Do You Prefer Adventure, or Politics, in Your Epic Fantasy?

Or maybe both?

The best epic fantasies tend to have plenty of both.  Without political context to frame the conflict, an adventure has little meaning.  And without the characters placing themselves at personal risk, politics is just so much talk.  The best example of a book with plenty of both is Dune, especially given the way the sequels fall apart because of the way the politics is pushed right over the front of the stage and into the audience’s lap.

But, once push comes to shove, which would you rather read?  An epic fantasy that’s all adventure story?  Or one that’s all politics? 

My own choice is for adventure.  The old-fashioned choice, but then I’m an old-fashioned guy.  I grew up reading adventure stories, beginning with The Hardy Boys, then moving on to historical fiction (anyone remember William O. Steele?), until finally, by way of Andre Norton, ERB, and Heinlein’s juveniles, I arrived at science fiction and fantasy.

Now, however, the trend seems to be toward more politically oriented epic fantasy, especially when readers and reviewers call for books in which the protagonists and antagonists are more morally balanced.  Most of these books are much better written than the Golden Age trash I treasure, but I still don’t enjoy them nearly as much as I do my trash.  Moral equivalence is, to my taste, better suited to realistic fiction.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not much of a Conan or Elric fan, despite my love of Tarzan and John Carter.  No talking is almost as bad, in my opinion, than too much.  But there’s no politics at all in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and I’d much rather read them than anything filled with political infighting and intrigue.  (Note that I can’t even come up with a too-much-politics example.  I simply don’t read them.)

What about you?  Would you rather read Conan’s exploits, or the subtle machinations of the Bene Gesserit?

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  1. 1. Katya

    Ideally, I’m with you– give me an equal balance of both. But if it comes to a choice, I find it easier to relate to someone outsmarting (or out-playing, I suppose) their opponent than walking around killing monsters. Most adventure-type stories are fairly black-and-white with what’s good and evil, as you mentioned. Perhaps I’m just cynical, but more than horribly evil antagonists, morally perfect or near-perfect protagonists throw me out of a story. Even if the world is fantastical, the people are still real people, and real people are never so cut-and-dried. I feel that the more political stories generally reflect this.

    Also (and I feel this way with video games as well), people walking around and killing things tends to get old after a while.

  2. 2. Laura

    I prefer the adventure to political. I generally take movement over talking and backstabbing any day.

    I enjoy comics, fantasy stories and that includes the adventures of Conan and it is the same with my movies.

    I’ll avoid Oscar nominated movies and enjoy a B-rated sci-fi adventure movie.

  3. 3. Shaun Duke

    It really depends on my mood. Sometimes I like a straight-forward Tarantino murder spree (like Andy Remic’s vampire chronicles books). Other times, I want something that encompasses the subtleties of a medieval society (like GRRM’s A Game of Thrones). The only thing that matters to me is solid writing. It doesn’t matter how action-packed your story may be; if you write like crap, you plot like crap, and your characters do things that don’t make sense (for them), then I’ll throw your book against the wall. Even action-packed fantasy romps need to be crafted well to be worth their weight in gold.

  4. 4. Mary

    Adventure, adventure, adventure. . . . Politics in fiction tends to be dreary. Even if the writer doesn’t make the sides morally equivalent and so make me indifferent to the outcome (and for some reason politics draws them that way), it tends to be a morass of petty interactions.

    But the best have both? Lord of the Rings? The Last Unicorn? If these — and indeed most epic fantasies I’ve read — have politics, I would be hard put to name any work that doesn’t, the term is being used so loosely.

  5. 5. S.C Butler

    Katya – Walking around killing monsters is boring. That’s why I mentioned Fafhrd and the Mouser as examples of straight-up adventure that involve very little monster killing and a great deal of thievery and buffoonery instead. I’m with you on the perfect protags, too. They’re more boring than killing monsters. But I do like my evil, evil villains. True evil is something that tends to get short shrift with a lot of folks today. Everyone is supposed to have undertandable motivation. Sure, psychopaths have understandable motivation, but it’s still evil.

  6. 6. S.C Butler

    Laura – I’m with you on the Oscars. Oscar nominated generally means seriously boring.

    Shaun – There are a lot of wall-worthy books out there on both sides of the Conan/Bene Gesserit aisle. Uninteresting, poorly written characters will kill almost any book, except The DaVinci Code, of course.

    Mary – I agree with the dreariness of political fiction. (Though have you ever read Trollope’s Palliser novels?) But I would argue there is actually a great deal of politics in LOTR – Tolkien is just such a superb storyteller that he masks most of it. It also helps that he tells the story from the politically naive hobbits’ pov. I’d argue that the Council of Elrond is all politics, as are large parts of the Rohan and Gondor chapters. Can’t offer much about The Last Unicorn, however, as I’ve never read it.

  7. 7. sim

    Adventure. Han Solo vs. Luke Skywalker. That’s why the prequels were lame — it was all Jedi politics, all the time. The best mix of adventure and politics in fantasy is “Watership Down”. The politics were important, but as the framework for epic adventure.

  8. 8. Mary

    If the Council of Elrond is all politics, the term is being used so loosely as to leave me wondering what books don’t have politics.

