One of the things I’ve been struggling with as I contemplate my next big project is the role that Empire and monarchy play within many SFF stories. This ramble is me putting down some of my thoughts, working through the process, and sharing it with others. Why?
Well, why not? I’m conceptualizing a big theme and still in the worldbuilding phase. What better time to write something like this?
Most of the time, Empire and monarchy are viewed in the context of being Good (while that is changing, there’s still a surfeit of kings, queens, emperors, and empresses in SFF).
And it’s not just any sort of monarchy/empire that gets a lot of representation (again, this is a broad statement, Things Are Changing), but a heavily medieval, heavily European-themed perception of hereditary rule.
Oldest children inherit leadership roles. There’s a whole hierarchy of nobility underneath them. It’s a very structured pyramid of who-does-what-and-you-are-fated-to-live-out-your-role. Add in a heavy dose of deterministic thought—not a lot of free will if you are the Chosen One—and patriarchy, and—colonialism, veiled or unveiled.
For those of us from European-origin cultures, trying to break free of that vise can be…challenging. It’s a far-too-familiar, far-too-friendly rut.
I can be just as much an offender as anyone else.
Even when I’m trying to do better.
My first real attempt at deconstructing empire is in my Goddess’s Honor series. As I contemplate writing the next series in that world (Goddess’s Vision), I keep wrestling with certain aspects of my personal and regional history, because not only am I the descendant of settlers, but my settler/colonialist history goes back far enough that I lack emotional resonances and ties to the Old Country.
(Wherever that is. Possibly Cornwall. Darned if I know otherwise.)
My resonances are with the land I grew up in—the home of one of the Kalapuya peoples. With the Columbia River Plateau country—home to diverse peoples. My family were and are wanderers, and for the most part my personal history is reflective of my ancestors, clear back to their murky origins someplace in the British Isles and probably the main European continent as well.
Poor dirt farmers don’t keep a lot of records, especially if there’s a lot of movement within each generation. I have a sibling who has put in some time working on our family’s genealogy, and one thing that stands out to me is that in the three hundred-some years that my ancestors have been in North America, very few of them have died anywhere near where they were born.
If I have any tradition, it is that of the wanderer. The choice to pick up and move on, usually for financial reasons.
This lack of family histories and traditions has somehow left me less interested in European-based stories over the years. Oh, when I was younger and that was pretty much all that was available, things were different. Like a lot of kids, I got into the notion of being fascinated by monarchy, and had a real thing for histories of Elizabeth I.
But that wore off, especially as I became more aware of Indigenous history and stories about the land where I live. I wanted to see something besides the Europeans. Something besides castles I could barely visualize, even if I looked at pictures. Monarchs that I might see on an occasional TV special.
I began to look at Pacific Northwest history as a possible inspiration, especially the conflicts between Indigenous peoples and my settler ancestors. Another facet is the degree to which my region has been and still is viewed as a place to extract resources, starting with the fur trade before moving on to fish, timber, minerals, and cheap hydroelectric power.
The problem of colonialism.
I wanted to see more fantasy in this setting. Heck, any fantasy that didn’t default to Europe, castles, and a medieval era that I could barely visualize much less resonate with. I wanted some glorious epic tales—that weren’t European.
But I also wanted to see colonialism—and empire—deconstructed.
So I set out to write what I wanted to see.
That became the Goddess’s Honor series.
I don’t think I was able to articulate as precise an analysis of colonialism as I would have liked to do in my Goddess’s Honor books. That series rose from a set of what if thoughts about how the colonization of the Pacific Northwest could have happened differently.
I didn’t get rid of monarchy in those books, but I like to think I subverted it.
First of all, the motivation for the Daran Empire to move into the land of Varen was initially not resource extraction but the condemnation and exile of the Rightful Heir. Alexran and his family fled across the ocean to Varen, where they found a place in a land—Medvara—still suffering from a curse-caused plague. They brought protection and healing resources. As time went by, more of the Darani people fled to Varen.
Eventually, we reach the situation where the series opens. The Emperor has decided to Do Something about those pesky relatives in Medvara—and oh by the way, Medvara has lots of resources of interest to Daran. Hijinks ensue, nasty stuff happens. The surviving daughter of the noble family manages to get away and find a safe place. She has a daughter who is somewhat the Chosen One, who ends up in exile herself.
The colonial critique, ineffective as it is, turns up in the last two books of the series. It ends with the Return of the Heir(ess), and other stuff happens.
I knew I didn’t want to end the story there, though the series arc was complete.
The Returned Heiress becomes aware that she’s inherited an Empire in crisis. She has no particular loyalty or devotion to the existing system—she just wanted to stop the Big Bad Emperor. Her closest ally, the Big Bad’s disabled, scorned half-sister, has no reason to maintain the status quo.
So does the Returned Heiress decide to repair the Empire, or burn it all down?
Ironically, I’ve just finished nearly three years writing the “slow repair” version of this concept, in a near-future, agripunk form. When Gabriel Martiniere, the anointed heir, finally wins control of the Martiniere Group and the Martiniere Family, he spends the rest of his life battling the evil done by his psychopathic biofather. However, he fears that he’s essentially battling a Hydra—get rid of one issue, and half-a-dozen more crop up.
He’s invested in the system and his family, though. And that investment drives Gabe’s choices, both good and bad.
That’s not the case with the Empress Witmara.
She wasn’t raised in Daran. She finds much of the corruption and practices common there repulsive. As she discovers just how broken the Empire is, and how extensive the façade holding it together has to be, she needs to make a choice—long, slow repair that will last, or burn it down and let the chips fall where they may?
Or is there a happy medium?
I’m still working through this, but the most likely choices are either the quest for a happy medium or else burn it all down. I don’t think Witmara would go the route of burn it all down. But she’s insufficiently invested and/or inclined to take the long slow route of trying to preserve the Empire as is.
However, she’s also well aware that broken as the Empire is, there are still a lot of undeserving people who will suffer if it’s immediately thrown into chaos. She just has to look at the rising threat to her homeland from a realm that went the chaos route. And—they were allies of the previous Emperor, so they’re targeting her as well.
What to do, what to do?
There’s obviously a reason why it’s taking me a while to develop this series. Heck, I wrote the Martinieres as a diversion—though now, in retrospect, I think I was subconsciously working through the long, slow repair notion.
I know that I will eventually be writing the end of empire.
I just have to figure out what that looks like for this world.