Fiction that's like Game of Thrones
May 3, 2012 10:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for something like game of thrones, but real. Epic, sweeping historical fiction with complex stories, political intrigue, backstabbing, and moral ambiguity.

I started watching Game of Thrones a few weeks ago. Since then, I've started the novel, and gotten really into the world's history, locations, and characters, to the point where I've been reading up on the backstory online to learn about the things that are glossed over in the show/books. The other day, though, I wondered: why not get into something where I can put the same energy into learning about actual, historical characters and events, instead of obsessing over a fantasy world?

I'm trying to find something that's similar to Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but based off of real history. For those of you haven't read the books, they're a series of sprawling fantasy novels that are [very] loosely based off England's War of the Roses. The series follows the kingdom of Westeros as a series of squabbles between two powerful ruling families escalates into an all-out war of succession, with at least five major factions vying for power.

Here's what I'm looking for:

A historical setting, preferably set in antiquity to the 1700s (bonus points for Medieval Europe)
A plot that deals with people fighting for a throne, or at least for political power
Focuses on political intrigue and backstabbing, with a lot of shifting and vague alliances
Lots of period detail
multi-faceted characters, each with surprisingly intricate pasts, inspirations, and ambitions
A skeptical to cynical outlook about medieval kings, power structures, social mores, etc.
An emphasis on powerful families (great houses or something similar,) their allegiances,
Based (at least loosely) on history, with real characters and events
A large cast of characters and information about their lineages, histories, family rivalries, etc.
If possible, multiple protagonists and points of view, preferable from both sides of the battle
Flawed yet likeable characters that are forced to make morally ambiguous decisions while wrestling with their baser instincts
Some action and adventure (exploration, warfare, ambushes, etc.)
Shows the [sometimes detrimental] effects that the decisions of the ruling class have on common people
Shows what it's like to live as a woman in a patriarichal society
isn't afraid of sex
Relatively fast-paced, with plenty of different "stuff" going on
Isn't primarily about soldiers, generals or warfare (some of this is great, I just don't want battle strategy and tactics to be the main focus of the book)
Lots of bonus points if it's about the War of the Roses.

I don't expect any one work of fiction to fit all of those descriptions, but if at least a few ring a bell, go ahead and post it. (For instance, Pillars of the Earth would be a good suggestion, even if it doesn't involve kings fighting for power. War and Peace would qualify, even though it's more modern, as would some books about, say, the first world war.) I also don't care what medium it is: books, movies, TV shows, and video games are all good. A narrative format is preferable, but I'd like to hear about non-fiction/documentaries too.
posted by Green Winnebago to Writing & Language (52 answers total) 163 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Now that I think about it, recommendations for fantasy novels that are similar to a game of thrones wouldn't hurt, either.
posted by Green Winnebago at 10:59 PM on May 3, 2012

Best answer: You might try Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I really enjoyed it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:02 PM on May 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Daughter of the Empire, followed by Servant of the Empire and Mistress of the Empire.

I'd say these meet about 90% of your requirements. Feist's other books in the series are also excellent, but less political and more action/adventure.
posted by fearnothing at 11:06 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My first thought before you mentioned it was Pillars of the Earth.

I really, really enjoy most of Guy G. Kay's work. Aside from an early sort of high fantasy trilogy (which is very good despite its wholehearted embrace of every imaginable fantasy cliche), he's mostly written the kind of fantasy that glosses historical situations / cultures in a file-off-the-serial-numbers way. In general, things are nowhere near as grindingly awful as in ASoIaF, but he still tends toward the sweeping and tragic, with multiple viewpoint characters and a lot of cliffhanger action sequence stuff. The Lions of Al-Rassan is probably the most sure-fire place to start.
posted by brennen at 11:08 PM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I, Claudius, both the books and the series are amazing
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:10 PM on May 3, 2012 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Does there exist a modern treatment of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? It doesn't get much epicker, really. And limiting yourself to western Europe really insanely prunes the possibilities for the kinds of lit you're talking about.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is excellent epic fantasy that follows the mold in some ways and breaks it in others. It satisfies a lot of the stuff you're looking for on your list though, for sure.


