Set in the mid-19th century, along the Mississippi river, Fevre Dream is a strange beast. It is deeply embedded in the time period, with a plot that centres around steamboat captain Abner Marsh and his near-obsession with steamships. Moreover, the story unfolds at a time when the big river steamboats were just beginning to wane, so when Marsh is approached by a wealthy benefactor who promises to help him build the proudest flat-bottomed ship ever to sail the riverways, Marsh agrees immediately, naming his ship, the "Fevre Dream."
Over the course of the novel, the Fevre Dream makes its way up and downriver, encountering reports of disappearances and missing persons at every stop. Things only get strange when it is revealed that these disappearances are the work of a coven of vampires. Part of Fevre Dream’s appeal is in its depiction of its vampires, for which Martin has devised his own complex lore, including a plenitude of details on vampire anatomy, behaviour, and social hierarchy. The book’s villain, Damon Julien, is a fascinating take on the old question of what happens when a person simply lives too long. In many ways, Fevre Dream feels like a dark sister book to Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.
All of that aside, the book also contains a lovely piece of self-insertion, and you’d have to be blind not to see some similarities between George R. R. Martin and the old captain, Abner Marsh.
The Armageddon Rag
The Armageddon Rag is a combination of fantasy, mystery, and horror. Originally released in 1983, the book stars sometimes-writer Sandy Blair, who finds himself caught up in the investigation into the murder of a man named Jamie Lynch. In life, Lynch had been the promoter of a rock band called the Nazgûl, and in death had been found lying on a poster advertising one of the band’s shows, his heart removed.
The publicity surrounding the case (among other things) prompts the remaining members of the now ten-years-retired Nazgûl to embark on a revival tour, which is fraught with uncomfortable echoes of their last tour before its lead singer was killed under mysterious circumstances.
The Armageddon Rag sets itself apart from any number of occult detective novels in a similar manner as A Song of Ice and Fire sets itself apart from would-be contenders in the fantasy genre. Just like the great houses of Westeros, the Nazgûl, feel vital and fleshed out, they have a history that feels like a rock and roll legend. It might seem a small thing, but it sets the tone for the narrative as a whole and lets the reader really sink into the setting.
Dying Of The Light
Dying of the Light was George R. R. Martin’s debut novel. Many of his more recent fans might be surprised to hear that Martin’s writing began in the 1970s with science fiction, rather than the fantasy for which he's known today. That said, there are plenty of familiar elements here for fans of his more recent work. Where A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in a world whose seasons are exaggerated and longer than our own (for reasons that may forever remain unclear), the world of Dying of the Light, Worlorn, is a rogue planet. This means that it drifts through space without a fixed orbit, and you can probably already imagine the effect this has on its climate.
Worlorn’s civilisation is confined to fourteen cities, all of which were established during a period in which the planet strayed close enough to a star to support life. Now, as Worlorn drifts further and further from life-sustaining heat and light, its people find themselves plunged into life-and-death situations precipitated both by both their world's physical situation and their own socio-cultural realities. It’s a strange book, but one whose overall structure and approach to drama feel in many ways like a prototype for some of the broader concepts in Game of Thrones.
If you fall in love with Dying of the Light, you’ll be pleased to hear that the last recommendation on our list offers some more of the same world.
Windhaven is the only book on this list for which Martin shares a writing credit, specifically with Lisa Tuttle. Tuttle is better known for her work on the Encyclopedia of Feminism, but more recently produced The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, whose title tells you just about everything you need to know to tell whether or not you're interested. Moreover, she also holds the singular honour of having been the only author to have ever refused a Nebula award (in 1982, for her short story, “The Bone Flute”).
Its authors’ histories aside, Windhaven began life as a series of three novellas, which Martin and Tuttle eventually combined into a single novel. The events of the book take place on a planet called Windhaven, populated by the descendents of the survivors of a downed starship. The people of Windhaven are scattered across islands, separated by wide stretches of ocean. Cannibalising their downed ship, the first settlers built gliders that could be kept aloft indefinitely, allowing the storm-tossed islands to maintain some communication.
The book centres around Maris, a young girl who inadvertently inherits her adopted father’s wings. Things get complicated when, after Maris has completed her training, her adoptive father’s wife gives birth to a son with a stronger claim to his father's wings.
This one will suit anyone who might otherwise have missed the constant questions of rights of succession in the gap between Game of Thrones books.
His novels aside, Martin has released a number of short story collections. While some of those collections, like Quartet, contain screenplays and never-to-be-finished novellas, Tuf Voyaging represents the opposite. Originally a collection of seven shorter stories, Tuf Voyaging was assembled into a more unified narrative set in the same universe as Dying of the Light.
Tuf Voyaging tells the story of Haviland Tuf, a deep space trader, vegetarian, and dedicated cat lover. Like Fevre Dream’s Abner Marsh, there’s a dry charm to Haviland Tuf despite the fact that he seems, for the most part, to be a fundamentally introverted loner. That this combination works owes a lot to Martin’s skill with dialogue. Tuf comes across as a not-particularly-gifted trader who finds himself periodically swept up in events and adventures unfolding around him.
For all the continuity between its stories, this is still very much a series of madcap sci-fi stories that aren’t afraid of having a little fun along the way. If you’ve enjoyed Martin’s comic style (particularly for characters like Tyrion Lannister), then you’ll probably find yourself very much at home here.