GAME OF THRONES is a gateway drug
July 10, 2012 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Requesting intelligent, well-written "realistic" epic fantasy book suggestions. Having George R.R. Martin withdrawals. Need more severed heads & engaging dialogue and relatable bleakness, less "you're the one," stilted conversations and Randomly capitalized Words.

Yeah, so, I'm a little bit of a geeky girl. Never played D&D but spent time on BBSes in the 90s and went to one (only one!) SCA festival. Been resisting the pull of epic fantasy novels for a long time, partly because I find it hard to take this swords & wizards & cloaks & (as mentioned) randomly capitalized words seriously (I'm looking at you, Robert Jordan). I'm a writer and have an MFA and stuff and used to be much more snobby. But "literary" books bore me to tears these days. Found myself swept up in the Game of Thrones TV series; subsequently tore through the books in a 2-week haze. Now aching for another epic fantasy series, but not sure where to turn.

Yes, I read the previous questions & recommendations on this topic, but nothing sounds quite right. Yes, I'd like something long & meaty (that's what she said), but I also really care how well it's written. Can you listen to my special snowflake requirements and recommend me some books?

What I liked about A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE:
-epic scale, a story unfolding over a long time period
-how magic caused more problems than it solved. how there are freaking dragons in the world but everyone thinks they're bullshit.
-the dialogue. so well done. snappy & realistic & funny & real.
-dream/prophecy sequences that I actually cared to read & pored over because they felt so IMPORTANT
-bleakness, severed heads, suffering
-cover art without boobs exploding out of corsets
-amazingly complex plot that rewards the persistent reader

What I didn't like:
-too many characters
-felt like GRRM's editors had given up--needed LOTS of trimming/tightening
-I worry it will never be finished

What I'm NOT interested in:
Samuel Delaney (felt like homework to read)
YA, Harry Potter, Eragorn, Hunger Games, etc. (love it, but not what I'm looking for)
Anything too old (like published before 1980 or so. Sorry, I suck. I know. Just want something more current)
Tolkien (see above)
Robert Jordan (picked of EYE OF THE WORLD a couple days ago & am so dismayed by it--the forced dialogue, the "you're the one to fulfill the prophecy" right at the get-go. it feels too artificial.)

Okay people. Hit me.
posted by apostrophe to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
How about The Mists of Avalon? It's Marion Zimmer Bradley's take on the Arthurian legends from the perspective of women. Very well written, engaging story, some magic but it's not overkill.
posted by Specklet at 9:47 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really love The Name of the Wind. Actually, I loved the second book, The Wise Man's Fear even more.. But you gotta go in order. I'm really looking forward to the third book!

It's super epic. There's tons of bleakness, though more suffering than beheadings. Not nearly as many characters, so it's not as hard to keep track of. And I didn't get even a single hint of a "YOU FULFILL PROPHESY!!" feeling from it (though, it's easy to understand why, when you see how it's set up).
posted by meese at 9:47 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Check out SM Stirling's Emberverse series'.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:54 PM on July 10, 2012

I'm right now on the last (the 10th!) book of Steven Erickson's Malazan Books of the Fallen series, and I think it hits all of your requirements. You might not be wild about the number of characters and races that pop up over time, but in terms of epicness, strength of character, and bleakness (holy cow, the bleakness!) it has stood me very well in my own Song of Ice and Fire withdrawals.

(Now my only problem is what to read after I finish THIS series!)
posted by DingoMutt at 9:54 PM on July 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Joe Abercrombie does the grimdark realism pretty well. I've only read his First Law trilogy, but it was well-crafted and surprising throughout. (And the trade paperbacks are just fucking lovely. I'm a sucker for a nice trade.)

The series was, ultimately, *too* dark for me, but I don't regret reading it. And it's short in comparison - three very reasonably-sized books.

If you want long-form epic, The Malazan Book of the Fallen is massive, complete, and intricate. The second and third books are among the finest works of fantasy I've read. Warning: increasingly rapey, to the point where I hesitate to recommend it.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:56 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think what you're looking for is the Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham.

