Theorists of high fantasy often point to the conservatism of many of the genre's most popular and well-known works. In an interview in the International Socialism Journal, author China Mieville describes the nature of this conservatism:
If you look at stereotypical "epic" or "high" fantasy, you're talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they're likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it's a bad kingdom...). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters—and often whole races—lining up to fall into pigeonholes with "good" and "evil" written on them.
It's not fantasy itself that is inherently conservative, though, Mieville cautions. Build on a different model than Tolkein, or base your moral insights on a different intellectual framework—say, the insights of postcolonial theory—and you're just as likely to create works that critique, rather than embrace, "feudalism lite."
Such as the work of World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott.
Though her past books were written for adults, her new Court of Fives series is for the YA market. It's first book, Court of Fives, is set not in a feudal society, but in a colonized one. Our first-person protagonist, Jessamy, and her three sisters are oddities in the society of Efea: though their lighter-skinned father, Captain Esladas, emigrated north from Saro, and is thus a member of the Patron, or ruling class that conquered Efea 100 years earlier, their darker-skinned mother, Kiya, is a "Commoner," or native Efean. Though they are biracial, Jes and her sisters have been raised following Saroese customs, and are allowed little freedom of thought or of movement through the royal city where they live. But since their strict father is a military officer, he's often away from home, and Jes has taken advantage of his absence to sneak out to train for the Fives, "an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best contenders" (flap copy). Think a giant obstacle course, but with five separate sections, each with mythological resonance.
It's bad luck that Jes's wandering father arrives home just on the eve of her first competition at the City Fives Court, invited to watch the competition in celebration of his recent military victories. It's even worse luck that her father's patron, Lord Ottonor, dies soon after the games. For now her father is faced with two equally untenable choices: fall into penury due to his debts to Ottonor, or accept the patronage of Lord Gargaron, who demands Esladas throw over his socially unacceptable "concubine" and her offspring and marry a Patron woman instead. And give over Jes to him to be trained in his palace five court "stable."
Jes, who has always had her eyes determinedly fixed on her five court training, cannot regret her father's decision for her own sake. Especially when it reunites her with Kalliarkos, the young man against whom she raced in her first competition, a Patron princeling whose kindness (if not his competitive prowess) sparks her admiration. But she can certainly blame her father for her sisters' and mother's sake. Especially when she discovers what her father's new patron really meant when he promised that his stewards would "take make provision for the women so you can travel to the frontier with peace of heart and a calm spirit ready to do battle" (136).
Efea's colonial society is a fiercely patriarchal one, as well as a racist and classist one. Though Jes understood this as far as it related to her own personal situation, she'd never before had the sickening realities of the lives of the less privileged forced in her face—until her family is torn apart. Kalliarkos, in contrast, knows far more about the corruption and cruelty of the ruling class than Jes does, and he finds it sickening. He may be willing (with a little prodding) to help Jes rescue her mother and sisters, but he wants no part in the court intrigues that animate his Uncle Gargaron and his grandmother. He has no desire to become a soldier, as his uncle wishes; he knows he'll really be just a pawn, a figurehead, the person to be trotted out to appease the masses but with no say in how they are treated. Instead, he, like Jes, is determined make a name for himself by running the Fives, becoming his own man, charting his own course. But he will be forced to take up a military life—unless he can somehow emerge the victor at the next Royal Fives Court.
Jes is a planner, a schemer, a fighter, the child who "should have been my son," as her newly promoted General father tells her (271). She may have come to care for Kal, but she is as little able to turn her back on the struggle for power, as he wishes to do, as she is to participate in it solely for personal and familial gain, as do Kal's relatives. And so, at the novel's climax, Jes is faced with her own set of two equally untenable choices, just as her father was before her.
Thus the black and white/good vs. evil set up in the beginning of the novel becomes far more nuanced, far less easy to navigate. And the stereotypical gender roles inhabited by Jes's sisters and mother—flightly flirty privileged girl; quiet disabled scholar; self-sacrificing wife—all grow more complicated, too, as Jes's view not only of the world around her, but the world inside her own home, grows more acute.
Will Jes's heroics on the Fives court lead her to become involved in a far larger game—the overthrow of corrupt colonial power? If so, will the change consist of throwing out a "bad" king (and queen) only to replace them with purportedly "good" ones? Or will the political change prove as radical as Elliott's questioning of gender roles is?
I'll be anxiously awaiting Poisoned Blade, the second book in the series, which is due to hit the shelves this August, to find out.
Woman Climbing: John Lund
Court of Fives
Little, Brown, 2015