Sff or romance novels with "political" plots
June 16, 2021 11:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm craving genre fiction with a plot centered around machinations, manipulations, diplomacy, maneuvering, campaigning

I'm not sure if political is quite the right word, since I'm not looking for books focused on policy, or even necessarily politicians. What I mean by political is related to socially maneuvering around power structures, conflict that is done via welding influence, carefully cultivating reputation, the use of relationships as assets, etc. Backstabbing, traitors, secret alliances, promises and broken promises...

Looking for books where that kind of maneuvering isn't an occasional side point but the primary meat and focus of the plot, where most plot points are not direct action encounters like a sword fight or a heist but rather careful social maneuvering and behind the scenes ploys.

Extra points if the final resolution/climax is also like this (since I've read a number of books that switch to a big action scene for the ending even if the middle was more politics-y)
posted by Cozybee to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I think Phillipa Gregory would meet these criteria. I recommend the Platagenet and Tudor novels. Her reading order is here but every one of these books is fine alone. (I have not read any of them in order.)
posted by quadrilaterals at 11:54 AM on June 16, 2021

This is a bit old school, and certainly on the historical romance tip, but you might really enjoy Anya Seton. Her Katherine (14th century/Edward III/John of Gaunt) is the one most often recc'ed, but I also have a soft spot for The Winthrop Woman, which is both English Civil War and Colonization of the New England related.
posted by thivaia at 11:58 AM on June 16, 2021

In SF: Dune is a classic in this genre, although there's a fair bit of violence as a political tool in there.
Historical fiction: Wolf Hall and sequels are all about this.
posted by crocomancer at 11:59 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Arkady Martine, Katherine Addison, and C. J. Cherryh.
posted by bq at 12:00 PM on June 16, 2021 [14 favorites]

The Expanse novels have a lot of this. There are also big science-fiction climaxes to the stories but most of the plot centers on political conflicts between three main power centers (Earth, Mars, the Belt).
posted by migurski at 12:00 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think A Lady's Code of Misconduct should be right up your alley. Corrupt MPs, backroom deals, the daughter of a dead politician, diplomacy, vast schemes that would drive an investigative journalist nuts. Plus amnesia and a fake marriage.
posted by hungrytiger at 12:01 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Two sci fi series:

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice and its sequels) has some battle scenes but most of the maneuvering is political.

The Jean Le Flambeur series may fit as well.
posted by supercres at 12:01 PM on June 16, 2021 [12 favorites]

Alastair Reynold's novels have a lot of this kind of thing, particularly the Revelation Space universe. Dynastic politics in a sort of dark, goth-y, close to posthuman setting.

Many of the conflicts in his books actually feel like particularly nasty interpersonal disputes in a large university department, which is not surprising, as he started out as an astrophysicist (Pushing Ice is especially like this).

And then, of course, there is Kim Stanley Robinson.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:07 PM on June 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

If you don't mind some capital-eff Fantasy, Steven Erikson's Malazan series has plenty of this. Though be warned the series is both huge (lots of books, lots of very long books) and quite violent in places, though it is very rewarding. It also tends to drop the reader right into the action without explaining what's going on, so you sort of figure out what's happening later. Again this can be frustrating but it's very rewarding when you figure out someone's scheme that's been going on in the background for three novels and you're all, holy shit! That one guy!
posted by fight or flight at 12:09 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Both of Dorothy Dunnett's historical series, starting with The Game of Kings and Niccolò Rising respectively. There are action scenes but whoo boy the scheming.
posted by clew at 12:23 PM on June 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

I feel like Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is about that. Every single page, from the first page onwards, the newly minted Emperor has to figure out who is conspiring against him, who is trying to use him for what, and to build alliances. The main thing he brings to the table is quick wit and a deep sense of decency and a talent at inspiring loyalty. The emotional focus is on finding friendship despite all that.

