This Sunday, HBO will air the first episode of Game of Thrones, HBO’s take on the epic fantasy book series A Song of Fire and Ice, written by American fantasist George R.R. Martin.

According to an advance review by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Duane Dudek, after screening the first 6 of 10 episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, he “was struck by the way the story expands like a sponge in water.”

Co-producer David Benioff jokingly referred to it with the tagline, “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.”

Indeed, this George R.R. Martin series is one of the bodies of work I used in my book A Guide to Fantasy Literature to illustrate the sub-genre of Adventure Fantasy.

Similar in many respects to high fantasy, the adventure version of the genre has a different core philosophy. Unlike high fantasy, which tends to elevate its story to noble Crusade or Quest, the distinguishing characteristic of this second great cluster of fantasy is that it embraces the notion of adventure for its own sake.  (. . .) The episodes in adventure fantasy are shaped mostly by the internal desires of their protagonists, rather than epic struggles between Good and Evil.
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Adventure fantasy is driven by the core desires of its diverse characters and the situations their interactions create. As author John Marco said in an interview about his first fantasy adventure novel, THE JACKAL OF NAR (1999):

“I wanted to tell a multilayered story . . . but also wanted to create a unique world and fill it with diverse people, all of whom had their own sets of goals and problems. . . . I wanted to avoid the archetype of the strong hero and the evil villain. . . .”
– 1999 interview with Claire E. White, The Internet Writing Journal

One of the bestselling practitioners of adventure fantasy today is George R.R. Martin, whose lengthy books in his series, A Song of Fire and Ice, are filled with the goings-on of an astoundingly numerous cast of characters, most of whom would be minor in other works.

Martin admits he has a fondness for such minor characters and is intrigued by their unique traits, desires, favorite weapons, foods, songs, and such . . . a fondness he follows through hundreds of pages (800+ for the hardcover version of A Game of Thrones).

In a passage from A Feast for Crows (2005), the fourth book in his cycle (which reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list), Martin describes a board game that might be a metaphor for his own adventure stories:

He had left her [Princess Myrcella] in her chambers, bent over a gaming table opposite Prince Trystane, pushing ornate pieces across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli.

. . . Cyvasse, the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Voltanis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. The Dornish court was mad for it.

Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares.

Adventure fantasy is closely linked to the patterns of comic-book heroes and fantasy gaming. These are genres driven by endless serial possibilities, with a focus on rules of engagement and the quirky and personalized powers of individual characters.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewer Dudek called A Game of Thrones a “complex and sprawling fantasy epic,” with, by his count, at least 92 characters with speaking roles.

This is perhaps the very point of adventure fantasy . . . it’s ability to spin out a seemingly never-ending series of escapades, based less on great issues of Good and Evil and more on the machinations of the players in the games. The George R.R. Martin series is an excellent example.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)