In 1996, a relatively unknown American author named George Martin published A Game of Thrones, the first book in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Several sequels followed, and Martin’s loyal fan base developed along the way. Then, in 2011, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss adapted A Song of Ice and Fire for HBO, and Game of Thrones exploded into a pop-culture phenomenon.

Before Game of Thrones, genre fiction rarely became a household name. One notable exception is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a work which defined the genre and inspired a whole generation of writers. However, many of the authors who admired Tolkien simply reproduced his tropes and story with only superficial differences. As a result, the genre struggled in obscurity for decades. Stories about dragons and magic, many people believed, did not have a place outside of fairy tales.

The success of Game of Thrones shattered that assumption. Martin has been compared to Tolkien, but Martin’s popularity is thanks to the differences between them more than their similarities. A Song of Ice and Fire gives readers escapism mixed with gritty realism, creating a universe that feels real even as shadow demons murder kings and dragons hatch from eggs of stone. Game of Thrones works because human and political concerns define the story, creating a relatable universe.

It Made Politics Interesting

In the real world, politics is often boring or divisive. But in Westeros, the dynastic scheming of the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Tyrells has us on the edge of our seat. When the fortunes of characters we love hang on every bid for power, the stakes feel real, and we’re constantly reminded that the cost of being outmaneuvered is often death. Game of Thrones brings life and immediacy to medieval scheming, and by highlighting the ins and outs of power, it breaks from tradition in a way that is both interesting and relevant.

In stereotypical fantasy, the hero usually gains power by obtaining a supernatural object, completing an epic quest, and defeating some sort of Dark Lord. But in Game of Thrones, like in the real world, only the ruthless seize power, and this lasts for as long as they can stay ahead of their enemies. The series also examines different approaches to power and leadership, making it much more politically thought-provoking.

The Magic Is Realistic

In Game of Thrones, magic is a strange and dangerous force. Shadow demons, face-changing assassins, and prophecies seen in the flames all make their mark on the story. In other series, magical powers or the influences of magic drive the plot. A Song of Ice and Fire still uses genre elements like supernatural powers, dragons, and magical swords, but they are always subject to human agency.

When it comes to magic, both the books and the show are careful to emphasize the effect of human choices. Melisandre misinterprets her visions from the Lord of Light which has dire consequences for Stannis, Arya uses her ability to change her face to gain personal revenge, and even the power Daenerys’s dragons give her is empty when she loses the ability to control them. It is always the characters’ choices that define the story.

Complicated, Nuanced Characters

The greatest strength of the series is its cast of characters. Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen are compelling because they seem like real people who jut happen to live in a fictional location. Each character has virtues, flaws, ambitions, and prejudices – just like everyone else. Martin explores the gray in every character, and this is what makes his vast cast so relatable. No noble hero’s sacrifice evokes as much emotion as Ned’s, and no faceless Dark Lord inspires hatred like Ramsay and Joffrey.

Game of Thrones is successful because it blends fantasy and reality in a way that audiences haven’t seen before. It rejects the predictability that has defined the genre in the past and gives us something vibrant and new. The genre will continue to evolve and expand, but there is no doubt that the breakout success of Game of Thrones has changed genre fiction by making fantasy cool.

Rowan Girdler
Rowan Girdler is a freelance author and editor with two degrees in Professional Writing but no pen license. He teaches karate for fun and works at a newsagent to pay the rent.