I am so excited to host a guest post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew! I love her work, and I’m eagerly waiting to get my hands on Winterglass, her next release. I’ve already preordered my copy. Benjanun Sriduangkaew tweets at @benjanun_s. You should definitely check out her website for her full list of published fiction.
An idea that’s been preoccupying me since I watched Urobuchi’s Fate/zero is — somewhat beside the show’s point — is the trope of the king. Stay with me here: a lot of us are fascinated by fiction that explores governance, even if the actual thing in the actual real life is a very sordid, messy, and unglamorous affair. But fiction puts a gloss on it, and readers of science fiction and fantasy in particular (and, probably, historical fiction) are terribly drawn to monarchs and their equivalent.
There is a scene in Fate/zero where three kings discourse: ignoring the pomp, circumstances and the mounting music, there’s an odd thematic callback to medieval epics, where just such figures philosophize over what it means to be king, or knight, or vassal. Gilgamesh of Babylon insists that his is the one true path of rulership — to amass more treasure than anybody, to gather the finest weapons and amass the most power, so that his subjects cower before him. Iskandar of Macedonia claims that his kingship is the truest and the best, to inspire such incredible loyalty among his subjects that they would continue following him beyond death, forming a vast army that manifests in the desert that signifies his dream of conquest. King Arthur, alone of them all, puts forward that a king’s purpose is to bear the burden of rulership on herself alone and to live her life in service of her country and subjects. As she feels she’s failed Britain on all those fronts, her goal in the afterlife is to rewrite history so that she never became king — or never existed — and someone else would have replaced her, in the hope that the substitute King Arthur would have led Britain into an age of prosperity. She wants free of this burden and the memory of her mistakes.
Artoria’s solution to what she perceives as her failure to rule aligns a great deal with the common, romanticized perception of kingship in fiction (especially, again, by writers and readers of speculative fiction): that it is not the system of monarchy which is flawed, but the person sitting on the (game of) throne. Bad person, bad rule. Good person, good rule. ‘Thrones are bad’ doesn’t really enter into the equation. Good government is a matter of putting the right monarch onto the seat — usually whose goodness is communicated by their inheritance; usurpers are bad — rather than dismantling a crushing institution that vests far too much power in one person.
But, because this is fiction (and the package is so attractive), I still find myself gravitating toward the glamour of it, to the romantic but destructively flawed ideal held by Urobuchi’s character that kingship is a service. We come to why one of Winterglass’ protagonists General Lussadh al-Kattan used to be a prince.
For the most part, the scope of Winterglass makes it tricky to touch on Lussadh’s background, her life as king-in-waiting to the Kemiraj empire. By the time she enters the story, all that is ancient. She is no longer a prince or, under the new world order she’s helped forge, meaningfully royal — the sole monarch of the empire she serves is the Winter Queen, an immortal entity who’ll never pass authority down in a dynastic line. In many ways Lussadh straddles that point where she is both a distant analogue to Arthur and a distant analogue to Mordred. Without giving away too much, a number of incidents catalyzed Lussadh’s decision to join the Winter Queen, and one of them was an epiphany that the system that would one day give her a throne was inhumanely oppressive.
So she dismantled it.
Only she is not an idealist, and she still wants to ensure her country is in good hands, namely hers. Lussadh isn’t, as romanticized princes in fantasy often are, a savior of the common people. While she ended her own dynasty, she did so partly out of personal motives: she was aware of what happened to those much less privileged than she, but without a personal tragedy as an inciting incident, she wouldn’t have started on the path she did. She considers herself still beholden to the duty of kingship, but it’s less about the country or its people and more about her moral code.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think, for example, a white person is capable of dismantling racism any more than a former prince is capable of dismantling a system where absolute authority is vested in a single person.
This is the flaw inherent in the fantasies offered by the likes of Star Wars, where of course the villain is the hero’s father, and fans expect Rey to be a Skywalker: the line is royalty through Padme, and people see resonance in the descendants repeating ad nauseum the cycle of a Skywalker becoming an evil overlord, and another Skywalker taking him (so far, always a him) down. Despite both the books and the show pretending at grittiness and oh-so-real cynicism, Daenerys Targaryen can control dragons because’s royalty: the writers — white men all — are very much in love with inherited power. Aragorn deserves to rule because he comes from a line of kings. Even more progressive media like Steven Universe falls prey to it: Steven is special because of who his mother was, and he inherits the symbols of her leadership. No surprise that for a long time many fans believed his mother, Rose Quartz, was one of the Diamond Authority and effectively a queen. Lineage, writers and consumers of fantasy insist, is destiny, and royal lineage confers the most significant destiny of all.
The appeal is obvious: it’s easier to imagine replacing a bad ruler with a good one than it is to imagine dismantling the whole institution — this is also why the United States has a long line of presidents committing identical war crimes (sanctions, drones, air strikes, invasions, interventions), doing nothing to curb the prioritizing of American military over social infrastructure (welfare, healthcare, education, drinkable water, disaster relief). It’s also why American citizens so badly want the children of their favorite politicians to become politicians, and the children or spouses of former presidents to run for the position, under the belief that relation (lineage or marriage) is meaningful and confers competence.
But contrary to fiction and real-life wishful thinking, revolution rarely comes from the top, and doesn’t usually require a special scion of a special bloodline to carry it out (save as a figurehead): just ask the French Revolution or the Haitian Revolution. This is why it would have felt, to me, self-indulgent and naive to portray Lussadh as better than she has to be, more socially aware and more romanticized than someone in her position would have been. She becomes the Winter Queen’s second-in-command because, as far as Lussadh is concerned, Lussadh is the best judge and custodian of Kemiraj’s well-being. It would never have occurred to her to appoint anyone else as Kemiraj’s governor.
The romance of the king or the rightful heir is a pretty one, but at the end it can only be that: a romance, a fantasy, and a dream.