It was written by a guy who teaches writing, made his bones doing historical fiction before switching to fantasy, and pretty much hits all the points your talking about. Plus, it's done and over. You can read the whole thing now.
posted by bswinburn at 9:57 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anything by Robin Hobb - I especially liked The Farseer Trilogy. I haven't read any of The Rain Wild Chronicles, although they (like The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man series) are part of the same world as The Farseer Trilogy.

The Children of the Changeling series by Greg Keys starts with The Waterborn and you will know if you want to keep going by your response to that (I certainly did).

Crossroads series by Kate Elliott.
posted by batmonkey at 9:57 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Andrzej Sapkowski's work is hard to find translated into English, but it's well worth the effort. I suggest starting with The Witcher, a collection of his short stories all revolving around his central character.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:59 PM on July 10, 2012

Game of Thrones without the hopeless masochism - The Instrumentalities of the Night Series:
Welcome to the world of the Instrumentalities of the Night, where imps, demons, and dark gods rule in the spaces surrounding upstart humanity. At the edges of the world stand walls of ice which push slowly forward to reclaim the land for the night. And at the world's center, in the Holy Land where two great religions were born, are the Wells of Ihrain, the source of the greatest magics. Over the last century the Patriarchs of the West have demanded crusades to claim the Wells from the Pramans, the followers of the Written. Now an uneasy truce extends between the Pramans and the West, waiting for a spark to start the conflict anew.

Then, on a mission in the Holy Land, the young Praman warrior Else is attacked by a creature of the Dark-in effect, a minor god. Too ignorant to know that he can never prevail over such a thing, he fights it and wins, and in so doing, sets the terrors of the night against him.
Book 1, The Tyranny of the Night. Also what's interesting is that while GOT is basically a fig leaf covering up medieval english politics, the night series is basically a fig leaf covering up medieval Papal state politics.

Also, if you can relax you pre-80's embargo a little (you heathen), read the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. Its basically a hardboiled detective in a fantasy setting.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:08 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The magicians by Grossman.
posted by bq at 10:15 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Mark Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Time travel, steampunkery, vicious squalid London. Purple prose!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:21 PM on July 10, 2012

Chekhovian recommends Glenn Cook's The Instrumentalities of the Night. I'll add the novels of The Black Company, by the same author but in a different world. It's about a company of mercenaries and is kind of like Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now but know...wizards and junk. You can get the first trilogy in a collected edition.

Brian Ruckley's Godless World trilogy is pretty good, too.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:22 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Malazan is the next closest epic fantasy to Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire. It's a complete 10-book epic that starts with Gardens of the Moon. You can jump on that book now or wait until September, when Forge of Darkness comes out, as it's the start of a new trilogy set in that world and is specifically designed to act as a jumping-on point. (I'm really enjoying it so far. It's like a period novel where occasionally weird medieval/Renaissance-era shit happens.)

The Name of the Wind
is what I'd try next. It's more of an adventure novel but damn is it cleverly written. The more you read it, the more you realize there's a massive amount of detail hidden plainly in the text. The third and final book is currently being written.

You don't list having read it, so I would also suggest Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. The main story is 10 collected trade volumes and while the aesthetic is different, you'll find a lot in it that resonates with what you're looking for.

I love Lev Grossman but I wouldn't suggest The Magicians based on your listed preferences. It's basically a smart-ass Harry Potter. (It's good! Just doesn't appear to be what you're into right now.)
posted by greenland at 10:22 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh! Also Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It's not a series, but it's definitely an epic tale.
posted by greenland at 10:43 PM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

Gideon's Wall is weird, dark, dreamy, mysterious and epic. Definitely not your average fantasy. I have trouble thinking of a book with a similar vibe in the genre.
posted by Pantalaimon at 10:47 PM on July 10, 2012

The sequel to The Magicians makes it all much epic-er and way beyond a snarky answer to Harry Potter. Great books.

