Three Flavours of Binge-Worthy SFF Podcasts

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6th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: An Introduction to the SPFBO

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Politics in Fantasy

political-4The idea of politics is usually a tricky subject: along with religion, politics is one of those subjects supposedly unfit for healthy (heated?) debate at the dinner table, or when out for a wine or whiskey with friends. It causes arguments, altercations, and is a subject best discussed with like-minded people who won’t order for your decapitation upon finding out your own selective views on world order or social policy. In short: politics is so loaded with opinion that even close friends shy away from in-depth discussion in a casual basis.

In literature, however, this has to mean that politics is a powerful theme. We’ll call it a “theme” for the moment; though what we’ll look at later in this article will demonstrate that whilst political themes can enhance and enrich a plot, adding not only tension, conflict and excitement, but a familiar form of government with which the reader can draw parallels from their own world, a writer can draw on current political themes—both globally voiced and globally suppressed—to deliver powerful messages and opinions.

However, nobody likes a preacher, and being patronised will only earn a writer a disapproving frown from readers, so writers have to be careful not to cram their work so full of politics that the story itself is lost, or simply that the political voice in the work is so loud, that the reader immediately switches to “mute”. If a writer is muted, however brilliant and on the pulse of current politics the message is, it will not be heard—worse, it will be ignored.

political-5Of course, not all writers intend to emblazon the message of their personal politics across every page of their work—and those that do are usually sophisticated enough in delivery and prose so that the messages conveyed become subtle despite their volume. This works incredibly well for writers such as China Miéville, whose intelligent mastery of the written word allows him to create work slick with his own visions, yet without a hint of obviousness that might otherwise encumber his prose and stories.

Easiest to address, are the writers who merely dabble in politics, giving their work a sprinkling of government, monarchy or even social policy and philosophy: instead of wearing their colours on their sleeve and setting out with an agenda and messages to work into their writing, they veer towards using the excitement, treachery and deftness of a political landscape to add vigour and pace, as well as a backdrop that solidifies a world, topping off their worldbuilding efforts like a cherry on a rather attractive cupcake.

If we take a look at writers who enjoy dabbling, we’ll soon find that even then, their techniques differ greatly: some explore analogical political regimes, adding subtle differences of their own, or merely copy existing regimes to highlight their flaws. Depending how the writer addresses their chosen politics, determines how politically charged their work is considered.

An excellent example of this would be to take the idea of the religious-political regimes intrinsic to both Catholicism and Christianity. Both Mark Charan Newton (much more on this chap later, as he’s something of a mover and shaker in modern “political” fantasy) and Jon Sprunk build religions that are analogical to our world. Arguably Sprunk’s veers on the side of Catholicism, whilst Newton’s appears to reflect Christianity as a whole, but both use the structure of these organised churches (as forms of government only; religious doctrine is irrelevant) to add something to their work. Newton essentially takes up the banner for homosexual rights (and later in the Legends of the Red Sun series, LGBT on the whole), using his Jorsalir church as a rigid, dual government alongside the Emperor to express his messages and views on the subject. It’s clever and it works because it seamlessly echoes issues and controversies in our own world, and thus resounds tenfold as clearly and loudly as if he’d not been so analogical in his religious-political crafting.

On the converse, Sprunk’s use of his church and its resonances with Catholicism are purely to add a stronger flavour to the story: the story comes further to life with the city as a backdrop, and the religious-state, complete with the intricate twists Shadow’s Son is loaded with, makes for an exciting read that wouldn’t quite be the same if we removed the religious government and the grand schemes of powerful priests. It is, despite this, charged with absolutely no religious tension, messages or themes, and further demonstrates Sprunk’s talent at using politics, whilst simultaneously building his story around something that supersedes any themes he could have tapped into. In this sense, Newton’s work is far more modern, in that Sprunk’s more embodies classic-idea fantasy, which is not expected to become a platform for political ideology.

That isn’t implying that all modern fantasy should have a political message; but usually writers who play with the expected tropes of fantasy produce different worlds with characters that embody the extraordinary by way of their psychologies and idiosyncrasies, and since difference is usually a “rebellion” against something—however small—the next logical step for a writer is to disagree with something in our modern world through their writing—and everybody has an opinion, let alone writers with a thousand new worlds clamouring to be released from their imaginations. Basically, it would be strange for modern writers not to comment somehow on the social, political or religious order of the world through their work.

A gleaming example of this is Cinda Williams Chima’s Severn Realms Quartet: Chima’s quartet keeps one foot rooted on either side of the YA fantasy-fantasy border, so hers is a particularly poignant demonstration of what can be done through writing—even at a level where older children, teenagers and adults are included in the target audience. Chima uses her grew-up-pampered-but-not-so-spoiled princess Raisa to convey a lot of her views on both gender and social policy, as well as addressing—from an interesting side—the responsibilities that come with power.

