Thrones (and George R.R. Martin actually blurbed it, as Hobb blurbed the first edition of Thrones.) And this story of Fitz, a young bastard who's looked down on and mistreated by everyone -- but who secretly gets trained in the ancient art of the assassin -- has some obvious parallels to certain aspects of Martin's storytelling. In particular, Hobb's willingness to paint a dark and terrible world where virtue isn't always rewarded, and where horrors -- in this case, the Red Ship Raiders that turn their victims into quasi-zombies -- lurk just on the edges of the world.
4) Glen Cook
Cook's Black Company series of novels began in the mid-1980s, and they're often hailed as important works in the history of military fantasy. But they're also important precursors to the current era of fantasy about real, flawed characters in a complicated and morally grey world. As Martin Lewis writes in Strange Horizons, The Chronicles of the Black Company "is the book that injected a shot of realism into the genre, and helped steer it on the course towards modern so-called 'gritty' fantasy." Instead of following knights or pure heroes, this series follows a company of mercenaries, who are slowly fading away as their members die off and nobody comes along to replace them. Like the crew in Firefly, they take whatever jobs they're offered, including helping a sorceress to put down a rebellion.
5) Michael Moorcock
Elric cover art by Chris Achileos
To be fair, Moorcock doesn't exactly avoid the trappings of high fantasy with his stories of Elric of Melniboné, a red-eyed, white-skinned antihero who goes around murdering people with his soul-eating sword, Stormbringer. It's full-on epic fantasy, with less of the overt political wrangling that you'll see in Martin's work and other gritty fantasy stories of the past 20 years. But long before most of these other authors were around, Moorcock was already challenging Tolkien's manichean vision of a struggle between good and evil. Elric is a total antihero, not to mention a drug addict, whose morals tend to be slippery at best.
6) David Gemmell
Gemmell famously began writing Legend in 1976, when he was misdiagnosed with cancer and needed to take his mind off his supposed illness. And not surprisingly, the result is dark as hell, and is frequently brought up as a precursor to Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Bakker and the other writers of gritty, brutally violent fantasy novels. As Tor.com explains:
The fortress of Dros Delnoch represents the last remnant of a faded empire. A barbarian horde known as the Nadir threatens to overrun it. In desperation, the inhabitants of Dros Delnoch turn to one of the greatest heroes the world has ever known, the figure of Druss. Druss is a he-man sort, comparable to Conan in terms of physical stature and prowess, a man who has carved a name for himself throughout the world through decades of awesome deeds. Only in this tale, Druss is 59 years old. He has a balky knee. Age is creeping up on him. His best years are behind him. But duty calls and Druss has never been one to duck a battle. What follows is one of the bloodiest fantasy novels I've read.
7) Mary Gentle
Gentle's novel Grunts is an epic fantasy story from the point of view of the Orcs who have to go into battle and die by the thousands for a cause that they barely understand. At the time when it was published, in 1992, its darkly comic approach of viewing the story from the point of view of the "villains" was considered revolutionary, and it became famous for a joke about Orcs raping Elves that probably wouldn't be considered funny today. But there's also funny scenes of the Orcs eating their own wounded, and the war crimes trials that ensue. It's hard to get less uplifting, and nastier, than Grunts.
8) Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin's Earthsea books aren't exactly filled with bloodbaths, or horrible human beings who behave in monstrous fashions -- but she still deserves a place on any list of people who brought more realism and political nuance to fantasy. In particular, the fact that she returned to Earthsea for 1990's Tehanu, and started to chip away at the sexism (and species-ism) at the roots of her world, deserve a lot of recognition. To read the first three Earthsea books and then Tehanu is a bit of a mind-altering experience, because Le Guin's view of Earthsea in 1990 is a lot more ambiguous.
9) Karl Edward Wagner
Wagner's Kane series, published in the 1970s and 1980s, is more properly called sword-and-sorcery rather than epic fantasy -- like Elric, it features an anti-hero who's immortal and has somewhat transcended our human ideas of good and bad... and Kane is another hero that it's difficult to identify or sympathize with.
10) Tad Williams
Book cover art by Michael Whelan
The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, begun in 1988, takes place in a magical realm wher the humans have been united at great cost -- but now the King is old, and his sons are falling into feuds and dragging the realm into a civil war.
As Ash Silverlock writes in Fabulous Realms:
George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series has won plaudits from every corner but I have to say that in my view the foundations and first floor of his series were laid by Williams (Martin himself has indicated that he was heavily inspired by Memory, Sorrow and Thorn). Although much of Williams' writing itself owes a debt, inevitably, to J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it is in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, perhaps for the first time, that we truly see an adult take on the genre of epic fantasy. Expectations are turned over, beloved characters suffer (and die, over and over again) and the fantasy world that is presented is every bit as gritty, believable and sometimes unpleasant as our own.
For more on how this series inspired Martin, read here.