Monday, August 6, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Sherwood Smith on Monarchy in Fantasy

What is it with fantasy stories and monarchies? Isn't there any other form of government?

Two words, power and privilege.

What’s not to like?

What’s not to hate?

Whatever those words evoke to us, it’s usually not boredom. Human beings are hierarchical. You take any group, no matter how determined they are to interact with sensitivity and equality, and a leader somehow emerges. That’s in situations that have the luxury of safety. In emergencies or danger, people turn desperately to anyone who can show them the way out, whether it’s by fighting or fleeing. The successful commander who becomes monarch is as old as history.

Monarchs make government personal, and most readers want stories about people more than they want stories about the function of politico-economic theory, for pretty much the same reason people at work gossip about the boss’s likes, dislikes, and private life. The doings of people in power are interesting, especially when they can impact you, but even when they won’t. Look at all the celebrity chasers busily reporting on the often fatuous actions, opinions, marriages and breakups of our king-substitutes, actors.

W moderns seem to prefer stories about kings and queens from the days when monarchs were colorful figures in preference to today’s reclusive royalty who, wearing business suits like everyone else, appear only for photo ops and ribbon-snipping. The old kings had more power, but they also had to generate their own PR by looking like kings: when they traveled past you, with outriders and banner snapping and horses caparisoned to a fare-thee-well, you knew a king was passing.

I have heard people on science fiction panels scoff at SF and F about monarchs, but the truth is that for most of human history, until very recent times, monarchy of some kind or another constituted the outer form of government. And as we know even in recent history, leaders who called themselves by other titles, whether president, Führer, chairman, or Dear Leader, functioned pretty much in all other respects as monarchs. We know of politicians right now who would very much like to have the power of kings, and are torquing the democratic system to get it.

In the simpler, more plot-driven story, the monarch is often nothing more than a factor for action. This leader is all-powerful, without much examination of the nature of that power, or its history, other than perhaps a vague hand wave toward inheritance or even divine right (which can be disconcerting in a story that otherwise contains little reference to religious paradigm). Bad monarchs are mean to peasants, hurt the helpless, and their favorite sport seems to be going out a-conquering. We want to see them brought down. Good monarchs have time to be kind to all, spread peace and plenty, and defend their kingdoms against the invaders. We want to see them preserved as a force for order.

In more character-driven stories, monarchy itself is examined, its features and bugs. Character-driven SF and F novels examine the friction between various powerful interests within a kingdom, whether or not the story includes a threat from without. They illustrate the effects when the nature of monarchy changes.

Stories about monarchs have been around as long as there have been monarchs. As far as fiction is concerned, it was Sir Walter Scott who first gave us novels about the doings of kings and legendary heroes from the perspective of ordinary people. The ancient fascination with those in power still grips the imagination, but equally interesting can be the attitudes of the governed. What makes someone willing to bend his knee to the monarch? To kill for him or her? What is the personal cost of that much power?

Finally one comes full circle, to the hero’s tale, wherein the ordinary person gains a crown.

Sherwood's latest book, Banner of the Damned, is about the personal cost of power, and whose next, a middle grade fantasy called The Spy Princess, is about revolution!

When twelve-year-old Lady Lilah decides to disguise herself and sneak out of the palace one night, she has more of an adventure than she expected--for she learns very quickly that the country is on the edge of revolution. When she sneaks back in, she learns something even more surprising: her older brother Peitar is one of the forces behind it all. The revolution happens before all of his plans are in place, and brings unexpected chaos and violence. Lilah and her friends, leaving their old lives behind, are determined to help however they can. But what can four kids do? Become spies, of course!

 Find more of her ebooks (and a free short story) at Book View Cafe.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you!

    I'm very happy to have inspired a lot of discussion all around the blogosphere.

    Really though, in a sense, you were the Godmother of this, since you were invoked at the Con where this topic came up, which inspired my Mind Meld, which then inspired other places...

    And now that I've read one book with a monarchy of yours, I need to read more of them...