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Fantasy’s ‘Game Of Thrones’-shaped hole

‘Game Of Thrones’ changed TV. Will any of the new fantasy shows, like ‘The Witcher’ or ‘The Wheel Of Time’, assume the mantle?

‘The Wheel Of Time’ is one of the best fantasy series currently streaming.
‘The Wheel Of Time’ is one of the best fantasy series currently streaming.

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When writer George R.R. Martin first announced that the HBO show Game Of Thrones (GoT) would move ahead of their source material (Martin’s series of five novels, A Song Of Ice And Fire), there were more than a few murmurs of discontent. Now it seems HBO’s GoT prequel, House Of The Dragon, will air in 2022 itself, possibly before Martin finishes The Winds Of Winter, the sixth novel in his series.

GoT was the most popular scripted show on TV during its run—certainly one with the most loyal and fevered fandom. And pretty much every major streaming player is now looking to fill the GoT-shaped void among fans of high fantasy.

Amazon Prime Video’s ambitious Lord Of The Rings series is going to premiere in September, when it will become the most expensive season of TV ever produced, at an eye-popping $465 million, or around 3,490 crore (GoT’s last season cost around $100 million in total).

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Netflix has two bites at the apple here: The Witcher and Shadow And Bone. The Witcher, based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels—and the popular video games they inspired—is the front-runner, possibly the most popular fantasy show streaming at the moment. It’s a classic example of the precise subgenre of fantasy GoT belongs to: swords-and-sorcery, a space pioneered by the likes of Robert E. Howard (whose character Conan was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film Conan The Barbarian). The show’s protagonist, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), is a magically enhanced super-warrior, a mutant whose blade is slick with the blood of countless monsters.

For the most part, The Witcher’s two seasons follow a “monster-of-the-week” pattern, with the last couple of episodes emphasising the larger politics of its fictional realm, “The Continent”, where the power struggles tend to involve powerful witches and wizards. Cavill has a lot of fun in a role where his superhero muscles—and, on occasion, his funny bone—are given a thorough workout.

Shadow And Bone, which premiered last April, is more sorcery than sword. Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, the Netflix show is a sedate, slow-burning story compared to Cavill’s magic- and adrenaline-fuelled capers. Here, the fictional Ravka nation (which resembles Russia) is forever at war with Shu Han (the China analogue) and Fierda. To fight this never-ending war, the Ravkans recruit “grishas”, those among them with supernatural powers, like their General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), known as “The Darkling”, a scarily powerful grisha with the ability to summon darkness at will. When The Darkling takes an interest in an orphaned grisha, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), the Ravkans’ future seems to hinge upon the duo and their complementary, all-conquering powers of light and darkness.

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Shadow And Bone brings a certain operatic flair to its world-building, and its tonalities hop and skip nimbly across genres, including romance—The Darkling is, among other things, very much a “fuckboi” (the brooding, gangly Barnes does especially well with this aspect). A second season is expected later this year.

HBO’s own efforts haven’t been restricted to GoT prequels and spin-offs. His Dark Materials, a three-season adaptation of Philip Pullman’s high-fantasy trilogy of the same name, will conclude its run later this year. I was never a fan of these books but the series has forced me to recalibrate my views; it’s that good.

Perhaps the most overtly cerebral of the shows discussed here, His Dark Materials follows a precocious young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen, as brilliant as she was in Logan) living at Oxford, in a world controlled by a religious and political body called the Magisterium. In this world, human beings have souls that manifest as faithful animal companions called “daemons”. Lyra soon discovers that she is the subject of a witches’ prophecy (alongside the aristocrat Lord Asriel), with the potential to change the world. His Dark Materials isn’t for everybody and probably not for those entirely unschooled in the rhythms and trajectories of high fantasy. But if you can overlook a sluggish first few episodes, the writing and performances offer a significant pay-off later.

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This brings us to Amazon Prime Video’s intriguing and genuinely divergent , based on Robert Jordan’s novel series of the same name. Much as I love the visceral thrills in every episode of The Witcher, I have to admit The Wheel Of Time is the most accomplished, well-rounded and original of the shows under discussion. Its freshness lies in its refusal to follow genre (or even streaming) conventions—there aren’t too many “action scenes”, and even fewer cliffhangers. It’s an expansive (there are 14 novels, each 800-plus pages), elaborate good-vs-evil story involving a primordial evil called The Dark One, the supposed reincarnation of “the Dragon” (who fought The Dark One in the past) and a group of women called the Aes Sadai, who may hold the key to defeating The Dark One again.

The books tend to meander but this actually works in favour of the show, which expands “laterally”, anchored by fantastic performances by Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney in particular.

That’s the choice before fans with a GoT hangover, then: The Witcher for the blood-and-guts, Shadow And Bone for the brooding slow-burn, His Dark Materials for allegorical depth and The Wheel Of Time for all-round narrative mastery.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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