fantasy · reading

E is for Empires

E is for empires! Yes, it is. Fantasy abounds with empires and kings and armies.

There are, sadly, very few fantasy where there are no armed forces (armed with magic and more mundane weapons). Offhand, I cannot think of any. This might be a commentary on humanity; we are incapable of living without armed forces.

Growth of the Mongol Empire

But back to empires. You might think the fantasy/sci-fi genre might be perfect for exploring lots of different of law and government, especially ones that don’t exist.

But it seems to have not worked out that way. (I have some doubts as to whether it is even possible to conceive of anything that doesn’t exist somewhere, even if only in myth and legend.)

I am thinking the reason there are so many empires in fantasy is that there were a lot in the past. The Romans, the Persians, Mauryas, the Mongols, the Mayas, Imperial China and its many dynasties, and the many, many medieval kingdoms. Anyway even one large empire would have an influence on its neighbors. Very few non-empire type countries dominate history.

My theory is that these not only fire the imagination, but take over. So there aren’t a whole lot of other forms of law in fantasy (the non urban fantasy type of fantasy anyway). Most people are either trying to push their empire further, defend their empire or trying to create an empire. There might be a prophecy or two involved, too, and smaller squabbling kingdoms.

I expect such things in fantasy. Does that make empires cliché? Maybe. Depends on how it is done, I think.

My favorite empires in fantasy are not, I am sad to say, among the most original ever. But they are not completely cliché, either, and that mostly depends on the world building, on the details of traditions, customs and the flora and fauna.

This list would include:

1) Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip
I love the fauna in this world. LOVE it.

2) Recluce by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
The series goes through a lot of different characters, a few different countries in exquisite detail and each is very interesting.

3) Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
European medieval kingdom, but the character is a Wit and budding assassin. It has charm and so avoids the risks of a typical fantasy setting.

4) Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
I love the fauna and how they all seem to be the same type, not some of this and that. The world building is wonderful. Just wonderful.

5) Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey
Also runs the risks of a typical European medieval kingdom, but has a certain enduring charm.



19 thoughts on “E is for Empires

  1. Empires can be cliché, but the same can be said about any other human activity. While there are other forms of societies, building a community has always been a human endeavor, and you get enough communities together, you get a Country/Empire.

    I think one of the reasons we see Empires in fantasy is that human history is filled with them. More than that, so many other people are writing about Empires, it is almost what’s expected. Lastly, there is a lot to do with Empires and a variety of ways to write about them.

    I believe that Empires were designed with defense in mind, protecting what we have and stopping others from having it. Of course, an Empire cannot survive without expansion. Sci-fi expands upon this. One of the reasons Cardassians occupied Bajor is because their Empire was very poor and they expanded by force in order to maintain their society.

      1. The problem is deeper than that. There is only so much expansion you can do before people want to break away. Often times new Empires are created from people trying to break away.

        1. You could end up with a thousand little kingdoms like that. Actually, didn’t something like that happen when Rome fell?

  2. Interesting, sounds like the game I play, in my spare time…”Goodgame Empire” we are always either trading, fighting, making alliances or going to war. It sounds like you have done a lot of research for your book.

  3. You bring up an interesting point with this point, Sonia. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it much. I think sometimes we use empires in fiction because it creates an “us vs the institution” conflict that is easy for the reader to imagine or empathize with.

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