I must confess I am utterly addicted to the TV series Game of Thrones, even though I didn’t read George R. R. Martin’s books. Fantasy was never my favorite genre, although I did enjoy Lord of the Rings. But the hordes of Tolkien imitators with tales of dragons and quests was not for me. Without reading him I placed Martin in that category. How wrong could I be? Game of Thrones has dragons and the quest for a throne of course, but there the similarity ends. In traditional fantasy good triumphs over evil in the end. But in Game of Thrones the good are often beheaded, the most evil characters triumph, and there is a chaotic sprawl to events. In fact Game of Thrones is more like - well, actual history. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that George R. R. Martin wasn’t inspired by fantasy novels, but by The Accursed Kings, a French historical fiction series by Maurice Druon. In seven volumes Druon tells the blood-curdling tale of the Capet kings of France during the Hundred Years War. To borrow a phrase from a children’s series, it’s what you might call the Horrible Histories for adults genre. Battles, betrayals, lust, stranglings, poisonings, and curses. The Capets and Plantagenets rival the Starks and Lannisters for misdeeds on a grand scale. The first volume in the series is called The Iron King, obviously an inspiration for the Iron Throne. (The Accursed Kings series is not owned by MCPL but is available through Interlibrary Loan).
So my enjoyment of Game of Thrones is clearly linked to my love of history and I would advise anyone looking for a list of “if you liked George R. R. Martin” books to consider turning to history instead of fantasy. Here are a few of my recent reads in Horrible History:
- The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. A marvelously readable historical epic intended to bring the Plantagenets out from the shadow of the Tudors. I had not realized till reading this how rare it was for the English throne to pass smoothly from one generation to the next. In Plantagenet times it was more likely to be contested by rival claimants and determined by battle, intrigue, even murder.
- The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J. Meyer. This new account of one of the most notorious families in history reveals the real people behind the legend. Were they as bad as we have been led to believe? The Borgias are also the subject of a recent TV series starring Jeremy Irons and the book Blood and Beauty by popular historical novelist Sarah Dunant.
- The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story by Bob Brier. Brier, a paleopathologist, performs high-tech autopsies on ancient corpses. Studying X-rays of King Tut’s mummy he determines that the boy king died of a blow to the head. Then he follows a trail of evidence in wall paintings and hieroglyphics to reveal intrigue in the Egyptian court and the probable identity of the murderer.
- How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. History’s horrors don’t always take place on a grand stage, but in the intimate lives of seemingly ordinary people. The villain of this story is Thomas Day, an 18th century English gentleman who decided to create the perfect wife, docile and subservient to his every whim, by adopting two orphan girls from the Foundling Hospital and training them for the role. Whichever grew up to best fulfill his requirements would win the dubious prize of his hand in marriage. This amazing story, truly history proving stranger than fiction, reveals the dark side of Enlightenment ideas taken to extremes.
- The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. No Horrible History list would be complete without the Tudors, the endlessly fascinating dynasty that we can’t seem to stop reading and writing about. Most historians now consider Anne to have been innocent and framed by Thomas Cromwell (see Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning novels). Bordo re-examines the evidence and shows how the image of Anne has changed through the centuries since her death, reflecting changing religious beliefs and attitudes to women. I was surprised to learn that Anne is a feminist heroine to young women and even has her own Facebook fan page!
For more historical fiction check out this list of 50 Essential Historical Novels. Or if you really insist on fantasy dragons and magical swords Good Reads has an extensive collection of fantasy book lists. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to keep all the characters and plot twists on Game of Thrones straight with this handy Viewer’s Guide.