I'd also recommend the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Leguin.
posted by gentian at 10:56 PM on July 10, 2012

Nthing Malazan Book of Fallen, Robin Hobb (Liveship traders is the best; Assassin's trilogy and sequel takes longer time; avoid the rest, ye gods), Abercrombie, David Anthony Durham, and FIRST (and only first!) Black Company Trilogy (I finished the second trilogy last year and it just sucked in comparison).

Adding Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (one book, but great writing, characters, and long time frame). Perhaps the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey. I've not read it but the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham takes place over a long period of time and has a reputation for not insulting your intelligence.

Un-nthing Strange Affair of SpringHeeled Jack and Jonathon Strange - they are nothing like GRRM.
posted by smoke at 11:01 PM on July 10, 2012

Try Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's a complex heroic fantasy made even more interesting because both sides of the core conflict are sympathetic, so you find yourself rooting for both sides. And it's just a single volume instead of a 95 volume series, so there is a resolution in sight.
posted by monotreme at 11:05 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Just goes to show everyone has an opinion: I'm n'thing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (probably the best-written fantasy I've read outside of Tolkein...possibly more so. Tolkein wins for linguistics and sheer scale of unique world building, but Clarke tickles my literature bone more with quality of prose and subtleness of story; I love them both) and I loved Hobb's Assassin's & Tawny Man's trilogies while feeling meh about her Liveship Traders trilogy (haven't read any other works). Also n'thing Mists of Avalon by Le Guin.
posted by smirkette at 11:11 PM on July 10, 2012

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. The book is full of eccentric characters (with equally eccentric names) inhabiting a bleak labyrinthine castle. The story follows the royal Groan family after the birth of their son Titus, while a cunning kitchen boy, Steerpike*, tries to better his lot in life.

There is also a BBC miniseries (Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee are in it!).
posted by littlesq at 11:15 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Magician by Raymond E Feist was a massive blockbuster hit in the early 90s. Very popular so obviously not hip, but I liked it a lot back then.
posted by wilful at 11:16 PM on July 10, 2012

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman. I've re-read it so many times and it's still so good! science fiction meets fantasy in a very believable way and then runs smack dab into religion. Amazing world building and characters.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

This post may help... it's practically a reading list.

I've heard very good things about Saladin Ahmed.
posted by Artw at 12:19 AM on July 11, 2012

PLEASE do yourself a favor and read NK Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy, starting with Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It's of course different from Martin in many ways, but it has the scale, it has really good characters, it avoids a lot of fantasy trope traps, etc. In some ways less grim and bleak, in other ways more. Really good stuff.
posted by kavasa at 1:29 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

R. Scott Bakker's novels — starting with The Darkness that Comes Before — have epic scale and magic that doesn't just solve everything and complex plot, as well as piles and piles of bleakness.

(It upends a lot of fantasy tropes, too — you've got your barbarian warrior, your wizard, your monk with fancier martial skills and subtler understanding than most, your long-lived humanlike-but-not-human species with more advanced magic, your ancient sleeping evil... but all of these are developed in extremely unusual yet entirely believable ways. I can't tell you how refreshing I found it. And yet, yeah, it's hella bleak.)

There are quite a few characters, but (in the first trilogy) only four viewpoint characters, I think, and they're consistent through the trilogy, if memory serves. In that sense it's nowhere near as sprawling as Martin's series. (Nevertheless, to me Bakker's world felt a lot bigger, and a lot richer, than Martin's.)

There's no boobs in corsets on the covers. On the other hand, almost all the main characters are male, and the main female viewpoint character is a prostitute (at the start of the trilogy).
posted by stebulus at 3:24 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Here is one question that may be unfair but I'll ask it anyway. For those writers who don't know your work very well, which of your contemporaries do you think match your style closest?
I don't know anybody who writes quite like me. There are other writers that readers would like if they like my work. Jack Vance... I used to strive to write like Jack but I don't think I succeeded. Tad Williams' fantasy series, that was very influential. It was good work. When I read his books, it was one of the things that got me to think of doing one of my own." [A conversation with George R. R. Martin]