Being a princess, Raisa has always been privileged, and yet she entirely embodies a graceful and conscientious young woman who is determined to become a good queen in lieu of her mother’s “hands-off” approach to her queendom. Easily manipulated and seemingly flippant in her approach to royal politics, Raisa’s mother is the last person she aspires to. Having been fostered at her clan-royalty father’s camp—Demonai—Raisa has already added to her world view and her ideas are blossoming as quickly as she is. At only sixteen, and with the visionary ideas she holds dear, Raisa is an intriguing and clever tool for Chima to use to explore and express her views on poverty and charity (Raisa sets up a fund in the poorer areas, in her name, making it “fashionable” to donate to the less fortunate). Furthermore, when Raisa is forced away from her comfortable lifestyle, her adaptation to the real world, with only a single bodyguard and her identity secret, her transformation into a schoolgirl at a military academy gives Chima an amazing opportunity to express her views on how being a strong, wilful woman can begin during adolescence, and despite a typical and restrictive traditional female upbringing.

As counterparts to Raisa, Chima’s male protagonists—Han, Dancer, Micah and Amon—serve to convey differing sets of mentalities and emotions regarding everything from a man’s place in the world as a breadwinner, the intricacies of parental control and defiance, to prefabricated roles and expectations. This is all politics: this is all social policy. Essentially—though it’s a very loose rule of thumb—anything a government could potentially pass as policy, is politics. Misogyny, feminism, minors—all issues, controversies or ideas that exist in a modern socio-political world. Just because it doesn’t make headlines, does not mean it is not a political theme. Anything that deals with government and rule can be classed—for purposes here—as political.

Raisa is a princess-heir; Han a lowlife former thief trying to turn clean; Dancer is the bastard son of a powerful wizard, born from rape, now half-Clan, half-wizard, reviled by his people, shunned by those from outside; Micah the son of the High Wizard on the council, expected to follow his father’s orders and participate in his schemes; Amon is the son of the queen’s head guard, expected to serve Raisa as his father serves her mother. As we explore the characters further, the political relevancy becomes apparent.

What makes this so special is that all Chima’s characters are under eighteen. In Chima’s world, majority is sixteen, so throughout the course of Chima’s first two novels in the Seven Realms Quartet, these characters become adults despite their tender ages. This in itself is politics: young adults have viewpoints and political commentaries to share, and Chima acknowledges the importance of this.

What’s more, is that Chima’s work, classed as YA as well as regular fantasy as it is, reminds readers that YA fantasy isn’t necessarily childish: it’s merely fantasy that readers of a younger age can relate to, as well as older adults.

A step up from this sort of political theme is present in Rowena Cory Daniells’ The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin (King Rolen’s King, hereafter). Daniells’ trilogy, beginning with The King’s Bastard (which already hints at mild political themes pertaining to parentage, legitimacy and monarchy) introduces a series of novels set entirely around the royal family of Rolencia. The main cast is built of select point-of-view characters from King Rolen’s family, and their friends and acquaintances around them. These characters are King Rolen’s children, and vary in age, each bringing with them a different set of issues and conflicts. From Byren, the younger-twin, in the shadow of his elder brother and heir, to the youngest and only female, Piro, the characters must all adapt to survive in the dangerous political landscape that is changing around them. Responsibilities, abandonment, war, expectations and rivalries are only a few of the issues King Rolen’s children explore throughout the trilogy.

Without the politics, King Rolen’s Kin would literally have no story—the politics makes the story. The necessity of the political themes provides a ruthless read, where the age of the POV character is regardless: the narrative is just as brutal and harsh for the eldest as it is for the youngest and it is this, coupled with Daniells’ ability to convey her characters is what makes the series so incredibly effective.

Since we’ve been ascending in stages, we might as well continue the trend, and take it up a notch and talk about Stephen Deas’ nasty, nasty dragon-fuelled Memory of Flames.

As with King Rolen’s Kin, if you remove the politics, the story falls apart: Deas’ series is a hideously good example of Machiavellian politics at play, where the reader is merely awaiting the end with baited (or not so, by the end, as Deas’ ruthlessness toughens the skin as characters come, go and die with nary a “good day” between) breath to survey the remaining carnage and tally up the death toll. Stuffed full with court intrigue, and with more backstabbing bastards than you’ve likely had hot dinners, Deas’ vision is oddly allegorical with modern day politics, in the sense that politicians would be as cutthroat and power-hungry as Deas’ royal or semi-royal cast, if only they could get away with it. Memory of Flames is a commentary of what happens when power is taken and kept, and what happens further to that when complacence and arrogance take root.