I really enjoyed the court intrigue!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:24 PM on June 16, 2021 [16 favorites]

Seconding The Goblin Emperor. Also, this series is so outstanding.
posted by gt2 at 12:27 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

There's also a fair bit of it in the Daevabad Trilogy by Chakraborty, starting with City of Brass. Intrepid thief from Cairo vs. legendary, but divided, city of the Djinn! Magic! Politics! Bloodshed! The main character is awesome, I love her.
I feel like the plot is divided pretty evenly between plotting and the bloodshed, with magic all over the place. The ideas and world building are fabulous.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:34 PM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

You're going to love Fonda Lee's Green Bone Saga - the first book is the World Fantasy Award-winning Jade City. It's got family intrigue, clan intrigue, clan wars and political/diplomatic/business maneuvering across multiple continents. The third book, Jade Legacy, is coming out later this year, and there's a tv show in development based on the books.
posted by mogget at 12:35 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think you'll find quite a bit of what you're looking for in MeFi's own jscalzi's Interdependency series (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox).
posted by hanov3r at 12:40 PM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Sweet Disorder, the first book in Rose Lerner's "Lively St. Lemiston" series, is about a local election:
Prickly newspaperman’s widow Phoebe Sparks has vowed never to marry again. Unfortunately, the election in Lively St. Lemeston is hotly contested, and the little town’s charter gives Phoebe the right to make her husband a voter—if she had one.

Nicholas Dymond, his leg and self-confidence both shattered in the war, is determined to prove to his titled parents that he’s not useless. He’s got to help his little brother win this election, and that means marrying Phoebe off to somebody before the polls open…
KJ Charles's series "A Society of Gentlemen" has a lot of politics. From a review of the first book, A Fashionable Indulgence:
Charles (The Magpie Lord) has built a reputation for tight, enthralling plots and explicit homoerotic romance, often with a paranormal edge. This opener to the Society of Gentlemen series, set in late Regency England, is a more discursive project. Harry Vane renounces his parents’ Radical politics and poverty—but how can he adopt the establishment privilege of his long-estranged paternal family without selling his soul? His Galatea-esque makeover is reluctantly crafted by family friend Julius Norreys, a Waterloo veteran turned dandy. Emotional developments are mostly understated, as the two transition smoothly from mentor/aspirant to friends with benefits to reluctantly admitting that they might, perhaps, care for one another. The conflict lies in the social dilemmas created by Harry’s Radical past; he ardently desires wealth, but he refuses to abandon his seditionist friends even after the inflammatory events of the Peterloo Massacre. Side stories, polemics, and crises of conscience are necessary to the project of developing immature Harry into a respected man, and to lay the groundwork for future books. They’re also a lot to fit into this short novel, and even fans of history will be left wishing for more romance.
Courtney Milan's books also tend to touch on politics. Here's a snippet of a review of The Duchess War:
Robert has a secret as well, but it’s one Minnie guesses almost immediately. Robert’s father was a horrible man, and Robert plans to spend his life undoing the wrongs of his predecessor. He’s starting by printing up anonymous, pro-union pamphlets in the tiny Leicester town where he owns a factory. He hopes to empower his workers, but also ferret out wrong-doing. He knows that several people were unfairly charged with criminal sedition several years ago. Unfortunately, Robert’s secret becomes Minnie’s problem. Her best friend’s fiance, the town constable, accuses Minnie of writing the pamphlets, and she is terrified that the increased scrutiny brought on by the accusation will mean that her real secret is discovered. She decides that the only way to clear her own name is to out the actual culprit, whom she quickly decides is the duke.
posted by Lexica at 12:40 PM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

In SF basically all the books of Iain M. Banks have plenty of socially maneuvering around power structures, conflict that is done via welding influence, carefully cultivating reputation, the use of relationships as assets, etc. Backstabbing, traitors, secret alliances, promises and broken promises...
posted by 15L06 at 12:41 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Definitely the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson! Also nthing the Goblin Emperor and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice et al.

I would also recommend the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski! They are all about political machinations, have a lot of dry humor, and I really love them (caveat would be they aren't really Sci fi, more fantasy).
posted by DTMFA at 12:42 PM on June 16, 2021

oldies but

Distraction by Bruce Sterling and

Interface by Neal Stephenson are both lots of fun and should definitely scratch that itch.
posted by supermedusa at 1:10 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest China Mieville's Bas-lag Trilogy: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. Lots of politics, scheming, betrayals, murder, and CRAY-CRAY science-magic stuff, and like Iain M. Banks, there's a leftist, anti-capitalist/colonialist perspective underlying the stories.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:15 PM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Second Alastair Reynolds and Arkady's Memory of Empire recs, above, as well as Ancillary Justice.