"Tad's fantasy series, The Dragonbone Chair and the rest of his famous four-book trilogy was one of the things that inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy. I read Tad and was impressed by him, but the imitators that followed -- well, fantasy got a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, 'My god, they can do something with this form,' and it's Tad doing it. It's one of my favorite fantasy series." [So Spake Martin]

You should read Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It hits all of your criteria: epic, magic is a presence but almost never occurs and is never used as a deus ex, sharp writing (and no Jordanesque cringeworthy prose), important but cryptic prophecy (this one in spades), bleak as hell but not needlessly brutal, restrained cover art, carefully interwoven plot, a stronger focus on a few primary characters, and the series is finished so you can read the whole thing at once. As a bonus, it deliberately plays on all the tropes of epic fantasy - doing its best to undermine them at every turn - and yet it still captures the sense of wonder that you see in good fantasy.
posted by Paragon at 3:45 AM on July 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

Although it is technically SF, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun ticks a lot of your boxes for epic scale, good writing and dialogue, grimness, and complex plotting/prophecy. It's not really giving anything away to say that the lead character has a destiny and the story is shaped around that. Treatment of women in the story is not great, but there are strong female characters.
posted by crocomancer at 3:59 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might like the Bas-Lag trilogy by China Mieville. It tends to be characterized as steam-punk, but I think it has a lot of the characteristics of an epic fantasy that you're looking for.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 5:39 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start with Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson.

A fair amount of pretty miserable characters, the protagonist is a misanthrope. If you can get past the early rape scene (which comes back to haunt him a couple books later), you're set for the other 5 books.
posted by plinth at 5:51 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might also like the Runelords series by David Farland. A little cliched, but some interesting ideas.
posted by plinth at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2012

You might like the Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. There's a second one out but I haven't read it. (I was surprised it hadn't already been suggested in this thread, it seems popular here!)

It was a little dark for me and heavy on the depressing realism (I read fantasy to escape and have the good guys win), but very well-written and engaging so that I was swept up and done with it before I realized it, even though three chapters in I was like, "Hm, this is dark, I may not finish ..." and then suddenly I was done.

(FWIW, I thought "The Name of the Wind" was the Mary Sue-est of all Mary Sue characters I'd ever read and a few chapters in I was already like OH LOOK THE SPECIAL CHILD IS THE SPECIALEST CHILD EVER AGAIN! and in book two it was like OH NOW THE SPECIAL CHILD WILL MAKE A TERRIBLE LIFE CHOICE THAT MAKES ZERO SENSE EXCEPT THAT IT THE ONLY WAY THIS PLOT MOVES FORWARD IS BY HIM BEING UNABLE TO MAKE ANY PROGRESS IN LIFE BECAUSE OF REPEATED RIDICULOUSLY BAD LIFE DECISIONS. It's also one of those stories where you're like, Why is there not a single adult around these adolescents who can solve these easy and common problems of these adolescents, rather than allowing this minor problem to turn into the child being once more thrown out of his entire life as a punishment for some minor misunderstanding? And yet the story is set up so that, particularly at the university, Kvothe is surrounded by adults who are supposed to be working with adolescents and admire his talent! But the plot can't move forward unless everyone constantly shits on Kvothe for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. There's just no logic to any of it! I want to know about the underlying mystery he's trying to solve, but the part where you have to read about Kvothe is so. intensely. painful. that I don't know that I'll bother to finish the series.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:00 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

I asked a similarish question a while back, and I'm noticing a lot of overlap in the answers here and there. I'm still very slowly working my way through the suggestions I got there (probably time to go back and mark some more "best answers"...), but the book that I just started is Williams' The Dragonbone Chair. Based on the first couple of chapters, I'd agree with the quote above:

Tad Williams' fantasy series, that was very influential. It was good work.

and suggest you put it on your list.

Also, have you read The Mists of Avalon? It should also scratch some of the itch you are looking for.
posted by Forktine at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2012

Disrecommending the Malazan series, as that's hard going even for the uber experienced epic fantasy reader and especially because you said that Delany was a bit too much like homework and you didn't want too many characters.

Stephen Donaldson also comes disrecommended, if only because the hero commits rape not long in the first book.

