Looking for books with court intrigue!
January 26, 2019 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good books with some fun court intrigue! Murder plots, marriage plots, or other dramatic dealings welcome.

Presented in order of preference, but I'm looking for all three:

- Fantasy court intrigue (with or without magic and dragons and such)
- Historical fiction court intrigue
- Fun/engaging history books centered heavily on court intrigue, though I'm less interested in Henry VIII or anyone well-known enough to have been covered in high school history

The protagonist doesn't need to be a plotter, and the book doesn't have to be super joyless and edgy, but the hero should be surrounded in that kind of environment for a significant portion of the story and not permanently leave that environment to go have road trip adventures or join the rebellion to dismantle the system.

Also nice to have: Some likeable characters, even if they are doing bad things, and some positive character relationships, even if there is (preferably) also lots of conflict. In other words, some things of emotional value at stake for at least some of the characters, rather than just money and prestige and sad political marriages.

I've already read the Game of Thrones series, but the bits of it focused around the scheming southern nobles would definitely qualify as the kind of thing I'm looking for, except for the part where the series spends hundreds and hundreds of pages on other stuff.

Also: Just books, please! I know there are plenty of TV shows in this genre but they're easier to find and sample.
posted by space snail to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon, a series of French historical novels focused on the French monarchy in the 14th century. These are historical novels, but they take some liberties so you might very well think of them as fantasy novels without dragons and magic. Plenty of plotting and intrigue, and cited by GRRM as an inspiration for ASoIaF...
posted by As the space-crow flies at 9:00 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. The first book is super-duper court-intrigue. The second two of the trilogy, not so much.
posted by Temeraria at 9:03 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

The Goblin Emperor is exactly what you're looking for. All palace intrigue all the time, with a naive emperor who needs stuff explained, so you get the entire kingdom laid out for you.
posted by hobgadling at 9:09 AM on January 26 [21 favorites]

Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel sequence has a lot of court intrigue. Daughter of a local baron tries to do a rebellion, ends up reluctantly at court, where she is desperately out of place. There is, of course, a romance.
posted by suelac at 9:20 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 9:23 AM on January 26 [14 favorites]

Forgot to add: Please include the premise of the book in the recommendation, if you don't mind!

And thank you for the recommendations so far!
posted by space snail at 9:25 AM on January 26

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles are some of the most engaging, immersive historical fiction I've ever read, with court intrigue for miles. The six books follow a Renaissance Scottish nobleman as he travels through the courts of Scotland, England, France, Malta, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire in order to redeem his name and gain his fortune. The characters are complex, intelligent, and well-drawn, and the stakes are high. Though there's plenty of travel, and the protagonist spends a good chunk of the first book in exile, the core of the story is all about the court politics.
posted by ourobouros at 9:28 AM on January 26 [9 favorites]

P.S. WH and BUTB - a fictional portrayal of the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, and his machinations in the court and government of Henry VIII. Court intrigue and Machiavellian strategising in spades, but also an unusually sympathetic portrait of Cromwell himself. Literary historical fiction, gorgeously and suspensefully written.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 9:31 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

If your definition of "fun court intrigue" is broad enough to include "hilarious court intrigue", Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters for something different. It's in part a send-up of Macbeth and other court-centered Shakespeare plays, and a good introduction to the genius of Pratchett if you've never encountered his Discworld books.
posted by Creosote at 9:51 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

I'm going to second Wolf Hall. It takes place in the court of Henry VIII, and is told from the point of view of his fixer, Thomas Cromwell. It's pretty much all intrigue all the time, and even if you know the story (of Ann Boleyn), the level of detail is incredibly satisfying. Bring Up the Bodies continues the story. Great stuff.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:52 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]

I would recommend Mantel to anyone on principle; they're fantastic books. However, given your framing and that the books are on the longer side, I do feel a slight qualification is required. Mantel is absolutely brilliant on the atmosphere of political crisis and clashes of personalities, but tends to get a little vague on the actual machinations. If you're focused on clever and elaborate intrigue per se, which is often considered a key element of this subgenre, you may find her a little disappointing on that score. But not elsewhere.

Marie Brennan's Midnight Never Come, which is about a secret struggle between Elizabeth I's court and a "dark mirror" fairy court, doesn't really live up to its promise (it's got a great premise and one of the most cleverly puffing summaries of all time), but it does have its appealing qualities and definitely falls into the category you're seeking.
posted by praemunire at 9:53 AM on January 26

You want City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris , all about Nicolas de la Reynie's efforts to bring order to Paris, as well as get to the bottom of a network of poisoners, witches and priests whose influence extended all the way to the king's mistresses. It's true crime, and has a ton of court intrigue, given 1600s Versailles.

