There’s only so much I can really swallow of real-world politics before it all gets so bad that not even The Daily Show makes it any better. Political fiction, though—that I can’t get enough of, and frankly, the more cynical the better. I’m a huge fan of The Thick of It, and the US House of Cards was, disturbingly enough, my happy place for the last couple of months—though fans of that show will appreciate that it was really something to watch a certain very dramatic episode of House of Cards on the same day that HBO broadcast the now-infamous “The Rains of Castamere.”
And while I definitely enjoy the dragons, ice zombies, fire magic, and prophetic visions of both the Song of Ice and Fire novels and the Game of Thrones TV show, it’s the courtly intrigue that keeps me coming back for more. Cersei Lannister’s struggles to hold on to the power that the men of the court would take from her, Daenerys’s hard-knocks school of statecraft, Tywin’s ruthlessness, Tyrion’s desperate attempts to make something of himself in service of the kingdom, the charm offensive of the Tyrells—this is what really makes the books and the show for me. That the intrigue occasionally explodes into shocking and bloody violence is, perhaps, a bonus for those for whom contemporary political drama is a bit too arid.
But now we’ve got several months to wait for the next season of Game of Thrones, and some as-yet-undetermined period before The Winds of Winter pops up on shelves and e-readers, and I’ll probably be tiding myself over for the next season of House of Cards with the UK series. What else is there to take up the slack? Well, one contender is a pair of books whose praises I’ve sung here at Tor before—Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-era historical fiction novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. No, there’s not an ice zombie to be seen, and the only dragons are likely to be those gracing a coat of arms, but there is plenty of royal intrigue, and even a few lost heads.
In any feudal setting, the rise and fall of noble families determines the course of the nation, and Martin’s series is particularly (perhaps notoriously) obsessed not just with the status of the great families like the Starks and the Lannisters, but also the shifting allegiances of other minor families, with repercussions constantly extending out in all directions. And just as the Tyrells’ star rises with Margaery, so too do the Howard and Boleyn clans rise as Anne is first courted, then crowned. But as soon as Henry is ready to cast her aside, they are no longer so powerful; the family of Jane Seymour rises to take their place, with Thomas Cromwell to usher them in just as he did for Anne’s family before.
I once described Thomas Cromwell to someone as “the Littlefinger of Henry VIII’s court,” and even if I was being somewhat flippant at the time, it’s not far off. Both are men of lower birth than their noble rivals—Cromwell the more so, being the son of a blacksmith, whereas Petyr Baelish’s father is at least a lord, if a very minor one—who rise to heights of power, which includes fingers on the strings of the kingdom’s purse, and both are remarkable for their ruthlessness. By the end of A Feast for Crows, Baelish has amassed a fairly impressive body count. Cromwell is an ex-soldier, but as Master Secretary his methods of destroying others are subtler, and when people do die from his machinations—like Anne Boleyn, her brother, and his friends—someone else wields the axe or the sword, and Cromwell remains at a distance. Where people are constantly pointing out that Cromwell has the face of a killer, Baelish continues to present a respectable façade—but both men are consummate politicians who understand exceptionally well the power of influence and royal coin.
The bodies of women are central to these stories, and how—in a world where they are bargained for like so much livestock—these women seek, retain, or lose their agency. In Westeros, Sansa Stark’s fate hinges on blood in her bed: the presence of menstrual blood, the absence of virgin blood. Cersei’s authority is undermined by her own father, who determines that she is most useful married off to secure another alliance. In Henry’s court, it isn’t enough for Katherine of Aragon to be put aside for failing to bear a male heir; she must be humiliated by men who seek to determine whether she was a virgin when she married Henry, and later Anne suffers the same degradation. Anne, indeed, suffers the ultimate loss of agency: after having her reputation and sexual history interrogated by the men of Henry’s court, led by Cromwell himself, she is beheaded. And as her women gather her remains for burial, they spurn the assistance of the guards who would help them—“we do not want men to handle her”—for she has suffered at the hands of men more than enough.
All of this definitely lends a certain soap-opera flavor to the proceedings, but there’s also a strangely refreshing aspect to political drama when it’s set in some pre-Enlightenment monarchy, real or imaginary. By removing the agreed-upon rules of democratic statehood that we largely accept as the right way of doing things, politics is stripped down to what a lot of people secretly suspect is the raw truth: that it’s really all about sex as power, bribes in the right hands, nepotism, and a violence that is sublimated in the modern world but openly paraded in an historical or fantasy setting. The lure of political fiction is the sense that you’re getting a glimpse behind the curtain; transplanting it into a kingdom that is distant in time (real or imagined) strips away the contemporary baggage, leaving you with the intrigue but without the feeling that it’s all happening much too close to home. And the political nature of the proceedings gives the soap-opera the added thrill of characters who are playing for tremendously high stakes—it’s not just a metaphor to speak of backstabbing or losing one’s head.
Obviously Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies hardly constitute a one-to-one replacement fix for Martin’s adventures; they’re decidedly more literary than pulp in content and style (though as a series it’s similarly unfinished…). But for intrigue, drama, and a vast and compelling cast of characters, you might find it a satisfactory occupation while you wait for the next installment in the continuing drama of the warring families of Westeros.
This article was originally published June 21, 2013 on Tor.com
Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX and can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter. She acknowledges that this is maybe a bit of a stretch, but anything to get more people reading Hilary Mantel, right?