If you want brutality and horror, any of the New Crobuzon books should go down like a crushed shot glass, and again they do a lot of the things you're looking for.
posted by kavasa at 11:12 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

You sound like someone who wants to read some (non-fiction) Antonia Fraser and for the hot weather this summer some (fiction) Phillipa Gregory. Fraser writes European history that reads like fiction, Gregory is all European historical fiction that reads like bodice rippers. Both fun in their own way!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:13 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh jesus christ Dorothy Dunnett, DOROTHY DUNNETT, DOROTHY DUNNETT!!!!!

You couldn't possibly read better for what you're asking for. I mean, it is - literally - all those things you asked for. If you don't mark this as best answer and then immediately read The Lymond Chronicles. I will kill you, OP. I will goddamn kill you dead and your only regret will be that you didn't read the Lymond Chronicles or The House of Niccolo before you shuffled off this mortal coil.

Sweeping, grand, historically-freakishly-accurate, with buckles to swashed (oh, the swashing!), and flawed, hot protagonists (women want him! Men want to be him! Hetero-sexual-cross-dressing women want him and want to be him!), more twists than a moebius strip, complex plots with derring-do (oooo!), broken relationships (ahhhhh) and lords-a-leaping, etc etc.

Please. Not enough people have read Dorothy Dunnett and the world must know. These are intelligent, fun, gloriously written books that straddle literature and the most grand romance in the old-school sense of the world. People who would love these books read shit instead. Don't become a statistic. You cannot - will not - do better. Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by smoke at 11:33 PM on May 3, 2012 [72 favorites]

Dorothy Dunnett - start with Niccolo Rising. They make every book mentioned so far seem like history lite. They are seriously, seriously good and insane with the sweep of history.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:38 PM on May 3, 2012

Yes, adding my own recommendation for Dorothy Dunnett. Pretty much exactly what you are asking for.
posted by seasparrow at 12:04 AM on May 4, 2012

And also, smoke, great job of advocating for Dunnett! She is all of those things and more. But to be honest, she was so rough on her protagonists-- really puts them through hell-- that I end each book emotionally exhausted. I can only read Dorothy Dunnett about once every five years or so. But then again the OP was for likeable yet cynical people making difficult decisions, and that's certainly what you will get.
posted by seasparrow at 12:09 AM on May 4, 2012

Nthing Dorothy Dunnett. I would recommend starting with the Lymond series, and give it at least a few chapters - the writing becomes slightly less baroque once you're further in. It's exactly what you've asked for.

I never got into the Niccolo books very much, but maybe that's because Lymond stole my heart as a teenager and never gave it back.
posted by tavegyl at 12:40 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've just started Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and am thoroughly enjoying it. It's historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the Tudor court. There's apparently an HBO/BBC adaptation in the works too.
posted by Greener Backyards at 12:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations everyone! Most of these are pretty close to what I'm looking for. Dorothy Dunnett sounds spot-on!
posted by Green Winnebago at 12:46 AM on May 4, 2012

Jacqueline Carey's alternate history (Kushiel's Dart is the first part) has a wealth of detail, sounds like something you might look at.
posted by Wilder at 12:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely not War of the Roses, but it fulfills 14 or so of your 18 points: The Warlord Chronciles by Bernard Cornwell. Turnoffs could include being set in post-Roman England (500ish AD), is written from only one perspective and in the first person, and some consider it a bit cute towards the end in answering whether magic is a real thing or not.
posted by kithrater at 1:06 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Philippa Gregory. I read The Other Boleyn Girl and it does a great job on a lot of your criteria. The movie they made from it oversimplified everything, naturally, but Gregory's actually painstakingly historically accurate (both in terms of the research for little details like clothing, etc. and in terms of the fact that given what we know about the period, everything in the book could in theory have happened).

It's got the historical setting, plot that deals with people fighting for a throne/political power, political intrigue and backstabbing, with a lot of shifting and vague alliances, period detail, multi-faceted characters, an emphasis on powerful families and their allegiances, real characters and events, view of being a women in a patriarchal society. It's also very engrossing and goes quickly, even though it's long. No multiple viewpoints though.
posted by sparrow89 at 1:52 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Allan Massie's series of novels about Roman emperors/political figures. They are like literary crack to me. They tick every box on your list. Highly recommended!