Also recommend The Traitor Beau Cormorant highly for ultra-ruthless intrigue and backstabbing as the core of the plot.
posted by foodmapper at 1:42 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

- I'll second Memory called Empire. That could be the canonical example of political SF.
- Vernor Vinge's "Zones of Thought" series (A Fire Upon The Deep, etc) are many things, one thing being very concerned with interpersonal politics.
- Max Barry's Jennifer Government is satirical SF that puts its politics right in the title.
- Metafilter's own Charlie Stross puts a lot of politics into his "Merchant Princes" series. I held off reading it because the premise seemed corny, but I wound up binge-reading it.
posted by adamrice at 1:44 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

For sci-fi, I recommend Double Star by Robert Heinlein, which is about someone chosen to double as a major politician - basically the movie 'Dave", but in space.

Also the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is military/political sci-fi.
posted by catquas at 1:49 PM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

^^^ double star - og golden era sci-fi.

fun related: the Richard Dreyfuss comic vehicle 'moon over parador'. critically panned, but i like it. same as double star but in the 80s on a Caribbean island banana republic. sonia braga, jonathon winters, and raúl juliá as an over the top psychotic advisor.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:58 PM on June 16, 2021

Seconding Arkady Martine, specifically A Memory Called Empire and sequels.
posted by wintersweet at 2:19 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just finished The Hands of the Emperor, or as I described it to multiple friends, "A fantasy wish fulfillment escapist novel for project managers." Will the honest, hyper-competent civil servant outmaneuver the nobility to implement his plans for universal income? Will he find brilliant staff to support him? Will his higher-ups appreciate all of his hard work? Will he ever get a fucking nap?!!? The answer to all those questions is a very gratifying yes (not a spoiler because the fantasy wish fulfillment is clearly the point from the very beginning). I loved it.
posted by merriment at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Flowers From the Storm has a genius duke (it's a romance, so of course) who's been disabled and left aphasic by a stroke, so his family, who aren't fans, have him declared incompetent and put in an asylum, from which he has to figure out how to get back his position while being mostly devoid of speech and fine motor skills. He's fairly out of it for the first half of the book, so the machinations take a while to start.
posted by trig at 2:47 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, beginning with The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

And the Divine Cities series by Robert Jackson Bennett, beginning with City of Stairs

Both series are chock-full of political machinations and intrigue.
posted by popoosh at 3:14 PM on June 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith is both a great piece of genre writing and has lots of political intrigue with a feminist/environmentalist bent.
posted by jeszac at 4:45 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Some of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner books might fit your criteria. the protagonist is a negotiator and many of the conflicts are deeply political. They do tend to have action as well, but it's handled somewhat realistically.
posted by Alensin at 4:53 PM on June 16, 2021

Aya de Leon is what you want - awesome, fun romance novels dealing with themes of labor struggle, colonialism, decriminalization, misogyny and racism. Sidechick Nation takes place during Hurricane Maria and is just an incredible exploration of how colonialism and those other factors combine with geography and poverty to create inequity and unnecessary death. All while being a super enjoyable romance/heist novel with smart, strong, relatable characters.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 4:55 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. And lots of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly A Civil Campaign, though you do lose a bit by not starting earlier in the series. I'd say that the end of ACC is just what you describe.
posted by paduasoy at 5:09 PM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

It's neither SF nor romance, but Dashiell Hammett's detective noir classic Red Harvest, and his other Continental Op stories, really set the grounds of what you're talking about—genre fiction about political structures, machination, manoeuvring and alliances. If a lot of tropes about it seem familiar (the lone figure coming to town and turning opposed blocs against each other, an outsider becoming corrupted by involvement in a place, hardboiled detectives taking on organisations), it's exactly because they come from Hammett.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:10 PM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you like the really old genre stuff, perhaps ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Icky gender-role stuff (but the women do at least have some agency), and the ending is completely wack, but the journey there is fun.
posted by humbug at 6:46 PM on June 16, 2021

