Hereditary Aristocracy is Still Bad, even in pseudo-Asia

Randomly: Over the last few years, I’ve been reading a bunch of YASF set in (some version of) East Asia or South Asia. This is a welcome change from the dominance of European-ish Märchenwald stuff that I’ve read so much of, and if not all of this new stuff is great, not all of that old stuff was great, either.


One of the things that I have always found grating in fantasy stories is their approval of the hereditary aristocracy. Oh, Not All Fantasy Novels, obviously, but many, many, many of them rely on the understanding that what matters is which of the Duke’s children will rule, or whether the foundling really does have royal blood, or any of a zillion other assumptions that boil down to approval of the hereditary aristocracy. It gets up my nose, it does, as an American—and of course it particularly gets up my nose when it is written by Americans.

And these same ideas seem to be cropping up in those works set in pseudo-Asia rather than pseudo-Europe, and I find it aggravating. I suspect that it is intended to be colorful and local and accurate—many of these works are far more concerned with cultural detail than the swords-and-sorcery stuff—but (a) I would rather have the fantasy world of the book diverge from the actual history of the area than have terrible, detrimental ideas pushed on me as a reader, as in fact many of those books diverge from the actual histories in order to avoid endorsing terrible gender roles; and (2) if you are going to be in a fantasy world with a hereditary aristocracy, for goodness’ sake make it clear how awful that aristocracy is.

Here, obviously, I take a moment to glory in the works of Frances Hardinge, whose work has as one of its powerful themes that you should never, ever trust any member of the hereditary aristocracy, and that this continues to be true even if that aristocrat is individually well-meaning. Her greatest achievement, in my opinion, is in Fly-by-Night and Fly-Trap, when she creates an 18th-Century England where what matters is not to whom you are born, but what time of day you are born, and that system is every bit as dehumanizing and vile as, well, as the hereditary aristocracy. It’s a pretty near perfect example of how a truly great writer can throw off the chains of verisimilitude and get closer to truth. Still, that’s not really a standard I’m comfy applying to everything I read.

I suppose, really, what’s up with me is that I place far too heavy an expectation on these new books. And I wonder if any of y’all do that, too… The fact that these books are getting published and promoted and into my hands, and presumably in the hands of lots of readers, is such a Good Thing. The vast increase in representation, in diversity, in scope within the field is magnificent and moving. And so these books aren’t just entertainments. On some level, I want those books to solve the problem of the supremacy of European-derived culture in English-language YASF (and literature generally) (and, you know everything else). And when they fall short of that impossible goal… I notice.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Hereditary Aristocracy is Still Bad, even in pseudo-Asia

  1. Michael

    The “I’m secretly the child of royalty” dream runs wide and deep, and I imagine that constrains what people imagine a society to be like if their primary focus is not specifically on trying to construct a fairer society. After all, that dream is rendered impossible in a world without any royalty.

    1. irilyth

      Yeah, but I feel like you can do that with “…secretly an elf” or “…secretly an alien” or “…secretly a wizard”, and it still has a lot of bothersome biological essentialism, but I think it bothers me less than the aristocracy thing. I find “…secretly the chosen/destined/whatever one” more bothersome than those other things too; maybe some of it is the hierarchical nature of it, like being an elf or an alien or a wizard is *cool*, it means you have fun powers and can do awesome things that no one else can do, but it doesn’t make you Better than everyone else, or More Important. More Powerful, maybe, and then you can be in an interesting story about what you do with that power. It’s still not my favorite — I like stories where anyone can be powerful, not just those who were born into power — but it still bugs me less than stories where people are born into superiority.

    2. Vardibidian Post author

      I absolutely loathe the “I’m secretly the child of royalty” trope. I get that it’s wide and deep in the culture! It’s also offensive and harmful.

      I suppose I am also cross about it appearing in these less-Western books because it means that the trope is even wider than I had previously been aware? Because I somehow hoped that it was a peculiarity of Western Europe? None of that makes any sense, but I am cross anyway.


  2. Dan P

    Seems like a good time to shout out to Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, which starts with a secret-heir plot and then gets revolutionary, and John Christopher’s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, which starts with an aggrieved rightful heir and uses him to illuminate the tyranny of the whole establishment. Two series that really stuck with me as a kid.

    On the flip side, it’s surprising how difficult it can be for authors NOT to turn even anarchistically-inclined settings into hereditary sentiment by the third or fourth book, when it’s just all-too-natural to move on to writing about your original protagonists’ children…


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