And seconding Wolf Hall, superb.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:28 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

David Liss is fabulous, especially A Conspiracy of Paper, though it is right at the end of the period you are looking at.

I couldn't manage Dorothy Dunnett despite my best attempts; I think I should have taken the advice to skip the first book which I found rough going (I never did recover from the misuse of Horace's Pyrrha ode in one chapter). But there is a huge crossover between people who enjoy Game of Thrones and her work, so you will probably have better luck.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:30 AM on May 4, 2012

Have you tried Sharon Kay Penman's first two trilogies?

Or Alison Weir? Even her non-fiction books read like novels. Same with Antonia Fraser. (both British history, mostly Tudor.)

I tried to read Dunnett, really I did, but never managed to get into it.
posted by jlkr at 4:12 AM on May 4, 2012

I love Dunnett - both series - Lymond and Niccolo are terrific. If you want to go back earlier but equally filled with intrigue and betrayal and lots of swash try Alexandre Dumas' novels. Everyone knows about The Three Musketeers but he wrote a lot more than that. In any case Musketeer is the first of a series followed by Twenty Years After. I'm particularly fond of the series starting with Marguerite de Valois These books are all about real people and events and while they were written more than 100 years ago they're great fun. Bonus for me as a teen reading them in translation was the inclusion of lots of archaic French cursing which spurred my interest in learning French!
posted by leslies at 4:54 AM on May 4, 2012

I came in to recommend Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but someone beat me to it. I'll add that its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, is about to be released as well.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:32 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try the TV series of Simon Schama's History of Britain it sweeps, it's real, it's more brutal and political than Games of Thrones and he brings it to life very well.
posted by merocet at 5:46 AM on May 4, 2012

Some other options to consider:

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

The Heretic Queen and its sequel Nefertiti

The First Man in Rome and the other books in the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough
posted by onhazier at 5:57 AM on May 4, 2012

I like Gordianus the Finder - hard boiled detective fiction, set in ancient Rome, straddling the worlds of the poor-as-dirt plebian masses and the ultra-wealthy patrician elite. He has friends, and enemies, and sometimes both in one, among some of the biggest names in late-Republic Rome.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:03 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Roma Sub Rosa books by Steven Saylor might be up your alley. I read Roman Blood first. That one is a detective story about a real murder case that Cicero argued. The setting is very realistically described. I actually had a moment reading it where I realized I was taking it in as world-building like a fantasy novel, then had to remind myself that this stuff actually happened, it's not a culture the author made up.
posted by davextreme at 7:09 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Third-ing Wolf Hall. One of the best contemporary novels I've read in a looooong time. Added bonus: the second book (of an expected trilogy) is being released next week!
posted by Dorinda at 7:21 AM on May 4, 2012

...and now I realize that Johnny Assay already said exactly what I said, rendering my comment completely superfluous.
posted by Dorinda at 7:27 AM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: For what it's worth, you should realize that George R. R. Martin says that he started this epic because he felt that historical fiction was so seldom (never?) done right. If you read the whole GoT series, you get beyond the thrones and down to the small folk and minor lords and everybody whose lives are swirled around by feudal wars, while most historical epics focus on the people wearing the furs and ending up with the titles...

(Not to dismiss all the recommendations above, but it is a perspective to keep in mind.)
posted by acm at 7:33 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Historical fiction with complex stories, political intrigue, backstabbing, and moral ambiguity? Becket.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: I'm strongly seconding the Baroque Trilogy by Stephenson, but if I had to add my own contribution, I'd actually recommend some non-fiction works: Robert K. Massie's "Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War and its sequel, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.

I was drawn to the sequel before the original, trying to remedy my ignorance of the Naval aspect of WWI. Castles primarily covers the war, but it does so with reference to so many of the people who are brought back to life in the first book, Dreadnought. The first book covers essentially from the reigns of Victoria and Wilhelm I through most of the 19th century, with emphasis on the efforts of modernize the Navy, including the development of HMS Dreadnought, the first real Battleship as we knew them. Castles covers the Naval War, First Sea Lord Churchill's screwups at Gallipoli, Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty, von Hipper and Speer, Bismarck (the man, not the ship), the North Sea battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland, the flight of Graf Von Spee from China, ending with the battles off Coronel and the Fawkland Islands. (Not to be confused with the war in the 1980s.) These books were just amazing.