  9. 9. S.C Butler

    Sim – That’s the example I was looking for! The second Star Wars trilogy is lame in exactly the same way that the Dune sequels are lame. And I’ll have to reread Watership Down. I don’t remember the politics at all.

    Mary – It is a loose definition, but what else can we call it? Clever exposition? And even by this loose definition, there’s no politics in Conan. Nothing in Conan is ever ex[plained – it just is.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    Late to this game but POLITICS, POLITICS, POLITICS! The Socratic paradoxes thrill me. Or more to the point the why always facinates me more than the how.

    Weirdo that I am, I love the “Dune” sequels (especially “Messiah”). By contrast, (and I tread carefully to avoid giving offense) I’m not fond of the KJA/BH books which seem almost apolitical to me.

    And I see politics everywhere. Because of that, I’ll avoid burdening all with my commentary on other books mentioned here as I’ve been told my political interpretations have ruined it for others.

    Great topic, Mr. Butler!

  11. 11. David Jace

    I can’t stand politics. Granted, they are good to help fill in a world, but we have so much politics to deal with in real life, I don’t want to go swimming in them in my leisure time.

  12. 12. Mary

    Yes, exactly — clever exposition. Everyone at the Council is in agreement about ends and even means, without infighting.

    And by that definition, yes, there are politics in Conan stories if not every one. (Indeed, by any definition there are politics in Conan stories, such as “Pool of the Black Ones.”)

  13. 13. S.C Butler

    Elias – KJA/BH?

    David – Very much my feeling as well.

    Mary – It is a loose definition. I was trying to be generous. If you define politics as strictly backroom maneuver and intrigue, then I like almost none of it. Mostly because the writers of such stories have very little idea of what they’re talking about.

  14. 14. Ziv

    What I like about politics and intrigue is that, generally speaking, I find a lot more personality and character there. It’s about interaction and rivalry between _people_; the conflict is defined according to their personalities, desires, and skills. I personally find this very gripping, and a lot more involving than the type of adventure where Cast A could be swapped out for Cast B with no major change to the storyline.

    Obviously this is a sweeping generalization – and I’m kind of cheating by comparing *good* intrigue to mediocre adventure; top-notch intrigue is a lot harder to write than a perfectly enjoyable adventure, and certainly plenty of great character work can be done in adventure as well. But when you ask me what I enjoy most, I find the strengths of good intrigue more compelling than the strengths of good adventure.

  15. 15. Till

    Definitely politics – regardless if science fiction or fantasy, politics is the only way to bring realistic dilemmata into speculative fiction, and to fill hundreds of pages without producing more of the same. But maybe I’m biased (I work in that field, i.e. politics …).

  16. 16. S.C Butler

    Ziv – I would agree that top notch intrigue is more difficult to write than perfectly good adventure. Not sure if it’s harder to write than top notch adventure, though. I think the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law is just as true as the Law itself.

    Till – A perfectly reasonable reason to be biased in favor of politics.

  17. 17. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, I was referring to the ‘Dune’ novels by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert.

    I agree with you; often back room mechinations are not done well at all. But I don’t invest in a book that fails to address motivations at all. Never quite bought the ‘all-in-this-together’ mission/quest/crusade.

  18. 18. S.C Butler

    Elias – I should have caught that reference. Dumb on me. In my defence, I could say that I don’t actually consider those Dune novels, only my editor has edited many of those books and I wouldn’t want to annoy him.

  19. 19. Mary

    Having tried to figure out the matter — I give up.

    In what way is a loose defintion “generous”? I am sure that a book, or a scene, suffers no injury from its being said that it doesn’t have politics in it.

  20. 20. S.C Butler

    Mary – I think generosity doesn’t necessarily imply lack of injury, but now we’re just arguing semantics, which probably isn’t worth either of our time.

  21. 21. Elias McClellan

    @Mary, I would argue that the core conflict in most stories (of all shades) is politics. Sauron/Palpatine/Melisande are driven to dominate their worlds, without the ability to seize/wield total control.

    You say, “I am sure that a book, or a scene, suffers no injury from its being said that it doesn’t have politics in it.”

    I can’t imagine a scene or book (aside from maybe “See Spot Run”) that doesn’t die from a lack of politics. From who kisses who, first (and therefore ceeds control in the relationship) to whether Phedra can convince the mad Eire twins to back her play when they have no dog in her fight.

    Further, I would contend (at the risk of offending all) that Tolkien’s work, contrary to his assertions are overtly political and ideologically skewwed right of Henry Tudor.

  22. 22. Daniel R. Marvello

    I’m for the action. Politics make a great motivational tool for both the good and evil characters, but for me it’s all about the conflict and consequences; a scathing battle of words/wills doesn’t usually cut it.

    For my own writing, I view politics as a type of backstory. I introduce only as much as necessary, and dole it out to develop my characters or plot, not as a giant blob of exposition.

    I too am a fan of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The thing I liked the most was that most of their adventures were limited in scope. I grow weary of stories where one character is responsible for saving the entire world or universe.

  23. 23. S.C. Butler

    Daniel – Yeah, I can’t take too much world-saving. It’s good in small doses with really good books, but conquering All Evil All The Time gets wearying for the reader.

  24. 24. Thomas

    I prefer adventure. Too much politics destroys the story for me. Any recommendations where adventure is more important than politics? F.ex: I think ASoIaF has way too much politics.


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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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