A Natural Twenty on Your Diplomacy Roll
July 28, 2016 7:13 PM   Subscribe

I would like to read some fantasy/secondary world novels that deal heavily with political machinations - the more complex and backstabby the better.

I loved The Goblin Emperor and the political maneuvering in A Song of Ice and Fire. While I realize that fantasy often tends towards more warlike sword-waving climaxes, I'd love to find some books that focus on court politics or its equivalent, and characters accomplishing their goals through cunning.

(I would also accept books where the *villains* operate through cunning and political wrangling and then are defeated by sword-wielding heroes, so long as the political wrangling gets a good bit of focus.)

Explicit magic in the setting is fun but not required. However, I would like to request that the setting be definitely not Earth.
posted by darchildre to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Traitor Baru Cormorant fits your request to a T! I've read both that book and Goblin Emperor, and they both hit that same spot for me.
posted by miltthetank at 7:18 PM on July 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

The Miles Vorkosigan series -- so complex with politics in some books that I had no idea what was happening

Nine Princes in Amber
posted by phoenixy at 7:29 PM on July 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The House Wars series by Michelle Sagara West. SO convoluted, so political!
posted by Malla at 7:31 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. There's no actual courtly intrigue until maybe the second or third book, but they're relatively quick compared to ASOIAF.
posted by griphus at 7:43 PM on July 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

posted by ElectricGoat at 7:43 PM on July 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Sherwood Smith's Court Duel (Crown Duel is the first book) -- the first book is more adventurey, but the second book is straight-up politics.

Kate Elliot's "Crown of Stars" series is kind-of like ASoIaF with gender equality. Lots of adventure but also lots of politics. (Same flaws as GRRM -- meanders off into side plots and has a lot lot LOT of characters. But same virtues as well. If you liked ASoIaF but wanted more girl power, you'll like it.)

Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion is pretty politics-y. (Also, for my money, single best depiction of religious revelation in fantasy fiction, bar none.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:45 PM on July 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

The Traitor Baru Cormorant fits your request to a T!

Came here to post this. It's an absolutely amazing book and is exactly what you are looking for.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:48 PM on July 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Richard Adams' Maia
posted by Foam Pants at 7:56 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Miles Vorkosigan
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:08 PM on July 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

K.J. Parker's Engineer trilogy.
posted by Etrigan at 8:55 PM on July 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I also recommend Sherwood Smith's Banner of the Damned--it's actually the first book of hers I've read, and I haven't read any of the ones in the same universe? setting? whatever, but it's very good. The Amazon page for it makes it sound like military fantasy, but it doesn't feel that way to me.
posted by wintersweet at 8:56 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by jeffamaphone at 9:08 PM on July 28, 2016

Best answer: Kate Elliott's Crossroads Trilogy and the follow-on Black Wolves trilogy. Hella complex politics, people with conflicting agendas and needs, no true villains, just people. So good.

And yeah, like Wintersweet said upthread: try Sherwood Smith's Sartorias novels. I think you'd like Inda and its sequels best.
posted by suelac at 10:08 PM on July 28, 2016

A bit lighter, but some of the Discworld books could fit the bill. Try "Going Postal".
posted by fings at 10:11 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out the Merchant Princes series by (MeFi's own) Charles Stross. The concept is that there's a set of parallel/alternate history Earths, with only a few people being able to move between them. People who can do this exploit it for economic gain, and the ability is genetic - so family/feudal politics and economics is the major theme.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:15 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely the Vorkosigan Saga and the Chalion books, as recommended above (LMB is the best).

I'm currently on approximately my fourth rereading of the Codex Alera books by Jim Butcher, which is one of my favorite series ever ever ever. There's a fair amount of sword-wielding action too, but there's some good politics. Really cool worldbuilding with rival noble houses and magical abilities, etc. etc. There's a lot of emphasis on winning by cunning rather than strength or even magic, by both the heroes and the villians. The politics increase as the series continues. The first one is Furies of Calderon.

The Liaden Universe has good machinations, but also action. Probably start with Agent of Change. Bonus: If you like them, there are a lot of books in the series.

The Imperial Radch books are some of the most original sci fi I've read in a long time, and also have particularly interesting politics given the character mechanics in the book (which I'll let you find out on your own). Start with Ancillary Justice.

The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge has political machinations (in a much narrower venue than a lot of the other universes here), but you really need to read A Fire Upon the Deep first.

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham comes pretty close to the feeling I got with The Goblin Emperor - such a rich, intricate world! I actually had to stop reading the series after the first one because it totally hooked me but the ending was not nearly as happy as I'd hoped and I just couldn't deal. If you're cool with ambiguous endings, you'll probably like it a lot.

For the same reason as A Shadow in Summer (gorgeous worldbuilding, intricate world, interesting characters, etc.), I was initially hooked by Swordspoint. I ended up not finishing the book because there was so much political machination that I didn't know what was going on. If you're a master at court intricacy, this might be a great place to start.

And, of course, there is Ender's Game and all the related books.

Great question, thanks for asking!
posted by bananacabana at 10:24 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. There's no actual courtly intrigue until maybe the second or third book, but they're relatively quick compared to ASOIAF.

Amber, absolutely.
posted by 256 at 10:40 PM on July 28, 2016

Moira Katson's Shadow & Light series focuses on a girl at court whose uncle is using her to get close to the king.

Also, Tamora Pierce' Tortall series tend to have quite a bit of politics involved, especially her Protector of the Small series.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:05 AM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: I love politicking fantasy (need to follow up on some of these recs!) and I was immediately going to nominate The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, but I see several others have beat me to it.

