Aristocrats – aren’t they the worst? Entitled and elitist; cruel and often willfully sadistic. They’re more than wealthy, more than powerful – they believe the right to rule runs in their very veins. That’s what separates them from mere Bond-style supervillains. Anyone can claw themselves up to fortune or position, but you can’t buy class.
Yet that opens up all kinds of vulnerabilities, too. Heirs born to positions they never wanted. Ladies and princelings inheriting blood feuds and ancient rivalries that threaten their lands and their lives. SFF is chock-full of aristocratic plotlines: we want the underdog commoners to overthrow them; the ousted rightful heir to reclaim her position; the scheming bastard or outsider to bring them down. I love them all.
And along with aristocracy comes grandeur: glittering and deadly, faded and eerie, or overblown and decadent. As a writer and as a reader, I adore wallowing in the detail of bizarre and beautiful aristocratic courts and great estates. Many of the great houses in my own books (Gilded Cage, Tarnished City and Bright Ruin) have real life counterparts, from moated ganges to Buckingham Palace.
So, here are some of my favourite SFF aristocrats and aristocracies, in all their dastardly and decadent glory!
The world of Grass by Sheri S. Tepper features the weirdest sci-fi aristocracy I’ve ever read. The eponymous planet was settled by old European blue-bloods, and life there revolves around that most quintessential and obnoxious of all aristocratic pursuits, fox hunting. Outsider Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier, herself from an elite background, is sent there to investigate whether the planet holds the cure to an unknown affliction affecting other human-colonised worlds. What follows must be the most bizarre love story you’ll ever read, as well as living up to Oscar Wilde’s description of fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”.
If you’ve not read Iain M. Banks’s The Player Of Games (do so immediately) Jernau Morat Gurgeh is sent by the Culture (a utopian, multiplanetary society) to the vicious Empire of Azad, to compete in the six-yearly tournament of a complex game that determines rank and position – the winner becomes emperor. You might think that sounds like a particularly niche form of meritocracy, but the nature of the game is so profoundly aligned with the values of Azad’s elite that it is effectively a mechanism for perpetuating their ruling status – a game-conferred equivalent of the divine right of kings. Will Gurgeh change the game … or will the game change him?
Elric Of Melniboné was the first tortured SFF aristocrat to capture my heart. (Okay, maybe Edmund of the Narnia books was the first, but being a naughty schoolboy plonked on the throne of Cair Paravel, he doesn’t qualify for this lineup…) Michael Moorcock’s Elric books were my induction into adult fantasy, and the doomed albino sorcerer-emperor broke my heart. As a 12-year-old I drew endless pictures of Stormbringer, his demon-sword. Elric is the last ruler of a culture he despises, and as Melniboné degenerates before our eyes, the ultimate toxic, codependent relationship between Elric and his sword grinds to its conclusion with a Shakespearean inevitability.
I have no idea how I first found Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, and I’d certainly never heard of ‘fantasy of manners’ when I picked it up. My copy is a tiny, chunky US mass market paperback with a gloriously 80’s vintage cover. But I fell hard for the world of Riverside, Alec of Tremontaine and Richard St Vier. Swordspoint is over the top in everything, in the best way possible, from the prose to the intrigue, to the duels and above all, the romance. Kushner’s romance is narcotic: sugar-sweet and poisonous at once. It hooked me – never much of a fan of love stories – like crack.
These are all classics, but if you’re looking for exciting new SFFs that don’t draw from western historical archetypes, in the past 12 months I’ve read and loved Julie Dao’s Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns about an outsider worming her way to heart of a Chinese-inspired imperial palace, Aliette de Bodard’s House Of Shattered Wings in which factions ruled by fallen angels vie for power amid the ruins of Paris while Asian powers (from dragons to the Jade Emperor) look on, and Rhoda Belleza’s Empress Of A Thousand Skies in which Princess Ta’an, last survivor of the assassination of a interplanetary empire, pursues her revenge.
Vic James’s Gilded Cage (a 2018 World Book Night title), Tarnished City and Bright Ruin are out now from Pan Macmillan.