Farland and Bakker are nowhere near Martin level as writers, so be wary about them.

Glen Cook on the other hand is recommended fully, as he's the guy who was doing what Martin and Erickson are doing now, thirty years ago.

Also recommended: Rchiard Morgan's The Steel Remains, gritty fantasy starring a literally gay blade, as well as any of Mary Gentle's fantasies. Grunts is dark comedy "pass me another elf, this one has split") about a company of Orcs who get marine training, ASH: A Secret History is a historical fantasy set in a slightly different Europe from ours, as is Rats and Gargoyles.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:09 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you'd enjoy Janny Wurts's Wars of Light and Shadow series.
posted by General Malaise at 6:18 AM on July 11, 2012

I have to recommend Jacqueline Carey. She has three trilogies set in the same world, the first of which starts with the book Kushiel's Dart. It's epic, complex, and fascinating.
posted by epj at 6:52 AM on July 11, 2012

The entire Riftwar cycle by Raymond Feist is a loooong series of multiple sagas, with a few constant characters (and lots of intermediate ones).

As *wilful* said above, start with Magician and you will have nearly 15 books of magic+human endeavor to come to the Chaos War Saga (the last trilogy).

Some of the books have pages where characters discuss the nature of evil and of Gods - I found it interesting, but you can skip them the first time.
posted by theobserver at 7:42 AM on July 11, 2012

Consider Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy (plus an extra).

The setting of the trilogy is a bit bleak, but not nearly as gritty as Martin. Sanderson is great at writing action sequences, and despite a female heroine, the cover art is all appropriate. The tame romantic side plot, and the lack of any grit almost makes it feel like well written epic YA.

It's a finished trilogy, but the author's added an extra book in the same world in the future.

I also like the first book in the Stormlight Archive, The Way of Kings, also by Sanderson. However, compared to Martin, it also feels like epic (more epic than Mistborn, with many more books on the way (but well on the way, and likely 2+ years between each one, as the author has a lot on his plate)) YA. I guess Sanderson fits the American ideal of violence is ok, but don't talk about es ee ex.

On a side note, Sanderson took over the last three books of the Wheel of Time series. Jordan's writing was crap despite good storytelling. In my opinion Sanderson's two books are far the best of the series, despite him using Jordan's style as much as possible.

The prose of Kushiel's Dart rubs me the wrong way; I've tried reading it a number of times, and just can't.
posted by nobeagle at 8:20 AM on July 11, 2012

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. The book is full of eccentric characters (with equally eccentric names) inhabiting a bleak labyrinthine castle. The story follows the royal Groan family after the birth of their son Titus, while a cunning kitchen boy, Steerpike*, tries to better his lot in life.

I'd speak against Gormenghast based on the criteria of the question. It is a very interesting book, but its scale is limited due to the importance of the castle, the dialogue is not snappy or realistic, the last book was written in 1959 and the plot (not the setting) isn't complex.
posted by ersatz at 8:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you like nuclear weapons?

The Merchant Princes series is a world hopping sort-of Fantasy series by Charles Stross you might like.
posted by Artw at 8:39 AM on July 11, 2012

I think crocomancer is right and you should try The Book of the New Sun. It's teeechnically SF, but for me it read more like fantasy. Gene Wolfe is a writer of variable quality, but BNS is great.

Other nths: Chronicles of Amber, and Tigana. Tigana for sure.

They are not really grim, but in all other ways I think you might like Tanya Huff's Wizard of the Grove and Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion. I found them well-written, complex without being unnecessarily twisty, and not so doom/gloom/heads chopped off as GRRM. (For me that's a good thing.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:40 AM on July 11, 2012

Another vote for the Joe Abercrombie books, not your normal fantasy novels...twists and turns and action and you can't trust any of the characters.

Also, i've had fun lately with The Iron Druid Chronicles, its modern, its magic, swords, guns, and the most hilarious talking wolfhound ever. It isn't EPIC, but there are 4 books and a 5th in the works and they are great, gritty, witty fun.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:47 AM on July 11, 2012

oh, and "Robert Jordan (picked of EYE OF THE WORLD a couple days ago & am so dismayed by it--the forced dialogue, the "you're the one to fulfill the prophecy" right at the get-go. it feels too artificial.)"