Basically this is going to be a list of my favorite books, because I love political fantasy so much: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Sailing to Sarantium/Lord of Emperors (duology) by Guy Gavriel Kay. If you can get a hold of it, might out of print, the Amberlight series by Sylvia Kelso. For YA, Radiant (+rest of trilogy) by Karina Sumner-Smith. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard.

If you’re open to science fiction, I’d also consider Ancillary Justice (+rest of trilogy) by Ann Leckie. Ooh, seconding Merchant Princes by Charles Stross.
posted by serelliya at 12:07 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh also, Darkborn/Lightborn/Shadowborn (trilogy) by Alison Sinclair.
posted by serelliya at 12:08 AM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series has a bunch of politicking about bank machinations, which I found charming! There's some swording but the best/main plotline is all about bank politics.
posted by foxfirefey at 12:25 AM on July 29, 2016

Iain M Banks Matter might do. Not political backstabbing of the highest order, but still backstabbisch and plotty.
posted by monocultured at 1:11 AM on July 29, 2016

Some of Terry Pratchett's books are really heavy on politics (anything very ankh-morpork centric is a likely candidate, but The Truth about newspapers and Going Postal/Making Money are particularly so). Not really the same style as anything mentioned here, I think.

I did not personally enjoy them, but the Kushiel's Dart series is really heavy on politics. (also heavy on weirdly exoticised bdsm)

Seconding: vorkosigan, chalion, tamora pierce, ancillary justice, ender's game (the bean books had more political maneuvering than the wider books imo but they both had plenty). Going to have to read the other recommendations in this thread that I haven't read yet.
posted by Cozybee at 5:25 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Bujold, swordspoint, court duel

Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief is YA but has a lot of politics.
posted by azalea_chant at 7:04 AM on July 29, 2016

Yep, came in to rec Traitor Baru Cormorant and Bujold's Chalion books (also Vorkosigan is SF is OK), but see that all of that has been recommended already . So consider this me seconding those recs.
posted by AmandaA at 7:12 AM on July 29, 2016

The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen by Joan Vinge
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 9:39 AM on July 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

2nding K.J. Parker's Engineer trilogy. More political than I bargained for in the beginning, but extremely fascinating, and chock-full of morally grey characters who spend their time backstabbing, lying, and conniving. Fascinating and realistic siege warfare, as well.

nthing Tamora Pierce as well. The first quartet (Alanna) was definitely a game-changer for me at age 11.
posted by wintersonata9 at 10:31 AM on July 29, 2016

The Temeraire series is full of interesting politics, which get stronger as the series goes on--there are some very cunning characters and the end of the series wraps up with a political twist. But it's also a long series and you have to read all the books to see the politics play out fully (it also has a fair amount of just plain combat scenes and interpersonal relations that aren't political, so while it is explicitly about the Napoleonic war and the political machinations thereof, that's not the whole point).
posted by epanalepsis at 10:35 AM on July 29, 2016

Oh, I missed your point about it not being Earth--sorry. Temeraire is very AU but it is most definitely 19th c. Earth.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:36 AM on July 29, 2016

I think the Mordant's Need books (The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through) by Stephen Donaldson fit the bill.
posted by zoetrope at 10:42 AM on July 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow you all are hitting the high points in my list of suggestions to be sure. I want to add my recommendations to those who pointed out the Vorkosigan saga, Chalion books, Ancillary series (I just finished Ancillary Justice and now I think I finally understand how that particular universe actually worked), Ender's Game series, Dune series of course and don't miss the Foundation trilogy by Asimov. You might also enjoy the political machinations and intrigue portrayed in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series.
posted by Lynsey at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Or Cherryh's Fortress series, which is high fantasy. Or her Chanur series, although that one is rich in swashbuckling.
posted by clew at 11:06 AM on July 29, 2016

The Dispossessed by Urusula Le Guin.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:29 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The man who counts
posted by Michele in California at 11:30 AM on July 29, 2016

I wonder if Max Gladstone's stuff would fit what you're looking for.
posted by bibliogrrl at 11:39 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Baru Cormorant is really good, but also profoundly upsetting. Honestly in terms of emotional gut punches, it's worse than the ASoIaF books, for my money. Proceed with caution.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:09 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Max Glandstone's Craft Sequence. "The Craft Sequence books are legal thrillers about faith, or religious thrillers about law and finance."

Lots of layered, complex motives. Also one of the few authors I've read that does "magic as technology" but it still feels wondrous instead of boring.
posted by easyasy3k at 12:56 PM on July 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Empire Trilogy was almost all politics and very well done, IMHO.
posted by conifer at 12:59 PM on July 29, 2016

Basically ALL of KJ Parker, but especially The Folding Knife
posted by exceptinsects at 2:47 PM on July 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I went on a K J Parker binge and started to find them a bit same-y and misogynist, so be warned. I'd second The Folding Knife, and maybe the Engineer trilogy, but I wouldn't recommend any more novels under that name. K J Parker is actually a pen name for Tom Holt and if you like those books you might also consider The Walled Orchard, written as Tom Holt. It's a historical fantasy, but it pushes the same buttons for me. And if it turns out you like historical fantasies, try I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:59 AM on July 31, 2016

The Gentleman Bastard series focuses on con-men, and their foibles within complex court society. There's a decent amount of violence and general grifting, and I wouldn't describe governmental politics as the main focus of the books - the world-building is not focused on the court, in particular - but there is certainly a lot of political trickery in the ways that the characters achieve their goals, and these do interweave with court politics.

The setting is decidedly not Earth, but a Venice-like city built on strange, ancient-alien ruins.
posted by taltalim at 7:56 AM on August 11, 2016

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