What makes a good political fantasy

As a social historian I have always been fascinated by the patterns of human interaction and the ways one can influence them. In reality, we are not as unpredictable as we want to believe. Choices can be manipulated. Heroes are made rather than born. Above all else, our nation-states are all creations of the 18th and 19th-century intellectuals, who knew how to sway public opinions and how to spread propaganda.

Political turns can be predicted. And, yet, they often surprise. In all the neat nice models I’ve been building since my BA, there were certain elements I could not classify or incorporate. Those were the annoying exceptions that tarnished my perfect theories. There was always someone, who acted differently, even though the majority adhered to whatever pattern I and other historians had. Our models were not perfect. Similarly, our ideas about politics often failed because of those, who did not share our rational approaches. At its core, politics combines the precision of mathematics and the randomness of emotions. And, of course, politics is about power. And fanasy as a genre offers some of the best ways to address it.

Although I don’t scorn political thrillers, I still think that fantasy novels can reflect political machinations better than any other literary works. Fantasy as a genre promises distance from the real world. The world you paint is not the world you live in, thus you can have a scientist’s freedom and experiment all you want, while still drawing inspiration from reality. The problem is that many fantasy novels still fail at depicting political drama.

I get it. Some people want to escape reality, read about grand quests and unrealistic scenarios. Not everyone likes to be bogged down by politics as much as I do. It is only that without it, you cannot have an adult fantasy novel. You can have a fairy tale. And contrary to popular ideas, it’s not a crapsack world that creates a believable fantasy. Neither do piles of corpses and continuous betrayals. Those are decorations.

Political action. That also happens after all the talking.

Politics is about resources. In Sanderson’s Final Empire (Mistborn), the detail that struck me most was the authentic representation of the value of resources. While I may not be the most avid reader of the Mistborn series, I could not fail to appreciate how The Final Empire does one thing right. In essence, the whole novel methodically explains how you can’t play politics without resources.

Despite her supernatural abilities and physical prowess, the main character Vinn simply cannot be a great politician. Because it’s not about her slapping everyone in the face. It’s about her lacking money and, therefore, influence. Discriminated as a minor ‘noblewoman’, she cannot outshine everyone because her resources (and those of her rebel cell) are limited. And that is believable.

My other favourite example is Steerpike from The Gormenghast series. Whatever he does climbing the social ladder, his resources are simply never enough. And no amount of brains can fully solve his problems. It is the terror of being powerless and the hunt for resources that makes for a compelling political story.

Politics does not equal ass-kicking. I do not mind action scenes, but I will choose a subtle powerplay over a fight anytime. For some reason, most books labelled as political fantasy sink into the endless pit of heists, chases and murders, while presenting all that as politics. On a very grand scale, running can also be a part of politics. But hard-core action is never its essence. Diplomats are not always assassins. Military prodigies are not always the ones negotiating peace.

Political manoeuvres require a different set of skills than your typical ass-kicking. My most favourite military genius Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Galactic Empire is just one example of a commander, who has it all, but lacks political skills. He will destroy fleets and obliterate opponents. His triumphs do not make him immune from those vying for power and spinning webs of intrigues. Because diplomacy rocks. Because a story about someone winning all the battles and losing all the wars is so much more interesting than an action sequence. Excellent political skills made men like Talleyrand, France’s Minister of foreign Affairs, invincible. Not only did he manage to ensure his state’s survival, but also to change sides, depose rulers and preserve his head while doing so. All that without kicking out anyone’s teeth. At least, not publicly.

Politics is about people talking. Essentially. It is not that difficult to write an intense murder scene or a chase. To write a calm and seemingly peaceful dialogue that will make chills snake up your spine is tricky. Politics is about the latter, not that much about the former. A good political fantasy can make peaceful conversations intense. I do not generally mind boiling action, but I find it simple. Again, it is far more interesting to write a person, whose sheer presence can shut everyone up than someone, who goes around punching people to achieve the same goal.  The result will be different.

Power of love and friendship does not solve your political problems. I don’t dismiss emotions and their value, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way in all fantasy novels that present love as an ultimate power. A Court of Thornes and Roses has a riddle about love that ultimately untangles the plot but kills logic. Love cannot solve political problems by itself. Love can motivate. But the very existence of certain feeling cannot untangle nods of contradiction that date back centuries. Politics is won by those with resources and those, who think. Intelligence is lethal. And so is money. ‘Power of love’ is a great component of fairy tales, but does not lend credibility to any fantasy work that delves into politics.  

Ambition is normal. I personally do not particularly like reluctant heroes or victims of circumstances. Someone discovers an incredible ability and does not want it. Someone inherits the throne and does not want it. Someone is the chosen one. Guess what? He does not want it either. For some reason, almost all fantasy works but those written by Abercrombie present ambition as a pesky and annoying trait. Worse than that: the smartest, most brilliant, most strategically capable person will be your villain. In your best-case scenario, he will be a villain protagonist. In truth, any political fantasy cannot be good without some healthy ambition. Thankfully, this trend is somewhat dimming.

In the end, political is my favourite kind of fantasy, although it is, perhaps, the rarest type of genre fiction you can find. Thrillers delve into politics (with mixed results). So do historical novels. So does literary fiction. But fantasy offers us an experimental playground. We all know how things worked out in our world. A secondary world, on the other hand, is an empty field, where we can test our beloved social theories, while coming up with most challenging results.

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