Power is a tricky thing.
It can embolden and enable rebellions, catapulting the disenfranchised into action to take what has been lost or stripped from them. It can inspire hunger and greed, creating a vicious cycle of amassing and protecting it at all costs—even if it means taking it from others.
I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately—the genesis of it, the lack of it, the struggles inherent in trying to keep it. In science fiction and fantasy, the games of power often define major plot points and character arcs. In Vox by Christina Dalcher, for example, things snowball rapidly from a society very much like modern America, only to rapidly strip women of the right to work, own property, or even speak—at least, no more than 100 words per day. For linguist protagonist, Dr. Jean McClellan, it inspires defiance, anger, and rebellion. Whereas in City of Lies by Sam Hawke, the sheltered and kind-hearted protagonist nobles within the city balk when they discover the foundation of their entire world has been built on lies of power, stealing from those who work their estates and contribute to the glory of the Empire.
It is with those considerations in mind that I offer you, dear readers, a list. Here are books that explore the dynamics of power, from the perspective of those who have it, as well as those without.
Vox by Christina Dalcher. Narrated by a woman who was a former linguist (before the counters), and who is now mother to two boys and a girl, Vox paints a grim picture of the future: one in which women are only allowed to speak 100 words a day. With this simple premise, Dalcher explores how a civilized, advanced, progressive society can crumble—and how those who have been disenfranchised will fight back against the machine.
The Power by Naomi Alderman. What would happen if every woman in the world at the age of fourteen possessed a superpower: the ability to send a shock of electricity through simple contact? What would happen to society as we know it? How would women, possessing this deceptively simple power, use it? Alderman explores those themes in her award-winning novel, written in the style of a historical nonfiction documentation of “the power” and how it reshaped the world.
Noumenon Infinity by Mariana J Lostetter. The follow-up to last year’s phenomenal Noumenon (terrible pseudo-pun intended), Noumenon Infinity tells the story of the humans who left Earth to explore an unfathomable structure in the deep reaches of space—the ones who stayed behind to repair the web, and the other convoys who would make different discoveries over the vast expanse of space and time. Infinity may not seem to be beholden to the same literal types of power struggles as seen in Vox and The Power, but it does explore the power imbalances behind generations of predetermination, and the dynamics of consent. Because the convoys contained clones selected specifically for their compatibility and scientific potential, and these clones are born again and again over generations, some of the characters begin to grapple with the perceived and real burden of the expectation of their genetic forebears—resonances of past selves or expectation that their genes predetermine their fates?
City of Lies by Sam Hawke. The city of Silasta is a shining jewel of culture, arts, education, and enlightenment. It is a peaceful city-state, home to some of the greatest minds and innovations in the civilized world. This is the world that Jovan, his sister Kalina, and their best friend (and future Chancellor) Tain have always known. So when their Uncles are poisoned and the city is marched upon by their own people, Jov and Lini are shocked. What they learn about their city—the truth of their city—is even more frightening. The ignorance of privilege and the trappings of power are examined expertly in City of Lies through the growing horror of Jovan, Kalina, and Tain—and I loved every second of the ride.
And I Darken by Kiersten White. Ok. Technically, this isn’t fantasy—but it’s historical fiction and plays with several familiar tropes and character dynamics to the fantasy genre. Two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, are taken by the Ottoman Empire as ransom for their Wallachian Darcul father’s allegiance to the nation’s mountainous border. Lada, the elder, despises being ransomed, being away from her mother country, and despairs that the threads of power she sees gathered around others are pitiful and few in her hands. And she vows to change that, one way or another. A beautiful, sweeping tale of shifting loyalties and the traps of power, And I Darken is glorious in its examination of strength, duty, and control.
Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian. The last living princess of an enslaved people, Theodosia is a prisoner in her own home and her own skin. Beaten publically at any sign of uprising, the princess lives on borrowed time and yearns for the safety of being forgotten. When she stumbles across a man from her past—leader of the rebels who rail against their colonizers—the ash princess turns her rage and fear into purpose, letting her enemies perceive of her as weak all the while with a plan to burn it all down.
The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso. In this follow-up to Caruso’s The Reluctant Mage, Lady Amalia is one of the most politically powerful women in the entire Raverran Empire—daughter of the Comtesse and heir to a spot on the council of twelve, Amalia’s power is only increased when she becomes falconer of volatile balefire mage Zaira. The Empire’s peaceful rule is being tested by powerful mages to the north, and Amalia and Zaira are sent as ambassadors—but also to send a message of strength against the skinwitch lords who threaten to topple the Empire. But as Amalia learns more about her beloved home, and becomes closer friends with other tethered mages, she wonders—is the Raverran way right? And should power such as the mages control truly be caged and weaponized by falconers?