Game of Thrones is finally back on Sunday nights, to the great joy of fans of both the books and the television series. And there's no doubt that the success of Thrones will lead HBO and other cable networks to look for more fantasy series that lend themselves well to this particular style of televised storytelling. Books with complex built-in histories, and mythologies filled with engaging characters that will give more of Hollywood's best actors a chance to show their quality (and maybe win a few awards).
Though there are dozens of fantasy series that fit the bill, these are the three I think the powers that be should look into first. Aside from the good qualities listed above, my three picks offer something extra — and keep in mind that though these would all make great TV, reading them is even better.
The world depicted in Ellen Kushner's Riverside books is awash in all the elements you'd want in a costume drama: swordfights, political intrigue, nobles backstabbing and scheming against each other, and attractive people getting it on in secret. More importantly, she's created dozens of intriguing characters across multiple generations, so alive on the page that it would take major talent to do them justice on film.
Kushner is credited with pioneering the Fantasy of Manners sub-genre with Swordspoint; the book is written with all the sensibility of high fantasy but without the hallmark magic (that comes later). It's the story of master swordsman Richard St. Vier, his dissolute lover Alec, and the political and social machinations they must contend with thanks to their city's ruling noble families. At its heart, Swordspoint is about what people do for love and lust and the loss of both.
That theme runs throughout the Riverside novels and stories as years pass and we meet new generations. The Privilege of the Sword centers on Alec's niece, who learns what it means to wield a sword when society expects you to be in a dress. The Fall of the Kings finds Alec's son contending with what happens when that same society forgets its own bloody history.
Most importantly, between the three books and numerous short stories there's enough plot to carry at least five seasons. And since Kushner is in the midst of writing another novel about Alec's pirate daughter Jessica, there will be new adventures to devour during the long wait between season premieres.
If you want a taste of how well these books lend themselves to dramatization, do check out the audiobook editions, which have a radio play quality to them.
Judging by the covers, N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy might seem like a standard epic fantasy. But Jemisin defies almost every convention of the genre, starting with the characters. The heroine of the first book is a mixed race, brown-skinned woman raised in her father's homeland but called back to the world her mother came from. Yeine is a member of the most powerful family in the world, and the conflict between the values her parents instilled in her and the way she's expected to act when thrust into the midst of deadly family politics are only part of what makes the drama so juicy.
That other part? The gods, who are not mythological beings but manifest in the world. The Inheritance books deal with the complex relationships the humans have with their gods, bonds of which slavery is only the beginning. Conspiracies, mysteries, long-buried secrets, and, yes, a few steamy love scenes — perfect for premium cable.
The thing you'll miss out on if you wait for a TV series is Jemisin's engaging voice and commanding prose, the characters so rich that the way you feel about them changes from book to book, and the chance to imagine the ruling Arameri family's stronghold of Sky for yourself.
David Anthony Durham started out as a historical novelist, which is clear in the level of detail he brings to the world of the Acacia trilogy. The bones of epic fantasy are clearer here than they are in Jemisin's work — more sword, more sorcery, more politics — but, just as with the Inheritance books, you won't find European-derived systems or people in abundance here. Acacia is multi-cultural in the truest sense of the word, and the world Durham lays out stretches from the far north to the far south.
At the opening, the four princes and princesses of the Akaran family are wrenched from their idyllic lives by the assassination of their father. Both internal and outside forces conspire against the royal line. Being scattered and separated changes their destinies, but that is only the foundation for what happens next. There are multiple mysteries to solve and uncomfortable truths to uncover. Plus: dragons.
The rich worldbuilding compliments the themes of how imperial power is maintained and what happens when those at the top ignore or exploit the true source of their power. Each of the Akaran siblings take a turn dealing with this, and the choices they make don't always render them likable, but they are always compelling.
K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative short-story writer by night, a technology journalist by day, and an activist blogger in the interstices.