Last time, I wrote about the popularity of war as a plot element in fantasy, but there are a number excellent novels that break with this tradition.
Before I can discuss this further, however, I have to define what I mean by military plot elements. This is important, because different readers may draw the line in different places, or differ in what they see as militaristic. I mentioned last time that a friend and I disagree about whether Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books are, at their heart, military stories, because I see the combat between the dragons and the thread as an "against nature" sort of context, but he has a point when he says that the dragon weyrs have many of the characteristics of a military, such as support via a system of tithes and a hierarchical rank structure.
For this reason, I've attempted to separate these ostensibly non-military fantasy novels into two broad categories: books where combat itself plays no significant role in the plot at all, and books where there are skirmishes and armed conflict at times, but it exists in a context that is personal or disorganized. In both cases, any "action," such that it is, is either incidental or a consequence of other plot elements, not what drives the main plot overall.
|Original paperback edition of The Last Unicorn.|
Cover art by Gervasio Gallardo
One fantasy classic I can think of that is an example of the first kind of story is Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (Viking Press, 1968). This stand-alone story is a well-beloved tale about a unicorn who suddenly realizes that she is the last of her kind and must find her missing brethren.
Another non-military fantasy I read quite recently is Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books, 2014). This is a fantasy of manners about mixed-race prince, raised away from court, who unexpectedly ascends the throne of Elfland and must learn to hold his own in the backstabbing world of politics.
Barbara Hambley's Stranger at The Wedding (Del Rey, 1994) is another story that could be described as a fantasy of manners. Its protagonist is Kyra, a young wizard who must crash her sister's wedding and surreptitiously use her meager assortment of spells to disrupt the nuptials and save her sister's life.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (originally published by Eyre and Spottiswoode between 1948-1959) is about as non-military as a fantasy story can be. This is a gothic fantasy, one that's actually lacking in magical elements, with a plot that centers around machinations and jostling for position within a family. The characters don't even step outside their castle until the third book.
Mary Robinette Kowal's regency-style Glamourist History series (published by Tor books between 2010-2015) are set in a Regency-era world that is reminiscent of Jane Austin's stories, but one where ladies of quality are expected to be magicians.
Marie Brennan's Lady Trent novels (Tor books 2014, 2015) take place in a fictitious world with very Victorian sensibilities and follows the adventures of a "lady naturalist" who becomes her country's most celebrated expert on dragons.
Although the above novels are very different, they do share two things--little to no combat or "action" in the sense that many fantasy readers mean the term, and plotting where the stakes are highly personal, even if a deeper conspiracy is discovered as the story unfolds.
The second group of novels are more violent than the previous ones, and may contain some skirmishes and bloodshed, but larger-scale military conflicts don't drive the plot in any meaningful way.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. (BBC Books, 1996). Based on the TV show by the same name that he co-wrote with Lenny Henry. Gaiman's stories get emotionally intense, violent and scary at times, but armies, pitched battle, and military campaigns aren't factors.
The Earthsea cycle by Ursula K Le Guin (first volumes published in 1968 by Parnassus Press) are a classic high fantasy where the stakes start out personal and expand until Ged and his companions save the world from the damage caused by magic. A raid on the protagonist's home village serves as plot catalyst at the beginning, but after that, there's little combat aside from one-on-one wizard's duels.
Patrick Rothfuss's The name of the Wind (Penguin Group, 2007) has a nasty fight with a bunch of giant spiders in the opening chapter, and a battle with a giant lizard near the end, but military engagements are notably absent. As of the end of the second book in the series, however, it appears that a larger-scale armed conflict is on the horizon.
The Harry Potter Novels by JK Rowling (Scholastic Books, 1997-2007) have plenty of physical conflict, and no few deaths, throughout the series. But there really isn't anything that could be described as a battle until the end of the last book. And that didn't take place in any kind of military context.
Fran Wilde's Updraft (Tor, 2015) is set in a world where people live in bone towers and fly with silk wings. While one-one-one combat between characters is important, the antagonists in her world resemble a secret police force, not an army.
The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch (Bantam Spectra, 2006-present) is filled with cloak and dagger and intrigue aplenty, along with some good old fashioned swashbuckling action, but as of the latest installment, the focus hasn't been on military conflicts.
I could keep listing examples, but if I did, I'd be writing all night. Many of Terry Pratchett's satirical Discworld novels focused on fantasy elements besides war (it really depended on which tropes he was taking a poke at). Same for many books by Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley. And while Mercedes Lackey's Velgarth books usually contained a battle, and her heralds represented an elite group of officers, her Elemental Masters novels are simply fairy tale retellings that are, at their hearts, love stories.
So even though the fantasy genre (especially fantasy taking place in secondary worlds) has the reputation for plots that center around the mustering of armies and the fighting of epic battles, there are a number of authors who have created individual novels, even series, where the plots are driven by relationships, intrigue, smaller-scale conflicts, personal goals, and political machinations. While many of these stories have stakes that are intensely personal, some do end up impacting the fate of entire kingdoms or worlds.
The take home message is that fantasy is a diverse genre with ample room for character driven stories that encompass a broad range of topics.
I know I've only scratched the surface here and have left out a number of great examples. Feel free to comment with more titles.