I think Jacqueline Carey is great for this--try her Starless for the story of a god-chosen companion/protector of a princess fighting a dark god and his companion's entire family in order to keep the princess and the world intact.
posted by epj at 6:55 PM on June 16, 2021

I think The Left Hand of Darkness by Leguin is a good example of this. There is definitely action and adventure here and there but the entire think is about navigating a society where the politics, relationships, and other aspects take place without the distinction of gender (while the protagonist is gendered), among other things.

Regarding humbug's suggestion, I loved The Worm Ouroboros but I do think it's heavy on the battling. The very first scene is a gnarly wrestling match and it gets even more mega-masculine from there (though it's also super good). Though there's definitely lots of plotting too.

The Traitor Baru Covenant is certainly along these lines, but I was disappointed by the sequel so I'm wary of recommending the first to anyone.

A bit of a strange recommendation, but a lot of the Restoration-era comedies I love are like this. A lot of deception, double-dealing, complex plots to swindle or cuckold Lord Foppington, etc, usually with quite neat little wrap-ups. The Old Batchelor, Love for Love, and The Way of the World by Congreve are all fabulous. The Rivals, The Country Wife, The Relapse, and The Beaux Strategem are also tops. I don't laugh out loud at many books or plays but Restoration comedies get me every time.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:00 PM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Um, just to clarify, by sff I meant science fiction and/or fantasy so fantasy recs are great too (sorry, just saw two comments that thought I was asking for Sci fi only, realized I maybe wasn't clear)
posted by Cozybee at 10:32 PM on June 16, 2021

I don't want to spoil them too much, but you should definitely try The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. This review has non-spoiler and spoiler sections, fairly clearly marked. (Even if you read the spoiler parts, I don't think it would mean that much until you read the books.)
posted by gudrun at 6:41 AM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ellen Kushner’s Riverside books! Start with either Swordspoint or The Privilege of the Sword
posted by azalea_chant at 10:04 AM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

lots of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly A Civil Campaign, though you do lose a bit by not starting earlier in the series. I'd say that the end of ACC is just what you describe.

The Vorkosigan series is long (16 books, not including novellas), but one of the recommended starting places is Komarr, which is immediately followed by A Civil Campaign, and both are part of the "political/mystery turn" of the series (away from more action-oriented stories). Komarr is more of a mystery, while A Civil Campaign is more of a comedy of manners (and politics). There's no problem jumping right in with Komarr, but I would read it before ACC, as many of the characters in ACC are introduced for the first time in Komarr.

The Queen's Thief series is also excellent.
posted by jb at 1:56 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thirding A Memory Called Empire. The politics are positively Byzantine. Literally, as the author is a scholar of Byzantine history.
posted by lhauser at 7:31 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ellen Kushner’s Riverside books! Start with either Swordspoint or The Privilege of the Sword

Seconding this, except I'd start with Tremontaine: The Complete Season One - it's set before Swordspoint and is even more political.

Jo Walton's Sulien trilogy, starting with The King's Peace, is very political fantasy/alt-historical fiction.
posted by sibilatorix at 9:17 AM on June 18, 2021

If science/thriller/zombies are your jam, Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy might suit. The series follows journalists and a presidential campaign in a post-zombie-apocalypse era.
posted by miratime at 11:35 AM on June 18, 2021

I have surfaced from the series I'm reading to recommend it! It's by Holly Black and the first book is called "The Cruel Prince." It's told from the perspective of a human who was brought to Faerie as a child and is now a young adult. At the beginning of the first novel it does not seem particularly political, but then the twist hits after the first third. I think it ticks your boxes, although because it takes place in Faerie there's a bit more bloodshed within the plotting. It's one of those "YA" books that is mostly YA by dint of the viewpoint character being young and no sex occurring on-page in the book.

I am a bit surprised that no one has mentioned Guy Gavriel Key's "Sailing to Sarantium" series.
posted by rednikki at 9:28 PM on June 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

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