I have been a fan of twisty royal court dramas ever since I read Legacy by Susan Kay in seventh grade. I’ve devoured many over the years, and now that I’ve written my own (set in a sci-fi universe), I think it’s a great time to focus on some of the awesome court drama offerings of science fiction and fantasy.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I read this in middle school after my mother and sister raved about it, and then I was obsessed too. This is a fascinating high fantasy set in the time of King Arthur, from the point of view of the much-maligned Morgaine.
Though I haven’t reread it recently, the story of these characters remains burned into my mind since it’s a fascinating time period. Morgaine follows a pagan faith, and Christianity is rising and displacing it. Since Tudor England—a time when Protestantism was replacing Catholicism—is one of my obsessions, this aspect of the story hooked me.
It’s also the tale of a brother and sister and so many flawed, fascinating characters struggling for influence over Arthur, over the hearts and minds in the land. Ultimately it’s a bittersweet tale where the traditional ‘bad guy’ gets to tell her own story.
Runner-up: The Firebrand, also by Marion Zimmer Bradley—set in Troy and centered around Kassandra.
The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen
For the younger set, this is a great fantasy court drama. I love this story first and foremost because of its main character, Sage, one of four kids gathered up to pose as the long-lost prince of a kingdom in order to gain control over the crown. The big selling point for me was the main character!
If you’ve read my Insignia books, you know I love quick-witted, resilient kids who are a bit more cunning than they seem, and sometimes unwisely mouthy. The scenario is also fascinating. These four boys have to jockey to fulfill the role of imposter, because the other three will be killed. Sage plays by his own rules and has some secrets of his own that slowly begin to emerge.
Runner-up: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodie Ashton, and Jodie Meadows. Not necessarily middle-grade, but it’s humorous in tone—which is shocking, given that it’s a paranormal alternate universe of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey’s life.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
There are so many things to absolutely love about this story, from the classic scenario of a girl with immense power set into a position of influence she never wished to have, to the twists and turns that take you by surprise. Alina is a sun summoner, a rare type of Grisha (sort of like wizards) in a pseudo-Russian fantasy world. Thrust into a court of scheming Grishas jockeying for position, overseen by an ominous yet fascinating boy called the Darkling, Alina finds herself struggling to navigate the tangles of court, and in a position to rise to the occasion—or succumb to a very cruel fate.
Runner-up: Frostblood by Elly Blake, coming out in January 2017. Shadow and Bone lovers will adore this story and its literally fiery heroine on a quest for revenge.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Okay, not strictly a traditional court drama, at least not early on… But we get the devious politicians controlling the solar system and embarking on manipulative antics soon enough.
This is a big trilogy with a sprawling universe, awesome fight scenes and technology, and lots of plots and counter plots. Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste in his society, and in a Gattaca-like manner, and through sheer grit, he is reforged into an imposter among the Golds—all so he can carry out his vengeance plot and destroy his enemies from within their own ranks. It has so many twists and turns, with so many ambiguous, fascinating, cunning characters, and a Greco-Roman feel to it all that appeals to me like it’s my catnip. The Diabolic was born of my desire to write a YA I, Claudius, after all!
Runner-up: Across the Universe by Beth Revis. Again, not strictly a court drama, but, uh, well … It’s basically the young leader of a colony starship contending with power struggles within the ship he rules and many other obstacles besides, so … I kind of think it applies? Whatever. Good book!
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Last but not least: I know. You are absolutely shocked and astounded to see this obscure series on this list. I mean, no way this would ever jump to mind first when asking about court intrigue in the SFF genre, but I decided to be all unconventional and mention this because … yeah.
To my credit, I totally read it before it was cool. Then a lot of time passed between books three and four, and I’d forgotten many of the POV characters in four. However, watching the TV show reminded me of the greatness of this complicated, intricate, intertwining saga and its characters. Others can expound on the many, many things that make it great. I’ll just say my favorite aspects: the Red Wedding. Eddard Stark’s surprising … last scene in the first book. Any time Daenerys is just awesome. The epic viciousness of Arya, the growth of Sansa. And Tyrion. Just Tyrion.
So many great characters. Sansa, Arya, Tyrion, Daenerys, the ever-so-hateable Joffrey… The War of the Roses allusions, the Starks vs Lannisters vs Tyrells vs whoever else… So impressed by this saga, and as a writer, I just must bow down to the complexity of this story. I do not envy George R.R. Martin’s task when it comes to resolving this intricate, intertwined world. Honestly, I’d probably do a cheap thing and have an asteroid hit, wipe out all but about five characters, then go from there—but that’s because I could never handle the scope of what he’s done. Kudos to him.
Runner-up: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. Different audience, more YA, but great fun, with a very unconventional heroine, almost Scarlett O’Hara-esque if she had lethal assassin skills.
Top image: Game of Thrones “The Climb” (2013)
S.J. Kincaid originally wanted to be an astronaut, but a dearth of mathematical skills turned her interest to science fiction instead. Her debut novel, Insignia, was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize. Its sequels, Vortex and Catalyst, have received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. Her latest novel, The Diabolic, is available from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.