City of Brass by SA Chakraborty is an excellent own-voices secondary world fantasy with djinns and tons of politics. Bonus: the sequel, Kingdom of Copper, just came out! CoB is about a conwoman who accidentally summons a djinn and is then forced to flee Cairo along with him to his homeland, where she gets tangled with the royal family and has to figure out how best to survive, and navigate, a whole load of politics.

I haven't read it yet, but I've heard excellent things about the Captive Prince trilogy by CS Pacat. One of the MCs, Damen, is (as the title suggests) a prince and the rightful heir. When his half brother seizes power, he's captured, enslaved, and sent to Laurent, the prince of a neighbouring kingdom... whose brother Damen killed in battle a few years previous. Oops. The trilogy is about them navigating their relationship, and the politics of the court of Vere, Laurent's kingdom. If you don't mind dark themes and violence, plus the aforementioned use of slavery as a plot point, it sounds like something you'd enjoy.
posted by Tamanna at 10:05 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

I marked a few I want to look into reading first (City of Brass and Goblin Emperor) but these are awesome recs and feel free to keep them coming!
posted by space snail at 10:31 AM on January 26

You should try the Queen's Thief series. I can't say too much without major spoilers. The first book is really the setup (and my least favorite of the series), so the intrigue is very much in the background, and the author is hiding the true nature of the hero from you in this book, as much as the hero is hiding who he is from other characters in the book. Things amp up considerably in book 2, and book 3 is set entirely at court, with as much intrigue as you could possibly want.
posted by gudrun at 10:55 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Seconding The Goblin Emperor, the Queen's Thief series (they're SO good, but we can't tell you why without ruining the fun), the Lymond Chronicles, and (on a more depressing/literary plane) Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books. I'd also suggest Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and its sequels/prequels. Court intrigue is also an element in many of Lois McMaster Bujold's books, including some of the Vorkosigan series (SF/space opera) and more strongly, in the Chalion/Five Gods series (fantasy).
posted by karayel at 11:23 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts: Daughter of the Empire (1987), Servant of the Empire (1990), and Mistress of the Empire (1992). Available at many used bookstores. Wikipedia describes it as a political fantasy series. I loved it.
posted by ads at 12:57 PM on January 26

Kushiel’s Legacy Trilogy, by Jacqueline Carey. Sacred Prostitute in fantasy Renaissance France participates in political intrigue via spying and seduction. Lots of royal machinations throughout. There’s a fair amount of BDSM-infused sexual content, but in general it’s way more consensual than the sex in GoT (with some exceptions).
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 1:36 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

If you want to know more about the real life Thomas Cromwell, Tracy Borman's bio was good, and the new one by Diarmaid MacCulloch is also getting good reviews.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:53 PM on January 26

I really loved Kingdom of Little Wounds (NYT review), which was marketed as young adult fiction, even though it's set in an imaginary 16th century Scandinavian kingdom where syphilis is endemic and there's a lot of sex and blood.
posted by hhc5 at 2:33 PM on January 26

You might like Catherine, which is historical fiction; it tells the story of how Catherine the Great came to power, but from the perspective of one of her... handmaidens? I've forgotten the exact position. Someone close to her who helped her on a personal level at any rate, who was in a position to witness the various goings-on in her chambers.
posted by vignettist at 11:44 AM on January 27

It isn't fantasy, but you if intrigue's your bag, might enjoy Dune.
posted by Gelatin at 9:03 AM on January 28

This Daughter of the Empire trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts is brilliant.
posted by gt2 at 3:06 PM on January 29

An amazing one but maybe not exactly what you would first think of depending on your definition of "court"-- Nicola Griffith's second novel, Hild, is one of my all-time favorites.

It's a fictionalized story centering on the life of a historical figure who served as seer to a king in 4th century Britain. It takes place kind of before 'courts' as we think of them were a thing, but there is still royalty that all live together in castles. Plus you get to learn all about the warring tribes (Britons, Angles, Saxons, Welsh etc) and their respective spiritual beliefs and practices that make up Britain's history. Loads of pre-medieval drama!

For me, it gets bonus points for having description for days, a badass woman protagonist, and for putting a story to the existence of magic in history. The historical figure Hild was known for having visions and being a seer, which led to her gaining the influence of the king. Of course, she wasn't magical, she was actually clever and perceptive, and I think Griffith has a light touch and neat way of showing how that power might have been cultivated and how it served her.
posted by switcheroo at 8:29 PM on January 29 [1 favorite]

Minor note: Hild (which is great, agree) was Griffith's sixth novel.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:46 PM on January 29

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