Court life, political intrigue, backstabbing – figurative and literal, complex alliances, moral grays, diplomacy, spycraft, possible wars etc. These are all the hallmarks of good political fantasy for me.
I have been craving fantasy books full of political intrigue for the last year or so. I have read a number of them so I thought it was time to make a list of recommendations for you. For the purpose of this list i am not interested in assassin books, they can get their own list since there are so many of them. For this list I am interested in the diplomacy and backstappy nature of court and church politics. I like quite a bit of adventure in my fantasy books so these are not dull political meetings and they are not political in the way that they deal with current world politics. Of course current issues might be part of the issues but it tend not to be the point. In these books the protagonists are active players in the politics rather than passive victims of the politics made by other people.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Series: No, standalone
Keywords: Goblins, elves, steampunk fantasy, court life, optimistic
The story is about Maia who is half-elver half-goblin and at the start of the story is very far removed from the dynastic politics. He gets tossed into role as emperor and is very ill prepared from the role. He is a an outsider at court and that allows for Addison to introduce him and the reader to the court at the same time. You follow Maia trying to figure out how court works while trying to survive and do what is best for the realm at the same time. The tone is optimistic which is such a breath of fresh air in this age of grim dark.
Read my full review
Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce
Series: Daughter of the Lioness
Keywords: Rebellious, nobles, colonialism, spycraft, meddling gods
This is the book that started this journey for me. I reread it last year and after that, this is all I wanted my fantasy to be. Alianne is the daughter of a spymaster and has learned spycraft growing up helping her dad. Though a series of events she ends up a slave to two young noble women in an island kingdom. She gets involved in the country’s politics very quickly and operates as an underground spymaster for the young women. The story is funny, thought provoking, intriguing and well plotted with great relationships.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Keywords: Disabled protagonist, religion, grim dark, court life, prophecy, curse
Trigger warning: Attempted rape and mentions of rape
This is a book with rich world-building with people who actually act like religious people – in so many fantasy book the religion seems to be slapped on rather than part of the world – not the case here. The protagonist lands in the middle of a court in crisis – there is a curse resting over the royal family. Horrible advisers are effectively running the kingdom into the ground while the protagonist has to try to navigate these treacherous waters he also has to help his young charge make alliances at court.
Read my full review
Crown Duel (Crown & Court #1-2 revised) by Sherwood Smith
Keywords: Rebellion, court life,
Crown Duel had me in tears over some of the misunderstandings and failed communications – especially in the first half of the book. The protagonist is very young and is court up in court life and political intrigue. She has not been raised to the life and has to learn very very quickly. Unlike in Goblin Emperor this does not go smoothly. Meliara does not know who to trust other than her brother – who is far worse at court politics that she is, so she is at a lose for quite a bit of the book. The pacing of the plot goes in ebbs and flows which I quite like – we get passages where it is just everyday life followed by crazy chase scenes. The story has action, romance and intrigue, what more could I want?
Read my full review
The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce
Series: Standalone set in the Emelan world
Keywords: The corruptive force of power, responsibly
If you bounced off the Circle books because of the quite young protagonists, then this is your jumping on point. The four protagonists are now in their late teens and are struggling to find their role in the world. At the same time Sandry is invited to the Empress’ court – which is a beautiful and deadly place to be. The empress wants the strong mages for herself and tries to bribe or force them to stay. Pierce explores the responsibilities of nobles to their land in this book in a way that works for a modern audience. There is also romance and action – so it isn’t all high concept stuff.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Series: City of Stairs
Keywords: Spycraft, diplomacy, meddling gods, colonialism
Itelligence work is not about flashy verticals and loud action, it’s about navigating the political scene and gathering intelligence. You try to be invisible or at least unmemorable – especially if you are operating in a country that your country has a dubious relationship with. This is this kind of book – while there is at least one explosion and big fights – it is clear that this is not how our protagonist wants her day to be. She is not at all pleased when she has to run tough the streets with people chasing her. Not only is the world building is great but so are the characters. If you want to see a well-developed female character who break a lot of the current tropes for strong female characters when this is a read for you. Oh and the book got a good romantic subplot, but it is very much not a romance. The book is funny, entertaining and makes you think.
Read my full review
The Diamond Throne by David Eddings
Series: The Elenium
Keywords: Epic fantasy, church politics, adventure, meddling gods
This was one of my favourite series as a teenagers. It is funny, intriguing and full of adventure. There are not one but two rogue characters who are both charming and wonderful. I am not sure how it holds up to an adult reading but for me as a young adult it worked. The series has some rather problematic bits – looking back at it as an adult though. The story held up by the cast which is delightful. One of my very first roleplaying characters was modeled after Sephrenia. The stakes are high, the plots moves at a good clip and it is full of magical artifacts, magic, priestess, gods, trolls and people. It is the action movie book of the batch. Do not expect great literature but do expect to be entertained.
Domes of Fire by David Eddings
Series: The Tamuli
Keywords: Epic fantasy, court politics, adventure, meddling gods
This is the second series after The Elenium and I think it is better than the first series. It operates on a bigger scale and is very much epic fantasy. The cast is a bit bigger and has more active female characters who are not all in love with the male heros. There are so many shenanigans in this book. It is not all serious but rather a crazy adventure with politics.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Series: Phèdre’s Trilogy
Keywords: BDSM, corrupting power, power games, spycraft
This is very much an adult story. Phèdre nó Delaunay grows up in a country where the courtesans are priestess and revered in the society. She has been turned over to one of the houses who trains the courtesans as a child and is training to become one. That sounds cheap sleazy doesn’t it? Well it isn’t! The world building is solid and the plot is captivating. Phedre is a very strong character who has so much power without being a warrior. There are some rather hard s/m scenes in the book, so if you are squeamish about that kind of thing, this is not for you. I very much enjoyed the book and I strongly recommend it. The first book is especially good and can be read on its own. The world building is an interesting mix of our world and fantasy which is really intriguing.
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
Series: The World of Riverside
Keywords: Swordplay, quiltbag, training, crossdressing, comedy of manners
Each book in this series have a different protagonist so each book is quite different. The first book is all about noble’s power plays, while the second is about a young woman learning sword fighting and how to be someone to be respected. Both books is about not letting other people use you as their game piece but forging your own path – even when this is much harder and much costlier than just letting other people’s need come before your own. The audiobook production is great.
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Series: Eternal Sky
Keywords: Asian fantasy, horses, gods, step worriers, tiger people
Range of Ghosts is a story full of strange and complicated plot threads but it is also a story full of emotion and it has some amazing characters. The worldbuilding is complex and changes a lot depending on geography. Each people in the book has it’s own view of how the world works and that seem to manifest in the world. It is a poetic story full of dreams and prophecy but not a chosen one story. I found myself sucked into the story and kept wanting to know what would happen next. Read my review here.
Did you guys also notice that all the books are either red, brown and golden or ice blue? I am guessing that all the red and gold is to signal power and emotion. Why do you think the covers are so similar in color tone?
I know some of you will think that A Song of Ice and Fire is missing, but since I didn’t particularly enjoy that series, I will not include it on a list of books that I recommend. If you have any other suggestions, you are very welcome to leave a comment! I love getting recommendations from you guys.
8/10 2015: Added Swordspoint & Range of Ghosts