Amen. can't believe I wasted a couple of audible credits on the first 2 books.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:48 AM on July 11, 2012

Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion is one of the best epic fantasy books that I have ever read, and the others in that same universe (Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt) are also excellent.

I would also second Kate Elliot (Crown of Stars series - epic and FINISHED) and Robin Hobb - though I much prefer the Farseer and Tawney Man trilogies to the Liveships, so tastes differ.

Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana is also excellent.
posted by jb at 10:06 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came to suggest Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars, see I am beaten.

Seconding N.K. Jemisen.

The introductory volume of Feist's Magician is a staggeringly poorly written ripoff of Lord of the Rings. I guarantee you will Hate it, with a capital H.
posted by trunk muffins at 10:44 AM on July 11, 2012

Lots of very good recommendations here. The good news is that with the success of Martin and some other young writers there is more 'adult' fantasy being written today than in the past. By 'adult,' I mean it has some amount of sex, violence, and darkness that takes it out of the realm of YA lit, where most of the fantasy of the 80's & 90s could cross over with (think Raymond Feist). There is also an even deeper tradition of fantasy that is written as literature, meaning it has a more challenging structure or writing (think Kay and Wolfe). Personally I like more breezily written, but possibly dark, fantasy so Kay and Wolfe are not my favorites but I respect many others that would disagree with me wholeheartedly.

I have read many of the recommendations on this page (and have happily written down some of the others) and so here is my 2 cents. These are more-or-less in descending order to my enjoyment of the books. (I have not yet read In the Name of the Wind because I am waiting for the trilogy to be completed first, but I have heard wonderful things.)

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn - Easily the most fun I have had reading fantasy in the last 5 years. A real page turner and appropriately epic and at times somewhat dark. But, as said above, absolutely avoids sex as a topic.

R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothingness - The closest to matching Martin in sex, violence, and darkness (exceeds it on the last count). This is a little less accessible than some of the others in this list, as it took me half of the first book before I was hooked. Epic in scope with fewer characters than Martin uses, this one had the biggest impact on me long-term.

Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora - Another page-turner set in a fantasy world. Think Ocean's Eleven in a fantasy world. Less epic, more fun than many of the others.

Joe Abercrombie - Epic and dark. The closest to matching Martin in scope and in violence.

Brent Week's Night Angel trilogy - One of the better in the fantasy genre that follows a central character from childhood to world-domination/world-saving.

Robin Hobb - I find the Assassin's apprentice and other trilogies to be a tad too fantasy-formulaic for my tastes and too close to the almost-YA fantasy that dominated the genre in the 80s and 90s. But I really loved her Liveship Traders trilogy. Far more unconventional and a real page-turner.

Carey's Kushiel's Dart - There is a whole literature of Romance novels, some with lots of sex, in fantasy settings that are marketed mostly to women. This set of novels seems to try and bridge that genre and the more traditional male-oriented fantasy genres. The first few books were merely OK and then it went down-hill. Unfortunately Carey is a less-gifted writer than Jordan.
posted by Tallguy at 11:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disrecommending Name of the Wind and NK Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Both had a lot of "You Are The Special Chosen One," and Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was less intricate and more into the realm of vague and mysterious for the sake of vague and mysterious.

Nthing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and the Kushiel's Dart series. Phedre in the latter is specially chosen for one thing, but numerous other characters in the books are also specially chosen for various things, so it's more like a medley of special folk.

Also, you may enjoy GRRM's other work set in the Song of Ice And Fire universe. (Ie Hedge Knight, etc) I hear it's less POV-switchy, and also contains information useful for ASOIAF, while still being self-contained.

Guy Gavriel Kay is perfect, but most of his books are stand-alones. Which may or may not be what you want.
posted by corb at 11:56 AM on July 11, 2012

Many recs already for Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana," but also check out "The Lions of Al-Rassan," "Last Light of the Sun," and the two book series "The Sarantine Mosaic." ("Sailing to Sarantium" and "Lord of Emperors.")