The first book is probably one of the strongest all-encompassing 19th-century European histories, documenting each nation setting up the dominoes that would get tipped over in 1914. Have the second book on standby when Archduke Ferdinand goes to Bosnia, for sure.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:52 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came in here to recommend Dunnett as well. She is the BE ALL END ALL of historical fiction and grand drama and sweeping intrigue and glorious action and oh for the love of God just read the damn things already. You won't regret it.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:59 AM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: I've read that the fall of the Targaryen family was inspired by the last days of the Capetian kings of France, as related in Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings (Les Rois Maudits). Seven books are barely room enough for all the succession crises, adulteries, intrigues, and assassinations that saw one of the oldest houses in Europe burn through its final four kings in fourteen years.

Unfortunately, you might have some difficulty acquiring the series legally; the English translations went out of print in the 80s, and the later volumes sell particularly dear. But at least the first book, The Iron King, is easy enough to come by.
posted by Iridic at 8:02 AM on May 4, 2012

Two series also to recommend, not quite as sweeping, but very good:

Lindsey Davis is not quite as heavy-hitting, but does a lovely job of life in Vespasian Rome through the eyes of a scrubby informer who winds up married to a Senator's daughter and working for the emperor. They are fairly light and short reads compared to everything mentioned, but there are something like 20+ books in the series (she's still writing them), and they add up to a long look at the era with a lot of travel.

Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael series is excellent for 10th-11th century England, a time of civil war. They're mystery novels again, and each book is complete on its own, but the twenty in the series scope out a detailed look at daily life and very often touch on religious and ethical questions, as they're about a faithful Benedictine monk. I had to ration them out for my husband after introducing him to them, or he would've lost a week to them.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:10 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

try Alexandre Dumas' novels.

Then, if the reader is in the mood for more light fiction in the same vein as the splendid works of monsieur Dumas, he might attempt to escape this world for that depicted in the excellent series of books written by mister Stephen Karl Zoltán Brust, to wit the Khaavren Romances, in which many a swash is buckled.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:11 AM on May 4, 2012

nthing Sharon Kay Penman here, her first book, The Sunne in Splendour, pretty much fits all of your bonus points.
posted by supermedusa at 9:09 AM on May 4, 2012

Thomas B Costain: The Conquering Family (1949), The Magnificent Century (1951), The Three Edwards (1958), The Last Plantagenets (1962)
posted by hworth at 10:08 AM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: I highly recommend The Tudors. Yes, it's about King Henry VIII, but it's rife with all kinds of political intrigue and power plays. It's also *very* historically accurate; I thought I knew a lot about that era going in to the series, but I learned quite a bit more as it went on. It's got just about everything on your list... enjoy!!
posted by chatelaine at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2012

Have you read the Viking Sagas? There are six Icelandic Sagas (The People of Laxardal, Egil's Saga, The Saga of Ref the Sly, The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, The Saga of the Greenlanders, and Erik the Red's Saga) that cover one large interconnected family over 9 generations. Those and other Sagas have a lot of what you are looking for; the Vikings settle Iceland, feud with the kings of Scandinavia and each other, raid western Europe, and explore the New World. There are strong women, moral ambiguity, plenty of fighting, and even some sort-of-kinda magic. And they're (mostly) true.
posted by chrisulonic at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2012

Response by poster: This is a great list so far, I'm amazed at how many books there are just what I was looking for. acm had a good point, though: all of these seem to be focused on the ruling class, and one thing that was great about A Song of Ice and Fire is that it also looked at how the wars affected minor lords and common people. Is there anything that looks at how these things affect your average medieval schub?
posted by Green Winnebago at 12:00 PM on May 4, 2012