Whether Deas’ intended, the series is a fairly loud allegory for our own world and one of many projected courses: through their own complacence and thirst for power, and with little regard to just how this power and subsequent peace was achieved, the order of the world is in danger and whilst those in power still sit and squabble over unimportant details, the world may well end not just in tears, but also white hot flames. This is an unsettling echo of how our own world just might maybe end up, through collective human folly in regards to issues of war, power, energy and even the destruction of the planet through exploitation.

Whilst the allegory is obvious as an afterthought to the series, the message is not repeatedly aired throughout the series, and as such, this is an ideal example of how either a writer’s ideas can be interpreted (Deas might have had no intention of conveying this idea, but then again, he might), or merely delivered so subtly that they can be overlooked. Depending on the message, the writer and the story, this can be an excellent technique.

Some writers, however, fully intend to air messages from the very second they add words to a blank page. One such writer is the aforementioned Mark Charan Newton: a young writer with a degree in environmental science and a twitter feed chock-a-block with Greenpeace campaigns and opinions regarding environmental politics (as well as whiskey…) it might be surprising to realise that the majority of Newton’s political messages and themes pertain not to the environment first and foremost, but rather, social policy. And we’re talking up-to-date, painfully relevant, and devastatingly brave social policy.

We’ve already mentioned that Newton flies the banner for homosexual rights (no, he’s not gay, actually, he’s very straight, but he happens to care about important issues like this), but what we didn’t say was that he bravely takes the taboos one step further that anyone else when he conveys a message. Not only does Legends of the Red Sun boast a homosexual male, but this man also happens to be in charge of the Night Guard and is the commander of the Emperor’s military. That’s a bit of a slap in the face to “don’t ask, don’t tell” despite the fact that Brynd keeps his sexuality a secret. It’s effective even though he’s forced—by fear of execution by the law, fuelled by the Jorsalir church—to remain silent, because the reader knows and through Newton’s excellent character development, the reader is on Brynd’s side. But the beauty of Newton’s work with character lies in the fact that Brynd is not “the gay soldier”, he’s not even “the gay guy”, and there’s not even a whiff of “the homo”. Rather, Brynd Lathraea simply is Brynd Lathraea: Newton makes a loud and resounding point about characters as people, by downplaying the very taboos he’s writing about. Their issues, whatever they might be, are not as important as the story unfolding around them. Brynd might be gay, but he’s also the head of the military, and he’s also got a war to fight.

This ideal is upheld even further during The Book of Transformations when Lan, a transwoman is introduced. A “transwoman” is a woman who just happened to be (quite unfortunately) born a man. Just as the transformation (gender reassignment) occurs in our medical world, the cultists in Newton’s world transform Lan into the woman she was psychologically born as. This change takes place very early on in the book, and thereafter is scarcely even mentioned: herein is where Newton’s true scope and understanding of the heated and misunderstood political topic he’s decided to write about shines through. Lan is a normal woman, a beautiful woman, a strong woman. What she was is as irrelevant as how old she was when she had her first dose of flu—much as it is in our world, it forms part of her medical history that is filed, shelved and forgotten.

It was a brave move, introducing a character such as this, but Newton is not a writer to shy away from the more difficult points to convey. This is because he has a voice and a vision and he uses his writing deftly and expertly to introduce themes in new and approachable ways. Brynd is likeable; Lan is likeable. In that, half of the battle to convey these sexuality and gender issues as people has been won.

There is more than gender and sexuality to Newton’s work: with an ice age approaching, bringing thousands of refugees seeking warmth and safety to the gates of the capital city, and a corrupt emperor bent on rebuilding Villjamur in his own image after violently ousting the previous bloodline, there’s an entire wealth of political tension building, and through this, Newton addresses issues such as poverty, wealth and its distribution, and social control.

If we’re discussing current politics and looking for a writer who at once crafts a breathtakingly imaginative world, filling it with interesting and dynamic characters, weaving a story around them that is thrilling, intriguing and fresh, whilst injecting politics so deeply into the world that you scarcely notice the pinprick, then Newton is the man to talk about, and moreover, the man to read.



  1. Avatar Paul Wiseall says:

    Brilliant article Leo.
    I’m chuffed you mentioned China Mieville in this. One of my favourite pieces of politics in fantasy is when the Vodyanoi hold up the river during trade union disputes in Perdido Street Station.

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    One of my favourite articles on FF so far. Thanks! Too much to say, so I’ll just leave it at that.

  3. Avatar Samuel S. B. says:

    This is quite true…and I agree…well done and written

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