On Court Fantasy

“Court Fantasy” (or as I sometimes like to call it, Fantasy With Frocks) isn’t a term I hear discussed much these days – certainly not as much as “Epic” or “Heroic” let alone “Urban” fantasy. In my teens, it was my favourite kind of fantasy fiction: stories of kings and queens and life in and around palaces or stately homes. Stories of politics, espionage, romance and – most important to me – everyday life rather than once-in-a-lifetime quests.

There are many things I like about these kinds of stories – they tend to be influenced by a variety of historical periods, not just medieval, they generally have ensemble casts, lots of female characters, complex family relationships, and they keep forests and horses to a minimum. Also sometimes there is fencing, and frocks.

Thinking about it, it’s not just fantasy where my interest in ‘court’ stories has come from. I am also a sucker for historical stories set in the courts of King Arthur, Henry VIII, the Prince Regent, and the emperors of Rome. I’m crazy about the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Three Musketeers, Casanova and the Trojan War. I loved I Claudius, Blackadder and Upstairs, Downstairs. I even – and this is where the pieces start falling together – wrote my PhD thesis on the status and public image of imperial Roman women.

Castles. Palaces. Manor houses. So much awesome story potential, sizzling below the surface of all those stately manners and formal interactions. Just add magic, worldbuilding and original characters to all that historical possibility, and it starts to get exciting.

Some of my favourite writers of court fantasy:

Teresa Edgerton: The Green Lion Trilogy, The Queen’s Necklace.
Edgerton’s medieval-style court of the Green Lion Trilogy was heavily influenced by Arthurian legend, and there was a definite Society of Creative Anachronism vibe about her novels. I loved her knightly knights, beautiful queens and waifish sorceress. The Queen’s Necklace had more of a Musketeerish influence, and was full of swords and awesome frocks.

Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Mists of Avalon, The Firebrand
While I never got into Bradley’s Darkover books, these two masterpieces of historical fantasy still stand out for me as brilliant examples of how many messy emotions you can cram into one epic. By concentrating on the previously-overlooked female characters of the Arthurian and Trojan sagas, Bradley presented a delicious behind-the-scenes version of each story which added richness, the female gaze and plenty of sensuality. You never forget your first Arthurian threesome…

Raymond E Feist & Janny Wurts: the Empire trilogy

One young woman loses her family, and struggles to survive the elaborately patriarchal culture which tells her that honour is more important than life. By challenging that one precept, she gains strength and advantage that no one else in her society allows for, and becomes strong and powerful enough to change the world. The best kind of fantasy fiction there is.

Simon R Green, Blood and Honour
A brilliant book about a horrible, murderous royal family at war with each other about who will be the heir to the kingdom – and one actor trying to take the place of a fallen prince. Grim, gritty and deliciously horrid. I also love the court-iness of the Deathstalker books, which are space opera with an emphasis on the opera.

All of these are books I discovered, read and reread in my early fantasy-reading years – through my teens. It’s funny, but I seem to have stopped hunting out court fantasy as a genre in recent years, though I have loved several examples of the last decade: Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogy and Jennifer Fallon’s Second Sons trilogy, to name a few. More recently, The Privilege of the Sword was a delightful surprise. A lot of the urban fantasy doing the rounds also has elements of what I love about court fantasy – all manner of vampire and faerie courts, or werewolf packs, hit the same buttons for me. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate is one that gorgeously combines fantasy, politics, manners and, you know, FROCKS. The term “mannerpunk” which I adore is also coming into usage, and while I think the crossover with court fantasy is not 100%, I certainly lift my eyebrows with interest at any book with that label.

I also enjoy TV shows like Merlin, and the Tudors, and HBO’s Rome. Plenty of swish, swashbuckle, poison and politics. And yes, only one of them is technically fantasy. Hopefully when Game of Thrones comes to the screen, I will have another example of TV Fantasy With Frocks to talk about.

EDIT: Thanks to those who have been recommending other examples of court fantasy to me, over Twitter or LiveJournal comments, etc. Keep them coming; I’ll post a list of them in a few days. Also, I can’t believe I forgot Melusine and its sequels by Sarah Monette! I read them long after I was specifically thinking of court fantasy as a subgenre, and they have had a huge influence on me and my work. Beautiful books, now sadly at least partially out of print. If you ever get a chance, grab what copies of them you can!

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