Okay, then. The perspective of Frans Bengtsson's The Long Ships is a bit lower to the ground, following a hypochondriac Viking chieftain on a survey of Europe circa 1000 A.D. There are kings and viziers and princes in rags, but also minor chiefs, a heroic Jewish artisan, hedge priests, poets, backwoods pagans, and galley slaves. It's more episodic and fight-y than what you're looking for, perhaps, but it's utterly fantastic.
posted by Iridic at 1:14 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl very much, but the books around it (dealing with time after Anne's beheading, maybe one before? I can't recall) by Gregory were, to me, astoundingly bad. If I didn't know it was the same author from the claim on the covers I wouldn't have believed it.
posted by tilde at 1:32 PM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: 20th-ing Dorothy Dunnett, but I just wanted to add that the first (of six) Lymond book, The Game of Kings, is pretty tough going. There are untranslated passages in medieval French etc. on what seems like every page. Just allow yourself to skim over stuff you don't understand, it's not a big deal. She started dialing that stuff way back with the next book.

I like the six Lymond books more than the eight Niccolo books, but that may be largely because I read all fourteen straight through one summer and was getting a bit fatigued by the end.
posted by dfan at 1:32 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am surprised I am the first person to recommend Frank Yerby in this thread. All of his books about medieval Europe have everything you're looking for. If you read only one book by Yerby, make it his The Saracen Blade.

George R. R. Martin's belief that he was filling a niche that wasn't filled by historical fiction seems to me to be either an indication that he didn't actually read much historical fiction or a disingenuous marketing of his work as having a USP it doesn't really have. But it does have dragons, which Frank Yerby doesn't.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:05 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Back to recommend the wonderful Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a lowly physician (and kind of a jerk) who ends up by chance as the vet to Charles II's dogs. Booker Prize shortlisted. Powerful houses and politics, flawed and likeable characters, and absolutely beautifully written. If you're anything like me, you'll cry at the end.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:03 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Enough people have recommended Dunnett already, so I just wanted to note that while Dunnett suggested reading the Lymond Chronicles first, then reading the House of Niccolo series, the Niccolo series does take place before the Lymond Chronicles. Also, I think the Niccolo books are more accessible, if only because they're not as full of literary references and passages in languages other than English. Game of Kings is definitely a bit difficult to get through what with untangling Lymond's dialogue. YMMV, but I found the first Niccolo book, Niccolo Rising, to be a much faster, less opaque read.

Is there anything that looks at how these things affect your average medieval schub?

I think Dunnett's Niccolo series has a fair number of "middle class" and minor nobility characters, and the protagonist Nicholas starts off the series as a dyemaker's apprentice.
posted by yasaman at 3:46 PM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: Is there anything that looks at how these things affect your average medieval schub?

The Baroque Cycle - more Early Modern than Medieval (late 17th century), but it stars vagabonds, watchmakers, slaves, sailors, merchants, soldiers, monks, puritans, and, yeah, a few nobles, too. Lots of fun to read as well.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:46 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh! Oh! Also! Gentlemen of the Road - Jewish mercenaries on the Silk Road. Such a fun book - three of the four main characters are nowhere near nobility. One was the son of a jewish physician in medieval France, another an Ethiopian jew who wound up soldiering for the Byzantines, and the third just plain common, and a little dense, with one of the best names ever in Historical fiction. It's like Conan meets GoT, only set in history rather than fantasy!
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:53 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Tons of great responses so far, and I look forward to reading as many of these books as possible.

I though I should mention, since a couple of people brought it up: I'm not just looking for Western medieval/antiquity settings. Something like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is set in 14th Century Han Dynasty China, was a good suggestion. Modern day or even futuristic stories would work as well, as long as they fit at least a few of the things I was looking for.
posted by Green Winnebago at 6:43 PM on May 4, 2012

You're probably done looking at this by now, since I'm 3 days late, but I wanted to second Guy Gavriel Kay; give your most recent response, I wanted to note that Under Heaven is set in an alternate universe version of the Tang Dynasty in China. There are a lot of politics, international relations, etc. Excellent novel.
posted by ashirys at 1:15 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might like Tales of the Otori.
posted by unliteral at 2:06 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Late recommendation -- Shogun by James Clavel is a really great, meaty read, set in feudal Japan, and fits the vast majority of your criteria. It's also got very Game-of-Thrones-esq multiple viewpoints going on.
posted by sparrow89 at 8:32 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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