Kay's general method is to take an actual historical time and place (even historical figures in some instances), change all the names, add twists of magic sometimes, and go from there. "Tigana" is feudal Italy. "Al-Rassan" is Moorish Spain. "Sarantium" is Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire. Etc. Sometimes there are even hints of links between the settings - I think it's possible to read many of his books as happening in the same world in different places.
posted by dnash at 12:05 PM on July 11, 2012

You might enjoy Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, although it’s more historical fiction with fantastic elements than straight-up fantasy (and is probably filed under science fiction). It’s a sprawling, 3,000+ page epic set in the 17th century that focuses on the interwoven stories of three main protagonists, and veers between political intrigue and picaresque adventure with digressions into natural history and economics.

It’s not quite as bleak as Martin, and there are a few stylistic excesses (e.g., repeated use of the word “phant’sy”), but it hits your requirements for a plot that spans decades, goes around the world, and still comes to a satisfying conclusion.
posted by nicepersonality at 1:30 PM on July 11, 2012

Embassytown and Railsea by China Mieville are absolutely terrific--I enjoy nonrealistic fiction but have no patience for indifferent writing or formulaic plotting. Both are more futuristic/postapocalyptic than fantasy, but of course, that is also a kind of fantasy.
posted by elizeh at 3:58 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely seconding Guy Gavriel Kay, Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan, probably also Bakker and Lynch. Disrecommending the Malazan books, Rothfuss and N.K Jemisin, because although I like them, I don't think they fit your criteria. Disrecommending Hobbs, Wurts, Williams 'cos I think they're poor. (I used to think otherwise, but have done some re-reading recently and revised my opinion). Oh, and BTW, if "literary" books bore you to tears, don't go near Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Gormenghast, they will bore you to fucking tears.
To add some originality, let me recommend the Bel Dame Apocrypha.
posted by Jakey at 5:54 PM on July 11, 2012

Lately I've been coming into every fantasy book question and recommending The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham. The magic system is a distinct problem for the characters, the series follows the characters over decades of their lives and you get to see this Asian-style culture go through dire changes. And this series has replaced ASOIAF as my favorite. You might find the constant references to the body language poses a deterrent at first, but I eventually learned to accept that they say as much as the spoken dialogue.

I also think the Mistborn series is a good fit for most of your list. The system of magic is engaging, but what hooked me was the heist story in the first book and the characters. There is some of the "hey, did you hear this person is special?" going on, though.

And The Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana seem up your alley, too.
posted by dragonplayer at 6:28 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Everyone: thank you so much! Am slowly researching each of these suggestions. Good call with Mists of Avalon & the Kushiel series--I read both of those many years ago & liked them quite a bit. Am now wavering between Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erickson. Am slightly intimidated by Malazan--maybe I will do that next. I'll bookmark this question & come back to it often as I work my way through my reading list. Thanks again!
posted by apostrophe at 7:05 PM on July 11, 2012

Response by poster: ...and I've got Tigana, Williams' Dragonbone Chair, and Bakker's Darkness That Comes Before in the definitely must read pile as well.
posted by apostrophe at 7:32 PM on July 11, 2012

I'm going to n-th Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear.

There's an ongoing deconstruction of the series over on that's been in progress for over a year. There's a lot of depth there to analyze.
posted by mikurski at 7:57 PM on July 11, 2012

nthing Abercrombie, The Book of the New Sun and The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Also, a bit less fantasy but maybe take a look at Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:10 PM on July 13, 2012

Definitely Tad Williams. His fantasy stuff is great. I didn't care for his sic-fi series. At all. It was quite surprising.
posted by reddot at 1:46 PM on July 14, 2012

I've read 90% of the stuff recommned in this thread and I think Ruckley's Godless World as being closest in terms of tone to ASOFAI.

I love Malazan, but if you have a problem with big casts, MBotF is hopeless.
posted by NotPayingAttention at 9:18 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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