By Katharine Trendacosta and Charlie Jane Anders. This weekend sees the return of Game of Thrones, and once again we'll be watching the nobles of Westeros slaughtering and betraying each other. But George R.R. Martin isn't the only terrific author to capture the huge sweep of battles over power and glory. Here are 10 other great tales of epic power struggles to help keep you turning pages to see twists and turns on a grand scale.
Top image: Diplomatic Immunity cover art by Frank Berkey.
The two series (as explained by The Mallorean) revolve around a centuries-spanning battle of supremacy between a "light" prophecy and a "dark" one. Basically, an accident knocked the whole universe out of alignment, creating two possible futures where there used to be one. And the futures gained sentience and have been battling it out (through avatars called the Child of Light and the Child of Dark). And they replay basically the same events over and over, until they get a definitive answer.
Following the events of Ender's Game, a struggle for world domination breaks out on Earth. While Ender's Shadow essentially retells the story of Ender's Game from the point of view of the side character Bean, Shadow of the Hegemon and its sequels tell of the battle to take control of Earth that follows those events. Shadow of the Hegemon starts after the events of Ender's Game/Shadow, with those who had been under Ender's command (except Bean) being kidnapped by the character Achilles, who wants to use their genius on behalf of the Russian bid for dominance. When Achilles is revealed to be a psychopath, he flees to India, where he works (covertly) to deplete his own forces, to make them an easy target for his real employers, the Chinese. When Bean and his allies break into Achilles' Indian compound, Achilles is extracted by his Chinese paymasters. And that's just the first one. Shadow Puppets involves Peter (AKA Locke, AKA Ender's brother) losing and regaining his position of Hegemon, a Caliph commanding a mostly unified Muslim world, and a humiliating defeat for China (after they've conquered India and Indochina in the last one). Shadow of the Giant continues this insane battle on Earth. And all of this is without factoring in what's going on with Ender in his own series.
A classic alt-history novel, The Man in the High Castle takes place in a world where the Axis won World War II. Which means, of course, that Japan, Italy, and Germany are engaged in various intrigues against each other, especially in the former United States. Plus, there's the massive power struggle that opens the book, with Fuhrer Bormann dying and Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Hermann Göring, etc. fighting over who gets to replace him.
Another alt-history novel, Roth's book envisions a world where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR for re-election and may or may not be a Nazi puppet (but is definitely a Nazi sympathizer). It also features Walter Winchell leading an anti-Lindbergh movement and being assassinated by a possible American Nazi, with KKK help. Then there's a coup by the Vice President and history righting itself at Pearl Harbor. And then there's the German propaganda blaming a Jewish conspiracy for Lindbergh's disappearance and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping — versus the reigning conspiracy theory that the Nazis were behind everything.
So the Elves are all happily living with the Valar on Aman, while Melkor/Morgoth has the darkness and Middle Earth (Melkor destroyed the two lights of the world, so Aman is lit by two trees). Feanor is king of one of the elf groups (the Noldor), and creates the Silmarils — jewels which glow with the light of the two trees and are hallowed. Then Melkor steals the Silmarils and destroys the trees. Feanor loses his shit, and he and his sons swear vengeance on not only Melkor/Morgoth, but on anyone who keeps the Silmarils from him. In the process, they happen to attack another group of elves (the Teleri). The Valar tell the Noldor that if they leave, they cannot come back. Feanor is still determined to get his jewels back, so he goes anyway, and many follow him. The Noldor pretty much fail at getting the Silmarils back, fighting Morgoth and losing a lot. Beren, a man who's in love with the elf, Luthien, is given the task of stealing a Silmaril, which he does — and his heirs inherit the Silmaril. Unsurprisingly, this annoys the sons of Feanor, who attack the elves who have the Silmaril to get it back. They, again, fail. The Silmaril and its keeper, Elwing, go to the Valar. The Valar help defeat Morgoth, but the sons of Feanor steal the two remaining Silmarils from the Valar (who are basically gods) because, again, they are made of fail. So made of fail, in fact, that they can't actually touch the Silmarils anymore. So one of the sons commits suicide and the other throws the Silmaril into the sea. So much fail in the house of Feanor. The Valar lift the banishment, but some elves stay in Middle Earth. All of this leads up to the first War of the Ring, which then leads to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
The Yuuzhan Vong invade from outside the galaxy, creating a threat so massive that Grand Admiral Thrawn joins the Empire because he believes they stand the best chance against the invaders. And then the Imperial Remnant (the remainder of the Empire) and the New Republic actually form an alliance to defeat them. Yeah, the descendents of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance work together to get control of the galaxy back. The result is an epic struggle for control over the galaxy, which lead to the Yuuzhan Vong hating the "heretic" Jedi.
Plenty of fantasy epics involve feuding nobles and endless betrayals and scheming — but few of them take place in a land where sexuality is celebrated, sacred sex workers are central to the political structure and a super-masochist turns out to be the main savior of the realm. The central concern of the first Kushiel trilogy is who's going to rule over Terre D'Ange, a version of medieval France where everybody worships the groovier son of Jesus, instead of Jesus himself. And as nobles wheel and deal and betray each other, the villainous Melisande Shahrizai plays them off against each other, while getting other, far-off nations involved in her schemes. The politics of the series slowly become more and more global and the scheming more byzantine, as more players get involved. Basically, imagine A Song of Ice and Fire with safewords and happier sex workers.
Even before Miles Vorkosigan — who's basically Tyrion Lannister in space — is born, the feudal planet Barrayar is at war with the Cetagandan Empire. But once that war is over, there's another war, with the Beta Colony — and Miles' parents come from opposite sides of that war. But that's all just the backdrop to a saga that sees the wily Miles caught up in an endless series of schemes, power plays, wars and monstrous intrigues. And Miles lies and cheats with the best of them, keeping a few steps ahead of the rest of the pack.
The Honor Harrington series follows Harrington, a successful military leader and later politician, through a time of interstellar upheaval. The universe that the series takes place in consists of tension and actual battles between three powers: the Solarian League (ruled from Earth), the Star Kingdom of Manticore (Harrington's home), and the People's Republic of Haven (based on the natural pairing of Napoleonic France and the Soviet Union. At the start of the series, People's Republic of Haven (hilariously called the "Peeps,") faces a massive deficit problem stemming from its Socialist/Communist-like point of view, and decides to fix that problem by beefing up its military and acquire revenue from military conquest. Unfortunately, the Star Kingdom is in the path of that plan. Later, the series also includes a conspiracy of corrupt Solarian leaders and businessmen who want to destroy the old order, which also requires an epic battle by the Star Kingdom and its Peeps (see what we did there?) to prevent.
Frankly, the whole Dune series counts as an epic power struggle, but the plot of just Dune on its own is predicated by a major one. The Bene Gesserit cast themselves as servants to the Empire, while using subtle manipulations (and, you know, a massive breeding program) to achieve their ends. The House Atreides is given control of Arrakis by the Emperor because he feared the popularity of Leto Atreides and wants to get the Atreides away from the safety of their power base. And he does that by allying with House Harkonnen, who has a massive feud with House Atreides. Giving House Atreides Arrakis did not so much turn out as expected.
What's your favorite epic power struggle from science fiction or fantasy? Sound off below!