Game of Thrones is people sitting around cool locales, drinking a lot of wine, beer, and discussing/negotiating/blackmailing/persuading/appealing to each other in order to advance or subvert their respective agendas. The feasts, the late night drinking games, the throne room exchanges, petitions, judgements, the trials?
It’s people talking, talking, TALKING!
But it’s political fantasy, where people do a lot of talking. A lot of killing. And a lot of talking to get other people to do a lot of killing. Rinse. Repeat.
And I love it. The following will be the beginning of a new series called All Politics is Local, a semi-serious examination of politics, or how to build a potential political fantasy. I’ll take us through various situations, political systems, real world examples, the dozens of different political lens political scientists use when examining real world issues/studies. And we’ll go through all the other dry goodies, like why judicial systems apparently seem bonkers, despite having case precedent.
Anyways, getting back to the matter at hand, Political fantasy, specifically courtly intrigue, relies heavily on social interactions. But these interactions aren’t to wax poetically (although they can). They’re power conversations. They’re threats. They’re pleas (feigned or genuine). They’re confessions.
They’re the human experience used as currency. A currency paid on the exchange called politics.
In political fantasy, the scene setting conversation is at the heart of the story. They reveal character, build relationships, expose backstory, and create conflicts. Characters gain, character lose. For the usual example, Game of Thrones mastered this. Every single conversation, tavern side late night chat, post-coitus pillow talk, furthers the plot and character arcs. You have to embrace it. Feel it. SEIZE IT!
And you have to possess patience to enjoy their fruits. These conversations act as the increasing pillars leading to major plot beats, like the Battle of Blackwater Bay culminating after a dozen scenes of negotiation, blackmail, espionage, and investigation. And the payoff is delectable!
Still, Political Fantasy relies extensively on people walking around throne rooms, nightly messages, a powerful religious matron interrogating a young, monastic mercenary, etc. Unlike, say, military fantasy, character interactions are the primary means of advancing the story in this subgenre. While military campaigns or battles might occur in the story, more often than not, political fantasy focuses on the before and the aftermath of such events. Even Martin rarely dwells into the major battles in the early Game of Thrones novels.
The character’s emotions, internalization, and thought processes to cajole, persuade, or threaten a political ally or enemy are the highlights of these novels. Again, the subgenre appeals to a different mindset. In the same way I wouldn’t recommend someone who wants a GGK style Tigana political tragedy to Django Wexler’s military fantasy series, The Shadow Campaigns, I wouldn’t recommend A Darker Shade of Magic to someone looking for an I, Cladius style deeply political intrigue/drama.
I love Socratic dialogues, and good political fantasy often reads like a well disguised one. But political fantasy, especially political intrigue, has a certain appeal. If you don’t like games of politics, people making deals and compromises, the actual minutia of getting Army X to fight Army Z, you’re going to have a bad time with this subgenre.
Political Fantasy primarily relies on dialogue, soft power, and conversations. It’s not the most appealing form of a story to more action oriented readers, but there’s a power in seeing a clandestine deal lead to a civil war at the end of the book. The payoffs are always worth it, if executed correctly.