Fantasy of Manners

The defining texts of Fantasy of Manners are Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia. By which I mean that almost everyone who tries to define Fantasy of Manners or who makes a list has the two of them on it.

Kate Nepveu, who is a terrific reviewer and a very bright person, has collected a list of posts about Fantasy of Manners which make very interesting reading. You can see me all over those posts saying they’re too broad to be useful or arguing individual books or trying to come up with a useful definition. It’s an interestingly thorny subject. You can also see me in one of those posts backing away from the idea that I’d actually written a fantasy of manners without noticing, which I now admit that I kind of did, if you don’t mind that all the characters are dragons. Oops.

Fantasy of Manners is a term like “science fiction”; it’s a circle you can draw and some things are definitely inside it and you can argue about edge-cases all day.

It seems to me that what’s appealing about Fantasies of Manners and what makes them look like a subgenre at all are the following: a certain wry tone, which can be described as influenced by Austen, Dunnett or Heyer; wit, certainly in dialogue and often in the narration; a fairly central romantic plot, and complications of emotion; a formal and layered society; a non-technological but post-medieval society; society; cities; layers of sophistication; a world recognisably not our world.

They also tend to be Romances, by the following definition:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had be professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while as a work of art it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation…

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to The House of Seven Gables, quoted as the epigraph to A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

I wouldn’t want to attempt an exhaustive list and I’m hoping people will add to this, but here are some books I’ve read (or in one case, written) that I think will appeal to people who want to scratch a Fantasy of Manners itch.

Steven Brust, The Viscount of Adrilankha.

Barbara Hambly, Stranger at the Wedding.

Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, The Fall of the Kings.

Sarah Monette, Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador.

Madeleine Robins, A Point of Honor, Petty Treason.

Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett, Point of Hopes, Point of Dreams.

Sherwood Smith, Crown Duel/Court Duel.

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour, The Mislaid Magician.

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw.

Patricia Wrede, Mairelon the Magician, Magician’s Ward.

Anyone want to suggest any more?


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