Wizards and Politics: Fantastic Thrillers

I read a lot of thrillers as a teenager, in part because I liked them, but also simply because they were conveniently littered around my childhood home, at a time when I was burning through three novels a week. Interspersed between things like Dune and Andre Norton’s Blake Walker Crosstime books were Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, Peter Benchley’s Jaws and that Clive Cussler novel that ends with Britain selling Canada to the U.S.A. And the two countries merging into, I kid you not, “The United States of Canada.”

Ludicrous political turns aside, these books were full of tough guys and not very interesting women, and tended to be powered by communist plots to assassinate this, bomb that, and destabilize the hell out of the next thing. They had lot of gunfire and hijackings and the occasional serial killer or martial arts throwdown. I liked them because they were fast-moving, took me around the world, and occasionally they sprung a genuinely intricate plot twist on me. As a budding writer who also read fantasy, though, I think the conspiracy novel that might have made the biggest impact on me was actually a Janny Wurts book called Sorcerer’s Legacy.

Sorcerer’s Legacy is the story of Elienne. She is newly widowed, her husband having fallen prey to one of those military warlord types who’s always leveling small villages on shows like Xena. She is about to be taken as a spoil of war, and her only real chance of medium-term survival is to avoid infuriating her would-be rapist… an unlikely prospect, as she is incorrigibly mouthy and defiant. But she is also less than one day pregnant, and as a side effect of this peculiar reproductive circumstance, she gets herself scouted by a wizard from another country. He, in classic thriller style, is offering to rescue her… but only if she’ll agree to prevent a bizarre assassination-in-progress. Ielond needs an heir for his crown Prince, you see, but said prince has been magically sterilized, by bad wizards, in a country where heirs to the throne are executed if they’re childless by the time they turn twenty-five.

So! If Elienne can pass as a virgin, marry the prince, and bring her zygote to term, all three of them get to live. Obviously there’s no discussion at this point of happily ever anything. Royal marriages have been built on less.

If this sounds complicated, well, that’s par for the thriller course. Novels whose stories are fuelled by conspiracies are required, by their very nature, to hide a lot of their cards. They focus on the backroom maneuverings of players and factions who don’t want the good guys, whoever they are, to catch them in the act. The hero is always, pretty much, playing catch-up.

Sorcerer’s Legacy doesn’t necessarily hold up well now that I have two more decades of reading under my belt. It has an overblown prose style; Elienne tosses her hair a lot, and that’s when her eyes aren’t busy flashing at anyone who annoys her. But the story stuck with me for a long time, because the plot twists were brutal… and unlike the ones in those guns and bombs books, they were deeply personal. Elienne loses everything and then plunges straight into a royal court whose key players are out to get her. She has to set up house with a shiny new Prince-husband she hasn’t even met, and who might not, for all she knows, deserve to be saved from the government’s axe. And she and Ielond are trying to game the system using her unborn freaking child, of all things!

Jason Bourne may have a touch of amnesia, sure, but at the end of the day he’s still a blond-haired, blue-eyed, multilingual killing machine with a box full of unmarked currency, operating in a world that expects a dude to be able to throw a punch. Elienne is a pregnant widow in a royal court that figures a lady probably shouldn’t be heard unless she’s rockin’ the pianoforte. Who would you rather be if everyone within earshot wants you dead?

Fast forward to the now, and to my Hidden Sea Tales novels, Child of a Hidden Sea and A Daughter of No Nation. The heart of almost every scheme on the world of Stormwrack is either an effort to undermine the 109-year-old peace treaty known as the Cessation of Hostilities, or an attempt to preserve it. Nobody walks up to my main character and says “Hi, I’m trying to start a war—are you the competition?” But whenever Sophie Hansa digs into the latest murder in the Fleet or even seemingly innocent biological questions, like the matter of who planted throttlevine in the swamps of Sylvanna, the brink of war is where they all end up.

I have read a lot of books with conspiracies in them since my teenage years, of course, and the thing I continue to notice now is the ones I like somehow do manage to make the stakes clear and personal, even when the characters are engaged in big scale realpolitik. The gift of that old Jenny Wurts novel, to me, is its sense of intimacy. Maybe the world is hanging in the balance, but what really matters to me, as a reader, is whatever the main character would give their eyes for.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is called A Daughter of No Nation, and you can read the first chapter here! has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

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